Thursday, February 27, 2020

Commons Blunder (2020)

Book Review from the February 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Plunder of the Commons: a Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth by Guy Standing (Pelican £9.99.)

In a Supreme Court ruling towards the end of last year, an open space in Lancaster lost its status as a village green, on the grounds that the fields might be needed for the expansion of the local school (Guardian online 14 December). One campaigner said, ‘this judgment totally redefines the way we understand land held in the public domain’. This is just one example of the kind of development discussed in Guy Standing’s book, which in some ways complements Brett Christophers’ The New Enclosure, reviewed in the January Socialist Standard. Rather than just looking at the selling-off of state-owned land, it examines many examples of the privatisation or commercialisation of ‘the commons’, described as ‘all our shared natural resources … and all the social, civic and cultural institutions that our ancestors have bequeathed to us’.

As this suggests, different types of commons are identified. The natural commons consists of land, minerals, forests, rivers, sea, air, sky, while the social commons comprises public housing, healthcare, roads, public parks and so on. The civil commons is not so clearly defined, but includes the rule of law, justice and personal freedom. The cultural commons includes libraries, museums, mass media and sport, and the knowledge commons covers information, ideas and learning. In all these areas, there have been many examples of enclosure, such as cuts to the funding of national parks, the privatisation of water supplies and much of the NHS, the selling of allotment sites, the closing of libraries, and the domination of Google in providing information. Much of this material has been written about elsewhere, of course, but it is useful to have it summarised in a single volume.

Standing’s solution to all this is to propose a Charter of the Commons, which, for instance, contains statements such as ‘Farm subsidies based on the amount of land owned should be abolished’ and ‘Local markets selling fresh and local produce should be encouraged and protected’. A Commons Fund would be financed by a levy on all use of the commons, by a tax on wealth, land value taxation and a carbon levy. It should pay Common Dividends to everyone, thus constituting a basic income. But these ideas might equally well be summarised as ‘Capitalism should be run as a nice friendly system’.

One article in the proposed Charter is: ‘Privatized water companies must be restored to common ownership’. This reveals one of the problems with the whole concept of the commons employed here. Ownership and control by the state (whether of water or the railways or whatever) is emphatically not common ownership, as people still need to pay to have access to them. Standing writes: ‘our public wealth has been plundered by encroachment, enclosure, commercialization, privatization and colonization of Britain’s commons’: but it was not public wealth in the sense of being owned by the people. Common ownership implies an end not just to privatisation but to wage labour, production for profit and the class division of capitalism.
Paul Bennett

Bad Marx – See Me! (2020)

From the February 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

I must begin with a mea culpa. For around four decades I was a ‘Marxist Leninist’, sometimes actively, often more passively. What I thus demonstrated to myself is an individual’s capacity for self-delusion.

The ideology associated with Lenin continues to be presented, by adherents and foes alike, as the realisation of Marxism, the actuality of communism when put into practice. The subsequent abject failure of the Soviet Union and its bloc confirming the inherent impracticality of socialism.

Not that ‘Marxism-Leninism’ has gone away. There remains ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, more accurately, burgeoning capitalism protected by an authoritarian one-party state. Cross the border into North Korea and the only ‘socialism’ to be found is akin to ‘National Socialism’.

Vietnam, Cuba, Venezuela et al make various socialistic claims and can boast some successes with enlightened social policies. However, the working class in each still stands in the same relationship to capital as in avowedly capitalist countries, with the common tendency to authoritarianism.

Stated boldly, the working class may have acquired limited influence in the ruling bodies of capitalist states, but without assuming control, or anything approaching it, anywhere. Those states that developed state capitalism as the dominant mode as opposed to the ‘free’ market, often adopt, or are ascribed, ‘Communist’ or ‘Socialist’ as labels of convenience.

Socialism, in Marxist terms, is synonymous with communism, it is not an interim state of unspecified length, with communism promoted as the distant, very, very distant, Promised Land, while the state far from ‘withering away’ actually becomes much stronger and entrenched and then gradually moribund.

Nonetheless, mention socialism or communism to many (perhaps most) folk and it’s Leninism that is conjured up. Indeed, whatever fleeting contact people have with socialism it is usually in the form of a ‘Communist‘ Party, of which there are quite a few, or a ‘Socialist’ party/group styling themselves Trotskyist, of which there are more.

Despite their virulent antipathy to each other, they share a common feature. Each is the vanguard of an exclusive, and self-serving, interpretation of Marxism by which the working class will be led along the socialist road to communism. And yet, in the unlikely circumstances of actually being in a position to do so, all would actually establish state capitalism.

What defines socialism in Marxist terms is the relationship of the producers to the means of wealth creation: do they have full control over those means being held democratically in common? If producers are employed by the state, paid wages by the state, with the state controlling the means of wealth creation and surplus value, then they do not. That is still capitalism.

The attraction of ‘Marxism-Leninism’ is the sense that unless it is led by those who understand the grander scheme, workers will at best develop what Lenin referred to as ‘trade union consciousness’, going no further than making bargains with capitalism.

Indeed, the working class has, so far, singularly failed to lift its eyes from the politics of the here and now, to the grander vision of what is actually possible. The temptation is to take people by the political scruff and drag them to their destination. Unfortunately, that destination is always the state claiming to act on their behalf.

However, unless the working class acts for itself by consciously pursuing its own interests, socialism cannot come about. To be blunt, if the working class cannot be inspired and educated to vote for socialism where it is able to do so, then it certainly cannot be compelled to be socialist.

Of course, socialism is not a simple matter of an overwhelming electoral or parliamentary majority. However, that would be an indication that the working class was pursuing a new society on its own behalf. There would be no need for a Lenin, living or embalmed.

Until Leninism has been decoupled from Marxism it will continue to serve as an ideological bulwark containing working class potential. It is the militant counterpoint to the reformism of social democracy. Both act, in their own ways, as distractions from confronting the actualities of capitalism and the need for the working class to actively engage with transcending it.

I was afflicted by elective political blindness, but once my vision cleared I saw there are no short cuts. It is also became clear that defending the indefensible – Leninism and its derivatives Stalinism and Trotskyism – is, in the tragic terms of the Soviet purges, a crime against the people.
David Alton

Jeremy Corbyn: Last Stand of the Left (2020)

From the February 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Oh dear, Jeremy Corbyn!

The supposedly halcyon days of Corbyn’s successful Labour leadership contests in 2015 and 2016 are now but a distant memory as the chants of: ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn!’ fade away like ghosts in the night; another ‘fame to infamy saga’ in the personality cult of contemporary politics.

After all, as the pundits never tired of telling us, Corbyn was not up to being a leader; perhaps the biggest compliment that could be levelled at him given the bear pit, come cesspit, of the Westminster Bubble. This fixation of the media with personality was perhaps epitomised by a rather fatuous post-mortem piece in the Guardian newspaper penned by Jonathan Freedland who, in spectacularly reductionist mode, summed up the reason for the Corbyn defeat as his: ‘lack of charisma’, proclaiming – with somewhat sparse and dubious evidence – that the Left can never win elections with a leader with no charisma; but concluding, somehow, that the Right can win elections merely by fielding a sack of potatoes. Freedland spent the remainder of the article in a kind of je ne sais quoi fog, preferring to point to examples of men whom he claimed had charisma, such as Blair and Clinton, rather than enlighten his readers as to what it actually comprised. With political commentators like these it is hardly surprising that the public are increasingly dumbed down into an apathetic stupor, or else whipped up into a fervour of unrealistic expectations when it comes to politics. It may come as a shock to Mr Freedland, and his ilk, but the charisma hypothesis lacks a certain ‘completeness’ when it comes to explaining Corbyn’s defeat.

Corbyn was a fish out of water from the get-go; thrown into the spotlight by accident, with no-one more surprised than himself. Although a career politician he was always an outrider to the main pack, having defied the Party Whip and voted with his conscience more than 500 times; usually taking a left-wing oppositional stance to war and ‘imperialism’ and seeking to champion causes of social and economic justice; in a nutshell, arguably the complete antithesis of the average modern day politician, who excels in guile, duplicity and low cunning. The establishment was not about to let an anti-imperialist, sandal-wearing vegetarian peacenik in a Lenin cap into the hallowed halls of power. And here ‘the establishment’ includes a large chunk of his colleagues in the parliamentary Labour Party who constantly plotted and schemed to undermine his leadership.

The more Corbyn bent over backwards to appease his critics the more they lambasted him. Not that such an establishment/media-bashing campaign is anything new when it comes to exorcising the Left from respectable society, but Corbyn seemed incapable of combatting the onslaught; compounded by some of the people around him who often seemed to be setting him up for a fall, rather than helping to get him out of a jam. He went into the 2019 General Election, mumbling and fluffing his autocue lines; to some he was barely recognisable from just two years earlier when he commanded public rallies of thousands, delivering rousing speeches on the stump.

But it was not just Corbyn’s emaciated persona that caused such a catastrophic defeat in the 2019 general election. Many in his party on both the right and left (from Blair to McDonnell) also handed him a poisoned chalice in the form of an incoherent Brexit stance. A 10-year-old child could have told him that you don’t go into a Brexit-dominated election with polarised public opinion and refuse to say whether the UK should be in or out of the EU and then witter on about a second referendum. It was a no-brainer that the ‘Oven ready/let’s get Brexit done’ slogans of the Tories would have more appeal to a Brexit-fatigued electorate.

The Labour Party ran a mind-bogglingly inept campaign in other ways. It had echoes of the debacle with Bernie Sanders during the 2016 Primary contest, when the Democratic National Committee sabotaged his candidacy for the nomination; preferring the prospect of handing Donald Trump the Presidency, by backing the lame duck candidate Hilary Clinton, than risk a left-leaning Sanders.

Another factor in Corbyn’s demise was the digital media with its use of algorithms for data analytics and targeted marketing through the Twittersphere et al, together with a panoply of so-called fact-checker websites, often presenting diametrically opposite views of the same ‘facts.’ All this digital electioneering was invariably at Corbyn’s expense; the pinnacle of cynical manipulation being when the Conservative Party changed the name of its Twitter account to: ‘factcheckUK’.

A demented Christian-celebrates.
Then there was the first-past-the-post system which put a further nail in Corbyn’s coffin. The outcome of general elections are always determined by a relatively small number of marginal constituencies and this time around, with the help of the shenanigans of Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party, this worked against Labour significantly.

Then there was the issue of the ‘wish list’ Labour Manifesto. Dependent on one’s perspective it was either too radical, or not radical enough. Predictably the party grandee, Tony Blair, was in the ‘too radical camp’ declaring it: ‘a brand of quasi-revolutionary socialism that has never appealed to Labour voters.’ A ludicrous assertion given that there was nothing either revolutionary or discernibly socialist in it.

Since its inception in 1906, the Labour Party has invariably kept within the modest confines of what has been dictated to it by the powers that be; that is what they deem possible, or tolerable, within capitalism to mitigate the worst effects on the masses whilst maintaining profits for the owners of capital. On the rare occasions when it has stepped outside of such ‘operational constraints’ it has quickly been reminded by the banks, the corporations et al. who is really in charge -– a run on the pound, a debt crisis, a character assassination, has quickly brought the Labour Party to heel, or else they have been ousted on the basis that the Tories are much better suited to manage capitalism.

Prospects for the new decade

Johnson’s crowing about ‘the people’s government’ and ‘protecting our wonderful NHS’ etc. will go the way of all his other mendacious utterances to be supplanted by the most pro-business authoritarian government the UK has seen since Thatcher. Johnson is another Trumpian political figure, a few notches higher on the IQ scale; a political buccaneer, a chancer, a populist, who will lie and cheat to gain political advantage and personal aggrandisement whilst serving his masters, the capitalist elite. The consummate modern-day politician.

The wealth and income inequality gap will become ever more grotesque as Johnson applies meagre rations to public services whilst dishing out largesse to the private sector; further enriching the minority by impoverishing the majority. The remnants of the fetters on capitalism – taxation and regulation – will most likely be further rolled back in order to give free rein to ‘the entrepreneurs’, while the mass of long-suffering people will either be seduced with the discredited notion of ‘trickle-down economics,’ or else met with a cocktail of omnipotent surveillance and coercive force in order to subjugate them.

The next few years will be grim for the working class, while the capitalist class will be jubilant, but this may be their last fling. Many people over the years have predicted, prematurely, the end of capitalism, underestimating its ingenuity, dynamism and resilience. But the twin existential threats of nuclear conflagration and ecological collapse are becoming ever more acute. It is impossible for capitalism to solve these problems because it is the inherent cause of them. The very essence of capitalism is exploitation in the name of profit, exploitation of the working class by denying them the full value of their labour and exploitation of the natural environment by gobbling up resources and ignoring the ‘externalities’ in the form of degradation of the natural environment. The risk of nuclear war is ominously present as nation states and transnational corporations fight to claim dwindling natural resources and to secure new markets.

The human species remains incredibly resilient to such capitalist exploitation, but the natural environment is not faring so well. Other species are becoming extinct at an alarming rate and the global ecosystem, upon which all life depends, is under threat. An alternative economic system is urgently needed. There is renewed talk of socialism as the alternative. But often these are ‘false flags’ amounting to capitalism with a kinder face. Sometimes they are genuine attempts at radical change, but stop short of the abandonment of capitalism. But unless the exploitative nature of capitalism is confronted head-on and supplanted, then such movements will be insufficient.

Socialism has the potential to provide the solution by changing the fundamental economic relationship between people, and between people and the planet. Rather than commodifying every aspect of life and concocting markets where goods and services are provided only when there is the ability to pay, instead the provision could be based on need; rendering the notion of price, market and money redundant. Instead of the world’s resources being mercilessly plundered in the name of profit they could be held in common ownership for the benefit of all. These socialist fundamentals would help to avoid the immense waste under capitalism and hasten a more sustainable existence.

Corbyn was successful for a short time in galvanising a mass movement with rhetoric of radical change and talk of socialism; but led his followers down a side road of reformism which in the event was a dead end. By misrepresenting reform of the capitalist system as socialism he, and others like him, inadvertently undermine the cause, rather than advance it. These efforts, whilst initially creating a momentum for change, are counter-productive as they inevitably end in tears. As Marx observed, ultimately socialism will come about when the majority of the working class understand its transformative potential and collectively work to bring it about. When people decide to take that road they will not need leaders – charismatic or otherwise. They will learn to find their way by themselves.
Tim Hart