Sunday, April 12, 2020

Letter: Tales of a Traveller. (1920)

Letter to the Editors from the November 1920 issue of the Socialist Standard

Comrade Editors,

Reverting to some remarks made by F. F. in the July "S.S." in his article "Paradox or Illusion," I am tempted to offer a few myself in view of the fact that further argument was indulged in in the September issue.

In the first case I would state emphatically that the £1 Bradbury note does not represent the value of the sovereign, despite the fact that one is able to exchange notes for gold if one cares to pay a visit to the Bank of England.

I may say in this connection that it is necessary to be very sparing in one's demands for such exchange, otherwise the Bank will be sufficiently curious as to one's motives to set the "splits" moving to ascertain them, and a case recently tried in the courts showed what severe penalties are visited upon those who attempt to realise the difference in value contained in a sovereign and a £1 Bradbury and this difference is sufficiently tempting for folk out on the make to risk these penalties in their endeavour, to obtain it.

I was in France a few months since, and whilst exchanging English paper money for French asked what difference would be allowed for gold, and I can state categorically that in every case the offer was between 25 and 30 per cent. higher. Previously to this I was in Egypt, where I found 31s. was the price ; about the same period in India the figure ranged, in various districts, between 32s. and 45s., and while in the Strait Settlements the price was not so high, it was quite easy to obtain as much as 33s. to 35s. In China the same conditions prevailed in a lesser degree owing to the fact that less English money was available and the cost of forwarding the gold to the place of demand had to be taken into account.

I quote the above from actual experience, not from hearsay, and may say a thriving business is being done all the time in this realisation of the difference between the value contained in a gold sovereign and that alleged to be represented in a £1 note. In fact, if F.F. cares to try it, I could prove to him that he could pay first class travelling expenses and live like a duke on the proceeds of the sale of gold sovereigns in the right quarters, if he can be assured of obtaining a sufficient supply of the coin under discussion. But there's the rub ! I would emphasise that in all the cases I have quoted the exchange is offered in English paper currency.

To conclude, I would enquire, does F.F. maintain that despite the rise in price of other commodities that of gold remains unchanged ?
D. W. F.

My critic states "most emphatically that the £1 Bradbury note does not represent the value of the sovereign, despite the fact that one is able to exchange notes for gold if one cares to pay a visit to the Bank of England." But he completely fails to show why they are so exchangeable if the note does not represent the sovereign. The fact that they are exchangeable is surely sufficient to prove that the £1 note is backed by the sovereign, and, therefore, that the latter's value is fully represented by the note. Unless it can be proved that the two are not exchangeable it is idle to assert that they are not equivalents. Only those things containing or representing value in equal amounts are exchangeable in the capitalist world.

The reference by D.W.F. to the "folk on the make" who demand sovereigns for notes has no bearing on the question, although as I pointed out in my reply to Mr. Bannochie, the fact that it is illegal to melt down sovereigns and unpatriotic to demand them, together with the knowledge that the gold is there if wanted, fully explains why it is not demanded.

All the cases D.W.F. cites of the difference allowed for gold when exchanging English for foreign money has nothing to do with the subject. Gold in the form of bullion is international money, and exchanges at its value everywhere. Where the rate of exchange between countries varies, the difference between credit notes and gold will vary in the same direction. The difference in the rate of exchange quoted by D.W.F. represents largely the state of government and other credits of those countries.

A paper currency convertible into the standard metal on demand can no more be inflated than a metal currency in which every coin contains its actual worth in that metal. If the Government in pre-war days had minted more sovereigns than were necessary for the exchange of commodities, all the sovereigns over and above those necessary would simply have lain idle at the Bank.

And exactly the same thing happens where gold is represented by notes that are convertible on demand.

In the business arena of the country the note will buy the same amount of commodities as the sovereign, and is treated with the same respect. Whether debts are paid in gold or paper the same amount must be handed over in £ s. d., and no discount or reduction is made for payment in either medium. Obviously, then, for all business purposes, for the transaction of all exchanges within the country the £1 note represents the sovereign.

The question with which D.W.F. concludes his letter does not affect the above conclusions. It would be just as absurd to deny that the price of gold had risen as it is to deny that the £1 note represents the sovereign. Those who claim that the inflation of currency is the cause of high prices can only establish their claim by explaining how it is possible to inflate a convertible currency.
F. Foan

Our £1000 Fund. (1920)

Party News from the November 1920 issue of the Socialist Standard

Christmas is coming, and so a word about our Thousand pound fund will be a word in season. Important changes in regard to our Party Organ are now occupying our attention, and an influx of money to that fund would go a long way to clear the atmosphere. Send us along a shilling or two before you get the sack and haven't any to send. It will comfort you to think that when you could you had a cut at your tormentors. Do it now!

Pressure Valves. (1920)

From the November 1920 issue of the Socialist Standard

What is meant by the term "pressure valves" needs no explanation : the majority of men know their use in these days of highly developed machinery. Therefore it is not the present writer's intention to pen an article on valves as applied to mechanical devices, but to point the accusing finger at the human valves who appear in the form of Labour and trade union officials screwed rather tight upon the working-class ignorance.

At present we see these valves working vigorously, proof of the high pressure in the working-class boiler, which in its turn results from the still higher pressure put upon the working class by modern capitalist methods of production.

We have had many opportunities—and the future holds a good many more—to witness how the labour-leading charlatans adapt themselves as valves to relieve labour pressure and work only for the maintenance of the master class, sure, if something unpleasant happens for the master class, that the labour wheedlers must not be blamed.

For instance, analyse the attitude of the coal miners' leaders. Their alarm whistle has torn the air for four weeks to inform the master class that something unpleasant would happen if the high labour pressure was not relieved. Whenever they sound the alarm they take great pains to show the master class how to artificially relieve pressure in order that the old engine— which takes everything worth having and returns nothing worth keeping to the working class—may be kept going.

This artificial relief, you will have guessed, takes in all cases the form of wage adjustment to accord with the increased cost of living, but as you will have already observed, even the most generous (!) adjustment never puts the workers much above the poverty line.

There are many who are familiar with all manner of mechanical devices, mostly ardent T.U. men, walking alongside closed factories with nothing to do and next to nothing to eat. They were told by their leaders and other capitalist agents to produce more in order to save "their" country from ruin. They produced more, with the result that, whatever they have done for "their" country, they have put themselves on the starvation list.

Why don't they study our warnings given month after month ? Why don't they seriously investigate? Why don't they use their brain power in the right manner? They soon would realise the uselessness of following leaders who work hand in hand with the very class they ought to fight to the bitter end if they honestly wished to serve, and not to help dominate, the working class.

Do these ever-increasing masses of unemployed study the law of cause and effect ? They certainly suffer the effects of the capitalist system.

The S.P.G.B. is open to them if they are desirous of obtaining a thorough knowledge of the cause of their suffering and of the means whereby we shall rid the world of a system which causes such suffering.

Don't Be Misled. (1920)

From the November 1920 issue of the Socialist Standard

Fellow Worker,


YOU have won the war. YOU have won the peace. YOU have won the General Election. YOU have won the lockouts, the strikes, the disease, the hospitals, lunatic asylums, and the workhouses.


Yours alone is the credit; you alone are to be praised.

You have followed your leaders' advice and worked harder, and now master's warehouses are chock full with commodities. You have glutted the world with wealth. Factories are closing down; "hands" are being discharged wholesale. The markets will not absorb the wealth produced. YOURS is the credit.

You VOTED for capitalism. You SUPPORT capitaliam. You WANT capitalism.

Women and children are taking your jobs. Your women are being forced on the streets. And the pawnbroker will only advance nine-pence on the "Services Rendered " badge.

YOURS is the credit.

You have returned your masters to Parliament. Again have you given them the right to exploit you, your wives and kiddies; to declare dividends on the wounds and scars of "heroes," to burn, maim, poison and destroy for profit.

Like sheep you have followed and follow "leaders," who knowingly lead you into the wilderness of Direct Action and anarchy, a wilderness that bristles with bayonets and machine guns, and where the only "manna" you are likely to receive will be in the shape of bombs from Handley-Pages, made in nationalised factories, where shop stewards see to it that trade union conditions are carried out.

You voted for the Co-Op Labour man, for the Coalitionist, for the Lib-Lab.—any old freak who would do his best to perpetuate capitalism. You voted for the capitalists' profits, and your own "right" to work or starve, to work AND starve, to idle and starve.

You have been of every shade of opinion, Christian, Atheist, Tory, Liberal, Labour— any and every thing.

BECOME INTELLIGENT. Study your position in society. Learn that the present system is based upon the private ownership of the means and instruments of wealth production and distribution ; that there are two classes in society, the possessing class and the working class—YOUR class.

Discover that because you are denied access to the means of life you are a commodity, bought and sold just like tomatoes and tripe. Then you will know that the only salvation for you will be the establishment of a system of society in which the whole people commonly own and control their means of wealth production and distribution.

When you have progressed so far JOIN THE ARMY.

Not an army to fight capitalist quarrels over trade routes and markets, but the army of revolutionary workers organised in the Socialist Party of Great Britain, with the object of capturing political power, in order to abolish capitalism and establish Socialism. 
A. H.

"Middle-Class" Respectability. (1920)

From the November 1920 issue of the Socialist Standard

One hears a good deal about that portion of society yclept the "middle class." In reality the successive class struggles throughout history have wiped out all but two classes, viz, the capitalist class and the working class; but apparently the title "middle class" is still given to those unfortunates (or fortunates as the case may be) who wallow not in luxury or in mud ! Their main function seems to be to keep up the moral tone of mankind and save for humanity its chiefest virtue, Respectability.

To the discerning Socialist the capitalist system is, most of it, naked rottenness, while the rest of it is covered by a thin veneer that only accentuates the filth beneath. The working class, it would seem, do not notice the rottenness, but are deceived by the veneer. This veneer manifests itself in a variety of ways, in conventional respectability, religious and military ceremonies, persiflage, and, above all, in treating as "taboo" the ugly truth !

The shibboleth of the "middle class" is "respectability." It believes itself, on that account, as distinct from and above the working class as the dwellers upon high Olympus are from and above the cowherds of the plains below. It calls its ugly little villa "The Lindens," and marries its daughters respectably, whereas the working class lives in a tenement and very often does not marry its daughters at all, and therein lies the difference.

But when the Socialist comes along and points out that both portions are alike inasmuch as they are equally exploited and robbed by the capitalist class, what a raising of hands and eyebrows there is, what a fluttering in the dovecotes of Suburbia! But it is nevertheless true that the so-called middle-class man is as fearful and afraid for his economic position as any member of society who is forced to sell his power to labour in order to live.

To a very large extent capitalism thrives on this self deception of the "salariat." Most of the apologists of the system spring from this section of the working class. And though some of its opponents are of the "middle class," they have met with their most bitter opposition in its ranks. For why ?

The "middle class" knows that slums exist; it also knows that people starve to death occasionally. It will admit, when its young people are out of the room, that prostitutes abound in lasge numbers in great cities ; that venereal diseases fill hospitals. But then, you know, it is not usual to talk of such things—it is not respectable!

I once asked some young men of this "middle class" at the beginning of the recent war, why it was they rushed to avenge the outraged women of Belgium yet observed without indignation thousands of women forced to sell their bodies on the streets to avoid starvation. I think their answer was to call me a pro-German ! To them and their section fighting Germans was the proper thing to do. But to think why they should or should not never occurred to them.

It is not to be wondered at that the capitalist Press, particularly during a strike, keeps the "middle class " distinct from the rest of the community. But as Marx has pointed out, this section of society is gradually being brought face to face with its true position in relation to the rest of society, and the time is not far distant when "respectability" will have ceased to be a stumbling block in the path of progressive thought. We read now-a-days of unions for the protection of clergymen, bank clerks, doctors, and others who, perhaps unwillingly enough, are beginning to see thst so far as the capitalist system is concerned, there is not an atom of difference between the man with a pen or lancet and the miner or road-mender.

But they should bear this in mind and act upon it too: Capitalism can do nothing for them. There is one remedy only for the evils and discomforts they are up against, and that is the abolition of capitalism and the establishment of Socialism.
Stanley H. Steele

Rear View: It started with a twit or rather a tweet (2020)

The Rear View Column from the February 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

It started with a twit or rather a tweet

During the season of goodwill, one Jamie Evans saw a jigsaw map of Great Britain and tweeted ‘is there any reason Wales has suddenly become part of England?’ The Daily Mirror (24 December), along with others, covered the story: ‘M&S blasted for £8 jigsaw of the UK that offends “absolutely everyone”‘. Jamie, a Plaid Cymru councillor in Neath, said it’s not the first time the store had forgotten about Wales. He hit out: ‘During the 2016 European football championships, which Wales were in, M&S put up posters urging people to support England. We’re used to it in Wales now, being subjected to that nonsense’. The nonsense is manifold. The original map dates from the 1800s. Whether Ireland (then a colony), Scotland, Wales, even Cornwall are independent matters not. Plaid Cymru deny that our problems are caused by the class monopoly of the means of production, in short, by capitalism. The solution lies not in nationalism, which is a delusion and a snare, but in world socialism.

Countries come and go, borders change, capitalism persists

Remember Refugia, the Utopian island between Italy and Tunisia, proposed as a solution to the ‘refugee and migrant crisis’ by two Oxford dons in 2016? The idea is going nowhere and that of No Borders fading: has been dormant since mid-2013 and not updated since early November last year. Their slogans are worth recalling: No Border, No Nation, Stop Deportations! and No one is Illegal. Remember Biafra? The war for independence from Nigeria lasted over two and a half years and more than one million people lost their lives. Also worth recalling is that ‘Nigeria is an entirely artificial, colonial construct created by the British Empire (and bounded by the French Empire). Its boundaries bear no relation to internal national entities, and it is huge. The strange thing is that these totally artificial colonial constructs of states generate a genuine and fierce patriotism among their citizens…. ‘ (ICH. 14 March 2015). And: ‘Less than two decades after the painstaking removal of a massive border fence designed to keep people in, Bulgarian authorities are just as painstakingly building a new fence along the rugged Turkish border, this time to keep people out’ (New York Times, 5 April 2015).

Time For a New ‘Christmas Truce‘?
 ‘They lived in similar squalor, shared the same God, and celebrated the same holidays. It was December 24, 1914, Christmas Eve, and – though they spoke different languages and had ruthlessly killed one another for over four months – the British and German soldiers in the opposing trench lines had much in common’ (, 25 December). 
The author makes the same point about shared interests of those involved in conflicts in the 100 years since then. Indeed, the vast majority of those existing in countries as diverse as Afghanistan, Germany, Iraq, Libya, Russia and Syria have far more in common than they do with their respective generals, politicians and economic overlords, a fact recognised before, during and after the war to end all wars:
  ‘…The poor have no country, in all lands, they suffer from the same evils, and they, therefore, realise that the barriers put up by the powers that be the more thoroughly to enslave the people must fall’ (International Working Men’s Association, 1866). 
  ‘In a class society, “the nation” as a homogeneous socio-political entity does not exist. Rather, there exist within each nation, classes with antagonistic interests and “rights”’ (Rosa Luxemburg, The National Question, 1909). 
  ‘I have no country to fight for; my country is the Earth, and I am a citizen of the World’ (Eugene Debs, 1915). 
  ‘The old lie: It is sweet and right to die for one’s country’ (Wilfred Owen, 1918). 
  ‘.. [no] policy for settling minority problems and international rivalries within the framework of capitalism is capable of bringing peace and democracy to the peoples of the world. Another war would be followed by new treaties forced on the vanquished by the victors, and by preparations for further wars, new dictatorships and terrorism. The Socialist Party… reiterates the call it issued in 1914: “Having no quarrel with the working class of any country, we extend to our fellow workers of all lands the expression of our goodwill and socialist fraternity, and pledge ourselves to work for the overthrow of capitalism and the triumph of Socialism“’ (Socialist Party, September 1939). 
  Imagine there’s no countries; It isn’t hard to do; Nothing to kill or die for; And no religion, too (Imagine, John Lennon, 1971).

Pathfinders: Celebs wanted, dead or alive (2020)

The Oirishman
The Pathfinders Column from the February 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Celebs wanted, dead or alive

Something about the recent revolt of the younger UK royals reminds us that celebs may be good box office but they are sometimes hard for the management to keep in line. Film stars are often notoriously hard to work with, and can misbehave off set too. They even insist on having their own ideas, as if they’re real people, and using media opportunities including awards ceremonies as platforms to spout their own pet worthy causes. Ricky Gervais nailed it recently, when presenting the recent Golden Globes, by asking the assembled luvvies not to lecture workers on life and politics when most of them have spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg.

But this problem may go away by itself, as new technology dispenses with reality entirely by creating a new population of purely virtual celebs who never have tantrums, make off-message statements, get caught in scandals or demand pay rises. This virtualisation has already started. In fulfilment of everyone’s perfect fantasy, actors can be ‘de-aged’ to play themselves when they were 30 or 40 years younger, as we saw with 2019’s Captain Marvel and The Irishman.

But that’s nothing. Actor Peter Cushing had a largish speaking role in the 2016 Star Wars movie Rogue One, a remarkable bit of casting considering he died in 1994. Now one company has bought the ‘rights’ to James Dean’s appearance and is proposing to have ‘him’ star in a new Vietnam movie. Ethical opinions are divided, with Marvel Studios perhaps surprisingly expressing moral repugnance.

Think this is all rather creepy? Of course it is. This is another Alice-in-Wonderland rabbit hole that technology has opened up. But you can see the fascination. Suppose they remade The Maltese Falcon, or Casablanca, with today’s budgets and production values, but with the original actors? Wouldn’t people pay good money to see that? Or you could do mash-ups of different classics, featuring actors and storylines who never met in real life. Think Gaslight crossed with Diabolique. Gone With The Wind crossed with Cold Mountain and Red Badge of Courage. Or recast classic roles to see how other actors might have done it. What would James Stewart have done with 12 Angry Men, or Peter O’Toole with Psycho?

Ok ok, now starting to sound like the pub film buff bore. But you have to admit, there’s something horribly amusing about the idea of these privileged Hollywood legends continuing to be plundered and commodified in perpetuity, even after they’re dead. At least when we workers snuff it, the bastards finally leave us alone.

But wait, they’re not thinking this through. The tech will get cheaper, and then why only make box office movies for the family-friendly customer? Screw morals, why not take deep fake porn movies to the next level, with Marilyn Monroe or Jane Russell doing physically unfeasible things with Errol Flynn or Elvis Presley? None of it’s real, so the punters don’t have to feel guilty. How dark and twisted could it go? How dark and twisted can capitalism go? Shirley Temple in a paedo slasher movie? There would be a public outcry. Eighteen months later it would be considered tame. Feminists would fight back of course. Annie Get Your Gun crossed with Death Wish for starters, then Mary Poppins and Terminator. All ideas copyright SPGB, by the way, and we will sue.

Then there’s the wages factor. At the moment they have to use live actors who will then be digitally converted into Bogart or Gable. Given that half of most films is CGI nowadays anyway, you could shoot the entire thing in CGI and then you can dispense with the bodies too, and just pay voice actors. If the tech continues to improve, with a big enough library of voice samples you can probably get rid of them too. Your entire production team could consist of a gaggle of pale and half-starved teenage computer programmers trying to support sick parents and pay their way through college on the minimum wage. Just watch the cash roll in!

Better still, with advances in AI, let the digital celebs write and star in their own stories. They can direct and produce them too. So you won’t need to pay writers (always an awkward resentful bunch) or directors (prima donnas) or even producers (jumped-up investors). It could be just you, sitting on a  mountain of cash, with more pouring down on you like a perpetual money monsoon from heaven.

Better still, the AI celebs will take over altogether and manage their own finances, PR and contractual negotiations. Then they’ll finally sack you too, and good riddance. And then, supposing that AI celebs really are smarter than humans, perhaps they’ll start using their awards ceremonies to lecture us on why we should have abolished capitalism and established socialism when there was still time to do it.

But probably by then there won’t be anyone left alive who cares anymore. The audiences will all be virtual too.

Tragedy and farce

Two recent news items illustrate capitalism writ large and writ small. One, the Australian wildfire apocalypse, is a tragedy that makes any further comment redundant. The other is quite trivial, ridiculous even, yet is a perfect example of capitalism making complicated and wasteful what socialism would make simple and economical: the matter of phone chargers. In 2009, there were over 30 different types of charger, generating an estimated 51,000 tonnes of waste and giving everyone a drawerful of old and useless cables. European regulators have got this absurd superfluity down to three charger types, but Apple has been deliberately uncooperative. ‘A common charger should fit all mobile phones, tablets, e-book readers and other portable devices,’ says the European Parliament ( But this self-evident truth flies in the face of capitalist reality, where competition constantly bucks any trend toward standardisation. In socialism, production would not be atomised by a farcical war of competing interests, so parts could be interchangeable, repairable, recyclable, and standardised, while minimising waste and environmental impact. Common sense, right? Not in capitalism.
Paddy Shannon

A New 'Green' Capitalism? 'No Deal' says Capital (2020)

From the February 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

What if there was a way to make capitalism environmentally friendly and more economically robust, in a way that benefited workers in particular? Liberals like Bernie Sanders and celebrity congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (‘AOC’) are claiming that a ‘Green New Deal’ would do just that.

In February 2019, AOC introduced to Congress a non-binding resolution, titled ‘Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal’. In it, she touts the Green New Deal as an ‘opportunity’ to ‘create millions of good high-wage jobs’, ‘provide unprecedented levels of prosperity and economic security’, and ‘counteract systemic injustices’ while also securing ‘for all people of the United States for generations to come’ such benefits as ‘clean air and water’, ‘climate and community resiliency’, ‘healthy food’, and a ‘sustainable environment’.

The economic claims for the Green New Deal are based on the Keynesian belief that government-funded infrastructure spending can generate economic growth and overcome crisis. Since many articles in the Socialist Standard to date have exposed the limits of Keynesianism, the Green New Deal as economic policy will be set aside here to focus instead on its underlying assumption that capitalism can be transformed into an environmentally sustainable system.

What is it about the nature of capitalism that makes it far more destructive to the environment than other modes of production? This is the core question to be examined here.

Transforming nature
At the most general level, capitalism is no different from any other form of society that has existed (or could ever exist), insofar as human beings must transform the materials that exist in nature to create useful things that satisfy their own needs. This is accomplished through labour, which Marx describes as ‘a process between man and nature, a process by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature’ (Capital, ch. 7, Penguin edition, p. 283). He points out that this ‘appropriation of what exists in nature for the requirements of man’ through the activity of human labour is the ‘everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence’ that is ‘common to all forms of society in which human beings live’ .

Since human beings must ‘appropriate’ materials from nature to live, perhaps no society could be described as truly ‘friendly’ to the environment. Certainly past societies have also damaged the environment in their pursuit of natural materials to satisfy human needs. One example is the soil depletion and erosion in ancient Greece and Rome resulting from deforestation. However, it should be equally clear that, compared to earlier forms of society, the damage to the natural environment in the period since capitalism arose as a global system is far greater in scale.

A key aspect of capitalism that sets it apart from past societies, and partially accounts for its fundamental inability to be ‘sustainable’, is that products of labour under this system are only able to satisfy human needs after first passing through the market, where they are bought and sold. Products thus have both a ‘use value’ as objects that satisfy needs and an ‘exchange value’ on the market (expressed in price). Marx uses the term commodity to refer to products of labour as the unity of those two elements. Of course, commodities (and money) existed within other forms of society, but only under capitalism do the vast majority of products take the commodity form, so that wealth presents itself, in the opening words of Capital, as an ‘immense collection of commodities’.

What makes widespread commodity production so potentially harmful to the environment? Isn’t the market just an efficient way to distribute useful goods to people?

Even if the market economy were nothing more than an alternative way to distribute use values to human beings, it would still pose problems to the environment. This is because in producing for the market, rather than directly to human beings, there are many unknown and unknowable factors.

Any commodity producer (whether an individual, a corporation, or a state-run firm) must rely on past experience and recent trends to determine what to produce and in what quantity. Whether the production decisions taken will match the reality of the market today can only be known at the point of sale.

Many things can go wrong. The demand for a commodity might not be as strong as expected; or even if there is demand, the price could be too high for a sufficient number of consumers to afford. Competitors might enter the market for high-selling products, resulting in a glut of new products. Or a financial crisis could break out just as goods are coming off the assembly line. And so on. Marx thus describes the sale of the commodity as the salto mortale of the commodity. If the commodity falls short in this fatal leap, it can end up on the scrapheap. Here we have one fundamental cause of the vast squandering of natural resources under capitalist production.

Unrelenting drive for profits
But the wasteful nature of the market, as mediator between producer and consumer, is hardly the only negative environmental factor associated with capitalism. A far more fundamental cause of the destruction of the natural environment is the system’s unrelenting drive toward profit.

The essence of capitalism is not commodity (C) producers selling their wares and then using the money (M) to buy the useful things they need (i.e., commodity circulation: C–M–C), but rather the investment of money in commodity production as a means of generating more money (i.e., the circuit of capital: M–C–M′).

Whereas the human capacity to consume use values has an upper boundary, the desire for profit is without limits; as Marx explains in Capital: ‘Use values must therefore never be treated as the immediate aim of the capitalist; nor must the profit on any single transaction. His aim is rather the unceasing movement of profit-making’. (ch.4, p,254.)

That the ‘boundless drive for enrichment’ of capitalists could result in environmental destruction goes without saying. We see examples of this every day. But understanding the method behind this mad behaviour requires that we identify the ultimate source of profit.

From Marx, we learn that profit is not some trick of ‘buying low, and selling high’ or the result of the frugality of capitalists, as economic textbooks might claim. Rather, profit can be traced to the additional value generated in the production process. This ‘surplus value’ is the difference between (1) the labour time workers actually expend in the production process and (2) the amount of labour time embodied in the commodities the workers themselves must consume to reproduce their capacity to labour, which Marx terms ‘labour power’.

In other words, as long as (1) is greater than the value of (2), surplus value (and hence profit) can be generated. This occurs even when workers are paid a ‘fair wage’ that corresponds to the value of their labour power. This exploitation of labour as the basis of profit accounts for the merciless drive of capitalists to extend the working day, so as to squeeze out every last drop of surplus value.

The desire for surplus value also drives capitalists to increase the intensity of labour. If an individual capitalist is able to raise the productive power of labour by introducing new technologies or machinery, so that products can be produced for less labour time than the current average among competitors who have yet to do the same, then the capitalist can sell commodities at a price that undersells rivals but still secures a profit (i.e., below the average price on the market but above the individual commodity’s value).

Capital’s unceasing drive to push the outer boundaries of the duration and intensity of labour to obtain greater profit underlies the environmental devastation under capitalism. Capitalists treat the resources of nature, like their expendable ‘human resources’, as mere inputs for generating profit, indifferent to natural and human limits. Over a century and a half ago, in his terrifying chapter 10 on the working day in Capital, Marx described this heartless attitude of capitalists (as the personification of capital):
  ‘Après moi le déluge! is the watchword of every capitalist and of every capitalist nation. Capital therefore takes no account of the health and the life of the worker, unless society forces it to do so. Its answer to the outcry about the physical and mental degradation and premature death, the torture of over-work, is this: Should that pain trouble us, since it increases our pleasure (profit)?’ (section 5, p.381).
The capitalists of our own day, addicted to the pleasure of profit, are just as little troubled by the environmental pain their system is inflicting. They behave as if natural resources were infinite – and will push every limit unless forced to do otherwise by ‘society’. And even when society does curb some of the worst excesses of capital, the manner of (state) intervention is governed by the same logic of profit.

In that same chapter on the working day, Marx depicts how the English state intervened to impose legal limits on the length of the working day. Since this reform was clearly in the interest of workers, and was initially opposed by many capitalists, it might seem a case of an enlightened policy based on sincere concern for one’s fellow human beings.

But if this was a case of ‘seeing the light’ it was only in the sense of English capitalists finally realising that the ‘unnatural extension’ of the working day had the side-effect of driving up the value of labour power. Marx explains that, since the value of labour power includes all of the costs necessary to raise and train a worker, if a worker is worn out prematurely from extremely long working hours, the reproduction costs for his labour power will be spread over a shorter period of time, so that its daily value increases. Marx compares this to how ‘in a machine the part of its value to be reproduced every day is greater the more rapidly the machine is worn out’.

Threat to profits
In pursuing their Carpe lucrum approach of seizing the day (from workers), the English capitalists ended up depleting the source of their own profits. The legislation to limit working hours only emerged when the majority of them finally concurred that ‘the interest of capital itself points in the direction of a normal working day’ (ch. 6, p 272).

A similar dynamic is at work with regard to environmental legislation today. As always, each individual capitalist firm will pursue its own profit with extreme singlemindedness. Not surprisingly, this can result in all sorts of damage to the environment. But the state is most likely to introduce legislation to push back against those destructive tendencies when they also pose a threat to profitability – whether that of other (more powerful) capitalists or of the system as a whole.

Moreover, many of the reforms and laws that have blunted the destructive force of capital did not prove to be ‘sustainable’ under the profit system over the long-term. More than a century and a half after the struggle to limit the working day in Europe and North America, long working hours remain widespread there and throughout the world. Social welfare systems that were expanded during the long post-war boom are being dismantled today under less favourable economic and demographic conditions. And we could add that the ‘Kyoto Protocol’, introduced to great fanfare in 1997, has proved to be a farce.

Experience should have taught us by now that the concern capitalists and their politicians have for protecting natural or human resources is only to the extent necessary to allow for their continued exploitation. And usually resources have to be on the verge of depletion before any action will be taken to protect them.

Clean air and water, healthy food, and everything else that should be a human right, and would be in a truly sustainable social and natural environment, remain luxuries for many under capitalism. Environmental and economic reforms premised on the continuation of the profit system, like the Green New Deal, will never fulfil their promise of delivering sustainability, prosperity, and personal security.
Michael Schauerte

Green New Deal: No Go (2020)

Book Review from the February 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

We have seen wildfires in California and Australia. Hurricanes have been ripping apart areas from New Orleans to the Caribbean leaving devastation and death in their wake. Severe drought has been inflicted on countries from Bangladesh to South Africa. Closer to home, we have witnessed devastating floods in Cornwall and Yorkshire. The increasing frequency and power of these disasters have shaken the notion that these are merely acts of nature, about which we can do very little. These changed weather patterns are clearly evidence of what the majority of climate scientists have been warning for some time that the global warming crisis is upon us and humanity needs to act now to avoid a global catastrophe. Even some representatives of global capitalism are worried. Kristalina Georgieva, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, addressed the most recent international climate change conference (COP25) last December and is pushing for a higher carbon tax (‘Tackling climate risk is just what IMF should be doing,’ Observer, 1 December). You need to be either very delusional or be profiting from the fossil fuel industries or just be Donald Trump to deny there is a climate crisis.

So the launch of Naomi Klein’s latest book On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal (Allen Lane, £20) can be considered as rather timely. Naomi Klein is a writer, journalist and activist and first made her mark as a leading figure of the ‘anti-capitalist’ movement twenty years ago. The book was published on the twentieth anniversary of her first book, No Logo, which explored the rise of global corporations and their effects on the environment and workers, particularly those who live in poor third world countries. In her new book, she recounts her own experiences as a climate activist and how, two years ago, she was arrested at a protest against the Keystone tar sands pipeline in Washington DC. She is co-founder of a Toronto-based climate project group called Leap, which brings together people from different backgrounds to campaign for climate justice and other reforms.

The book is made up of a collection of essays, reports and lectures spanning the last decade. Its central tenet is that the planet is facing a climate emergency and we are running out of time. To back this up, Klein refers to a report published by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in October 2018 stating that global emissions of greenhouse gases need to be cut in half within 12 years (11 years from the date of the book’s publication) for us to stand a chance of keeping global warming within the target increase of 1.5C since pre-industrial times.

Capitalism indicted, but what is capitalism?
As in her previous book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, she blames capitalism for the climate crisis, and consequently argues that tinkering around with the existing economic system, with measures such as increasing the carbon tax, is not enough. Changes in individuals’ personal lifestyles, such as eating less meat and using public transport rather than driving cars, will not avert climate catastrophe. What is required is collective political action by grass-roots movements to achieve a radical overhaul of the current economic systems. She draws inspiration from the campaigning groups against climate change. There are the global school strikes, where young people are demanding more action by politicians on the environment. Klein makes the interesting point that these school children didn’t just read about climate change, but many of them have actually experienced it, whether it is the severe droughts in South Africa or the toxic air pollution in Delhi, India. In the same way socialists argue that workers don’t come to socialism by just reading about it, but by their experiences of the social problems they face within capitalism. She says that it is pressure from this activity, along with other movements, such as the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion, that will bring about change. As to be expected, much of the focus is on Greta Thunberg, the 16-year old schoolgirl who is lauded as a leading spokesperson of this youth movement.

Klein rejects the use of technology, also known as geo-engineering, to fix the environment. This can be done in a number of ways. One way is to inject the upper atmosphere with sulphur with the aim of deflecting some of the sun’s rays into space in order to cool the planet, and another is to fertilise the oceans with iron dust to create algal blooms which would soak up more carbon. However, tampering with nature’s ecosystems, she argues, would be likely to have adverse consequences.

The Earth’s temperature has been rising since the industrial revolution, the cause of which has been the burning of fossil fuels, oil and coal, by capitalist industry, releasing more greenhouse gases, such as CO2 and methane, than can be absorbed by the atmosphere, along with deforestation, resulting in fewer trees to soak up the extra carbon. Over the last thirty years or so, when many countries deregulated and privatised their industries, global trade has expanded and at the same time global emissions have escalated. Klein notes that in the same period, often referred to as ‘neoliberalism’, social and economic inequality has also arisen. She recognises that climate change and other social issues, such as social, gender and ethnic inequalities, have the same cause, which is capitalism which accumulates wealth in the hands of a tiny minority, and therefore does not accept the argument sometimes put forward that the climate issue must take precedence over everything else. Any action to resolve climate change must equally tackle other social problems. This is also known as intersectionality, where separate campaign issues come together in one struggle.

She also makes the interesting point that capitalism has only existed for a small period of human history and that humans can adapt to live in different social orders. She criticises those economists who put forward the view that humans are ‘selfish, gratification-seeking units’ and historians who espouse the Great Man theory of history.

Despite these insights, Klein doesn’t advocate the abolition of capitalism and its replacement with socialism. To see why, we need to work out what Klein means by capitalism. She doesn’t give a specific definition. However, when discussing how some climate change deniers compare action to combat climate change with so-called communism, Klein remarks that ‘the Soviet-era state socialism was a disaster for the climate’ (p.79). Again, when referring to the Soviet Union, we learn on p. 251 that ‘we have to be honest that autocratic industrial socialism has also been a disaster for the environment’ and when mentioning Venezuela on the same page ‘Venezuela’s petro-populism is a reminder that there is nothing inherently green about self-defined socialism’. She does praise the environmental policies of countries such as Denmark, Sweden and Uruguay that have a ‘democratic-socialist tradition’. From these comments, we can safely infer that when Klein talks about capitalism she is referring to private capitalism, in particular the large corporations and the banks.

We, on the other hand, define capitalism as a global society where the means of production are owned and controlled by a minority class to the exclusion of the majority of humanity, the working class, who have to seek employment by the owning or capitalist class. Production is geared to profit and businesses compete with each other in the marketplace. Concerns about the environment and human welfare must take second place. Nation states have to look after the interests of their respective capitalist classes and this leads to rivalries between them which can end in military conflict. Socialism, which will need to be established by a socialist working class after taking political action to abolish capitalism, is a society of common ownership, where the means of production are owned by everyone and the state has been abolished and there is no need for the use of money.

Green Keynesianism
Klein advocates the New Green Deal instead. It is clearly not based on the principles of socialism, but, as the name suggests, is inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal drawn up during the 1930s Depression and the Marshall Plan enacted after the Second World. It was mooted as a way of pulling capitalism out of recession during the last economic downturn, a form of ‘Green Keynesianism’. Klein holds up the US Congress New Green Deal resolutions as proposed by US Democrats Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey as the way forward. They call for ‘huge investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and clean transportation’ and for the US to reach net-zero emissions in one decade. Workers who transfer from high-carbon industries to green ones have their wages and benefits protected, and everyone who wants to work should have guaranteed employment. No specifics are given, as Klein describes it as a ‘work in progress’ with communities, many of which are indigenous and ethnic minorities, that have borne the brunt of climate change destruction, providing input into the process. They also throw in reforms – free universal care, childcare, and higher education. It is not a politically organised working class that will be the agency of these changes, but the state run by a ‘progressive’ Democrat government headed by Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. In the UK it would have been a Labour government headed by Jeremy Corbyn with the British equivalent of the Green Industrial Revolution – that is until the results of the December General Election put paid to this possibility. This progressive state would not abolish the corporations, but bring pressure to bear on them. It may refuse to issue permits for fossil fuel companies to build pipelines and export terminals. Like with the New Deal, the government would be backed and influenced by social movements.

The Green New Deal will not replace the market system, on the contrary, according to Klein ‘Markets play a role in this vision, but markets are not the protagonists of this story – people are’. And as can be seen in the above paragraph, there will be no change to the employer and employee relationship that is a feature of capitalism.

The climate crisis cannot be resolved within a nation state, but requires a global solution. Klein recognises this, and envisages every country will implement their own version of the Green New Deal. When she talks about the rich countries developing their green deal earlier so as to allow for poorer ones to transition more slowly, this implies that there will be global cooperation. This is a tall order in a society where every nation state competes for markets, sources of raw materials and strategic routes. Recent history is not encouraging. The US is in a trade war with China, there is the re-emergence of the cold war between Russia and the West, and the UK is arguing with its European neighbours on how to exit from the European Union. Not to mention that the international climate change conferences over the last thirty years have not exactly been rip-roaring successes.

To curb the pressure on the Earth’s resources, Klein argues we need to end the wasteful consumer lifestyle. To achieve this, she suggests a shorter working week so that workers can enjoy publicly-funded arts and urban parks, rather than spending their wages on cheap disposable consumer goods.

Our vision of socialism is often dismissed as being utopian. There is a lot of informative material and useful analysis in this book, but its contention that the New Green Deal can resolve the climate crisis and social and economic inequalities within the capitalist market system really is utopian. Only the abolition of capitalism and its replacement with socialism can achieve this.
Oliver Bond