Monday, September 7, 2020

The waste of competition (2005)

The Cooking the Books column from the September 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Supporters of capitalism praise competition to the skies, seeing it as a means of keeping prices down and of ensuring that “consumers” get what they want.

Socialists, on the other hand, have always seen economic competition as being (besides the cause of modern wars) an inefficient and wasteful way of distributing what people need and want. For a start, it involves an unnecessary multiplication of productive units and distribution outlets with all the extra resources this uses up. Then there are the resources used up in marketing and advertising, which is aimed merely at persuading people to buy from one firm or shop as opposed to another and which adds absolutely nothing to the amount of wealth in existence.

No wonder Marx commented on capitalism’s “way of distributing products through trade, and its manner of competition” being “very wasteful of material resources” (Volume III of Capital, chapter 5 on “Economy in the use of constant capital”).

So it was rather surprising to hear the head of a profit-seeking capitalist enterprise, Charles Allen, chief executive of ITV plc, echo this socialist criticism of capitalism in the evidence he gave on 7 June to a House of Lords committee looking into the renewal of the BBC’s charter. Asked by the Bishop of Manchester (yes, it’s part of the “democratic deficit” in Britain that bishops of the Church of England are automatically members of parliament) about possible co-operation with the BBC in the North-West, Allen replied that he was all in favour of the BBC, ITV and others sharing the same programme-making studios, adding:
 “A lot of money is wasted through duplication: we have our own studios; they have their own studios; we have our own transmission; they have their own transmission; we have our own infrastructure; they have their own infrastructure. What I am really keen to do is actually get the money on the screen rather than wasted in infrastructure” (
Wasted in infrastructure! True, but this applies across the board to all manufacturing industry, services, shops and supermarkets. There’s wasteful duplication (triplication, and more) there too.

What Allen apparently wants in broadcasting is the same sham competition as exists in the supply of electricity, gas and telephones. There’s only one infrastructure here too – only one national electricity grid, for example – with competition limited to firms wasting resources on trying to steal customers from each other.

In socialism resources can be saved to produce needed and useful things by only having one type of distribution outlet in neighbourhoods and only one factory producing computers, cars, washing machines, etc in any one region. Then, we really could concentrate resources on producing best-quality useful things rather than wasting them on duplicated infrastructures.

Access Denied (2005)

The Cooking the Books column from the September 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

In June the BBC offered free downloads of live Beethoven concerts broadcast on Radio 3. It was a huge success. But not everyone was pleased. The Independent (10 July) reported:
  “The BBC has been lambasted by classical music labels for making all nine of Beethoven’s symphonies available for free download over the Internet. This week the BBC will announce there have been more than a million downloads of the symphonies during the month-long scheme. But the initiative has infuriated the bosses of leading classical record companies who argue the offer undermines the value of music and that any further offers would be unfair competition.”
Yes of course (but they must mean the price, not the value, of music). If something is available free, nobody’s going to pay for it. That is the ultimate “unfair competition”. But the real question is different: if something can be provided free at little or no extra cost, why isn’t it?

The answer is that, under capitalism, the basic economic law is “no profit, no production”. So, no private capitalist is going to invest in providing something free to people. What would be the point? There’d be no profit in it.

The only institution which could do this would be the state, using resources obtained through taxation from the private capitalist sector. In Britain the state does in fact provide a number of services that are free at the point and time of use: roads, schools, parts of the health service, for instance. But these are seen as services for the capitalist class as a whole and as not involving competition with capitalist businesses trying to make a profit out of supplying the same service. (Certainly, there are capitalist firms lobbying for the right to cherry-pick the profitable parts of these services but no capitalist is going to be interested in investing in side streets or in rural roads.)

If the state does venture to supply free a potentially profitable service – as the BBC did on this occasion – then the private sector squeals “unfair, subsidised competition”. As the British state and the BBC are fully committed to capitalism and its logic, the BBC’s director general, Mark Thompson, rushed to reassure the profit-seeking commercial suppliers of music recordings:
  “In a speech to the British Phonographic Industry, the trade association for the recording industry, Mr Thompson tried to allay fears from the commercial sector. The anxiety, he said, ‘boils down to two questions: is this the start of some new regular service from the BBC, in which, without warning and consultation, the public will be offered chunks of music free at the point of download which will inevitably distort the commercial market in music? And second, are there any limits to what the BBC might download? Could we wake up one morning to discover that half the BBC’s musical archive is available on the net? The answer to these two questions is: no and no.’” (Guardian, 21 July).
But that precisely is what could well happen in socialism. Not just half the BBC’s musical archives but the whole of them, as well as all other musical archives, could be made available for people to download freely. And why not? Let those against the provision of free music – and free telephones, free electricity, free transport, etc, for that matter – put up a case for restricting access to what people need and want when the resources to do this exist. If they can.

Mao: the Untold Story (2005)

Book Review from the September 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Jung Chang and Jon Halliday: Mao: the Untold Story. Jonathon Cape £25.

Overturning a paragraph of conventional history can be the basis for an entire thesis, if not an entire professional reputation. Chang and Halliday have set out to re-write every paragraph of the story of Mao Zedong.

The authors attack the established canon of Mao biography; and their clear, unrelenting hostility may house the book’s greatest weakness. Much of their re-interpretation depends upon assessments of Mao’s character, and his internal states when he made vital decisions. For example, they maintain that Mao deliberately meandered along the Long March (a period of retreat by the Red Army from the nationalists) in order to strengthen his grip on the party before they met up with the rest of the army.

Repeatedly they make reference to what Mao was thinking, which, without written sources, is impossible to determine. Most historians and biographers would hedge and say ‘maybe’ or ‘probably’ he thought something.

Such potential weakness, although they may allow latter-day Maoist wingnuts to deflect debate away from the issues raised, aren’t fatal. The book describes in aching detail the horrors of Mao’s regime, facts established by witnesses and irrefutable evidence. This is largely because, unlike Hitler or Stalin, Mao’s preference was not for disappearances and quiet murder, but for public witch-hunts – mobilised terror in which anyone refusing to wholeheartedly join in would find themselves a target. He repeatedly used this strategy throughout his career to gain and hold power, culminating in the infamous Cultural Revolution, which accounted for some 100 million people being humiliated, tortured, maimed and, in 3 million instances, murdered.

His callousness is almost beyond the scope of human imagining. In one year, 22 million people died of starvation – brought about primarily through Mao’s disastrous project to make China – then one of the poorest countries on Earth – into a nuclear super-power. The famines and overwork induced by the programme led to 38 million deaths.

The authors maintain Mao was essentially apolitical: merely egotistic and power hungry. They reject claims that he cared about peasants – producing a quote in which he maintains that the lot of students (like himself) was worse than that of the peasants. They suggest his choice of the communist party over the nationalists (for a time the two parties were united) was simply down to a predilection for violence.

He had many homes built for himself – at great expense – which he would only set foot in once – if ever. While people starved he would gorge himself on whole chickens and huge quantities of meat and fish. Around him, millions of Chinese had less food than labourers in Auschwitz.

His reputation for supporting feminism also takes a battering in this book, as the authors reveal how he used women almost as imperial concubines, procured from the local labour force. Anyone who objected to his and other leaders’ privileges amongst squalor were derided as “petit-bourgeois egalitarians”.

Chang and Halliday even attempt to overturn the central story of the Mao myth – the war of national liberation against Japan. Even very recent writers hedge criticisms of Mao by mention of the vicissitudes of that war. However, this book alleges that the Reds under Mao were more concentrated on fighting the nationalist government than the Japanese.

Further, they try to show that on the Long March, Mao and the other leaders didn’t march with their soldiers: they were carried; that the leader of the nationalists, Chiang Kai-Shek allowed the Red Army to escape because his son was being held hostage by Stalin; and that some of Mao’s major victories may have been assisted by the treachery of the nationalist general who repeatedly allowed troops to walk into horrific ambushes.

The narrative makes out that Mao never commanded much support with either the Chinese communist party or the population. His ascent was largely down to the backing of Russian communist officials who never met him.

This book is unlikely to be the last word on the matter, but it is a forceful reappraisal of a figure who would be the equivalent of a George Washington for the emerging Chinese superpower. This is the story of what happened when a ruthless tyrant tried to rule a quarter of the human race.

The only positive message is that ultimately, his terror proved futile, as he increasingly found himself having to horse trade policies to stay in power against his rivals – leaders are prisoners of their followers. The terror of Mao’s rule could well be seen as the impotent rage of a tyrant.
Pik Smeet

50 Years Ago: Talks at the Summit (2005)

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

The snows of the Cold war are melting. The Soviet Premier, Bulganin, and the Communist Party leader, Kruschev, are to visit Britain next spring. They will be feted by the Queen. Even the Daily Mail welcomes the visit – with some reservations.

During the war the Russians were our friends, our “gallant allies,” our “comrades in arms.” But since 1945 they have become the villains of the piece. They have become our potential enemies. Whilst our old enemies the Italians, the Japanese and the Germans (the Western Germans, of course!) are now our friends, our allies in a possible future war. But now, since the Geneva “Talks at the Summit” the Russians – for how long we know not – are almost our friends again; or at least our politicians have “agreed” to differ with the Soviet rulers.

To most people, who think that all these differences and antagonisms are due to differences of systems or ideologies – to “Communism” or “Fascism” – these changes are quite bewildering.

( . . .) [T]he reasons why the rulers of Russia, America, or Britain fall out is not any so-called difference of ideologies, of Democracy, or Communism; or differences of social systems or ways of life. For we know that their social systems are not basically different; that American “free enterprise” is not fundamentally different from Soviet “Communism.” We know that in Britain, America – and the U.S.S.R. the same problems exist; we know that the workers of these lands are poor, that they live insecure lives, whilst their employers are rich; we know that in the Soviet Union, as Stalin admitted just before he died, the ruling class is being forced more and more to look for markets for its goods – outside its own frontiers. We know that the Soviet leaders are as much concerned with protecting their property interests as are the Americans or British. That is why we are not surprised at the antagonisms the Cold War, the changing alliances, the “Talks at the Summit,” and the temporary patching-up of differences.

(From an article by Peter E. Newell, Socialist Standard, September 1955)