Monday, February 1, 2021

How I became a socialist (2021)

From the February 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Up until Brexit politics didn’t really feature much in my life except for a brief time at university. Brexit changed all that, it made me look deeper into current affairs, which made me realise that the system was broken and socialism could be just the thing to fix it.

I was originally from a small mining village in the North East of England. My mum was of Irish extraction, a pious catholic and salt-of-the-earth working-class woman. She married my dad, an √©migr√© from Portuguese India. The house was a 2-up-2-down terrace with an outside toilet that always froze up in winter. I remember the backyard had cobbled stones with an open drain for the sink waste. Dad had knocked it up with old tin cans and it would block up, he never was any good at DIY. Working for the National Coal Board (NCB) Dad received the free allocation of coal. I guess that would be described as a company perk these days but in fact just helped keep wages down for the NCB. The coal truck would dump a ton of coal out the front and mum would wheel-barrow it around into the backyard, where it was stacked. In the 60s when the pit closed and Dad lost his job, he managed to find a storekeeper’s job with Wimpey, the house builder, in Birmingham. So we upped sticks, dad, mum and six kids to join the exodus of many other families from the Durham coalfields. I was 8 years old.

As a child and adolescent I didn’t have any great political awareness, I was more interested in playing football and cricket with my mates. However, I do remember the Aberfan disaster in 1966; principally because of my mum’s reaction to the horrendous deaths of all those innocent children. The political significance of that disaster was lost on me at the time but would come to influence my views of government in later life. Any political awareness I had was probably socialist coming from my mother who described Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists as: ‘the best book she had ever read’. My dad had come to the UK in the 1950s and, after a short time as a clerk in the civil service, joined the British army, the first six years in the regulars during the Suez crisis and a further 27 with the part-time territorials. He would often take me along to the territorial pay corps offices on the back of his Vespa 90 scooter, hoping I would join up when I grew up, but I only went along for the ride. I couldn’t stand all the uniforms and tipping your forelock to the officers. I remember dad always complaining that I was always asking ‘why’ when he would assert some Catholic religious dogma; mystified as to why I didn’t share ‘the faith’.

I never shared my parents’ religious views as I found them impossible to reconcile with science and reason. I was always keen on physics at school and left home to study electronics at Salford University in Manchester. Whilst at university I became involved with student politics and joined the Anti-Nazi League, an offshoot of the Socialist Workers Party. I participated in many demos protesting against the National Front. After graduation I dropped out of active politics and concentrated on my engineering career. In the 80s and 90s my involvement in politics was restricted to just casting a vote.

In the early 80s the company I worked for at the time sent me to Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales to install some electronics in the main telephone exchange. When I arrived I was shocked to find the whole town shrouded in the dark shadow of huge coal slag heaps. It was then I realised that this was just four miles from where the tragedy took place at Aberfan some 20 years previously. I can remember being moved to tears visiting the cemetery seeing so many gravestones for the children that died. I was incredulous that governments could have allowed that to happen and not even bothered to restore the landscape after the horrendous mess the industry had made to the environment. The scruffy terraced housing, run-down shops and impoverished locals left an impression that this place had been forgotten by the powers that be.

Thatcher’s assault on the miners, the unions and her profuse use of police violence to break up strikes was shocking to witness. The charade of the Falklands War to bolster her re-election in 1983 just reinforced my opinions of the Conservative Party. The imposition of the Poll Tax in 1989 seemed the last straw, and even I considered joining one of many demonstrations against that unfair tax against the working class. Her fall from grace and replacement by centrist John Major did seem like a change for the better. I didn’t have any great understanding of politics, believing Labour to be a socialist party that cared more about the working class; therefore, deserving of my vote.

When New Labour finally regained power with the Blair/Brown regime in the 90s there was great expectation in the country, which was reflected in the sweeping victory in 1997. However, with the tragedy of the Iraq war, the selling of public utilities, the Private Finance Initiatives, etc it became almost impossible to differentiate between New Labour and the old Tories, so there didn’t seem any point in voting.

Brexit
In 2016 I retired, providing lots of free time and which happened to coincide with Brexit. The propaganda from the Tory Vote Leave side and UKIP had such a ring of xenophobia it was reminiscent of the National Front back in the 1970s. Alarmingly, fuelled by the media this polemic seemed to resonate and rekindled latent nationalistic fervour in a large section of the public. This level of public support seemed perplexing as the arguments didn’t seem to stand up to any scrutiny, particularly from an economic perspective. In the media, many commentators were citing neoliberal economics as one of the main causes of this rise in right-wing populism. Not having any idea of what that actually meant I started reading some of the popular political commentators: Robert Peston’s WTF; Finton OToole on Heroic Failure; and Ian Dunt’s What the Hell Happens Now? I discovered Yanis Varoufakis’s, Adults in the Room, which was a great eye-opener for the workings of the European Union.

Austerity
The first time I saw the 2015 movie The Big Short I found it somewhat confusing with all the references to financial derivatives such as Credit Default Swaps (CDS) and Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs). It was only after reading Robert Peston’s How Do We Fix This Mess? that the shocking reality of what happened in 2008 became clear. The financial system was built on debt and required the subsequent bail out of the banks. Labour chancellor Gordon Brown then embarked on his ‘balancing the budget’ austerity programme, which continued under subsequent Tory administrations. This has been the main factor in the effective decline in living standards (real earnings) in recent times, particularly for those on low incomes. Brown had constantly claimed that, with his policy of sticking to tight inflation targets, the age of boom-to-bust economics was over – so much for that prediction.

New Hope
I joined the Labour Party in 2018, attracted by their new manifesto which promised to reverse some of the Tory and previous Labour sell-offs of public utilities. Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell promised a more cooperative and democratic economy starting with a limited programme of renationalisation, a National Bank, increased spending on the welfare state, increasing corporation tax, reducing student tuition fees and scrapping Trident. These seemed at the time to be a great reason to sign up to Labour.

However, as a leader Corbyn came over as indecisive and easily undermined by many on the rightwing of the parliamentary party. This indecision, exemplified with his position on Brexit and accusations of antisemitism, established him as weak in the eyes of the public and an easy target for the media.

The election result in December 2019 and the collapse of the Labour vote in Labour’s key heartlands of the North gave the green light for a centrist takeover and the marginalisation of the Left.

I started reading economic theorists such as Stiglitz, Krugman, Piketty and Ha Joon Chang, authors of several texts on the crisis facing neoliberal, free-market capitalism. They all suggest state interventionist methods to reform the system to prevent this recurrent boom-to-bust cycle and rise in inequality. What they don’t seem to want to admit is that these Keynesian reformist methods have been tried many times in the past and as yet haven’t managed to prevent the boom-to-bust cycles which repeat every few years.

A social-democratic Labour Party can’t achieve its expressed aim of liberty, equality and fraternity by reforming capitalism. The capitalist ethic of dog-eat-dog, grow-or-die is diametrically opposed to a truly democratic, mutual, caring, equal and ecological society.

Discovering socialism
My awareness of socialism started when an old friend suggested I read some Murray Bookchin. Bookchin, an American theorist from New York, has written copiously on everything Left and has certainly shaped my ideas since reading his books and essays. The material on YouTube from Richard Wolff, Double Down News and alternative media like Counter Punch and Byline Times have also helped shape my views.

Having previously been a member of the Anti-Nazi League as a student I had some knowledge of the SWP and so thought they might be worth having a look at. I attended a few online discussions to get an idea of where the party stood against my view of socialism. It soon came apparent that they have a strict ideological commitment to a Leninist/Trotskyist interpretation of Marx. I didn’t feel comfortable with this, being aware that this revolutionary approach of overthrowing the state has always led to state capitalism, not socialism.

On Google using the search string ‘list of socialist parties in the UK’, then following the most popular result, Wikipedia; a huge list of parties is revealed. Browsing through the list you come across around 20 allegedly socialist (non-capitalist) organisations. I checked out those and found most were in the same mould as the Trotskyist SWP or supporters of the Labour Party.

But the SPGB welcome page is clearly laid out with a straightforward statement of Party goals. The Party’s declaration of key socialist principles is clear: common ownership, democratic control and free access to goods and services. This contrasts markedly with other so-called socialist parties where a lot of policy is hidden. The website also had a wealth of well-researched articles and literature; all this encouraged me to join one of the online meetings to find out more.

After attending a few meetings and reading the literature I decided to join. What particularly struck me was the requirement to complete a questionnaire. A little bit intimidating at first compared to entering your address and credit card details to join the Labour Party. However, as an option you can just answer the questions over a call should you so wish.

Having been in the Party for just a few months, I was quite surprised when some of the experienced hands asked me to write about myself and what motivated me to join the Party. However, support and helpful advice was at hand. Just a word too on the informal online group meetings through Discord which are run twice a week. They give you a chance to learn new stuff and discuss current issues with like-minded people in a friendly environment.

The party is democratically organised in small groups and branches rather than being focused on direct action, public demonstrations and confrontation with the state, and I would heartily recommend anyone with like-minded views to join.
Nick Sampays

Anti-capitalist (2021)

Book Review from the February 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Anti-Capitalist Chronicles by David Harvey Pluto Press, 2020

This is more a collection of short essays than a comprehensive book. Harvey remains impressive as ever when explaining the basic ideas of Karl Marx succinctly and effectively, including such things as the operation of the rate of profit and how it relates to technological change.

The intent of the book is to give print form to Harvey’s regular podcast output, and the editors suggest it is a good accessible gateway into Harvey’s work and thoughts.

The chapters are thus short, and slightly repetitive, using the same examples (eg. that China has used more cement in two or three years than the US has done in the past 100). But that reflects the bite sized nature of the chapters, the book can be picked up and put down.

The focus across chapters is on the difference between mass and rate. Harvey notes that we should be more concerned about the mass of carbon dioxide we have already put into the atmosphere, rather than think about the rate at which we are adding more carbon. Likewise, he notes the importance of examining the mass of profit rather than just the rate of profit when examining the operations of the capitalist system (and he also gently uses that to criticise the Marxist writers who see the fall in the rate of profit as the key feature of capitalism).

As a geographer, he has useful insights into the geopolitical goals of China, and particularly notes how the brutal treatment of the Uighur may be connected with their attempts to control central Asia and thus cement a position as the predominant power on Earth. This is also joined by useful comments on the ‘second nature’ of the urban environment, as well as a useful discussion of his notion of accumulation through dispossession.

There is also a useful discussion on the place of the concept of alienation in Marxian thought, which includes a light sketch in how the notion has been examined in the second half of the twentieth century and the usefulness of continuing to apply it as a tool of analysis today. Particularly, there is an interesting discussion of how the notion of alienation might be used to examine the rise of Donald Trump as a symptom of the disaffection of the deindustrialised areas of the United States (he goes into dispiriting detail of the betrayal involved in the closure of a Detroit car plant).

Disappointingly, Harvey sees modern capitalism as too complex and interrelated to be changed wholesale, and instead looks to micro-changes and warm words. The book is thus long on analysis of capitalism but short on actual concrete anti-capitalism.

As a pedagogue, Harvey includes a selection of discussion questions for each chapter and further reading at the end of the book. These are actually good questions, and going through them might be a useful exercise and worth the price of the book.
Pik Smeet

Pathfinders: Gene genies (2021)

The Pathfinders Column from the February 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Revolutionaries tend to like science, and science loves revolutions. There’s one going on right now in something called proteomics. This studies the structures of proteins, collectively the proteome, which unlike the genome differs from cell to cell. The gist is that DNA makes RNA, and RNA makes proteins, but what do proteins make? That depends on the cell they’re in and the 3-dimensional shape they fold into. The hows and whys of this have up to now never been fathomed. But late last year Google’s DeepMind AI lab was able to predict the 3-dimensional folding of a protein (BBC Online, 30 November).

If this doesn’t sound very awe-inspiring, imagine you’re a kid with a basic Lego set, and one day your mum gives you a tool to design and create any individual piece you like, for any purpose, in any quantity. The potential limits go well beyond the sky.

But that’s building new things. What about debugging what already exists? Another revolution generating huge excitement involves the ability to cut and edit individual strips of DNA. Work is progressing so fast that textbooks, even if they existed, would be out of date as soon as they were printed. And as is so often the case, this breakthrough happened largely by accident.

Life exists in three domains (four if you include viruses): bacteria, archaea (a kind of alt-bacteria), and eukaryota (plants, fungi, slime moulds, us). Eukaryotes have fancy enhancements like a cell nucleus, but the other domains are much more rudimentary. Yet a few years ago it was discovered that the genomes of many bacteria (read also archaea) had strange repeating sequences in their DNA which nobody could account for. Fast forward to the revelation that these sequences were bits of virus DNA left over from attacks by bacteriophages, viruses that ‘eat’ bacteria. It turned out that the bacterium was able to use these DNA sequences as templates to peel off an RNA replica strand, a bit like an identikit portrait, that could be sent off round the cell to hunt for any matching DNA from other phage attackers, and bind itself onto it. Then came the killer surprise. The RNA strand came with a special weapon, a protein called Cas9, that was able to cut through the phage’s DNA at the binding point, thus dismantling the phage. In other words, bacteria and archaea had a hitherto unsuspected search-and-destroy immune system.

Imagine the squid-like blob attached to the astronaut’s face in the film Alien, all set to inject its loathsome babies into his innards to eat him from the inside out. But the quick-thinking astronaut pulls out a pair of scissors, aims it at the exact spot, and snips the squid-blob’s brain stem. The squid-blob drops off his face, stone dead. Bacteria do this to phages using these repeating identifier sequences. To describe these sequences, someone came up with the wonderfully recondite name of ‘clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats’, or CRISPR for short.

So far so obscure, but then it was realised that if you could tweak these sequences, you could use the process to quickly cut, or cut out, any bit of DNA, at any point you like. If a single faulty base-pair is known to cause serious conditions, such as sickle-cell anaemia, it should be a simple matter to edit it out. Because genes are passed on to descendants, the edit would be permanent. Other life-crippling conditions and diseases could follow, such as cystic fibrosis or Huntingdon’s Disease. Edit the genome of the carrier mosquito and you could in theory wipe out malaria and dengue fever.

CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing has been described as one of the biggest discoveries in the history of biology, potentially allowing us to control and rewrite evolution. The two leading researchers in this field, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier, just recently shared the 2020 Nobel prize for chemistry, incidentally the first science Nobel ever awarded to two women.

But what to do with a frontier technology like this, that’s the big question, and it quickly becomes a political one. Professor Doudna is upbeat about the potential, especially for agriculture. But with capitalism, priorities are money driven, a trait discernible where the process has already been used – to create low-fat pigs, extra-woolly Cashmere goats, and gluten-free wheat, this last probably not for the few genuine Coeliac sufferers but more likely for the huge narcissistic food-fad market. Slightly alarmingly the professor also talks about creating mythological creatures like flying lizards and even unicorns (bit.ly/3oSvNTF). But, like many others including Professor Charpentier, she is quite aware of the Frankenstein potential, and an intense ethical debate is in full swing.

Genes can have multiple effects on other genes, and so on in cascading effects, most barely if at all understood. What if an edit causes an unexpected change, and the change ‘gets out’ and can’t be stopped? Home CRISPR kits are already starting to appear on the market, raising the spectre of some enthusiastic schoolkid accidentally creating a terminator gene that escapes into the wild.

Socialist society would also have to weigh up such risks. But capitalism raises the threat level far higher than it needs to be. Its entrenched class-divided nature could lead to this technology being hijacked by the rich in order to create designer babies and widen the class divide at the genetic level, a Brave New World scenario. Moratoriums on human genome editing do exist, and a Chinese scientist was jailed for three years in 2019 for carrying out illegal work on twins. Yet the money and the temptation are there, and covert work is probably continuing in other dark corners. The gene genie is out of the bottle.

Then there is capitalism’s compulsion to weaponise new technology. A genetic ‘bullet’ wouldn’t just disable a soldier, it would disable all that soldier’s descendants. Fortunately perhaps, work is already underway on how to limit the effects of CRISPR or even stop it in its tracks. Viruses, currently the world’s Public Enemy Number One, offer a solution. It transpires that, in the microbial arms race, many viruses have evolved a powerful anti-CRISPR mechanism, which we could exploit (New Scientist, 13 January).

It’s an indictment of capitalism that we even need to worry about weaponisation, or misuse by bad actors for commercial gain. No matter what technological benefits capitalism has fostered, fundamentally it doesn’t care about our welfare, only about money. Nobody in their right mind would trust a friend like that. We shouldn’t trust a social system like that either.

While science remains trapped in the service and thrall of capital, its revolutions will always be suspect, its achievements monetised and perverted, and its intentions derailed. The revolution needed to emancipate science for our collective benefit is never going to come out of a science lab. It has to come from the rest of us.
Paddy Shannon

All state activists now? (2021)

The Cooking the Books Column from the February 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

On the eve of Britain’s final departure from the EU, Boris Johnson wrote an article in the Daily Telegraph in which he praised the development of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine as an example of collaboration between ‘state activism’ and ‘free market capitalism’. The government, he said, had provided the cash and the scientists while AstraZeneca provided the production facilities and the marketing. This was interpreted as a hint of the economic policy he envisaged his government pursuing.

This praise of ‘state activism’ does seem strange coming from a Tory prime minister as it has traditionally been more associated with the Labour Party. In fact, combining ‘state activism’ with ‘free market capitalism’ has been the economic policy of the Labour Party since it abandoned ‘nationalisation’ – the state owning and running industries – as its panacea. Since then its policy has been that the main means of production should remain in the hands of profit-seeking private enterprises, so with profit as the motivating force of productive activity and ‘state activism’ taking place in this context.

When Labour could still be considered a classic social-democratic reformist party, it envisaged the state being active within capitalism to improve the standard of living of workers through social reforms that brought them some direct material benefit. Nowadays, the Labour Party envisages the state being active to provide cash for infrastructure projects to be carried out by private enterprises and for improving productivity through training schemes.

This was the case even during the Corbyn interregnum. Corbyn himself didn’t seem much interested in economic policy. This was left to the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell, who set out to develop an economic policy that Big Business and the City could accept as credible and reasonable.

To this end, he invited the economist Marianna Mazzucato, author of The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking the Public vs. Private Sector Myths, to be one of the Labour Party’s advisers on economic policy. According to publicity for her book, she argued that ‘in the history of modern capitalism the State has not only fixed market failures, but has also actively shaped and created markets’.

This is historically and empirically correct. States can and have done this but the markets they create are not extra markets. They are created by taking money from sections of the capitalist class (whether through taxes, borrowing or inflation) and giving it to other sections to carry out projects that a state has judged are in the general interest of the capitalist class as a whole.

McDonnell made this Labour Party policy, telling the 2015 Labour Party conference:
 ‘We will create what Marianna Mazzucato describes as the entrepreneurial state. A strategic state that works in partnership with businesses, enterprises and workers to stimulate growth.’
The state itself would not organise production, but only ‘stimulate’ private enterprises to do this by putting up the money for them to make profits from activity it wanted to encourage. Or, as Johnson put it, a collaboration between ‘state activism’ and ‘free enterprise capitalism’.

In embracing this, he has stolen the Labour Party’s clothes. It may just be rhetoric designed to retain the support of ex-Labour voters in the Red Wall constituencies in the North that helped the Tories win power in the 2019 general election. It won’t be popular with the hard-line free-marketeers on the ‘libertarian’ wing of the Tory party who deny that the market can ever misallocate resources.

50 Years Ago: Decimalisation (2021)

The 50 Years Ago column from the February 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Whatever difficulties people may meet with in handling the metric currency changes on 15 February the changes themselves will have no effect at all on the main operations of the British monetary system or its standing in world currencies. New names will be given to some old coins, and three new ‘coppers’ will appear, the new 2p, 1p, and ½p but the total amount of ‘copper’ coins, about £200 million, will not be altered on D day, nor will the notes in circulation, about £3,660 million. One change has however already been introduced which distorts somewhat the Bank of England’s weekly figures of note circulation. This was in November 1970 when £96 million of ten-shilling notes ceased to be legal tender, thus dropping out of the Bank of England’s note figures, having been replaced by the same quantity of the ten shilling (50p) ‘silver’ coins.

After D day, as before, the pound will still have the same exchange rate with the dollar (about $2.40), and with the rest of the currencies inside and outside the European Economic Community.

This does not mean that the changes have no great significance; this will only become apparent some years ahead if Britain joins the European Six and if the Six themselves succeed in setting their, at present deadlocked, negotiations about moving towards a single European currency.

The D day changes are a first step aimed at an eventual situation in which there will be only one currency covering the whole of Europe, just as the dollar covers the whole of the USA and the rouble the whole of Russia.

(Socialist Standard, February 1971)

Chaos on the Capitol (2021)

Editorial from the February 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month we looked at the chaos that has been engulfing the capitalist world in the twenty-first century. The chaos shows no sign of abating.

On 6 January, at a ‘Save America’ rally organised in Washington D.C., Donald Trump fired up a crowd of supporters, repeating the fantasy that the presidential election had been stolen from him and calling on them to march on to the Capitol. This they did and then went on to storm the Capitol building in a desperate attempt to prevent the certification of Joe Biden as the next President. They met with little resistance from the police, indeed in some instances they appeared to have been assisted by them, in stark contrast to a Black Lives Matter demonstration outside the Capitol in the summer where the building was heavily fortified by the National Guard. Amid the chaos, five people lost their lives.

The rioters comprised a motley bunch of disgruntled workers, small business owners, armed vigilantes, highly paid professional workers, far-right groups like the Proud Boys, off-duty police officers, serving and retired members of the military. Many were followers of the QAnon conspiracy group. What had drawn them to embrace Donald Trump’s leadership?

Over the years many American workers have seen their incomes stagnate and their places of work and jobs being relocated to countries where the labour costs are lower. The influence of the labour unions has been dwindling and Democrat administrations, which purport to represent working-class people, have presided over this growing power of capital over the workers.

Many small business owners have been losing ground to the big beasts of capital. This has especially been the case since the 2008 financial crash, and now with the Coronavirus pandemic many small businesses have gone to the wall, whereas the large capitalists have gone from strength to strength.

In these circumstances, experiencing growing social powerlessness and, in the absence of an influential socialist movement, many have become attracted to right-wing nationalist populism and some are drawn to conspiracy theories propounded on the internet and social media. White supremacist and vigilante groups provide a sense of community and belonging. Donald Trump was able to harness this discontent for his opportunist ends by posing as the workers’ champion. He promised he would take on the ‘Swamp’ and bring back jobs to the US. Over the course of his presidency, he built his base by pursuing nationalist and xenophobic policies like beginning the construction of a wall on the Mexican border, implementing tougher anti-immigration measures and aligning himself with far-right groups.

The assault on the Capitol has been described variously as an attempted coup, an insurrection, an assault on American democracy, and an act of domestic terrorism. But it was no workers’ revolution, and socialists do not endorse reckless adventurism to try to advance working class interests. We say that, on the contrary, workers must organise globally and democratically to take political power to establish socialism, a worldwide society without classes, money and national frontiers. This revolution will be based on socialist consciousness and not on the leadership of a narcissistic egomaniac.