Sunday, January 31, 2021

Cutting-Edge Drama (2021)

The Proper Gander column from the January 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Small Axe (BBC One) is a polished and engaging collection of five dramas directed and co-written by filmmaker Steve McQueen, most well-known for 12 Years A Slave. As he explains, ‘the anthology, anchored in the West Indian experience in London, is a celebration of all that that community has succeeded in achieving against the odds’. Two of the films, based on actual events, focus on how black people reacted to their suppression by the police between the 1960s and 1980s. Here we find why the anthology is called Small Axe, which comes from the Jamaican proverb ‘if you are the big tree, we are the small axe’. McQueen’s skill is shown in how he authentically recreates the sights, sounds and attitudes of the times, and brings together a talented cast who have the daunting job of portraying real people. He says that the dramas ‘are about the past, yet they are very much concerned with the present’ (ibid), particularly in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, given added impetus through the killing of George Floyd by American police.

Mangrove tells the stories of some of those connected with the restaurant of the same name, which opened in Notting Hill in 1968, the same year as then-Tory MP Enoch Powell’s notorious ‘rivers of blood’ speech. Run by Frank Crichlow, the Mangrove restaurant was a lively, friendly hub for the local community as well as a meeting place for activists in the British Black Panthers, including Altheia Jones-LeCointe, Barbara Beese and Darcus Howe. Police soon turned their attention to the venue, as much because of its popularity among black people as through its links to the Black Power movement. Over the years, as many as 12 brutal raids were carried out, ostensibly on suspicion of alcohol and drugs offences, without any evidence of criminality being found. A response to the police’s targeting of the restaurant was a rally held on 9 August 1970. The 150-strong crowd, carrying a pig’s head and chanting ‘hands off black people’ made their way to the police station, where they were outnumbered and broken up, with nine arrested.

The second half of the film depicts the subsequent trial in 1971 of the ‘Mangrove Nine’, including Crichlow, Jones-LeCointe, Beese and Howe. They were charged with rioting and affray, after previous allegations against them had been thrown out of court. The trial was held at the Old Bailey, which was seen as a move to put more pressure on the nine because it was the usual venue for the most severe cases. Some of the defendants represented themselves, giving them the opportunity to directly address their accusers and show up the holes in the police’s account of the demo. Most of the Mangrove Nine were found not guilty, although four received suspended sentences for affray and assaulting police officers. When summing up, Judge Edward Clarke QC said that the trial had ‘regrettably shown evidence of racial hatred on both sides’, which was the first judicial recognition of racial prejudice in the Metropolitan Police, and a comment which the force unsuccessfully attempted to have withdrawn. The trial’s outcome is where the film ends, but in real life the police continued to harass the restaurant for many more years. Critchlow found himself in court three times until his name was cleared in 1989 and he received a record £50,000 in damages. The Mangrove restaurant finally closed three years later.

The police in Mangrove are largely presented as out-and-out racists, and their mindset towards black people is explored further in another of the Small Axe films. Red, White And Blue dramatises the beginning of Leroy Logan’s career in the force, which he decided to join in 1983 after his father was attacked by two officers. Logan aimed to increase representation of black people among the police and develop the institution from within. He was congratulated by senior staff as the best new starter among the latest batch, and became the face of a recruitment drive for more ‘coloured’ officers, as they were described at the time. Despite – or because of – all this, he found himself distanced from many others, including the young black people who called him a traitor when he walked past them in uniform, his father (who had good reason to mistrust the police) and his racist colleagues. Logan persevered and rose up the ranks to become a superintendent, as well as co-founding and chairing the Black Police Association.

Both dramas present the police force as dominated by bigoted thugs who were enabled to act out their prejudices by tradition and discriminatory laws. Having the protection of a uniform probably attracted racists to become officers in the first place. While Logan tried to improve the police from inside, the Mangrove Nine challenged them first through direct action and then by careful navigation of the judicial process. Their determination is commendable, and each helped to erode some of the institution’s racism, but they didn’t threaten the institution itself, because it’s part of something bigger. The police force has an integral role in the state, and although it would be possible for it to operate in a non-racist way, it is inherently divisive because it supports the class divide. As such, the ‘small axe’ is too small to carve out really fundamental change.
Mike Foster

Ill Fares the Land (2021)

Book Review from the January 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Who Owns England? How We Lost Our Land and How to Take It Back. by Guy Shrubsole (William Collins £9.99.)

The answer, of course, is a small number of very rich people. Thirty percent of land in England is owned by the aristocracy and gentry, 17 percent by ‘new money’, 18 percent by companies, 8.5 percent by the state, and just five percent by homeowners, with another four percent spread among crown, church and charities. Even these figures leave around one-sixth of the land unaccounted for, such is the difficulty of acquiring information about land-ownership, as ‘concealing wealth is part and parcel of preserving it’. The rise of digital technology has made investigating who owns land somewhat easier, but it is clear that the author has devoted a great deal of effort to uncovering the information provided here. He operates the website, and it is also worth looking at, which is separately run but deals with similar facts and figures.

Another way of describing the extent of inequality is to say that just 36,000 people own half the rural land in England and Wales. The origin of this dates back to Norman times, when William the Conqueror handed out land to less than two hundred clergy and barons. Many aristocratic land-owning families can be traced back to those days, such as the Dukes of Westminster, who remain unbelievably wealthy. Male primogeniture has played a large part in perpetuating the wealth and power of a small group of aristocrats. Much of the land they own is given over to grouse moors: apart from grouse shooting being a thoroughly nasty ‘pastime’, managing the moors can lead to environmental problems, such as flooding downstream.

Aristocrats became wealthy through owning land, but those with new money have bought land as a result of becoming wealthy. An example would be the Vestey family, who derived their wealth from selling cheap meat, purchased country estates and, like so many other landowners, used trusts and tax havens as a means of protecting their wealth. They have been joined more recently by Russian oligarchs and those who reap massive profits from Middle Eastern oil, both of whom specialise in properties in central London.

State ownership of land means primarily the Forestry Commission and the Ministry of Defence. The biggest corporate owners are privatised water companies, and also such as Peel Holdings, which, among much else, owns the Manchester Ship Canal and land adjoining it; Peel’s owner is a billionaire who lives on the Isle of Man, and it exercises power via a mass of subsidiary companies. Peel Holdings ranks only 33rd in Shrubsole’s list of land-owning companies, though it probably owns much more than the 15,000 acres attributed to it.

The author provides an excellent survey of land ownership and how it came about, though with relatively little on the enclosures that played a major part in the emergence of capitalism. Read his book for what it says about the past and present situations, not for the reforms proposed in the final chapter, such as ending unsustainable uses of land, which will be impossible in a society of private property but straightforward when the land belongs to everyone.
Paul Bennett

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Myths of Nationalism (2021)

From the January 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

If you open an atlas, you will generally find two kinds of map there. Physical maps show land masses and islands, mountains, seas and rivers. Political maps show towns and cities but also borders of various kinds, from counties and provinces to countries. In some ways, it’s rather odd that these borders exist: they are not natural phenomena, and even a few hundred years ago, national boundaries would have been very different. Nevertheless, nations and the nationalism associated with them are often seen as essential aspects of the way the world is organised, with people expected to support the ‘national interest’, which goes well beyond supporting the national team in various sports. But there are good reasons for questioning the whole idea of nations and nationalism, and for arguing that they are all part of a world forced on its inhabitants and based on division, rivalry and setting people against each other.

An article in the November Socialist Standard criticised nationalism as ‘a dangerous diversion from the class struggle’, adding that it would just mean workers getting new masters in place of the old ones. And there are further reasons why workers should reject nationalism, including the fundamental point that the whole idea of a nation is extremely problematic. Whatever definition is adopted, there will always be exceptions, and it is just not possible to say in objective and consistent terms what constitutes a nation.

Let’s look at some definitions. Commonly cited is the one by Stalin (in Marxism and the National Question):
  ‘A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.’
As far as psychological make-up is concerned, he claims that nations differ ‘in spiritual complexion, which manifests itself in peculiarities of national culture’. This is vague enough to be meaningless, and so makes no contribution to the recognition of a nation.

With regard to the language criterion, Stalin notes that the inhabitants of the UK and US both speak English but do not form a nation, as they occupy distinct territories and do not share an ‘internal economic bond’. He recognises that two nations can speak the same language but maintains that a nation cannot speak several languages. But there are many countries where more than one language is spoken.

In Belgium there are three official languages, Dutch/Flemish, French and German. Stalin would presumably have to say that (leaving aside the smaller number of German speakers) there are two nations in Belgium, namely Flanders and Wallonia. There are plenty of other examples, from Switzerland and Wales to Canada, Iraq, Afghanistan and India (which has no fewer than twenty-two official languages). In addition, it cannot be claimed that multilingual countries usually have one language used by all inhabitants (in India, for instance, fewer than six in ten speak the most widely used language, Hindi).

Some approaches to nationalism make no reference to language. The following is from National Identity by Anthony Smith:
 ‘a named human population sharing an historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights and duties for all members. ‘
Note the similarity to Stalin’s definition in terms of a common economy, a mass culture and such vague terms as ‘common myths’. Smith’s definition of nationalism is also relevant:
  ‘an ideological movement for attaining and maintaining autonomy, unity and identity on behalf of a population deemed by some of its members to constitute an actual or potential ‘nation’.’
It should be clear that nationalism is based on totally subjective notions relating to memories and culture and what some believe to be a nation. As was stated at the time of the unification of Italy, ‘We have made Italy, now we have to make Italians’.

Open the atlas again and look at a political map of Africa. Many borders consist of straight lines, and it is clear that these are arbitrary consequences of colonialism, of which colonial power ruled which area and where it was convenient to draw boundaries, rather than reflecting any genuine distinctions between nations. Instead, the lines were put in place, and nations were created as a result. Iraq, too, was assembled a century ago as an artificial entity that served the interests of the British ruling class, with special regard to access to oil reserves. Even a supposedly long-existing nation, China, has in fact consisted of different areas over time, often with rulers who were not themselves Chinese but, among others, Mongol or Manchu.

So many will say that a nation has a common culture, but what is not true is that the members of a nation have common interests. This is because all nations are divided into different classes, an elite who have the lion’s share of wealth and power in contrast to the great majority of the population. Under capitalism, the division is between the capitalist class and the working class. The capitalists are less than one percent of the population; they own the land, factories, shops, offices and so on; their income derives from rent, interest and profit; they can be immensely wealthy, multi-millionaires or even billionaires. In contrast, the working class form the rest of the population; they have to work for a wage or salary, or else depend on someone who does so; what they are paid does little more than enable them to keep their heads above water, and they are always prey to unemployment and real poverty.

In such a society, there can be no commonality of interests between the capitalists, who want to increase their profits and their power over those they exploit, and the workers. The capitalists wish to protect their wealth and power on an international stage, such as access to trade routes and markets, and they invoke nationalism to persuade workers to go along with this. Even if they share a nationality with their bosses, it is in the interest of workers to defend their wages and working conditions against capitalist onslaught, and indeed to overthrow the rulers and the system, establishing a global society where there are no classes and no borders. Where nations and nationalism are things of the past, like banks and bailiffs and charities and passports.
Paul Bennett

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Copyrights expire, humanity gains (2021)

From the January 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

This month marks the end of an era. The play, Pygmalion, written and first performed in 1912, goes out of copyright in the United Kingdom, and much of the world. 108 years as intellectual property comes to an end. It joins all of the works of George Bernard Shaw, along, also, with the works of George Orwell, in the expiry. Both men died in 1950. The antiquity of Shaw’s writing is down to his very long life.

At the time both men died, they could have expected their intellectual property, and its income, to live on 50 years after them, however, the law was changed in 1995 to extend copyrights by twenty further years, so that intellectual property had a life of the remainder of the author’s life, plus 70 years.

Copyright asserts that that the author has the right to control their own intellectual creations: initially, as the name suggests, over who had the right to make copies of published books. This later extended to the right to prevent derivative works (using characters and instances from the created work). It also asserts the author’s right to be identified as the creator of the work.

It is, in effect, an intangible property right, that exists only because the state creates and enforces it. The first copyright law in the UK dates back to 1710, “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning, by vesting the Copies of Printed Books in the Authors or purchasers of such Copies, during the Times therein mentioned”. As this title makes clear, the intent was that people could benefit commercially from producing works and publishing them. Initially, this was limited to 14 years.

The reason this sort of protection is necessary is seen in the famous example of Charles Dickens suffering at the hands of literary pirates in America, where his works were not in copyright: within weeks of A Christmas Carol being published, pirate copies were selling freely and lucratively in the United States.

In strict economic terms then, copyright is a species of rent, arising from the artificial monopoly created by the state, hence the interest of rentiers to extend and extend the term of the copyright so that they can keep profiting from the use of the intellectual property.

The sort of value involved can be seen in the 2015 Freedom of Information Act request to the British Museum (one of the beneficiaries of the Shaw estate). That showed that the Museum gained £1.5 million from his estate between 2001 and 2014. It should be noted that this in itself represents less than a third of the income of the estate, split as it was between the National Gallery of Ireland, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, the British Museum and – in a final quixotic twist, an endowment towards alphabet reform. True to his form as a challenger of received notions, this last part of his bequest had to be overturned in court by the public trustee, demonstrating the limitations to the absolute right of an individual to dispose of his property as he pleases. A very Shavian outcome to Shaw’s own life.

These fine institutions will now be bereft of considerable income. This is not the first time. In the 1980s Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) lost the income from J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan works. This led to campaigns on behalf of the hospital to extend its copyright (no doubt encouraged by less worthy owners of intellectual property). In art, this drove the extension from 50 years after the author’s death to 70, but in addition, GOSH was granted a perpetual interest in the royalties of Peter Pan performances and publications in the UK (but not full copyright control to authorise performances and publications).

Intellectual property is big business. Corporations like Disney spend a lot of time and effort buying up the rights to characters and stories (like their purchase of the Star Wars franchise). Given that corporations don’t die, it is in their interest to keep property rights around for as long as possible. Even more, there is currently controversy, as Disney are apparently maintaining they have gained the benefits of the Star Wars IP, but are trying to avoid paying the author of the novelisations of the films any royalties.

The power of the copyright monopoly came to the fore during the Covid lockdown, as university libraries found that academic publishers were not making electronic copies available (which could, thus, be read by students at home) or were charging very high prices (some publishers did make ebooks temporarily available, but even that generosity could be seen as loss-leading, to get people into the habit of those titles being available). Librarian organisations have called for a review of the ebook market in the UK (

They note that increasingly the model is for universities to pay for expensive and restrictive licences that have to be bought each year. This is the trend with intangible property, to transform one-off payments into revenue streams. Unlike when you buy a print book, when you buy an ebook you do not own a thing, you are simply granted the right to be able to read a text. This is as true for an ebook on a Kindle as it is for university libraries.

For publishers, the cost of producing a print book and an ebook is pretty much identical (actually printing is a marginal cost in the whole process), but they are struggling to find a business model that allows them to collect revenue whilst at the same time using the infinite reproducibility of electronic distribution of information.

Both Shaw and Orwell claimed to be socialists, and often made useful and important contributions to the debates and arguments for socialism (even if that took the form of needing to disagree with them). Their works becoming more widely and freely available can only be a welcome thing. Humanity gains in general from the increased availability and distribution of ideas and knowledge.
Pik Smeet

Sunday, January 17, 2021

No, ambassador (2011)

Book Review from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Getting Our Way. By Christopher Meyer. Phoenix £8.99.

A diplomat, it is commonly claimed, is a man sent abroad to lie for his country. Not only is Meyer aware of this saying, he actually regards it as a compliment. As former British ambassador to Germany and the US, he is well placed to write a history of diplomacy.

In some ways he is a maverick (his previous book, DC Confidential, was criticised by some for its supposed revelations), but he is clearly an establishment figure. His aim in writing this book is to argue for a revival of diplomacy and a proper ‘foreign’ policy, as opposed to one supposedly based on ‘the daft utopianism of ‘global values’. But what strikes a socialist is how open Meyer is about how diplomacy serves British national interests (i.e. the interests of the British ruling class).

By considering examples from the sixteenth century onwards, he looks at a number of cases where British diplomats have endeavoured to defend these ruling class interests, often with more than a little help from guns and gunboats. In China, for instance, a mission in 1793 was unsuccessful in gaining access to Chinese markets as a means of reducing the trade imbalance caused by the Western thirst for tea. Then in the mid nineteenth century, the Opium Wars achieved what mere negotiation had failed to win. In 1856 the bombardment of Canton led to further growth in ‘free trade’. Hong Kong became British territory as part of these shenanigans but, as Meyer says, ‘It was trade not territory that Britain was after.’

In the 1990s, the former Yugoslavia became another centre of conflict, with the Western powers fearful that fighting there would spread and destabilise the rest of the Balkans and perhaps an even wider area. It was these considerations that led to armed intervention in Kosovo. But in Africa there are few examples of such intervention, simply because Western national interests are not at stake in the same way.

Meyer quotes approvingly Palmerston’s statement that Britain has no eternal allies or enemies, just eternal interests, the main one being the protection and extension of trade. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the British navy defended trade routes, the importing of raw materials and the slave trade. Nowadays the emphasis for the most powerful countries is on the struggle to control natural resources, as witness China’s activities in Africa, Central Asia and Latin America, and also the tensions over the control of minerals under the Arctic ice cap.

So here is one representative of the ruling class who is well aware of what lies behind capitalist wars and is quite happy to proclaim that to the world. But of course he does not mention the millions of workers and peasants killed or maimed in these conflagrations.
Paul Bennett

Blogger's Dilemma:
The above book review is listed under the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard on the SPGB website but it's not in the PDF of the January 2011 Socialist Standard which is also on the SPGB website. Instead, the PDF carries the review of Fritz Lang's Metropolis. I'm not sure what happened so I've included them both on the blog.

Politicians: public face of the capitalist class (2021)

From the World Socialist Party of the United States website

What are politicians for? What do they do?

At school we are taught that politicians are chosen by us, the voters, to represent us in the making of laws and in the government of our city, state, and country. This arrangement supposedly ensures that the views of the majority prevail – the essence of democracy (rule by the people).

This picture is not totally false, but it is also very far from the full truth. It does not account for the persistent divergence that researchers have found between policy outcomes and public opinion.[1] For example, no mainstream politician favors ‘Medicare for All’ even though the scheme has the support of a clear majority of Americans – 69% according to one recent poll. 

The main problem with this picture is what it leaves out. It leaves out the most powerful people in our society, who are not the politicians but the capitalist class – that is, the wealthy and those who represent their interests in the top management of big banks and corporations. (There is admittedly some overlap between the two groups – Donald Trump, for instance.)

Almost all candidates for public office depend on capitalists for money – it is extremely expensive to stand for office – and for coverage in the capitalist-owned media. Capitalists play a crucial though largely hidden role in narrowing the range of choices offered to the voters.[2] Capitalists exploit this dependence to exert a strong influence on the processes of lawmaking and government, either directly or through lobbyists and trade associations. 

To understand the role played by politicians we must therefore examine the triangular relations between capitalists, politicians, and voters. The basic relationship is that between the capitalist class and the mass of the population – the 1% and the 99%, to use the terms favored by the Occupy Wall Street movement. Apart from a few mavericks, however, capitalists prefer to remain in the shadows and deal with the public through hired intermediaries such as pollsters, specialists in Public Relations, and politicians. These people, and politicians in particular, are the public face of the capitalist class in the realm of public policy.


One institution specifically designed to facilitate interaction between politicians and capitalists in public policy is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Founded in 1973 by conservative activist Paul Weyrich and a group of Republican state legislators, ALEC aims to ‘make national policy by acting incrementally at the state level.’[3] Through an array of ‘task forces’ – currently ten of them — ALEC prepares ‘model bills’ for the use of its members. State legislators belonging to ALEC need not know how to draft legislation: they can just select texts from ALEC’s online library of model bills, introduce them in state legislatures, and push them through the legislative process into state law.

The internal structure of ALEC accurately reflects the division of labor between capitalists as the power behind the scenes and politicians as their public face. There are two boards of directors – a public board consisting solely of state legislators and a ‘private enterprise board’ consisting solely of representatives of big corporations. Only the identities of members of the public board are made public. Meetings of task forces are held in secret, so outsiders do not know how the legislators and corporate representatives on them interact.

ALEC has recently extended its activity down to the city/county level by setting up a new division named the American City County Exchange ‘for local elected officials and the private sector.’

Of course, ALEC does not represent all local and state politicians – only those most subservient to the capitalist class. Nevertheless, it has an extensive presence and is very active. The Center for Media and Democracy has identified about a thousand current state legislators in all fifty states, mostly Republicans, ‘known to be involved in’ ALEC as well as hundreds of ALEC’s model bills and resolutions.[4]

How politicians talk to us

As we have seen, capitalists wish to conceal the extent of their influence from the general public. In general, they seek to minimize their presence as political actors in the public consciousness. That is why politicians, when they address the public, never so much as mention their close relations with capitalists. A taboo is placed on an essential aspect of their professional activity in order to sustain the pretense that the picture painted in civics textbooks corresponds to reality. 

This also helps explain why communication between politicians and the public is so one-sided. They talk to the public. No opportunity is provided for open-ended dialogue. The only questions tolerated are those posed by establishment journalists who can be trusted to observe ‘the rules of the game’ — and politicians can evade even their questions with impunity if they wish. Members of the audience who interrupt politicians’ speeches with comments or questions – ‘hecklers’ – are ignored or told off like naughty children. They are liable to be thrown out or even beaten up.

Perhaps fearing that they may inadvertently break a taboo, politicians are loath to talk in public at length about substantive policy matters. Consider the victory speeches of Harris and Biden on November 7. Harris spoke first. Most of her speech consisted of vague rhetoric and personal recognition of colleagues, friends, and relatives, but she did devote a few carefully chosen words to policy issues (omitting healthcare, no doubt in deference to Biden’s opposition to ‘Medicare for All’). Biden said nothing at all about policy.  

It is worth pondering why American politicians feel obliged to sacrifice their domestic privacy and put their whole family on public display, including young children or grandchildren – arguably a form of child abuse. Isn’t this a desperate attempt to compensate for the alienation caused by their structural inability to relate to their fellow citizens in an open and honest way? They cannot reveal to voters the factors that shape and constrain their policy positions, but at least they can grant them the illusion of an intimate connection. What should be private is made public because what should by rights be public has to be kept private.    

The ultimate function of the politician is to be like a buffer protecting the capitalist class from mass discontent. In order to be effective as a buffer he may sometimes find it necessary to give voice to the grievances of ordinary people, but this need not lead to any corrective action. 

Barack Obama was a master at this double game. Campaigning in the mid-West, he thundered against regional companies such as Maytag and Exelon. And yet these same companies, confident that he would do nothing to harm their interests, gave him large donations. Speaking to audiences of workers, Obama denounced Maytag’s decision in 2004 to close the refrigerator plant in Galesburg, Illinois, entailing the loss of 1,600 jobs to Mexico. But he never raised the issue with Maytag directors Henry and Lester Crown, despite his ‘special relationship’ with them.[5] Later, as president, having bailed out the banks during the financial crisis of 2008, Obama expressed dissatisfaction that they were continuing to operate as before. When he met with the CEOs of fifteen top banks in spring 2009, they complained about his ‘populist rhetoric’; his riposte was that his administration ‘are the only ones standing between you and the pitchforks’ – a vivid expression of the buffer metaphor.[6] Obama never did do anything to reform the banks.

What about Bernie? 

Some politicians do not depend on capitalist donors but collect small donations from ordinary people. This occurs mostly at the local level, where campaigning does not require so much money. At the national level Bernie Sanders pursued this strategy with a measure of success in his bid for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. He broke the taboo and spoke openly in public about the dependence of his political rivals on ‘the billionaire class.’ I suspect that this, rather than any of his specific policy positions, is the main reason for the hatred that the political establishment has for Sanders.   

However, when Biden won the nomination Sanders undertook to support him and stopped talking about this subject. Since then he too has observed the taboo. His silence has not sufficed to win him the trust of the establishment or a place in the new administration.


[1] Larry M. Bartels, Unequal Democracy: The Political Economy of the New Gilded Age (Princeton University Press, 2008). The author teaches at Vanderbilt University. See also: Paul Street, They Rule: The 1% vs. Democracy (Routledge, 2016) 

[2] See: ‘Selecting a US President: The Invisible Primaries,’ World Socialist Review, No. 22, pp. 68-70.  

[3] For more detailed discussion of ALEC, see: Joe R. Hopkins, Link

[5] ‘The Politics of the “Lesser Evil”,’ World Socialist Review, No. 22, p. 75. 

[6] Barack Obama, A Promised Land (Crown, 2020), pp. 295-6; Link.

Voice From The Back: A Happy New Year (2011)

The Voice From The Back Column from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Happy New Year

We all love that time just before midnight when we cuddle our sweethearts and friends and wish each other a happy new year. We ignore reality. For one time in our life inside capitalism we celebrate just being alive. One of the reasons that we cannot be too joyful is that we remember what a shitty society we all live in. “Millions of families are struggling to pay their bills – and the number is likely to increase in the new year, according to a new analysis from the Bank of England. The report published today shows that two fifths of households have difficulty from time to time or constantly in meeting their monthly bills, compared with a third last year, and more than a half regard their overdrafts or credit cards as a burden” (Times, 13 December). Behind the dry statistics what we are talking about is human misery and anxiety. Fellow workers, let’s face it capitalism sucks.

The American Dream

One of the illusions beloved of supporter of capitalism is that while the progress of equality may be painfully slow in Africa or Asia, in the USA you can see an example of developed capitalism and its many benefits. The reality is much different. “Almost 15% of US households experienced a food shortage at some point in 2009, a government report has found. US authorities say that figure is the highest they have seen since they began collecting data in the 1990s, and a slight increase over 2008 levels. Single mothers are among the hardest hit: About 3.5 million said they were at times unable to put sufficient food on the table. Hispanics and African Americans also suffer disproportionately. The food security report is the result of an annual survey conducted by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)” (BBC News, 15 November). It would seem that for many people in the USA The American Dream has turned out to be The American Nightmare.

A Merry Christmas?

Hundreds of thousands of leaflets produced by Crisis UK were pushed through letterboxes last December appealing for donations. They painted a horrible picture of what Christmas meant for the homeless. “Hidden homeless people live in hostels, squats, bed and breakfasts or sleep on friends’ floors. They often lead miserable, isolated lives and suffer from debilitating mental and physical health problems. Crisis wants to open nine centres between 23 and 30 December offering homeless people companionship, care, hot food and warm clothing at a time of year which can be particularly lonely for those without a home or a family.” These well-meaning people are obviously sincere in their attempts to alleviate the plight of the homeless, but what happens after the 30 December? Charity cannot solve the problems of poverty, homelessness or alienation. Only a complete transformation of society from the profit motive to world socialism can accomplish that. Wake up fellow workers charity doesn’t work. It never has.

The Profit Motive and Cancer

The notion that the medical world is devoted to the prevention of killer diseases is a widespread one, but often research is devoted more to treatments rather than cures, as can be seen from the following news item. “The pharmaceutical industry will always fund projects when it is in its best interests to do so. Cancer prevention is not currently one of these, and so Cancer Research UK, the Medical Research Council and the Department of Health have to fund early detection, screening and prevention studies. It is amazing that less than 2 per cent of the total cancer research budget is spent on prevention. We live in a commercial world where nobody is willing to pay very much for vague prevention information – it has to be made more precise and more individual. People value treatment more than prevention, so that’s where the profit now lies” (Daily Telegraph, 8 December). Less than 2 percent of research spent on prevention because treatment is more profitable – truly capitalism is a cancerous society.

Production Values: the Dyson Cyclone vacuum cleaner (2011)

The Production Values Column f
rom the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
A sideways glance at capitalism through some of its products.  This month: the Dyson Cyclone vacuum cleaner
Far from being a revolutionary invention, the inventor of the Dyson Cyclone vacuum cleaner (James Dyson) made no attempt to hide that the idea behind the invention he patented was nicked from seeing dust extraction equipment in a sawmill, a technology that has been around for the best part of a century.

The product however almost never got made due to the enormous costs of licencing and patenting.  This forced Dyson to look for investment from major manufacturers. The market-leader – Hoover – was one company that was offered the option of investing.  They declined as the product (which doesn’t need filter bags) kind of challenged their basic business model (which relies on the ongoing sale of replacement filter bags worth 100s of millions of dollars each year).  Hoover’s vice-president regretted in hindsight that “Hoover as a company did not take the product technology off Dyson”.  And what would they have done with it ? – “it would have lain on the shelf and not been used.”

Needless to say, now that it has established itself, the Dyson company is hardly acting like a “new broom” (for want of a better phrase) – instead they have been particularly quick to use patent law to protect against anyone coming close to copying their supposedly “original” design .

Portrayed endlessly as a society which incentivises invention and rewards risk, capitalism arguably often does the very opposite. Despite the rags to riches storylines, the best way of getting very rich is usually to make sure you are pretty rich to start with.

Rather than a testament to the creativity of the individual, let alone the magic of the market system, next time you hoover (or perhaps, “Dyson”) the carpet, think of all the useful products that never made it because of the artificial hurdle that is the patenting system that capitalism requires.  All the talk of the lifeblood of capitalism being the plucky little entrepreneur with a great new idea is nonsense: the last thing capitalists want is another capitalist joining them to share out the spoils of the class war – even if it means a great invention for gathering dust just has to (apologies) gather dust.

NEXT MONTH: we take a look at that modern must-have accessory, bottled water.

Material World: Business is Everything and Everything is Business (2011)

The Material World column from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
Capitalism’s priority is to protect business opportunities not the environment
Late last year three huge conferences took place, one in Nagoya, Japan and one in Rome, both ostensibly focussed on protecting the ‘rights’, the wellbeing and viability of the livelihoods of people who live on and from the land and on protecting the land and its biodiversity, whilst offering business opportunities to eager participants. The third, possibly the most widely covered, was that at Cancun aimed at further negotiations to slow down climate change.

First, Rome
It was reported that the CFS – the United Nations Committee on Food Security has failed to back the UN voluntary code of conduct on foreign land investment. (See Socialist Standard August 2010, ‘Land Grab, win-win or win-lose’). The Rome meeting ‘dragged on into the early hours’ but ended failing to endorse the seven principles promoted for ‘responsible agricultural investment.’ Again Olivier De Schutter, UN special rapporteur on the right to food, found it ‘terribly disappointing’. Countries such as China, Egypt and South Africa opposed endorsing the principles because they were not involved in the original consultations.

A World Bank report released in September revealed that 45 million hectares worth of large scale farmland deals had been announced in 2009 (land populated with people not worth consideration) – a ten-fold increase over previous years. A spokesperson for FAO – the Food and Agriculture Organisation – claimed that ‘one of the reasons why there was this rush to overseas investments is that governments and the private sector lost faith in international markets as a reliable source of food supply’. Governments and the private sector losing faith in the capitalist way of doing business?! Or could it be that the capitalist way sees the competition and forges ahead pressing to gain maximum advantage? Anyway, now another year will pass before the next meeting will take place, backstepping to alternative ‘ill-defined voluntary guidelines’ first discussed in 2008. Meanwhile, putting aside any consideration of ‘rights’, wellbeing, livelihoods, etc, who will place a bet on the percentage increase in this round of landgrab while we wait for the next meeting?

Second Nagoya, Japan 
This was COP-10, the tenth bi-annual meeting of the Conference Of the Parties, involving 193 countries with between 15-16,000 participants including activists, NGOs and indigenous peoples from around the world ‘to ensure that these strategies created to supposedly protect biodiversity focus on enhancing the rights of peoples with biodiversity-rich lands and do not impact negatively on biodiversity or these peoples by forcing them into the free market’  (Anne Petermann, Executive Director, Global Justice Ecology Project).

Negotiations were focussed on a ‘new Strategic Plan on diversity for 2011-2020 with a biodiversity vision for 2050’, 2010 being the International Year of Biodiversity. There was a ‘Business and Biodiversity Initiative’ with corporate leaders from more than 500 companies from 13 countries meeting 150 environment ministers from the 159 countries and the EU which have ratified the protocol. On the table was a discussion on TEEB (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity), cousin to REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation). The REDD initiative has been highly contentious because it has transferred large swathes of forest into the hands of corporations seeking profit from carbon trading, (i.e. trading in carbon dioxide emissions) disenfranchising the previous caretakers of those forests. TEEB will undoubtedly raise similar alarm bells for millions living in or near forest, mountains, coastline, estuaries, steppe, savannah, marginal land, meadow, farmland etc, because the overall aim is to make biodiversity a commodity just as carbon became one a few short years ago. To commodify biodiversity means to own the back garden of someone who lives half a world away, to control another’s fishing ground or grazing land.
The new Business and Biodiversity Offsets Programme (BBOP) says it all. Meant to operate like the UN Climate Convention Clean Development Mechanism it is simply a way to allow the destruction of biodiversity in one place by drilling, mining, planting monocrops etc in exchange for purchasing offsets elsewhere. Shell, Chevron and Rio Tinto mining are just three of the companies ready to commit themselves to conserving biodiversity in this way. (See Socialist Standard, January 2010 ‘Climate Change, Business as Usual’). Business is everything and everything is available for business.

Third Cancun
The climate summit at Copenhagen failed miserably to address the issues. Cochabamba brought many (mostly representatives of poorer nations) together to try to change the direction in favour of the planet. Then came Cancun, widely expected to be a failure even before it convened. Two weeks of talking and jockeying for position brought no hard and fast agreements on any appreciable level. The final days and hours became a scramble for individual nations to cobble together fine words of appeasement to take home as positive offerings even as the war of words continued. The blame game – China and the US, the world’s two largest emitters, unable to compromise over their relative positions; China believing that the US should embrace the Kyoto Protocol while they would enter into voluntary limits on emissions; US suspicious of China’s sincerity and unwilling to do anything before anyone else commits to more. Kyoto anyway, as it stands, is woefully inadequate as without US, China and India the current signatories account for only about a third of world carbon emissions. On the final day, Friday, 10 December, Achim Steiner, head of the UN Environment Programme told reporters:
“We all will leave Cancun knowing very clearly that we have not significantly changed the time window in which the world will be able to address climate change. That challenge remains.’
And Associated Press reported:
“It was clear in the final hours of the 193 nation congress that delegates were looking for creative language to finesse irreconcilable views and buy another year until the next major conclave in Durban, South Africa.”
All in all a serious deficit of progress as it is apparent again that the economy and GDP are far more important than sea levels, rising temperatures, falling water tables, melting glaciers and millions with neither land nor livelihood.

Outcomes and expectations
What should we have expected and can we expect anything different? Expect more big business deals, expect more loss of habitat and species, expect increased CO2 emissions and worsening climate conditions, expect more communities to be made homeless and landless, expect governments to fall in with whatever business demands, expect a lot of disappointed activists, expect a wringing of hands and feeble excuses.
Janet Surman

Tiny Tips (2011)

The Tiny Tips column from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Billionaire Stanley Ho, the casino king of Macau, spent $330,000 on two white truffles, the pricey fungi popular with foodies around the world at a London auction last month. According to a truffle expert, the large, aged Italian specimens Ho bought—’grand champions’ — were mostly or entirely unusable for culinary concerns”: [Dead Link.]

As speculators and increasing demand drive up Beijing’s real estate prices, those who cannot afford the rent are going underground— literally. Hundreds of cellars and air-raid shelters are being rented out as living spaces in the Chinese capital: [Link.]

A fifth of all homeless people have committed a crime to get off the streets. A survey also finds that 28 percent of rough-sleeping women have taken an ‘unwanted sexual partner’ in order to find shelter: [Link.]

An Iraq War veteran serving five life terms for raping and killing a 14-year-old Iraqi girl and killing her parents and sister says he didn’t think of Iraqi civilians as humans after being exposed to extreme warzone violence. “I was crazy,” Green said in the exclusive telephone interview, “I didn’t think I was going to live”: [Link.]

MEPs will next year take home £91,000 in tax free expenses without having to provide any proof of expenditure as part of an increased pay and perks package: [Link.]

Marching orders (2011)

From the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
Are the student demonstrators really demanding higher education for everyone?
A great deal of ink has been spilt in the last couple of months over student protest – marches, occupations, invading Tory HQ, police cavalry charges, and police detaining thousands of people under armed guard for hours in the freezing cold and using exposure to the elements as a deterrent to protest (sorry, kettling). Notably, a sharp distinction was drawn between peaceful, well scrubbed demonstrators, and the ugly head of the anarchist unwashed. Notably also, the children of privilege were represented on both sides, as interns in Tory HQ: the fresh and inexperienced Oxbridge faces of both the Tory/Liberal front bench and those latter-day Gracchi, the Milibands of New-new Labour; and the liberal elite having a day on the wild side, most notably Charlie Gilmour swinging from a lamppost.

All this should be ironic – coverage of a protest dedicated in principle to the universal provision of an important resource being reduced to an elite discourse in the media by which most people in the country will learn about it and try to make sense of it. However, university education is an elite issue: less than 20 percent of the UK population had a degree in the 2001 census.

In our society education is the means whereby status and earning potential are transferred from parents to children: extending this privilege increases the pool of technically trained workers such as scientists and engineers, and increases social stability by giving at least the illusion of participation to these same technical workers. The simple fact is that education structures expectations in society as well as providing the tools for participation – if you want an unequal but stable society you follow Mao’s dictum and “keep the peasants poor and blank”. University education buys in a section of the working class and  coopts them to the status quo: the same state that subsidises their training then gives many of them employment directly in the civil service or other state projects, stable and defined pensions, in short an internment from the class struggle; others find, if they are fortunate, professional roles which may use their training directly but just as often are intereswted in their three year training in writing reports.

It is this section of the working class, trained and co-opted, that is often referred to as the “middle class”. Economically the working class is defined by its universal dispossession from the means of production and thus its need to work for an employer to survive: but sociologically there are fracture points, and the classically defined “workers” – blue overall, spanner in hand – continue to dwindle in numbers in the industrial West. We are paid for the value of our labour, or rather the cost of reproducing it: those workers who have received this training investment receive better reimbursement in the private sector, and protected benefits in the public sector. This and other institutionalised divisions in our class are the bane of socialist organisation: as in the ancient world, and the antebellum South to a lesser extent, there are two kinds of slaves, house and field, and the twain tend to loathe each other more than they do their masters. And yet all seem to admire models and footballers who rise from our ranks on the strength of natural advantage, charging extra rent for their services much as a landlord charging quadruple for fertile land than for swamp. For most of us, the only route out of wage slavery, if not the lottery, is the lottery of birth.

Heaping irony on irony, then, the Tories have the better of this argument. New Labour draws support from and now consciously seeks to represent this educated, “middle”, class: they have come to calculate that political power lies in these “chattering” – i.e. politically engaged – classes, not the great unwashed. They are defending not a universal franchise but its extension to their power base, which means that a moderate income bar is quite acceptable – the state should fund their constituents, who can and are prepared to leap this bar, to compete to attend Oxbridge or other prestigious institutions without further financial impediment. The Tories have no such scruples: in lieu of political necessity, money and influence should buy future earning potential and status, in strict measure, and that means withdrawing state subsidy. If wealth buys education then wealth buys citizenship.

When we say that we live in a democracy we tend to assume that, in addition to there being a formal vote mechanism regulating the state, additional benefits automatically accrue such as a guaranteed minimal standard of living. In short, we think of it as social democracy, where the state supposedly works for us. In particular, the state reproduces democracy, by fashioning its subjects into citizens and making sufficient provision that they can function as citizens – even to the extent of taking a mass stroll to Trafalgar Square on a Sunday afternoon without being killed by the state’s armed force or the hired gangs of the wealthy, and having the time off and the health to participate in meaningful debate. But this does not have to be the case: the state is, as they say, the executive committee of the ruling class, and dispensation of favours or participation to other orders is a matter of occasional largesse or, more commonly, buying off unrest. It is no accident that universal suffrage was granted across Europe in 1918, as the survivors of mass butchery returned to the states that had sent them.

An exact parallel can be found in the “forty shilling freeholders” of medieval England. Whilst in previous centuries the decisive force in war was the knights themselves, political power mailed and armed, now the English longbowman was the backbone of military victory, and had to be given a place at the foot of the table: it cost forty shillings to support such a combatant, so forty shillings became the property qualification. They were needed: they had power: they were involved. The post-WW2 Labour government, that great reforming force, was no happy liberal accident but again a similar calculation of expanding access to the state to a large returning military until they were both militarily and socially demobilised.

Changes in these provisions are very painful and difficult: once the ruling class has invited us as house guests it is hard for them to get us to leave and graciously resume our lower places. But hard times bring hard calculations – the fiction that education and other social provision is universal will soon be over. The “heroes” that the welfare provisions were made for are all but dead, and the concessions that brought them and a ruined economy back into a stable state have died with them. Education, in that it provides the tools of citizenship, will be based on a property qualification: in that it provides trained professionals for industry, the industry will pay for them just as they would pay for any other piece of equipment, either with compensatory higher wages or with bursaries.

Education under capitalism is not a right: nor is it a privilege. It is a weapon, and a careful state only arms its friends and its carefully disciplined house slaves. It is a costly tool to be placed in the hands of a grateful journeyman. It is an essential precondition of political action, which the unions have long recognised in sponsoring the education of their own members and officials. For revolutionaries of our, properly democratic creed – that revolution is the work of the working class itself which we make as equals, house and field slaves together – it is more fundamental than the democratic process itself: that process is only open to the powerful, and in a complex society without understanding there can be no power.

Does this mean that all of our class must have a university education? Of course not, any more than all of us must be able to program computers, make cars, fly planes, nurse the ill and care for the young. Intellectual labour is just that, labour. But collectively, our class needs to be able to perform all of these roles and in principle our class members have to have universal access to all of these roles, not segregated in feudal producer castes on the basis of parentage as we have in effect been in the past and still are, though to a lesser extent than previous centuries. Regardless of their birth or history, all of our class members should have universal access to the same education. This allows us to make a democratic revolution on the basis of class solidarity, rather than being in the laughable situation once articulated by the SWP of forcing technical workers to labour, if necessary, “with guns to their heads”. It is our boast that we already run society from top to bottom: that boast becomes hollow if our class is lobotomised, with higher state posts and the associated training being reserved to a minority of the elite and their coopted trusties.

In short, we should have no illusions about what we are owed. This is the language of that section of our class who expect to be co-opted and are merely discussing the terms of their future co-option. The state rules for the rulers: for the rest of us access to it is based on either necessity or force. Demonstrations are displays of necessity, in that the state is reminded that it needs the support of those who are demonstrating, and are thus by and large well-regarded by the co-opted section of our class. The way to demand a universal provision would be to identify a provision that the state has to make and then universalise it: this means class solidarity. Talk of “middle classes” is corrosive, and so-called revolutionaries that use this language – the same found on these marches – are working against us all. As a subject class we do not have rights or privileges, but we do have demands, and we must stand together if we are to make them. Education is not a moral issue: it is a class issue.

Saturday, January 16, 2021

The cuts – let’s make capitalism redundant (2011)

From the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard 
We have been forewarned. It is going to get worse; worse than it was – and for most it was never good; worse than it is now.
A deep unease haunts the land; a sense of foreboding as politicians, the media and the man next door talk of The Cuts and the impending cuts. Something is drastically wrong. Tens of thousands of people who thought they had secure employment have been made redundant and more going every day. The houses that people have on hire-purchase from building societies are in many cases worth less than what is owed on them. The state ‘benefits’ that guaranteed a mean living are being eroded, and the authoritative voices solemnly proclaim that it is going to get progressively worse.

Some two decades ago the gurus of capitalism, its politicians, and its experts, were telling us that capitalism reigned supreme. Dr Francis Fukuyama, for example, who backed Obama for the US Presidency and earlier advised the Bush administration, put it thus:
  “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy and the final form of human government.”
Victims of their own propaganda, people like Fukuyama saw the ending of state capitalism in the totalitarian Russian empire as clearing the way for the untrammelled hegemony of American style neo-liberalism. The benign attempts of the European Left to economically sanitise capitalism by political regulation had failed; the flawed conception of the state as the national capitalist, as in so-called communist countries, was in disarray. The savants of capitalist wisdom could confidently predict that history had played its final hand and that the future was a vibrant, prosperous capitalism where ‘boom’ and ‘bust’ would be words of the past and we’d all live happily ever after.

Now that future has come crashing down, as it does periodically and inevitably since the inception of capitalism. If there is a quality unique to the present crisis it must be the clarity in which it exposes the system itself as being fatally defective and incapable of furthering human development. There can be no doubt about the awful realities of the crisis. They are grim and terrible and they are now the stuff of politics across the board. There is absolutely no escape within the economic imperatives of capitalism from the problems that the current crisis will impose on the working class into the future. Nor is there any audible voice from within the main political parties suggesting even consideration of an alternative way of organising the vital affairs of society. On the contrary, the largely illusionary differences between Left and Right is simply now about the degree of pain that should be inflicted over time on the working class. The Tories and the power-lusting leadership of the Lib-Dems would concentrate the pain into a short period while the Labour Party would impose the pain over a longer period of time

The “nation’s” debt. 
So political debate is now about the amount of time the alleged recovery should take, otherwise there is unanimity about the inevitability of the need for ‘cuts’. The suggestion is that ‘we’ as a ‘nation’ are living on borrowed money. That every fourth pound that the ’nation’ now spends has to be borrowed from international investment agencies which will become exponentially richer on the proceeds of ‘our’ accelerating poverty. That the ‘nation’s’ debt has got out of hand and we will all have to restrict our spending for the foreseeable future.

There can be no argument about it. Given the way our political and economic system works ‘the nation’ – whether the UK, Ireland, Germany, the US, et al – is in grave financial difficulty. The various ‘nations’ are the component parts of an intricate world economic system and those living within each of the component parts are going to be adversely affected one way or the other.

For members of the working class that means that generally they will be expected to do without more than they were doing without previously; a more restricted standard of living, a financially crippled health service and the ending of access to third level education. The lot of members of the capitalist class is less predictable; for some the crisis will provide opportunities to acquire bargain assets from the economic casualities of their less-fortunate class brethren; for others it might impact on the rate of their wealth accumulation; and there will be those who will be joining the working class and become impoverished celebrities.

Whereas, in the past, politics was about politicians and their parties telling us how they were going to improve our living standards, today politics is about the pace and duration of the cuts that are going to bite into our lives in the future: the political Right, abetted by the craven Centre, thinks the pain of economic retrenchment should be fully applied now; the Left argues that less pain over an extended period is preferable. But the ubiquitous watchword is that it is going to be painful!

Endorsing capitalism 
There can be no doubting that the immediate future is perilous for the working class and requires a serious approach. Getting the placards out, shouting slogans and having a futile punch-up with cops divides us and gives succour to our enemies – especially so when the slogans offer no real alternatives to the system that gave rise to our problem in the first place.

We have to recognise that it is the working class that politically endorses capitalism in elections and it is only the working class that can abolish that system in conditions that will allow for the establishment of socialism. That statement requires recognition of the limitations of bourgeois democracy but such limitations do not alter the fact that without the conscious democratic consent of the working class real social democracy is out of the question.

The cuts are not the result of any change in our potential to produce wealth and there is plainly urgent human need for vibrant wealth production. That such wealth production in any form of society is the result of human mental and physical labour power being applied to nature-given resources is clearly obvious and both these factors remain as they were before the advent of the present crisis. Unfortunately capitalism adds another predominating factor into the simple wealth-producing equation: capital investment on the promise of profit. Today capitalism controls our means of life by its ownership of those means and only allows production of our human needs in conditions likely to produce profit for the owning class. Socialism will make our means of life the common property of society as a whole thus abolishing ownership and that factor in the present wealth-producing equation that puts greed before need. Political reformers on the Left might protest that immediate organising for Socialism does nothing to alleviate the current problems of capitalism but if they accept that these problems are an effect of capitalism they must surely accept that the logical way to remove an effect is to remove its cause.
Richard Montague

Between hands and heart (2011)

Film Review from the January 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927, re-release 2010)

Since its 1927 release, we have only been able to see an abridged version of Metropolis, one of cinema’s definitive visions of the future. The scenes cut, largely because they were thought to confuse American audiences, have since become a film holy grail. So the discovery of a near-complete copy of Metropolis in an Argentine archive was met with justified excitement.

Metropolis is a city of skyscrapers, crowded roads and hedonistic dance halls. Underground, its workers power the city in long, painful shifts. They are given hope by Maria, a preacher, and Freder, the ruler’s son who is sympathetic to their predicament. Metropolis’ ruler orders the creation of a robot replica of Maria so it can impersonate her and cause discord among the workers. Instead, it leads the workers to revolt and attack the city’s power station.

There is almost half an hour of ‘new’ material, including a sub-plot which expands the reasons behind the robot’s appearance. The rediscovered scenes are easy to spot, as even restoration hasn’t been able to improve their picture quality. Despite this, Metropolis’ design work still looks stunning, even when competing against modern computer-generated imagery. But although we get a good look at the city, we don’t learn enough about how this society is arranged. A class struggle is evident, with the elite enjoying the products of the workers’ labour. But the system is criticised because its rulers indulge in the seven deadly sins, rather than because they exploit the workers. And these workers are only portrayed as obedient, whether they’re carrying out their monotonous jobs, listening to Maria’s soppy sermons, or, as a mob following the robot. It turns out these workers don’t really want revolution or even reform, just ‘mediation’ with their bosses. The film’s message – stated very explicitly – is “the mediator between head and hands must be the heart”, with ‘head’ representing the ruling class and ‘hands’ being the workers.

The ‘heart’ turns out to be the ruler’s son. So, the film doesn’t even advocate a ‘trade union consciousness’, just a more amiable figurehead for the elite.

Director Lang thought Metropolis was “silly and stupid”, and the blame for its patronising story is now placed on his then-wife, Thea von Harbou. Her views were made clearer by her later enthusiastic support for the Nazis. So, watch Metropolis for its amazing visuals, not its politics.
Mike Foster

Friday, January 15, 2021

Pakistani Punch-Up (1972)

From the January 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

The violence which is an integral element of world capitalism has erupted yet again. In the Indian subcontinent the inevitable armed conflict between the two enemies has not been prevented by the United Nations, the international peace-keeping body.

Once again we see how capitalism cannot develop an effective means of preventing violence, whether on a local or international level. Only Utopians could expect the League of Nations, the United Nations, the Warsaw Pact or the Commonwealth to work wonders. Violence is a necessary part of capitalism.

To get down to cases: Just now we described the Indo-Pakistan armed conflict as “inevitable”. There are several reasons for this — some complex, some simple, some ancient and others more immediate.

Most people point to the partitioning of India at the time of Independence — nearly 25 years ago — as a significant point in history. The demand of the Muslims for their own state resulted in India losing five Muslim-majority areas to Pakistan. These areas were: North-West Frontier Province, Sind, Baluchistan and half of the Punjab in the west, and in the east the Eastern half of Bengal. The new state of Pakistan was thus a split personality: its capital, its business and military centres were developed in the West wing while the East wing, more populous and economically more promising, was treated as a colony.

During the sixties, under Ayub Khan’s corrupt dictatorship, Bengali demands for autonomy grew more emphatic, backed by civil and industrial unrest. Ayub’s successor, Yahya Khan, tried to placate these forces but finally, last March, resorted to military methods.

We may ask: why was he so determined to retain East Pakistan at such appalling cost? The reason is the usual sordid one of capitalist economics. East Pakistan had a profitable export trade, mainly in jute and tea, and the West wing needed foreign currency badly, both for maintenance of the Army and for development of new industries; and besides East Pakistan provided a captive market for West Pakistan’s growing industry.

That is what Pakistan stands to lose by this war. Against this loss, Yahya Khan would be fairly happy if he could grab Kashmir. This beautiful and fairly prosperous state, bordering West Pakistan, is a Muslim- majority area but was ceded to India by its Hindu ruler and has ever since been a bone of contention.

As for India, Mrs. Gandhi has her own reasons for war: if one counts the refugees, she has more than ten million reasons. Since Partition, India is naturally in a competitive position as against Pakistan. To take only two examples: their textile exports compete for foreign markets and so do their jute exports. At the time of Partition, West Bengal had more than 100 jute mills, which were separated at a stroke from the better jute producing areas of East Bengal. The mills had to be run down, as the small West Bengal crop of low-grade jute could not keep them going profitably.

For this reason — and others not connected with Partition — West Bengal is now in serious economic trouble. There is an extremely high rate of unemployment, and political and industrial unrest have led to indiscriminate murders and terrorism, with gangs of goondas roaming the city slums and terrorising the villages (If all this does not fit your stereotype of peaceable, poetic Bengali people, just remember that two Bengali words we all know are "thug” and “cosh”, and that in 1947 the bloodbath of Partition was worst in the Punjab and Bengal.)

Mrs. Gandhi has every reason to swim with the tide of Bengali nationalism and, posing as an altruistic benefactor, rescue Bangla Desh from the tyranny of the Pak Army. In doing so she will divert attention from her domestic difficulties and outflank the left wing parties. The majority party of West Bengal supports Moscow, so it will have to endorse her action. She may also have her eye on East Bengal’s potential as a cheap food-growing area, as a captive market for Indian manufactures and as a help in restoring West Bengali jute mills.

Finally we see a cynical line-up of angels backing this war — a war which is bringing starvation, disease and destitution to tens of millions of helpless men, women and children; which destroys the crops, the homes and the land they depend on; which has already pauperised 10 million refugees and is daily killing scores of others.

This war is hacked by so-called Communists in the Kremlin, supporting the same Mrs. Gandhi who refuses to allow their comrade Jyoti Basu to hold office in West Bengal. In backing India, the Russians are opposing, not only “imperialist” America, not only the corrupt, religion-based authoritarian regime of Pakistan, but also their own comrades in Peking. What an Unholy Alliance is this new Holy Trinity: Pakistan, America — and Peking! And what a piece of blatant humbug is Russia’s support for India and the “right of self-determination” for Bangla Desh!

None of these principalities and powers, these international Al Capones, has any concern for ordinary people. Famine, cholera, typhus and acres of refugee camps are a price they are only too happy to see others pay, as they fight it out, by proxy, in the plains of Bengal and the Punjab or the mountains of Kashmir.

This war, like other capitalist adventures, is one from which the working class can hope for no gain and which they should denounce from all angles. War, after all, is only the method by which the capitalist class redistributes its loot. When wealth is socially owned, this will be seen as the strangest and most self-destructive exercise possible.
Charmian Skelton

Background to the conflict (1972)

From the January 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

From the very beginning of recorded history, Bengal has passed through turmoil. It has hardly known any peace in its long history. With the advent of Aryan civilisation most of the Indian sub-continent became comparatively peaceful, except Bengal, which was still infected with various groups of outlaws. It was not until 1203 that Bengal came in contact with Islamic culture. Towards the end of the Sena rule in Gauda, the Khalji chief Muhammed bin Bakhtyar invaded Laksmana Sena’s kingdom and by 1206 Khalji’s armies had brought a vast part of it under their control. Successive Afghan, Pathan and Mogul rulers eventually brought most of Bengal under their control.

By the later part of the 17th century the Portuguese established themselves in India. They indulged in a reign of terror on the coastal cities and towns of the Bay of Bengal and Ganges delta. Their main occupation was piracy and slave trade. They ravaged innumerable coastal cities, towns and villages and captured young men and women for their slave trade. Some of the slave traders even experimented with cross-breeding with various groups to produce able-bodied slaves. The then Mogul Emperor made some feeble attempt to stop this outrage in Bengal, but it was all in vain. The slave trade flourished until the later part of the 18th century. From the beginning of the 18th century, Dutch, French and English traders arrived in Bengal in search of fortune. They all plundered the land without any compassion for the native populace. The merciless acts of British indigo cultivators towards the natives of Bengal are well known. They all came with Bible in one hand and a sword in the other.

The British left India, in August, 1947, divided on the basis of religion. The present conflict is a continuation of the one which began with that division. Any serious student of politics could have visualised then that a divided India would never live in peace. A united two-part Pakistan was doomed geographically from the very beginning. When the novelty of independence died down, the East Bengalis realised that they had dislodged British rulers, only to replace them with West Pakistan rulers. Soon they found that their civil service, commerce and landed properties had been taken over by the West Pakistanis who became their new oppressors. Although East Pakistan produced more than half the national revenue the people of East Pakistan starved and suffered from other discomforts like unemployment, bad housing, lack of transport. The intellectual elites of East Pakistan resented West Pakistani rule from the very beginning. Fazlul Haq and Maulana Vasani formed their separate political parties as far back in 1948/49. The present leader of the Awami League, Sheikh Majibur Rahman was then a right hand-man of Fazlul Haq. As the years went by these two parties gathered momentum and brought the great majority of East Bengalis into their fold. The West Pakistani rulers never paid any heed to their grievances.

When Sheikh Majibur Rahman organised several demonstrations in protest in East Pakistan in 1969, the then ruler Ayub Khan, put the Sheikh in prison for a long period without trial and eventually when he was tried he was found not guilty of any crime. Soon after this trial Ayub Khan was thrown out by Yahya Khan who formed a military government after giving the pledge that he would soon bring the country to democratic rule. Accordingly a general election was held in December, 1970 and Sheikh Majibur Rahman and his party captured most of the seats. The East Bengalis were jubilant with the result. They thought that they were going to be their own masters, but they failed to take account of the West Pakistani reaction towards the election result. How could anyone think that the West Pakistan rulers would submit to a Bengali governing party? The first barrage of shells were fired by Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto. He refused to have anything to do with the Sheikh and termed him as a traitor to Pakistan. Yahya Khan from the very beginning, on the advice of his army generals and other West Pakistani leaders, had no intention of handing over power to a Bengal political leader. If he had allowed a Bengali party to take over effective power, these West Pakistanis would never have taken it gracefully. They would have stirred up a violent reaction in West Pakistan. So he started stalling the whole issue. This action just about tried the limit of patience of the East Bengalis and by the end of January, 1971 East Pakistan burst into violent demonstrations of protest against West Pakistani rule, and the people of East Bengal with their leader Sheikh Majib demanded autonomy in East Pakistan. But in those days they never thought of seeking help from India.

As time went by East Pakistan was reduced to a state of anarchy. Eventually, Yahya then decided to talk with Sheikh Majib in Dacca on 22 March, 1971. Bhutto, on the request of Yahya, then followed. It now appears that the whole thing was sham and show. On the fateful night of 25 March, 1971, Yahya Khan ordered his army in the name of “peace and democracy” to suppress the revolt in East Bengal. The unsuspecting Bengalis were not prepared for this ruthless action. Their leader, Sheikh Majib, was arrested and thousands of East Bengalis were massacred. The reign of terror continued with the result that over 10 million East Bengalis crossed the border into India. The Indian government had no means to tackle this problem by itself. It appealed to the world powers, but the response was almost nil. This was the excuse for the Indian government to help the Bangla Desh Mukti Bahini and if necessary to enter into a war with Pakistan.

The world powers stood by and watched these two countries head towards war. Both India and Pakistan pursue the old policy of “we fight a war to establish peace and in peace we prepare for a war”. At the beginning of December the Pakistan Air Force bombed several Indian Air Force bases and Indian tanks rolled into the lush green plain of East Bengal with the object of expelling the West Pakistani army and handing over the power to a dependent Bangla Desh government.

If the Indian government achieves its objective, this will not be the end of confrontation. When the dust of the present conflict settles down, both countries will start replenishing their arsenals for the next war. This will drain much of their national resources, with the result that the big powers which sell them arms — namely America, Britain, China, France and Russia — will benefit. Of course, the world powers at the same time as they rearm both countries, will talk hypocritically in the United Nations about the folly of armed conflict. Soon the world will forget all about this conflict and the poor will go on suffering as before.
T. Ray