Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Dawkins criticised (2010)

Book Review from the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Selfish Genius. How Richard Dawkins Rewrote Darwin’s Legacy. By Fern Elsdon-Baker. Icon Books. £8.99.

 This is an attack on Dawkins’s claim that the views he put forward in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene are the only one and true form of Darwinism. In this notorious book Dawkins advanced the view that the unit of natural selection is not the species nor a group within a species nor the individual organism but the individual gene. It’s a theory but it wasn’t Darwin’s, if only because Darwin had never heard of genes. So, Elsdon-Baker argues, it is perfectly possible to be a “Darwinist” without accepting the “selfish gene” thesis.

 Darwin’s contribution was to collect a mass of evidence to show that the various different species of life came about through a process of natural selection (akin to the artificial selection of animal breeders, pigeon-fanciers and flower growers, but unplanned and over a much much longer period, as environmental factors changed). Darwin was scrupulously honest and admitted that he did not know what caused the variations between individuals that the process of natural (and artificial) selection worked on. He suspected that it might have something to do with unknown “particles” governing the inheritance of an organism’s features. Later, after his death, such particles were identified (even though they didn’t have all the features Darwin had speculated they might have) and called “genes”.

 Elsdon-Baker outlines developments within biology since the publication of Dawkins’s book which in her view undermine his view of genes as the only unit on which natural selection operates – so-called “junk DNA” may also play a role and genes can be modified by other natural factors than natural selection. But even if these developments undermine Dawkins’s position, they don’t challenge Darwin’s basic conclusion that it is through natural selection that species evolved.

 Elsdon-Baker also criticises Dawkins for linking his personal militant atheism with science, seeing this as counter-productive and unscientific. She claims that it cannot be said that it is a scientific fact that “God does not exist”, on the grounds that it cannot be proved that a non-interventionist god does not exist. Maybe but this depends on what is meant by “exist”.

 A non-interventionist god, precisely because it did not intervene in the world of observable phenomena, could not be detected and so to all intents and purposes does not exist in any meaningful sense of the word. As to an interventionist god, as the mathematician and astronomer Laplace is supposed to have said to Napoleon, science does not need that hypothesis to explain the world of phenomena. Having said this, whether militant atheism (as opposed to practical, matter-of-fact materialism) is useful has been debated amongst socialists as well as scientists.
Adam Buick

Letters: Trend to fascism? (2010)

Letters to the Editors from the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Trend to fascism?

Dear Editors

 The letter from David Lee (April Socialist Standard) in calling for a socialist government shows a lack of understanding – that socialism means an end to government and governed – but you are too dismissive of his seeing the inherent trend of capitalism to fascism. The “ideal” of fascism is not necessarily the pre-war examples of Germany and Italy. The philosophy of fascism is the corporate state, the well-ordered state, where the most able, that is by their own definition, assume the positions of power in politics and industry etc. The majority accept that their position is due to their being less able and grateful to accept their position as decided by “natural abilities”.

 Other ways of describing this attempt of natural selection of order in society are meritocracy and equality of opportunity. So this sorts out the order of society by “natural” rule and a “benign” ruler or ruling class makes the nation as one. Classes are dismissed because the order of society is as it should be. The division between capitalists and workers is again presented as the natural order so fascism can claim it is a classless society. This obfuscation between the owing class and the majority is the common good of the whole nation, that the interests of all as are of one. A phrase which appears regularly to plaster over this is “the third way” to mean a way which is neither capitalism nor socialism, but taking the best elements of each. Blair used it early on in his career, those in the social sector – or third sector of co-ops and the like, even Ted Heath in his attempt to square the circle in his conception of corporate capitalism – the human face of capitalism. But the earliest use of “the Third Way” was the NSDAP considering this before settling on “the Third Reich” (see Michael Burleigh’s A New History of Nazi Germany).

 Bismarck’s Germany, sometimes called state capitalism by Lenin already exhibited all the signs of “benign” fascism and was probably as formative to Hitler as to Lenin/Stalin. That Lenin thought state capitalism was the route to socialism and acknowledged the greater power of state capitalist Germany had beaten Russia was enough to show two apparently diametrically-opposed dictatorships grow as fascism.

 But probably most prescient was Marx in the Communist Manifesto what could be seen as the development of what was to be called fascism, the reactionary becoming radicalised in German or “True Socialism” which presaged the “eternal truths, the model nation”, opposing the “brutally destructive” tendency of Communism. And so on, I won’t repeat it all but summed up as the bombastic representative of the petty bourgeois Philistine. Which is as good a description of the true nature of fascism as any.

 So, yes, the expressions of fascism of the pre-war variety are not visible, at least on the surface, but aside from this the tendency for fascist thought lingers in every cell of capitalism, from the infantile individuals you sometimes meet who always have a ready list of sexist, racist, anti-Semitic “jokes” to share with guilty pleasure often on their mobile phones to the more discreet smoothing over by politicians whose job, if it can be called that, is to confuse the majority that it’s in all our interests to do whatever are the problems of the moment. To blur over the divisions in society and represent the nation as symbolic as Unity, the problems of capitalism are all our problems, we are all in it together – the National interests (sic or sick).

 The well-ordered nation state is the capitalists and politicians’ dream and aspiration, the corporate state of successful regulation of private and state undertakings, the self-defined meritocracy and the worker held in wage-slavery, happy to accept his or her lot in the best of all possible worlds.

 This is fascism in “idealised” form but capitalism’s also on a tendency towards it. But even if this should appear attractive to the petty-bourgeois Philistines it always comes along with the horrors experienced in the 20th century.

 Effectively, as for as real alternatives are concerned, this turns the country into a one-party state, the consciousness of the majority is formed by the prevailing accepted norms of society, education, the press, the whole structure of production. This is as effective for control as any secret police and more acceptable as being “democratic” than totalitarianism – you get to leave a mark every few years, that’s democracy, isn’t it?
Stuart Gibson, 
Wimborne, Dorset

We still think it’s an exaggeration (and misleading) to refer to present-day Britain as “fascist” – Editors.

Pete Seeger

Dear Editors

 As regards the article on Pete Seeger in the March Socialist Standard, isn’t it about time we looked at the positive rather than the negative aspects of the folk revival in the US?

 To quote from the article: “The 1960s saw Seeger affiliating with the current ‘good causes’, plucking his banjo at Civil Rights rallies (an unfortunate instrument, given Negro memories of stereotypic minstrel shows) and supporting the Anti-Vietnam War movement”.

 The banjo in American music was played by both blacks and whites and goes back to a time when music was more integrated, before the minstrel shows.

 Civil Rights was more than just a good cause. It was a colossal task to say the least. When people like Seeger sang at freedom rallies in the southern states they were putting themselves on the line, and to be dismissive about the role they played is sectarian. Anybody that fails to see the importance of music in the Civil Rights/Anti-Vietnam War movement is not really looking at the role it actually played.
Roy Beat, 
London SE27.

Cooking the Books: What’s a “Living Wage”? (2010)

The Cooking the Books column from the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

 “A ‘Living Wage’ for all”, alongside a photo with the caption “Fighting the growing gap between rich and poor”, was the heading of the first election promise of the candidates of the Green Party in last month’s general election :

 “Green MPs will demand a ‘Living Wage’ to ensure low paid workers earn enough to provide for themselves and their families.”

 It’s an old demand, going back to the ILP in the 1920s and beyond. Presumably what the Greens have in mind is a wage that would allow a worker to afford decent housing, enough proper food, new clothes, to go on holiday and run a car (but perhaps not this last, as they’re Greens).
 To find the level they consider necessary to achieve this you had to go to their full manifesto where they say :
 “The Green Party will fight for a National Minimum Wage of 60% of net national earnings (currently this would mean a minimum wage of £8.10 an hour).”
 As the current minimum wage is £5.80 an hour what they were proposing was a massive 40 percent increase, a promise that put them up with the Trotskyists. In fact they were promising more than the ‘Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition’ between Militant and the SWP which only promised an increase to £8 an hour.

 Even so, £8.10 an hour for a 40 hour week is only £16,848 a year, which hardly qualifies as an adequate “living wage”. But how’s it going to be implemented? Getting employers to increase the wages of anyone paid less than £16,848 a year to this is easier said than done. The unions haven’t been able to do it, otherwise it would have been done. But let’s assume for a moment that a law forcing them to do this was passed. What would happen?

 First, some employers would go bankrupt. Others would withdraw their capital from producing certain goods or services, so their price would rise. Eventually this would stabilise at a new, higher level at which employers would be able to make a profit even when paying the increased minimum wage. So the cost of living would go up, including for workers on the minimum wage.

 Second, given the increased labour costs, the introduction of previously unused labour-saving machinery would become cheaper vis-à-vis employing living labour. Employers would do this. So there’d be job losses and unemployment, particularly amongst the unskilled, would grow.

 Also it’s not clear how the Greens’ plan would reduce the gap “between rich and poor”, at least not between those who figure on the Sunday Times Rich List (25 April) and those on the minimum wage. It might reduce the gap between low-paid and higher-paid workers, but this would just be a change within the working class – what we socialists have always called a “redistribution of poverty” – which would not affect the gap between the income of the working class and that of the capitalist class.

 In any event, socialism is not about redistributing income and wealth from the rich to the poor, but about establishing a society that would not be divided into rich and poor. To adapt Marx, workers should replace the green demand for a “Living Wage” by the revolutionary demand for the “Abolition of the Wages System”.

Pieces Together: Religious Nonsense (2010)

The Pieces Together column from the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Religious Nonsense

“Women who wear immodest clothing and are promiscuous are to blame for earthquakes, an Iranian cleric said. The explanation for tremors in one of the most earthquake-prone countries came after President Ahmadinejad predicted a quake and suggested that many of Tehran’s 12 million residents should move. Hojatoleslam Kasem Sedighi was quoted by Iranian media as saying that adultery increased quakes and the only solution was to take refuge in religion” (Times, 20 April).

Right-Wing Nonsense

“The demonstration was marked by the same rhetoric that has galvanised the Tea Party movement and which crowds hear from Sarah Palin on an almost daily basis: disgust with Mr Obama’s agenda, rage at his health reform legislation, Government bailouts, accusations of a socialist White House and an unconstitutional takeover of American life by Washington. ‘We are in a war,’ said Larry Pratt, president of Gunowners of America. ‘The other side knows they are at war because they started it. They’re coming for our freedom, for our money, for our kids, for our property. They’re coming for everything because they are socialists’” (Times, 20 April).

"Lazy" Workers (1)

“The image Microsoft doesn’t want you to see: Too tired to stay awake, the Chinese workers earning just 34p an hour. Showing Chinese sweatshop workers slumped over their desks with exhaustion, it is an image that Microsoft won’t want the world to see. Employed for gruelling 15-hour shifts, in appalling conditions and 86F heat, many fall asleep on their stations during their meagre ten-minute breaks. For as little as 34p an hour, the men and women work six or seven days a week, making computer mice and web cams for the American multinational computer company” (Daily Mail, 18 April).

"Lazy" Workers (2)

“A study of 6,000 British civil servants found that those who regularly worked 10 or 11-hour days were up to 60 per cent more likely to suffer heart disease or die younger than those who worked shorter hours. The research, published online in the European Heart Journal, found that people who worked three or more hours longer than a seven-hour day put their health at risk, possibly as a result of being more stressed and having less time to unwind” (Times, 12 May).

50 Years Ago: Forty Million Refugees (2010)

The 50 Years Ago column from the June 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

There are no less than forty million refugees in the world today. Forty million people living in misery and hopelessness. Such is the appalling truth revealed in a little book recently published—Refugees 1960 (Penguin Books, 2s. 6d.). (…)

[T]he authors fondly hope that in this world refugee year, the camps can be emptied and the conscience of the capitalist world stirred so deeply that every man, woman and child will be resettled. Just listen to this:
  “Every country with room to spare should ease open its bureaucratic door and undertake to accept without ‘ifs’ or ‘buts’ a percentage of the sick or economically useless human beings, to balance what they have gained from the young, healthy immigrants who will be benefiting their economy without any cost to them in education or training.”
A tall order indeed. It is hopeless to appeal to the conscience of a society which has been directly responsible for such a monstrosity. Far better to have a world where man can be free to travel over its surface without the futile restrictions of nationality, and where he can satisfy his needs from a sufficiency of wealth that only Socialism can make available.

But when all this has been said, it is still worthwhile to read Refugees 1960. Mainly, it is a plain, straightforward statement of very unpalatable facts, and no attempt has been made to grind a political axe. Yet by its very simplicity of style and presentation, this book shouts a condemnation of capitalist society from every page.

(From book review by E.T.C., Socialist Standard, June 1960)