Thursday, September 3, 2020

Selfishness (2020)

From the September 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

A common objection to the realisation of socialism is that it’s a nice idea, but contrary to human nature. This presupposes that there is a human quality fixed for all time acting as a prophylactic to prevent people collectively achieving a more benign society. Motivated by self-interest, individuals will act against the common interest.

There is more than a little anecdotal evidence for this being the case. Many a survey has declared that voters are prepared to pay higher taxes to better fund the NHS. Come election day, secluded in the polling booth, many then vote for the party offering tax cuts.

Infallible proof surely that human nature, a secular version of original sin, mitigates against the possibility of socialism. If people won’t countenance a modest tax increase for the general good of society, then they certainly won’t storm the citadels of capital.

The raising or lowering of taxes, of course, actually changes nothing in terms of how capitalism functions. A reformist party raising taxes does draw down from surplus value in the short term, while lowering them reduces this social tapping. The economic health capitalism largely determines which of those policies will actually be pursued.

Socialists point out the human species only survived because for most of pre-history, amounting to hundreds of thousands of years, cooperation was fundamental to survival. Human nature, as with any animal’s nature, is posited upon survival, the factor that determines how that nature manifests.
Human nature, therefore, rather than being fixed, is flexible, shaped by circumstances. In a society driven by competition, pitching individuals against each other and driven by the expectation of accumulation, human nature reflects this.

Even acknowledging such being the case does not entail a single, predictable expression. Self-interest may lead a person to say one thing, favour tax increase for the NHS, and yet do the opposite by voting for a tax decrease. The former offers the benefit of social kudos, the latter a perceived personal financial benefit.

Conversely, matching action to sentiment, a vote for tax increase may be a recognition, tacit or otherwise, that self-interest, in this case health care, is best served by having it properly funded and available if and when the individual needs it. A recognition that a social good is a personal good.

Both viewpoints are perfectly reasonable within the context of capitalism. Wanting to move beyond capitalism, though, requires the individual to recognise that their best interests are served through developing a society based on democratic common ownership of the means of producing to meet need rather than profit.

While the NHS is not a socialist institution it does have a social ethos at its base. In principle, people are treated according to immediate need not their ability to pay. That ethos is massively constrained by having to operate within capitalist parameters that limits the availability of treatments and their further development.

It is possible for an individual to be selfish and look only to satisfying personal needs. Perhaps, if not rich but comfortably off, it can seem there is no real imperative to pursue socialism. A moral case could be made highlighting the poverty of others, but a little charity and the conscience can be assuaged. Hardly an imperative for action.

However, comfortably off can quite quickly become discomfort. Capitalism is persistent but inherently unstable. Economic crisis can very rapidly impoverish swathes of the once well to do. Then there is the constant threat of war as competition between nations for economic advantage becomes bellicose.

Climate change and pandemics are exacerbated by the need for profit overriding the need of people for measures, and expenditure, to deal with them. Is this because capitalists are selfish? Probably some, maybe many are, but even if they weren’t it would make no difference. Capitalism can only operate by accumulating surplus value, profit.

In an ideal capitalist world in which everyone had become shareholders they would have to be selfish enough to want the companies their shares were in to prosper at the expense of competitors. Even without a parasitic capitalist class, fundamentally nothing would change while profit remained the driving force behind production.

Not that capitalism could exist without a capitalist class and it is in their selfish best interests to continue making profits. Or is it? Depends on how short or long term a view selfishness takes. Even a trillionaire ultimately does not benefit from the earth succumbing to global warming, increasing occurrences of pandemics or global military conflict erupting from trade wars. Even arms dealers perish.

For the vast majority, the world’s workers, it would serve them well to be selfish. If each individual decides he or she does not want to be frazzled by rising temperatures, left gasping for breath by the latest zoonotic virus, blown up by insurgents or air strikes, worried by financial insecurity, fretting about the future for the children and grandchildren et al, then become greedy.

Never mind about fiddling with taxes, decide to take the whole world. Socialist selfishness can only be realised through each selfish individual working in concert with every other one. A person’s own welfare and interests, rather than altruism, is a concrete starting point, a foundation on which to construct the socialist case.

Of course, selfishness can be negative and even destructive, but it is not necessarily a barrier to cooperative social progress. Human nature, in so far as it can be identified and defined, is not a fixed determinant of human behaviour. If there is an aspect of it that’s a problem for socialists it’s not selfishness but caution, a reluctance to leave behind the known, however unappealing, and step towards the unknown no matter how promising it seems.

Socialism has to become more than a nice idea and accepted as a necessity. If self-interest, selfishness, can play a part in that, all well and good. Then human nature can do what human nature does, adapt to a new world of cooperation. Just as it has done for the vast majority of human existence.
Dave Alton

‘Made in Leicester’ (2020)

From the September 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

People often associate sweatshop conditions in the clothing industry with Bangladesh or Cambodia but one consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to reveal garment factories in Leicester which can very easily be described as sweatshops.

‘Labour abuses’ (breaches of labour laws) and sweatshop conditions are occurring across the UK’s garment manufacturing industries, campaigners warn. In the factories of Leicester, there are as many as 10,000 mostly immigrant workers who are reportedly paid as little as £3 an hour. During the pandemic many have been forced to work with no protective equipment, and it is said to have contributed to a spike in coronavirus cases that resulted in a second lock-down in the city.

Human rights barrister and leading expert on human trafficking, Parosha Chandran, said, ‘I think this is an example of the type of exploitation that has been going on up and down the country during Covid. If that’s the estimate of what’s happening in Leicester, then what’s happening in Birmingham? Or Nottinghamshire? Or Manchester? Or London? Modern slavery is not just confined to one place in the Midlands. It’s going on everywhere…’

A 2018 report found breaches of labour laws similar to those uncovered in Leicester in garment factories across Greater Manchester. Machinists reported being paid £4 an hour and said their payslips were doctored to make it look like they had worked fewer hours than they had actually put in. ‘The way the market is at the minute, it’s the person who produces the good cheapest who gets the order,’ one said.

‘Exactly the same labour abuses that the government and brands are professing shock and horror over in Leicester are happening at scale across the country,’ said Emily Kenway, an adviser at Focus on Labour Exploitation.

‘Again and again we see the same coercive practices impacting on the most vulnerable workers who have no way of getting their voices heard and who are forced to accept whatever conditions are pushed on them by their employers, who have little to fear from the authorities,’ said Thulsi Narayanasamy, a labour rights researcher.

The number of health and safety inspectors employed by the Health and Safety Executive has dropped by a third from 1,495 in 2009 to 978 in 2017, with funding reduced from £239m to £139m over the same period.

‘If employers know that they won’t be inspected, face penalties and lose business then you’re creating conditions for abuse,’ said Dominique Muller, senior campaigner at Labour Behind the Label.

Downward pressure
There exists a relentless downward pressure exerted by the global fashion industry on the workers at the bottom of the supply chain. The resulting falling price paid to suppliers has led to a substantial decline in pay rates and working conditions over the past 10 years. Garment workers have been kept working in unsafe conditions for low pay by a fashion industry seeking to maximise its own profits. The buying practices of fast fashion include turning a blind eye to sub-contracting and allowing forced and unpaid overtime. These practices have encouraged the erosion of garment worker rights by employers.

The fashion industry profits from these breaches of labour law by their suppliers. Despite decades of government regulation and ‘fair trade’ policies, sweatshops have continued to prevail because of the introduction of a marketing model called ‘fast fashion’, constantly changing clothes styles, designed for one night-out, destined for the charity shops the following morning. Consumers are buying more clothes and discarding them faster than ever. Clothes have become disposable throwaway products. Shoppers look for the lowest priced clothes and retail outlets look for larger profit margins. The knock-on effects of this in the supply chains are either accepted by consumers or obscured by marketing campaigns peddling ‘ethical’ sourcing.

Anna Bryher, advocacy director for the campaign group Labour Behind the Label, said: ‘Women at the bottom of supply chains bear the brunt of fashion’s unrelenting push to be fast and cheap…It’s obscene.’ She added: ‘Women making our clothes in Bangladesh are routinely and systematically abused and harassed.’

A recent report by a US Senate committee found Bangladesh was backsliding on garment workers’ rights. Union leaders faced intimidation, hampering their ability to investigate claims of threats and abuse, mostly of female workers.

The pressure for brands to get fashions from catwalks on to shoppers’ backs and deliver profits for investors, can lead to a rivalry to secure the cheapest source – a phenomenon referred to as ‘chasing the needle.’ If wages rise and conditions improve in one region, companies look elsewhere to keep costs down. In Ethiopia, for example, wages are much lower than the rates paid in Bangladesh and it has led to the Ethiopian government making almost a virtue out of its low labour costs.

Worker organisation
As shoppers have become more aware of labour abuses, companies have been forced to scrutinise labour practices at the various factories involved in manufacturing their products and committing themselves to addressing problems from fear of consumer boycotts. Such approaches obscure the importance of building worker power to counteract sweatshop conditions. Consumer campaigns are limited in their ability to lessen sweatshop conditions and non-respect of labour laws. Some boycotts have led companies to cancel contracts, leaving workers in a worse position, facing unemployment.

Prioritising projects that promote workers’ ability to organise collectively is crucial for securing better conditions. Worker-led efforts, rather than corporate- or consumer-led ones, shift the focus to the ideas, needs and collective action of the workers themselves. Workers self-organising, both inside or alongside trade unions, is critical to achieving freedom of association and collective bargaining. Instead of relying upon governments, corporations and consumers, worker organisation challenges the relationships of power and authority and lessens the risk of labour abuse.

Rubaiyat Hossain in her film, ‘Made in Bangladesh’ tells the story of Shimu Akhtar, a young woman making clothes for Western clothing companies whose indignation at the working conditions she is forced to endure leads her to try to unionise the factory. Hossain says she wanted to go against the stereotype of the poor, exploited factory worker.
  ‘I wanted to show that these women are active agents, fighting for their rights and demanding to be heard,’ she says. ‘Too many people think of Bangladeshi women as victims sitting behind a sewing machine, but it is thanks to female garment workers that Bangladesh is now a middle-income country. And these young women are not victims, they are often feisty, young, spirited women who are fearless and brave…’

Summer School Report (2020)

Party News from the September 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Plans for this year’s Summer School sadly ground to a halt earlier in the year, as the lockdown came into effect and our usual venue – Fircroft College – had to temporarily close. 2020’s Summer School looked like it would be the one that never was. But when Discord came along we realised this could be the way to hold the event after all, much as it’s come to the rescue for other talks and meetings. Appropriately, given that Summer School’s theme is Technology, the internet and social media enabled us to go ahead. A bonus was that this meant it would be a shorter journey to a computer screen than to Birmingham, especially for people outside Britain.

Summer School was held on the 7– 9 August, with over 30 people joining in. The weekend’s agenda was more-or-less the same as if it had been at Fircroft, with six sessions discussing technological progress and its application in the past, present and future. 

Adam Buick opened the weekend by raising the question of whether Marxism is technological determinism, and reminding us that class struggle also drives change.

Next, Bill Martin’s talk considered how the way we think is a form of technology, as the ideas behind inventions come from social relations. Mike Foster’s talk about philosopher Gunther Anders’ views opened up an interesting discussion about many people’s often-wary attitudes around scientific developments.

More optimistically, Leon Rozanov explored the potential of digital technology for streamlining distribution and democracy in a socialist society. And Paddy Shannon closed the weekend with his talk about what new tech is around the corner and how we can get ready.

Paddy also hosted a discussion session about more effective ways we can engage with others online, whether through memes, messaging boards or podcasts, with many useful suggestions for us to work on. Summer School isn’t just about the talks, it’s also an enjoyable opportunity to share ideas and catch up with like-minded comrades and friends around the globe.

There was also time for a fun quiz on Saturday evening, a first for ourselves on Discord.

For anyone who wants to revisit the event, transcripts of talks and links to related articles have been uploaded to the site, and recordings of the sessions will be added to the party’s website soon.

Thanks go to everyone who gave talks, chaired discussions and tuned in. Preparations for Summer School 2021 will soon be underway, so keep an eye out for an announcement later in the year.

50 Years Ago: Labour Party hypocrites (2020)

The 50 Years Ago column from the September 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Labour Party, now in opposition, has the opportunity to try and rebuild its severely damaged image of being the party with ideals. Their publicity men tried their best with posters and hoardings during the election, but the reality of Labour’s record in office was just too much for them to whitewash.

“Arms for South Africa” is an issue which the opportunists in the Labour Party are determined to hang on to and develop this purpose, but their hypocrisy in doing so should be obvious to anyone who has followed the Labour government’s foreign policy. It was Denis Healey, Minister of “Defence”, who in 1968 proclaimed. “Her Majesty’s government and the South African government share the responsibility for maritime security in the South African area”. It seems now that he expected them to carry out this function with arms supplied by countries other than Britain. Throughout Labour’s period of office the Simonstown Agreement was honoured and joint naval manoeuvres continued. Healey and his colleagues by accepting a ban on arms shipments to South Africa were attempting to gain the best of both worlds: defence of the Cape trade route and continued trade with and investment in South and South-West Africa and, at the same time, expanding trade and influence in the rest of Africa.

(From front page Socialist Standard, August 1970)

How real is democracy today? (2020)

Editorial from the September 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

A common boast made by capitalism’s supporters is that free market capitalism is inherently democratic and that rights, such as the right to vote, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, necessarily go hand in hand with the freedom of the capitalists to invest and make profits. During the Cold War, Western workers were always reminded that whatever grievances they had about life under capitalism, they were lucky to have the vote and have their say, not like in the USSR and the other ‘Socialist’ countries. The words ‘democracy’ and ‘democratic’ are a necessary part of any aspiring capitalist politician’s lexicon.

This prominence given to democracy masks the reality of workers’ lives under capitalism.

Workers, who have no independent means of living, have to sell their physical and mental energies to an employer in order to acquire the necessities of life. The employers (or capitalists) who own the means of production and distribution will only employ workers if they have a prospect of making a profit. If not, workers can face periods of unemployment and even destitution. When capitalists do hire workers they will attempt to extract the most value from the use of their labour power that they can get away with and keep their wage costs to a minimum. On the other hand, it is in the interests of the workers to obtain the highest wages they can. In their efforts to achieve this, workers have combined in trade unions and at times have withdrawn their labour to put pressure on the employers. It is the outcome of these struggles that determine the conditions of workers’ lives. Although both the capitalists and the workers enjoy the same democratic rights, they do not have the same social power. Clearly, the capitalists, more often than not, are in a stronger position.

However, we must not read into this, as many on the Left do, that capitalist political democracy is a sham and that workers should have nothing to do with it. It needs to be pointed out that the workers were not handed their democratic rights on a plate, they had to struggle for them through their own organisations, such as the Chartist movement in nineteenth-century Britain.

The freedom of assembly enables the workers to organise politically in their own interests and is invaluable in aiding the development of working-class political consciousness. The right to vote means that workers have the power to choose who will control the capitalist state machine. Up to now, they have used their votes to elect capitalist representatives in the mistaken belief that those representatives can run the capitalist system for the workers’ benefit. They are invariably disappointed and in many instances this has led to political disillusionment and cynicism.

We urge workers to find out about the socialist case, which is that capitalism cannot work in their interests and that socialism is the only solution to the problems capitalism creates.

With this in mind, workers can then elect their own delegates with a mandate to abolish the private and state ownership of the means of living and replace it with democratic common ownership.