Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Pay now, live later. (1979)

From the July 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard
My future husband mentioned in a recent conversation that he had a life assurance policy, and if he died the benefactor would get a rather large sum. Of course I don’t want him to die, but it’s been worrying me because I'll be all by myself if he goes . . . is it up to him to whom he leaves the money? . . . Should I ask him?
This recent Agony Column letter, loaded with what seems premature anxiety, is in fact a proper response to the insurance companies, who seek to sell their wares by applying a subtle mixture of comfort and neurosis.

Consider, for example, the case of the leaks of radioactivity from Windscale. The Central Electricity Generating Board, clearly an organisation which unflinchingly faces reality, admits that radioactive material can escape from nuclear power plants. But ordinary insurance policies on houses specifically exclude liability for radiation damage. So, in the event of a ‘major’ leak, the insurance industry has agreed to pay the first £5 million of any claims to people they describe as householders: the rest would be up to the government.

Which sounds very reassuring and protective, except that a major leak would probably leave very few people to make a claim, let alone capable of working out who is responsible for paying what. An apt illustration of the confidence trick which goes under the name of insurance.

From the day we are born, we are assailed by insurance companies trying to make someone pay out on a policy on us. Just let a baby emerge from its mother’s womb, and there is a salesman genially suggesting that the parents take out a policy payable on their newborn infant’s death.

Such practices are rooted in a disreputable history. The first known policy on a life was taken out on one William Gibbons in 1583; it ended with the fervent wish, “God send the said William Gibbons health and long life’’, which at least showed that the underwriters were leaving nothing to chance. As life assurance grew there was widespread speculation in lives; anyone with the money could take out a policy payable on the death of some well-known figure, presumably then praying that health and long life would not attend that said person.

This racket was ended by the Life Assurance Act of 1774 (known appropriately as the Gambling Act), which voided life policies in which the insurer did not have an interest. This remains the situation today, when there are insurances to cover accidents at home, at work, on holiday, playing sport. Others are a form of saving which give a lump sum when you have been paying over a long enough period; others can pay for a private education or, say, a weather-wrecked vacation.

All of this is expressed in the industry’s advertisements, which tell us that the only secure, contented person is one who is almost suffocating beneath insurance policies. These ads sometimes work through menace —‘Think how you’ll almost starve to death if you ever have an accident/fall ill/ set fire to your home/grow old . . .’, and sometimes through comfort - ‘Nothing terrible is going to happen to you, but if it does and you drop dcad/lose your job/need some money in a hurry, your family will be taken care of . . .' One insurance advertisement puts it neatly, unctuously, threateningly —
It’s quite likely your insurance can no longer do what you bought it to do. Namely, to give your loved ones an ample sum of money for your last expenses and unpaid debts . . . an ample sum of money which can help replace your earnings.
This all sounds very welcoming, so it comes as a nasty surprise to someone who wants to take out a policy to find that it can be rather difficult. The premiums are worked out by using a mortality table — a grisly process of fixing the likelihood of someone dying according to their age, occupation, where they live, and so on. (There is a profession which trains people to do this; when they’ve passed all their exams they are called actuaries.)

Bad risk
The insurance companies need to be reassured that they are not taking on a bad risk, the hopeful customer must submit to a medical examination, fill in forms which ask searching, intimate questions, and agree to reports on their habits, manner of living, finances. Some jobs find lesser favour with the insurance firms — butchers in slaughterhouses, for example, or grocers in Scotland and Ireland. A publican hoping to insure his life will find problems: “Most offices do not encourage proposals on the lives of publicans, and even in the most favourable circumstances may charge an extra premium.’’ (Life Assurance from Proposal to Policy, L.J. New).

At the end of this process the subject’s life will be classified. If it rates ‘good’, the company will happily welcome them into its band of premium payers; if ‘sub-standard’, they will get in only with difficulty and then probably by paying extra. It is better not to discuss the fate of those outcasts who come out of their assessment as 'uninsurable’.

In spite of all this, workers practically queue up to force money into the insurance companies’ coffers. During 1977, companies in the British Insurance Association (which excludes members of Lloyds) collected premiums for fire and accident (excluding motor) policies amounting to £1,463 million. Premiums for life insurance came to £3,510 million. Last year the industry was booming:
Guardian Royal Exchange — All Premiums £619.7 million. Pre-tax profits £83.3 million. (“An excellent year. . .”)
Sun Life — All Premiums £163.4 million. (“ . . . exceptionally high level of business.)
Royal Insurance — All Premiums £1,220.1 million. Pre-tax profits £153 million. (“A substantial rise in profits for the fourth year in succession.’’)
Apart from the private sector of insurance, there is the massive state-organised scheme in which most workers are compelled to participate. This had its origins in this country in 1912, and now covers medical treatment, unemployment pay, social security benefits, pensions . . . all in all, it leaves the working class to go about their daily lives under a massive blanket of insurance which, they are encouraged to believe, gives them security.

The theory behind this is that workers can function under capitalism only if they exercise thrift. Pay now, live later, is the message of insurance. There is no mention that we pay during what may be called the best years of our lives, when we are healthier and more active and hope to live easier during the worst years when we are frail and liable to be sick. In Britain, men retire at 65 and women at 60, after having paid insurance of one sort or another for something like 45 years. The general life expectancy of British men is a little more than 68 years, which means that statistically they can expect to enjoy the rewards of their thrift for about four years.

This illustrates the cruel deception of the insurance business. We can take the matter further by asking why such a deception should be so attractive to millions of people? Why should we save money in fear of natural events like death? Why should the birth of a baby be something like a financial catastrophe, or illness bring added worries about money?

It does not need a very perceptive mind to realise that such problems are confined to certain people in society. Those who, in simple terms, have enough money, are not troubled about the cost of bringing up children; if the baby is a boy, the only niggling worry might be whether there is time to reserve a place for him at Eton. When someone dies, their only concern must be whether the will has been so composed as to avoid all possible death duties (that of the late Duke of Westminster was said to be a masterpiece of such subtlety). Retirement is also no bother, since this social class does not need to work for their living and in most cases demonstrate their freedom most obviously.

The pressure to be thfifty, to insure their lives, is really on the working class, who do not go to Eton and who do not need to write elaborate wills in order to dispose of the right to pay their HP debts. These are the people who depend on working for a wage in order to live — and, again, we do not need to be very perceptive to realise that they make up the vast majority of the world’s population.

When workers are unable to work, their wages disappear; they are barely able to survive: As we have seen, the state now makes sure that they do survive — just — which at least prevents the streets being clogged with destitute people. This is the pressure upon workers to practise thrift, to put something by for a rainy day, to organise their budget, to accept the rightness of their place on the lower rungs of the social ladder. Put in another way, this is the pressure on the subject class under capitalism to comply with that social system with its private property, its degradation and its insecurity.

Most workers view the stigma of their class uncomplainingly, even cheerfully. Most of them regard their exploitation as natural, when in reality it is inhuman and distorting. There are many symbols of working class degradation and of their blindness to it. That famous Man from the Pru, with his smooth talk and his briefcase full of Pay Now and Live — if you’re lucky — Later, is one of them.

50 Years Ago: Why War? (1979)

The 50 Years Ago column from the July 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

During the last war, representatives of the Liberal, Labour and Tory parties held office in a coalition and assumed the responsibility for making the machinery of warfare as efficient as possible. They now have quite sufficient contempt for the memories and intelligence of their supporters to ask them to trust them to see that there is no more war. The emptiness of their claims and promises is enhanced by recent developments in the art of warfare.

Modern states exist because of the conflict of interests in modern society. This conflict is due to the capitalist ownership of the economic resources of society. The international capitalist class is divided into competing groups endeavouring to secure control of the raw materials, trade routes and markets of the world. The most powerful of these groups use the machinery of the various states as weapons in the struggle.

The solution of the conflict lies not with an ‘amorphous’ people but with a working class organised to emancipate itself, internationally. In the place of capitalism, with its economic chaos and political strife, it will establish a social order based upon the common ownership of the means of life and their democratic control in the interests of a classless community.

(From an article, ‘The meaning of disarmament’ by E. Boden, Socialist Standard, July 1929.)

Four wheel oil crisis (1979)

From the July 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

So is there another oil crisis or not? The government, and the motoring organisations, insist that there is not — yet. During the recent Spring bank holiday garages were shut, and those that did open were charging up to £1.50 a gallon for petrol.

So is the motor car doomed? What of alternative energy? Questions like these seem to be commonplace these days, but really, what is the situation?

Demand for petrol is rising at a time when oil companies are saying they can only meet last year’s delivery levels. With Iran going ‘off stream’ and exporting no oil at all for some months, and the oil-producing countries (OPEC) seizing their chance to increase prices by varying amounts (dependent on how ‘moderate’ their governments are), the hopes of British capitalism turn again to the North Sea.

The situation became such that a meeting of energy ministers was called in Paris in May to decide the appropriate action to be taken. This meeting only served to emphasise the problems of trying to get agreement between capitalist countries on something so vital as their access to sources of oil. Its result was a relatively ineffectual statement that a cutback of five per cent would be attempted.

America, which consumes twice as much oil as others, is a prime victim for expected cutbacks. But American workers regard their cars as almost sacrosanct. And politicians rely on motorists’ votes, just as the motor industry relies on a market. So much of the American economy relies on the motor industry that a cutback in oil consumption, at this time, is highly unlikely.

Transition to obsolescence
So where does the problem lie? The capitalist world relies on its oil supplies. Industry and the domestic scene is almost as dependent on oil as we are on the air we breathe and oil is running out! In fact, the oil-powered car was doomed at its outset and has long been living on borrowed time. The internal combustion engine was developed at a time of seemingly unlimited supplies of fuel. It is uneconomic, inefficient, and is now making the hard transition to obsolescence.

The internal combustion engine and its petroleum fuel (with additives) is a major source of modern-day pollution. Lead from exhausts, hydrochloric acid, carbon monoxide, noise, accidents, and so on, are direct sources of pollution. Add to this the indirect sources in associated industries like rubber, steel and chemicals, and some measure of the problem can be imagined. This observation also gives some indication of the capital investment involved. And here is the crux of the matter.

Alternative Fuels
So what is to happen to the motor car? It has become such a necessity to so many people that its withdrawal would cause a major upheaval in society. It has undermined the profitability of so-called public transport, with the result that services have been cut and geared to their profitability rather than usefulness. So, returning to the matter of the motor car, are there alternative fuels and propulsion units?

Hydrogen, electricity, even nuclear fuel, are suggestions. No doubt the motor industry will become even more cut-throat as the oil situation worsens. Some industries will fold up, others will emerge. New technologies will probably result, and slowly and painfully the motor industry will change to a new fuel/propulsion system or transport concept.

This is the standard day to day, year to year running of capitalism. Crisis to crisis. And it is the workers, the majority of people in this world, who suffer. As capitalism survives it will continue to cause hardship, anxiety and stress to the working class. Fuel/propulsion systems, the oil crisis, other industrial/domestic problems, will all come and go, but always as dictated by capitalism’s drive for profit. And this crazy, inefficient, polluting system will last until those workers act to abolish it. Something to think about in the traffic jam — or the queue for the petrol pump.

Cooking the Books: Wages, prices and profits (2005)

The Cooking the Books Column from the July 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mervyn King, as Governor of the Bank of England, is supposed to know all about inflation. After all, his remit, now that the Bank no longer takes direct orders from the government, is to keep inflation below 2 per cent a year.

Inflation proper, as the name suggests, is not just any rise in the general price level but a rise caused by over-issuing the currency, something which is entirely under the Bank’s control. However, the word has come to mean, even to the Bank’s Governor, any rise in the general price level whatever the cause.

Judging by his comments in a speech he gave in Bradford on 13 June, King also subscribes to the view that wage increases cause inflation. The Guardian (14 June) reported his speech under the headline “Migrants hold down inflation says governor”:
  “Mr King said that the 120,000 eastern Europeans who had arrived in Britain since 10 more countries joined the European Union in May 2004 had kept the lid on wages and prevented inflation from rising . . . ‘Without this influx to fill the skill gaps in a tight labour market it is likely that earnings would have risen at a faster rate, putting upward pressure on the costs of employers and, ultimately, inflation,’ he said.”
At least King had the honesty to make it clear that employers (whatever vote-catching politicians might say) welcome immigration of workers from other countries to help both ease skills shortages and keep wages down, but he seemed to be suggesting that, faced with a wage increase, employers can simply pass this on as increased prices.

Later on in his speech, however, he had to admit that employers are not at liberty to raise prices at will:
  “May’s figures for producer prices showed the cost of the fuel and raw materials used by manufacturers still growing strongly but the increases being largely absorbed in lower profit margins. According to the Office for National Statistics, input prices increased by 7.8% last month compared with a year ago and increased by 0.2% compared with April. In contrast, the weakness of demand and the strength of competitive pressures meant the price of goods leaving factory prices fell by 0.2% last month.”
But why, if employers couldn’t pass on increases in energy and materials costs, why could they have done so if wages had increased? The answer is that they can only increase their prices, when their costs increase, if the market will allow this. Otherwise the cost increase, including wages, has to be “absorbed in lower profit margins”.

Marx made the same point 140 years ago in a speech he gave to British Trade Unionists.  “A general rise of wages would”, he said, “result in a fall in the general rate of profit, but not affect values” (Value, Price and Profit, chapter XII).

Iraq, imperialism and the anti-war campaign (2005)

From the July 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

The anti-war campaign agitates for withdrawal of all Australian and US troops from Iraq, but this is not a demand for no war in Iraq (although the campaign organisers seem to think that it is), it is a demand that the existing civil war be allowed to continue without the US and Australia backing one side or the other. The fact that the civil war started because of the US invasion does not change this.

It is wildly unlikely, but just possible, that the US would indeed withdraw. They have done something loosely similar in Vietnam, Somalia and Lebanon. Conceivably, it could happen in Iraq. However, Iraqi oil is an enormously rich prize, and the strategic leverage that it would grant to the US over the EU, China and Japan is an even richer prize.

The US invaded Iraq to gain control of the most cheaply accessible large oilfields in the world. It will withdraw only if the insurgency makes the military costs of controlling Iraq (which increase the effective cost of producing the oil) so great that these costs become an intolerable burden on the US capitalist class as a whole, or if popular resistance in the US and throughout their allies produces the same effect.

Almost certainly, the insurgency would have to get much, much worse or popular resistance massively increase, before that point was reached, because the US does not want the oil of Iraq only for the sake of the profits to be gained from it.

They also want it because having control over the two largest oil producers in OPEC (Saudi Arabia and Iraq) would mean that the US would have something approaching a veto over the industrial development of their three main world rivals; China, Japan and the EU.

The justifications for the invasion are entirely hypocritical, both the pre-invasion claims about the weapons of mass destruction, and the post-invasion ones based on the blood-soaked repressiveness of Saddam Hussein’s regime and the story that “We did it to bring democracy to the Iraqis”. We may begin to take Iraqi democracy and sovereignty seriously when the US government is willing to accept an order from an elected Iraqi government that US forces leave Iraq.

The Ba’athist regime was, indeed, one of the world’s worst tyrannies, but that didn’t bother the US while Iraq was a US ally, during, for example, the Iran-Iraq war. The US has no objection to blood-soaked tyrannies, provided that they are useful (meaning profitable, directly or indirectly) to the US ruling class. The chemical and biological WMD, or the facilities for making them, were originally supplied by the US and Western European governments, at a time when there were certainly terrorist outfits headquartered in Baghdad; Abu Nidal’s, for one. So, the possibility that Iraq would pass WMD to terrorists (a possibility that the US and other Western governments helped create), only became a threat when the US needed an excuse for an invasion.  Andrew Wilkie, who was in a position to know, developed the real point:
  “Superimposed over specifics like oil, however, was a much bigger issue – the US’s determination to safeguard and enhance its global ideological, economic and military hegemony. This is the big one: the grand strategy of the US to reign supreme permanently, as espoused by the so-called ‘neo-conservatives’ and articulated bluntly in September 2002 in The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. In this quest, Iraq was as much a demonstration as a consequence – an almost theatrical performance against a country consequent enough for people to notice, for reasons alarming enough for people to care, on terms lopsided enough to guarantee a crushing demonstration of US military muscle. Or at least that was the idea.”
However, even if the US did withdraw, then almost certainly, Iraq would not be left to its own blood-letting; there would very probably be other invasions, Turkey and Iran being the obvious candidates, Syria and Saudi Arabia other possibilities.

Even if, through some miracle, there was no further foreign interference in Iraq after a US withdrawal, there is no reason for confidence that the civil war would stop anytime soon or even that it would be less bloody in the absence of US and Australian troops. One of the bloodiest civil wars of the twentieth century occurred only a little over ten years ago, without any obvious interference from the West, except for a French intervention to protect the perpetrators of the genocide; we refer, of course, to Rwanda.

That civil war fed directly into what must be the worst war in the world; in the Congo there have been an estimated 3 million dead and it’s still going on. Almost certainly, the riches that can be looted from Iraq, and the strategic advantage that can be gained from that looting, exceed those that can be had by looting from the Congo; which is one reason why the West is not directly involved in the Congo. (Although all the states surrounding Congo, plus Zimbabwe, are) It is also why Iraq will not be left alone; any state that can see an opportunity to interfere, will.

No one, least of all anti-war demonstrators in Australia, should pretend that any of these possibilities are in any way in the interests of the people of Iraq.

Virtually all the left-wing agitation about Australian foreign policy, and US imperial policy, is based on the underlying assumption (or rather, fantasy), that the natural order of capitalism is a world of independent, sovereign, mutually-respectful nations. What is thought to be necessary to achieve this is that the US stop acting as an imperialist thug, and that Australia stop helping them do it. Nice idea, but capitalism just ain’t like that.

It’s a world system of interdependent, not a worldwide collection of independent ones.

If the US declines as an imperialist power, others will take their place, China being an obvious candidate and, given the Chinese government’s record of racist, genocidal colonialism in Tibet, they may even make the US look moderate by comparison. An obvious target for the first major Chinese imperialist adventure is the group of oil-and-natural-gas-rich states between the Chinese Western border and the Caspian Sea.

Capitalist states (of which China is one) are not moral entities, and their ruling classes do not react to attempts at moral persuasion. They perpetually seek profit and react to what could loosely be called profit-and-loss calculations. If profit requires that they dominate other countries (to the extent that they can), so be it.

The consent of the ruled (us!) is essential to the continued functioning of capitalism (in both its state-capitalist and private-capitalist forms). Our consent, or our resistance, is part of our rulers’ profit-and-loss estimates.

We can make this particular imperialist adventure too difficult or too expensive for the rulers of Australia, which is, after all, a junior partner of US capitalism.

The people of the US and the rest of the world, by huge efforts, could make the Iraq occupation too difficult or too expensive, even for the dominant capitalist power. But as long as we, all of us, consent to the capitalist system as a whole, in other words, so long as we resist only this particular imperialist adventure, then there will be more imperialist adventures, by the US and others, more bloodshed, and more terrorist atrocities.

There will also be more poverty, ecological devastation, and more lives spent on mostly-meaningless work and totally meaningless consumerism.

All that the protest organisers can offer, fundamentally, is the prospect of more problems within capitalism, including more wars caused by imperialist adventures, and by rulers using “ethnic tensions” to grab territory, etc., and more protests against those problems and wars. And so on, and on, and on.

There’s got to be a better way, and there is; abolish capitalism. That’s what we are working for.

The only solution is to work for a world system based on common ownership, and moneyless, free access to wealth. Only then can we have genuinely democratic economies, and therefore genuinely democratic societies. We call this socialism. (which has nothing to do with the deeply repressive and now-failed variant of capitalism invented in the former Soviet Union, and adapted in China, Vietnam, etc.)

The precondition for this society is a majority who understand and want socialism, and understand and reject capitalism. Nothing less than this can give us socialism. Leaders certainly can’t.

Huge efforts are required. Let’s make sure that they are directed towards getting off the treadmill that is capitalism, not towards trying to turn it into something it can’t be.
World Socialist Party of Australia leaflet.

Open letter to some anti-capitalists (2005)

From the July 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
MAKEYOURMARK are part of the Dissent! Network of resistance against the G8.  The group adheres to the Hallmarks of Peoples’ Global Action which call for a rejection of capitalism through civil disobedience and non-violent direct action.
Dear Friends,

I attended your meeting in Carlisle last night.  It was good that so many people had turned out.  I have sympathy with your organisation’s objectives, but a few comments about your strategy.

I thought much of your analysis of capitalism as a system that can only put profit before people was correct, as well as the relation of capitalism to the issues of AIDS, water availability and poverty in Africa and South America.  However, I have problems with the idea of nations as victims of capitalism.  Less developed nations are the losers in competition against large industrialised nations and the majority of people in those countries suffer because of it, but the state in either type of nation represents the dominant economic interests.  Indigenous capitalists in the less developed nations are fighting for themselves, for domination of local resources against multinational corporations – both of which wish to continue the exploitation of people and natural resources.  The corollary is that you are supporting small nations against big nations, small capitalists against big capitalists, Robert Mugabe or King Mswati III against George Bush or Silvio Berlusconi for example – and in that I fail to see a rejection of capitalism. 

You made an excellent point in your presentation about the man-made laws of capitalism being assumed to be natural laws and therefore unchangeable.  I believe that this point also applies to the nation and inseparably the state which are also man-made constructs that have arisen to their present form with the need to manage the conflicting interests within capitalism.  In short, the state is part of capitalism not separate from it.  Which leads to another point in your presentation where you considered that state-owned industries are worth defending.  The experience of state-run industries in this country and elsewhere is no utopia, in fact in some cases it has been a disaster.  State-owned industries mostly don’t have much difference in character to private industries, they consist of capital put forward by the state which wage or salary workers operate and the goods or services they produce are either sold or rationed out by bureaucrats.  Neither for the consumer, as goods or services are still allocated according to ability-to-pay or by handout, or the producer, still embroiled in the labour-capital conflict, is the state ownership of capital a rejection of capitalism.

In one of your slides you asked whether the G8 should be reformed or abolished, I don’t think either will ‘make poverty history’ or allow people to come before profit, nor will ‘dropping the debt’ or rearranging trade rules.  Capitalism existed before the G8 and it would exist without the G8.  You’ve recognised that asking for reforms won’t work, but I don’t really see how making your own reforms through civil disobedience and direct action will change the fundamental social relations of capitalism.  It is capitalism – the system of minority ownership of the means of producing and distributing goods and services and allocation according to ability to pay – that causes poverty and war, breeds racism and alienation, and hampers social organisation.  If you were to abolish the G8 then another organisation could take its place or they could meet in secret – back to square one.  I feel what is important is not challenging aspects of capitalism and trying to change them, but challenging the system as whole.  

One of the slogans you displayed in the meeting room was about a small number of committed people making a difference.  However well intentioned, I don’t believe a minority of society can run society in the interests of the majority.  The goal of those who reject capitalism should be to break the consensus that supports capitalism and organize politically – democratically – to a replace private ownership of the means of producing goods and services with common ownership, production for profit with production for need and ‘can’t pay, can’t have’ with free access – that is to replace capitalism with socialism.   I think that a society run for the majority must be made by the majority and the shortest distance between capitalism and an alternative society is a straight line.  Let’s campaign for the abolition of capitalism and not misdirect our energies in trying to humanise capitalism, which can only – as you recognise – put profit before people.

I’m hoping to get to Edinburgh for the G8 protest but not to beg for, or batter, a nicer kind of capitalism out of the G8 leaders. I’ll be trying to get socialist ideas across to all those there who recognise that the world is in a mess and are willing to do something about it.  I hope I’ll see you there, maybe I’ll give you a leaflet or a copy of the Socialist Standard.
Yours for world socialism
Piers Hobson

50 Years Ago: Is it Foolish? (2005)

The 50 Years Ago column from the July 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

The following appeared in the Stratford Express (3 June 1955):-
“It seems so simple to put a cross against the name of a chosen candidate – so simple that it is almost impossible to go wrong. Yet in these local divisions scores of people wasted their votes by spoiling papers in one of a variety of ways. In one of the West Ham divisions, for instance, there were 40 spoilt papers. Some people had added their name and address; some had scrawled the letters S.P.G.B. (Socialist Party of Great Britain) on the paper, while others had voted for each of the candidates and a few had put the paper in the ballot box completely blank. An indication of their state of mind, perhaps!”
It is, of course, the reference to the S.P.G.B. that concerns us, and it has to be taken in conjunction with the statement that it is “so simple to put a cross against the name of a chosen candidate.” But suppose you don’t choose either candidate. Suppose you are one of the million and a half former Labour voters who could discern so little difference between the parties that it wasn’t worthwhile voting.

Or, again, suppose you are a Socialist and do not want Capitalism at all, not Labour-administered Capitalism or Tory-administered Capitalism? What should you do then? Is it foolish to show on the ballot paper what you do want? It has any rate had the merit that it caught the attention of the Stratford Express.

Of course Socialists would prefer to have their own Socialist candidates to vote for, but the Labour, Tory and Liberal parties, by agreement on the £150 deposit, made it very difficult for a small organisation to enter the field.

(From The Socialist Standard, July 1955)

Letter: Voting and Democracy: Means and Ends (2005)

Letter to the Editors from the July 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Voting and Democracy: Means and Ends

The June Pathfinders page was in two parts “Would people in socialism spend all day voting on everything?” (small print) and “How would people vote?” (bigger print). The small print told us about “collaborative filtering” (CF) software. Developed for capitalist marketing purposes and producing recommendations based on people’s likes and dislikes, CF can apparently be used in socialism to stop us voting all day on everything.

The example is given of a farmer using CF to get recommendations about what to vote on: crop yields, GM technology, etc. CF can also put people “in touch with other people of similar interests” – a variant of computer dating? Small-print Pathfinder admits that unfortunately “Technology cannot resolve issues of responsibility…”

Bigger-print Pathfinder presents as a dream what to me seems more like a nightmare: “… in the future the technology to debate, dispute, appeal, complain, conference and vote will all be in place – at the touch of a phone button.” The trouble with this is that it confuses means with ends. The essence of democracy is having information and ideas to exchange, considerations to weigh up, debates to participate in – and, in some cases, balances to be struck.

In the old days – and even to some extent today – the means to those democratic ends were focused on paper or persons – books and other publications, public meetings, casual or serious conversations. Now these old means are being challenged by new technology means – a screen to watch, a mouse to move, a button to push.

I don’t doubt that a phone button or other technological device can play a part in voting and democracy. Some people – with busy lives or physical disabilities? – may find “new hat” voting technology better than the “inconvenient, time-consuming”, in-company-with-other-people method illustrated in Pathfinder’s photo and labelled “old hat”. But whatever technology is used, it is still a means to an end. It is not a substitute for that end. Debating, disputing, etc are not matters of a person relating to a piece of technology. They are matters of a person relating to one or more other persons using some form of technology as a means.

According to a 1970s pop song, video killed the radio star. It didn’t. Books are said to be on the way out. They aren’t – but they do have new technology competitors. This applies to debating, disputing, appealing, complaining, conferencing and voting. You can do these things directly, more or less face-to-face with other people. Or you can go a little or a long way on the road to human-to-machine “relationships”. The choice is yours.
Stan Parker 
(by e-mail).

Voice From The Back: The Failure of Reformism (2006)

The Voice From The Back column from the July 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Failure of Reformism

We are opposed to trying to patch up capitalism, we always say that such reforms will end in failure. So often do we engage in attacking these schemes that cynical opponents have dubbed us the “we told you so” party. Now we have one of the reformers telling us that his reforms are useless. “Tony Blair began his Let’s Talk initiative yesterday by admitting for the first time that both his Sure Start scheme for under-fives and policies for children in care have failed the socially excluded” (Guardian, 16 May). But he will carry on his task of patching up capitalism. “If we are to change that we need a different way for government to operate …” When this “different way” ends in failure, remember – “we told you so”.

The Power of Prayer

“Ken Lay, his family, his friends and legal advisers joined hands in a circle of prayer on the steps of Houston’s Federal Court last night and, with the help of their family pastor, asked for divine intervention. But their plea came too late. A 12 strong jury had already decided Lay’s fate and that of Jeff Skilling his right-hand man in the most celebrated criminal enterprise in Wall Street history” (Times, 26 May). The multi-million dollar fraudsters of Enron now await jail sentences for the 25 guilty verdict between them. Although Mr Lay’s faith in prayer might impress the gullible it should be noted that Lay and Skilling also employed a team of lawyers costing $20 million. So they weren’t only relying on divine intervention.

Outdated Marxism?

Away back in 1848 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto. Ever since its publication it has been attacked by supporters of capitalism. Today the main criticism is that it is outdated and old-fashioned. Is the following passage outdated? “The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet. the man of science, into its paid wage-labourer.” The Guardian (31 May) carried the following report, “Lecturers today threatened to take further strike action and toughen up “other sanctions”, after they voted to formally reject the latest pay offer from universities.” Far from being out-dated the Manifesto appears to be bang up to date.

A Mad Social System

The madness of capitalist production was recently illustrated by a European Commission directive to order nearly a billion bottles of French and Italian wine to be turned into fuel and disinfectant. “The commission’s announcement that it would spend 2.4 million euros to distil 430 million bottles of French wine and 371 million bottles of Italian wine into fuel was met with protests by French wine growers …” (Times, 8 June). Another 2.4 billion euros is to be spent digging up vineyards across the continent. Inside a socialist society wine like every other product will be produced to satisfy human needs not to make a profit. Jesus was supposed to have turned water into wine, but only capitalism would turn wine into disinfectant.

Good Question

Pope Benedict XVI raised an interesting question when he recently visited the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. “In a place like this, words fail. In the end, there can only be a dread silence – a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God. Why Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this?” (Time, 12 June). Like we say – it is a good question, but we doubt if the holy father has had any reply. God has remained singularly silent since biblical times.

Suffering in Silence

A recent study by the charity Men’s Health Forum, that questioned 1,212 men, found that 66 percent  of them experienced depression or anxiety at some period in their lives. “Depressed men often suffer in silence, under pressure to keep up a macho front. …The most common causes of anxiety and depression were work (44% of sufferers said it was a factor), financial worries (44%), fast paced living (27%) and relationship problems (25%)” (Herald, 12 June). It seems that capitalism is turning large sections of us into basket cases. Let’s throw capitalism into the out-basket of history.

Exploding the human nature myth (2006)

From the July 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Picture this:

Scene: The High Courts of Justice, London. On trial is a 30 year-old man, charged with 3 armed robberies, 3 counts of attempted murder, and 5 charges of assaulting police officers and another of incapacitating a police dog. The QC for the prosecution has finished summing up. He sits down, satisfied he had done enough to see this psychopath imprisoned for 350 years, and now the defendant’s barrister approaches the jury, one hand in his pocket and fidgeting with his car keys.

Barrister: Members of the Jury! It’s an open and shut case as far as I can see. It’s human nature, innit? Humans are by nature greedy, selfish and aggressive. We’ve been like this for donkey’s years. Nothing you can do about it, eh? He can’t help it (points to defendant) – he’s naturally predisposed to be a violent robber. I, therefore, urge you to find my client not guilty on account of this ’ere human nature thing.

The jury retires and the judge adjourns. Five minutes later the jury returns. The foreman of the jury hands the usher a note which is then passed to his Lordship Justice Fairlaw. The judge looks at the slip of paper, raises an eyebrow and puts the note to one side.

Justice Fairlaw:  Have the ladies and gentlemen of the jury reached a verdict on which you are all unanimous?

Foreman of the Jury: Yes, M’Lud.

Justice Fairlaw:  And it is?

Foreman of the Jury: We find the defendant not guilty, M’Lud. We’re all agreed it’s not really his fault. Like his barrister said, it’s human nature, innit?’

Justice Fairlaw: In that case you’re free to go Mr Stabbemall

If you read this account of a trial in a newspaper you would be flabbergasted. You’d think this some huge joke or, if not, that the judge, barrister and jury were completely and utterly bonkers. Your faith in the criminal justice system would be shattered into a billion pieces.

This, however, is just the kind of logic socialists come up against when trying to convince people of the benefits of a socialist society. People will hear us out, agree that capitalism is insane and that our vision of a future society sounds perfect, and then wallop you with their evolutionary psychological analysis of human society, saying:

“Yeah, I agree with everything you say. But it ain’t gonna work, is it, coz of human nature? At the end of the day, humans are greedy selfish and aggressive. Always have been, always will be.”

Which immediately puts your socialist on the defence: “Are you greedy, selfish and aggressive?”

“No, but . . . err . . . I’m . . .”

“Good to hear it. Neither am I. Hold on a sec, I’ll ask this bloke here.” And the socialist holds out an arm and attracts the attention of a passer-by. “Sorry to bother you. I wonder if I could ask you a question.”

“Yeah, sure?” The passer buy joins the socialist and his critic.

“Right, would you consider that you are greedy and selfish?”

“Most certainly not.”

“Maybe aggressive?”


“Thanks. That’s all.”

“That it?”

“Yes, thanks. Have a leaflet.” The socialist turns back to the evolutionary psychologist. “I’ll ask this woman crossing the road.”

The street psychologist walks off, muttering under his breath that the socialist is distorting his words.

The ‘human nature’ objection to socialism manifests itself in numerous ways, though it is usually the human nature of others, the wider society, which is acting as the barrier to socialism, never that of the model citizen and objector.

Let’s look briefly at the argument that humans are “by nature greedy, selfish and aggressive.”

So are humans naturally aggressive?

Well, if this is so then why do governments have to bring in conscription to force young men and women into their armies during times of war? At previous times, in Britain’s history, people have woken up from a drunken night to find themselves clutching the ‘king’s shilling’, turned into cannon fodder overnight, having been tricked into the army, and  others have woken up in the holds of war ships which had already put to sea. Here, in Britain, where there is no conscription, very few people join the army with a view to killing others. Most join because they see it as an alternative to the dole queue or because they seek adventure or believe the army can teach them a valuable trade.

Moreover, one real problem armies have is that of desertion. In the Vietnam War, 50,000 US soldiers deserted. Since the current war in Iraq began some 8,000 members of the US armed forces have deserted (http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/2006-03-07-deserters_x.htm). In previous wars, the army hierarchy has had to introduce the death penalty for deserters in an attempt to prevent so many fleeing the front line. So much for innate aggression.

Again, if humans are naturally aggressive, then why is there so much opposition to war? Surely our inborn aggressiveness compels us to cheer on “our boys” into battle, but this is not so. The February 2003 Anti-War demo in London became the biggest ever demonstration in British political history, with almost 2 million protestors taking to the streets of the capital, having travelled from all over the country. They were not alone; there were coinciding demonstrations in cities right across the globe. Hundreds of thousands  carried placards saying  “Not in my name” – determined to make clear their opposition to conflict.

Critics may counter by citing the rising levels of physical violence as evidence of a violent trend amongst humans. But even this can be attributed to the fact that well over 90 percent of this violent crime is carried out when the perpetrator is drunk or high on drugs. The remainder tend to be violent crimes of desperation, rooted in poverty. When for instance, did you hear of a member of the aristocracy jumping an old lady  on her way out of the bingo hall and snarling, “rightho, missus, let’s ’ave yer ’and bag”?

The human aggression argument is looking pretty dubious, so we’ll move on.

So humans are greedy?

Our objector assumes that in a free access society, which socialism would be – where people give freely of their abilities, taking from the stockpile of communal wealth according to their own self-defined needs – that there would be an orgy of consumption. It is assumed that people would simply go mad and grab at anything that did not have to be bought; running home with 20 loafs of bread and five walkman cd players.

Now, have you ever watched a mother and, say, a two-year old child in a corner shop? The mother will be at the counter, momentarily distracted, paying for her groceries, and her child heads for the confectionery display. The child has no real conception of the buying, selling and exchange game that parents play; one penny might as well be a pound coin – they’re just little fiddly things adults play with. Children simply take so much for granted. The mother will call the child away from the sweet display, and the child, wanting something, brings an item back – a packet of Smarties maybe – to her mother in the hope the parent will approve.  Now note, it is just one packet, not ten and six bags of crisps! Just one packet of Smarties! Surely innate greed would mean the child would is more predisposed to fill his or her arms with a stash of chocolate than an adult – believing this to be simply for the taking. But no, the child will take what he or she thinks will satisfy his or her immediate needs. For him or her there is always another day – mum’s always in this shop – and it doesn’t look like all this free access confectionery is going anywhere in a hurry.

What possible benefit could there be to storing goods that were in plentiful supply and freely available? Take more than you need by way of perishables and you’ll end up with a cupboard full of stinking and rotting vegetables. Water is generally considered to be “free” – you can for instance go into a public building and get a free drink at a water fountain – but no one runs in with 10 gallon containers in order to hoard it at home. Air is free, but when did you last hear of anyone extracting it and storing it in warehouses?

In a free society it is far easier just to take for you immediate needs and to return when you require more. It is only in class society as exists today, where commodities have two values, a use value and an exchange value, where the profit motive results in artificial scarcity, that people display characteristics associated with greed. But establish as society in which the artificial constraints on production are removed (profit), in which goods have a use value only, and are produced for no other reason than people need them, and people’s approach to obtaining them will change.

Humans are selfish?

Are we really self-seeking, self-centred and egotistical? Well, let’s begin with a few facts.

In Britain, as of March 2006, there were 167,000 registered charities (Charity Commission website) and in the USA there are 1.3 million charities (Independent Sector, a US coalition of non-profit organisations). These charities involve millions of people who give their free time, unpaid, for what they believe are worthy causes that benefit others. Some 85 percent of the British public give regularly to charities. According to a survey by Independent Sector, a US coalition of non-profit organisations, the percentage of volunteers in America is the largest of any country – almost 56 percent. The average hours volunteered per week by an individual is 3.5 hours. According to Charity America, donations to charity for 2002 were $241 billion, 76.3 per cent of this given by individuals.

Now let’s go back to 26 December 2004, when the Asian tsunami hit, killing upwards of 200,000. Overnight charities mobilised all over the world to get food, medical aid and other supplies to the millions left homeless in the disaster zone. The generosity shown towards the victims of the tsunami disaster by, say the people of the USA, were not Bush administration “values”, which Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, seemed to imply during his damage limitation exercise in Indonesia, but rather the basic values of human beings in America, indeed, the world over, who had been motivated by the sorry plight of their fellows overseas.

Unlike other animals, humans are endowed with the ability to sympathise and empathise with their fellow humans. Humans derive great pleasure from doing good, are at their best when faced with the worst and will go to extraordinary lengths to help alleviate the suffering of others.

Right across the US, as in many other countries, there were all manner of fundraising events, in all sections of society, inclusive of nursery schools, prisons, universities and impoverished communities. In some instances people queued for over an hour to put money in a plastic collection bucket. People raised hundreds of millions of dollars to help people they had never met before, nor knew anything of, and it was the same during the Ethiopian Famine of 1985 and again last year, with millions around the world mobilising to help the starving of Africa.

Several years ago, when the Yangtze River in China threatened to burst its banks, seven million people came out and began to fill sand bags, pillow cases, anything, to build up the fragile river banks, the breaching of which  threatened their communities.

Here in Britain, and indeed elsewhere, millions attend donor centres to give blood – usually every 17 weeks. Others put themselves on bone marrow registers and carry donor cards. All of this to help people they know they will never meet.

There have been cases where a small animal, a cat or puppy, sometimes even a child has become lodged in some deep underground pipe. Hundreds of people have mobilised to rescue it – fire crews, ambulance personnel, engineers,  rescue services of every description. Contractors have freely sent in mechanical diggers. In most cases these people work endlessly, sometimes for days on end, sometimes without sleep, more often than not unpaid, until the cat or dog or the small child is rescued. You can’t get near the site for TV crews and newspaper camera men – all desperate to capture the ‘human interest’ story, in the knowledge that this makes big news (as well as profits for the newspapers and TV networks, it must be said).

So the evidence hardly suggests that humans are selfish, greedy and aggressive. Indeed, if this was the case, if we could just not help ourselves, then we would very much see the type of court case we began this episode with far more often.

What most critics of human nature are actually referring to is human behaviour, behaviour exhibited in varying circumstances, and sometimes this reveals humans to be displaying behaviour that is aggressive or selfish.

For instance, if you go to Newcastle on a Saturday afternoon you’ll see thousands of people out shopping, strolling along quietly, minding their own business. Return ten hours later when the pubs and night clubs empty, when the same streets are full of drunken youths and you’ll see behaviour that is quite blatantly aggressive and anti-social. This is not natural aggression, but aggression which is arising because the normal functioning of thousands of brains is being upset by an overdose of the chemical alcohol and other drugs taken during the course of the evening as these young workers try to unwind after a stressful week at work.

Anti-social behaviour is also influenced by our social circumstances at any given time, i.e., when we are poor, depressed, lonely, afraid, angry or frustrated – sometimes a spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion arising from abnormal and unfamiliar circumstances.

Socialists maintain that human behaviour is shaped in general by our surroundings, our circumstances, by the kind of system people are conditioned to live in – that it is not our consciousness that determines our social existence but our social existence which determines our consciousness. Nobody, for example, is born a racist or a patriot, a bigot, or with a belief in gods – this has to be learned. Nobody is born a murderer, a robber or a rapist, and our assumed greed for money is no more a function of the natural human thought process than were slavery or witch burning.

Ordinarily, the reactionary ideas the common people hold have been acquired second-hand, passed down from the ruling class above us. This is because, as Marx observed, the class which owns and controls the productive process also controls the intellectual life process in general.

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 cite that 8 times 8 equals 64, but how many will ask about the cause of wars or query the destruction of food? Moreover, the master class is allowed to hold onto power by controlling exactly what we think to the point that we imbibe a false class consciousness and readily acquiesce in our own exploitation. They control the TV, the radio, the newspapers, the schools. They perpetuate ideas that become so ubiquitous many people accept them as their own, uncritically. Many of these ideas are reactionary and, once imbibed, provide fertile soil for other reactionary ideas.

Socialists hold that because we can adapt our behaviour, the desire to cooperate should not be viewed as illogical. 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. Today, world capitalism threatens the human race with extinction. The reason this obnoxious system survives is because we have been conditioned to accept it, not born to perpetuate it.

Rest assured: no gene inclines us to defend the profit system.
John Bissett

Porritt remodels capitalism (2006)

Book Review from the July 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Capitalism As if the World Matters. Jonathon Porritt. Earthscan. 304 pages. £18.

Capitalism can be reformed so as to be compatible with achieving an environmentally sustainable society. That’s the view put forward by Jonathon Porritt, well-known Green and unofficial political adviser to HRH Prince Charles (as he refers to him in his latest book) which presents a version of capitalism that is supposed to allow it to function while taking ecological considerations properly into account, which it doesn’t do today.

What would a society have to be like to be environmentally sustainable? Basically, says Porritt (and we can agree), this would be a society whose methods of providing for the needs of its members did not use up non-renewable resources quicker than renewable substitutes for them could be found; did not use up renewal resources quicker than nature could reproduce them; and did not release waste into nature quicker than the environment’s ability to absorb it. (Porritt himself adds – and we’d be the last to disagree, even though it ups the bar considerably – that it would have to be a society in which “human needs are met worldwide”.) If these practices are abided by, then the relationship and interactions between human society and the rest of nature would be able to continue on a long-term basis – would be able to be “sustained” – without harming or degrading the natural environment on which humans depend.

Socialists contend that these practices could be systematically applied only within the context of the Earth’s natural and industrial resources being the common heritage of all humanity under democratic control. In other words, we place ourselves unambiguously in the camp of those who argue that capitalism and a sustainable relationship with the rest of nature are not compatible. The excessive consumption of both renewal and non-renewable resources and the release of waste that nature can’t absorb that currently go on are not just accidental but an inevitable result of capitalism’s very nature.

Capitalism is a society in which:
  1. nearly all new wealth is produced for sale on a market;
  2. money is invested in production with a view to obtaining a monetary profit;
  3. those who produce the new wealth are exploited in that the source of profits is work they are not paid for;
  4. production is regulated by the market via a competitive struggle between separately-owned enterprises for profits;
  5. capital is accumulated out of profits in the form of new means of production, leading to the growth both of what can be produced and what is actually produced;
To which it can be added that capitalism exists as a single global system and not as a collection of separate national capitalisms.

Porritt accepts all of these as features of capitalism except point 3 (of course). His case is that if the government set the limits within which the market, the pursuit of profits, separately-owned enterprises and competition operated, these could operate to allow an environmentally sustainable society. According to him, capitalism and environmental sustainability “are only compatible under certain conditions (it isn’t capitalism per se that is at issue here, but which particular model of capitalism)”. He therefore subscribes to “a ‘reform from within’ strategy: identify those characteristics of today’s dominant capitalist paradigm that most damagingly impede progress towards sustainability and set out to change them through the usual levers – government intervention, consumer preference, international diplomacy, education and so on”.

In short, a classic reformist strategy. This is based on the assumption that “today’s dominant capitalist paradigm” is only one of a number of different possible capitalist “paradigms” or “models”. But the evidence is against this: there is not a range of different models of capitalism from which government can pick the one they prefer. Capitalism is a single, organic whole (to use a term Greens will understand), functioning to pursue and accumulate profits,  which cannot be remodelled mechanically. Past attempts to re-form capitalism in this sort of way, as for instance by the Labour Party and similar parties in other countries, have shown that, if there’s capitalism, it imposes its priorities – profit, competitiveness, accumulation – over all other considerations, and that in the end governments have no choice but to go along with this.

Rather than Labour-type parties changing capitalism it has been the other way round. These parties have ended up accepting that priority has to be given to capitalism’s priorities. The same is beginning to happen to the Greens, who have already participated in the government of capitalism in a number of European countries. In fact, Porritt’s own shift of position could be seen as a sign of this, though it can be admitted that some of the earlier Green positions he used to espouse but has now abandoned – such as “zero growth” and that decentralised local communities could solve global problems – were never tenable.

One of the ways in which Porritt suggests that governments could achieve a “a market-based model of sustainable capitalism” would be to force the competing enterprises to treat natural resources as if they were capital, subject to depreciation which had to be accounted for in monetary terms. He talks of “natural capital”, while acknowledging that even some Greens find treating nature as an economic category with a price-tag abhorrent.

All governments set as a policy goal increasing the “Gross Domestic Product” (GDP) of the country they govern. GDP is supposed to be a measure of the new value produced in a country in the course of a year. (Actually, strictly speaking, this should be Net National Product since GDP includes an element for depreciation and replacement of used-up fixed capital, which is not really new value.) This aim of governments is an unconscious reflection of the logic of capitalism since the new value created over and above what is consumed during the same period of time is the source of new capital which capitalism is driven to accumulate.

Endless “growth” (even if in fits and starts) – and the growing consumption of nature-given materials this involves – is built in to capitalism. However, this is not the growth of useful things as such but rather the growth of money-values, which is only indirectly the growth of things since money-value can only be embodied in things (not that all of these things are useful from a human point of view, even if they are within capitalist society, such as bombs and automatic cash machines).

Porritt cites the first law of thermodynamics (“energy is neither created nor destroyed as it is changed from one form to another”) to make the point that the production of wealth is not the creation of new material; it is merely a transformation of existing material that either comes directly from nature or originally did so into something useful or considered useful to human life (the definition of “wealth”). The material substratum of wealth comes from nature but, because it is not itself the product of labour, it has no value in the capitalist economic sense. Marx was fond of quoting the 17th century writer Sir William Petty’s remark that labour is the father and nature the mother of wealth. The problem is that, as under capitalism it is only labour that confers an economic value, nature is neglected when it comes to economic calculations and the operation of the economy.

Porritt complains that “we show nothing but contempt for the contribution from nature, valuing it at zero as some kind of free gift or subsidy” and that, as a result, “today’s dominant paradigm of capitalism” leads to the plundering of non-renewable resources (such as oil and minerals) and the over-harvesting of renewable ones (such as fish and forests).

This is true but his proposed solution – to take into account the non-renewed consumption of natural material as a negative amount when calculating GDP, as an incentive to cut back on it as a way of avoiding a reduction in GDP – is merely mucking about with the thermometer while leaving the real world unchanged. In the real world, which GDP merely attempts to measure, the competing enterprises would still only take into account as a cost what they had to pay for. As it costs no labour to produce natural materials (only to extract or harvest them, not to create them), whether or not they are renewed doesn’t enter into the calculation. If enterprises were forced to artificially take into account using up non-renewed natural resources in their business accounts, that would distort the calculation of the rate of profit which is the key economic indicator for capitalism. Mucking about with that under capitalism would cause all sorts of problems.

There is no way round this under capitalism, which simply cannot be remodelled or reformed on this point. To be fair, Porritt does concede that he could be wrong about capitalism and environmental sustainability and muses how bad it would be “to be committed to a reform agenda if the system one sought to reform was inherently incapable of accommodating the necessary changes in the first place”. Actually, this is precisely his case. This being so, he ought to draw the conclusion which he says then imposes itself:

“If, as a politically active environmentalist or campaigner for social justice, one’s answer to the question is that they are, indeed, mutually exclusive (that capitalism, in whichever manifestation, is in its very essence inherently unsustainable), then one’s only morally consistent response is to devote one’s political activities to the overthrow of capitalism”.

We have nothing to add.
Adam Buick

Pathfinders: La Dolce Vita (2006)

The Pathfinders Column from the July 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

La Dolce Vita

New Scientist of June 3 ran a cover page splash on nine different routes to health and long life, all supposedly based on the latest research. These nine ways were: 1: have a little of what’s bad for you; 2: socialise more; 3: consider moving to where people live longer; 4: enjoy your vices (er, same as 1?); 5: keep your brain active; 6: relax, have a laugh, kill stress; 7: be a hypochondriac; 8: eat healthier; 9: make life more exciting.

New Scientist clearly should have read their own magazine from the week before (May 27), because while there may be nothing wrong with these suggestions, there is one more way of staying healthy and living longer which the magazine inexcusably forgot to mention: don’t be poor, be rich. According to Michael Marmot, professor of epidemiology and public health at University College, London, and author of Status Syndrome (Bloomsbury, 2004):
  “There is a social gradient in health. It is not only that the poor have poor health: the lower someone’s social position, the worse their health is. During the period from the 1970s to the 1990s, the gap in life expectancy between men in the top and bottom socio-economic groups in England and Wales increased from 5.5 years to 9.5 years” (New Scientist, May 27). 
And as Marmot notes, it is not a question of absolute poverty, as for example in sub-Saharan countries, but relative poverty and lack of autonomy.

Marmot conducted a study of civil servants that showed that lower ranks, with less control, had a higher risk of heart disease. He argues that there is a causal relationship between low status and lack of control over decision-making and stress-related disease, and his solution is government legislation to redistribute income more equitably.

Socialists know there is a fat chance of this happening, and that within the framework of capitalism, any short term advantage thus gained would soon be wiped out anyway. All the indications are that common ownership and democratic control are the best way to long life and happiness.

A Whale of a Tale

When members vote in Socialist Party ballots, the votes are open, whereas in capitalist political elections, the votes are secret. In a society free of sectional interests, there ought to be no reason for an individual to keep their opinions and their votes to themselves. However in early capitalism, where votes were also open, huge pressures were brought to bear on individual voters. These pressures included bribery, blackmail, and threats of eviction, sackings, personal injury and death.

Eventually workers won the right to a secret ballot, and thus the situation remains, except in the Socialist Party, of course, where elections tend not to inspire such extreme responses, and where, besides, the feeling is that a democratic process needs to be as transparent as possible in order to see and understand what is going on. Thus, paradoxically, both open and secret voting can be seen as aiding, or inhibiting, the practice of democratic fair play.

A recent case illustrates both sides of this problem. The International Whaling Commission is, as most marine environmentalists know, about to have control wrested back from the whale-friendly conservationist ruling junta, who for the past twenty years have imposed a moratorium on all commercial whaling.

The country leading the coup, Japan, have been busily running around offering bribes of aid to small island countries in order to get their votes to resume whaling (New Scientist, June 17). Japan is not in a position to gain 75 percent of the vote to do this yet, but can probably secure over 50 percent needed for a simple majority to change current voting practice from open to secret. As small countries like the Marshall Islands face what Australia describes as ‘international outrage’ if they succumb to bribes and vote with Japan, the incentive to cast their votes secretly is clearly very strong.
But most of these countries, indeed most of the IWC members, are not whaling countries. So what are they doing in the IWC in the first place?

The original regulatory body of the IWC, established in 1946, consisted of just 15 whaling nations. Through a long and, some might say, heroic struggle by Peter Scott of the World Wildlife Fund, a loophole in the IWC’s constitution was exploited, allowing non-whaling nations to join. These new members outnumbered the original ‘butcher’s club’ and were happy, as a result of various ‘incentives’ by the conservationist lobby, to vote the whalers into retirement. All that Japan have done is to open the membership still further, to the present level of 70 countries, and change the nature of the incentives. However, the big discouragement to small countries is that they may lose more than they gain by supporting Japan, unless they can do it on the quiet. Hence, the first step to the resumption of whaling is to obtain a secret ballot.

The question of whether whaling would exist in socialist society is not the biggest that will face that society. However, a huge factor influencing the activities of countries like Japan and Norway is that a large proportion of their economies rely on it. At present the taste for whalemeat is in decline globally, even in Japan, so they may be fighting a losing battle in any case. But in socialism, where people’s lives and livelihoods won’t depend on this hideous practice, it is hard to imagine any justification for continuing it. Let the giants keep their deep. Humans can find other ways to provide for themselves.

Blueblood genes

Something even non-scientific readers of scientific developments quickly become wary of are bold claims. As Carl Sagan often insisted, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In the absence of this, one is entitled to take the proposition that entrepreneurs (capitalists) are genetically pre-dispositioned, with a pinch of salt (BBC Online, June 6). A study of 609 pairs of identical twins and 657 pairs of same-sex non-identical twins in the UK found that the rate of entrepreneurship between the two groups was the same as the general population, but the rate of entrepreneurship for both twins was higher in identical twins (sharing all their genes) than non-identicals (sharing about half their genes). This, announced the researchers, was evidence that genes play an important role in determining who is likely to succeed in business and who isn’t, which in turn may affect which students business schools might prefer to enrol on their courses.

Professor Tim Spector, director of the Twin Research Unit at St Thomas’ Hospital, London, is enthusiastic about genetics but plainly out of his depth in economics: “Although entrepreneurs are vital to the economy, as they create wealth and jobs, no-one knows precisely what drives people to become an entrepreneur.”

This illustrates something Pathfinders has noted before, that scientists have a tendency to one-dimensional thinking: while they may challenge every assumption within their own field of research, they are happy to base their work on any and every assumption in other fields, no matter how crude and unsupported. That capitalists create wealth is not simply an assumption fostered only by capitalists themselves, it displays an ignorance of the everyday world, of economics and of history, bordering on the crass. Moreover, the current craze of looking for genetic causes for every aspect of human behaviour is fast becoming as tedious as it is futile, and simply plays to the media obsession for simple soundbite science.

There is no capitalist gene, just as there is no fat gene, or violence gene, or possessive gene. Scientists who make public announcements of tenuous results of tenuous studies of tenuous premises risk immersing the debate in mud and obscurantiscism. The truth is, if you run your society in a violent and competitive way, it will inevitably produce violent and competitive people. Which particular DNA proteins or base-pair combinations were involved, is in one sense rather beside the point.
Paddy Shannon