Friday, July 31, 2020

Voice From The Back: “Modern” Britain (2010)

The Voice From The Back column from the July 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

“Modern” Britain

There is a notion about that because in Britain we have a new political situation of parliamentary sharing that something has changed about the class division of society. It is just not true. “At St. James’s club in London, a new toast is overheard: ‘To the Nineteen.’ This refers, as you no doubt spotted at once, to the 19 Old Etonians who have become prime ministers. Jolly good.” (Sunday Times, 16 May) “Almost four-fifths of the new cabinet are millionaires, according to an analysis by The Sunday Times. As the government prepares to wield the axe on public spending, research reveals that 18 of the 23 full-time cabinet members have seven-figure fortunes, collectively worth about £50 million.” (Sunday Times, 23 May) So modern Britain looks a lot like old Britain. The people who produce wealth – the working class are exploited by the owning class. Wake up fellow workers we need a new society.

The Chasm Of Class

At a time in the USA when many members of the working class find themselves unemployed and their homes re-possessed it is worthwhile looking at how the American capitalist class are dealing with the economic downturn. Time-share mogul David Siegel and his former beauty queen wife Jacqueline have had to sell their Florida mansion for a mere $50 million. The 30 bedroom house and estate, named and modelled on the palace of Versailles in France, includes a boat house, a ballroom, an Olympic-size pool, a theatre and a baseball field. “The 23-bathroom house may appeal to a buyer so wealthy they do not even move in, said local estate agent Kelly Price. ‘Versailles will probably be a house that will appeal to the uber-wealthy who don’t even think about the issue of money,’ she added. ‘It might be a second or third home. For all we know, it could be a seventh or eighth home.'” (Metro,27 May) Useful productive members of the working class are homeless while the useless parasite class have multiple mansions – that is capitalism for you.

Nice Suicides

“Steve Jobs has said the Chinese iPhone factory where 10 workers have killed themselves this year is actually ‘pretty nice’. Speaking at the All Things Digital conference in California, the Apple CEO also brushed aside questions about his relationship with Google … Taiwanese electronics manufacturer Foxconn makes Dell, Nokia and Apple products at its factory in Shenzhen, China. As reported by The First Post, the latest suicide came last week, when a 23-year-old worker jumped to his death from a building roof. Jobs denied Foxconn ran a sweatshop and told the conference that Apple was working with the company to get to the bottom of why so many people were killing themselves. ‘You go in this place and it’s a factory but, my gosh, they’ve got restaurants and movie theatres and hospitals and swimming pools. For a factory, it’s pretty nice,’ said Jobs.” (First Post, 2 June) What millionaire Mr Jobs does not mention is that the workforce stand for a 12 hour work day under constant camera surveillance for the princely sum of £90 per month and live in factory-owned dormitories. The factory is considering improving conditions by introducing “soothing” music, dancing instructors and a suicide hotline! The mindless repetitious factory 12 hour slog may seem “pretty nice” to Mr Jobs as he counts the millions of dollars extracted from the exploitation of these Chinese workers, but at least one worker last week decided to end his “pretty nice” servitude.

Class Divide In China

The awful gap between the rich and the poor in modern China was illustrated by two recent news items. A series of industrial disputes leading to strikes has broken out in China. “They began at Honda’s car plant in the south near Hong Kong. Since then, disputes, demonstrations and picketing have broken out at electronic firms, vehicle parts makers and other factories as far away as Shanghai. Even the 8,000 workers who make the balls used in the Fifa world cup in South Africa are reported to have gone on strike after discovering that one football is sold for the equivalent of a fortnight’s salary.” (Sunday Times, 13 June) According to the chief executive of Rolls Royce Motor Cars “China is now our second largest market, with about 20 per cent of sales, and is doing very, very well.” …. “The Phantom model starts at £235,000 and the Ghost, the new baby Rolls launched this year, at £165,000. The Phantom is about presence, about making a statement. That is why it is so popular in China.” (Times, 7 June) This immense conspicuous consumption is only possible out of the sweated labour of the Chinese working class toiling for a fortnight for the pittance of the price of a football.

Tired, stressed, robbed and alienated (2010)

From the July 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
“The binge working culture is taking its toll.”
On Sunday, 16 May, the Observer published two interesting and informative articles: ‘Sunday Blues and ruin weekends for many Britons’, by Tracy McVeigh, and ‘The binge working culture is taking its toll’, by Denis Campbell.

McVeigh observes: “The recession is raising stress levels so high that a quarter of workers are finding their weekends ruined by the Sunday blues ­­­– a dread of going back to the office next day – according to a report.” The report by ‘Mind’, said that 26 percent of workers felt dread and apprehension the day before they were due back to work after a weekend off.

Other findings include high rates of illness, and extensive low morale. High rates of unpaid overtime were mentioned. Many people “are living with constant fear of redundancy, and often taking on extra duties because of a recession – reduced workforce, and downsizing could mean years of uncertainty for workers”, notes the report. Indeed, the numbers of people reported to have left their jobs due to stress rose from 6 percent in 2004 to 8 percent in 2009. Working conditions have deteriorated; and people “are struggling to cope with extra demands of working harder, longer hours, and are under more pressure as their employers battle for survival”.

 Isolation with longer hours

Denis Campbell, citing research published by the European Heart Journal, notes that depressingly familiar picture of Britons – British workers – slaving over their terminals “way beyond their supposed finishing time, sometimes involves a fatal price”. Those working three or more hours of overtime a day, are more likely to develop heart trouble, and potentially die of a heart attack than those who work a normal seven-hour day. And, reports the Heart Journal: “With increasing stress comes growing isolation from normal non-work activities – friends, family, hobbies.” Marriages come under pressure; tensions rise and personal relationships suffer. “The recession has made all this worse.” Unemployed workers, of whom there are now 2.5m (officially, but actually far more) face different pressures, says Campbell.

Paul Sellars, of the TUC, says that the European Working Time Directive specifies that workers should not work more than 48 hours a week. Anyone working 60 hours is almost certain to suffer harmful effects and ill-health. Research by the Sainsbury Centre for Mental Health, in 2007, stated that 70m working days were lost to mental stress every year.

 Production for profit – not for use

Why do workers accept such long hours, and such conditions of employment?

We live in a capitalist society. Capitalism is not a dirty word, or term of abuse, although it has been used by leftists and others as such. It is worldwide, and now embraces every country. Nothing is just national.

Briefly, capitalism is a social system wherein the means and factors of wealth production – land, factories, officers, the means of transportation – take the form of capital, and are privately owned by a minority of individuals, or the state, to the exclusion of the majority of the population. And capital is nothing more nor less than wealth used to create more wealth through the exploitation (in truth a form of legalised robbery) of a large number of wage and salary earners, employees, of whom most own little or nothing except their ability to work for an employer. In such a society, almost everything is produced primarily for exchange, for a profit, not just for use.

In the main, things are not manufactured and services rendered solely because people need or desire them. If, like millions of people throughout the world, you do not have enough money to buy, say, food or fuel you will almost certainly go without.


The increasing concentration of ownership and control by a minority class has tended to restrict individual initiative and responsibility. It has weakened the “self”, and stifled creativity. People have become atomised, mere cogs in a wheel, after rushing hither and thither for no apparent reason other than toiling on behalf of an employer, real or abstract. They have become alienated.

Originally, alienation meant insanity. Nowadays, it means estrangement or loss. Isolated. Alienation in production has led to individual powerlessness, and to a general feeling of isolation and frustration. Workers today have become alienated and estranged from their livelihood, from the very things that they have produced, and from their fellow workers; indeed, even from themselves.

Modern capitalism has completely changed our attitude to work. As previously noted, the last thing many of us want to do is get up in the morning (and particularly after a weekend of “freedom”) and go to “work”. It has destroyed craftsmanship and a joy in work. Often, it has become merely compulsive. Of course, what we really mean is not work at all, but employment. It is not surprising, therefore, that many workers become stressed and/or ill. So-called middle-class managers (who are themselves generally also members of the working class) often suffer the most from mental and physical strain, although they often underestimate the effects they have on other workers (Observer, 16 May).

Bureaucratic or Democratic Control?

Generally, our jobs are repetitive, uninteresting and, from our viewpoint, purposeless. We have little or no control over what we do, or what we produce. In fact, the division of labour is now so extreme that none of us ever makes a complete article. Indeed, many workers ever actually see the finished produce.

An important aspect of modern society is bureaucratisation. Capitalism has become increasingly bureaucratic. This applies to industry, the state and many other non-state institutions. Capitalism is largely organised by bureaucrats. And the bureaucrat’s relationship to people is one of almost complete alienation. It is largely impersonal. It affects not just industry and employment, but such voluntary organisations as trade unions and reformist political parties (and even revolutionary ones).

Capitalism is not really democratic. At best in a country such as Britain, a certain amount of limited democracy has been achieved over the last 150 years or so. But that is all. Capitalism rules. Money rules.

Unfortunately, however, most people are not aware of the prevailing alienation, domination and lack of real democratic control within capitalism. Most people accept, with reservations, the world as it is. Some reject, and even demonstrate against, certain aspects of present society. Workers struggle against the effects of exploitation and the wages system. But little else. They do not reject capitalism as such


The last sentence of our principles declares our determination to end, as speedily as possible, the present system, which deprives the working class of the “fruits of their labour”, and “that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality and slavery to freedom”. This is not wishful thinking.

Freedom from capitalism, with its apprehension, stress, illness, reported in the Observer cited above, cannot be attained by a few in a vast sea of alienation, and unfreedom. The emancipation of one necessitates the emancipation of all, of society as a whole, and by a majority. It must be the conscious aim of the mass of society; although each person, however, will have to achieve her or his own mental revolution first. Only then will private ownership of the means of life be converted into common ownership and democratic control, and government over people be replaced by an administration of things. It will not be easy. But necessary.
Peter E. Newell

Material World: Israel’s State Piracy: Warding Off The Threat Of Peace (2010)

The Material World Column from the July 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

The immediate purpose of Israel’s state piracy and mass kidnapping in the Eastern Mediterranean is clear. The aim is to maintain the siege (“closure”) of the Gaza Strip that was imposed in 2007 to induce the Gazans to overthrow the Hamas administration they had just elected. Of course, the political effect of the blockade, which caused enormous suffering (see Material World, July 2008), was just the opposite.

But there is an even more important aim – to reassert Israeli control over Gaza’s borders, airspace and territorial waters. This control was not relinquished when PM Ariel Sharon withdrew ground forces and settlers in 2005. Keeping Gaza and the West Bank isolated from direct contact with the outside world is crucial to Israel’s claim to continued sovereignty over the occupied territories and preventing the emergence of a sovereign Palestinian state (or two such states).

Some sections of the Israeli ruling class are prepared to accept a peace settlement based on the “two-state solution”. Peace would give Israeli business unrestricted access to Arab export markets and cheap labour. The present government, however, is a creature of interests tied to the occupation – above all, the military-industrial complex and the settlers’ lobby. The parties of the governing parliamentary coalition are either (like PM Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud) loathe to contemplate a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state or (like Jewish Home) committed to Greater Israel and thus opposed to a Palestinian state in principle.

For these people, peace is a threat to be warded off at all costs. A danger that peace might be imposed emerged when the United States, on which Israel is now totally dependent, elected a president who believes that American strategic interests at the regional and global level demand urgent resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Why so violent?
This may help explain a somewhat puzzling aspect of Israel’s response to the Free Gaza flotilla. Why was it so violent?

The Israeli navy could have maintained the blockade and its control of Gazan waters simply by blocking the path of the aid ships until they gave up and went away. This method had worked well in the past. By massacring a dozen or so activists and hurting and humiliating many more – including influential individuals such as parliamentarians, former diplomats, and film makers – Israel has created a PR disaster for itself. It has strained relations with countries around the world and alienated its main regional ally, Turkey.

Part of the explanation may be that key members of the Israeli cabinet are ex-generals accustomed to tackling political problems by military means (defence minister Ehud Barak) or simply thugs (foreign minister and former bouncer Avigdor Lieberman). They seem to have thought that a brutal reaction would deter future attempts to break the siege.

There is another plausible motive. An atmosphere of heightened confrontation, making progress toward a negotiated settlement impossible, may have been exactly what the Israeli government sought to achieve. And if Israel’s state terrorism provokes a new upsurge in Palestinian terrorism, that will serve even better to thwart Obama and ward off the threat of peace.

Offshore gas 
There is another aspect to the issue of control over Gazan waters – one that commentators usually overlook. In 1999, the Palestinian Authority (PA) signed a 25-year agreement with British Gas and the Athens-based but Lebanese-owned Consolidated Contractors International Company (CCC) to explore for oil and gas off the Gazan coast. Two wells were drilled in 2000 and, sure enough, a major gas field was found, not very far from the spot where the Free Gaza flotilla was attacked. (Some offshore oil was also found.) Rights to the proceeds were assigned: 60 percent to British Gas, 30 percent to CCC, and only 10 percent to the PA. Nevertheless, the discovery enhanced prospects for an economically viable Palestinian state.

When Sharon became prime minister in 2001, he challenged Palestinian sovereignty over the gas field and declared that Israel would never buy gas from the PA. The consortium made plans to pump the gas to Egypt instead. But all plans were scuppered in 2006 when Hamas replaced the PA in Gaza. Israel then tried to take over the negotiations, but British Gas decided to put the whole risky project on hold. Presumably both Israel and the PA still hope that eventually the gas will be theirs.

What next? 
Israeli state piracy did not have the desired intimidating effect. More attempts to run the blockade followed. Iran and Turkey have offered naval escorts for future flotillas. Conceivably this will broaden the war, though it is more likely that the US will force Israel to abandon the siege. This is likely to trigger the collapse of the current Israeli government and greatly increase the chances of a peace settlement under its successor.

A settlement will not eliminate capitalist rivalry over resources and zones of control. The seeds of future war will remain. Yet as socialists we will welcome even a fragile peace that temporarily halts the horrors of occupation and terror.

That is partly because we sympathize with the suffering of our fellow workers, whatever their ethnic origin. It is always they who suffer the brunt of their masters’ wars.

It is also because war provides an ideal opportunity and excuse to suppress democratic rights on both sides. Peace will create better conditions for democracy. No longer obsessed with ethnic conflict, “Jews” and “Palestinians” will be able to refocus on the social, economic and ecological problems spawned by the “normal” peacetime functioning of capitalism. A space for socialist ideas will open up in this corner of our world.

German President tells the truth (2010)

From the July 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

On a visit in May to German troops fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan, the German President, Horst Köhler, defended this military action by telling a reporter:
 “A country of our size, with its focus on exports and thus reliance on foreign trade, must be aware that . . . military deployments are necessary in an emergency to protect our interests – for example when it comes to trade routes, for example when it comes to preventing regional instabilities that could negatively influence our trade, jobs and incomes” (Link).
The resulting outcry led to his resignation. But he had only told the truth.

 The reason why the various states into which the world is artificially divided equip their armed forces with the most up-to-date weapons they can afford is because, under capitalism, “might is right”.

 “Might” does not have to be actually used – in fact it normally isn’t – but a state’s “might ” is a factor in the jockeying between states for economic position. This is why a Labour Party shadow foreign secretary once defended the British H-bomb by saying that he didn’t want to go into the conference chamber naked. Neither do Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Kim Jong Il.

The “mightier” a state the more chance it has of getting its point of view taken into account in diplomatic negotiations which, in the end, are over access to sources of raw materials, markets, investment outlets, trade routes and strategic areas to protect these. A fact perfectly expressed by Köhler.

 He was trying to justify German military intervention in Afghanistan, which is not popular in Germany, by explaining the economic rationale behind it. Normally this is reserved for internal foreign ministry memorandums or studies by specialist think tanks, while the general public are fed all sorts of more or less specious reasons less likely to put them off. Blurting out the real reason for German military action – and Western intervention generally – in Afghanistan was an error of judgment for a politician and why he had to resign.

 Britain is also a country of Germany’s size “with its focus on exports and thus reliance on foreign trade” and has troops fighting in Afghanistan to try to establish stability in the area and prevent it from being used as a base for groups which threaten the West’s supplies of oil from the Middle East. A pipeline through the area is also a possible “trade route” to the sea for oil from central Asia.

 The troops are not there to protect workers in Britain from terrorist attacks in London and other cities. In fact their presence there probably increases this risk. But putting the protection of capitalist economic interests before people’s safety is typical of capitalism‘s priorities..

Indispensable guide (2010)

Book Review from the July 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Companion to Marx’s Capital. David Harvey, Verso, 2010, £10.99

Most people who try to read Marx’s Capital give up before the end of the third chapter. This is a shame because, as David Harvey points out in this companion volume, Capital is a rich, multi-dimensional and “astonishingly good” book, despite the undeniable difficulties. Indeed, it would hardly be going too far to suggest – as the author of a previous introductory guide to Capital, Anthony Brewer, did – that reading Capital is “indispensable” to anyone who wants to understand the modern world.

 Harvey’s Companion is the book form of his excellent series of lectures teaching Capital Volume 1, which you can watch online for free or for a donation at His aim in both the lectures and the book is to get you to read Capital all the way through, and in Marx’s own terms. He succeeds brilliantly, getting the balance about right between a close focus on Marx’s text, and his own commentary to help explain it, and situate it in the modern world.

 If you follow the lectures online by watching one per week, then reading the prescribed chapters during the week, you can have volume 1 of Capital, the absolutely supreme book in the socialist canon, under your belt in just 13 weeks. This schedule is challenging but doable. If you don’t have internet access, Harvey’s book will do just as well, though obviously you’ll have more reading to do. Highly recommended.
Stuart Watkins

Non-productive labour (2010)

Book Review from the July 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Global capitalism in crisis. Karl Marx and the Decay of the Profit System.  By Murray E. G. Smith, Fenwood Publishing, Canada. 

 Marx left an ambiguous legacy on “unproductive” labour in that two different theories about it can be found in his writings. The first – which was essentially that of classical political economy going back to Adam Smith – was that labour exchanged against capital was productive while labour exchanged against revenue was not. The logic behind this was that labour employed by capital not only reproduced its own value but also a surplus value over and above this, and so increased the amount of wealth in existence; labour employed out of income such as rents or profits, as for instance on domestic servants, did not result in this but, on the contrary, used up existing wealth.

 But what about labour employed by capital invested in trading and in banking? This also added nothing to the amount of wealth, let alone value, already in existence but still yielded a profit for the capitalist employer of such labour. Marx’s explanation was that productive capitalists in effect handed over a part of the surplus value produced by their workers to these non-productive capitalists who were carrying out an essential function for the capitalist economy (if they didn‘t do this they would have to lay out some of their own capital to cover these activities). The workers in these non-productive employments produced no surplus value themselves but helped acquire surplus value for their employers. So, (second theory) it was possible even for some labour exchanged against capital to be non-productive.

 Murray Smith discusses another category of labour – that employed by the state – which fell into the category of “non-productive” (unless the state itself was involved in production). In Marx’s day – or rather in the days of Smith, Ricardo, Malthus and the others whose ideas Marx discusses – the assumption was that this was akin to the labour of domestic servants and so a drag on capital accumulation.

 In those days this may well have been true since most government employees then were either concerned with collecting taxes or were place-hunters milking the state. Today, however, this is no longer the case. Most national and local government employees are engaged in activities, such as the education and health care of workers, which are just as essential to capitalism as trading and banking. Can they really still be assimilated to domestic servants, i.e. to more or less frivolous spending by the idle rich?

 Murray Smith argues that they should not be. He suggests that expenditure on them should be classified together with the labour of trading and banking workers under the general heading of “socially necessary unproductive labour” (SNUL). He goes further and argues that they and the equipment they use should be assimilated rather to Marx’s concept of “constant capital”, i.e. as capital which merely transfers its value to the new product. From this perspective the taxation which pays for it is not a deduction from surplus value but a part of the capital outlay of the capitalist class as a whole (“social capital”).

 Smith wants to do this mainly because, by transferring such spending from s to c, it reduces the average of profit (s/(c+ v), considerably in fact, so supporting his theory that a fall in the rate of profit caused by c increasing faster than v (expenditure on productive labour) is the main cause of recurring capitalist crises. Quite apart for any decline in the rate of profit for this reason being a long run tendency that  would be too slow to affect cyclical crises,  state spending in reality impacts on the crucial rate of profit after tax (rather than before tax), hence the interest of capitalist firms is keeping state spending down if they can.

 Smith is a dyed-in-the-wool Trotskyist, a supporter of an organisation called the “International Bolshevik Tendency”, a name calculated to make the hair of genuine socialists stand on end. So you need to ignore all the arguments about China being a “deformed Workers State”, about the Bolshevik coup having been a socialist revolution, about the need for a vanguard party, a transitional programme of reforms, etc. etc to get at his basic argument about SNUL.
Adam Buick

Green capitalism (2010)

Book Review from the July 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Green capitalism and the cultural poverty of constructing nature as service provider.’ By Sian Sullivan, in Radical Anthropology, issue 3, 2009/10.

 It would be an exaggeration to say that the writers in Radical Anthropology put the case for socialism. But, at least, some of them criticise aspects of capitalism and present evidence for that criticism.

 A good example is the article by Sullivan, who discusses green capitalism, also known as market environmentalism and green neo-liberalism. The basic idea is that ‘if we just price the environment correctly—creating new markets for new “environmental products” based on monetised measures of environmental health and degradation—then everyone and the environment will win’.

 All that amounts to the economic rationalisation of nature. Stock exchanges, dealing in new environmental ‘products’ have been set up; for example the Climate exchanges in London and Chicago. Carbon credits are the currency representing the emission of carbon. ‘Once these credits enter the international financial system their future value can be speculated on (as with any other currency or commodity, including derivatives) and significant profits can ensue.’

 Capitalist culture has ridden roughshod over biological and cultural diversity and has impoverished both people and the environment. Pricing something is not the same as valuing it. As Sullivan observes, ‘We are critically impoverished as human beings if the best we can come up with is money as the mediator of our relationships with the non-human world.”
Stan Parker