Friday, May 8, 2020

Hitler was a vegetarian (1996)

Book Review from the May 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience by Janet Biehl & Peter Staudenmaier
 (AK Press, Edinburgh & San Francisco 1995, 
£5.00)

Since the 1970s the Green movement world-wide has been dominated by anarchist and left-wing tendencies; but this has obscured the movement's more diverse ancestry. In Europe in the 1920s and 1930s there were right-wing expressions of concern for the environment, combining a mystical conception of nature with the myths of race and nation. The epitome of this outlook came with the Nazis, whose whole political ideology can be described as "ecofascist". (It is to be regretted, however, since this term blurs some important distinctions between Italian fascism and German “National Socialism".) Hitler was a vegetarian, opposed to vivisection and loved his dogs. He was an enthusiast for renewable energy sources. Himmler saw to it that the SS had it own supply of organic farm produce. The Nazis introduced the first nature reserve in Europe and began a programme of extensive reforestation.

That was then and this is now. But the resurgence of Nazism shows the futility of supposing that it (and environmental problems) could be reformed out of existence within capitalism. The darling of the left-wing of the German Greens in the 1970s and 1980s used to be Rudolf Bahro; but not any more, for he has revealed himself to be an ecofascist, calling for a new “Green Adolf'. What is important here is that Bahro claims that he is only making explicit what was always in his Green political thought. For instance, he is quoted in the early 1980s, as a leading member of the German Greens, stating that "if we want to build an ecological decentralised Germany, we have to first free German territory” (From Red to Green). Bahro is currently Professor of Social Ecology at Humboldt University in Berlin. Social Ecology is a concept usually associated with the American anarchist Murray Bookchin, and in November 1990 he was invited by Bahro to a seminar on the question: "Is the alternative to ecological destruction freedom from domination or an 'ecological' dictatorship?" Bahro argued that, because there is a "dark side” to human nature, we need a Nazi-style dictatorship to save the environment and ourselves. Bookchin replied that the “dark side" is to be found in the sort of society we live in; whereupon Bahro told him that he would not be invited again.

Any right thinking person (pun intended) should of course be concerned with what's happening to our environment. It really is a scandal. What the existence of ecofascism, shows, however, is that uninformed concern and “doing something” can have disastrous consequences. For this reason, anyone who has read of the Malthusians with the Green movement blaming overpopulation will have been uneasy about where their line of argument is taking them. We need to understand the social and economic causes of environmental degradation before we can take effective political action. This does not have to be difficult, but it can confound a professor.
Lew Higgins

'Part of people's experience' (1996)

Letter to the Editors from the May 1996 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors,

I share in every detail your vision of a Socialist society as an end result However, I think there is a problem regarding the route to this goal. The people I’ve had most contact with in the Socialist Party seem to believe the answer lies in education. But they interpret education as being continued and detailed discussion of Marxist Theory and the Socialist Party interpretation of that through its ninety years of publications.

I personally believe that such a theoretical approach can only reach a small percentage of the population. I believe that such an approach will never generate the critical mass required to bring about Socialism.

On the contrary, I believe a more educational approach involves taking on board the work of educationalists like Piaget and Kuhn—people need to experience the concrete before they can come to terms with the theoretical (Piaget); they need to observe and then feel and then sympathise, before they can empathise and individuate ideas into personal belief and commitment (Kuhn).

When I was a younger man, I recognised this to be true during struggles against the education cuts (late 1970s) and the Great Miners' Strike (84-85) and the Ambulance Workers’ Strike (87-88). I’ve worked with initially passive women, who’d never had a political thought since the day they were born, and watched them recognise the brutality of capitalism, and I’ve watched them become politicised, and grow and develop as Socialists, wanting to know more and more as the battle went on.

I believe that this is the road to the growth of socialist ideas—actively fighting the Poll Tax, the Criminal Justice Act, the Tory government, in favour of libraries (I recently stood next to a blue-rinsed old lady holding a banner outside a rural village library, who swore she’d never vote Tory again after fifty years of doing so). I believe that each of these campaigns—though not an end in itself, and though possibly only gaining transient gains—can be used as vehicles for representing the case for socialism. They can be the concrete experience that most people need.

You see at the end of the day all these Socialist Party debates (Which way to a Nuclear-Free Future?, Which way to a Green Future?, etc.) irk me somewhat. They irk me because they create a confrontational situation with groups of people who are our natural allies. There’s no contradiction between, say, CND and the Socialist Party, merely a paradox. CND can be used as a support, a strut, to the Socialist Party platform in the concrete radicalisation and education of the people. The first necessary stage in the development of socialism.
Andy Stephenson, 
Brighton

Reply:
Because socialism can only come about when a majority want it and organise to get it, and because there is clearly not yet a majority desire for socialism. we see the role of socialists today as being primarily educational in the broadest sense, "making Socialists” as William Morris put it.

But we have never imagined that a majority desire for socialism will arise purely as a result of our own educational activities (and certainly not from our classes and lectures in Marxian theory, which are mainly aimed at our members anyway). Our view is that hearing the case for socialism can speed up the process whereby people come to realise that capitalism cannot serve their interests since it always has to put making profits before satisfying needs.

Fortunately, it is capitalism that does most of the work. Because it is based on exploitation and because it puts profits before needs, it inevitably generates discontent, protest and struggle but also the idea of an alternative society based on common ownership and production for use instead of class ownership and production for profit Socialist theory and principles are in fact the distilled experience of past generations of working-class opponents of capitalism. And it is this past experience that we in the Socialist Party see ourselves as trying to transmit to our fellow workers.

The educationalists you mention are concerned with the process of learning from others and, insofar as socialists are engaged in this sort of education work, no doubt there is something we could learn from their methods. But you seem to want to go further and say that we should also get involved in struggles against the effects of capitalism to, as it were, take people through the experience of coming up against the barriers that capitalism places in the way of satisfying people's needs.

We are not against people fighting back against what the ruling class tries to impose on them. In fact we are all in favour workers fighting the bosses at work for better wages and working conditions and for similar bread-and-butter struggles by tenants, claimants, students. But we say that conducting these struggles is the task of trade unions, tenants associations, claimant unions and the like, not that of the socialist political party (whose task is to advocate socialism). For us to intervene in them as a party would be to assume a vanguardist, leadership role, attracting the support of people who only wanted improvements within capitalism.

Our members participate in such struggles as individual workers who are personally affected by the particular problem. Naturally Socialists involved in such struggles will put the socialist case but as a party we confine ourselves to general principles, urging that the struggles be conducted under the democratic control of those involved and pointing out that capitalism is the cause of the problem and socialism the solution.

These are bread-and-butter struggles which people are forced to be involved in, whether or not they are socialists, just because they are propertyless in a society where you must get money to survive. So we have no problem over the miners’ strike of 1984-5 (though, to tell the truth, we did think a ballot should have been held to launch it) or the ambulance workers’ strike of 1977-8. Our members were behind them too.

As to other, political (rather than economic) struggles, we are of course against nuclear weapons, wars, homelessness, racism, pollution, etc., but that's the point; we are against all of them and don’t want to have to give priority to any one over all the others, putting them in competition as the various single-issue campaigns in effect do.

In fact our task as socialists is precisely to point out the link between all these problems— their shared origin in capitalism—and the shared solution to them in the establishment of a society of common ownership and production to satisfy people’s needs. This is a task no one else can do, but is essential if the people involved are to come to a socialist understanding as quickly as possible.

Somebody must be there to ensure that hearing the case for socialism also becomes part of their experience. We don’t need to take them through the experience of the failure of reformist struggles. Capitalism itself will do that. But we do need to ensure that they hear the case for socialism. Which only a separate, independent body of convinced socialists can do.

To be able to do this with any degree of credibility we have to practise what we preach and not give priority to any one of the various competing single-issue campaigns by supporting them as a party or joining them as individuals.

This isn’t necessary anyway since it is possible to make contact with those involved in such campaigns by being present at their meetings and demonstrations with leaflets and pamphlets which at the same time express agreement with their general aim and point out that this aim cannot be achieved under capitalism. This was the position we took up with regard to CND in the 1960s and over similar campaigns more recently.

In any event, we are not into either vanguardist politics (trying to take over and lead struggles) or reformist politics (trying to pressure capitalist governments into doing something). This means that we have a quite different political practice to that of those groups which adopt the "entryist" tactic of joining such campaigns.

They end up getting involved in the internal politics of such organisations, either trying to take them over or to stop some other group doing so. When one campaign peters out they have to look around for another bandwagon to jump on. And they are shouting "Stop This" or "Stop That" so much that they have no time to consider. let alone argue for, the idea of an overall change in the basis of society as the global solution to all the various problems.

We, on the other hand, are entirely free to do this and in fact are the only people who do so, fulfilling an essential role which no one else can: putting over the straight case for socialism and making hearing this a part of people’s experience.  • Editors

Sinister Story (2020)

Book Review from the May 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

My Search for Revolution & How We Brought Down An Abusive Leader. By Clare Cowen. Matador. 2019. 350 pages. £19.99

Another book of Trotskyist reminiscences from the 1970s and 80s but with a rather more sinister story to tell, that of the ‘Workers Revolutionary Party’ ending in the exposure in 1985 of its leader, Gerry Healy, as a serial sex abuser. The author was one of his victims but most of her book is about the frenetic activity required of its ‘cadres’, the full-time ‘professional revolutionaries’ of which she was one.

At that time the WRP was arguably the premier Trotskyist organisation in Britain. Funded by Vanessa Redgrave and her sinister brother Corin, and also by the author and later Colonel Gaddafi, the WRP acquired a residential school, a number of bookshops, and a modern printing press on which it printed a daily newspaper. At its height it was able to ‘mobilise’ thousands of ‘youth’ and fill large venues such as Alexandra Palace in London for huge rallies.

Cowen’s account of how it functioned internally is disturbing and suggests it was more like a cult than a political party; its cadres had to devote the whole of their life to the organisation and accept a rigid discipline that included sessions at which they could be accused of being in error and forced to recant.

Fortunately a ‘revolution’ led by such a party never happened, nor was likely to despite the WRP motivating its cadres by proclaiming that it (or, alternatively, fascism) was imminent. When, following the defeat of the miners’ strike, most of them realised that it wasn’t, the whole thing fell apart, though a much smaller WRP still exists on the same basis, putting up 5 candidates at the last general election.
Adam Buick

UBI: Redistributing Poverty (2020)

From the May 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

From Lockdown to Basic Income?

The acolytes of the fashionable radical idea of Universal Basic Income (UBI) must have been overjoyed by two recent news items. Apparently, the Pope has endorsed the idea. According to the Irish Times (13 April), ‘In a letter addressed to popular movements around the world, he expressed solidarity with their aim of bringing change to global systems and structures that exclude the majority’.

They report him as saying in the letter:
  ‘Street vendors, recyclers, carnival workers, small farmers, construction  workers, seamstresses, the different kinds of caregivers: you who are informal, working on your own or in the grassroots economy, you have no steady income to get you through this hard time… and the lockdowns are becoming unbearable. This may be the time to consider a universal basic wage which would acknowledge and dignify the noble, essential tasks you carry out’.
This news was coupled with reports that the Spanish left-wing government has announced that it intends to become the first European country to implement UBI:
  ‘Minister for Economic Affairs Nadia Calvino said that UBI would be introduced “as soon as possible” and could be something that “stays forever, becomes a structural instrument, a permanent instrument”’.
Although, as advocates of UBI noted, ‘the payments will be targeted to families and will differentiate based on their “circumstances.” In practice, differentiating based on circumstances will result in means tests that fall on the poor’.

If it is targeted at families, not individuals, and is based on assessment, it would more closely resemble a Beveridge-style welfare state, than the full-fat version of UBI, something referred to as a Contingent Basic Income.

Redistributing poverty
The idea behind UBI is that every individual in a country is guaranteed a certain amount of income. In its most basic form, the state would simply send a payment to each person (much as the United States has done as part of its response to Covid-19 related unemployment). This sum is irrespective of employment or personal status. Fundamentally, it breaks the link between the sale of labour power and the ability to access necessary resources. It is simultaneously egalitarian and libertarian, since it avoids the need for state bureaucracy to carry out cheeseparing assessments and domination over individuals lives.

It also has the benefit of being easy to imagine, since it has the simple form of keeping commodity relations intact: it keeps the market in place. That is its chief problem: it tries to address the problems caused by a system that defines people by their property through giving them all property. Although it will give people money, those who own other types of property, such as houses, would be able to benefit from rents and market demand for goods they hold.

Hearne and de Ruyter estimate it would cost £540 billion to give everyone in the UK over 16 £10,000 a year (LINK). In 2017-18 the UK government tax take was £589 billion. It would be possible, but the government wouldn’t be able to do much else (which is why right-wing supporters like it).

Employers would be able eventually to lower wages, relying on the UBI subsidy to count towards their employee’s cost of living. In those terms, it would be a substantial transfer of wealth from firms that don’t need much labour to labour intensive industries (in particular, as many people focus on, the so-called gig economy of the likes of Uber).

We described this as the ‘redistribution of poverty’ in our classic pamphlet on the Beveridge Plan . That criticism stands true for UBI.

Flawed Acquisitive Notions

By concentrating on the surface phenomena of money and commodities, UBI ignores the social relationship behind in the form of value production. This comes to the fore when people start whining about ‘the incentive to work’ and the need to keep UBI so low that the lash of poverty can still be applied (surely if we were talking about incentive, doubling your income should be enough? That people might be assumed to prefer to not work and live on a basic income demonstrates the flaw in acquisitive notions of human behaviour).

People will need to work to make the taxes to pay for the UBI. Society and the employers would then be locked in a struggle over the share of wealth going to labour and the share going to profits. The only difference would be that the state would become a key battle ground instead of the labour market directly.

Likewise, the ideology of people getting something for nothing can cause resentment. We can see this sort of thing when Tories call for unruly families to be thrown out of council housing, as if it were a grace and favour home, rather than a right to housing. If UBI is seen as a gift, with obligation (as per the Contingent Basic Income idea), then it would not be supported by many of the population. Hence, also, why Donald Trump wanted to have his name on all the cheques sent out to Americans to cover loss of income due to Covid-19, he wants them to see the money as a gift from him.

Since some will be net contributors to the UBI, they will not perceive this as a benefit to all but a cross-subsidy, a gift they make to others, with corresponding obligation.

Although the reality is that the burden of taxation comes from profits, the structure of income tax nominally coming from employees creates an ideological value that deceives them into thinking they are paying for the government and therefore have a stake in it. In this case people would believe they were paying the income for those who earn less than them.

Universal Basis Services

Some, such as David Harvey, propose Universal Basic Services instead of UBI. This would be things like the NHS, free at the point of use. This has the benefit of removing the commodity character of the service, and would represent an improvement (though likely, in a capitalist world, to still be wrapped up in the struggles between classes over spending levels and coated in bureaucracy to control those costs). But if we had the political strength to impose substantial gains through UBS, we’d have the strength to abolish capitalism outright.

The post-Covid situation will be that millions will be out of work, and capital may not be readily available to provide new employment, as many firms go bust. Governments will have to find ways to keep social peace. They will take radical steps, throwing much market ideology to the wind, but they will be doing that to maintain the advantage of the owning class and rejuvenate market society, as they did after the 2008 crash.
Pik Smeet

TV and the Virus (2020)

The Proper Gander Column from the May 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Now that many of us are cooped up at home, the wider world is, even more than ever, filtered through the media. E-mail, teleconferencing apps and social media have enabled us to keep in touch, raising the question of how much harder the lockdown would have been had it happened thirty years ago, with only landlines and the postal service at our disposal. The internet has helped us stay sociable and informed, even if it’s also the source of fake news, such as the wacky theory that the virus has somehow been transmitted through the new 5G phone masts.

As for printed media, the lockdown has accelerated its long-term decline. Even before the end of March, newspaper sales had fallen by over half within a few weeks. One bonus of this is that fewer people have been exposed to the likes of the Daily Mail and the Sun, reducing the risk of being infected with their bigoted opinions.

Television has seen a predictable rise in viewers, with people spending more time slouched on their settees. But what we’re watching looks different to how TV was just a couple of months ago, even in small ways. We’ve had a non-Christmas Queen’s Speech. Presenters on Breakfast and The One Show are making a token gesture by sitting a regulation two metres apart, with the latter feeling the need to prove it with a tape measure. Soap operas now seem even further removed from reality, featuring as they do such impossible scenarios as people in pubs and hopping from one neighbour to another. By early April, the first adverts made during the outbreak started appearing, with cynical and cringeworthy ads from internet providers cashing in on booming demand. Panel shows such as Have I Got News For You and Loose Women have survived by their participants videoconferencing from home, and seem empty without the studio audiences’ reactions. Otherwise, Breaking Bad box sets and endless repeats of Homes Under The Hammer are a temporary escape from the distressing updates on the news channels.

As the virus claimed more lives and the lockdown became the new normal, the tone and content of TV news changed. Directives must have been issued to producers to manage the messages sent out, to reinforce government advice about social distancing and movements being restricted, and to emphasise community spirit to maintain morale. A lesson about the influence of what’s broadcast would have been learnt early on, when reports about panic buying leaving supermarket shelves empty fuelled more panic buying, leading to a feedback loop. Noticeably, news coverage quickly switched away from disruptions to food supplies, as if a memo went round the newsrooms saying that that they were making things worse. And there’s been an obviously thought-through emphasis on ‘good news stories’ such as Tom Moore raising money for the NHS by a sponsored walk round his garden, people on their doorsteps clapping for health workers Thursday evenings, and volunteers delivering supplies to those who are vulnerable and isolated. We need to watch something a bit more upbeat after hearing about the latest number of deaths and how the system is struggling to cope with the crisis.

The paltry number of people being tested for the virus and the lack of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) supplied to staff working in appalling conditions have featured prominently in news programmes on all channels. Footage from hospitals and care homes has been heart-breaking to watch. The BBC, being closest to the state, has perhaps been a little less searching in its reporting than journalists from Sky News or Channel 4. The abilities of those in government to manage the system have only been challenged in a too-cautious way by the mainstream TV media. Donald Trump’s further descent into being some sort of Caligula has been reported with a weary matter-of-factness, and there were just a few grumblings by pundits about Home Secretary Priti Patel’s non-apology of ‘I’m sorry if people feel there have been failings’ over PPE distribution. Boris Johnson catching the virus took up most of the TV news for days. Reporters have politely shelved any criticism of him since he went into hospital, although Jon Snow on Channel 4 News managed to hint that he might not really have been unwell enough to need to be in intensive care. Presumably the nurses who treated him there weren’t among those reduced to wearing bin bags and homemade masks.

Rosa Maitlis
Some wider social problems behind the situation have been raised on TV news, such as how the virus is disproportionately affecting people from non-white ethnic groups, who overall also happen to more often live in overcrowded conditions and have smaller incomes. Emily Maitlis, on 8th April’s edition of Newsnight pointed out that poorly paid and overstretched workers in shops and care homes are particularly at risk from the virus, adding ‘what type of social settlement might be needed to be put in place to stop the inequality becoming even more stark?’. But as one David Osland tweeted, ‘a couple of offhand remarks mildly praiseworthy of the lower orders does not transform Emily Maitlis into Rosa Luxemburg incarnate’.

Of course the mainstream media can’t and won’t question the system itself, even though the pandemic is exposing capitalism’s many failings. So we haven’t heard much on the news about the delay in starting the lockdown being due to the state prioritising the economy for as long as possible over people’s wellbeing. Or about how the lack of PPE and other resources is really down to them being commodities, and are therefore always rationed, and isn’t just about the state not getting its act together with distribution. Or about how the class divide is behind the inequalities which make those with less wealth more at risk. Still, the TV news gives us the information to draw our own conclusions from, and when we need a break, there’s always Homes Under The Hammer.
Mike Foster

The Virus: Our Perspective – Covid and Class (2020)

From the May 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

If you were to compile a list of essential workers that your community has been reliant on during the Coronavirus crisis, you’d very likely not include billionaires, CEOs, businessmen, bankers, economists or the royals or that class of people who live off rent, interest and profit. Your list would include workers we encounter every day and whose occupations we had hitherto taken for granted. Your list would undoubtedly include medical workers, shop staff, ‘bin men’, delivery drivers, those working in power plants or working in front-line maintenance of the technology society needs etc. In short, you’d cite members of the class that sells its physical and mental abilities for a wage or salary in order to live – the working class. In her recent address to the nation about the coronavirus crisis, the queen began her brief message with a recognition of the importance of such workers to a society in crisis and, unwittingly, revealing the utter uselessness of her own institution to society.

We keep the world going

This class, the working class, runs the world and it is important to grasp this fact. It is we, members of this majority class, who build the cities and railway networks, the bridges and roads, the docks and airports. It is we who staff the hospitals and schools, who empty the bins and go down the sewers. It is we who fish the oceans and tend the forests, work the farm and till the land and plantations. It is we, the working class, who produce everything society needs from a pin to an oil-rig, who provide all of its services. If we can do all of this off our own bats, then assuredly, we can continue to do so without a profit-greedy minority watching over us and, more, in our own interests.

To be sure, the ruling class of capitalists and their executive, the governments of the world, have no monopoly on our skills and abilities. These belong to us. Moreover, it is we who are responsible for the inventions that have benefited humanity and the improvements in productive techniques. Most inventions and improvements are the result of those who do the actual work, thinking up easier and faster ways of completing a task, the result of ideas being passed down from generation to generation, each one improving the techniques of the previous. If those who work have given the world so much, in the past say 2,000 years, then how much more are we capable of providing in a world devoid of the artificial constraints of profit? Needless to say, any vaccine for the coronavirus will be the result of the hard work of salary-earning scientists, not some fat-arsed apologist for the profit system.

It is easy to cite the advantages of capitalism over previous economic systems. Many people believe that capitalism, though not perfect, is the only system possible. One thing is certain, though – if we follow the capitalist trajectory, we’re in for some pretty troublesome times. Capitalism has undoubtedly raised the productive potential of humanity and it is now quite possible to provide a comfortable standard of living for every human on the planet. But, to reiterate, capitalism now stands as a barrier to the full and improved use of the world’s productive and distributive forces. In a world of potential abundance, the unceasing quest for profit imposes on our global society widespread artificial scarcity. Hundreds of millions of humans are consigned to a life of abject poverty, whilst the majority live lives filled with uncertainty.

Our ability to imagine has brought us so very far, from the days when our ancestors chipped away at flint to produce the first tools, to the sending of scientific probes to the surface of Mars, the setting up of the worldwide web, and the mapping of the human genome. Is it really such a huge leap of the imagination to now envisage a social system that can take over from the present capitalist order of things? Is it just too daring to imagine humans consigning poverty, disease, hunger and war to some pre-historic age?

Do we really need leaders deciding our lives for us, when collectively we are far more capable of deciding what is best? Do we really need governments administering our lives when what is really needed is the administration of the things we need to live in peace and security? Must every decision made by our elites be first of all weighed on the scales of profit, tilted always in their favour?

Can’t be reformed to work for us

One thing is certain: capitalism cannot be reformed in the interests of the world’s suffering billions, because reform does not address the basic contradiction between profit and need. The world’s leaders cannot be depended upon because they can only ever act as the executive of corporate capitalism. The expansion of democracy, while welcome, serves little function if all candidates at election time can only offer variations on the same basic set of policies that keep capitalism in the ascendancy.

Capitalism must be abolished if we as a species are to thrive, if the planet is to survive. No amount of reform, however great, will work. Change must be global and irreversible. It must involve all of us. We need to erase borders and frontiers; to abolish states and governments and false concepts of nationalism. We need to abolish our money systems, and with it buying, selling and exchange. And in place of this we need to establish a different global social system – a society in which there is common ownership and true democratic control of the Earth’s natural and industrial resources. A society where the everyday things we need to live in comfort are produced and distributed freely and for no other reason than that they are needed – socialism.

It is now no utopian fantasy to suggest we can live in a world without waste or want or war, in which each person has free access to the benefits of civilisation. That much is assured. We certainly have the science, the technology and the know-how. All that is missing is the will – the global desire for change that can make that next great historical advance possible; a belief in ourselves as masters of our own destiny; a belief that it is possible to free production from the artificial constraints of profit and to fashion a world in our own interests. And how soon this happens depends upon us all – each and every one of us.

Of course, many, even our detractors, will agree that such a socialist world would be a beautiful place to live in, but that ‘human nature’ will always be a barrier to its establishment, because humans are ‘by nature’ greedy, selfish and aggressive. It quickly becomes apparent that what they are describing is not human nature as such, but various traits of human behaviour exhibited under particular circumstances. Socialists maintain that human behaviour is shaped by the kind of system people are brought up to live in – that it is not our consciousness that determines our social existence but our social existence which determines our consciousness. Nobody is born a racist or a patriot, a bigot or with a belief in gods. Nobody is born a murderer, a robber or a rapist, and our alleged greed for money is no more a function of the natural human thought process than were slavery or witch burning.

In general, the ideas the common people hold have been acquired second-hand, passed down from the ruling class above us. This is because the class which owns and controls the productive process also controls the intellectual life process in general. Any anti-social behaviour is likewise influenced by our social circumstances at any given time, i.e., when we are poor, depressed, afraid, lonely, angry and frustrated.

In most cases, those who produce the world’s wealth (some 95 percent of the world’s population) have had that second-rate education that makes free thought difficult – an upbringing that conditions us to accept without question the ideas of our betters and superiors. Indeed, the education system is geared to perpetuate the rule of an elite, insofar as it never encourages children to question and take issue with the status quo. Children may well recite that 8 times 8 equals 64, but how many will ask about the cause of wars or query the destruction of food?

Socialists hold that because we can adapt our behaviour, the desire to cooperate should not be viewed as irrational. We hold that humans are, ‘by nature’, cooperative and that we work best when faced with the worst and that our humanity shines through when the odds are stacked against us. There are millions of cases of people donating their blood and organs to complete strangers, sacrificing their lives for others, of people giving countless hours of their free time to charitable work – all of this without financial incentive.

When the call went out for volunteers to help the NHS during the current crisis, over 700,000 offered their services. Elsewhere, in Britain and around the world, countless millions have stepped forward to help the most vulnerable in society and in every way imaginable and with social media flooded with countless acts of selflessness and solidarity and, often, carried out by those with the least to give.

Today, world capitalism threatens the human race with extinction, if not through existential threats to the planet through nuclear war and climate change, then through the threat of pandemics which lays bare the utter incompetence of the profit system when faced with crisis. The reason this obnoxious system survives is because we have been conditioned to accept it, but we are not born to perpetuate it. Rest assured, no gene inclines us to defend the profit system.

Normality is not normal

It is perhaps ‘natural’ for people to want to return to something resembling a pre-Covid-19 world, to get ‘back to normal’, for family and friends to meet up and continue as before, to love and to care and to share, which is the essence of human nature. But let’s remember what this normality really means for many of us. It is a world where every aspect of life is subordinated to the worst excesses of the drive to make profit on the part of a minority owning and controlling class.

Normality is a world where almost 800 million are chronically malnourished and where 25,000 children die each day from hunger or related illness. At the same time, the governments of the world order the destruction of vast mountains of food to keep prices high, stockpile food until it rots and pay farmers to take land out of production because the laws of supply and demand insist that overproduction is bad for the market.

Normality is a world where some 150 million of our fellow humans are homeless, many sleeping rough on the streets of the world’s cities, with 1.6 billion lacking adequate housing, yet there is no shortage of vacant buildings – countless millions of acres of empty living space in the major cities of the world – and certainly no shortage of building materials or skilled builders and craftsmen presently out of work. Again, we find that the market not only dictates who does and does not eat, but who does and does not sleep comfortably.

Normality is a planet on which over one billion of our fellow humans have no access to clean water and 2.6 billion lack adequate sanitation, and the growing scarcity of fresh water is calculated to spark many wars across the globe in the coming decades. Meanwhile, the technology exists to desalinate millions of gallons each day and to set up treatment plants capable of cleaning the dirtiest water. However, there is not much profit in selling something which covers five-sixths of the planet, so the investment never comes.

While millions of children die each year of curable diseases and while we still await breakthroughs in medical science that can cure the presently incurable, we find there are literally thousands of scientists around the world employed in weapons programmes – paid by their respective governments to devise new methods of murder, including germ warfare, the deaths from which could dwarf those of the current pandemic.

The list is as endless as it is insane. At every turn we find evidence of how capitalism destroys us physically and mentally, retarding real human development. At every turn we come smack up against the iron law of our age – ‘can’t pay, can’t have’. At every turn we find capitalism running wild like a rabid dog, infecting all it comes into contact with, a pandemic that is rarely recognised for what it is.

If we return to ‘normality’, let’s hope it is with an increased awareness of our own worth, capabilities and potential, a recognition that it’s the workers who run the world, no matter how seemingly menial the job, and how interdependent we are on each other. Whilst our leaders, in the face of crisis, resemble more each day the character in Edvard Munch’s The Scream, let us not lose sight of the fact it was the workers who kept society going and rid the world of Covid-19.
John Bissett

Why the premature reopening of the US economy? (2020)

From the WSPUS website

Comparing the United States with other countries in terms of their responses to the pandemic, we find an apparent inconsistency. Some countries, like Germany and South Korea, have decided to reopen their economies on the basis of a sustained decline in the number of new cases of Covid-19, while at the same time preparing to deal with a probable second wave. Other countries, like France, detecting no such clear trend in the data, remain in lockdown. At the other extreme we find Brazil, whose president Jair Bolsonaro – himself suspected of being infected – has never acknowledged the seriousness of the disease, taken no action at the federal level, and undermined the efforts of state and city governments. Different as these responses are, they are all at least internally consistent.

Not so the response of the American federal government. There was an initial period of denial and evasion. In that regard the United States was by no means unique: there was a similar period in China, Britain, and Japan. But Trump did eventually recognize Covid-19 as a serious threat. For a few weeks he put on a show of leading the fight against it. Now, however, he has made a U-turn and is determined to reopen the US economy despite objections from medical experts and from many mayors and state governors, who all correctly point out that the data do not justify such a sea change in policy. 

Should we see in this merely another instance of the unpredictable behavior of an idiosyncratic tyrant who constantly contradicts himself and changes his mind? At the tactical level – should he disband his Covid-19 task force or just reorient its priorities? – Trump does indeed seem to improvise as he goes along. At the strategic level, however, I suggest that he is following a definite plan devised at quite an early stage in the crisis. 

Note first that Trump clearly though indirectly announced the reopening of the economy well in advance. In mid-April he told us that ‘next week will be the worst.’ How on Earth could he know that? Only in retrospect will it become known which week of the pandemic was the worst. So what did he mean? My reading is that he had already decided that the week after next he was going to claim that the worst was past and the country could return to business as usual.   

Note also that Trump is showing much more determination in reopening the economy than he ever did in fighting the coronavirus. He resisted pressure to exercise the emergency powers granted to the president by the Defense Production Act in order to compel companies to ramp up production of urgently needed medical supplies. But now he is invoking the very same powers to force meatpacking plants, closed due to mass outbreaks of Covid-19 among their workers, to resume operations under unsafe conditions – on the pretext of a non-existent shortage of meat in the stores. 

Trump is not an ideologue opposed in principle to the use of emergency powers. It depends on the purpose for which they are used. Obviously he is much more serious about reviving business than about protecting public health.

The elephant in the room

The liberal wing of the corporate media is an invaluable source of information about current affairs. For instance, The Washington Post has conducted some excellent investigative reporting on the corruption, incompetence, and confusion that have shaped the response of the Trump Administration to the pandemic. However, there are certain very important aspects of the situation regarding which the corporate media – even their liberal wing – remain silent. Thus we learn a great deal about the interactions of the president and his administration with state governors, with Congress, with leading medical experts, sometimes even with foreign leaders – but there is an elephant in the room. That elephant is the American capitalist class. 

American capitalists are in a position to influence the president (and other public officials) both indirectly, through such organizations as the National Association of Manufacturers, the US Chamber of Commerce, and lobbying groups for different industries, and – for the wealthiest oligarchs, especially those to whom the president owes favors for past financial support – by direct personal access. These are the people to whom the president is in reality primarily responsible, the people with whom he is most concerned to maintain good relations.

Little detailed and reliable information is available about these interactions, but it can safely be assumed that the initial phase of a national and international crisis like the current pandemic is marked by intensive consultations between the president (and his closest colleagues) and prominent representatives of Big Business. I infer that Trump reached a firm understanding with them to the effect that it was expedient to heed the advice of the medical experts, but only for a limited period of time, after which the economy would have to be reopened, whatever the public health situation at the time. They could hardly be expected to leave their money-making at the mercy of a pesky virus! 

I think that Trump promised ‘the elephant’ that the US economy would reopen ‘with a big bang’ in early May. And now he is doing his best to keep his promise.

Capitalists have many reasons to oppose a prolonged lockdown of large parts of the economy. They fear bankruptcy. They fear that consumer preferences will change and demand for their goods and services will never be fully restored. Nor do they like it when workers are paid to do nothing for a long period. Apart from the cost, workers may lose their habit of obedience to the boss and his representatives, making them ‘unemployable’ (that is why the long-term unemployed find it so difficult to get a job). And capitalists do not like it when their accustomed influence on government policy is diluted as a result of public officials paying so much attention to the advice of public health experts. Perhaps people will start to realize that capitalists perform no useful social function.

Mexico too

The premature reopening is a massive biological and social experiment. Its results are difficult to foresee and terrifying to contemplate. And the United States is pulling a reluctant Mexico into the experiment, because American companies rely on components produced in Mexico, especially in the border zone. 

The US Ambassador to Mexico, other US officials, and lobbyists for US corporations are demanding that Mexico reopen factories that have been closed as non-essential. And the pressure is working. Factories are preparing to reopen after threats that otherwise firms will leave Mexico. President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has declared that he will open Mexico’s manufacturing sector days before America’s automotive industry opens.

Strikes and demonstrations have broken out in several border cities against US companies like Honeywell, Lear, and Regal Beloit, demanding shutdowns with full pay for non-essential factories and safe working conditions for those producing essential goods. A rare victory was won by workers at the US wind turbine blade maker TPI Composites, who now have full paid Covid-19 leave. In most cases, however, organizers get fired and production continues as usual. Electrolux, a corporation that makes laundry machines in Juaréz for sale in the US, paused operations only after one of their workers died (here).

Poor Mexico, so far from God, so close to the United States! 

Part of life?

If the Trump Administration now pursues an economic policy that can no longer be reconciled with the advice of medical experts, in what terms will that policy be justified to the general public? What will the president say about Covid-19 figures as they rise higher and higher? Perhaps he will claim that the figures are falsified. Perhaps he will refuse to comment on them.

Another possibility, however, is that he will start to use a ‘talking point’ borrowed from right-wing figures like radio host Rush Limbaugh, who says that risks are an unavoidable part of life and should just be accepted as such. Americans should not allow concern about risks to deter them from doing the things they enjoy. Such caution is contrary to the American spirit.

This attitude has already found official expression in a recent tweet from US Ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau:
There are risks everywhere, but we don’t all stay at home for fear we are going to get in a car accident.
While this sentiment might appeal to Trump’s core constituency, opinion polls indicate that it is not shared by the majority of American citizens.
Stefan