Monday, August 30, 2021

Brexit And Exports (2021)

The Proper Gander Column from the August 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

The pandemic has understandably pushed Brexit out of the limelight recently. But an edition of BBC One’s Panorama reminded us that the issue drags on, and has impacted on how many businesses which export overseas run. Brexit: Six Months On follows several ‘UK businesses at the sharp end of Brexit’ and how they have managed through top-down changes to the market they have to operate within.

One common complaint is the burgeoning bureaucracy now involved in transporting commodities to Europe. For Loch Fyne Seafarms, a shellfish business in west Scotland, one delivery to a European Union country used to involve one delivery note, whereas now there are over 80 pages of tiresome forms which take hours to complete. ‘Paperwork, paperwork. It’s just madness. It’s so much a waste of paper, a waste of time, a waste to the environment, a waste to cost’ says managing director Jamie McMillan. One piece of required admin is a ‘transit declaration’, a messy procedure involving umpteen reference numbers from umpteen different databases. Another food exporter featured in the programme, Creative Nature, faced headaches from other Brexit-related regulations. A planned delivery to Malta got delayed for months while they argued that their vegan snack bars don’t need the same certification as animal products, and then while they added mandatory new labelling to all their Europe-bound stocks. An estimate from before Britain left the EU said that all this kind of knotty red tape would cost British-based businesses £7.5 billion a year. As well as costs taken up by the time taken to plough through additional admin, firms have also had to pay out for customs fees and health certificates when exporting to Europe. For Jamie McMillan these are equivalent to tariff costs which Boris Johnson boasted wouldn’t be part of his ‘jumbo’ Brexit deal. Small businesses are particularly vulnerable to financial pressures from increased costs (compounded by the pandemic), lacking the resources and capital which allow larger companies a little more security. In time, it’s likely that protocols will change so that costs are reduced, because costs eat into profits. Ultimately, Brexit means a shift in the markets so that some profits end up going to different capitalists than they otherwise would have. Along the way, the weakest businesses will go bust, wrecking the livelihoods of their staff, although the documentary doesn’t cover businesses cut off by ‘the sharp end of Brexit’.

The new complications and costs of exporting to EU countries have meant that many British companies have found that it’s easier and more lucrative to transport goods elsewhere, or they have needed to do this to survive. Loch Fyne Seafarms stopped exporting to Europe altogether and instead switched to places such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Similarly, Creative Nature decided to concentrate on the Middle East and American markets. It might sound counter-intuitive for it to be more worthwhile to export thousands of miles further, especially considering the additional pollution caused by moving shellfish or snack bars halfway round the world to places which could probably produce them anyway. But the market isn’t driven by what’s practical or sustainable, nor by genuine needs and wants, but by whatever’s more profitable.

Concert equipment transporters Stagetruck fell foul of new rules restricting how they can operate overseas. Lorries registered in the UK can no longer make more than two drop-offs in Europe, causing a problem because their business supports musicians on tour across multiple venues. To get round the change, Stagetruck built a new base in Holland for their lorries to be registered from, and then had to arrange Irish driving licences for their British drivers so they could travel around Europe. Lynas Foodservice, also featured in the documentary, is based in Northern Ireland, which is still part of the European Single Market and therefore subject to specific rules complicating how they deal with British companies. Its managing director Andrew Lynas says that nowadays it seems easier to attend a trade show in France than one in England. The convoluted way which these and other firms have had to manoeuvre around the system highlights its absurdity. The root of the problem here isn’t Brexit, but rather in nation states and the way that they divide up people. Legislation, policies and procedures formalise and normalise this, clogging up our lives and alienating us from others. Panorama: Brexit: Six Months On doesn’t reach this conclusion, of course, its analysis not looking deeply into capitalism’s workings, and certainly not beyond them.

The programme includes the views of a few economists, such as Julian Jessop of the Institute of Economic Affairs. An optimist about Brexit, he claims that shocks to the economy can have a positive impact if they make businesses think about doing things in a fresh way. In other words: treat ‘em mean to keep ‘em keen, which could be one of the guiding principles of capitalism itself. All that businesses can do is try to adapt to different circumstances, not having any say over what the legislators decide, nor, more fundamentally, any control over market forces. And this is the case whether or not Britain is part of Europe.
Mike Foster

Misleading title (2021)

Book Review from the August 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Wageless Life. A Manifesto for a Future beyond Capitalism. By Ian G.R. Shaw and Marv Waterstone. University of Minnesota Press, 2020. 131pp.

People who advocate a moneyless, wageless society of free access to all goods and services, as members of the Socialist Party do, would be likely to see in the title of this book an expression of support for this idea and expect to find in it details of how life in that ‘wageless’ society would be organised. However, the first few pages would make them aware, and perhaps disappointed, that this is not what is meant by the title. They would realise that ‘wageless life’ is not a way of describing the basis on which a post-capitalist society would be organised, but rather a reference to what the authors perceive as an ongoing development within capitalism, that is its inability to offer its populations wages to enable them to live.

That contention is neatly summed up by the book’s statement that ‘we live in a world sculpted by money but populated by the moneyless’ and is repeated in various different ways time after time throughout its pages. This wageless-ness of people due to their being surplus to capitalism’s requirements is seen as having begun seriously in the 1970s and as having intensified over the decades since, especially with the increased power of finance capital (so-called ‘financialisation’), so that now, we are told, ‘workers bounce between short-term jobs, zero-hours contracts, and other forms of induced precarity’ and most face ‘a jobless future’. As the authors see it: ‘Some of us are virtual paupers’, other are actualized paupers – but pauperism is our shared condition of oppression.’

Some may see this as an over-dramatic statement of the reality of advanced capitalism. Certainly other anti-capitalist commentators have taken different views of the effects of automation on the job market and the lifestyles of its wage workers. It should also be borne in mind that, even if the current development of capitalism may seem to be inevitably leading to long-run technological unemployment or at least wage stagnation and a proliferation of ‘bad jobs’, capitalism in its history has gone through numerous phases and crises and on the whole has managed, even if in an extremely uneven and irregular way, to actually improve living standards and conditions for large numbers of its wage slaves. In other words, current ‘trends’ are not necessarily long-term ones.

None of this however takes anything away from the authors’ thesis that we are ‘fundamentally pauperized under capital’, a system they characterise as ‘a war of profit against life on earth’. In capitalism we all scramble to sell our energies, ‘under conditions of duress and unfreedom’, as the authors put it, being denied our ability to control how we work, and so suffering an alienation that separates us ‘from the material conditions that enable humans to flourish’. They are undeniably correct to say that ‘we sell our time – our existence on planet earth – to somebody else, leading to a global division between those who sell their time and those who buy it’. And, among all this is their observation – especially striking and pertinent in view of the recent sporting events in Europe – that ‘distraction technologies and the entertainment industry sell us meaningless thrills to patch over the pain’. Their picture of modern capitalism is completed by a number of powerfully expressed reflections on the effects of capitalism on human psychology such as that ‘the keystone of capitalist realism remains the utter worship of paid work’, that capitalism ‘thrives on producing docile subjects who are alienated from their surroundings’ and that ‘we live in a society that prizes the most psychotic impulses of humanity: greed, violence and reckless individualism’.

All this constitutes a withering and irrefutable indictment of capitalism, which inevitably leads to a rallying cry from the authors for a different kind of society from the one existing today. Early on in this book they quote approvingly David Harvey’s statement from his Seventeen Contradictions and the End of Capitalism that ‘automation and artificial intelligence now provide us with abundant means to achieve the Marxian dream of freedom beyond the realm of necessity’ and tell us that ‘reversing the toxicity of the market economy has never been more urgent: to create alternative worlds animated by the ancient spirit of reciprocity, redistribution, and autonomy’. But what precise form will these ‘alternative worlds’ take? In this connection the authors refer to André Gorz’s Reclaiming Work: Beyond the Wage-Based Society and his advocacy of ‘a culture-based society and multi-activity for everyone’, in which ‘work would occupy a much less important role in everyday life’ and ‘people would then be free to pursue other interests, either individually or in concert with others’. They declare the need for ‘rejection of hierarchy and authoritarianism, and a belief in collective self-management’. They talk about ‘decolonizing our minds of the entrenched common sense of what constitutes meaningful work and its connection to happiness, identity and self-worth’. They advocate the ‘right’ to movement across the planet, and a share in its resources’. And in the penultimate chapter entitled ‘Alter-Worlds: A Manifesto’, they stress the need to move away from seeing the objective of work as ‘earning enough to buy commodities’ to ‘working for the world’ and, in the words of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Commonwealth, ‘fostering the expansion of our powers to think and create, to generate images and social relationships, to communicate and cooperate’.

To achieve all this, the authors argue, we need an ‘alter-politics’. The trouble is that, apart from abstractions such as ‘inventing a new economy that de-economizes exchange’ and the need to ‘threaten the capitalist system with mass demobilization’, to ‘build autonomous spaces’ and to ‘fight for the commons’, the authors do not seriously present what they themselves state as a necessity, i.e. ‘a credible and coherent alternative to capitalism’. They do not seem to contemplate that wageless, money-free economy which is readily achievable and can be voted into being if enough of us want it and in which democratic associations and women and men will engage in voluntary work and have free access to whatever goods and services they need because the whole society will then collectively own and control all the resources that provide these. In that society the whole nature of work will have changed, just in fact as Shaw and Waterstone advocate, since there will no longer be exploitation. People will no longer have to do jobs they hate because they need money — they will be able to do work they want to do and enjoy. And if there are some jobs that are less popular, there is no reason why more automation and the use of robotics could not take care of this. People will cooperate to do the work that makes society function and they will make decisions democratically – in workplaces, in their local communities, in their regions and, with some policy decisions, even globally. Above all there will be no more top-down control by leaders and governments and no more money controlling people’s lives, wasting so much of our time and energy and causing so many of the problems so eloquently detailed and analysed by the authors of this powerful and stinging critique of the capitalist system. This kind of society is precisely one that promises the ‘new social relations, new modes of economic existence and new collective worlds’ that the authors argue we should dare to imagine. So we would invite them to go a step further than they themselves dare to in their book and help to promote this vision of a society advocated by the Socialist Party and well described by another writer, Aaron Benanav, in his Automation and the Future of Work. He describes it as one in which ‘everyone can go to the social storehouses and service centres to get what they need’ and in which for most people it will be ‘the first time in their lives that they could enter truly voluntary agreements – without the gun to their heads of a pervasive material insecurity’.
Howard Moss

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

From Eyes to Isopoints (2021)

Book Review from the August 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

How to Argue With a Racist: History, Science, Race and Reality. By Adam Rutherford. Weidenfeld & Nicholson £8.99.

Rutherford defines racism as ‘a prejudice concerning ancestral descent that can result in discriminatory action’, and his book is an extended argument against racist ideas. Race exists, he says, because it is a social construct, but its lack of scientific validity is illustrated by the fact that racists cannot even agree on how many races there are. The concept of race was invented during the era of European exploration and exploitation, as a way of justifying the mistreatment of subject people.

The first chapter deals with the complex interactions between genes and inheritance. Even standard schoolbook examples such as red hair and eye colour are far more complex than they appear, and a child can in fact have any colour eyes, whatever the combination of their parents’ eyes. Over the millennia humans have moved around a great deal, and, as one example of the consequences, a small number of white Yorkshiremen have Y chromosomes most commonly found in countries such as Guinea-Bissau, a gene flow that may date back to Roman Britain. Homo sapiens originated in Africa, and pale skin is an adaptation via natural selection to exposure to a weaker sun in northern regions. But even then there is no simple correlation between skin colour and latitude, and there were diverse skin colours well before the human dispersal from Africa.

Going backwards in time, family trees frequently intersect, and the genetic ‘isopoint’ is the time when the whole population is the ancestor of the entire population today. For Europe the isopoint is the tenth century CE, so all Europeans are related in this way. As Rutherford says, ‘every Nazi has Jewish ancestors’. True ‘indigenous Brits’ lived here a million years ago, and were not sapiens. There is ‘no such thing as racial purity’.

A discussion of links between ancestry and athletic and other kinds of ability is interesting. Long-distance running was once dominated by Finns, but now the medal-winners are largely from specific areas of Ethiopia and Kenya. This seems to be explicable by a combination of lean body shape and a culture of running, not some supposed racial advantage. Most classical musicians are white, while most jazz musicians are black, and this is clearly due to cultural traditions. Intelligence is not a single thing, so measuring it by a single IQ score is not sensible, and IQ tests are culturally biased.

Rutherford’s book gives a clear and well-argued account of the fallacies of racist ideas. However, it is unfortunate that some of the works mentioned in the text are not included in the list of references. Also that it is necessary to deduct 26 or so from the page numbers stated in the index in order to find the actual discussion of the terms in question.
Paul Bennett

Obituary: Robert Vallar (2021)

Obituary from the August 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

ROBERT VALLAR (20 July 1920 – 9 June 2021)

Born over 100 years ago, Robert Vallar was a remarkable man. To his family he was dad or grandpa, to a selected group of others he was Comrade Vallar, but to everyone else who knew him – friends, customers and acquaintances – he was simply Bert.

The son of Prince Vallar and Margaret Collis, Bert had a younger brother, Stephen and a younger sister Hetty. Growing up in a loving family in the 1920s and thirties Bert saw at first hand the massive inequality, economic hardship, political turmoil and social deprivation capitalism created.

Influenced by his family and what he saw around him, in his youth Bert began to look to socialism as a way of creating a better society and way of life for everyone.

A highly intelligent person and a gifted artist Bert entered Glasgow School of Art in 1938. However, the start of the Second World War the following year saw him moving to Ireland to live with relatives. As someone with strong socialist beliefs and pacifist principles Bert fully recognised the futility of becoming cannon fodder in what was essentially a war between opposing capitalist systems.

While living in Ireland Bert gained citizenship and an Irish passport through his Irish connection. While he was in Ireland he met Teresa O’Neill. They married in 1944 and had three children: Joyce, Lorraine and Brendan; five grandchildren and eleven great grandchildren.

After the war Bert joined his father Prince, then Scotland’s preeminent tattoo artist, in his studio at 404 Argyle Street, taking over when his father died in 1947. Over the years he developed an increasingly useful side-line in supplying professional photographers with mounts, albums and photo frames.

In 1965 Bert closed the studio and moved to new premises in York Street to concentrate on developing and expanding his new business – supplying professional photographers and manufacturing and selling picture frames. Bert continued to work full time well into his eighties.

These core values and the economic and social deprivation that he saw growing up led Bert to want to change the world he and others were forced to live in under the yoke of capitalism. In 1943 he joined the Socialist Party of Great Britain. He remained a member for the rest of his life, constantly developing and enhancing his understanding and knowledge of how our economy and society really works. For many years he was one of the key members of the party’s Glasgow Branch. An accomplished public speaker Bert conducted public meetings and membership drives across the city right up until the 1970s. Bert stood as the party’s Parliamentary candidate for the Glasgow Woodside constituency on three occasions in the 1960s. For Bert and his family the annual Mayday meetings in Glasgow, to which he usually invited comrades from the Party’s London Branch, were one of the highlights of the year.

His wife, Teresa died in 1994 and he is survived by his two daughters and son, his grandchildren and great grandchildren.

(From the eulogy delivered at his funeral).

Thursday, August 19, 2021

Voice From The Back: Censorship (2000)

The Voice From The Back Column from the August 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard


One of capitalism’s inherent contradictions/conflicts is being sharpened to killing point by the rapid development of the Internet: that of freedom of information versus privacy. Our freedom as individuals to find out facts about commercial companies and government is counterbalanced by their freedom to find out (and share) facts about us. “An entire new technical architecture to facilitate e-commerce is being created . . . ready to be grafted on to the older, libertarian architecture of the net. And therein lies the danger . . . the values implicit in the architecture of this new layer will be radically different from those implicit in the old one. The key difference will be that the new layer will use the technical facilities of the old layer to eliminate anonymity and erode privacy . . . Within such an architecture, the practice of anonymous reading—one of the great bulwarks of intellectual freedom—could be rendered impossible, at least in relation to online documents.” Index on Censorship, March.


Hundreds of merchant seaman are attacked, and several killed, by pirates each year as hard-pressed shipping companies cut back on staff and security. The wave of modern piracy has grown threefold over the past decade, leaving Britain’s merchant seamen feeling let down by the Government and their employers . . . Seamen and maritime experts blame the economics of shipping . . . Cargoes such as oil, sugar or aluminium bars are easily unloaded and their origins disguised in Far Eastern ports, notably China. Financial losses are covered by insurers. Financial Mail on Sunday, 11 June.

Blood money 

When this Labour Government was returned to power an inexplicable euphoria seemed to grip the British media. Supporters of Labour were soon delighting in religious-type mantras: “Education, education, education,” “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.” Perhaps the most unrealistic piece of garbage was the news that the British Foreign Office was overturning centuries of ruthless cynicism and adopting an “ethical foreign policy”. What is the reality behind this sham? “Officials from dozens of the world’s most repressive regimes have been invited by the Government to view and buy high-powered military equipment at Farnborough Air Show next month. Many will have a significant proportion of the expenses of their trips paid by taxpayers the UK defence Export Sales Organisation” (Observer, 11 June). So welcome Indonesia, Pakistan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and any other repressive dictatorship—come and buy. Ignore the nonsense of “ethics”; that is only cant produced for the gullible. After all, the arms trade is worth £5 billion a year to British capitalism.

TV Times 

So it’s no surprise that new research from the University of Essex shows that in the last 30 years, the average person has gained only 20 minutes’ extra free time each day. That’s about a TV half-hour. So what are you going to send that extra leisure time watching? TV Times, 15-21 April.

The cold facts 

Capitalism is a cruel social system. Based as it is on the profit motive, we expect it to ignore social needs if they conflict with that of profit. All workers suffer from its madness, but the old and the infirm seem to be its worst victims: “Lord Whitty, Environment minister, said yesterday that an estimated 4.3 million households in England were living in cold, damp and health-hazardous conditions. Around 30,000 winter deaths, mainly among elderly or disabled people and children, are linked with ‘fuel poverty’.” Times, 10 June.

The dignity of labour? 

An article in the Times (7 June) reveals just how widespread the Big Brother role is today: “All the same, it is worth remembering that if you are working on a computer (and who isn’t these days?) then keeping tabs on what you are up to is an easy matter for an employer—and it doesn’t stop at monitoring Internet use or snooping at e-mail. Did you know that, in addition, seven out of ten employers routinely watch their staff through CCTV systems and/or covert surveillance systems? Even if you are not caught on camera pinching anything from the stationery cupboard, advanced in technology mean that your company can still monitor what you are up to. Computer programmes are available that will log your every key stroke—including the time, frequency and speed. That means your boss can glean a complete picture of your productivity, work rate and the amount of time you spend away from the keyboard.” And to think that George Orwell’s 1984 used to be looked upon as a work of science fantasy.

Analysing the subtext (2000)

Theatre Review from the August 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Country by Martin Crimp, Royal Court Theatre,
Fires Were Started directed by Humphrey Jennings and
Peter Grimes by Benjamin Britten. The Aldeburgh Festival.

Peter Hall argues in Exposed By The Mask that “without Beckett, the way would not have been clear for Pinter . . .” And it seemed to me whilst watching Martin Crimp’s The Country at the Royal Court, that without Harold Pinter there would have been no Martin Crimp.

We are in familiar country. It is a land rich in desire and despair. “Who is the comatosed woman Richard has found on the roadside? Why has he brought her into his house? Exactly who is telling the truth?” the dialogue is clipped and staccato, and filled with menacing silences. Clearly all is not as it seems, and we are challenged to see through and beneath the words. What is really going on? As with Pinter we are confronted by the neurotic and the psychotic. Alienation and malevolence abound. The one character who seems honest and straightforward is deceived, abused and finally disempowered. Welcome to the 21st century.

No doubt those who find such theatre valid and significant would argue that the drama of Crimp, like that of Pinter and Beckett, challenges “naturalism”, and in doing so “gives the stage back to our imagination”. But there is a difficulty. Pinter and Crimp whilst challenging “naturalism” nevertheless seem to suggest that their work is rooted, albeit metaphorically, in reality. And no doubt it is. the difficulty is that the reality of the world of Pinter and Crimp is robustly selective. It is populated by people who are consistently malevolent: where to show even a mite of concern for someone is to be seen as being weak, and to invite abuse. It is a world which is so unambiguously nasty, as to have little contact with everyday experience other than in some fevered nightmare.

The Country paints a picture of people and their behaviour which is light yeas away from the of Fires Were Started, the wonderful dramatised documentary made by Humphrey Jennings in 1941/42. The film records a day in the life of a National Fire Service unit involved in fighting the London Blitz. In it Jennings shows us a group of unique individuals—ordinary men and women—working together in a team “dedicated to public service, bravery and sacrifice”. It too is selective—necessarily so given that it was produced by the Crown Film Unit in the middle of the Second World War. It was made to boost morale, to offer role models, to aid the successful prosecution of the war. As such it makes no mention of desertion, the “black market”, the continuing disparities between the rich and the poor, etc. It’s selectivity makes it, knowingly and unashamedly, propaganda. But I wonder? Could we also see The Country in this way? Arguably it, too, could be seen as an exercise in persuasion, in deliberate distortion. And which class might benefit from the selectivities that are evident in the subtext? Isn’t a fraternal, co-operative, democratic and just society less likely if people can be persuaded that malevolence is the norm?

And selective responses abound in critical commentaries of Benjamin Britten’s great opera Peter Grimes. At Aldeburgh I noted the way in which Philip Reed’s introduction in the festival booklet and the commentary in the programme both maintain that Britten had a natural empathy with Peter Grimes, because like Grimes he was an outsider. And why was Britten an outsider? Because he was a homosexual. Oh, yes, he was also a pacifist, but the latter is added as a kind of afterthought. It is Britten’s homosexuality which is identified as the major determinant of his empathy with Grimes.

I’m not surprised that commentators want to see Britten in this light. It’s all very convenient. It allows people to see Peter Grimes and to tut tut about the way in which foolish people in the 1940s—when the opera was written—almost drove Britten to write about an outsider, because he was a homosexual. Now, of course we see homophobia as unacceptable. Now we are enlightened and imaginative, and we shake our heads both at the behaviour of the people who drove Grimes to commit suicide, and society’s attitude to Benjamin Britten. And we deceive ourselves.

Certainly people disapproved of Britten’s homosexuality, but they disapproved even more of his pacifism. This is what drove Britten to travel to the USA at the end of 1939, not his homosexuality. Britten was fleeing from the war and all that went with it. To pretend otherwise may be convenient, but it is also wrong. And most people probably still object to his pacifism. So we have commentators writing contemporary history so that it chimes with contemporary prejudices. As ever the subtext is fascinating.
Michael Gill

The Mother of the Nation (2000)

TV Review from the August 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Only those locked deep down in the dungeons of the remotest castles in the land could to be unaware that this month sees the one hundredth birthday of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. As a prelude to the festivities planned, Channel Four showed a documentary on 10 July called The Real Queen Mother. The programme title alone was an interesting one as it rather implied that the old dear that has been occupying our television screens and the front pages of the tabloids for years is an impostor. Unfortunately, this was not the case and the commemorative tea-towel makers and mug purveyors can breathe a collective sigh of relief.

Whatever else could be said about it, it would be unfair to suggest that this programme was a hagiography of the Queen Mother, merely detailing her various charitable acts and her courageous long-term battle against errant trout bones. The programme clearly attempted to steer a course between portrait and exposé, and for the most part reasonably successfully. Some revealing snippets certainly emerged though by and large they were just that—snippets. Throughout there was a sense that the programme’s makers were soft-peddling on the more interesting lines of enquiry open to them lest they go too far in an exposé of someone who is, in some senses at least, an extremely private person.

The programme was effectively constructed and conducted on the type of terrain occupied by the Queen Mother herself. By way of example, her relationship with her husband was never mentioned in ordinary, everyday terms, or indeed as a relationship at all, it was always referred to as a “romance”, even though the programme’s makers were able to demonstrate that this “romance” was a lot more earthy and complicated than the fairy-tale myth the Queen Mother has propagated from day one. Similarly, though the programme was able to outline the vindictive and mean-spirited streak which has been a pronounced part of the Queen Mother’s character all her adult life, it was always referred to euphemistically. The Queen Mother can never be labelled “vindictive”, apparently, even by Channel Four—although that is what she is—so instead she was described as “determined” and “steely” in the manner of second rate job interviewees who insist on turning their “negatives” into “positives” at every available opportunity.

Bring on the Hun 
If the programme performed one important service it was in its enunciation of the Queen Mother’s deeply held convictions and prejudices to an audience who, by and large, may have been unaware of them. There was reference to her adoring support for those two most popular Prime Ministers of the twentieth century, Neville Chamberlain and Margaret Thatcher; to her ingrained racism and belief that dark-skinned colonials are unable to run their own affairs without the benevolent, guiding hand of the white man; to her conviction that immigration should have been halted years ago, and many other prejudices besides. She is, apparently, still unable to refer to German people without calling them “the Hun”.

The one other fascinating thing to come out of the programme was the prominent place the Queen Mother holds in the history of spin-doctoring (and this without having conducted a single press interview since 1923). It is difficult to see how any potential candidates for the BNP like the Queen Mum could ever hope to achieve her consistently high poll ratings. Peter Mandelson certainly has nothing on her, from her use of newsreel during the war when she posed amongst the rubble of Buck House’s back garden just like she’d emerged from a two-up-two-down in Stepney (when actually she spent every night during the Blitz out of London at Windsor Castle), to her invention of the royal walkabout replete with gloves for glad-handing and the ever-present patronising grimace. And like all good spin-doctors and manipulators throughout history she bears grudges, builds up jealousies and pursues vendettas like there is no tomorrow, from Mrs Wallis Simpson to Lady Diana Spencer.

The Queen Mother always seeks to temper her hauteur and obvious distance from the masses with a deliberate cultivation of the image that underneath all the pomp and ceremony she is “just one of us”. This myth was exploded by a couple of interviewees who had been close to her for years and who remarked on the fact that her extravagance and lavish lifestyle is greater than that of any other royal (and that in itself is saying something). It was a pity that this wasn’t brought out more than it was—it would no doubt have been very illuminating to see what it takes to keep Her Royal Highness pampered day in day out while the rest of us eke our time away eating MacCrap and chips.

It some respects then, Channel Four pulled its punches when compiling this documentary, which is a shame, because the more the truth about one of the ruling class’s biggest fairy-tales emerges, the easier it will be for the really useful people in society to cast aside their adoration for leaders and bamboozlers of all sorts wherever they may be found—whether in parliament, in palaces, or in the case of the Queen Mother for much of the time, running up the world’s biggest overdraft at the races.

Sometime ago a reader wrote in to the Guardian’s “Notes and Queries” column to ask who Riley was and what was so good about the life they lived. The only answer must surely be that Riley is a metaphor—a metaphor applicable like no other to the woman who was born Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon at a disputed location in August 1900 and whose life as the world’s most successful parasite has been an unparalleled inspiration to the ruling class and their sycophants ever since.
Dave Perrin

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Letters: Introducing the WSM (2000)

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

Introducing the WSM

Dear Editors,

Thank you very much for Introducing the World Socialist Movement and the accompanying literature you sent in response to my e-mail. Having read through it, it seems that our goals and assessments of the global situation are virtually identical.

I was pleased to see that you tackle the “human nature” argument in the “Objections to Socialism Answered” section of the booklet. It’s an argument I’ve come up against on numerous occasions and I have some thoughts of my own on what “human nature” is (as distinct from “animal nature”, derived from the genetic imperative to breed);
  • We’re gregarious; humanity is obviously a social species
  • We’re sentient; not to say that all animals aren’t, but we know for a fact that humans are capable of complex abstract analyses
  • We’re communicative; we’ve developed intricate languages to express our thoughts and feelings to each other
  • We’re compassionate; our capacity to empathise with others is nothing short of amazing and is surely the key to our unity and social order. Why would we do things to others that we wouldn’t want done to us? If our so-called “leaders” rediscovered their empathy, imagine the impact on their treatment of refugees and their policies allowing people to starve while food rots in warehouses. (Have you ever noticed, whenever “our” politicians are asked “why don’t we just ship our food surpluses to the people who need it?”, they always seem to reply “it’s not that simple”? It is that simple—people are dying . . .)
If the above points are true, why on earth would they present a barrier to socialism? If anything, they suggest that we’d be good at it. It’s not like we’re stupid—if we can do capitalism, we can do socialism and we’d all be a lot better off for it, I’m sure. Even our former plutocrats would learn to live in a world where human achievement in science and technology were unfettered by competition, profit margin and political expediency.
Phil Salter, 
Stoke-on-Trent, Staffs

Limited LETS

Dear Editors,

Like some other members of the Socialist Party, I am also a member of a local LETS group so my curiosity was aroused on coming across the article on LETS by Kaz in the July issue. Though interesting and informative, I did not find its line of argument altogether convincing.

Kaz appears to lump LETS together with various other “reformist schemes” which he condemns not so much because they are inherently ineffectual but because of the (unrealisable) “hope attached to them by often desperate members of the working class”. “Alternative currencies,” argues Kaz, “like experimental communities and a dozen other half-baked schemes have been tried before, more than once, as a solution to the problems of capitalism and each time have been found wanting.” There are two points I would like to make in response.

Firstly, it would be quite wrong to brand LETS as a “reformist” type of activity for it is no more reformist than, for example, trade unionism. By “reformism”, the Socialist Party means, quite specifically, policies enacted by the state which seek (futilely) to modify the economic behaviour of the capitalist system in such a way as to eliminate or alleviate certain problems that are inextricably part of that very system itself. In no sense does LETS fit this definition.

For one thing, it is simply a form of mutual aid at the grassroots level. Essentially, it does not involve the state at all—even if, sometimes (for example, in the USA) the state may choose to involve itself for its own reasons by providing funding for some LETS-type organisation. But this does not mean such organisation should be shunned anymore than we should shun trade unions because of their formal links with the Labour Party. For another, LETS constitute a particular kind of micro-economy qualitative different and separate from the capitalist macro-economy—the real focus or object of reformist activity. LETS are an essentially non-exploitative, egalitarian and voluntaristic arrangement which, like Marx’s “labour-time” vouchers, do not involve the use of money at all—one of the defining features of a capitalist economy.

Secondly, as a socialist I have no illusions that LETS offer any real solution to the problems of capitalism. Indeed, I doubt whether many members of the LETS movement would think any differently. LETS are essentially a way of coping with life under capitalism and are particularly beneficial for people on a low income, like myself, or the unemployed. Moreover, the range of activities involved is vastly more expansive and diverse than the caricature that Kaz paints (“giving lifts to old lades and trading organic lentils”). My local LETS group, for example, publishes a fairly substantial directory each year which lists literally hundreds of different kinds of services (and goods) offered or requested—from plumbing and house painting to holiday accommodation and computer repairs—which enables our members to a limited extent to circumvent the capitalist money-based economy to meet our own personal needs. Granted this is never going to be more that a rather limited circumvention but, for someone like myself, it is by no means insignificant.

It is highly regrettable that the title of Kaz’s article (“LETS not make the same mistakes again”) should convey the impression that workers should not become involved in LETS groups. This is emphatically not the view of the Socialist Party and it would be utter folly if it ever were to become that. LETS do not represent an alternative to the absolutely essential task of organising politically to establish socialism and just because enthusiasts like Dave Boyle entertain fantasies about what can be achieved through the LETS movement, this does not mean that we should then proceed to shoot down in flames the very idea of LETS itself.

The significance of LETS to the working class is not that they will provide any real and lasting solution to the problems we face under capitalism; it is that they offer a practical instance of what Kaz rightly calls a “form of voluntary labour for the good of the community, surely the basis of work in socialism”. If they, along with experimental communities etc. have been “found wanting” in this respect then so too, it has to be said, has the purely “propagandistic” or political approach adopted by the Socialist Party. For after nearly a hundred years of consistently applying this approach we have unfortunately made very little discernible progress.

The answer is surely not to reject one approach in favour of the other but to embrace both. While it is not the business of the Socialist Party to directly involve itself (in a practical sense) in the development of the LETS movement, it will certainly benefit by adopting a more explicitly sympathetic approach to this movement. Yes, let us recognise its limitations but let us also recognise that by involving ourselves as individuals in this movement we can each help in a small way to nudge the consciousness of our fellow workers in the direction we desire.
Robin Cox, 
Redruth, Cornwall

We don’t presume to tell workers (including our own members) what strategy to adopt to survive under capitalism—beyond, that is, urging them to fight back against downward pressures via trade unions, tenants associations and the like. So if people want to join LETS schemes, we have no objection. Our criticism of them (as of trade unions) is that they are not the solution—there is no solution to workers’ problems within capitalism—nor are they somehow “stepping stones to Socialism”. When people make such claims as Dave Boyle did in his book on Funny Money we criticise them. LETS schemes are not socialist or a step towards socialism. They are, as you put it, “essentially a way of coping with life under capitalism”.

A tie to the job (2000)

From the August 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
The morning rush hour often yields a flurry of colours as men rushing to work sport undulating ties on their mad dash to be by their masters by the allotted time.
Tied to the ruling class
For the capitalist class, the tie is the very symbol of elegance and power, echoing Oscar Wilde’s sentiments that “a well-tied tie is the first serious step in life” (Wilde joked this at a time when very few workers actually wore ties at all). Indeed, the tie was suitably born soaked in blood. The word “cravat” comes from “Croat”, the nationality of the soldiers who won Turkey (previously in the Austro-Hungarian Empire) for Louis XIV of France, and who marched victoriously into Paris adorned in colourful silk handkerchiefs tied around their necks. The French King soon copied this style and began a similar fashion among the European aristocravats, pun intended. Indeed, Louis XIV called an entire regiment the Royal Cravattes.

In the stiff world of power, English gentlemen were soon wearing cravats so high and tight that they could not even turn their own necks around. Clothes have always been a symbol of the wearer’s status in society, and this fetishism of commodities as embodiment of social superiority was perfectly exemplified by the cravat. Indeed, LeBlanc, a Frenchman who spent his life instructing the elite how to tie a cravat properly, remarked that “the grossest insult that can be offered to a man comme il faut is to seize him by the cravat; in this place blood only can wash out the stain upon the honor of either party.” The official name of the common way in which most men tie their ties today, the Windsor technique, is named after the Duke of Windsor himself.

Ties which both hang flaccidly from the neck to the groin like a penis and also point to it are the very symbol of the phallus, which is so envied by other men and women not for its actual qualities as much as the social meaning attributed to the gender of its owner. The tie is thus a symbol of the domination of men over women, and of power in general.

To those of us who wear it to work (and I am one of them) the tie is a burden, another rule to follow in a workplace dominated by rules and regulations. It represents the very essence of discomfort, as it applies light pressure to the very tube we all require to breathe, reminding us of our life sentence to capital by tie hanging, of how much our lives are owned and controlled by the elite, and how much our very life force is maintained because of our servitude to another class. Wearing a tie, we simply don’t feel free, just as we don’t look free, donning an article required of many workers regardless of their individualities or creative abilities. The very essence of conformity.

Ties come in all colours, symbolizing the endless shades of commodities on the marketplace. Just as we workers identify ourselves by what soap opera we watch, what car we drive, what shade of left or right we adhere to, so our many-coloured and patterned ties mirror these false identities and choices. They maintain a sense of choice and free will (Mickey Mouse tie versus striped tie versus plain coloured tie) in a world in which workers have virtually none other than in such a meaningless domain as that of choosing between this or that object of consumption. They feel like the object of our individuality even while being mass-produced and inevitably laying bare our bondage to the job.

With my tie as chain around my neck I often imagine myself to be the chained factory farm cow, being prepared for the slaughter, raised only as a commodity for sale on the market from birth to death. Indeed, the dress “code” itself, like all codes, symbolizes the world of apparition, what the Situationists termed Spectacle, beneath which lurks the real meaning of our servitude.

I do not “wear it proudly.” It reminds me of a life of slavery. With my tie on, like the factory farm cow, I dream of greener pastures where I too can graze in freedom. I fantasize of a world in which all the paraphernalia of the capitalist system are gone—money, wages, buying and selling, bosses, nation states, meaningless objects of consumption and, yes, ties too – and people will relate to each other directly, without the mediation, status and conformity of the dress code.

In such a world, the feeling of freedom and ease is likely to reflect in our attire, and as the artificial division between “their time” (work) and “our time” is gone, so will the division between “work clothes” and “play clothes” as well. Whether we will all wear something more akin to pajamas or athletic clothes or close to nothing only history can tell, but it is clear from the tie that it acts in the same relation as ideology, maintaining while at the same time obscuring the deeper relations of minority ownership and power.

The very word “tie” speaks to both our actual economic ties to the ruling class as well as to the feeling of being tied to it. I look forward to a time when I will be appreciated for the mind above the coloured collar, and when clothes are admired for their uniqueness, their comfort, and the manner in which they express the freedom of human society.

A girl’s best friend? (2000)

From the August 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is a profound and tragic irony that diamonds, marketed in London, New York and Antwerp as the eternal symbol of love and beauty, are potent symbols of hate and disfigurement, misery and suffering to the millions of people in whose countries they are mined.

In Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Congo and Angola, the diamond trade has brought with it years of conflict and instability and the deaths and maiming of hundreds of thousands of Africans perceived as standing in the way of the lucrative profits the increasingly illicit trade brings.

The statistics speak for themselves. In Angola, between 1992 and 1997, Unita earned $3.7 billion from illegal diamond sales, helping them fuel a war in which 500,000 were killed. In under ten years of fighting, Jonas Savimbi built his rag-tag army up into one of the best armed irregular forces around, all thanks to diamonds he traded for state-of-the-art weaponry. In Sierra Leone, between 1991 and 1999, over 50,000 died and many more were maimed (their limbs hacked off with machetes) whilst government forces fought the rebel RUF over an illegal diamond industry worth over $200 million a year. And in nearby Liberia, between 1989 and 1997, 150,000 died as a result of a conflict fought over control of the diamond trade. Liberia, which incidentally has no significant diamond deposits of its own, nevertheless runs a $300 million plus diamond trade with the help of troops loyal to Sierra Leone’s RUF leader Foday Sankah. Such is the illicit global trade in diamonds that the US State Department believes it to be worth anything up to $7 billion a year.

The diamond trail usually starts in the dusty towns of Angola, in the Sierra Leone wilderness or the jungle terrain surrounding Kisangani in the Congo, where half-naked workers labour with pick, spade and drill, guarded by miniature and well-equipped armies. Small mine owners pass on their stones they unearth to local dealers, though not before the guards’ commanders have had their share, and likewise the local dealers have to make payment to the local militia leaders, who similarly have to pass a share to their seniors

Immense armies can be spread over hundreds of thousands of miles of diamond rich land, providing safe passage to all prepared to pay the price, whilst governments and warlords sell concessions to mine, with concession purchasers selling them on to anyone keen on making a killing (no pun intended).

There are of course other key figures, albeit playing as low a profile as possible. They include Burkina Faso’s leader Blaise Compaore and Liberia’s Charles Taylor, who help speed smooth passage by circumventing the controls imposed by the UN and other regulatory bodies. Meanwhile, the governments of Uganda, Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi and Zimbabwe provide military help to warlords in exchange for these little shiny stones and the right to mine them. In the case of the latter, critics of Robert Mugabe accuse him of donating 11,000 troops to the conflict in the Congo in return for diamond field concessions.

And of course there is the middle men who make the deals, find further safe passage for the diamonds to the western markets and supply the weapons that fuel the conflicts and ensure the diamonds keep coming.

Investigators working with the UN recognise a well organised international network of smuggling involving numerous west and southern African countries, with further links to freight companies supplying arms from the UAE to Bulgaria and the Ukraine. Whilst the RUF in Sierra Leone have been provided with former Soviet surface-to-air missiles, at the height of the Angolan war over twenty Ilyushin aircraft could be found landing on one airstrip each evening, each loaded with military hardware.

Whilst pressure groups, such as Global Witness, the UN and other diamond industry regulatory bodies try to introduce an “ethical dimension” into the trade, the dealers themselves fear their efforts will undermine consumer demand because of the diamond’s link with limbless children in West Africa. Provenance certificates, supposedly implying that this and that diamond has no blood on it have been suggested, but such a move would require the co-operation of bankers, brokers and buyers in Tel Aviv, Antwerp and Bombay—the three main diamond centres – and indeed the governments of several countries, including Liberia, who are only too happy to overlook the fact that a few hundred carats true cost is a child hobbling along on crutches and provide forged documents.

As Herbert Rowe, a political scientist specialising in African affairs at Georgetown University in Washington noted: “Even in the Cold War, superpowers did not allow the wholesale ripping up of the economy, the use of children as soldiers and attacks upon relief groups” (Guardian, 14 May). He is of course referring to countries like Sierra Leone, now the poorest country on earth and whose population has enjoyed no health or education system for 10 years, as a direct result of the mayhem that has been set loose because of the greed for the profits that diamonds bring.

Further anti-diamond trade measures have included a boycott of diamonds. But the truth is that— although the trade brings so much misery in its wake—the average piece of diamond-laden jewellery on display in the local high street has only a 4 percent chance of having an illicit source and that the diamond most likely originated in Namibia, Botswana, South Africa or the Russian Federation. Further, any such embargo would hit “innocent” diamond producing and cutting countries such as Botswana and India, the latter with a diamond industry employing 800,000.

The fact that only 4 percent of the diamonds that adorn our loved ones are bloodstained and that this 4 percent has caused so much chaos and upset throughout Africa suggests, more than anything, the intrinsic danger of the incentive to make a profit at any cost. All the controls it is possible to impose upon the diamond trade would not distract one iota from the fact that, at whatever human cost, if there are profits to be made from the trade then profits will be made. This is the essential nature of capitalism, even in its more overt and legal forms. If profits can be made, no matter how small, they will be made and to hell with anyone who stands in the way.

The task is not to try to regulate the diamond trade more efficiently, but to end the system that makes the diamond the commodity it is; to banish forever the system that conditions us into thinking that wearing a shiny stone brings status and respect. Since this journal’s inception 95 years ago, we have consistently reported the wars and conflicts, the misery and sufferings our class has endured in the name of the profits derived from mineral wealth and its possession by an elite. We expect, for the foreseeable future, to carry on in this tradition until our class truly wakes up.
John Bissett

Africa – The Lost Continent? (2000)

From the August 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Africa has been politically backward and naïve throughout the last century with so many atrocities, anomalies and injustices. Its children thought that, one day, things will be better, but since the era of independence dawned the situation has remained the same or even got worse. Ills, evils and self-destructions of all kinds continue to plague the African continent. Africa has lost its natural, human and material resources to wars and massacres. Coups and counter-coups have continued to play havoc with African society. Should confidence have been reposed in the statements of the likes of Kwameh Nkrumah, Thomas Sankara and Patrice Lumumba, to the effect that Africa’s problems will turn to brightness? Is there any optimism for Africa? Will African children live to see this happen?

One may ask why Africa has remained the poorest continent the world has ever produced. The answer is simple.

Firstly, the self-centredness and mass corruption of African leaders plays a pivotal role in the continent’s Waterloo. Most African heads only came into power to enrich themselves. The poor and the underprivileged are always the victims of these despots. Statistics have revealed that millions of African farmers go without a piece of farmland when their leaders have uncountable hectares of farmland in and out of the continent; millions are dying of sicknesses and diseases everyday when potential medical facilities would be more than enough; millions are suffering from starvation and malnutrition when there is sufficient food; and millions more are living in absolute poverty when individual leaders are saving millions of dollars in foreign banks for their own interests.

Secondly, the intolerance and lack of respect for one another among Africans, combined to invite trouble in Africa. Africans are killing each other and destroying the continent’s resources all because of these leaders’ power hunger. It is enough to mention the gun rule and slaughtering of people in Algeria, massacres in Burundi, Angola, Liberia and Sierra Leone, and killing of innocent civilians in Cassamance (southern Senegal) among others. These indicate that African leaders are themselves responsible for Africa’s underdevelopment and political mayhem. With this era of political ignorance and naivety occupying Africa, there is more than ever need for a continent, indeed a world, without leaders or political borders.

As we entered the dawn of the new millennium, intellectual sycophants have started howling and trumpeting that it will be a millennium of African peace and development. One renowned intellectual was quoted as saying that “in the next millennium, Europeans will come to Africa as refugees.”

Is it not during this prelude stage of the millennium that floods occurred in Mozambique, killing hundreds of people? That hunger and starvation entered Ethiopia? That thousands died in Nigeria as a result of the religious wars? That mass religious suicide occurred in Uganda? That the senseless land dispute heated up in Zimbabwe? And the wars in Rwanda, Cassamance and Burundi intensified?

With these madnesses in our midst, only the insane would predict a bright future for Africa. Until socialist politics is introduced in Africa, the gloom of this “Heart of Darkness” shall continue.
Sheriff Bojang JR (Gambia)

Glories of the Profit System (2000)

From the August 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
  • The world’s 225 richest men have a combined total wealth of over $1 trillion—equal to the annual income of the poorest half of the world.
  • Globally, the richest fifth of humanity holds 85 percent of the world’s wealth; the poorest fifth, 1.4 percent.
  • The three richest men on Earth possess assets greater than the combined gross domestic product of the 48 poorest nations.
  • Sixty Americans own total assets of $331 billion; the richest of all, Microsoft tycoon Bill Gates, owns $8 billion more than the assets of 104 million Americans.
  • In the USA the richest one percent holds over 40 percent of the nation’s wealth, doubling their share in just twenty years.
  • Higher-paid American citizens (e.g. executives, small business people, middle management) lost 10 percent of their wealth over the last ten years.
  • The income gap between the best and worst paid US workers is now the most extreme of the 25 most industrialised countries—exceeding even societies like Guatemala.
  • The richest fifth of the world’s population consume 86 percent of all goods and services, while the poorest fifth consume a mere 1.3 percent. The richest fifth consume 45 percent of all meat and fish and 58 percent of all energy used. [N.B. talk of “developing nations” is just nonsense when these figures are examined: resources don’t exist for them to develop, and even if they did, the Earth environment would probably collapse within a year if poor nations consumed as much as wealth ones. The term “developing nations” is really a code for impoverished, a status the elite seek to maintain as a permanent category.]
  • Even without an expanded industrial base or becoming “First World”-type consumers, the poorest nations—where 800 million are hungry and 40 million are infected with HIV, could solve their basic problems of food, clean water and health care with only 4 percent of the combined wealth of the 225 richest people in the world.
  • The real scandal of the age is that the rich are vampires whose wealth and privilege come at the expense of the premature death and dreadful sufferings of hundreds of millions of helpless innocent victims.
  • Solution: Socialist Revolution.
(Information from the Mainstream Media Project, Bread for the World Institute, and the 1998 United Nations Development Report.)

Why war is no accident (2000)

From the August 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard 
War is not a freak of history, nor an accident of policy. Rather it is the continuation of business competition by other means
The fate meted out to the innocent population of Iraq, due to the terror and sanctions imposed upon that country by Britain and the US, is not a freak of history, nor an accident of policy. Rather, it is the continuation of an old game, and the re-use of policies deployed successfully, and equally devastatingly, elsewhere.

The noted historian, Eric Hobsbawm, in his essay “Barbarism, a Users Guide’, cites how, over the course of the century, the Enlightenment principle that “civilised warfare [sic] is confined to the disablement of the armed forces of the enemy” has declined. He finds the cause of this change in the “concept of total national mobilisation [which] shattered” this vital principle of “civilised warfare” [sic]. Hobsbawm however, offers no notion as to how this happened, or why the world should be sliding towards barbarism.

Hobsbawm’s “enlightened” idea of warfare was indeed compatible with a society in which warfare was the preserve of an elite, which was separated from the relatively independent communities in the villages and far flung towns—which was the economic conditions of the eighteenth century under which these ideas developed. It was thus able to conduct its warfare within terms of the social surplus upon which this elite generally existed.

As, however, capitalism developed the relative independence of rural towns, regions and of the military structures, became gradually eroded as the whole world was swallowed up into an integrated market economy. Everyone became absolutely dependent upon everyone else. Thus, eruptions of military conflict could no longer be confined to the combatants alone, as the shock waves spread out throughout the whole economy. Hence, Hobsbawm observes, that such societies had to mobilise the population to war generally: “[capitalist societies] do not fight…like bodies of professional soldiers, for whom fighting the war does not require hating the enemy.” War could no longer be a gentlemanly pastime, played with a set of rules to make things fair.

Hobsbawm’s basic error is to accept the distinction between official war, and peacetime, the start and end of the game declared by the gentleman players. His Arcadian depiction of enlightenment warfare neglects the continual use of state military forces against the lower classes, the regular insurrectionary slaughters, and the like. He neglects the fact that capitalism is a system “based on a state of perpetual war” (Morris). Just because an end of play is called, it does not mean that the slaughter ends.

The twentieth century has not been about the decline of an official distinction between war and peace, but rather, a growth in the scope and magnitude of the capitalist war.

First world slaughter
The First World War provides a case in point, where this universal warfare was pursued. Not content simply with seeing something like 9 percent of the world’s population dying on the battlefields (Hobsbawm) in order to secure capitulation from the gentleman players in Germany, the British ruling class also followed a policy of blockade against Germany, even after the end of the war. The effects of this course of action were devastating, and utterly indiscriminate. Not only, thus, were supplies disruptive by the usual wastage of resources due to war, but exacerbated, across the whole of central Europe by Britain’s blockade. In Germany. some 800 people perished every day from starvation: in the first months of 1919 30% of babies born in Berlin died, and the figure was 85% in Dusseldorf, due to a shortage of milk.

The Blockade—the cordon sanitaire— was also turned into a device for trying to crush the Bolshevik regime in Russia, and as a result, exacerbated no doubt by Russia’s own civil war, some 50 million people across the North of Russia faced starvation in 1919. Across all of central Europe, some 200 million faced death by famine.

All of which was the result of conscious policy. The British Minister responsible for the blockade wrote “I regard the blockade as the easiest and cheapest method of applying pressure to Germany.” The force, eventually for abandoning the policy of starving Germany into submission, was the threat of loss of control. President Wilson sent the Allied Blockade Council an illuminating telegram “Food relief is now the key to the whole European situation and to the solution of peace. Bolshevism steadily advancing westward, poisoning Germany. It cannot be stopped by force but it can be stopped by food.” The New Statesman at the time perceptively observed that food relief “cost something not far short of continuing the war”, which, of course, was precisely what it was for.

Likewise, during all that time of peace and victory, troops continued to pour into battle for the benefit of their country’s capitalists. The Great Powers of the world banded together to plunder fallen Russia, in the midst of its chaos. British, French and American troops landed at Archangel – ostensibly to secure Allied munitions from falling into German hands; Japanese and American troops landed at Vladivostok: and – since no war would be complete without it – British troops seized the Caucasian Oil fields at Baku. The defeat of the official Gentleman players merely meant that the winning powers were free to use their strength against the workers in the losing states in order to seize the assets and booty on offer there.

Those assets included human beings. Since their capacity for war was in no way related to an inherent antagonism to their foes, when Germany was defeated the allies demanded that German troops in Russia be handed over to their use against the Bolshevik foe. There are no permanent enemies, only permanent interests, and the name given to the game depends soleIy upon the interests of the day (all these incidents are described in 1919 Red Mirage by David Mitchell).

Second world slaughter
Apologists of capitalism would claim, however, that World War I was a monstrous carnival of imperialism, madness run rampant. They would point to the Second War, and declaim loudly that it was a just war, where the actions of the Allies were intended to stop just such atrocities. Indeed, James Bacque in his book Crimes and Mercies sets out such a case, despite the fact that his book deals with precisely with the horrors meted out by the Allied occupiers of Germany. Asserting that the allied crimes were simply vengeance and hawkishness run rampant, he lauds the eventual triumph of dovism. The stories he relates, though, point to a bleak continuance of the exact same policies as after the first war.

On the Eve of the allied victory, the leaders of the victorious countries accepted a plan drawn up by American Secretary of the Treasury Henry C. Morgenthau, to de-industrialise Germany, and forever end the threat it posed, leaving it at a not-quite agricultural level of economy.

The usual historical accounts of the war tell of the atrocity that was the blockade and starvation of the Netherlands; and many accounts tell of the perfidy of the Russians in blockading Berlin, and the heroic allied airlift to save that city. What these accounts miss out is that Britain, France and America subjected their sectors of occupied Germany to just such a treatment themselves. In 1944 the average Dutch ration was 1,397 calories per day, and 1,554 in 1945. In the British zones of occupied Germany the official ration was 1550, and for six months in 1946 it fell down to as low 1,000 calories. In the French sector, conditions including a daily diet of 450 daily calories were recorded. All this, while the occupying armies and the staff lived in comfort.

On the 8 May 1945 General Eisenhower issued a proclamation forbidding civilians to feed German POWs under pain of death, and all the while, thousands of prisoners languished in Allied camps, unable to return to rebuild their communities, and dying due to maltreatment. The occupying powers again took POWs to rebuild their own economies, as virtual slave labour—in the name of reparations. Further, the occupiers removed industrial capital to use for their own economies, leaving Germany in a state that it only reached 25 percent of pre-war production.

The cumulative effect of the ongoing economic attacks on Germany, after the formal ending of the war, was that by 1950 it is estimated that some 5 million Germans died as a direct or indirect result of the conditions imposed on Germany. Where foreign policy demanded it, food could be found – Britain managed to send food to Greece where – as in Italy – the war continued as a counter-insurgency struggle against the locals. The siege was only lifted, again, when chaos and collapse threatened allied control over Europe.

To accept the official distinction between war and peace, the official distinction between “friend” and “foe”, is to buy into an ideology meant to disguise the reality of continuous warfare. Not a decade passed last century without British troops being in the battlefield. Regardless of the stated intentions, of the apparent excuse for beginning a war, the only reason ever is the pursuit of the interest of the capitalist class, which they will enforce without rule or reserve upon the working class. Hoping that war can be carried out in a gentlemanly way, that it can be carried out without inflicting suffering on the working class is pie in the sky. The destruction of resources, of wealth, that is inherent to war is diametrically opposed to the interests of the working class.
Pik Smeet

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Cooking the Books: Divvying up? (2021)

The Cooking the Books column from the August 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

In an article in New Left Review 128 (March-April 2021), Kenta Tsuda imagines a computer that calculates the world’s wealth and then allocates an equal amount to every man, woman and child on Earth. Credit Suisse’s research institute estimated total global wealth in 2019 to have been $360 trillion. Sharing this out equally amongst the world’s population of 7.8 billion gives everybody $46,000 (or £33,000) worth of wealth.

He wasn’t advocating this himself. There are others who do advocate redistributing wealth so that it is more evenly divided than at present. Normally they don’t advocate that everybody should have the same amount but that the present highly unequal distribution of wealth and income should be drastically reduced.

Some – and some of them – think that this is what socialists want. But we don’t and never have. Friedrich Sorge, a close associate of Marx who was in regular correspondence with him, wrote in a pamphlet Socialism and the Worker that was first published in 1876:
‘Concerning the division of money, I must relate an anecdote invented to ridicule people who are represented to have such intentions. One day in 1848, as the story goes, Baron Rothschild took a walk on the Common of Frankfort-on-the-Main. Two labourers met him and accosted him thus: “Baron, you are a rich man; we want to divide with you.” Baron Rothschild, not the least puzzled, took out his purse good-humouredly and answered: “Certainly! We can do that business on the spot. The account is easily made. I own 40 millions of florins; there are 40 millions of Germans. Consequently each German has to receive one florin; here is your share;” and giving one florin to each of the labourers, who looked at their money quite confused, he walked off smiling’ .
What socialists want is not to divide up existing wealth but for it to become commonly owned by society as a whole. Dividing it up doesn’t make sense. Most wealth is not houses, cars and the other things people consume to live. It is the wealth that is used to produce more wealth (‘the means of production’) in the form of farms, factories, warehouses, shops, roads, railways, communications systems, and the like. These can only be operated cooperatively and are interlinked as a world-wide network of productive units (most items, even consumer goods, incorporate the work of people from different parts of the world).

In this sense the production and distribution of wealth is already ‘socialised’. What is not is the ownership of them and of what they are used to produce. That is in the hands of a tiny minority. Socialists want to bring ownership into line with the reality of production by making the means of production the common property of all society, so that they can be used for the benefit of all instead of as at present to make profits for the few.

Some of the wealth of the super-rich isn’t really wealth, for instance most of that attributed to the major owners of the tech giants – Bezos, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and the others. This is commonly measured by the stock market value of the shares they own in their company. But shares are not actually existing wealth; they are claims on future wealth (and so which does not yet exist), with their price based on the future income they are expected to bring. There is nothing physical that corresponds to them. Their value is different from that of the real things (buildings, machinery, IT systems) that companies own. When their price goes up no new wealth is created any more than wealth is destroyed when their price goes down. There is nothing there to be divided up. Or to be commonly owned.

Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Anti-Bolsheviks (2021)

Book Review from the August 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Council Communist Reader. Radical Reprint, 2021

The articles in this collection – by Paul Mattick Snr, Herman Gorter, Karl Korsch, Otto Rühle and Anton Pannekoek – have long been available elsewhere.

They called themselves Communists as they agreed with Lenin’s break with pre-WW1 Social Democracy when he changed the name of his party in 1918 from RSDLP to Communist Party; some initially joined the Communist Party in their country. They had regarded what happened in Russia in November 1917 as what it purported to be – a workers’ revolution in which workers, organised in soviets (the Russian word for ‘council’), had assumed control of society. Within a few years they realised that this had not been the case but continued to call themselves Council Communists as opposed to Bolshevik-sponsored ‘Party’ or ‘State’ Communists.

Their basic position was that workers should abandon the parliamentary Social Democratic parties and trade unions and organise themselves in work-based councils both to wage the day-to-day class struggle and to overthrow capitalism. They became very anti-party and anti-parliament, which made them similar to Syndicalists except that they situated themselves in the Marxist tradition.

They were what Mattick Snr called ‘Anti-Bolshevik Marxists’ (among which we can be included), regarding Russia under the Bolsheviks (Trotsky as well as Stalin) as state capitalism and opposing Lenin’s vanguard party concept. They weren’t always clear on the implications of a post-capitalist, communist society, some of them drawing up elaborate schemes for labour-time accounting and labour-money (not included here).

Annoyingly, Paul Mattick Jnr repeatedly refers in his introduction to the German Social Democrats who took political control in Germany immediately after the end of WW1 as ‘socialists’. He must surely know they weren’t.
Adam Buick

Letter: Who are the working class? (2021)

Letter to the Editors from the August 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors

I am curious about the following extract from the explanation of your declaration of principles on your website [under About Us] which seems to imply a hugely simplified, black and white analysis of the mechanics at play:
“if your main income is derived from the work of others then you are a capitalist”.
This then IS the person living on state benefits but NOT the person who has inherited huge wealth OR the millionaire who fortuitously invested his earnings on the stock market etc

It also strikes me that the attempt to represent a simple two class structure is somewhat flawed, the ultimate business owner and the lowliest of the employed being an obvious distinction, but the upper management for example are rewarded at a much higher level, this will be related to the relative wealth/success of the company and therefore by definition the labour of the employees, their main income then is also derived from the work of others and as such they are also capitalists; but not in the same class as the business owner.
Ralph P.

Interpreted literally and out of context the passage quoted could be pedantically interpreted as meaning that someone on benefits was a capitalist. If, however, the complete passage is read – ‘if you must work for a living then you are working class, if your main income is derived from the work of others then you are a capitalist’ – then a person on benefits is clearly a member of the working class; only, for one reason or another, they are not able to find an employer and so have to be maintained by hand-outs from the state. That, however, does not make them capitalists any more than being paid out of profits makes a capitalist’s servant one either.

In any event, whichever way to turn it, the passage cannot be said to mean that a person who has inherited huge wealth or a millionaire speculator on the stock market is not a capitalist since neither must work for a living.

As to ‘upper management’, by which we take you to mean managing directors and CEOs of big corporations, you are right that most of their income will be a share of profits, disguised, for tax avoidance purposes, as an income from employment. So, yes, they are members of the capitalist class. Management below that level, on the other hand, are members of the working class doing a particular job within the division of labour (and antagonistic capitalist relations of production). As the section from which you have extracted a passage says later on, it is the labour of workers ‘including the plant management’ that creates the profits that keep the capitalists rich.

Our declaration of principles asserts that there are two classes in society – ‘those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess’. The income of those who possess land, factories, offices, communications and the other means by which society reproduces itself is a property income which accrues to them without them having to work; it is, as the tax authorities used to call it, ‘unearned income’. It takes the legal form of corporate profits, dividends on shares, interest on bonds, ground-rent on land and, also, as just explained, bloated ‘salaries’. Only a small minority of the population are in this position. The rest of us, the vast majority, not possessing such income-yielding property, are obliged to go out on to the labour market to try to find an employer. If we find one, as most of us do, then our wage is our main income; if we don’t find one, as many don’t, then we have to exist on meagre state hand-outs.

Apart from their main income some workers own shares or other interest-bearing savings but, as we say on our website, none ‘have the luxury to quit their jobs and live off investment income’. In fact, according to a recent survey by the Yorkshire Building society ’19 per cent of adults had less than £100 in savings … Thirteen per cent of people have no savings at all to fall back on and more than a quarter (26 per cent) have less than £500 put away’ (Times, 15 June). Even those with ten or twenty times as much as that wouldn’t be able to stop off working for wages for long.

Present-day society is manifestly divided into two classes – a small minority who live off profits and the rest of us who are wage-seekers.—Editors.