Thursday, February 4, 2021

Correction (2011)

From the February 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard 

In our review of Michael Lebowitz’s book, The Path to Human Development: capitalism or socialism?, in last month’s Socialist Standard, we attributed to him the passage “it is important that we live the revolutionary process as a great organism and not as a vanguard atop a complacent mass”. In drawing our attention to the fact that he did not write this, Michael Lebowitz said that “the phrase itself doesn’t embarrass me as I reject the vanguard party (but not leadership as such) as it is understood”. He added: “Incidentally, let me recommend to you and your comrades my new book, The Socialist Alternative: Real Human Development (Monthly Review, 2010), which explores much more deeply the themes posed in The Path. As for the vanguard question, I’m taking that up right now in the book I’m working on (The Conductor and the Conducted), which explores what I call ‘vanguard relations of production.’”

In fact the passage was a quote from a review of his book by Ivan Drury in the Canadian Trotskyist paper Socialist Voice. We apologise to him and are pleased to make this correction.

Know Your Onions (2011)

The Proper Gander TV column from the February 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Tonight on In The Know: “The recession which has left thousands of American home-owners destitute for the first time may be giving rise to a new form of bigotry. Are traditionally-poor Americans being unfairly prejudiced against the Nouveau Poor?” Also, “A recent poll finds that many … lobbyists are fed up with politicians accepting their money and then not coming through with promised legislation. Are politicians failing our lobbyists?”

In these exasperating times, it’s often hard to tell what’s satire and what’s real, but, yes, the above were fake. Both were introductions to parodies of news programmes made by The Onion, the bratty little brother to America’s media giants like USA Today, CNN and Fox. The Onion began as a satirical newspaper in 1988 and has since expanded into spoof television shows, among other media. From 2007 (or “since 1896” according to the title sequence) these were only broadcast through the internet. However, last month saw the debuts of the Onion News Network and the Onion Sportsdome on American cable television. These series are expanded versions of the sketches accessible through

As well as spoof news and sports reports, The Onion produces In The Know, a panel discussion show for its overconfident and misinformed pundits. And Today Now’s breakfast television presenters keep everything light and frothy, whether they’re unveiling the new batch of child stars “grown in the Disney genetic engineering lab” or giving tips to help you “pretend you give a shit about the election”.

Not many gags make direct political points; examples here include “Bush tours America to survey damage caused by his presidency” and “Gap unveils new ‘For Kids By Kids’ clothing line”. Instead, most sketches highlight how the media sensationalise events, such as “Horrific crash a sad reminder of Princess Diana”. So, the jokes often come through the fake journalists missing the real issues and trying to give stories a heart-warming or empowering spin, such as “anonymous hero donates hospital 200 human kidneys” or “first female dictator hailed as step forward for women”. And in that way, The Onion’s perception of how television works is spot-on.
Mike Foster

50 Years Ago: The Strike in Belgium (2011)

The 50 Years Ago column from the February 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Belgian strike is an attempt on the part of some of the Belgian workers to force the Government to resign or change its method of dealing with the economic crisis. The Government, a coalition of Christian Democrats and Liberals, has precipitated this situation by its austerity measures. These consist of cuts in the social services such as the Belgian equivalent of the National Health Service, in the education programme, in unemployment pay, and in coal subsidies, along with the introduction of a Means Test and what is called “additional temporary taxation.” The Belgian local authorities are also to be empowered to impose additional income taxes of their own. (…)

Socialists feel deep sympathy for the Belgian workers on strike. But they realise that their action is futile as a means to achieve anything but temporary respite from the encroachments of their masters on their standard of living, and that they are jeopardising their chances of achieving even that by using the strike weapon against the State, instead of using it to back up wage demands with which to offset the effect of the Government’s policy.(…)

Governments do not develop reforms or pruning schemes because their attitude to the working class is necessarily either sympathetic or antagonistic. Governments administer the affairs of a capitalist economy in the interests of the national capitalist class. The Belgian workers would be well advised to consider this fact in relation to the present situation, recognising that a change of government is merely a change of label.

A more fundamental change is needed. Austerity, in a world of potential plenty, is always the lot of the working class under capitalism. It is not enough to demonstrate against one type of capitalist government. The workers must organise consciously to abolish the present economic system and establish in its place their own system of society—Socialism.

(Editorial, Socialist Standard, February 1961)

Green reformist (2021)

Book Review from the February 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal by Naomi Klein (Penguin £10.99)

Klein has written previously on climate change; in This Changes Everything from 2014, she described it as ‘a battle between capitalism and the planet’. Here, in a series of articles and talks dating from 2010 to 2019, she discusses various events (such as the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010 and the ‘summer of fire’ in 2017). She emphasises the interconnectedness of many issues (‘climate, capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy, and misogyny’) and puts forward the idea of a Green New Deal as a way to solve the problems.

There is much useful material here. Oceans are warming 40 percent faster than the UN predicted in 2014. Hotter, drier weather creates the conditions for wildfires, and there is a feedback loop, whereby burning carbon leads to warmer temperatures and less rain, hence more fires, which in turn release more carbon into the atmosphere. Climate change hits the poor worst, whether in Africa or New Orleans or the refugees who flee war and drought. The factors destroying the planet are also destroying people’s quality of life. We are experiencing ‘the dawn of climate barbarism’, and individual action is simply inadequate.

But there is also quite a bit that is less impressive. A disappointing (to put it mildly) speech to the 2017 Labour Party Conference suggests that Klein has uncritically swallowed Labour’s reformism and plans for nationalisation. She views incrementalism and moderation as problems, yet does not in fact go beyond these. Her own plan is for the Green New Deal: this is seen as similar in some ways to the New Deal of the 1930s in the US, though as less top-down and not consumption-oriented. It is intended to address ‘the triple crises of our time’: ecological problems, economic inequality and white supremacy. It envisages investment in renewable energy and a minimum global corporate tax rate, so combining the reduction of pollution with improving the conditions of the most vulnerable. (For a UK version, see

Renewables are seen as job creators, so there would still be jobs (and taxes). And Klein is not against capitalism as such, only its supposed ‘unregulated’ variety. She says that ‘autocratic industrial socialism’ has been an environmental disaster, and she clearly equates socialism with the Soviet Union and Venezuela. This is a shame, as she acknowledges that climate science constitutes a powerful argument against capitalism, and discusses the view of some right-wing climate change deniers that the issue is some kind of plot to shackle or even abolish capitalism. They’re wrong, of course, but the climate and other ecological issues do provide yet another reason for doing away with the wages-prices-profits system.
Paul Bennett

Material World: Bandh Against The 'Black Laws' (2021)

The Material World column from the February 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Farming supports half of India’s 1.3 billion population, many farms being small and marginal. But farmers are losing their economic influence which once accounted for a third of India’s gross domestic product but now only 15 percent of the country’s $2.9 trillion economy. Farmers frequently complain about being ignored and neglected and have repeatedly staged large demonstrations in past years, accusing the authorities of failing to support their livelihood and demanding state help. However, none of those have matched the numbers and variety of organisations involved in the present protests. On 26 November India’s farmers plus many other workers took part in a general strike (bandh). If the strikers were a country, they would have been the fifth largest in the world after China, India, the United States and Indonesia. 250 million people across India participated, making it the largest strike in world history. Ten trade union federations offered their ‘wholehearted support to the ongoing united struggles of the farmers in demanding the scrapping of draconian agri-laws…[and] welcome[d] the firm resolve and determination of the united platform of farmer organisations to intensify the struggles countrywide…’

At the time of writing, the resistance of many Indian farmers to the Bharatiya Janata Party’s government and its new agricultural laws remains on-going. Indian farmers continue to protest in and around New Delhi, blockading the main highways. Farmers reject the laws, which were passed in September, as in their view these would cause the government to stop buying grain at guaranteed prices and permit private corporations to buy their crops at low prices. This dominance of big business interests and removal of safeguards would lead to increasing difficulties for small farmers and family farms. More than 86 percent of India’s farmland is controlled by smallholder farmers who own less than two hectares (five acres) of land each.

The new laws are seen as contributing to higher costs, more debts for farmers and facilitating the corporations to manipulate policies in such a way as to benefit from the government’s farming budget and schemes. Small farmers fear that they will not possess enough bargaining strength, when they negotiate to sell their produce to larger companies, to achieve the prices which meet their need for a decent standard of living.

Darshan Pal of the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC) and Punjab president of Krantikari Kisan Union, said ‘They [the government] have actually opened the markets, opened the land and opened the commodities of the farmers for the big corporate houses. They will form the mandis (agricultural markets), they will get the contract farming done and control the agribusiness. Our basic demand is to scrap all these anti-farm laws and assure the Minimum Support Price (MSP) [the price at which the government buys farm produce] as recommended for all the crops and assured marketing guarantee for all the crops.’

Sukhdev Singh, Punjab’s general secretary of the Bhartiya Kisan Union Ekta, accused the government of passing the laws ‘to benefit the big corporates… The government didn’t find it worthy or important taking us onboard before bringing these black laws.’

The farmers are not Luddites and acknowledge that the agriculture sector needs reforms but they say the laws passed by the government leave them at the mercy of the private sector as they relax the rules around sale, pricing, storage – rules which have helped protect Indian farmers from the fluctuations of the free-market for decades. This is why the farmers want guaranteed assurance.

The history of the pillaging and plundering of the Raj and the British East India Company has not been totally forgotten although today the target is the government’s corporate-friendly authoritarianism. Already Prime Minister Modi has privatised many nationalised industries. India’s inequality is deeper than just its agrarian problems. The top 10 percent of the Indian population today holds 77 percent of the total national wealth with 73 percent of all wealth generated in 2017 going to the richest 1 percent. India’s wealthiest person, Mukesh Ambani, saw his fortune surge $18.3bn to $76.9bn in 2020.

This mass struggle perhaps commenced as a sectional farmers strike but it has transformed into a class battle which demonstrates the power of solidarity and proclaims our slogan, ‘an injury to one is an injury to all.’ Contrary to the claims of our leftist critics, the World Socialist Movement accepts general strikes as a useful weapon, but best used sparingly to acquire particular and specific gains from the government or employers. The WSM cautions that the strategy of general strikes is no short-cut towards socialism. Today’s strikes and protests are the sparks of resistance. That said, there is nothing special about being anti-capitalist. In fact, confronting capitalism is the everyday story of working people. What is more vital is understanding our goals and the means of accomplishing them.

Fame And Fortune (2021)

The Proper Gander TV column from the February 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

BBC Two’s recent documentary series Celebrity: A 21st Century Story is thankfully more than just a bunch of talking heads reminiscing about the singers and models who dipped in and out of the spotlight over the last couple of decades. Running for four hours in total, the series has plenty of time to consider the place that ‘celebrity culture’ has in our society, and what shapes its changing trends. Commendably, the programme’s focus is on economics, and how celebrities contribute to the revenue of profit-hungry mass media giants. A famous person will draw in viewers to a TV show, readers to a magazine or newspaper, or subscribers to a social media account, as well as making money through sales of any music or other commodities they directly contribute to. Advertisers are particularly keen to latch on to celebrities, hoping to leech on their popularity to find customers for whatever tat they’re marketing. All of this is linked in with whatever technology is currently in vogue across the media, technology which itself is driven by what is profitable.

Narrating Celebrity: A 21st Century Story is Diane Morgan (otherwise known for her mockumentaries in the guise of Philomena Cunk), and alongside the archive footage are interviews with journalists, paparazzi and (now-faded) stars reflecting on the highs and lows of their time in the public eye.

The series begins with what could be described as an expansion in the market. When the first set of contestants walked into the Big Brother house and onto our screens in 2000, they also marked a shift in what we mean by a ‘celebrity’. Celebrity status was no longer just reserved for a distant few, but could also be for ‘ordinary people’. The exploits of the Big Brother housemates (especially when they found their own pantomime villain in ‘Nasty Nick’) were soon all over the tabloids and in office water cooler chats. Not long afterwards, the talent show format was revived, with Pop Idol and its ilk feeding on the aspirations of any of us proles to sell out Wembley and top the charts. The new breed of talent shows emphasised the contestants’ emotional journeys, and then let the public decide whose dreams would be crushed. The phone-in vote, also used for Big Brother, was less an exercise in democracy than a way of increasing revenue for the programme-makers; income from the cost of calls soon generated over £3 million for Pop Idol. More money came in from CD sales; combined, runner-up and winner Gareth Gates and Will Young’s first singles sold three million copies. Big Brother brought in a quarter of Channel 4’s advertising revenue in its early years due to its popularity. ‘Ordinary people’ being elevated to star status had become another source of profit.

TV production companies, record labels, advertisers and agents weren’t the only ones keen to make money from this new trend. Celeb-focused journals saw a boost in sales, with Heat magazine’s circulation doubling thanks to it tapping into the popularity of Pop Idol in particular. A gossipy article about any celeb needs to be accompanied by eye-catching photos, and the mid ‘00s was a lucrative time for the paparazzi. Candid shots of Fern Britton on the beach or Charlotte Church in Tesco were sold for thousands of pounds to glossy mags such as OK!, Hello! and Heat. Their online equivalents were the even trashier websites like Holy Moly! and Pop Bitch, which had the advantage of being able to share snaps and titbits with their voyeuristic viewers straight away. The push for more brazen and irreverent content led to many women celebrities being victim to body shaming and upskirting. Even a celebrity’s mental health problems and substance misuse (usually fuelled by being in the limelight) have been turned into a spectacle by websites and print. One of the most severe examples was in 2007 when singer Britney Spears (struggling in her personal life) confronted one of the photographers stalking her, and attacked his car with an umbrella. This turned out to be another goldmine for the paparazzi who sold pictures of the incident for $400,000.

A consequence of the profitability of celebrity gossip magazines and blogs was a decline in newspaper sales, with tabloids losing millions of readers in the mid ‘00s. One way they responded was by branching out online. A newspaper’s website, unlike its printed version, can be used to find out how many people read each article, just by measuring how many clicks they attract. This data, along with statistics on the demographics of those who clicked, can then determine the interests of readers so that adverts can be targeted to their most receptive audience. This advertising then, of course, provides revenue for the newspaper and the products being flogged. These websites are really just marketing platforms, with articles to draw the punters in. Other tactics used by newspapers have been far more surreptitious and cynical. Journalists found material for stories by digging into the tax and medical records of celebs and their families, and hacking potentially thousands of peoples’ phones, most notoriously for The News of the World.

Celebrities had lost control of what details of their lives were made public. Some, like Britney Spears, suffered under the pressure of being constantly scrutinised and used. Others turned this to their own advantage, such as Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian, who both became famous through ‘sex tapes’ being leaked onto the internet. This exposure gave them hundreds of millions of fans, who became the audiences for their newly commissioned reality TV shows. Having a fly-on-the-wall documentary is a tried-and-tested way for celebs to keep on delivering new content to fans; model Katie ‘Jordan’ Price and the Osbournes had discovered this by 2002. And when broadcasting their usual routines becomes stale, there would be the option of reinventing themselves by signing up for Celebrity Big Brother, Strictly Come Dancing or I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!.

Capitalism turns us all into commodities, things to be bought and sold, but celebrities take this to an extreme by commodifying everything about their lives, and turning themselves into a brand. And this brand has to both stand out and be malleable to what the public supposedly wants. Around 2010, this approach morphed into the new genre of ‘structured reality’ TV programmes like The Only Way Is Essex and Made In Chelsea. These shows stuck to the template of having cameras follow people round, but with the twists that these are ‘real people’ and that their lives have been made more watchable by producers giving them scenarios to improvise, such as ‘x dumps y after being told y was flirting with z’. The participants’ public profiles were raised not just by the shows, but also by their social media accounts, which have become an increasingly important way for celebrities to manage their image, or have it managed for them. When pop band One Direction were manufactured from X-Factor contestants, each member had their own social media profiles to gauge the views of their fanbase. A Facebook page or Twitter account became a valuable combination of instant market research, an advert which distributes itself and, especially importantly, a means to sell endorsed products. Viewers of matchmaking show Love Island use an app not only to vote for contestants but also to buy whichever design of bikinis are being worn on that week’s episode. The app has generated £12 million in sales for ITV and its brands. Stars have been endorsing products for decades, but what was emerging was the ‘influencer’, who uses social media to tie together their fame and what they market. The biggest influencers have had enough clout to shape trends, and not just in what clothes or jewellery people buy. For example, Kylie Jenner rose to prominence by being part of the Kardashian family on their TV show. By the age of 20, she had over 100 million followers on social media app Instagram. Because of her influence, one message she posted criticising Instagram’s rival Snapchat apparently took £1 billion off the latter’s stock market value.

Social media isn’t just used by influencers, it also helps create them. Bedroom broadcasters became a new type of celebrity from around 2012, when 4G technology had spread enough to enable more people to make their own videos and upload them to YouTube. A gaming or make-up vlogger whose videos get hundreds of millions of views a month represents hundreds of millions of potential customers to target with adverts and endorsements. By 2015, ‘YouTube creators’ had become more popular and influential than ‘traditional entertainment stars’, according to a survey carried out by Variety.

Social media has become the main way for anyone with a public image to stay relevant. The Royal family, who a few years earlier would have thought that such things were beneath one, also jumped on the bandwagon, led by Meghan Markle. Before she married into The Firm she had already used her acting roles to attract readers to her lifestyle blog, which brought her tens of thousands in sponsorship and endorsements. Now, she and Harry have their ‘Sussex Royal’ Instagram account to promote themselves, while other Windsors also have profiles on Twitter and Facebook. This allows them to shape whatever pronouncements they make, without needing to go through traditional intermediaries like the press. Politicians have done the same, and Donald Trump took full advantage of this, using his Twitter feed to criticise much of the mainstream media and inflict his many deranged thoughts on us.

The rise to power of both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson can be attributed in part to how they celebrified themselves by building their brands through the media. Johnson came from a journalistic background, and Trump was the star of The Apprentice USA, so they were both aware of the need for media presence. Before Trump started presenting The Apprentice in 2003, his business had been in the doldrums, and the show made his companies and therefore him look bigger than they had really been. As the documentary says, Trump then ‘used the tools of reality TV not only to win viewers, but to win votes’. Boris Johnson was keen to use any and every publicity stunt to further his career, including appearances on Have I Got News For You and EastEnders. It’s nothing new for politicians to use TV to talk at the public, but recent years have seen them using the medium to try and make themselves more relatable. Johnson himself once quipped during a speech ‘if Parliament were a reality TV show, then the whole lot of us, I’m afraid, would have been voted out of the jungle by now’. Politicians have seen how celebrities use TV to gain a following and want to ape this for themselves. Jeremy Corbyn went on Gogglebox, Ann Widdecombe and Ed Balls rhumbaed on Strictly Come Dancing, George Galloway pretended to be a cat on Celebrity Big Brother, and even Boris Johnson’s family have got in on the act, with his father and sister slumming it on I’m A Celebrity… Interviewed for the documentary, ex-Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer Balls says that being a politician put a ‘thick prism of glass’ between him and other people, and his appearance on Strictly broke down this barrier so people could see the real him. He adds that doing Gangnam Style meant that ‘I’d done my bit to make the country feel a little bit better’.

While politicians have tried to tap into the world of celebrity to get support, celebrities have also used their status to make a political stand. Kim Kardashian was influential enough to encourage Donald Trump to pardon and release Alice Marie Johnson, who had been convicted of drug trafficking. And actresses attending the 2018 Grammy and Golden Globe award ceremonies wore black and brought Me Too and Time’s Up activists with them to the red carpet in support of the movements, given impetus when film producer Harvey Weinstein was revealed as a sex offender.

Celebrity status now carries some political power, as well as economic power. How this has been expressed has changed over the years, alongside the developments in media technology, from print journalism and TV through to the internet and, especially, social media. And as technology has become more sophisticated, it has led to more precise ways of analysing us as consumers and pushing us to follow celebrity trends and buy more. Watching reality TV, or flicking through a copy of Heat, or subscribing to a YouTube influencer is often just a ‘guilty pleasure’, a brief escape from our own humdrum, stressful lives. But as Celebrity: A 21st Century Story illustrates, celebrity culture has been shaped by what the media industry finds to be most profitable for its owners, and so manipulates and exploits both celebs and ourselves.
Mike Foster

Cooking the Books: The paradox of cash (2021)

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

On 4 December the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee published a report which accused the Bank of England of not knowing where £50 billion’s worth of its bank notes were or what they were being used for. This, despite declining cash transactions as ‘cash was used in six out of 10 transactions a decade ago but in 2019 it was less than three in 10’.

The Committee put forward some possible explanations for what it called ‘the missing £50 billion’: overseas transactions and savings; undeclared domestic savings (as under the bed); and ‘use in the shadow economy’. This suggests that some at least of the notes were in circulation and used in buying transactions not counted by the Bank.

Commentators suggested that many of them would be being used in ‘the shadow economy’ (as to avoid paying VAT). According to David Smith, Economics Editor of the Sunday Times:
  ‘Research by HM Revenue & Customs in 2017 suggested that roughly 5 per cent of people were operating in the hidden economy. The Institute of Economic Affairs suggests something larger, between 9 per cent and 12 per cent of gross domestic product, or roughly £200 billion. Quite a bit of that missing £50 billion of cash is in the black economy’ (Times, 9 December).
It’s the same in Germany where €6 billion worth of old money (the Deutschmark) have still not been converted into euros, some of which the tax authorities think could be being used to ‘wipe away traces of illicit deals’ (Times, 18 December).

To avoid the state keeping tabs on how you spend – or obtain – your money is an obvious advantage of cash for those who don’t want the state to know this. With electronic transactions, on the other hand, it is possible to tell how money got into the hands of the seller as there will be an electronic record of the sale somewhere. It was for this reason that some anti-state ‘libertarians’ thought up Bitcoin as an electronic equivalent of cash. As the mysterious Satoshi Nakomoto put in the original 2007 paper outlining the proposal:
  ‘A purely peer-to-peer version of electronic cash would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution’.
After it was launched in 2009 it worked but involved complicated computing using large amounts of electricity. In the event bitcoins have been used more as a crypto-asset (held to gamble on its price rising – at the end of last year the price of one bitcoin had risen to a then record £25,000 and it’s now been higher – than a crypto-currency (means of payment), though undoubtedly it has been used for various illicit transactions, not that these are entirely untraceable if they involve conversions into and out of state currencies. Only bitcoins that are ‘mined’ (those behind the idea wanted to invent not just electronic cash but the equivalent of metallic commodity money) are truly anonymous, electronic cash.

Economists speak of the decline in cash transactions alongside a rise in the amounts of notes and coins as the ‘cash paradox’. Socialists can think of another paradox: the existence of computing power capable of helping solve the logistical problem of ensuring that physical goods are available where they are needed for people to take and use, alongside the use of this power to record zillions of individual payments and other monetary transactions. This scandalous misuse of computing power can only be ended in a world of common ownership and democratic control of productive resources where useful things will no longer be produced for sale on a market with a view to profit and where, therefore, money, whether physical or electronic, will have no place.