Thursday, February 13, 2020

The poisoning of the Rhine (1987)

From the February 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

On the 9th of November 1986 a fire at the enormous Sandoz chemicals factory in Basle led to 30 tons of poisonous chemicals, including about 200 kilogrammes of mercury, being washed into the river Rhine as firemen fought to bring the blaze under control. The 40-mile-long wave of poison caused by the incident flowed along the Rhine from Germany into the Netherlands affecting the drinking water of 20 million people. In the upper reaches of the Rhine most plant life, thousands offish, water birds and a quarter of a million eels are estimated to have died and although most of the fish seem to have survived in the lower Rhine they face death from starvation because many insects and crayfish upon which they feed have perished. Such is the severity of the pollution that it could take up to twenty years before the ecological balance of the river is fully restored.

Pollution of the air, soil, rivers and oceans is not a new problem: the smoke-blackened older public buildings in most of Britain's major towns and cities (where restoration has not been carried out); the descriptions of polluted cities and rivers by writers such as Blake, Engels, Kingsley, Dickens, Carpenter, Gissing and Orwell; the terrible death tolls of the early 1950s caused by smog all bear testimony to the way in which industrialisation has ruined the environment and damaged workers' health.

There always have been, and always will be, incidents leading to results that are not foreseen or intended. These accidents may be caused by human error, circumstances beyond human control (such as earthquakes) or lack of knowledge to anticipate all the consequences of an action.

But many of the incidents which occur under capitalism are not, strictly speaking, accidents. The drive to produce profits leads to methods of production designed to ensure that the maximum amount of surplus value is derived from workers' labour power. Human error is much more likely to be increased where work is repetitive, boring and alienating or where the hours of work are long and exhausting. Often workers are kept in ignorance of potentially dangerous substances that they are working with and are consequently unable to take adequate safety precautions. In some instances safety equipment may not be supplied, or removed to increase productivity. Substances are used in agriculture, the drug and chemical industries often with little knowledge of their effects on the environment, the workers using them or. in the case of medicines, the patients consuming them.

But even when hazards are well known and documented the requirement of profitability overrides human needs and dangerous substances continue to be used. There are, for example, about 2000 asbestos-induced deaths a year in Britain although the dangers of using asbestos were pointed out in a Home Office report in 1906. Thalidomide and "Opren" continued to be used after it was known that they had caused deaths and deformities.

It is not unusual for safety standards to be inadequate or ignored altogether to cut production costs. In 1976 workers at the Life Science Products factory in Hopewell. Virginia were found to be working in an environment that was laden with dust from the insecticide "Kepone". The nearby James river also had to be closed because of the severity of the contamination. The pollution of the environment and the risk to workers at the Life Science Products factory (who suffered from severe headaches, tremors and, in some cases, sterility) was not caused by lack of knowledge of the risks to health of using "Kepone" but, as an investigation showed, a pollution control system had not been installed because it would have affected profitability.

The evacuation of Seveso due to a discharge of dioxin has not led to a curtailment of products which contain the poison. And the local population were not informed of the dangers to health for at least ten days after the incident although the manufacturers. Roche, were aware within forty-eight hours that dioxin had been released.

The disaster at Bhopal, where hundreds of cases of serious poisoning in the local community resulted, due to a discharge of poisonous chemicals demonstrates how multinational companies avoid health and safety legislation by switching production to underdeveloped countries where regulations are lax and, consequently, greater profits can be made. And the ease with which production can be moved emphasises the limitations of reforms, especially if attempted on a local or national basis, when workers' organisations are taking on the power of multinational corporations.

One feature of the poisoning of the Rhine has been the comparative lack of reporting of the incident: a major European river has been poisoned, creating an ecological disaster which has affected, and will continue to affect, most of the marine life; the drinking water of 20 million people has been polluted and there could be considerable problems in providing alternative supplies, particularly in years of drought. But newspaper coverage in Britain was, in many instances, relegated to the inside pages. The trivial activities of the parasitical royal family and the ratings war between the television soap operas continued to dominate the news instead. Perhaps the public has become so immune to news of industrial "accidents" that they have ceased to shock: the pollution of our environment has come to be seen as part of the "natural order" of things.

Only a week before the fire at Basle, a chemical plant explosion near the resort of Varna on the Black Sea coast is thought to have killed 17 people. The Bulgarian authorities failed to provide details of the incident and, therefore, the extent of the damage is not known, making it more difficult to protect the public.

It was also reported that the survival of Indian tribes in Brazil is threatened because BP's mining subsidiary working in conjunction with Bruscan, a Canadian company, had set up a local network of more than 100 companies covering 54 million acres.

Both of these news items took up only a paragraph in The Independent and were probably omitted altogether by some of the tabloids. And yet both of these items illustrate two features of capitalism: social needs are always secondary to the need to make profits and commercial interests are protected by secrecy even when this is detrimental to the well-being of the community.

As yet it is far too soon to be able to say with any degree of accuracy what went wrong at the Sandoz chemicals factory at Basle. It is important, however, to try to prevent such incidents happening in the future. But whilst capitalism remains, dangerous materials will continue to be used if they are cheaper, and the competitive nature of capitalism prevents information from being shared which would reduce the risk of accidents elsewhere.

In a socialist society information could be shared: a society in which competition gives way to co-operation would have no need for secrets. Dangerous substances would not be used just because they are cheaper — where possible safer substitutes would be found.

Socialists aim to establish a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interests of the whole community. In a moneyless, socialist society in which free access to goods replaces the artificial scarcities of capitalism, production can be planned properly and the world's resources conserved instead of being wasted or damaged for the sake of making a quick profit.

The lessons of Basle, Seveso, Bhopal and Chernobyl have taught the workers that under capitalism "accidents" will continue to occur. And, although enquiries are conducted, and scapegoats found, production continues as before. Indeed, in the aftermath of Chernobyl the Russian government has stated that it intends to increase its nuclear power programme instead of reducing it.

The risk to the world posed by the threat of nuclear weapons, nuclear power, dangerous industrial processes and indiscriminate waste of resources has never been greater in spite of all the efforts of reformists and ecological pressure groups Only the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by socialism can halt the destruction. We must destroy capitalism before it destroys the earth.
Carl Pinel

50 Years Ago: The Spanish 
Civil War (1987)

The 50 Years Ago column from the February 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

The agony of Spain is only a matter of concern for the capitalists of other nations if any of them have interests involved or if there is any prospect of gain by fishing in troubled waters. For the rest it is a matter of minor importance to them that thousands of Spanish workers are losing their lives just because landowners and the Catholic Church want to keep intact their privilege to rob the wealth-producer of the product of his toil.

One of the spokesmen of the Spanish Government recently said that over a million lives had already been lost in the present civil war. It is a sad thought that in spite of the many and bitter lessons during the last hundred years, in which millions of workers' lives have been sacrificed, the mass of the workers of the world still fail to grasp the fact that capitalism offers nothing to them but toil and misery, and they still turn away from the Socialist message. Yet, in the advanced countries at any rate, the workers produce and distribute the wealth upon which all live. While the capitalists control this wealth they use their position to live in idleness and luxury. The workers can. and some day will, obtain control of the means of production. When they do so they can banish want and economic misery and the bestialities of the struggle between classes. The lesson is a simple one and so easy to learn if only workers would look facts in the face.

[From an article "Some Lessons from Spain" by G. McClatchie, Socialist Standard February 1937]

Obituary: Israel Renson (1987)

Obituary from the February 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

We regret to record the death of I. Renson. Although he never joined The Socialist Party, he did valuable work in our propaganda. organising classes and lectures about our case.

Perhaps most notably, he was joint author of the booklet Money Must Go (published in 1943) which was a simplified exposition of the capitalist economic system. how it exploits and impoverishes the majority of the population and why it must be replaced with socialism.

Money Must Go was effective propaganda for socialism; it rapidly sold out in this country and was especially popular in Canada and the USA, infected as they were at the time with the false theories of "Social Credit ". To those who knew him. I. Renson will be missed with sorrow.

City Scandals (1987)

From the February 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Did you get your British Gas shares ok? What’s that, you didn’t bother? Well, neither did most other workers who had the chance, and no one knows how many of those who did buy the shares will hold on to them. It was estimated that on the day after the sale, around one tenth of the shares had already changed hands as small-time buyers sold out to the big institutions like insurance com­panies and pension funds. This is what hap­pened with British Telecom shares. When they were first sold in 1984 the number of individual shareholders was 2.3 million. By May 1986 the number was down to 1.6 mill­ion, a drop of over 30%, and this figure is cer­tain to fall still further as time passes.

Nevertheless, interest in the stock market is a lot higher than ever it was before. Until recently most people only ever saw the stock market quotations in the newspapers if they accidentally turned over two pages at once, but the saturation coverage by the media of the government’s privatisation programme has changed all that. Also, the fear of unemployment has ensured that many employees of quoted companies follow the share price of those companies as a guide to their job prospects.

However, the workings of the stock mar­ket remain a mystery to the vast majority of people and this helps preserve the silly notion that financiers, stockbrokers and the like who do understand it are brainier than the rest of us. Actually, it’s not nearly as difficult as it seems One of the main reasons why someone not involved in finance finds it baffling is the frequent use of several different words to describe one item. For example, government “stock , which pays a fixed rate of interest, is also called “gilts” (gilt-edged) or “consols” (consolidated) while “securities” is simply the a11-embracing name for stocks and shares of all kinds.

Different types of shares have different rights and rewards. The “ordinary” shares are the ones which actually own the com­pany. Holders of these have full voting rights and receive a variable dividend depending on the company’s profits, if any, and what the directors decide to pay out. These shares are also referred to (more confusion) as “equities”. “Preference” shares usually have no vote but entitle holders to a fixed dividend ahead of the ordinary shareholders assuming there is something to pay out. “Deben­tures” are loans made to companies by investors who receive fixed-interest whether the company makes a profit or not.

Until October 1986 members of the Lon­don Stock Exchange had to be British-born. And although they would angrily denounce “who does what disputes in factories, ship­yards, etc.. they had their own restrictive practice. This meant that only those who were brokers could buy and sell securities for the public and they made their money by charging clients a fixed commission. “Job­bers”, on the other hand, bought and sold on their own account but could only deal with the public through the brokers and made a living from the difference between the prices at which they bought and sold. So brokers couldn’t act as jobbers and vice-versa. Since October membership of the Exchange is open to other nationals and the difference between brokers and jobbers is abolished along with fixed commissions. Now the price on deals is negotiable

All of these changes, known as “de-regu­lation”, are the result of the Big Bang” we have all heard so much about. The idea is to make the London Stock Exchange more competitive with its main rivals in New York (Wall Street) and Tokyo. After all, if custom­ers can have their business carried out more cheaply in New York or Tokyo then that is where they will make their deals and the new computerised communications technology makes that easy to do. This new technology also means that dealers in London will now transact business in their offices and the Stock Exchange floor will be almost deserted from now on

Any stock market must protect its reputa­tion for honest dealing If investors think that they may be ripped-off then they will take their business elsewhere and this is why the New York and London Stock Exchanges are trying to curb “insider dealing”. The most notorious insider is the Wall Street speculator, Ivan Boesky, who for years had apparently anticipated the rise in price of var­ious securities which he bought on a huge scale. Hailed as a genius, Boesky had simply been using confidential information passed to him, for a cut, by people who were profes­sionally engaged in takeover bids which would push up the price of the shares involved.

It is hard to imagine that Wall Street didn’t know what Boesky was up to. No one can consistently tell in advance what the market will do. The anarchy of capitalist production sees to that. When every company in every industry is making its plans independently of all the others, and when all of them are sub­ject to forces beyond their control such as decisions taken by foreign governments or even their own, then how can future market trends be forecast with any certainty? The truth is that large-scale insider dealing has been the norm for a long time and will con­tinue in the future whatever steps are taken to eliminate it. So much for the claim fre­quently made on behalf of the capitalists that their high returns are justified because they are the risk takers”. Not if they can help it, they’re not!

What about the other claim that the capitalists are the wealth creators” because of their activities in the stock market? The real wealth of society consists of human beings using their physical and mental energies plus the resources of nature to produce the goods and services society needs. This wealth is legally owned by the owners of the enter­prises whose workers have produced it. All the workers receive in return for their efforts is a part of the total value produced in the form of their wages and salaries. The remain­der, surplus value in the form of dividends and interest, belongs to the owners of the various stocks and shares. These securities are merely legal title to this surplus and it is this title which is being traded when sec­urities are bought and sold. So capitalists create not a scrap of wealth and stock exchanges are only the places where surplus value is divided between them.

Even so, the enormous power of the capitalists makes them seem invincible and many workers, even against their wishes, cannot see how capitalism can ever be top­pled. But the power of the capitalists does not lie in the amount of pounds, dollars and francs they own. It lies in the fact that the vast majority of workers still see production for profit as the only possible method of produc­ing and distributing society’s wealth. If that idea should weaken due to the growth of socialist consciousness in the world’s work­ing class then the power of the capitalists would not look so invincible at all.

We can see today how easily stock mar­kets can tremble when investors get the jit­ters over, say, the mere rumour of a small increase in interest rates or some other trivial matter. Imagine what those jitters will be like when the socialist movement begins to grow. Who will be willing to invest then? Capitalism depends for its continued exis­tence on working-class support for it. When that support crumbles then so too will the power of the capitalists.
Vic Vanni

Letter: "With the frills removed . . ." (1987)

Letter to the Editors from the February 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors.

May I comment on the review of the book on the Socialist Workers Party which appeared in the December 1986 Socialist Standard (pp. 231-32) While agreeing with the reviewer's criticism of the SWP's insurrectionary ideas and their adherence to Leninism, I cannot see what he finds wrong with the book's description of socialism which he quotes: "With the frills removed, it is people collectively running society, instead of being the prisoners of anarchic capitalist competition and the mad rush for profit at any cost, it is working together for the common good. Our tremendous co-operative power would be controlled, not by a ruling class in the search for ever greater profits, but democratically and for the fulfilment of human need". Surely this is a description that The Socialist Party would accept as well? And if so, it cannot be a basis on which to criticise the SWP. I agree that taken as a whole the SWP's ideas and policies do not add up to what is in the quotation — they add up to some form or another of state capitalism. But you can't use the quotation as your reviewer has done, to illustrate that. You've got to find others which, given the nature of the SWP's case, surely abound on the pages of a book written about them by one of their supporters.
Alan Jones

Between the Lines: Begging on the screen (1987)

The Between the Lines Column from the February 1987 issue of the Socialist Standard

Begging on the screen

The ethic of capitalism is pretty clear: if you need money work for it. if you cant work for it beg for it. That is why telethons, with all their gushing goodwill towards "those in need" and their righteous pleasure in “using TV to do good” are sickening events. Both BBC and ITV run them as regular events, no doubt because they pull the viewers in and clean up TV's image the channel that cares.

Terry Wogan and Sue Cook hosted the pre-Christmas BBC telethon Children In Need. With a few smiles and famous faces to keep the punters from pressing their off buttons, the object of the exercise is to persuade workers to donate pounds to charities for poor children. And some of the phone lines when you proudly call in to offer your ten quid are manned by famous names like . . . well. I didn't actually catch the names because I hadn't heard of any of them but just think, you could phone in to help a child in need and maybe talk to Bonnie Langford.

The show lasted for several hours, during one section of which Esther Rantzen actually brought on stage several exhibits — yes, children in need — to show to the viewers in order to prove how important it was to lift that phone and donate some of your huge income.

What sort of a system is it that can take a crippled child, or another who is dying of a terminal illness, and use them as TV exhibits because only by parading them as objects for begging can funds be raised to help them? As the evening went on Wogan and the team were becoming ecstatic with philanthropy: "My word, this is marvellous: we've collected over £2 million — that's more than twice as much as an hour into the programme last year". Then came the big push to make it three million. Come on, wage slaves, forget the fact that 16 million of you are living on or just above the official poverty line, phone Bonnie Langford or some other nonentity and do your bit.

In the end, amid ecstasy which would lead the innocent observer to believe that they'd solved the problem of poverty, the collective viewers of BBC 1 donated £6 million. "What a warm-hearted lot you all are" said Wogan. whose fee for each of his three-night-a-week BBC shows has made him a millionaire several times over. Of course, he was right: the workers giving to help needy children were being decent and caring and co-operative and all of the other things which at other times the people who defend charity tell us that human nature prevents us all from being.

The success of shows like Children In Need depends on the fact that the working class really does want to live in a world without impoverished and suffering children. But £6 million will not do the trick; it is pathetic — an indication of just how futile it is to ask the class which does not possess to give money to those who possess even less.

According to recent US research, the governments of the world spend £100,000 a minute on weapons to kill people. Children In Need was on the air for six hours: that means that on average £36 million was spent on preparations to blow up children (and the rest of us) during the time that a one-off £6 million was collected to help those in great need. After the show ended - and as you read this article the £100,000 a minute continues to be spent and you do not need to phone Bonnie Langford to donate your tenner.

Blinded by the light

American TV films about kids caught up in crazy religious cults must be second in popularity to ones about aircraft disasters It is a good theme for a film: "normal" American kid meets devious cult member who lures him/her into a movement which robs them of their freedom, funds and self- respect. Parents try to rescue them and the film ends with the de-programming scene wherein the innocent victim returns to "normality" with the aid of cruel but kind experts.

Of course, the reason so many of these films are being made is that so many American kids, especially in California and the seemingly affluent West Coast cities, are so discontented and frustrated with the capitalist rat-race that the security of crazy religions like the Moonies and Scientology appeals to them. Blinded By The Light (C4. 9pm. 6 January) was a not very well-acted film of this kind teenage son is won over to peculiar cult led by a sinister Father Adam, parents aim to kidnap him back to deprogramme him, sister infiltrates cult with a view to winning brother back to "normality".

Cults were shown to be totalitarian, dogmatic, uncaring, mind-damaging institutions — which, from all the evidence, they most certainly are. But — and this is the problem which such films never address — they are not that different from all religions. including the state-endorsed ones which "normal" wage slaves are encouraged to believe in.

The motto of Father Adam's cult was Joy Through Humility and it was made plain that disciples were expected to receive salvation through submitting and degrading themselves. Sounds a lot like Christianity to me. The cult members were told that they must work only for the cult, must live within it and renounce their previous lives, even to the point of giving up their old names. So what are monasteries and convents? But I've never seen a film showing how innocent young fools are conned into joining them.

Religion, by definition, is an organised form of dogmatic belief (as opposed to scientific knowledge) and hierarchical command: after all, what is god but a totalitarian dictator? Just as films like this one never explain why one form of crazy behaviour is good for the soul and another is a sign of indoctrinated madness, so they do not show why it is that young people are attracted in the first place to join such sickening cults. Can it have something to do with the phoney sense of community which they offer, as opposed to the extreme poverty of feeling and sense of alienation which characterises the so-called affluent lives of the American young?

Chinese puzzle

It is interesting to note how little TV coverage BBC and ITN have given to the quite significant protests in the major cities of China recently, as opposed to coverage they give to protest movements in Russia. usually involving far less people. Could this have something to do with the fact that state- capitalist China has now become a major Western trading partner and therefore the establishment here does not want to give too much encouragement to any movement to destabilise "our Communist allies", whereas state-capitalist Russia is still a military and trading rival?

What you think

In 1987 this column will be publishing a selection of the points which you send in about TV output. Write and let us know what has made you sick on TV recently or what has opened your eyes to an aspect of capitalism you hadn't recently thought about, Send your letters or postcards to Between The Lines, c/o The Socialist Standard. If none of your points appear you can assume that none have been sent in.
Steve Coleman