Wednesday, September 9, 2020

50 Years Ago: The War and You (1964)

The 50 Years Ago column from the September 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

As we went to Press with our last issue, but too late for us to deal with the events in our pages, the great capitalist States of Europe were flinging declarations of war at each other and rushing in frenzied haste to the long-expected and carefully prepared for Armageddon.

When we say that this mad conflict has been long expected and well-prepared for we make a statement that is almost trite. However much the masters of Europe may have tried to hide the underlying causes and objects of their military preparations, they have never taken any pains to conceal the fact that they were arming against “the day,’’ and that “the day” was inevitable. Miles of paper and tons of printing ink have been used in the various countries in order to disseminate among the “common” people— i.e., the working class?—explanations calculated to fix the blame on other shoulders. In each country voluminous “exposures” have been made of the villainous machinations of the “foreigner,” always in such deep contrast to the Christian innocence of the exposers. But so far have any of the chief parties ever been from disguising the inevitability of the event they have been arming for, that they have used these very “exposures” to obtain the assent of public opinion to the race for armaments and the preparations for wholesale slaughter.

On the Continent they speak of British hypocrisy. The truth is that there is among the rulers of every capitalist country, hypocrisy enough and to spare, and the attitude of British Statesmen toward neutrals abroad and the working class at home reeks with characteristic hypocrisy. In spite of the fact that nowadays very few even of their working-class dupes really believe in the “altruistic” humbug regarding the maintenance of the “independence of small nations," or attach any importance to Asquith, Grey & Co’s, drivel about the “honour of Britain,” it is on those canting grounds that our masters seek to justify their plunge into the red vortex of war.

From the Socialist Standard, September, 
1914.


Futility of Legality (1964)

Book Review from the September 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Disinherited and the Law by Dagobert D. Runes (Philosophical Library, $3.00)

As the late Professor Joad would have said, “It all depends on what you mean by justice.’’ In the world of capitalism we get justice right enough—capitalist justice, and the principles on which it is based are the preservation of private property society. That the rich remains rich, and demonstrably so, and the poor remain poor, is only to be expected. To blame the legal set-up for that is really to put the cart before the horse.

These few words could perhaps summarise our feelings on Dagobert D. Runes’ latest book The Disinherited and the Law (Philosophical Library, $3.00). Each chapter is a short essay on the shortcomings of the American laws (mainly) and the author’s contention throughout is that:—
The law is not a symbol of justice, but rather an expression of the wishes and desires of those in dominance. . .
You can see that he has equated “justice" with humanity. He is appalled at the discrimination against Negroes in the southern states and the connivance of the law at the acts of terrorism and murder which frequently occur. He is just as incensed at the fate of the unemployed dockworker who was imprisoned in Naples for stealing a side of beef at Christmas time to feed his hungry family.

There are countless moans like this throughout the book. The inconsistencies on gambling, alcoholism, drug-taking and homosexuality, all come under his attack. In one chapter he is particularly enraged at the fact that Nazis, Negro haters and Jew baiters are allowed to pour out their poisonous messages without serious let or hindrance. The law, he says, should be altered to put a stop to them.

Now it is undeniable that there are many laws, which when judged even by capitalism's standards, are oppressive and anomolous. It is for this reason that there are always those who are campaigning for their reform. In England, for example, it is many years since anyone was hanged for stealing a five-shilling watch, but to steal a watch is still an offence because the watch, life everything else in capitalist society, is still the private property of some individual or other. And the law is concerned first and foremost with the rights of private property, however much you may reform away its worst faults.

Mr. Runes seems to have an inkling of this but, like many others, thinks that the law can be altered to work in the interests of the masses. He pleads:—
  Let our law be . . . freed from narrow, suppressive and property dictated tradition and transformed into a code of new values and new considerations.
And what are these new considerations? Perhaps a glance at page 59 will give us an idea: —
  If the rich take properly, it should be taken back from them; if the poor take property, they should make restitution as well as they can. . .
So when the author's reforms are put into effect, we will still have rich and poor, and the struggle between them will still go on. The law will be more “humane” perhaps. There will be fewer prisons of the old type, and petty offences will receive more lenient treatment than they do now. On the other hand, the racialist and the violent criminal will be isolated in island settlements, being made to work and being paid the current rate for the jobs they do. But what of that? Penal reform societies are pressing for such measures all the time.

The point which escapes Mr. Runes is that even with sweeping reforms, the law will always be oppressive, because it is concerned with administering the affairs of an essentially oppressive system of society. All that he has done is perhaps to summarise the case for various changes which might bring the law in line with the needs of contemporary capitalism. The unemployed, meat stealing dockworker may get easier treatment under Runes’ new rules, but he will still be a poor person, like the rest of the working class.
Eddie Critchfield

The Literature of Socialism (1964)

From the September 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard


The Passing Show: Never in the right (1964)

The Passing Show Column from the September 1964 issue of the Socialist Standard

Never in the right

Some of our older readers may have lived through the earlier years of this century. Perhaps they can recall the bitter struggles between employers and workers. Strikes and lockouts. Strikes to improve wages and conditions. Strikes very often against lowered wages and deteriorating conditions. One other thing they may also remember is that, whatever a particular strike or lockout was about, the workers were never in the right. They wanted shorter hours? O.K., then, they were lazy. They wanted more pay? O.K., then, they were greedy. If a dispute was in a major industry, such as docks, coal mining or railways, they were irresponsible, led by a bunch of rabble rousers and “holding the nation up to ransom.”

Sometimes the strikes were successful—or partly so. Sometimes, very often in fact, they failed. The struggles of the engineers in the early Twenties, for example, did not prevent pay reductions. Nor did the General Strike of 1926 stop the coal-owners lowering the miners' wages and lengthening their working day. After the collapse of the general strike, the miners fought on for nine bitter months and were beaten to their knees at the end of it. But if the capitalist press of those days was worth believing, the strikers were all in the wrong.

In those days, with a falling market and a large pool of unemployed, it was almost a foregone conclusion that the capitalists would fight tooth and nail against every union demand. The lockout was the weapon they sometimes used. But in the years immediately after the end of the second world war, it was a somewhat different story. Six years of destruction had left a large market to be filled, and with Germany and Japan out of the running for the time being, the call was for an all-out export drive. There was a severe labour shortage, and workers were in a strong position to press for higher wages and conditions.

This time, however, there was another snag—the Labour Government, who appealed for less strikes and plenty of hard work. The production drive was all-important, and to down tools then was a stab in the back for the "workers' government ” and for Britain. And as usual, when workers did come out the government and press were at one in condemning them. The union leaders often listened to the government’s pleas and many of the strikes were “unofficial," one could have been forgiven for sometimes wondering whether the men were fighting the employers or their own leadership. In the latter part of the Labour Government’s term, wage rates were actually lagging behind prices.

What is the position today, some thirteen years and several Tory governments later? Believe it or not, you are still wrong to strike. Now “we” have to keep costs down in a highly competitive market. We have to increase productivity so that there will be more for all, yet we mustn’t ask for more wages to get some of the extra which we have turned out. Higher wages mean higher prices—a lie spread equally by Labour, Liberal and Tory politicians. Always it is the same dreary story. Be patient and accept less today, and you will double your living standards in twenty-five years. Always it is—tomorrow.

In the Labour Government days, it was a “wage freeze.” Under the Tories it has been given the more sophisticated sounding name of “pay pause.” For some time the government has been taking a tough line against wage increases and has been hardening its attitude towards its own employees in this respect. The postmen were the latest victims of such policy and by the time Mr. Bevins had got round to making an offer, their patience was just about exhausted. And nobody can truthfully call the postmen impatient. Their last strike was well over sixty years ago.

What was the reaction of the press this time? For once they could not find a communist-inspired plot. Neither could they call the men greedy, for even by accepted standards their pay rates compared unfavourably with outside industry. Neither were they lazy—an average of thirty hours overtime is worked every week to keep the mail moving. The papers, then, were “ sympathetic,” but still the cry was “ don’t strike.”

Listen, for instance to The Guardian editorial of July 11th:—
  When arbitration is offered in a complex dispute about postal wages. it is hard to claim sanctity for the "right” to delay a nation's mails. . . . What can a woman waiting for a letter from her son do to give postmen more pay?
Or again The Daily Telegraph of July 23rd:
  Yesterday's decision by the executive of the Union of Post Office Workers that a complete strike will be called . . . constitutes a grave challenge . . . not only to the Government but also to the nation. . . . It must be evident by now that his (Mr. Smith's) union is entirely concerned with the best way in which it can sabotage the country’s business, and so hold the country to ransom. Ransom is one thing, and proper wages quite another.
Not one word, you will note, about the delaying tactics of the government, of the offer of yet another “review" to follow the last “enquiry.” Undeniably, it was the positive promise of a strike that forced the pay offer up to six per cent. No wonder The Guardian had to admit: “The plain fact is that the postmen do not trust the Treasury.”

So postmen, you were “wrong” to come out on strike for a day and to threaten an all-out stoppage later on. But you got a pay increase. A good thing you did not heed the mealy mouthings of the newspapers, for you would then have been "right.” but two per cent, worse off.

P.S.--Thc G.P.O. profit last year was £30.7 millions.


What is Progress?

The Oxford Dictionary defines the term as: forward movement, advance, improvement, increase. But progress has also come to have another meaning in the modern world, and it is fashionable to equate it with change—any change.

Under this heading the apologists for capitalism would list the mounting volume of cars on the roads (" one for everybody who wants one” is the government’s bleat), the advent of noisy jet aircraft, and the sprawling of the industrial towns into the once peaceful countryside. They would ignore the increasing noise, dirt and smell, the rush and tear of it all. and the frightful toll of frustration and nervous illness. Anything which kept capitalism moving fast and expanding is, to them, progress.

It is hardly surprising, then, to hear the Belgian industrialist Baron René Boël talk about progress in terms of the profit motive. The Baron is president of the European League for Economic Cooperation, and his words are reminiscent of the views of some of the early capitalist economists. Speaking in Manchester on July 15th, he said:—
  Just as the worker is entitled to payment, so the shareholder is entitled to remuneration for the services he renders both to the enterprise and the economy. An important part of the money he receives . . . is used to finance further economic and technical progress. Profit is today an essential factor in progress since it provides the means of achieving it and measuring it.
There is quite a lot that Baron Boël left out of his assessment, of course. He didn't tell us just what sort of payment the workers are entitled to. His ideas on that would no doubt differ markedly from those of workers. Neither did he go into the harmful effects of the profit motive on the mass of the population. Last but not least, he did not even hint at the ugly black war clouds which gather periodically as a direct result of this “progress.” Had we taxed him with it, he would no doubt have muttered something about “human nature,” or “communist plots ” and left it at that

The words of Baron Boël are only to be expected from a man in his position of social privilege, but he is not alone in his thoughts. Tragically, they are echoed by most workers every day of their lives. Our proposition of a classless, moneyless society is just as much anathema to them as it is to him.


Tory Competition 

Tory propagandists are never tired of telling us how beneficial free competition is. They don’t like state control they say, although they have made little effort to denationalise most of the nationalised industries. “Take the fetters off free enterprise and lower prices will result” is one of their rallying cries. Yet the years of Tory rule have seen considerable price increases.

Are the Tories really in favour of unfettered competition—just like that? Of course, they’re not. The first and foremost task of any British government is to protect and advance the interests of British capitalism. This will certainly mean that they will try to make British industry more competitive on the world market, and generally moan about tariff barriers erected against it by other countries, although at the same time they erect the same sort of barriers at home. This is aimed at keeping the price of foreign goods up so that British goods of the same type are not at a disadvantage in the home market. It is known under the fanciful heading of “establishing stability.”

One industry to suffer against foreign competition has been cotton, and it was only a few years ago that the government was paying out some thirty million pounds to induce some of the less efficient firms to cease production. Now, in a further attempt to deal with the problem, the Cotton Board has produced a plan for a levy on imported cotton goods “which would bring their prices up to an agreed proportion of similar goods of domestic manufacture." This is proposed to replace the existing restrictions, which are due to expire in 1965. Secretary for Industry Mr. Heath is said to have agreed that “some means should be found of establishing stability in the industry”; the Board’s plan has been published at his request.

What Mr. Heath is after is the continued profitable existence of the British cotton industry. If that means paring down the threat from foreign rivals and keeping their prices up, then that is what will be done, it shows also that government interference (“guidance ” they call it) will be used just as much by the Tories as by any other party, if they think the needs of British capitalism justify it. And then their talk of free competition and lowered prices will be quietly forgotten.
Eddie Critchfield

Voice From The Back: When Margaret Beckett (2000)

The Voice From The Back column from the September 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

When Margaret Beckett . . .

. . . took on responsibility for science as trade and industry secretary after the 1997 general election, there were hints that the government’s priorities for science would change. Beckett suggested that improving the quality of life was just as important a goal for science as creating wealth. But over the last four years, the potential financial benefits of science—and in particular the creation of high tech spin-off companies based on new scientific discoveries—have dominated government science policy . . . The £1bn unveiled last month for science facilities by chancellor Gordon Brown signals his continuing interest in the financial benefits of science. Guardian Science, 20 July.


The inadequacies of the NHS are well known. 

How awful the position has become is illustrated by the journalist Katie Grant. In praise of private medical care she inadvertently blows the whistle on capitalism: “Thirty percent of all hip replacements and 20 percent of all heart surgery is done privately. A million people are treated in private hospitals each year . . . Private insurance does not make you a parasite. Quite simply, it offers you the best hope of staying alive” (Times, 15 July). And if you can’t afford private insurance?


It is criminal!

The annual cost of crime in Britain is £60 billion—more than £1,000 a year for every man, woman and child in the country . . . The figure . . . is the result of a four-year study by the leading American economist David Anderson, whose paper “The Aggregate Burden of Crime” was recently published in the Journal of Law and Economics . . . “Society will never rid itself of crime,” says Anderson, “but when you take into consideration the resources that could be conserved or reallocated in a crime-free society, the costs are absolutely staggering.” Observer, 23 April. Quite so! But socialist society will be free of property crime because we shall all own the wealth and have free access to it. The basic cause of such crimes will have gone.


Shafted

We’ve been sacked, fired, made redundant, become supernumerary, down-sized and terminated. As members of the working class we are used to the various terms for being unemployed. But the recent demise of the internet company Boo.com revealed yet another euphemism to disguise our wage slavery: “What is certain, however, is that after the world’s biggest on-line fashion retailer went bust, 300 young people who had previously thought of themselves as role models for a generation of dot.com entrepreneurs were out of work. In the lingo of the New Economy, they were not so much unemployed as unplugged” (Times, 14 June)


Star letter

It is not often that Socialists come across a letter that they can completely agree with, so have pleasure in the following published in Radio Times (29 July-4 August):
  “Money makes the world go round, according to Polly Toynbee. Before money, she asserts, human life scarcely rose above the animal level, with no scope for thought or creativity. Are we to take it that she has never seen any native American or Australian aboriginal art, wonderful cultural creations form societies without money? 
  As to the future, she tells us that human nature is just too fallible for us to match our production to human need without money to mediate the process. Even in today’s capitalist society, moist people feel that certain things are too important, too personal, to be bought and sold—sexual relations, for instance, and human organs for transport. 
  In future, people may come to feel that selling our time, skill and effort to an employer for a wage or salary is an unacceptable loss of our freedom and humanity.”

Gates’s billions

Bill Gates is reported to be worth $65 billion. As befits a man of such tremendous wealth he has a house that cost $50 million: “As a rich man’s folly it equals William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon Castle in California, for which the press baron ransacked Europe for antiques. His Shangri-La is all high tech, stuffed with electronic gadgetry. It is mostly buried beneath landscaping, with a 60ft pool, dining for 100, an underground garage for 20 cars, 45 rooms, and electronically controlled music and lighting in guest rooms directed by a pin in the visitor’s clothing. Lights come on automatically as a person moves around, but can be switched on and off manually (so it can be done). It is so massive that neighbours call it Gates convention hall” Herald, (15 July). What future generations in a socialist society will make of such ostentatious wealth contrasted, as it is, with the plight of thousands of homeless in the USA, can only be wondered at.


Freedom of choice

Freedom of choice is everyone’s right. Use it wisely! . . . We invite you to test-drive a Seville at your nearest Cadillac Retailer . . . On the road price £39,925.00.



Business efficiency versus democracy (2000)

From the September 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
  Labour is offering councils three options for “modernising” local government – each option being less democratic than the other
Recently the local council sent me a glossy “information and action pack” outlining the government’s plans for “modernising” local government together with the council’s reaction to them. “Modernisation” is a favourite word in the vocabulary of Labour’s spin doctors. Who except conservatives and reactionaries can be against bringing things up to date? It’s a clever way of diverting attention from the content of the particular changes that are being proposed.

At present, from the point of view of democratic theory, the formal structure of local councils is not too bad. Everyone over 18 living in an area has the vote; they elect one or more councillors for the ward they live in; once elected, councillors sit on various committees which deliberate in public and make decisions subject to the overall control of the full council.

Of course, today, under capitalism, all sorts of distortions occur, in particular the money factor and that most of the money comes from the central state with strings attached as to how it must be spent. This makes local councillors little more than elected civil servants administering central government policy. As Ken Livingstone recently put it, local councils in Britain have as much freedom of action as the Vichy government had in France under the Nazis.

Central government policy is shaped by the need to keep unproductive expenditure on services to people to a minimum so that capitalist enterprises can retain a maximum amount of the profit they extract from the workforce. Councillors are therefore obliged to act against the interests of those who elected them and cut local services, as a glance at any local weekly paper can confirm.

But ignoring this and concentrating solely on structures, the present structure could be a basis for the democratic self-administration that would be an essential feature of socialist society. There would need to be some improvements but the basic idea of local decisions being made in public by committees of delegates elected on a geographical basis is a sound one that could be built on.

One-man management
For Labour, however, socialism is not just a foreign land; it’s an alien planet. They’re not even interested in extending democratic control within the limits allowed by capitalism. Their concern is how to run the services managed by local councils in an “efficient”, i.e. a money-saving, way. Their model is the business enterprise where decision-making power is concentrated into the hands of a few (a board of directors) or even of a single individual (a managing director). From this perspective too much democracy is inefficient. It is time-wasting and it makes it harder to make and apply unpopular decisions. And unpopular is what many decisions even at local level have to be since, being obliged by capitalist pressures to put profits before needs, central government will never put at the disposal of its local branches enough money to provide adequate services.

According to the glossy pack, the government has published a consultation paper which “says that councils should abandon the committee structure and replace it with a smaller ‘executive'”. This executive would meet in secret to take executive decisions “which the council would probably not be able to challenge or change”.

The government is offering councils three options, each less democratic than the other, as to how to constitute this all-powerful decision-making executive:
“a cabinet and council leader, elected by the other councillors”;
“a mayor directly elected by local people, who would then select a ‘cabinet’ of a few councillors”;
“a directly elected mayor and a council manager”.
Retaining the present system is not an option, so it is clear that the government is determined to abolish the more-or-less democratic system under which decisions are made in open committee in favour of one where decisions are made in secret by a select minority of councillors with the others being reduced to an essentially consultative role.

According to the pack, an elected mayor choosing a cabinet of “a few councillors” is the model preferred by the government, though this would have to be approved by a local referendum before a council can adopt it. In view of the disgrace of the London mayoral election, most councils seem likely to adopt the model of a cabinet and Leader chosen by other councillors. In fact the pack informed me that the local (Labour) council had pre-empted any democratic consultation on this by already appointing a cabinet—their family photo has just appeared in the local press—except on one point where they have fallen foul of the existing “old fashioned” law:
  “These new structures have to operate within the law as it is at present, so the full council has to vote again to approve decisions made by the executive.”
Evidently, the new cabinet can’t wait to remove this restriction on their power.

None of this is surprising. The Labour government is fully committed to capitalism and, naturally, is therefore not interested in extending democracy but rather in restricting it in the interest of business efficiency. It doesn’t want local councils to be organs of local self-administration but top-down bureaucracies run by an elite on business lines.

Of course as Socialists who know how capitalism operates, and has to operate, we have no illusions about democratic structures under capitalism. They will always be limited and the tendency will always be to keep them that way.

Minimalist
It is true that capitalism needs a minimum of democracy since, as Churchill used to point out, it’s the least worst form of government for the system. The alternatives of dictatorship or rule by experts carry the danger that those who control the state might develop sticky fingers and help themselves to too large a share of profits. Better, for the capitalists, to have alternating governments dependent on their ability to retain some degree of popular support. This means that democracy under capitalism is reduced to people voting for competing groups of professional politicians, to giving the thumbs-up or the thumbs-down to the governing or opposition party (or parties). Political analysts call this the “elite theory of democracy” since under it all that the people get to choose is which elite should exercise government power.

This contrasts with the original theory of democracy which envisages popular participation in the running of affairs and which political analysts call “participatory democracy”. This is the sort of democracy Socialists favour but we know it’s never going to exist under capitalism. The most we will get under capitalism is the right to vote, under more-or-less fair conditions, for who shall control political power—a minimalist form of democracy but not to be dismissed for that since it at least provides a mechanism whereby a socialist majority could vote in socialist delegates instead of capitalist politicians.

There will be sincere democrats who will wish to fight a rearguard action, as against this Labour government’s proposals, to try to defend what they can of participatory democracy under capitalism and even to make some small, precarious advances. Our message to such people is that genuine democracy can only exist in the context of a socialist society and for two reasons. First, because socialism will be a classless society of social equals, so money (which won’t exist) won’t put some people in a privileged position when it comes to putting over their views. Second, because socialism will be a society where there will be no barrier, as there is under capitalism, to the will of the majority for a better life being carried out in practice; with the end of production for profit there will no longer be any conflict between profit and needs which profits always wins even if the need concerned enjoys majority support.

So, if you want an effective democracy, join us in struggling to establish socialism. Otherwise, your activities, if not entirely useless, will never be anything more than running fast to stand still or even to slip backwards more slowly. In any event, no democrat can justify voting Labour on the grounds that it is the lesser evil.
Adam Buick

The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine (2000)

Book Review from the September 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine by James Le Fanu. Abacus, 2000.

This intriguingly titled book makes fascinating reading. Le Fanu argues that in the forty or so years following the end of the Second World War the achievements of medicine were prodigious, but that by the beginning of the 1980s “the age of optimism had ended”. The first half of the book, which charts the rise of modern medicine, Le Fanu associates with a series of spectacular discoveries and developments, and particularly with “twelve defining moments”—including the discovery of penicillin and cortisone, smoking being identified as the cause of lung cancer, tuberculosis being cured with streptomycin etc, the development of intensive care, open-heart surgery, hip replacement, the prevention of strokes, the cure of childhood cancer. The second half, the fall, he associates with the “blind alleys” of “Social Theory” and “The New Genetics”.

It is instructive to note that most of the favourable reviews which are quoted at the beginning of the paperback edition, are especially generous when writing about the first part of the book. And it is easy to see why. Le Fanu juggles his story marvellously, mixing medical history, reflections about the scientific method and enthralling anecdote, skilfully and entertainingly. The first part of the story is essentially descriptive—discussing the combined impact of drug therapy and technological developments in combating disease. In contrast the second part is more polemical, and this more contentious, and reviewers in, for example, the Daily Telegraph and the Financial Times, are generally much happier with exposition than argument. This is especially the case when the argument reveals that the public can be persuaded to believe the most fanciful nonsense, if it is offered by supposedly credible authority figures.

But why the fall? Why did the great advances of the years following 1945 come to an end? First, says Le Fanu, because the rate of introduction of new drugs fell in the 1970s, as the discovery of new biologically important chemicals ended. And, second, because new technological innovations seemed only able “needlessly to prolong the process of dying”.

Into the vacuum two new specialities have emerged: genetics and epidemiology. However, says Le Fanu, since genetics is not a particularly significant factor in human disease its impact is limited. But if the author has little faith in the efficacy of genetics, he reserves his most devastating criticisms for epidemiology and the Social Theory that it spawned.

Social Theory seeks to provide not only an explanation for disease, but also to suggest ways of engineering its prevention. For example, if smoking can be shown to be associated with lung cancer, causing people not to smoke will reduce the incidence of the disease. Health promotion (or what Le Fanu calls social engineering) thus becomes associated with changes in lifestyle and diet, and can be seen as the modern-day equivalent of the great sanitary reforms of the late 19th century, which were based on massive civil engineering projects.

Unfortunately much of the so-called evidence which informs current Social Theory is specious. Le Fanu has much fun setting out the way in which eminent scientists, health administrators and politicians have become involved in some of the fictions of the last 20 years, especially those associated with supposed “Diseases of Affluence”—various cancers, strokes, heart disease etc. Thus it turns out that there is no evidence to sustain the supposed link between eating large quantities of meat and dairy products and cancer, even though in the last five years the population of the USA has been spending $3 billion a year on cholesterol-lowering drugs, on the basis of just such a connection. “Together the drug companies and Social Theorists had triumphed.”

And there is more, much more. Le Fanu offers convincingly evidence to show that most of the claims that associate diet with disease are at best tendentious half-truths. And whilst he doesn’t suggest a conspiracy uniting the leaders of the medical profession, with drug manufacturers and politicians, there is no doubt that the nostrums which underpin Social Theory are consistent with the interests of all three groups, if clearly not with the public-at-large. Socialists will find this unsurprising. Professionals with reputations to preserve frequently find themselves allied to capitalists who want to make money, and politicians anxious to save it. Every politicians knows that prevention is cheaper than cure, especially when the former is paid for by the individual and the latter by the state.

On reviewer reports that “this excellent book” has changed his opinions about modern medicine. It has certainly changed mine.
Michael Gill

Coining it in (2000)

TV Review from the September 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Viewers of the 1970s retrospective series currently running on BBC2 would have done well to tune in to Secret History (17 August) on Channel Four instead. If studied wackiness is your thing, there was nothing to beat this particular programme—called “Funny Money”—about the joys of Britain’s move over to decimalised currency. It was an entertaining and well put together journey through the various research proposals, government White Papers and newspaper campaigns which acted as a prelude to the abolition of the old pound shillings and pence monetary system that was in use in Britain until 1971.

The programme included interviews with the politicians and civil servants in charge of the changeover, most notably the impish-looking civil servant who led the research into decimalisation in Britain and who then led the team whose task it was to prepare British business and consumers for the move over to the new system. At the time it was clear that he found the fuss surrounding the entire thing hilarious, and looking back on it more hysterical still—in fact, he can barely stop laughing.

It is difficult indeed to get inside the minds of people whose attachment to an inanimate object of little intrinsic worth is such that they will launch campaigns to “save” and “protect” it. We are not talking seals or whales here, but sixpences and ten bob notes. Such was the attachment to the old system that many proposed replacing it with a ten shilling system which would have abolished the old pound completely and replaced it with a ten shilling unit of currency called something like “The Royal”. Given their current political stance it is ironic that foremost amongst those in favour of this system of abolishing the pound was the Conservative Party. Indeed, the programme contended that the majority of MPs were probably in favour of it and the decimal system we now have was only pushed through on the Labour whip at the time because it was Harold Wilson and his Chancellor of the time, Jim Callaghan, who was driving it. When the Tories under Heath won the 1970 general election they implemented the proposal they had previously campaigned against and Britain adopted the system of one hundred new pence to the pound, replete with an oddly-shaped fifty pence piece and minus the sixpence and ten bob note.

Money, money, money 
If Secret History’s interviews with the top civil servants of the time are anything to go by they expected little short of blood on the streets when the changeover finally came. They had run a low budget public information campaign aided by Max Bygraves and periodic, pertinent references to decimalisation in Coronation Street. Instead, on “D-Day” itself, 15 February, the phones of the decimalisation task force stopped ringing and they sat in their offices laughing as one of the greatest fusses over nothing in British economic history fell into place. Soon the newspaper campaigns stopped, the silly season stories about young children swallowing the new two pence piece were put to rest and even the barmy bloke on the south coast whose gents outfitters shop refused to recognise the new currency eventually gave up the ghost. All that was left was the residual suspicion that decimalisation had increased inflation, though new scapegoats for that (the trade unions) were just around the corner.

The one possible failing of the programme, delightfully made as it was for the most part, was that it failed to explore the obvious modern parallel: the potential introduction of the Euro as a currency to replace the pound sterling. If the public could grasp the operation of the decimal system within a relatively short period of time and with few lasting complaints, the euro should be no problem, especially as it is also a decimal currency and doesn’t therefore mean a changeover to a completely different system of monetary accounting.

Today, of course, there are another breed of “save-the-pound” pranksters in our midst. This time they have managed to achieve something that decimalisation couldn’t—they’ve split the historically dominant political party of capitalism in this country, the Conservative Party. The modern “save-the-pound” campaign may have sounder basis in the reality of capitalism than opposition to decimalisation ever did (for some sections of the capitalist class at least) but its petty nationalist and parochial rhetoric is almost identical.

Of course, Secret History failed to touch upon the fact that while all this controversy about Britain’s currency has been raging over the last thirty or forty years, the alternative campaign for the complete abolition of all money and monetary exchange has been ongoing—in the pages of this journal and elsewhere. We must concede that it is an educative process that is certainly taking longer than the changeover to decimal currency did, but it will be worth the wait. Unlike decimal currency or the euro, the abolition of money really will be something worth waiting for and eventually, a source of real joy for billions and not just for a handful of Treasury civil servants.
DAP

The Meme Machine (2000)

Book Review from the September 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore. Oxford University Paperback.

The concept of a “meme”—a word invented by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene to describe what might possibly be another, but non-biological, “replicator” (something that copies itself) like the gene—is a highly dubious one, especially when starting, as Blackmore does, from the same premise as Dawkins that “memes” are just as “selfish” as genes. All the same, its introduction into the debate on what governs human behaviour does undermine the views of the socio-biologists (who say that even our behaviour in society is governed by our genes) and of the evolutionary psychologists (who argue that we still have the psychology of hunter-gatherers that humans were when we first evolved). This is because a “meme” (which appears to be a fancy name for what used to be called an “idea”), as a unit of cultural as opposed to biological inheritance, allows culture as well as biology to be taken into account as an influence on human behaviour.

And not just behaviour but even the later stages of the biological evolution of homo sapiens. Engels, in his essay The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, had already suggested that the hominid capacity to make and use tools would have had an effect on the biological evolution of humans. Blackmore makes the same point in relation to language. Once language began to be used by early forms of homo, whether in tool-making and using or to express complex social relationships, it would have led, through the normal operation of natural selection, to the evolution of a bigger and bigger brain capacity. In other words, the later stages of the biological evolution of our species were not driven purely by biological factors but by the interaction of these with non-biological, cultural factors.

Once this is admitted, as Blackmore rightly insists it should be, it is no longer possible to talk in terms of our physical anatomy, let alone our behaviour in society, being shaped entirely by the action of so-called “selfish genes”. In fact, it rather undermines the theory of the selfish gene, which should rather be replaced by that of the stupid gene, since, in evolving homo, genetic evolution led to a life-form that was capable of affecting genetic evolution and has ultimately led to the evolution of another life-form (us) which is not only capable of using non-biological criteria for choosing a mate (and does) but also of manipulating genes through genetic engineering. A rather counter-productive end-result of evolution supposedly driven by genes whose only concern is supposed to be their own survival.

Not that this Blackmore’s view. Far from it. She’s a great admirer of Dawkins (who writes the Foreword to her book) and her aim is to supplement his theory of the so-called selfish gene with that of the “selfish meme”. We are, she says, the puppets not just of our selfish genes as socio-biologists claim but also of our selfish memes which in fact have taken over from our genes:
 “The pace of memetic evolution is now so fast, relative to that of human genetic evolution, that we can safely ignore the latter for most purposes. The genes cannot keep up” (p. 162).
Expressed more conventionally, what she is saying is that human evolution is now social and cultural and no longer biological. Our behaviour is not governed by our genes, but by our ideas. Blackmore believes that these ideas (which she calls memes) have an autonomous life of their own (apparently they pushed humans to invent the internet so they could spread more), but in fact our ideas reflect our material conditions and it is changes in these material conditions that lead to changes in our ideas.

Socialists will find the underlying idealism of The Meme Machine annoying, and will disagree even more with the Buddhist conclusion that we should just lie back and let things take their course as nothing is that important, but it is interesting that the milieu of socio-biology should have produced a writer who undermines their views. If they won’t take it from us perhaps they’ll take it from her that human behaviour is socially determined.
Adam Buick

Letters: Rebel Christian (2000)

Letters to the Editors from the September 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Rebel Christian

Dear Editors,

I have been reading Justus Weijagye’s article in the July Socialist Standard. I am sorry to find him perpetuating the view that Christianity is only concerned with an afterlife, and is socially reactionary. Undoubtedly great evils have been done in the name of Christ, not only by cults such as those in Uganda, but also by larger institutions, such as the Roman Catholic Inquisition. This no more discredits Christ, though, than the state capitalism of the former USSR discredited real Socialism.

Genuine Christianity has been socially progressive. For example, Robert Beckford, the Black Church historian, has argued that the Baptist missionaries in Jamaica helped make possible the slave revolt (the so-called “Baptist Revolt”) of 1831. This was actually a General Strike; the violence came from the authorities who suppressed it. The missionaries did not encourage the strike, but by informing the slaves of the movement for abolition back in Britain, telling them of their dignity and equality before God, and encouraging them to organise themselves into self-governing churches, they helped give the motivation for it and the means for bringing it about. They also tried to restrain the authorities in their reaction, and suffered for it, as they did in the later uprising (by now supposedly “free” slaves) in 1865. By contrast, the so-called “Christian Socialist” Charles Kingsley supported the suppression of the latter revolt. We can understand why Marx was so dismissive of “Christian Socialists” like that.

For my own part, I agree with the Object of your party, not in spite of, but because of, my faith in Christ.
Bob Allaway 
(by email)

Reply: 
Actually, we never said that Christians were only concerned with an afterlife. How could they be, since to survive all humans have to be practical materialists whatever their professed philosophical or religious views? But we would say that they must attach more importance to their imagined afterlife than to this, our actual—and only—life. Socialism can’t be that important or urgent compared to an eternal life “close to God”—or rotting in Hell. Because it’s the only life we’re going to get is why we should strive to improve our present life through the establishment of socialism, not because of faith in some supernatural being. But, as we said, all religious people, not just Christians, substitute faith for reason. Which is dangerous precisely because it can—and does—lead to events such as those in Uganda.

Whilst it is arguable that the so-called essence of Christianity is separate and different from what has actually been done in its name, it is the very essence with which we have a problem. A slave mentality is a prerequisite for worshipping a make-believe “benevolent creator” under pain of being tortured in hell forever if we disagree. This can only mean that God not only has a fragile ego but if he was human he would be denounced as an evil meglomaniac!

As revolutionary socialists we are for the abolition of modern slavery (wage slavery) and thus hostile to nay notion of submissive slave behaviour in whatever form it comes – Editors.


Let down

Dear Editors,

I’m glad to hear Robin’s local LETS scheme is hale and hearty (Letters, August), but my local scheme collapsed in disarray and has not revived after three years. Like Robin, I was quite enthusiastic at first. Disregarding the more outrageous claims, one could still see a social value in it. I worked hard at it, not minding in the least, and feeling that I was making a social contribution. I collected dozens of credits, but never used them. There was nothing to use them on anyway, since I didn’t want my dog walking and I didn’t need somebody to write me a poem, instruct me in Feng-shui or bake my bread. When the roof leaked, I still had to pay. When the plumbing broke, I had to do it myself. When I had a van, and offered its use, I was deluged with requests, but when I had no van, I had to hire one.

Finally I got tired of the middle-class bias of it all, the stripped-pine Guardian reading oh-so-nice pretend-liberalism that claimed to include everyone but clearly excluded most people. LETS never left the narrow and precious cultural womb it was born from, and it became for me increasingly twee and garden-party. What killed it was an exclusion issue, and the members’ inability to discuss anything and come to a conclusion. In a certain cultural milieu, it is bad form to have an open disagreement with anybody. Liberals hate “unpleasantness”. The LETS group were faced with an obnoxious man whom women wished to exclude, and the group toyed with “consensus” politics and “three-way votes” which caused chaos and prevented decisive action. The man left town fortunately. But so did most of the LETS goodwill.

I have heard that there are large LETS schemes in certain areas, and I wish them well. But for me LETS failed because it did not examine its own cultural assumptions, and confined itself to “nice” people who, unfortunately, were largely useless philosophy graduates who didn’t know one end of a screwdriver from the other. If socialists operated with similar class biases, we could write our entire membership on a jotter pad and install our Head Office, as our LETS scheme did, in somebody’s basement.
Paddy Shannon,
Lancaster

Rogue State (2000)

Book Review from the September 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Rogue State – A Guide to the World’s Only Superpower. By William Blum, Common Courage Press, 2000.

For over one hundred years, the United States has presented itself to the world as a bastion of freedom and democracy, a global defender of the weak and helpless against oppression and injustice. For much of this time it allegedly protected us from an International Communist Conspiracy, just as in recent years the US has fought a war against drugs on our behalf. Throughout this period, the US has always pointed out to us the “rogue states”, those countries that posed the international community and the peace they enjoyed the greatest threat, and has selflessly been at the forefront in every attempt to curb their evil ambitions, whether in Korea or Vietnam, the Middle East or Central America.

In reality, the United States has been and remains the United States a rogue state. In his newly-published Rogue State—A Guide to the World’s only Superpower, William Blum goes to great lengths to prove that rather than being “the greatest force for peace”, as one William Clinton would have us believe, the US has employed terrorist tactics throughout the world for decades. In over 300 well researched and well-argued pages, Blum helps put to death the myth that the US is the champion of liberty and human rights.

While the US fought a Cold War to defend us from the Communist threat—”the greatest protection racket since men convinced women that they needed men to protect them”—they relentlessly supported dictators and tyrannical regimes on every continent, from Pol Pot and Suharto to Saddam Hussein and Papa Doc Duvalier. Between 1945 and 1999, this same defender of the global well-being toppled 40 governments and helped crush 30 populist movements, assassinated scores of prominent individuals and perverted elections in every corner of the globe. During this same period the US armed terrorists, trained right-wing guerilla movements in the art of torture and financed armies intent on overthrowing democratically elected governments.

Not content with with employing such tactis outside its frontiers in the interests of its own corporate elite—and many times Blum’s makes this connection—the US has also been ruthless in the treatment of its own citizens as they pursue their American dream. Whilst we’re all at least suspicious of the crimes of governments against their own people, the US, Blum reveals, is guilty here. Just as it could casually use 600,000 of its own military personnel in mustard gas and blister gas tests in the 1940s, so too could the Pentagon calmly announce that 100,000 of its servicemen were exposed to sarin gas during the Gulf War. Not content with experimenting with its cannon fodder, the US has shown the same disrespect for its own civilians in peace time, using them as guinea pigs. It has released zinc cadmium around cities, as well as whooping cough and smallpox bacteria and all manner of chemical concoctions to test the effectiveness of biological warfare. It has released millions of infected mosquitoes and infected oat crops with cereal rust spores. All of this in spite of the fact that the first tenet of the Nuremberg Code, polished up by the US itself in anger at Nazi medical experimentation, states: “The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential.”

This “land of the free” is where the CIA and FBI will intercept and open domestic and foreign correspondence, where private corporations videotape, bug the offices of and requests urine samples of its own employers, where children are encouraged and enticed with monetary incentives to inform on their parents and fellow pupils, where state troopers enlist hotel workers to spy on guests, where schools ban hundreds of “subversive” books (Huckleberry Finn and Oliver Twist for example) and the FBI urges librarians to report the books taken out by patrons. Blum reveals this and very much more to be the experience of tens of thousands of US citizens.

Blum asks why does the US get away with all this? How can it connive in a global drugs trade, have helped incarcerate Nelson Mandela, increase its global interventions at a time when we’re supposed to be enjoying the benefits of the peace dividend bequeathed by the demise of the Cold War? How are its leaders not brought before international tribunals and charged with human rights violations and its institutions asked to account for themselves?

A major reason, he suggests, is the ongoing love affair with the mystique of America, the world’s adoration of what it perceives to be the relentless devotion to the cause of freedom and human rights that is “America”. And this adoration itself stems from the US as the inventor and perfecter of modern advertising and public relations—its existence as the world’s only information superpower perpetuating that same illusion.. Questioning why so much cruelty is endemic to US foreign policy, Blum relates it to the ”Peter Principle” which states that in a hierarchy every employee rises to their level of incompetence: “in a foreign policy establishment committed to imperialist domination by any means necessary, employees tend to rise to the level of cruelty they can live with”. And being the US means never having to say you’re sorry. As President George Bush once famously commented: “I will never apologise for the USA. I don’t care what the facts are.”

Whatever we may think we know about US foreign and domestic policy, Blum’s work, in all its grotesque detail, shows us it is not folly to imagine the lengths to which capitalism’s executive will go to secure their own interests.
John Bissett

Obituary: Frank Riley (2000)

Obituary from the September 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

We are sorry to have to report the death of Frank Riley, who will be remembered by many comrades in the North West as a staunch member of the former Merseyside Branch before, some years ago, he moved to Central Branch.

Frank—who joined the Party in 1986—was a former hospital dialysis machine technician who had, ironically enough, previously worked at Aldermaston at an earlier stage of his employment. In later life he became an enthusiast of the computer age, finding in information technology a discipline to extend his keenly scientific and practical mind.

Unfortunately, ill health struck Frank in the last few years and this limited the contribution he was able to make to the Party; however, until very recently he was still able to compile the indexes for the bound volumes of the Socialist Standard from his home on the Wirral.

Frank will be remembered by his comrades as a quiet, thoughtful and thoroughly decent man who was appalled at the injustices of the world around him and, in particular, at the squalor and degradation which has blighted the land to either side of the River Mersey since the advent of industrial capitalism. Frank knew that the world had to be a better place and was staunch in his belief that socialism remains the only way this can be attained.

In mourning his passing we extend our deepest sympathies to his family.
DAP

With god on their side (2000)

From the September 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
William Hague has called in the religious advisers – we explain how leaders use religious ideas to oil the wheels of exploitation
In spite of the fact that, unlike Tony Blair, William Hague is not a regular church-goer, he is fully aware of the benefits of religion. He has called in Marvin Orlasky, religious adviser to George Bush Jnr., to guide him in the special religion-based “welfare” programme he proposes to put forward at the General Election (Times, 21 June). Hague and several members of his Shadow Cabinet are convinced that, by so doing, they will win votes from the apolitical “religiously inclined”, whatever their actual denomination.

In an article in the Times the same day, Hague speaks highly of the pioneering social work of churches and other faith communities. Marvin Orlasky is the spiritual guide for the Bush campaign. He has been accused of being a religious zealot who, in spite of his Jewish roots, has managed to offend both Jews and feminists. In his column in the Texas Observer, he has declared that welfare is bad, abortion evil, and the Bible is the final moral authority. In a journal called Biblical Manhood and Womanhood he has stated:
  “God does not forbid women to be leaders in society, generally speaking; but when that occurs, it’s usually because of the abdication of men . . . I would vote for a woman for the presidency in some situations, but, again, there is a certain shame attached. Why don’t you have a man who’s able to step forward?”
How well that goes down with Hague’s mentor, Margaret Thatcher or, for that matter, Ann Widdecombe, is not known!

God’s on their side
It is possible for the strategy to misfire as, in spite of having an “official” Church, most people are suspicious when politicians bring in religion to further their ends. An exception to this is, of course, when opposing workers going out to kill and be killed by other workers, are blessed by their religious leaders and told “we have God on our side”.

The Socialist Party has been castigated for insisting that socialism and religion are incompatible. To us it is obvious that “render to God what is God’s and Caesar what is Caesar’s”; “servants be subject to your masters”, together with focus on the “better life hereafter” are totally at odds with the emancipation of the exploited.

Religion has always been used as an excuse for leaders’ excesses. Everyone knows about the Inquisition and the selling of “Indulgences” and, after all these hundreds of years, it is admitted that the Crusades were not about the freeing of the Holy City of Jerusalem but rather the pillage, subjugation and rape not only of the Infidel but also Christians who stood in the way. The religious intolerance in Northern Ireland is given as the reason for the conflict there and for the pig-headed marchers celebrating victories of hundreds of years ago. So much easier than looking for the deprivation and unemployment caused by the real culprit, the capitalist system, they blame fellow workers who appear to have marginal advantages. Religious beliefs are, at least, a hindrance to the acceptance of socialist ideas; at worst, they actually oil the wheels of exploitation. That is why, when it suits them, politicians like Bush Jnr. and Hague will actively embrace them while socialists oppose them.
Eva Goodman

Spiritualism and British Society between the Wars (2000)

Book Review from the September 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Spiritualism and British Society between the Wars. By Jenny Hazelgrove. Manchester University Press

Many, perhaps a majority, believe that there is life after death. Although the churches, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, discourage the view, some draw the conclusion that it is therefore possible for the living to contact the dead and vice versa. This is the basis of Spiritualism and its “mediums” between the living and the dead.

Spiritualists have evolved an elaborate theory to explain how this is possible but most adepts are no more interested in this than the average church-goer is in theology. It’s the simple, popular belief that it is possible to contact the dead that attracts them. But it is not only ordinary people who believe this. It is a view that has been shared among others by Robert Owen, Alfred Russell, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and WB Yeats.

Hazelgrove examines the popularity of these beliefs between the wars and is particularly concerned with the image of the medium, who was generally a woman (medium, apparently, is also a feminist issue). As she is writing from a sociological point of view, she is not concerned with the truth or otherwise of Spiritualist claims but only with the existence of Spiritualism and mediums as social facts. Nevertheless, there is enough material in her book to use to reinforce the case against Spiritualism.

Since there is no scientific evidence of life after death, it’s reasonable to assume that mediums cannot be contacting the dead. So what are they doing? Some will be out-and-out frauds who are deceiving vulnerable and gullible people as a way of obtaining the money we must all obtain, one way or another, to survive under capitalism. All so-called “materialisation mediums”, those who claim to produce physical manifestations of the dead, fall into this category since they will know that they themselves produce the muslin or cheese cloth they call “ectoplasm”.

Some of the others will be frauds too, feeding back to their victims information supplied by them or which they have previously researched. Some may be sincere in the same way that a Roman Catholic priest, who will know full well that he is only serving sour wine and dry biscuits to his parishioners in communion, will genuinely believe that he has somehow transformed them into the blood and flesh of Christ. In other words, they will know that they have fished for the answers or have caused the tapping noises but will mistakenly but genuinely believe that this was prompted by their “Spirit Guide” “from the other side”. Others will justify their activities as bringing solace to unhappy people (which they do). Yet others will be suffering from a severe mental disorder involving hallucinatory delusions.

As Hazelgrove explains, you can’t just become a medium like that. You must have some aptitude for the role and you must be accepted by the Spiritualist community. There was even, between the wars, a special residential school for training mediums. It is clear from the account Hazelgrove gives of the background of some well-known mediums of the inter-war years that mediumship did provide a socially acceptable role for some women who heard voices and saw visions and who would otherwise have ended up in a mental asylum.

Hazelgrove also examines the role of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). This was a society set up by a group of Cambridge academics in 1882 to investigate life after death in a scientific manner. Their basic premise was that this existed and their work consisted in trying to distinguish fraudulent mediums from genuine ones.

Hazelgrove doesn’t like them (because they were men investigating women) but she does record the amusing fact that every “psychical researcher’s” dream was to find a genuine medium while exposing those allegedly discovered by their rivals as frauds. The overall result was that there was no general agreement that any one was genuinely able to act as a channel between the living and the dead. It never occurred to them that this failure to find a genuine medium might be due to the fact that there is no life after death and that they were therefore never going to find what they were looking for.
Adam Buick

50 Years Ago: 1305 And All That (2000)

The 50 Years Ago column from the September 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

“These unofficial strikes must not be allowed to succeed” (speaker’s stress)—B.B.C. official speaker in “Topic For Tonight,” 11/7/.50.

But all strikes are now unofficial strikes:-
“At the N.U.R. Conference at Morecambe to-day a resolution calling for the abolition of the Government’s Arbitration Order 1305 had previously been passed with applause. “Delegates described the order as ‘a millstone round the worker’s neck,’ and called for the freeing of bargaining power to workers in wage-increase negotiation” (Manchester Evening News, 5/7/50).
The Manchester Evening News comments: “Arbitration Order 1305 lays down that no strike may take place unless the Minister of Labour has failed to take appropriate steps within 21 days of receiving notice of dispute. As the minister invariably does take action it means that only in the most unusual circumstances can a strike be legal and strikers entitled to strike pay.”

In fact, if a union pays strike pay to its members it may be prosecuted by the Labour-Party-inspired Ministry of Labour (now headed by ex-trade-unionist George Isaac!) under this Order.

(From article by “OPIFEX”, Socialist Standard, September 1950)


Suckers for punishment in Venezuela (2000)

From the September 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

On Sunday, 30 July, Hugo Chavez, former army colonel, leader of a failed coup in 1992, and President of Venezuela since February 1999, was re-elected in what Richard Gott described in a letter to the Guardian (2 August) as “a stunning victory that surprised the pollsters”. Actually, the opinion polls the previous week gave him a lead of 20 percent over his main challenger, Francisco Arias. More than 80 percent of those who voted for Chavez were said to be living below the official poverty line.

In 1996, unemployment in Venezuela stood at 17 percent, inflation rose during the year by approximately 100 percent, and per capita oil income, on which the country relied, and still relies, for more than 80 percent of its foreign exchange, declined by three-quarters between 1980 and 1995. Nevertheless, Venezuela was, and is, the world’s third largest oil-producing country, and has the largest oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere.

In July last year, Chavez’s “leftist” coalition won an overwhelming majority of seats in the 131-seat assembly, despite a sharp economic downturn and the loss of at least 600,000 jobs since Chavez took office in February. He blamed the corruption and poverty of the workers on previous administrations, and promised to create a “true democracy”, free of corruption and poverty for the masses, despite appointing many of his former fellow army plotters to top posts in the state. Such was Chavez’s “Peaceful Revolution”!

Then, in December, after torrential rain for more than a week, Venezuela suffered devastating floods which caused landslides, inundated the capital, Caracas, swept away roads and shanty towns, and cascaded down the steep valleys to the Caribbean coast, and into the sea. Large tracts of Vargas state, the worst affected, were flooded. In the words of a Guardian headline (24 December 1999), “Venezuela pays the price for ecological carelessness”, caused we should add by the quest for profit at all costs by the Venezuelan, and multi-national capitalist class.

In January this year, in the wake of the floods and the destruction of thousands of homes, it has been reported by the newspaper, El Nacional and a number of human rights groups, that at least 60 people (the government’s figure) had been killed by the military between 17 and 30 December, allegedly to stop looting. Chavez insisted that “nothing can be considered proof” of the military’s involvement in the murders; but El Nacional said that President Chavez had “expelled three soldiers from the National Guard on charges that they had participated, not in the executions, but in looting”.

Meanwhile, since January 1999, the Venezuelan economy has declined by seven percent, foreign investors have withdrawn more than £5bn, and unemployment is still more than 600,000 more than it was when Hugo Chavez became President in February. The “acute economy slump” continues; and the voters, over 80 percent of whom are employed or unemployed workers, have given Chavez another six years of power. And capitalism in Venezuela, as elsewhere, staggers on.
 Peter E. Newell

Greasy Pole: Leaks and changes (2000)

The Greasy Pole column from the September 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
New Labour set out to run British capitalism as it had never been run before. Nobody with a memory should have been deceived
With Parliament away on holiday Tony Blair should have had plenty of time to reflect on life and the universe, or rather what has gone wrong with the New Labour dream and will they lose the next election. It may have seemed to him like a marriage, at first idyllic, which goes spectacularly wrong, falling from apparently inexhaustible affection and patience into bitter rancour. May 1997 and that huge majority was not all that long ago, but how things have changed. Like a rotting, doomed ship Labour is leaking.

In 1997 the Tories were exhausted, barren, sleazy. It happens to a lot of governments; simply, their time is up, their impotence has been exposed too often and the voters are ready to try another party. The election was as much a defeat for the Major government as a victory for Blair. None of this prevented the Labour manipulators in Millbank claiming that the result came through their skilful management of mass opinion. It was the culmination of years of “rebranding” the Labour Party, from the days of Michael Foot and his donkey jacket at the Cenotaph into a young, thrusting, thoroughly modern party for which nothing—no principle, no tradition—was sacred. Some disgruntled party members wondered whether this was a denial of what they fondly knew as Labour’s glorious history of struggle—or an abandonment of what they called their political principles. But such antediluvian carping did not impress the whiz kids at Millbank and in any case it only took a few seats to be captured for the grumbles to stifle their doubts.

Stress 
With the rebranding came the promises, which were not new because, in one form or another, we hear them at every election. These were encapsulated in slogans and soundbites—education, education, education, tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. And there was the nice Mr Blair saying things like “Look, I’m an everyday, down to earth, honest kind of guy. You can trust me.” A New Labour government would be historically different—they would run British capitalism virtually without those unpleasant bits like crime, extreme poverty, homelessness, substandard medical treatment and education. And as the votes came flooding in it seemed to have worked. The fixers at Millbank with their focus groups, their pollsters and spin-doctors celebrated their own estimate that nothing was beyond their powers.

Reality was rather different. As New Labour has failed to live up to its promise and the people who voted for it have come to realise that life under capitalism is essentially unchanged, there have been signs of stress in the government. There has been internal strife—coded messages (some less artfully disguised than others) that this Minister was not up to the job, that that one was mentally unsound . . . Blair has reacted like a man in a panic, trying to impose his will—as in the case of the Welsh First Secretary and the London mayor—on the party. This policy was based on Blair’s self-assessment that he held a uniquely secure place in the voters’ affections—and therefore an unusually powerful role in the government.

 “Honest kind of guy” Blair
That he began to have doubts about this became evident in the spring, when Blair circulated a memo—famously leaked—designed to re-establish his position and influence. First there was his gloomy assessment of New Labour’s problems: on family issues perceived as weak; on crime as soft; on national interest insufficiently assertive. “We need,” he wrote, “a thoroughly worked out strategy, stretching over several months, to regain the initiative in this area.” and part of that strategy was that Blair should benefit; after listing a number of measures, like getting tough on crime, “eye-catching initiatives” on the family, he urged “I should be personally associated with as much of this as possible.”

Leaks 
It may have been a coincidence but this anguished review of the government’s situation was composed in the immediate aftermath of a piece in the Daily Mail on similar lines. It is fair to speculate on the response of Labour voters to a prime minister who is apparently panicked by a piece of typical gutter journalism, aimed at provoking some of the ugliest of prejudices, in one of the most cynical of newspapers. And this from a prime minister who, when it suits him, has asserted that he is immune to pressure from the media.

But then, just as things began to get really interesting, as one leak after another revealed the disarray at the heart of the government, as Blair’s favourite pollster Philip Gould wrote about the government’s strength ebbing away, of them being “powerless to turn foreknowledge into effective preventative action”, of the New Labour brand being “badly contaminated”, Blair underwent an abrupt change of mind. “I think,” he trilled on Sky TV “we are in a stronger position, because in 1997 on the economy we were having to say to people we are just going to have to be very cautious and responsible. We can now say to people we have proved our responsibility.” This upbeat message was given to the nation on 23 July—less than three months after he had told his inner circle (and later, thanks to that leak, the rest of us as well) that they were “out of touch with gut British instincts”.

Panic 
This sudden, extreme change in Blair’s analysis of his government’s prospects was gleefully played up as evidence that when it comes to running the country he doesn’t know his own mind. (He didn’t help himself by also changing his mind over the trivial matter of allowing the press to photograph his family on their holidays.) But such changes—U-turns, broken promises, abandoned “principles”—are not unknown. Political history is littered with examples of them. The only difference, which sometimes influences popular conceptions of what is happening, is how the politicians manage their changes. Some—like Harold Wilson, try to ignore them. Some—like Harold Macmillan—airily dismiss them. Others—like Ted Heath and Blair—aggravate their problems by panicking.

But the basis of it—the inconsistency—is unavoidable. New Labour set out to be different, to run British capitalism as it had never been run before. Nobody with anything like a memory, or with any access to historical reality, should have been deceived. Capitalism will not allow New Labour to succeed where all other governments have failed. No change there then. And no need for leaks to tell us
Ivan