Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Obituary: Fred Allen (2020)

Obituary from the December 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sadly we report the death on 11 September of comrade Fred Allen, aged 91 years. 

He joined the Socialist Party when aged 17 having decided ‘there was no god and the SPGB was the best thing he knew of’.

In later years he was a member of East London Branch and then for some years an active member of the East Anglian Regional Branch. He served a short time on the Executive Committee and was an assistant to the Treasurer, taking seriously the collection of dues.

Fred was an enthusiastic supporter of the annual Summer School held in Birmingham probably enjoying the social side as much as the meetings. He was ready to help out wherever he could. A member recalls how a couple of years ago he helped her with the catering for a conference carrying the heavy shopping and spending the day in the kitchen rather than at the delegate meeting saying he was ‘not interested in the chit chat, I prefer to get things done’.

Fred would have been at HO for the Conference in April – he rang to arrange that we travel by cab – but sadly the lockdown meant that it did not take place.

We extend our condolences to his wife Barbara and family.

Why capitalists are ‘greedy’ (2020)

The Cooking the Books column from the December 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘Attenborough: Curb capitalism to save Earth’ was how the Times (8 October) reported a podcast interview with David Attenborough on Radio 5 Live in which he said:
  ‘The excesses the capitalist system has brought us have got to be curbed somehow. That doesn’t mean to say that capitalism is dead. I’m not an economist and I don’t know but I believe the nations of the world, the ordinary people worldwide, are beginning to realise that greed does not actually lead to joy.’
That’s a start. Capitalism has got something to do with it. It certainly encourages behaviour on the part of those in charge of capitalist production which comes across as ‘greed’ but is this an ‘excess’?

Marx devoted a section of chapter 24 of Capital to the question. Entitled ‘Separation of Surplus Value into Capital and Revenue: the Abstinence Theory’, it’s an amusing read as it mocks the theory that the capitalists are entitled to a profit on their capital because they abstain from consuming all their profits but re-invest most as new capital.

‘Except as personified capital,’ Marx wrote, ‘the capitalist has no historical value’ and went on:
  ‘But, so far as he is personified capital, it is not values in use and the enjoyment of them, but exchange-value and its augmentation, that spur him into action. Fanatically bent on making value expand itself, he ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake; he thus forces the development of the productive powers of society, and creates those material conditions, which alone can form the real basis of a higher form of society, a society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle’.
Hence his conclusion that ‘so far, therefore, as his actions are a mere function of capital — endowed as capital is, in his person, with consciousness and a will — his own private consumption is a robbery perpetrated on accumulation.’

In other words, the capitalists’ ‘greed’ for accumulating profits is not a personal choice or a character defect but is performing an essential social role within the capitalist economic system.

In Marx’s day that role was filled by an individual person. Today it is filled by a fictitious legal person – mainly, the limited company or corporation – but which still has to carry out what being a personification of capital involves.

It should be clear, then, that ‘greed’ for making and accumulating profits as more capital – also called ‘growth’ – is built into capitalism. It is not an excess but rather the essence of capitalism. Those in charge of capitalist production cannot help being ‘greedy’.

This means that capitalism cannot be ‘curbed’ and, if attempted, would disrupt the system and cause mass unemployment (rather like the measures governments have taken to deal with the coronavirus pandemic). To save the Earth, capitalism will have to be culled not curbed.

Fortunately, the historical role of the capitalist has been completed as the material basis has long since been created for ‘a higher form of society, a society in which the full and free development of every individual forms the ruling principle.’ To save the Earth we need to move on to this next stage in the evolution of human society.

Happiness, Happiness? (2020)

From the December 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

Many aspects of a person’s life can be expressed in numbers: height, weight, income, savings. But what about how happy they are? Can this really be expressed by a score out of ten and compared with how others in the same country felt a year ago or how people living elsewhere feel? That is precisely what is done in the World Happiness Report for 2020, the eighth in the series (online at worldhappiness.report). The period covered is 2017–19, and the main source of data is the Gallup World Poll (www.gallup.com). Typically, a thousand people are asked a set of questions in each country each year, and this smallish number is claimed to give reliable estimates, though no evidence for this is provided.

Let’s look at some of the findings. Countries are ranked in terms of inhabitants’ happiness, from Finland and Denmark at the top to South Sudan and Afghanistan at the bottom; the UK is in thirteenth place. There have been changes in happiness scores since 2008–12: most positively in Benin and Togo, most negatively in Afghanistan and Venezuela. More generally, in connection with the 2008 financial turmoil, it is noted that ‘life evaluations fell sharply during the financial crisis, recovered almost completely by 2011, and then fell fairly steadily to a 2019 value about the same level as its post-crisis low’.

Cities were ranked as well, from Helsinki at the top to Kabul at the bottom, with cities in Scandinavia, Australia and New Zealand receiving high scores. On average, urban populations are happier than rural ones, though this is not always the case in the developed Western world. And ‘the urban happiness advantage is considerably larger for higher educated people than for lower educated people’.

The variables used to explain scores include GDP per capita and healthy life expectancy. But perhaps more interesting are some of the other factors seen as leading to increasing happiness. What is termed ‘well-being inequality’ is of great importance: happiness scores are higher in countries and regions where well-being is more equal, suggesting that people do care about the well-being of others. Also important is the social environment, which involves having someone to count on, trust (as measured by the absence of corruption), a sense of freedom to make key life decisions, and generosity. Strong social environments help protect people against the consequences of adverse events, and reduce well-being inequality.

In general, people are aware of the importance of the natural environment and of the threat posed by climate change. In London, people greatly appreciate green spaces and also blue spaces such as rivers and ponds. Sustainable development has on the whole a positive relationship with measures of well-being. This relates to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (sdgs.un.org), such as eliminating poverty and hunger, achieving gender equality, providing clean water and ensuring clean and affordable energy. But two of the goals (climate action, and responsible consumption and production) were negatively correlated with well-being measures, suggesting that action here may not be so straightforward.

A final chapter asks why the Nordic countries are consistently among the happiest, in spite of the long cold winters. These countries have relatively low income inequality, but this is claimed to have in general no clear link with feelings of well-being. Here’s the conclusion: ‘The Nordic countries are characterized by a virtuous cycle in which various key institutional and cultural indicators of good society feed into each other including well-functioning democracy, generous and effective social welfare benefits, low levels of crime and corruption, and satisfied citizens who feel free and trust each other and governmental institutions’.

The report can make no claims about the coronavirus pandemic, but the site’s FAQs do note that in the past major disasters have sometimes led to increases in happiness: ‘The most frequent explanation seems to be that people are pleasantly surprised by the willingness of their neighbours and their institutions to work in harness to help each other.’

What should we make of all this? What does it show about the way the world is and the lives that people lead? For one thing, it is clear that how rich a country is has no simple relation with how happy its inhabitants are. It is true that countries ranked near the bottom are very poor, many of them in Africa, though this also includes India and Myanmar. But wealth does not explain everything, as the US is only eighteenth, just above the Czech Republic, while South Korea and Japan are 61st and 62nd respectively.

It is also interesting to compare this work with that of Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, in The Spirit Level and The Inner Level. They emphasised the crucial role of inequality: the higher the level of income inequality in a country, the more problems such as shorter life expectancy, higher rates of mental illness, more obese people and less social mobility. The level of trust was another aspect studied, based on how many people agreed with the statement ‘Most people can be trusted’; higher levels of inequality caused lower levels of trust.

Trust is also covered in the World Happiness Report, though perhaps measured in a rather different way. And, as noted above, it is part of the social environment, the strength of which can help protect against difficulties in people’s lives, make them feel more secure, reduce the extent of well-being inequality and so increase scores for happiness. The sense of community could be another way of expressing this.

So in plenty of countries the present social system does not deliver reasonable rates of happiness to many, many people. In others, folk fare rather better, but this is more in spite of the competitive and inequality-based system than because of it. Health matters, but also people’s relationships with others and their sense of freedom. Many factors combine to make an individual happy, and a person’s ability to choose how they live and their relations to other people play an important role, and capitalism reduces people’s freedom in this, as in so many other areas.
Paul Bennett