Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Voice From The Back: Big bucks and big bangs (2011)

The Voice From The Back column from the June 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Big bucks and big bangs

The Times publishes a science magazine called Eureka which featured a debate on the issue of “Does military funding compromise science?” Arguing the case for the affirmative was Harry Kroto, winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, 1996, who revealed some devastating facts about the extent of the stockpiling of nuclear weapons. “In my Science and Society lectures, I implore future physicists not to make ‘better’ atomic bombs. There are already more than 20,000, enough to destroy the human race many times over. I implore future chemists not to make ‘better’ napalm, and show them the iconic image of the burning Vietnamese girl that shames chemistry. I implore future engineers not to make ‘better’ landmines, and show pictures of African children playing football on crutches because they have lost a leg in a blast” (Sunday Times, 19 April). Harry, we agree with you very much but, unfortunately it is not up to scientists, who are in present-day society sponsored by big business, to change the world; it is up to us the working class.

The class division

It was the sort of news item that would have appealed to “Disgusted, Tunbridge Wells” or some such Daily Mail reader. “Too fat, too drunk, or just too lazy to work – but not to claim benefit. More than 80,000 people are too fat or too dependent on alcohol or drugs to work, according to official figures released today. The first breakdown of medical assessment for more than two million people on long-term sickness benefit shows that 42,360 of claimants are alcoholics while more than 37,000 are drug abusers. A further 1,830 are too obese to hold down a job” (Times, 21 April). No mention is made of the rest of the 2 million that are on long-term sickness benefit, but even more strikingly no mention is made of the capitalist class. Here is a class that has never worked, has no intention of ever working – in some cases for several generations – and whose benefits are somewhat greater than the £94 a week doled out to the working class as sickness benefit. Some of them are depicted in the national press coming out of expensive night clubs stoned out of their minds, but this is reported as the high jinks of the playboys and playgirls. It is all good fun, but it is doubtful if £94 would buy a round of drinks for them and yet that is supposed to be sufficient to keep a chronically ill worker for a whole week.

The wasteful society

Socialists often highlight the wastefulness of capitalist society. The waste of human lives with the premature deaths of millions of people from the lack of clean water. The waste of human usefulness, with millions forced into unemployment. The waste of the world’s natural resources in the mad scramble for profits. The plight of millions of homeless and the inadequately housed should be contrasted with this piece of wastefulness by a member of the useless capitalist class. The property dealer Vincent Tchenguiz has recently put his £25m villa in St. Tropez up for sale, and according to one friend , “Vincent bought the villa five years ago but he’s spent only one night there.” Really, one night? “Really, he always stays on his yacht.” So, why have a seven-bedroom pad with extensive staff quarters? “It’s for overflow guests. There’s not always enough room on the boat so they stay at the house.” Of course (Sunday Times, 8 May).

Fine words and harsh reality

Politicians are wonderful at coining words at election times but a little less wonderful on delivering on electoral promises. Mr Cameron has promised us all a wonderful future in his ‘Big Society’, but we should be aware of the outcome of Mrs Thatcher’s promised ‘Property-owning democracy’. “The number of homes repossessed in Britain increased by 15 per cent in the first quarter of the year as unemployment and the cost of living continued to rise. The Council of Mortgage Lenders said that 9,000 homes were repossessed in the first three months of this year compared with 7,000 in the final quarter of last year” (Times, 13 May). Rising unemployment and homelessness – a strange sort of property-owning democracy.

Progressing backwards

One of the illusions much favoured by politicians is that inequalities are gradually disappearing thanks to their wonderful efforts, but the reality is somewhat different. “After a jarring leap upwards during the industrial collapse of the 1980s, the gap between rich and poor has, with brief interruptions, been trending higher. By the tail-end of Labour’s time in office, the Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, was at its highest since comparable figures began in 1961… Britain still ranks just after the United States among the leading Western economies in terms of the gulf between rich and poor” (Times, 2 May).

'Bosses’ pay increased by 45 percent last year . . .' (2011)

From the June 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
 In response to TUC calls to ‘pay your workers more’, the annual Institute of Directors meeting retorted that ‘the world is full of dreamers’ and instead bewailed the profligate spending habits of the average worker: “We’re all told you must go on holiday all the time and do all these other things ... There’s more to be gained from teaching employees how to manage their money more effectively than giving them more money to mismanage” (‘Bosses’ pay increased by 45 percent last year, but the Institute of directors won’t give you a rise’, Observer, 15 May).

Pathfinders: The next bubble (2011)

The Pathfinders Column from the June 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

The next bubble

Investors are bulging at the wallets with hype over the recent stock market flotation of LinkedIn.com, the business executive’s Facebook, although the initial price offer (IPO) of $45 per share was widely considered too high, given that it was a valuation around 17 times the company’s estimated 2010 income and given LinkedIn’s own prediction that it won’t make any profit this year. The IPO peaked on the first trading day at $122, but this was no great surprise since so far this is the only social media business you can buy shares in. LinkedIn is at the time of writing trading at 25 times earnings compared to Google’s modest six, and what goes up can come down. After the recent flotation of China’s version of Facebook, Renren, the share price initially rocketed but soon dropped to below the IPO. And all of this is nothing compared to the hysteria likely when the expected flotation of Facebook takes place, and analysts are already worrying that this could be the start of the next big bubble http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-13436866

Eyebrows might descend to new heights at the idea of a huge internet bubble so soon after the devastation of the housing bubble. But in fact conditions are right for it. The banks are not taking any chances after their recent drubbing, but investors are sitting on huge piles of cash while rising inflation nibbles away like mice at their wads. Now is not the time to be holding paper money, and with the housing market still in free-fall and consumer spending screwed down there’s not a lot apart from the odd stray Rembrandt for the money rich to sink their loot into. So what to spend money on when there’s nothing to spend money on? Well, those social media johnnies are showing pretty strong market growth, so worth a punt surely? Doubly so if everyone else is at it too.

Well, that’s what they thought about web growth back in 2000, when dollar signs rolled down the punters’ eyeballs faster than the hit-counters on the hot websites. But the dollars turned to tears then as panicky shouts set off a share price avalanche. And they probably will this time too. The trouble is that it’s hard to put a real value on new and unproven social and commercial structures, but investors by nature are addicted to optimism. With the cool objectivity of those with no real money to throw at such ventures we might ask what do these social media really amount to? Whereas Ebay has been a success because people can actually make real savings on purchases, social media exist simply because they can, not necessarily because we need them. A combination of inane (and sometimes damaging) gossip and online narcissism can be amusing for a time, sure enough, but isn’t it just a phase most people will tire of eventually? In a Me-world where everyone is a celebrity, the problem is that nobody listens to anyone but themselves, and how boring does that become? What do people really get out of it, in concrete terms? A bunch of ‘friends’ they’ve mostly never heard of or haven’t got anything to say to, and business contacts they’ve no real use for. More is not better. We may not even be evolved for this sort of connectivity. ‘Dunbar’s Number’ is the theoretical limit  – roughly 150 – of social relationships the human brain can feasibly cope with, a number derived from anthropological research. Still, who’s to say what limit there is on ‘virtual’ relationships?  You don’t even know your neighbour’s name but so long as you’ve got a who’s who in your smart phone then you’re a functioning member of society, Jack. Just keep up the subscription payments and don’t worry about it.

But surely all this sub-light-speed handshaking has facilitated social protest and anti-establishment thought? Well, that’s what one would hope, but as fast as radical ideas sweep into the cyber-synaptic networks they seem to sweep out again, creating a series of political Mexican waves that leave the mass unmoved and the air only slightly disturbed above their heads. Should we be glad of the new mass attention, or bewail its lack of attention span? Maybe both. At any rate, socialists unlike capitalist investors have seen enough novelty not to expect too much from novelty.

Of course the owners of LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter have made millions, but then so do crooks who start pyramid schemes. It doesn’t mean there’s anything of value there. There’s no real labour, for one thing, or any real product, just a frenzy of connections, sound and fury, signifying nothing. Can someone reinvent Friends Unplugged please?


Better luck next time…

If you’re reading this, then the globally promoted May 21st doomsday predictions of one Harold Camping have not come to pass, earthquakes and cataclysms have not riven and rent the firmament, and 200 million people have not been ‘raptured’ to heaven by the merciful beardie in the sky. But 250 of them will have got a double disappointment, as one (atheist) entrepreneur has succeeded in charging them up to $135 each for looking after their ‘Eternal Earthbound’ pets, and he gleefully adds that he doesn’t do refunds (‘‘Rapture’ apocalypse prediction sparks atheist reaction’, BBC Online, 20 May). Meanwhile atheists in North Carolina have been organising parties, presumably to fiddle while Earth burns, and another group in Washington have called their celebration ‘Countdown to back-pedalling’. Whether Camping renounces all his beliefs in the sober light of May 22nd remains to be seen, however he did make a similar prediction in 1994. But that one, say his followers (he has followers!) didn’t count for some reason.


Throwing away the keys

Technology news has lately been dominated by news of security leaks. Google’s Android operating system for smart phones has been haemorrhaging personal data that unscrupulous data-miners can collect and use. Sony’s Playstation network had a security breach through which a cyber attack stole account details of 100 million people. Meanwhile the smug smiles were wiped off the faces of Mac users convinced they lived a charmed life as hundreds have been hit by a ‘scareware’ attack, and an anti-piracy firm has itself been hacked and now made to walk the plank by the French government that employed it. It may be a trivial observation, but in a common-ownership society that is not fundamentally at war with itself like capitalism, there would be no more incentive to hack or create viruses than there would be to vandalise buildings or burgle houses. And then we could dispense with all these firewalls, speed-dragging virus-guards, and those endless, endless, endless bloody passwords.
Paddy Shannon

Material World: The waste of luxury (2011)

The Material World Column from the June 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Like hunger and homelessness, the global trade in luxury goods is booming. Turnover fell from $254 billion in 2007 to $228 billion in 2009 – a decline that observers attributed to “luxury shame”. Rich people could still afford all the luxuries they wanted, but apparently they felt a trifle uneasy about flaunting their wealth at a time of crisis. They soon got over their unease. Sales recovered to $257 billion in 2010 and are expected to surge to $276 billion in 2011. “Luxury shame is now over,” declared marketing consultant Claudia d’Arpizio in March.

So the long-term trend still points sharply upward. This reflects the continuing polarisation of the distribution of wealth – that is, the process by which the rich get richer and the poor poorer. It also reflects the rapidly growing number of rich people in fast-growing economies like Brazil and China (already the second largest market after the United States).

The figures are misleading, in that they refer only to goods purchased over the counter – liqueurs, fashionable apparel, cosmetics, perfumes, jewellery, gold watches, handbags, luggage, etc. They do not include fancy cars, yachts and jets, for instance. Or mansions and penthouse apartments.

Estimates based on a broader definition are harder to locate. But I did find a figure of $445 billion for sales of luxury goods on the “broadest definition” in the United States alone in 2005. Extrapolating to the global level and allowing for growth, I derived an extremely rough ballpark figure of two trillion dollars ($2,000 billion) a year.

A couple of comparisons will help put this huge number in perspective. Annual world military expenditure is also roughly two trillion dollars. Thus, the luxury consumption of the wealthy ranks alongside military expenditure as one major component of the waste of resources under capitalism.

Now let’s compare spending on luxury goods, which is concentrated in the richest strata of the population, with spending on staple foods, which is concentrated in the poorest strata. Average per capita annual spending on staple foods is about $300 in low-income countries (population roughly 5.5 billion) and $800 in high-income countries (population roughly 1.5 billion).

There are complications in interpreting these figures. In particular, some staple crops are grown and consumed by subsistence farmers rather than sold on the market. In general, money is an inadequate measure of resources in many ways. But it can give us at least some idea of relative scales of magnitude.

And here the overall message is clear. The resources devoted to the luxuries of a few million wealthy parasites are on a comparable scale to the resources used for the basic nourishment of billions of the world’s poor. Cancelling by a million on both sides of the equation, the luxuries of one roughly correspond to the necessities of a thousand.

Serving the parasites
And yet this is still a gross understatement of the waste of luxury. We have been considering only luxury goods. What about services?

The wealthy use a wide range of services. This often takes the form of hiring workers to provide personal service, usually full time – servants. In most cases, obsequious servants are their only point of contact with the great majority of the population who have to work for a living.

I am not talking only or even mainly about servants of the Upstairs Downstairs variety, although they still exist – cooks, gardeners, butlers and all. In fact, butling has undergone something of a revival (to butle – a colloquial verb meaning “to serve as a butler”).

The staff of the “family office” that handles the financial affairs of a wealthy family. The tutors who teach their children. The caterers who arrange their parties. The personal assistant who makes travel arrangements. The “concierge physician” who limits his practice to a handful of rich patients, who each pay a yearly retainer of $25,000. The accountant who finds ways for the rich to pay less taxes. The legal adviser. The call girl or “sugar daughter”. A tennis coach, perhaps. These too are all servants.

So in addition to the parasites themselves, society has to bear the burden of all these people who do nothing with their working time and diverse talents except serve the parasites. This in itself represents no small waste of human resources.

Environmental footprint
One of the problems with using money as a measure of resource use is that it takes insufficient account of ecological impacts. And the consumption pattern typical of the wealthy leaves a disproportionately heavy environmental footprint.

One reason is that the rich travel around the world a great deal, usually by air and often on private planes. It is common for them to maintain residences in far-flung countries, cross an ocean just to go shopping, and fly numerous guests to the venue for a celebration. Air travel harms the environment and needs to be minimised: not only do aircraft engines run on petroleum-based fuel, but they also emit particulates and gases that contribute to climate change.

The rich are also largely to blame for the fact that so many species are threatened by extinction. Apart from the depredations of wealthy hunters, wealthy consumers create most of the demand for body parts of endangered species – elephant tusks for ivory, leopard skins for fur coats, various parts of numerous species for traditional Chinese medicinal use, and so on.

Unfair Shares (2011)

Book Review from the June 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Injustice: Why Social Inequality Persists. By Daniel Dorling. Polity Press £19.99.

The sub-title is the more important, as this is really about inequality, what it involves and why it continues to exist. On the one hand there is a small group of amazingly wealthy people, who have acquired their riches through inheritance, profit and interest. These super-rich cluster in enclaves, in particular regions, cities and streets (e.g. near Hyde Park in London). One way in which this elite is maintained is by careful selection of marriage partners: if you’re a member of this group and marry someone else from it (it’s called homogamy), you and your spouse are likely to remain in that upper part of society.

At the other pole is a group, the worst-off part of the working class, who are effectively destitute. One child in five in London has no annual holiday because their parents cannot afford one. A fifth of the population of Britain find it difficult or very difficult to get by on their incomes. People with depression or chronic anxiety are found in one-third of British families, as inequality increases and despair grows among the worst-off.

At the heart of this destitution is not primarily joblessness or old age, as was once the case, but debt. In a modern form of indenture, people are forced to borrow, not in order to live in luxury, but in order to simply keep going. The number of people taking out expensive ‘payday loans’ to get them through to the end of the month more than doubled in 2007-8. In 2005, members of an average household in the US owed 127 percent of their annual income in outstanding debt. A quarter of the ‘young elderly’ in the US, aged 65–69, have to work in order to get by.

This inequality extends of course to educational provision and the creation of and response to crime. The US now has ten times as many in prison as in 1940, and 70 percent of the two million prisoners are black: ‘their biggest mistake is not their crime, but having been born at the wrong time, to the wrong family, in the wrong place, in the wrong country’. The American dream remains an impossible fantasy for nearly everyone.

Apparently at least half of the US economy is devoted purely to ‘transactional purposes’, not designing or making beans but counting them. Dorling is aware that such nonsense as stocktaking and barcode scanning could be dispensed with ‘in a society where consumers and producers work much closer to (and more closely with) each other’. It will take more than that, but in socialism we could get rid not just of credit cards and tills but of the rich and poor too.
Paul Bennett

Open Letter to a Dissident Republican (2011)

From the June 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Fellow Workers

I received Issue 1 of your handout Resistance from a friend and, on the assumption that your group or organisation are members of the working class whose political aspiration is the achievement of socialism, I would like to make a fraternal criticism of its content. I am, incidentally, a member of the World Socialist Movement.

You are right in combining the words freedom and socialism; effectively they are synonymous terms. Even in the most politically democratic countries on the planet the producers of all real wealth, the working class, are simply wage slaves whose lives are dominated by the money-shuffling activities of a minority class of capitalists which, by controlling their means of life, controls their lives and denies them freedom.

Unfortunately you make no attempt to offer those targeted by your leaflet any suggestion of what you mean by ‘freedom and socialism’. On the contrary your inference that it is possible to establish socialism in a republic – the ideal state of the capitalist class – infers that you envision socialism as a political instrument that can regulate capitalism’s system of commodity production in such a way as to end its exploitive role.

Class struggle
The pioneers of scientific socialism, people like Karl Marx, after the most penetrating analysis of capitalism, affirmed that it was a system of social organisation in which a relatively small class exploited the great majority by its ownership and control of the means and instruments of production. The method by which these owners, or capitalists, carry out this exploitation is the wages and money system. Given then that capitalism is a system based on the exploitation of the working class it is patently absurd to suggest that there can be any form of national government that can make it function in the interests of the class it exploits.

Within capitalism there is obviously an inevitable conflict of interest, a class struggle, between the overwhelming majority who produce but do not own and a relatively small minority class who own but do not produce. Members of the working class do not voluntarily elect to join this class struggle; we are mostly born into it and it governs the way we live. To promote the notion that the area of our birth (‘our’ country) or a religious or political ideology transcends or neutralises our class status or gives us a common cause with a class that socially deprives and demeans us, that imposes either mere want or grave poverty on our lives and the lives of our families, is to be cruelly deceived by the political machinations of capitalism.

Your leaflet infers that the police are deliberately promoting or permitting the growing anti-social behaviour extant in working-class areas of Northern Ireland. Socialists are under no illusions about the ‘law and order’ served by the capitalist state and its enforcement agencies – and, paradoxically, viewed by the various paramilitary forces here as the ultimate basis for the enforcement of social rectitude – but the growth of anti-social behaviour in ghettoised housing estates created specifically for working class families – after the fashion of zoos for animals – is just another universal facet of capitalism’s atrophying social culture. The subject is a complex one but that its roots are in contemporary capitalism is borne out by the identity and location of its victims.

And whether we like to admit it or not, those engaged in anti-social behaviour, the vandals, the thugs, the thieves and villains are also victims of capitalism; often alienated rejects in a world where education is a commodity dispensed to the class that produces all real wealth in proportion to its wealth-creating potential and ultimate profit for the capitalists; almost always socially alienated young people bereft of a sense of social fraternity. There is no denying the problem nor the misery anti-social behaviour in all its aspects inflicts on the wider working-class community, but it is just another shadow of the awful substance which is capitalism with its wars and its depraved economic murder of those peoples who do not represent a viable market for its inexorable profit-making.

Capitalism’s legal framework, its system of law and order protect the system that produces anti-social behaviour. Despite the pretentious norms of what is regarded as the ‘respectable’ class in contemporary society it is the Grand Theft – property itself – that is quintessentially anti-social. Unfortunately the attitude of republican paramilitaries to the problem has been to use the miscreant youth in certain situations and at the same time to impose the most brutal physical punishment – including murder – against them in order to win endorsement for a perceived policing role in the local community.

Armed struggle and socialism
From the art work at the head of your leaflet it would appear that you condone armed struggle as a means, or the means, of social emancipation. That raises a serious question about your perception of socialism.

Socialism is the complete antithesis of capitalism. In a socialist world private and/or state ownership of society’s means of life will give way to social ownership and production of goods and services solely for use. So goods and services will no longer be produced as commodities for sale and profit. Accordingly there will be no role in socialist society for a means of exchange; hence, the entire, utterly wasteful commercial sinews of capitalism will be obsolete. The classless, wageless, moneyless society envisaged in the socialist aphorism: “From each according to their ability; to each according to their needs” will become a reality. A world free from the corruptive influences of money and power where government of people will give way to a simple administration of things.

Such a society – founded on co-operation instead of competition – could not be established by guns, bombs or violence. It can only be established and only maintained by the conscious democratic action of the majority. Such a majority would be the democratic foundation of a free, socialist world. If the question of counter-revolutionary violence is hypothesised then obviously that violence would have to be eliminated; as socialists have traditionally said “peacefully if we may; forcefully if we must”, but, given the conditions created by a socialist-conscious majority, capitalist reaction would be deprived of material nourishment.

There is no doubt that a combination of events, including paramilitary violence, has brought about the end of a police force which was little more than the armed wing of a reactionary political party and largely removed the sectarian element in employment and the provision of social housing. We would question whether the relatives of all those murdered and maimed by the violence would consider either that such favourable changes as have come about justified the murders and maiming or that these latter wrought such changes. Ironically, too, the current economic crisis of capitalism has cast a long shadow over employment and social housing and severely aggravated those factors which fuels sectarian division.

Hopefully, what we have said herein will provoke your questions and we can extend discussion or debate, privately or publicly, in the future.

Yours for Socialism
Richard Montague

Greasy Pole: Wind At Daybreak For The New Politics (2011)

The Greasy Pole column from the June 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

As dawn broke on 6 May Danny Alexander, the fresh-faced Chief Secretary to the Treasury, sat alone in the Sky TV studio and, in what one seasoned observer called “a Facebook moment”, relieved himself of an explosive fart.

At the time he was composing himself to spout some predictably scripted excuses and evasions about the LibDem losses in the local elections and their disappointment at the result of the AV referendum. Somewhere outside the studio the Tories were gloating. He assumed he was unobserved but his contribution to the day’s entertainment was recorded on some 100 monitors. Well it was a change from the usual noxious emissions from the mouths of politicians but should we be worried about Alexander and his flatulence? Was it the only way for him to relieve his despair at the exposure of the LibDem’s deceit, their savaging by their supposed Tory allies and the crumbling of a generation of baseless ambitions? Was it heralding his guilt at his own part in provoking his party’s debacle?

He rose, after all, through the ranks as a personal assistant of the disastrous Nick Clegg. He was deeply involved in composing the LibDem election manifesto – including those pledges such as opposing any rise in tuition fees – and he was at the lead in negotiations to form the coalition, heedless of the disastrous effect on his party of previous such arrangements. Which did not affect his enthusiasm for the job of Chief Secretary and its work of “deficit reduction”, which entails reducing the incomes if masses of people who so meekly vote for a social system which brings them such misery and fear. Any examination of Alexander must reveal that his ailments are chronic and resistant to treatment.

However hapless his condition, Alexander cannot rely on any therapeutic example from his colleagues (and, of course, his rivals) in his party. Clegg, for one, persists in what might be called his optimism were it not so perilously separated from reality. On the first anniversary of those blissfully exciting days when the coalition came into being in the fragrance of the rose garden at Number Ten, he said: “There is a reason neither of the two bigger parties won last May. Neither of them were really trusted to deliver both a strong, dynamic economy and a fair society. We can be trusted on both counts…I am confident that showing we can combine economic soundness with social justice – competence with a conscience – will make us an even more formidable political force in the future.” Those words were breathtaking in their audacious refusal to acknowledge the real situation – for example the survey for ITV News which showed 49 percent regarding the Coalition as “bad for Britain” and 63 percent saying they do not trust Clegg.

Then there was his boss Cameron who made a contemptuously obstinate dismissal of LibDem claims to be able to smooth the crueller edges of Tory policies: “I don’t accept the whole idea that the role of one party is somehow to moderate the other. The Conservative Party, under my leadership, has changed. It is a new and different Conservative Party.” That statement is crammed with falsehood, paying no attention to the fact that the Liberal Party – whatever alliances it has embroiled itself in, however it has re-shaped its name – has not been a nationally considerable political force for some ninety years. Their typical response, when their real situation became too distasteful, was to gorge themselves on fantasy.

One notable addict of that variety of political narcosis was David Steel who was Liberal leader between July 1976 and July 1988 and who, perhaps as consolation for joining the ranks of failed leaders of his party, was in 1997 transformed into Baron Steel of Aikwood. During his time in charge he did a favour to James Callaghan’s ailing Labour government by joining a pact to keep them in power in return for being consulted on some aspects of policy. That arrangement fell apart with Thatcher’s 1979 victory but Steel became excited again by the scent of power in 1981 when the Gang of Four broke from the Labour Party and, in spite of his former gruesomely futile expedition into such territory, he felt encouraged to join a SDP/Liberal Alliance. Here, he thought, was at last a real chance of worming his way into a position of fame and influence which would get the cameras watching him striding along Downing Street smiling at the reporters’ cheeky questions, then emerging from the black door to issue some history-making declaration to the waiting world.

There was some encouragement in such dreams by the opinion polls which indicated that the despair about the previous Labour government was widespread and deep enough to give the Alliance a realistic hope of success. Steel was impressed enough by this to bellow at the 1981 Liberal Assembly that party members should “…go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”. And when the ecstatic uproar caused by that historically embarrassing, desperately forgettable, blunder had died away there was Thatcher and the war in the Falklands and a smashing win for the Tories in 1983 and the virtual death of the Alliance and all its dreams and nightmares.

None of this, nor of the other such disasters, seems to have influenced Clegg – nor Alexander and the others – when Cameron offered them the chance of again living the dream denied to their party’s previous leaders. Indeed the early attitude of the likes of Vince Cable and David Laws gave the impression that they were satisfied they had made the right choice, working for policies which they knew would adversely affect the lives of masses of people – workers, children, the elderly and the sick… We know now that situation has changed; there is a dominant Conservative Party (now condemned by Cable as “…ruthless, calculating and thoroughly tribal”) which may calculate on being in power for a period comparable to Thatcher’s. During last year’s general election we were promised, especially by Clegg who was suffering from a kind of hysteria arising from his ecstatic TV ratings, a New Style of Politics. The elections this year exposed that lie but there is a way to go before the end of any politics, old or new, signalling the end of this entire rotten system in which reality is swamped in toxic fantasy.

Cooking the Books: The truth about tax (2011)

The Cooking the Books column from the June 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

The burden of taxation does not rest on the shoulders of workers. Although taxes on wages appear to come out of wages, in reality taxes come out of profits. Workers should therefore ignore all the false promises and baloney about taxes that politicians use in order to try to win votes at election times, and concentrate their efforts instead on the class struggle, seeking to raise their wages and improve their living and working conditions. We often make this argument in the pages of this journal and, although the argument has its roots in the analysis of Ricardo and Marx, we stand alone in making it these days.

Not entirely alone, however. In his new book Business As Usual (Reaktion Books: 2011), reviewed in last month’s Socialist Standard, the Marxist analyst Paul Mattick makes the following argument.
  “Tax money appears to be paid by everyone. But despite the appearance that business is undertaxed, only business actually pays taxes. To understand this, remember that the total income produced in a year is the money available for all purposes. Some of this money must go to replace producers’ goods used up in the previous year; some must go in the form of wages to buy consumer goods so that the labour force can reproduce itself; the rest appears as profit, interest, rent – and taxes. The money workers actually get is their ‘after tax’ income; from this perspective, tax increases on employee income are just a way of lowering wages. The money deducted from pay-cheques, as well as from dividends, capital gains and other forms of business income, could appear as business profits – which, let us remember, is basically the money generated by workers’ activity that they do not receive as wages – if it didn’t flow through pay-cheques (or other income) into government coffers” (page 81).
Our point precisely. As Mattick also points out in his book, while “neither economists nor businessmen have an adequate theoretical understanding of capitalism, the latter at least have a practical sense of how it works”. This applies in the case of tax. Listen carefully, and you can occasionally hear the representatives of the capitalist class admit to the truth of our stand on tax. In the Channel 4 documentary Britain’s Trillion Pound Horror Story (reviewed in the January 2011 Socialist Standard), to take just one recent example, the argument was made that taxes are bad because they raise the costs of labour. Very true: but the logical implication is that this is a problem for those who pay for labour – the capitalists – not for those obliged to sell it. Capitalists understand that raising taxes on wages will just put upward pressure on wages, raising the cost of labour for the capitalist. As we put it on our website:
 “Of course, this will not happen automatically but as a result of an economic tendency for the working class to receive the value of its labour power. When there are tax reductions this will be a major factor in stiffening the attitude of the employers. With tax increases, this stiffens the pressure of the workers for higher wages, especially when unemployment is low. It should be noted that this tendency for workers to receive the value of their labour power is helped by trade union action.”

Celebritherapy (2011)

The Proper Gander Column from the June 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

When reality TV is used as “a radical solution to one of Britain’s most stubborn social problems”, the hyperbole almost drowns out the sighs of desperation. Home Is Where The Heart Is (ITV1) follows four homeless people as they move in with some minor celebrities for a fortnight. And the desperation comes less from the homeless people involved than the celebrities trying to increase their exposure.

The programme reveals some simplistic attitudes towards homelessness, even among the more well-meaning celebs. One prominent belief is that the most important thing missing from the lives of homeless people is a job. So chef Aldo Zilly and presenter Anneka Rice arrange for their lodgers to get some work experience. Anneka’s lodger, Bridget, describes herself as a “tired, washed-up, drained girl” after spending her childhood caring for other family members. But even when it seems that what she needs is a rest and someone to listen to her, she stoically goes to her new work placement.

Less well-meaning among the celebs is Alex James, who actually says “don’t send me a mental” and is disappointed when his lodger, Danny, doesn’t recognise him. He used to be in Britpop band Blur. Alex sets Danny to work as a farm labourer and calls him “a disgrace to homeless people” when he struggles to adjust to the heavy regime. Alex’s attitude is to ignore the reasons behind Danny’s homelessness and encourage Danny to do the same. As a result, Danny’s mental health deteriorates and Alex loudly accuses the programme-makers of contriving the situation for the sake of good telly.

Far more touching are the scenes with Jim, who moves in with interior designers Colin McAllister and Justin Ryan. Jim is used to sleeping rough, and when faced with a four-poster bed, feels more comfortable bedding down on the carpet. After their shock that Jim needs alcohol in order to function, Colin and Justin realise that what he also needs are some happy memories. Taken for a helicopter ride and asked where he would like to fly, Jim jokingly replies “the off licence”.

Whether Home Is Where The Heart Is really benefits those involved remains to be seen. The ethos behind the project seems to be that when existing support services fail, turn to television. In that way, the programme shares an aim with the repellent The Jeremy Kyle Show. Why not look for the fundamental causes of homelessness instead? Like many people, television tends to ignore the homeless. So, the programme may at least do us a service by highlighting the stories behind those most victimised by capitalist society. That, and showing us what a tosser Alex James is.
Mike Foster

Tiny Tips (2011)

The Tiny Tips column from the June 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

The African nation of Congo has been called the worst place on earth to be a woman. A new study released Wednesday shows that it’s even worse than previously thought: 1,152 women are raped every day, a rate equal to 48 per hour. That rate is 26 times more than the previous estimate of 16,000 rapes reported in one year by the United Nations:
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The textbook’s “Origin of Life” chapter details lab experiments that have failed to create life from inorganic materials, concluding that there is a huge gap between “life” and “non-life”. But from there it makes the considerable leap that biological explanations for the origin of life are discredited.
“[T]he legitimate scientific hypothesis,” it argues, is that “life on Earth is the result of intelligent causes.”

A United Nations report on the cholera outbreak that has sickened 300,000 Haitians since last fall, killing nearly 5,000, finds evidence to suggest that the disease may have originated at a United Nations military camp north of the capital, which spilled raw sewage into a tributary of the Artibonite River.

Indian environmentalist-philosopher Vandana Shiva has said for years that microfinance is only a solution in a particular context. “But credit, loans and money circulation cannot solve the problems of alienation,” she stressed. “Privatisation of water leading to a high cost of water could be financed by flows of credit, but the solution to access is really about the basic right to water.”
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Migrants are crammed into catastrophically damaged vessels that would normally end up as scrap. Few have radios and GPS is non-existent. If the weather turns without warning, as it so often does in the Mediterranean at this time of year, a crammed and barely stable craft quickly becomes a sinking coffin. The result is a weekly litany of deaths on a scale that would lead the front pages of every European newspaper were the victims white…
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Despite growing controversy about the cost and relevance of aircraft carriers, navies around the world are adding new ones to their inventories at a pace unseen since World War II. The U.S. — with more carriers than all other nations combined — and established naval powers such as Britain, France and Russia are doing it. So are Brazil, India and China — which with Russia form the BRIC grouping of emerging economic giants.
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Doomsday predictor Robert Fitzpatrick remains in Times Sq. facing the reality of his false claims of apocalypse. He said: “I don’t know what happened. I don’t understand. I did what I had to do. I’m just surprised – I obviously haven’t understood it properly because we’re still here,” he said. “Let’s just say I’m surprised that nothing has happened – everything in the bible indicated it.”
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