Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Voice From The Back: Watch the parking meters (2005)

The Voice From The Back Column from the March 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Watch the parking meters
In a strange couplet Bob Dylan once sang “Don’t follow leaders, watch the parking meters.” It seemed a weird rhyme, although the advice about leadership was sound; but a recent report on the Duke of Westminster may have given some substance to Dylan’s advice. “The duke, who is 53, is Britain’s second-richest man, whose wealth is based on tracts of land in Central London, including 200 acres in Belgravia and 100 acres in Mayfair. The land is so valuable that the Grosvenor Group sold a parking space in Mayfair for £65,000 in 2002” The Times (25 January). Nice one, Bob. We won’t be allowed to park there, will we?

Telling it like it is

It is not often that capitalists tell the truth about their system, so we couldn’t resist recording the following rare statement. “Governments, not oil companies, must act now on global warning or there will be a ‘disaster’, the chairman of Shell’s UK arm warned last night. … ‘Whether you like it or not, we live in a capitalist society. If we at Shell ceased to find and extract and market fossil fuel products while there was a demand for them, we would fail as a company. Shell would disappear as any kind of economic force,’ Lord Oxburgh maintained” The Independent (26 January). Even the owning class know this society doesn’t work. It sucks.   

Human rights adviser?

Elliott Abrams, a special assistant to the president and an assistant secretary of state in the Reagan administration, has been appointed deputy national security adviser with a focus on promoting global democracy and human rights” Associated Press (2 February). This is the same Abrams who was indicted by the Iran-Contra special prosecutor for giving false testimony about his role in illicitly raising money for the contras, but he pleaded guilty to two lesser offences (including withholding information from the Congress) in order to avoid a trial and a possible jail sentence.

The Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory said of him, “Members of Congress remember Abram’s snarling appearance at committee hearings, defending death squads and dictators, denying massacres, lying about illegal US activities in support of the Nicaraguan contras.” Wow, we have a real champion of human rights here.

Its a mad, mad world

“Laura Bush – or ‘First Fashionista’ as the New York Post has dubbed her – was posing for a photo opportunity on a catwalk next to designers Caroline Herrera and Oscar de la Renta. Her arrival turned Bryant Park, the temporary Midtown home of the fashion circus, into a twilight zone. The homeless people had disappeared, policemen dotted the pavement instead. A large black van was parked ostentatiously in a pedestrian area, and filled with men in suits emblazoned with the words “secret service” in white capital letters” The Observer (6 February). This prompts us to ask two questions: where had the homeless people disappeared to?, and how secret is a secret seviceman with a secret service label? We imagine the homeless will have been put out of camera shot, and none of them allowed to speak. This is called democracy?

An ill wind

Two items from the same magazine illustrate what a hellish society capitalism is. They show the awful consequence of a social disaster like world poverty and how even a natural disaster can be a money-making opportunity. “Poverty is a man-made tsunami. ‘The biggest tyranny in the world is the tyranny of an empty stomach.’ John Samuels, a founding member of Global Call to Action Against Poverty, launched at the World Social Forum.” “$300 Market price, before the tsunami, to rent a house with indoor plumbing in Banda Aceh, Indonesia, for one month. $4,000 Current market price, due to increased demand from aid workers and journalists” Time (7 February). Making money out of human misery is disgusting, but then capitalism is a disgusting society.

Letters: Earth’s Destruction Necessary for Socialism? (2005)

Letters to the Editors from the March 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Earth’s Destruction Necessary for Socialism?

Dear Editors

In at least one area my understanding of Marxian economics may be weak, so perhaps you can enlighten me. As you know in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy Marx wrote: “No social order ever disappears before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have been developed; and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society”.

I have no problem understanding the second part of that sentence, but the first puzzles me a little. All previous economic systems were not dynamic systems. They developed to a certain point, beyond which they stagnated, while the new society matured in the proverbial womb of the old. Capitalism is different to all previous systems because it is a dynamic system constantly inventing new tools of production and constantly improving all previous inventions.

My problem here is to analyse what this portends in relation to the first part of the above sentence. Does it mean, I wonder, that we are stuck with capitalism (a lovely thought) until such time as it has destroyed the world with its ongoing murder of the environment? Could it be, I wonder, that the only way socialism can be brought about is by people realising they have to live in a co-operative way or perish? And, if so, when will they realise it? Will it be when capitalism has about 90 percent wrecked this planet?

The Socialist Party have always emphasised and insisted the need for socialist understanding as a precondition for socialism. But has society ever changed because mankind in general considered such changes desirable? I’m sure the medieval manufacturers, traders, bankers, etc never said to each “Let’s invent a new society and call it capitalism.” They were behaving in a certain manner which was in accordance with their economic interests; the sum of such behaviour over two or three centuries brought capitalism into being.

In the Communist Manifesto the authors say in effect that the general, prevailing level of opinions and beliefs of a given society will always be that of the ruling class. We all know changes in the tools of production change the way people think, but we also know it only goes to a certain point, beyond which they still believe in the existence of private property based society.

My sincerest wish is that the working class both understand and establish socialism before capitalism has destroyed this planet  and consequently most species on it, but I can’t envisage this happening. I know I paint a proverbial gloomy picture, but I hope you can show me that my understanding is wide of the mark.
Steve Shannon, 
Mississauga, Canada

We agree that, if taken on its own and interpreted literally, the passage that puzzles you could give the impression that Marx thought that capitalism would not disappear so long as it was capable of developing to any extent the productivity of the forces of production. But this can’t have been Marx’s view, otherwise why would he have worked for the abolition of capitalism at a time when it was still capable of developing productivity (as, indeed, it still is, and still does)?

To make sense of it, it should be read in conjunction with what follows (“and new higher relations of production never appear before the material conditions of their existence have matured in the womb of the old society”) and which you say you have no problem understanding. And also with what immediately follows: “Therefore, humanity always sets itself only such tasks as it can solve; indeed, on closer examination, it will always be found that the task itself only arises when the material conditions for its solution already exist or at least are in the process of formation”.

Marx was talking not just about a change from capitalism to socialism but about actual historical changes of social system that had taken place in the past, but in relation to capitalism he probably simply meant that, in developing modern industry and its potential, capitalism had created the material basis for socialism and that, therefore, the establishment of socialism had appeared on humanity’s agenda (as witnessed by the emergence of the working class movement). Once capitalism had developed the forces of production to the point where an abundance was possible, it was open for abolition. Socialism wasn’t possible before then, so until then capitalism had still had a progressive role to play. But Marx was just one socialist and not much is to be gained from poring over every word he wrote to try to understand today’s world. Socialists should be, and are, capable of doing this for themselves.

We, too, conclude that, as capitalism has created the material basis for socialism, socialism is a practical possibility and has been for over a hundred years now and that this is what people should be working for if they wish to avoid the gloomy end you fear. Will people do it? That’s up to them, not us. All we can do is to try to ensure, that when people discuss humanity’s future, part of their experience is hearing the argument that the only way out is to establish a world community without frontiers based the natural and industrial resources of the Earth having become the common heritage of all humanity. – Editors.

Bush & Co.

Dear Editors

Regarding your editorial in the December 2004 issue of Socialist Standard, ‘A missed opportunity’:
You are quite correct about one thing. The people in the US who voted for Bush & Company knew what they were doing. They were not seduced. They were not misled. They understood what the issues were and they made their choice.

I live in Cleveland, Ohio. When I realized, about a month before the election, that Bush was going to win, I started to talk with Bush supporters, gently and with tolerance, in an effort to get them to open up and tell me why they had taken such a stance. On the whole, I found that the knowledge and understanding among the Bush supporters was about equal to that among the voters on the other side.

There has been a lot of talk about the role of religion in the motivation of the voters but I think it would be easy to give too much weight to this factor. It is true that a lot of religious people voted for Bush but it is also true that a lot of religious people voted against him. Some of the religious people who were and are anti-Bush say he talks about his love for God and then turns around and does the devil’s work.

I feel that the election was a referendum on war. About half the people in this country like being at war, especially if someone else is doing the fighting. They know that the war in Iraq was started under false pretenses but they like the idea of war anyway. They like the idea of telling other nations where to get off and then using the US military to enforce the US point of view.
Perhaps being at war makes them feel like winners. The US military machine is impressive. It can go out and “kick butt” on a regular basis. The US usually wins every battle. But I think it will lose the war in Iraq. It might even lose the war in Afghanistan, as it looks like the drug lords will actually win control in that area.

Those of us who were against Bush & Company are still struggling with feelings of loss, of disappointment, and even a sort of grief. We did the best we could but we lost and we are hurting.
Linda Featheringill, 
Cleveland, Ohio, USA.

Fair enough, but we hope you didn’t go so far as to vote for the other millionaire (whose name we forget). As if it would have made any difference if he had won instead. Governments don’t control capitalism. It’s the workings of capitalism, and the interests of a country’s capitalist class, which determines how governments act. Things won’t change till a majority act to change the economic and social system rather than the personnel who fill the top posts in government –Editors.

Red Snapper: Sound bites and unsound nibbles (2005)

The Red Snapper column from the March 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sound bites and unsound nibbles

"We're not flying over frigging Iran."  
U.S. military official on the practice of sending U.S. military aircraft into Iranian air space to test its defences and spot potential targets. Guardian, Jan 29th.

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"As a general rule the more extreme the circumstances and the fear felt, the more force you can lawfully use in self defence." 
From the new Government’s new guidelines about the self-defence and the defence of property. Daily Telegraph, Feb. 2nd.

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"I think Japanese nationals would welcome a female monarch in the present era." 
- Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on the proposal to allow female succcession to the Japanese throne. BBC News Online, Jan 25th

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"We have had people sent here who I would not trust at all. I have discovered that the Americans have made no checks on these men. Do you wonder why police stations and army barracks get blown up?"  
-An Iraqi police colonel on the recruitment of defence forces in Iraq. The Independent, Feb 14th.

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"Disaster is too polite a word".
- David Isenberg, an analyst at the British and American Security Council, on the US's efforts to train Iraqi forces. The Independent, Feb 14th.

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"You raise your voice. I raise mine. Some of you throw a bit of crockery."
- Tony [Blair] on his marital spats with the electorate, all media, Sunday February 13

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"When you're Secretary of State for Transport you don't tend to get inundated with gifts.”
Alistair Darling, S of S for T, in response to audience question on ministers having to declare any gift over £250 in Register of Members' Interests. Any Questions, BBC Radio 4, Sat, February 5.

Global poverty and the UN: Natural disasters (2005)

From the March 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard 
If there’s one thing the UN is good at, it’s compiling authoritative figures, and the UN’s data on global poverty underlines the desperation of the world’s poor. But what chance do campaigners really have to make history, by making poverty history?
In January the United Nations Millennium Project published a 3000 page report entitled ‘Investing in Development: A Practical Plan to Achieve the Millennium Development Goals.’ The report calls on industrialised countries to assist  in “halving world poverty” by 2015 by increasing aid from its present level of £12 billion to a sum approaching £80 billion per year.  The Independent (18 January) reporting on the publication of this report carried the headline: “UN  unveils 10 year plan to lift 500 million out of misery. Many proposals are cheap, and could transform lives now.” The report concluded: “Only investment on that scale will help prevent 700 million slip further into preventable disease and extreme poverty.”

The strategy outlined in the UN report forms part of a wider set of initiatives agreed at the UN Millennium Summit  in September 2000, aimed at making the world a fairer place to live by apparently eradicating poverty. As a background  to world poverty, the Independent reported on the same day that 11 million children (mainly under 5) die each year, 6 million from preventable diseases, while “Every day, HIV/Aids kills another 6,000 people and another 8,200 become infected with the virus” and “Every 3.6 seconds, someone dies of starvation.”

The report’s author, Professor Jeffrey Sachs, candidly said in defence of his proposals:  “The system is not working right now – let’s be clear.” He explained: “There’s a tremendous imbalance of focus on  the issues of war and peace, and less on dying and suffering of the poor who have no voice. The overwhelming reality on our planet is that impoverished people get sick and die for lack of access to basic practical means that could help keep them alive and do more than that – help them achieve livelihoods and escape from poverty.” Sachs pointed out: “We have the world’s eyes focused on the tsunami of the Indian Ocean, but the world continues to overlook the silent tsunamis of deaths from malaria which take every month the number of people that died in the Asian tragedy. Every month, 150,000 children in Africa, if not more, are dying from the silent tsunami of malaria, a largely preventable and utterly treatable disease.” Elsewhere the article states that malaria can be prevented with a treated bed net costing less than £1.

Sachs’s concern that the Indian Ocean disaster has overshadowed permanent poverty and deprivation is echoed by pleas from charities working elsewhere in the world. The earthquake and resultant tsunami, killing perhaps up to 200,000 people in twelve countries, has siphoned donations away from these charities and threatens to end their money raising activities for good. But the tragic loss of life and devastation caused by the tsunami has been given so much prominence precisely because it was caused by a natural disaster, where no guilt can be apportioned.

Equally, as the Economist observed: “involvement in the disaster of so many resorts favoured by tourists from rich countries in the West and the richer parts of north-east Asia has given it more prominence in these countries than the sheer horror of the fatalities would have produced” (1-7 January) The class that lives by profit has no wish to be reminded of the loss of life and devastation attributed solely to the relentless pursuit of profit and is content to see attention deflected away such things.

Disasters – natural or otherwise – provide unexpected opportunities to those who live by making profits. As with the unnatural tragedy of the Iraq invasion where up to 100,000 people have been killed, companies engaged in the provision of food, housing, construction, energy, transportation, communications, engineering and so on, can expect to reap bumper profits. Aid and money cannot be injected into class society in a neutral way and is either directed to the working class or the owning class, generally the latter. We learn that money is urgently needed to restore the tourist industry and the profits it generates for the shareholders that own the hotels and tourist attractions, especially in Thailand where tourism generates 12 percent of GDP. Tourists have been urged to return to these holiday destinations with the lure that the only way to help the poor is by making them employable once more, which means making the tourist industry profitable once again.

The only consideration is profit. But while investors in Asian tourism may have lost, others have been more fortunate. The same issue of the Economist reported: “Insurers at least will be relieved that most of those whose livelihoods have been destroyed were not covered. Some hoteliers will make claims, as will families of western tourists who were covered by life insurance. Their bill, however, is likely to be far lower than followed the hurricanes in Florida and its neighbouring states earlier in 2004.”

It goes without saying that major disasters causing loss of life are always tragic. But while some disasters cannot always be avoided, as in the Indian Ocean, others are completely avoidable and there can be no excuse. The UN Report aims to significantly reduce world poverty without attacking its root cause. According to Sachs, “Billions more could enjoy the fruits of the global economy. Tens of millions of lives could be saved” (Independent, 18 January).  Millions of people, it seems, are to be lifted from poverty by trade arising from the globalisation of capital, a process that hitherto has been remarkably unsuccessful in doing anything more than spreading poverty from country to country and making enormous profits for investors. Globalisation is a particularly pernicious form of capitalist development, which has decimated the lives of millions of people in undeveloped countries.  Yet the UN plan is proposing more of the same, calling for initiatives that “involve both civil society organisations and the private sector,” and urging that “rich countries must open markets to exports from developing countries.”

Predictably the plan urges that ‘rich countries’ must “invest more in the very poorest countries through electricity supplies and roads.” (Independent, 18 January). In practice the report does no more than advocate concerted action by corporations and companies under the umbrella of their national governments to transform people into wage slaves. There are no poor countries, only poor people.

It can be no coincidence that both Blair and Brown have suddenly become interested in the continent of Africa – or rather the opportunities it can bring to the owning class they represent. Brown claims he will make sub-Saharan Africa his priority in 2005 while Blair says he will use Britain’s Presidency of the G8 to “focus on progress” in the eradication of African poverty as well as countering other potential but less desirable developments. Blair explains: “Famine in Africa will affect our countries because it will be a trigger for mass migration. Conflict, too, drives millions to flee their homes. Both create the conditions for terrorism and fanaticism to take root and spread directly to Europe, to North America and to Asia” (Economist, 1-7 January).

Like the UN Report Blair proposes ‘more of the same’. He writes: “We also need to tackle trade barriers
which push up prices to our consumers, prevent African countries exporting their products and see Europe spending more on subsidising its own farmers than on aid to Africa.” He concludes, as does the UN Report that aid will provide assistance in “building the infrastructure needed for private-sector growth.”

The forces are gathering and the strategy is in place. Capitalism is to make a concerted move into the African continent to provide opportunities for investment and profit from the glut of aid proposed by the UN and the resultant ‘opening-up’ of the continent. A market economy based on the domination of outside corporations or perhaps indigenous capitalists will obviate migration of cheap labour, forcing the indigenous people to become wage slaves, to join, in the words of the Independent, the “one billion people [who] live on less than $1 a day. Another 2.7 billion survive on less than $2 a day.” A further intention is to nullify the spread of religious fundamentalism that could interfere with profit taking. Like every other attempt to alleviate poverty it will fail. This is because the plan is less about poverty and more about profits. The plan’s success will be measured in dollars not lives saved.

If there was ever an indictment of capitalism it is world poverty. People die in Africa and elsewhere because there is simply no profit in saving them. Conversely, action to limit this barbarism only occurs when the companies and corporations owned by the capitalist class ‘sense a kill,’ an opportunity to expand profits. £81 billion in aid – if it ever arrives – is a good starting point. Many African countries have already a foretaste of foreign investment that directs that food be grown for export alongside a population on the brink of starvation. But this no inconsistency, simply market forces in action. We live in a world of plenty where scarcity and rationing through the market and money system is unnecessary and anti-human. It must stop.

The Independent editorial column hit the nail on the head. It reads, “The world must seize the opportunity and work together to fight the scourge of poverty, disease and hopelessness.”  But what it does not say
is that this can never be achieved under capitalism. The world’s working people must, as the editorial urges, seize the opportunity to end poverty — not by trying to reform an economic system that cannot be reformed but by abolishing it. The UN proposal that reinforces the institutional requirement to make and increase profits regardless of its human consequences is monstrous – a licence to make profit from human misery.
Steve Trott

Fit For a King (2005)

From the March 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

King Mswati III of Swaziland has just bought himself another car; not any old car, but a brand new Daimler-Chrysler Maybach 62, powered by a six-litre bioturbo engine, and fitted out with a television, a 21-speaker surround sound system, a heated steering wheel, champagne flutes within reach of the fully reclining seats, a refrigerator, a cordless telephone, a gold bag and a pollen and dust filter. And the cost? Almost £400,000.

And the country over which King Mswati III rules?

Swaziland, entirely surrounded by South Africa and Mozambique, one of the smallest countries in Africa with an area of 6,700 square miles, has a population of fewer than one million, of whom more than 80 percent exist on one US dollar a day, and almost 40 percent of adults have HIV/AIDS, the highest rate in the world. According to the World Food Programme, about a third of the population require, and will probably receive, emergency food assistance this year. According to the WFP (Guardian, 14 December) absolutely poverty, unemployment, HIV/AIDS and poor farming practices, “has left large numbers of households with no food stocks, or unable to provide for themselves”.

Swaziland, moreover, has been in a state of emergency since 1973, when the so-called constitutional monarchy imposed by Great Britain became absolute. However, the king is supposedly adored by his subjects, and the country is a tourist haven, mainly for affluent South Africans.

So that all right then!…
Peter E. Newell