Saturday, February 8, 2020

Putting on the glitz (1999)

TV Review from the February 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

If—as many contend—the network TV channels in Britain are to be criticised for the paucity of original drama on our screens, ITV have taken a novel approach to rectify this situation. It is called Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, runs every night for two or three weeks at a time, and is a quiz show. But it majors on drama, and in a big way.

Let there be no mistake about it, this is not a normal quiz show. Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? has about as much in common with The Sale of the Century as Park Lane has with the Old Kent Road. Whereas Nicholas Parsons used to dangle £1 and £5 notes in front of his lucky contestants, Chris Tarrant has £1,000,000 in an open briefcase locked in a glass cabinet, just so that all the hopefuls may drool at it. Nobody has yet won a million—in fact, nobody has yet come all that close either. But that is not the point. Substantial sums of money have been won, including in the series just finished, where two contestants walked away with £125,000 each, which—Tarrant claimed—was the highest winnings on a TV quiz show or gameshow ever, anywhere in the world.

Because of this the contestants, when chosen from a preliminary round, typically display signs of nervousness and hysteria far in excess of that usually associated with being under the glare of the lights on primetime TV. Indeed, if being in the studio encourages their nervousness, it is the juicy carrot being dangled in front of them which understandably induces the hysteria.

Contestants have to ring up the night before the programme to try and secure a place on the show. It is clear that many who do (and there are apparently hundreds of thousands of them) do so not just because it would be nice to win some money. No, most of these people are clearly desperate and many hint at debts, unemployment, hateful jobs or family misfortune (the latter of which, interestingly, could be the accurate title of another ITV quizshow). They are people on a mission and that mission is called ‘escape from the working class’. It is not Mission Impossible, though practically near enough.

Lord Smugness of Tarrant

All of this is grist to the mill at Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? This is a programme which thrives on getting its contestants to squirm, or beg even. Contestants win money by answering a series of (increasingly difficult) questions but are liable to lose most or all of it on the elucidation of the first wrong answer. It is, without doubt, a game where contestants are always best quitting while they are ahead. Even so, some contestants are so desperate they will actually guess at questions they do not know the answer to in the hope of doubling their money. Many later live to regret it.

All big money answers are met with a series of grimaces, winks and off-putting questions by the programme’s host, Chris Tarrant. Tarrant is a quiz show host never willing to simply tell a contestant they are right or wrong. He has to milk every occasion to the very utmost, so much so that many of the contestants show visible irritation with him. Put it this way—if ever the Sun drops its sponsorship of the programme, the Milk Marketing Board would be the obvious replacement.

Despite one of two flaws in the format (the half-an-hour editions are far too short given the amount of milking Tarrant engages in) this an entertaining and dramatic TV programme. It is highly watchable TV, that is if you like that sort of thing. What is sickening about it is that grown men and women should feel the need to have to prostitute themselves in such a way, winning money through their own humiliation on national television—having an over-zealous DJ teasing and taunting them as they desperately try to pay off the bills.

There are many words to describe capitalism and this is a programme which has illustrated beyond reasonable doubt that ‘the undignified society’ is one of them. With its bright spotlights, dramatic music, big money and question format it is exciting stuff at times—thrilling even. But in the dignity stakes it is one step up from eating a bucket full of pigs` bladders on The Word. And then, frankly, only just.

The World Socialist Movement (1999)

From the February 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
  • claims that socialism will, and must, be a wageless, moneyless, worldwide society of common (not state) ownership and democratic control of the means of wealth production and distribution.
  • claims that socialism will be a sharp break with capitalism with no “transition period” or gradual implementation of socialism (although socialism will be a dynamic, changing society once it is established).
  • claims that there can be no state in a socialist society.
  • claims that there can be no classes in a socialist society.
  • promotes only socialism, and promotes it as an immediate goal.
  • claims that only the vast majority, acting consciously in its own interests, for itself, by itself, can create socialism.
  • opposes any vanguardist approach, minority-led movements, and leadership, as inherently undemocratic (among other negative things).
  • promotes a peaceful democratic revolution, achieved through force of numbers and understanding.
  • neither promotes, nor opposes, reforms to capitalism.
  • claims that there is one working class, worldwide.
  • lays out the fundamentals of what socialist society must be, but does not presume to tell the future socialist society how to go about its business.
  • promotes an historical materialist approach—real understanding.
  • claims that religion is a social, not personal, matter and that religion is incompatible with socialist understanding.
  • seeks election to facilitate the elimination of capitalism by the vast majority of socialists, not to govern capitalism.
  • claims that Leninism is a distortion of Marxian analysis.
  • opposes all capitalist war and claims that socialism will inherently end war, including the “war” between the classes.
  • noted, in 1918, that the Bolshevik Revolution was not socialist. Had earlier, long noted that Russia was not ready for a socialist revolution.
  • the first to recognize that the former USSR, China, Cuba and other so-called “socialist countries” were not socialist, but instead, state capitalist.
  • claims a very accurate, consistent analysis since 1904 when the first Companion Party was founded.

50 Years Ago: Busman’s Half-Holiday (1999)

The 50 Years Ago column from the February 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

London Busmen’s Half-Day Strike—By a Busman

With tales of workers walking home from work in the pouring rain and children disappointed at being unable to visit the pantomime, the press and radio stimulates animosity between workers in different industries. Remember Mr. Attlee during the 1948 Dock Strike? “You strike against your mates, strike against the housewives,” a “strike against the ordinary common people.” (News Chronicle, 29/6/48.) Now it is the busmen against the dockers and others. “Public opinion” it is called. It is really a lack of understanding that all workers have a common interest as workers, not as busmen, bakers, dockers, dentists, hauliers or housewives.

There is one type of strike that the busmen have not tried yet. One that would not alienate “public opinion.” One that would not interfere with the normal running of the services. One that would show who had the welfare and interests of the “public” at hearts. One that would make the newspapers turn about face. The Busmen have not yet tried to gain their demands by running the buses, giving a good service, but not collecting the fares. That would solve most of their strike problems—and other people’s too. It would show who really had the sympathy for the poor tired worker trudging home in the wind and the rain.

(From an article by W. Waters, Socialist Standard, February 1949)

Careers (1999)

A Short Story from the February 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

During the 1940s schools had the equivalent of what I suppose today would be called “careers” officers. Three people (it was usually three) would visit a school and pupils of fourteen and fifteen would be called in, one-by-one, for an interview about their job prospects. The interview took place with a head teacher present and was, at least in my own experience, a scanty and one-sided affair. It should be borne in mind that this was 1949 just four years after the end of the second world war and there was a serious shortage of labour. The resultant devastation wreaked by the Blitz called for massive re-building, but the thousands slaughtered both at home and abroad meant that jobs were plentiful but at very low wages in most cases.

In those days (and I suspect the situation is still prevalent today despite mass unemployment) poor families viewed their offspring’s school-leaving as a time when perhaps a little more money would be brought into the house to help alleviate hardship. The word “career” did not come into the thinking of people who spent a major part of their existence wondering where the next meal was coming from. And as far as I know not one child went from my school to either Grammar school or to a university. As for me, I was aware that, like my brothers before me, I would one day quit school and be expected to do something to contribute to household funds, but what that “something” was going to be was a thought I had never entertained. I think I fondly imagined that once freed from dreary old school I would spend joyous hours reading and writing or tearing round streets on the clapped-out old bike a neighbour had passed on to me. And I was encouraged in this self-deception simply because no-one at home had thought to discuss with me how I was going to earn a living, though once my father had remarked that he would not want to see me end up at Tate & Lyle’s, the sugar factory on the other side of the Thames.

I remember my career interview with as much clarity as though it was yesterday. Hauled in from the playground where I had been taking part in a game of net-ball, sweaty and dishevelled, I entered a room where four people, one woman, two men and the headmaster, sat round a table and eyed me suspiciously. But without looking at me the woman asked “What are you going to do when you leave school?” Without a moment’s hesitation I told her “I am going to write, Miss”. There was a stunned silence. I knew by the smiles of disbelief on the faces of those present that I had voiced a preposterous idea. The headmaster cleared his throat. “Heather writes very competent essays and poetry and edits the school magazine, but her other subjects are weak, particularly her maths. She could never earn her living as a writer.” I keenly felt the injustice of this statement. I had never said that I wished to earn my living as a writer. I had been asked what I was going to do when I left school and had answered in all honesty that I was going to write.

The woman said, still avoiding looking at me directly (I noticed that nobody looked at me or even addressed their remarks to me; they spoke only to each other) “What about an office job?” The headmaster stroked his chin. “Yes,” he said, “we had given that some consideration.” I wondered who had given that “some consideration” because it certainly wasn’t me. Then one of the men consulted his notes. “You could get a job in a shop,” he told me. Well, he didn’t actually tell me, he told the others. The second man ventured another splendid proposal. “What about a factory?” I was beginning to feel that eventually someone would come up with the bright idea of suggesting sending me up chimneys like poor Tom in The Water Babies.

I was gazing out of the window as they talked among themselves. I heard murmurs of “Pleasing appearance” and “Nicely spoken”. How could they tell? I had spoken only six words since I had entered the room.

The rest of that interview has always remained rather hazy for me. When I left that room depression descended heavily upon me. I saw, in my mind’s eye, years and years of office, shop and factory work stretching out before me. The attitude of those people, helpful though they may have thought they were being, had instilled in me the notion that I really wasn’t up to much, that I was in some way deficient. Now I know what is meant by a self-fulfilling prophecy. If children are told they cannot do this or that, then the chances are that they never will. To me education means always starting with the premise that kids are unique and social little beings, that they can do anything. But if they are treated as I was, only as fodder for a capitalist system, then in all probability they will become unhappy adults doing work that in their hearts they despise. That is what happened to me.
Heather Ball

Middle East: Thirsting for conflict (1999)

From the February 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ismail Seageldin, vice-president of the World Bank, made a disturbing prediction in 1995: “Many of the wars this century were about oil, but the wars of the next century will be about water.” It was a comment that was to find many echoes at a meeting of UN hydrologists and meteorologists, convened by UNESCO in London back in November.

According to scientists, 7 percent of the world’s people do not have enough water to survive. With the world’s population set to rise by an India every ten years, by the year 2050, with a global population in excess of 10 billion, 70 percent will have an insufficient supply of water.

With similar facts in front of them, the London meeting agreed to a decade-long campaign to highlight the case for urgent action. UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) has already started the ball rolling and committed itself to making water disputes a priority, currently mediating in disputes in the Zambezi river basin and in the stand-off between Peru and Bolivia over access to Lake Titicaca.

From Africa, which has 19 of the 25 countries with the greatest number of people lacking access to clean water, to Central Asia, where 5 countries contest the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, conflict could indeed break out at any moment, and ironically over the world’s most abundant resource.

There is so much water that, shared out, each person could have 100 billion litres. Of course, 97 percent of this is sea water, and of the remainder only 0.8 percent is accessible. Still, taking into account that a person’s annual requirement is one million litres, there is still enough. The point is that it is not evenly distributed throughout the world and some countries control much greater resources than others. If we add to this the fact that three-quarters goes on growing food, and that a lot is lost through drainage, poorly constructed channels and evaporation, then we really understand UNEP spokesman Klaus Topfer when he declares that the “potential for water disputes is great and the issue needs urgent political action” (Guardian, 2 November 1998).

Egypt anticipates that its population will double to 110 million within 35 years. Even now it is faced with a water shortage and has for some time imported “virtual water”—grain and other foodstuffs which removes the necessity to use water for home-grown food. Egypt finds itself in the unique position of being totally dependent on the Nile, a river whose flow and tributaries are controlled by 8 other countries.

Already, Egypt has rattled its sabre at Ethiopia, which controls 80 percent of the supply and which has embarked upon a series of dams and irrigation schemes along the Blue Nile and, which if extended, would also interfere with Sudan’s supply.

With Egypt looking to irrigate reclaimed desert along its northern coast and needing to increase its share of Nile water by 15 billion cubic metres per year, and with a further 8 countries seeking to increase their share, it takes no great leap in the imagination to see how water is increasingly dominating Egypt’s foreign policy and why Egypt sees the taking of more water by its neighbours as an act of war.

At the other end of the scale, Turkey possesses an abundance of water and has primary control over the flow of the Tigris and Euphrates—rivers that both Syria and Iraq are heavily dependent on.

In 1984, Turkey began the South Eastern Antollia Project at a cost of £20 billion—a mammoth effort to construct 22 dams, 19 hydro-electric plants and thousands of miles of irrigation channels.

As Turkey directs more and more water for its own use, Syria and Iraq feel that should they upset their northern neighbour, water could be used as a weapon, and thus are anxious not to upset the controller of their water supply. Turkey has already used its control of Syria’s water to great effect, forcing Syria to withdraw its support for the Turkish Guerrilla movement, the PKK. And it’s a fair bet that Turkey’s political might will be felt further in the region when the 1984-begun project nears its completion in 2005.

Forty percent of Israel’s water depends on territory occupied in 1967 and still not handed back. Studies of hydrologists’ maps further reveal a pattern of settlement construction in the “occupied territories” along the ridges of aquifers suggesting a wider Israeli game plan to control an increasing share of the region’s water.

Interestingly, at a time when Israel is losing interest in Gaza, it can be found that Gaza’s groundwater is sinking by 8 inches per year. Just as it’s a fact that Israel controls 80 percent of the Palestinian water supply, so too do we find 26 percent of Palestinians with no access to clean water while the average Israeli consumes three-and-a-half times as much water as those Palestinians fortunate to have access.

Meanwhile, Israel’s continuing control of the Golan Heights and south eastern Lebanon enables it to guard a series of pumps and pipelines which moves the Jordan’s water throughout Israel and as far north as the Negev desert.

Israel’s case is echoed the world over. In the former Soviet Union, while the Aral sea continues to shrink because of HEP plants and irrigation, five countries are becoming increasingly dependent on its diminishing waters.

Sensing trouble ahead, the UN adopted a convention on international waters in 1997—basically a framework for sharing rivers and lakes. Before it can become operational it requires 35 signatories. So far only 11 have signed—such is the reluctance of governments to sign such a valuable resource away.

In an age when we have the scientific and technological know how to enable us to solve almost all our problems, it is indeed an indictment on capitalism that so many humans, living on a planet, seven eighths of which is covered in water, have so little access to it. With the ever-present drive to cut costs and make profits, it is little wonder that better irrigation and improved channels are as rare as desalination plants and reservoirs? What wars our master will plunge us into in the coming millennium is anyone’s guess, but among them don’t be alarmed if the cause of many is water and its control by a profit-crazed √©lite.
John Bissett

Banana war? (1999)

From the February 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
  The European Commission said yesterday that annual trade worth nearly £1 billion with the United States could be put at risk after Washington issued a list of European products which could face 100 percent duties next year if it does not get a change in the EU’s banana import regime . . . The US does not grow bananas except in Hawaii, and does not export those it has to the EU. But the Clinton administration lodged a complaint with the WTO (World Trade Organisation) last year within 24 hours of a decision by Chiquita’s previously staunchly Republican chairman Carl H. Lindner Jnr to donate $500,000 to Democratic party funds. Guardian, 12 November 1998.
Chiquita, the US banana-exporting multi-national, controls more than 70 percent of the EU market already but wants to prevent European importation of Caribbean bananas. Chiquita sold the Caribbean plantations five years ago to concentrate on its Latin American plantations.

Editorial: The cracks start to show (1999)

Editorial from the February 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Eighteen months on and the Blair project is looking increasingly hollow. Government resignations, charges of “cronyism” and sleaze plus the apparent feuding between Blair and Brown. It seems like a far cry from the happy days of May 1997.

This is not all. There is the NHS crisis (nothing new about this of course), a looming recession and government plans to join the Euro which could prove tricky.

For our part, we did argue at the General Election that the New Labour project would be a damp squib. Unlike the leftists, we did not feel that the working class should have to experience yet another Labour government to realise that it would be anti-working class. We were arguing that reformist politics is anti-working class before the Labour Party was even properly formed! We feel the current government has not disappointed us—it has demonstrated yet again that capitalism cannot be reformed in the interests of the working class.

The vacuous nature of the Blair project is encapsulated by the much used phrase “the third way” which is associated with Professor Anthony Giddens—the Director of the London School of Economics and one of Blair’s intellectual gurus. The basic idea is that Britain should position itself somewhere between American neo-liberalism and European social democracy.

Quite frankly, if this is the best pro-capitalist intellectuals can come up with then there really is a crisis in capitalist intellectual thought and an obvious need to search for an alternative to capitalism itself.

However, “the third way” does broadly serve the interests of the capitalist class and the implicit message is quite clear: there is no other capitalist option than “Thatcherism with a human face”. As we have argued before in this journal, ideas do not come from nowhere—they have a material basis. The social and political crisis of the 70s never really ended which is why the current government is carrying on with ostensibly the same Thatcherite programme as those preceding it. The post-war period of reformism is dead and there is no going back.

From this point of view it is easier to understand why Blair is forever fiddling with constitutional reform, getting into bed with the Liberals etc. without such things the government would not have a programme. Not only this, Blair is clearly intending to stay in power for at least three terms and he has calculated (rightly or wrongly) that proportional representation and possible coalition government with the Lib-Dems is only probably the only way to achieve it. The Tories may be kept out of power for a generation but the Blair project will inevitably come to a sticky end sooner or later. And who will mourn? Not the working class which elected it in 1997 with such a landslide—that’s for sure.