Thursday, April 16, 2020

Answers To Correspondents. (1908)

Letter to the Editors from the July 1908 issue of the Socialist Standard
  W. L. B. (Manchester).—1. Could you give me a. good definition of Capital ? 2. I suppose Marx, when he mentions labour, includes mental and physical. 3. Will wine increase in value without labour of any kind ? Many years ago an aerolite fell in Sweden. The curator of the museum bought it for £84. Did labour create the aerolite and give it value?
1. Perhaps the best general definition of capital is "Wealth used for the object of obtaining a profit." In the narrowest technical sense, capital is money used to obtain more money; but Marx's own formula (in "Capital," p. 133) is as simple and direct as any student could wish. Our correspondent is referred thereto.

2. Alexander Bain has shown in his "Mind and Body" that it is impossible to separate mental from physical actions, and that the two are inseparably connected. And Marx himself had already recognised this fact in "Capital," (p. 11) where he says ''different productive activities are each a productive expenditure of human brains, nerves and muscles, and in this sense are human labour." But it should be noted that the apologists for capitalism usually state that Marx only dealt with manual labour, and left out of consideration the organising and directive activities required in production. This is a deliberate falsification of Marx's position. (See "Capital," pp. 311, 321, 322 (Vol. I.) 

3. No. For wine to reach a given stage in ripeness or maturity, it is necessary to store it under certain conditions in specially constructed buildings, vaults, etc. This often involves a heavy initial outlay, to which there is to be added the cost of maintenance and upkeep of these places, and the various plants (machinery, etc.) used therein. To replace all these means of production a certain sum is set aside yearly, depending upon the average time these things last under normal wear and tear. Obviously the longer the wine is stored, the larger is the total amount of labour expended upon the storage, and—in general—the higher will be the price of the wine. 

4. With reference to the aerolite, there is here a confusion of price and value. Price is the amount of money given for a thing, while value is the social labour-time embodied in the thing. On the average, and taken over sufficient periods of time, price is the monetary exponent of value, but in detail "the deviations of market prices from values are continual," while, strange though it may seem, things may have a price without having value. Marx says: "Objects that in themselves are no commodities, such as conscience, honour, etc., are capable of being offered for sale by their holders and of thus acquiring, through their price, the form of commodities. Hence an object may have a price without having value." ("Capital," p. 75). Labour did not create the aerolite, nor—except for the small amount of energy expended in bringing it to the curator—did it give the aerolite value. The price paid was entirely the subjective estimate of the curator for his museum purposes.

"Which way blows the wind?" (1908)

From the July 1908 issue of the Socialist Standard
  We have had occasion to lament the absence from our ranks of the intellectuals who, in other countries, have enrolled themselves under the banner of Socialism. There will soon be no occasion for any such complaint. Already some of the best known names in science, art and literature are inscribed among Socialists, and now we are able to add to their number the name of one of the most original and imaginative writers of modern times, that of H. G. Wells, who last week joined the Central Branch of the S.D.F.
  Really, Mr Wells is too funny ! Since his extraordinary self-contradictions on those Socialist questions he has essayed to tackle, nobody takes Mr Wells seriously. A young man who has achieved considerable success in the Jules Verne line of novel writing, he appears to have suddenly conceived the idea that he knows something about Socialism and practical politics, and is an inspired teacher. Instead of which he is only suffering from a rather bad attack of swelled head.
Justice, 25/04/08.

#    #    #    # 

  H. M. Hyndman, in an article entitled "Labourism and Socialism," wrote: Labourism in short is a sorry attempt to dish Socialism. It will not succeed in the long run. But in the meantime it [the Labour Party] may give us some trouble and deceive the ignorant.
Justice, 27/04/06.

  H. M. Hyndman. at the S.D.P. Conference, as stated in Justice's own report, supported the Burnley amendment to affiliate with the Labour Party.  
He thought the situation had changed.  . . . The position of Thorne at the present time was a little doubtful and invidious, and yet they were obliged to allow Thorne to run as a Labour candidate. The Labour Party resolution at Hull contained the whole object of the S.D.P. , and he thought with that in view and bearing in mind the resolutions of the last two International Congresses. we ought to accept our own resolution.
Justice, 25/4/08.

Blogger's Note:
In the July 1908 issue of the Socialist Standard, these quotes were formatted in such a way that they were juxtaposed next to each other to highlight the hypocrisy and opportunism of the Social Democratic Federation. Justice was the weekly newspaper of the SDF, and there's mention of a SDP conference in the second batch of quotes because the SDF relaunched itself as the SDP in 1907.

I never knew that H. G. Wells had briefly been a member of the SDF. That's a new one on me. I wonder what prompted it?

S.P.G.B. Lecture List For July. (1908)

Party News from the July 1908 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Real Waste (2020)

From the April 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Many people who sympathise with the socialist case do not join us because they feel that working for socialism requires a lot of time and effort, with no guarantee of success. Much better, they may say, to work for short-term gains that need less commitment and are more likely to be achieved.

I was recently reading Will McCallum’s book How to Give Up Plastic. This gives a detailed account of the problems caused by various forms of plastic, from bags and bottles to straws, nappies and takeaway coffee cups. Many of these are used just the once and then disposed of, eventually leading to the clogging up of rivers, beaches and oceans. Samples taken from the deepest place on earth, the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific, contain microplastics.

McCallum makes many recommendations for how people can massively reduce their use of plastics, such as having reusable water bottles and coffee cups. But aside from what people can do at an individual level, often without too much trouble, he gives examples of larger campaigns. Clearing litter from a park or beach requires a lot of work and preparation, from publicising the event to bringing bin bags and weighing what has been collected. He also posits a ladder of escalating approaches: writing letters, holding a meeting, writing an article for the media, organising a petition, and finally having a protest (which may just mean leaving unnecessary packaging at the till in a supermarket, rather than staging a demo).

What a lot of effort! And campaigns like this will always come up against the simple fact that capitalism is basically about profit, not about reducing pollution and conserving the oceans. Consumer pressure can bring about changes in the ways in which companies source, produce and package commodities, and there is nothing wrong with having a reusable coffee cup, but when seen against the background of all the ecological damage done by capitalism, this really is, well, a drop in the ocean. All the time and ingenuity that is spent on such campaigning would be far better put to the task of making socialists and bringing about a society based on meeting human need, which would include environmental considerations being made a priority.
Paul Bennett

Wood for the Trees: A ‘Man of his Time’ (2020)

The Wood for the Trees Column from the April 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

One of the many fascinations of history is trying to work out what was the motivation of those who made it. The possibilities can be many and various but historians all warn us not to project our own values and perceptions onto those who lived in the past. Quite often the observation that ‘he was a man of his time’ is used to explain and sometimes justify actions that most feel to be abhorrent in a contemporary context. There seems to be some kind of limit placed on the applicability of this observation since it is never used to justify or explain, for instance, the activities of Hitler or Stalin. We are given the impression that the further back in time we go the more alien the dominant ideologies of morality and politics become. Certainly any attempt to ‘judge’ the actions of historical characters by anachronistically using our own values is problematic but we do see evidence of universal ethical sensibilities throughout history. What are we to make of this paradox?

To examine this question we’ll use The Crusades of the Middle Ages as it remains a prime example of a raging debate about the motivations of the participants that shows no sign of a resolution. Some historians insist on Christian piety as being the prime motivating force whilst others point to the Pope’s desire to unite Christendom under his hegemony or yet others highlight the need of minor sons of the nobility to create their own fiefdoms. Some consider the Crusades as an early precursor of imperialism motivated purely by plunder and power. Not that all or some of these are necessarily incompatible with each other but we do know that they often came into conflict, a factor that would ultimately be one of the reasons leading to the downfall of the Crusader States. It would be naïve to deny that the ideologies and values of the historians concerned play a role in the conclusions they reach despite the manifest importance of guarding against this. It would be equally naïve to believe the motivation of a Crusader to be that which he declared it to be – hypocrisy seems to have thrived within every historical period. Psychologically we also all have a tendency to rationalise our actions, if we feel uneasy about them, in an effort to avoid guilt. In other words our motivation may be unclear to ourselves. We may be able to agree on what was done historically but given the above complexities can we ever be sure why those involved acted as they did?

Many of us enjoy historical biographies which ultimately focus on the question of motivation. No one biography will ever completely coincide with another – if they did the whole exercise would be rendered meaningless. Different crusaders had different motivations which were expressed within a context created by their superiors who in turn reacted to circumstances which led to an inevitable clash of warrior cultures and their imperial ambitions. Two of the most famous of these warriors were Richard I of the Angevin Empire and Saladin of the Ayyubid Empire. Their reputations have fluctuated down the centuries and many biographers have seen both similarities and profound differences in their character and motivation. They were obviously both ‘men of their time’ but one became notorious for brutality and the other is often seen as one of the originators of ‘the chivalric code’. We might ascribe this to their divergent cultural backgrounds but it does weaken the stereotype of what it means to be ‘a man of your time’. Any acknowledgement of acts of compassion, righteousness, mutual respect or regret also weakens the concept of historical figures merely being the conditioned products of their time.

It may be that only a few have ever stepped back from the values of their culture to acquire a more objective perspective (as, of course, socialists claim to be able to do) but in terms of our evolution as a species the historical record is very recent. Our communal and social predilections and the feelings of compassion and empathy that this engenders have often come into conflict with the cultural values of authoritarianism, exploitation and hierarchy. In an attempt to excuse or explain the actions of those in history it is never enough to point to perceived historical/cultural limitations. This can so often lead to unfounded conclusions concerning ‘human nature’ and give those who seek to excuse the excesses of capitalism a readymade formula of despair. We so often hear phrases like: ‘there’s always been warfare’ or there’ll always be hierarchies of wealth and power’ which are clearly projections of contemporary prejudice and historical ignorance onto the motivations of those in the past and this in turn masquerades as an example of not doing so by invoking the importance of not making moral judgements; in other words the formulation of ‘a man of his time’ is itself a projection of contemporary values. It implies that contemporary values are somehow superior to those of the past. It might be that the moral and political aspirations of mankind have remained much the same but have been viciously suppressed by the emergence of private property and its power elites. Will we ever be able to explain or excuse the actions of Tony Blair, George Bush Jnr. or Osama Bin Ladin by saying that they were merely ‘men of their time’?

Inequality: same old story (2020)

From the April 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

When incoming left-wing Labour MP Zarah Sultana condemned the record of the Labour government in the Blair years, Tony’s representatives on Earth swung into action, reciting the litany of his good works: record investment in the NHS, minimum wage, Sure Start, Human Rights Act, Freedom of Information Act (the one he regrets), etc. What they forgot to mention was that in large measure politics is where it is now due to his regime’s greatest failing: its inability to increase the share of the national wealth for the poorest sections of society.

The Parliamentary report, Income inequality in the UK: Briefing Paper Number 7484, 20 May 2019, lays the picture out clearly. The Gini coefficient is a measure of overall inequality in a society. As the report notes, ‘this summarises inequality in a single number which takes values between 0 and 100%. A higher value indicates greater inequality’. The trend line in the table in the summary is clear, in as much as the Thatcher years saw a significant increase in inequality, which the Blair/Brown years stabilised, albeit with a gentle increase during the first Labour term. (There is some scope for the effects of benefits and redistribution not being adequately accounted for in this measure, but as the report notes, this is at most likely to flatten the trend out, rather than alter its overall directions).

It is the detail, though, of this inequality that is significant. If we take a look at the comparative income distribution, we can see how the poorest sections of society fared worst. The chart on page 13 of the report looks at the gap between middle and lowest income groups (BHC = Before Housing Costs, AHC = After Housing Costs). So, although the rate of change slowed down, after the hammering of the Thatcher years, the Blair years still saw the lowest income group falling further behind middle income groups (and much further behind the very richest in society). This is despite the redistributive effects of welfare reforms in the period.

The report suggests the bigger divergence on the AHC ratio is due to the effect of home ownership and rises in the housing market values. So, the effect of the housing market was to aggravate relative poverty still further.

The other market involved was the labour market, as the Labour government began to invest in public services such as the NHS, staff, particularly skilled staff, began to push their wages up. The labour market does not register the importance of jobs, or social fairness, it merely looks at how difficult it would be to replace a given worker.

This is important: in an economy based on buying and selling using widespread division of labour, it becomes impossible to know the value of any given person’s contribution to the final product. The actual value of goods can only be found when they are sold. The assumption is that employers will not use labour unless they have to, so everyone’s contribution is equally essential to the production of the final product. Employers will pay whatever it takes to maintain and reproduce the willingness of a particular type of worker (possessing a particular type of skill) to do the work required.

Put another way, a Richard Branson or an Elon Musk could not have their millions and billions without office cleaners, receptionists and the whole other myriad so-called unskilled clerical and manual jobs undertaken in the economy. As an example, if you needed a life-saving operation, you’d want the world’s finest surgeon, but not at the price of being dragged by your hair to the theatre by the world’s worst hospital porter, to find that it had been disinfected by the world’s worst hospital cleaner.

The modern method of production sees an increasingly collective approach to generating wealth, but it is one in which the outputs are very unequally distributed. The work that is called unskilled actually requires very definite skill and aptitude to perform, but lacks formal qualifications and many people are available to perform that work, hence making it easy to replace staff and thus hold their wages down.

The people at the very bottom of society saw the Thatcher years make them poorer, and the Blair years do little to address it, the perception became clear that ‘They are all the same’ and that Labour cared more about the elite than it did about them, especially as the very rich could be seen to be getting very richer, and the middle income groups were gently drawing away.

The radical right-wing message that it was foreigners, who mostly came to work in the unskilled labour market, holding down their incomes, became a siren song that fuelled both a rise in the BNP vote during the Blair/Brown years, and also which in turn fuelled the Brexit coalition.

The Johnson government is pandering to this perception by their newly announced immigration policy. This policy is set to restrict immigration for low-paid jobs, setting a minimum income for incoming workers. Although, there has been talk about exempting particular industries that need labour, such as seasonal pickers.

The reality is that this policy is not about reducing overall migration, but reducing the legal rights of migrant workers, and opening the door to specifically use migrant labour that can be dismissed easily and sent away without any claim to those redistributive benefits that the Tories are set to try and hold down.

Although it goes unsaid in most quarters, the lack of improvement in the lives of many people coupled with the failure of a Labour government to make significant changes to their lives, underpins most of what is happening in politics today, even the rejection of the Corbyn Labour party, in the light of people’s refusal to believe it would mean a significant change.

The Blair years’ motto ‘Education, education, education’ was based on the premise that the way out of poverty is to get training/education/skills and get a higher paid job. But someone has to do the ‘unskilled’ work, it will never go away, and the wages system will always weigh against the people doing that kind of work. This disproportionately affects women, who tend to bear the brunt of child rearing, and so cannot develop the skills and experience to hold onto the higher-paid jobs.

The only way to improve the lot of the poorest in society is to lay claim to the wealth we collectively produce, and ensure that that wealth is put to our collective use as well.
Pik Smeet

Speaker’s Corner (2020)

Book Review from the April 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Unspeakable. John Bercow. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. 2020. £20

It was always likely that recently retired House of Commons Speaker John Bercow would produce a memoir that settled a few scores, and he hasn’t disappointed. He clearly has an issue with the British establishment and those that personify it, and ‘snobbish’ David Cameron comes in for particularly vitriolic treatment. To give you a flavour of Bercow’s style: ‘In the pantheon of great leaders, the name of David Cameron will never feature. In a list of opportunist lightweights, it will be at the top’.

Then on to Theresa May: ‘Rudderless, without imagination, and with few real friends at the highest level, she stumbled on, day to day, lacking clarity, vision and the capacity to forge a better Britain. In a contest as to who has been the worst Prime Minister since 1945, it is hard to choose between Anthony Eden and Theresa May’.

And on Boris Johnson: ‘As a debater he is undistinguished and, as a public speaker, though humorous, he is often downright poor – hesitant, unable to string sentences together fluently and about as likely ever to warrant the description “captivating orator” as Bertie Wooster… Apart from those notable limitations in a man who has since become Prime Minister, he is, at his occasional best, a passably adequate politician in an age not replete with them’.

Bercow’s own story of course is an interesting one, the son of a Jewish cab driver who gravitated from a youthful dalliance with the right-wing, anti-immigration Monday Club to a barely disguised left-ish stance. This gained him much opprobrium during the Brexit debates, with allegations that he was a biased ‘remainer’, with an influential Labour-campaigning spouse, Sally.

In fairness, as political autobiographies go, it is more entertaining than most, despite the criticism it has received from many reviewers. Bercow likes to see himself in the mode of a parliamentary ‘reformer’ and the dominant thread is about the battles he fought with traditionalists and conservatives of every stripe, including those who took an ill view of his attempts to support the rights of backbench MPs against those of the executive.

There is a surprisingly interesting (and on occasion well-argued) Epilogue where he looks at the future of parliament and of the UK as a whole over the next decade and more. He picks out the key defining features of the UK well, including the influence of its island status (with a total coastline and sea exposure greater than that of either Brazil or India), and the overwhelming dominance of London, which skews the UK population and capital distribution to something more akin to countries in the Third World.

Interestingly, whatever insight and vitriol he has to muster, little if any of it is directed at Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. Indeed, one suspects he will no doubt become Lord Bercow soon enough (even if he is not – as is usual – nominated by the Prime Minister of the day, but by the outgoing Leader of the Opposition).
Dave Perrin

Letter: A good question (2020)

Letter to the Editors from the April 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

A good question

Dear Editors

If we can have full, global, satellite, wifi coverage why can’t we have full global housing for everyone, food for everyone, jobs for everyone, access to education for everyone, full coverage medical health care for everyone, etc? The reason is that it isn’t profitable to house everyone, and feed everyone… etc. Industry, money, and resources chase the profits and largely neglect needs. Is the solution to make providing for human need profitable or is it to design a system of society where human need is met regardless of profits? Whichever avenue of endeavour we choose, we should remember that ‘profit’ is a calculation on a financial balance sheet and doesn’t in itself necessarily supply any human need whereas a society based on satisfying human need should surely go some way to doing just that.
Louis Shawcross, 
Northern Ireland.

The C.C.F. in Saskatchewan (1938)

From the May 1938 issue of The Western Socialist 

The C.C.F. has evidently decided that it is not going to be out-manoeuvred by the Communist Party in the laudable work of uniting the anti-Socialist elements in society. For the forthcoming provincial election in Saskatchewan, “Social Creditors, Conservatives and the C.C.F. decided to join hands to nominate one ‘unity’ candidate in the Wilkie riding.” (Free Press,” April 21st.) The same report states that S. N. Horner, an independent, already endorsed as Conservative candidate, has also been endorsed by the C.C.F., and will represent both parties in the Milestone constituency.

But the C.C.F. will have to get up early in the morning if it is going to put one over on our wide-awake Communists, for the same report also states that, in Regina, “T. G. McManus, 36-year old provincial secretary of the Communist Party, was nominated . . . by the Labor-Progressive unity group, along with Rev. S. B. East, 66-year old Regina alderman. United Church clergyman.”