Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Marx quote. (1922)

From the September 1922 issue of the Socialist Standard
  “The materialistic doctrine, that men are the product of conditions and education, different men, therefore, the products of other conditions and changed education, forgets that circumstances may be altered by men and that the educator has himself to be educated. It necessarily happens, therefore, that society is divided into two parts, of which one is elevated above society. The occurrence simultaneously of a change in conditions and human activity can only be comprehended and rationally understood as a revolutionary fact.”  
—Marx. (From Theses on Feuerbach)

Voice From The Back: Behind the statistics (2011)

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

Behind the statistics

We are bombarded today by unemployment statistics but what we may often fail to appreciate is the real human misery behind those figures. “In California, former auto worker Maria Gregg was out of work five months last year before landing a new job –at a nearly 20% pay cut. In Massachusetts, Kevin Cronan, who lost his $150,000-a-year job as a money manager in early 2009, is now frothing cappuccinos at a Starbucks for $8.85 an hour. In Wisconsin, Dale Szabo, a former manufacturing manager with two master’s degrees, has been searching years for a job comparable to the one he lost in 2003. He’s now a school janitor. They are among the lucky. There are 14.5 million people on the unemployment rolls, including 6.4 million who have been jobless for more than six months” (Wall Street Journal, 11 January). Behind the faceless figures of  unemployment are the millions of people like Maria, Kevin and Dale whose standard of living has collapsed and yet have still got to survive with their dependants in the dog-eat-dog society of capitalism.

A sense of values 

We live in a society where many are concerned about world hunger, homelessness and rising unemployment, but the British Government have much more important issues to concern themselves with – primogeniture. This deals with the perplexing problem of whether or not if Prince William has a daughter before a son she can become queen. “Luckily the Prime Minister has recognised that this a matter of the deepest seriousness… ‘It is’, said his spokesman, ‘a complex and difficult matter that requires careful and thoughtful consideration…’” (Observer, 23 January). A jobless father of several children might consider his unpaid mortgage a trifle more pressing than primogeniture. In fact he could well ask what the hell is primogeniture anyway?

The widening gap

In an article describing the life of the extremely wealthy and the rest of us the Times recently laid out a list of some of these super-wealthy individuals living at present in London. The Indian billionaire Anil Agarwal worth $6.4 billion, the Russian Alisher Usmanov worth $7.2 billion and the Ukrainian Viktor Pinchuk a mere $3.1 billion. “The extravagance of the super-rich at a time when the vast majority of people are feeling the financial squeeze seems incongruous at best. But the reality is that the gap between the UHNWIs (ultra-high net worth individuals) and the rest is widening. Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the US Federal Reserve, said recently that high-income individuals, banks and corporations had rebounded from the global downturn, while pretty well everyone else struggled…The world’s wealthiest 10 per cent now control 83 per cent of all assets” (Times, 5 February). When even the ultra-conservative Times can report on the widening class differences in capitalism the ultra-rich must be very convinced of the docility of the working class. Fellow workers – wake up!

The National Ill-Health Service 

One of the fallacies much beloved of British politicians is that the NHS is a no-expense spared service that provides patients with unbeatable treatment, but the evidence of Aseem Malhotra seems to contradict that claim. “The healthcare that clinicians offer is usually exemplary. Why, then, are the ill served such disgraceful meals? I mend hearts. Then I see my patients served junk food by our hospitals. Fry-ups, burger and chips, fizzy drinks and ice cream for pudding. You would expect to see these delights on the menu at a McDonald’s or Burger King. But, sadly, this is the sort of food that is also likely to be served at your local hospital. I work as a cardiologist at one of Britain’s leading cardiac centres…Coronary artery disease is the biggest killer in the western world and a significant part of my job involves performing a lifesaving procedure, angioplasty, to restore the blood supply to the heart muscle. Coronary atheroma (fatty deposit within the artery wall) takes many years to develop and is the culmination of risk factors, of which lifestyle – and diet in particular – is a major contributor” (Observer, 13 February). Dr Malhotra asks why they are served such meals, but the newspaper provides the answer. “The majority of hospitals spend an average of less than £1 on each meal per patient.”

Pathfinders: Double Bubble Trouble (2011)

The Pathfinders Column from the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

The ‘peoplequake’ currently tearing up streets across North Africa is not just about dictatorial rulers and lack of democracy, it’s also about poverty, unemployment, corruption, social exclusion, simmering religious tensions and, significantly, rising food prices.

World wheat prices rocketed by 50 percent during 2010, and countries which are net importers of wheat, and whose populations spend on average a third or more of their income on food, are the most badly hit by these rises. The Japanese investment firm Nomura has created a Food Vulnerability Index (NFVI) of 80 countries in its report The Coming Surge in Food Prices. In the top 10 of these countries are Egypt, Algeria and Morocco, as well as Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Hong Kong. In the top 20 are Tunisia, Romania, Ukraine and Libya. If another surge in prices is imminent, as Nomura predicts, the NFVI may suggest where the political heat will burn hottest.

Let us however dispose of one misconception at the outset – the volatility of food prices does not correspond with a similar volatility in the supply of food. The 80 percent increase in global wheat prices in 2008 occurred during a ‘super-harvest’ of American wheat and has been blamed squarely on speculators in Chicago and Minneapolis who have only recently converged like locusts on the world’s farm crops (see for instance ‘How Wall Street starved millions and got away with it’ by Frederick Kaufman, Harper’s Magazine, July 2010). That speculators were entirely responsible for creating a financial ‘food bubble’, as Kaufman claims, is frostily denied by Goldman Sachs, the chief bad-guy of his essay, but also disputed by several other independent reports, citing other factors such as the 40 percent crop loss due to the Russian drought, as well as floods in Pakistan and China, and the spike in oil prices which nowadays correlate closely with food prices. Nevertheless, speculator-frenzy was sufficient to alarm the Indian government into banning all agricultural futures trading in 2008.

Another misconception is that population is causing food prices to rise. Global population has been rising steadily for decades while real food prices have been falling since 1970. World population is expected to reach around 9.5bn by 2100 but a recent report from the UK Institution of Mechanical Engineers argues that the anticipated food demand can be met with current engineering methods and that the barriers are largely political. They point to the 25 percent wastage of post-purchase food in developed countries, and the staggering 50 percent average post-harvest crop loss in developing countries because of poor storage and management: “It is evident that the barriers to deploying solutions are not technological. The issue is often one of implementation and in this area action should be taken by society and political leaders at national, regional and local levels” (Population: One Planet, Too Many People? p.40).

Meanwhile, other researchers are less optimistic, citing the unsustainable exhaustion of non-replaceable water supplies driving much of current global food production. In China an estimated 130m people rely on food produced through overpumping groundwater, in India around 175m, while Saudi Arabia, currently self-sufficient in wheat, has almost drained its fossil aquifers and next year’s harvest may be its last (New Scientist, 5 February). Agriculture accounts for 70-85 percent of global water consumption and half the world’s population live in countries with falling water tables. Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, argues that this environmental ‘food bubble’ could burst at any time, with catastrophic consequences: “No civilization has survived the ongoing destruction of its natural support systems. Nor will ours….. the world is only one poor harvest away from chaos” (‘When Will the Food Bubble Burst?’,, 12 January).

The UK engineers agree over the problem: “Indeed if there is one common factor that [we have] identified in the issues relating to water around the world, it is the unsustainable abstraction of groundwater at a higher rate than natural replenishment allows” (Population report, p.24) but they point out that this does not need to be so: “Given current techniques and capabilities there is no valid reason why there should be a shortage of water for human use. Fundamentally, there is no shortage of water on the planet to meet the anticipated rise in consumption of 30 percent by 2030. There is however, a spatial and temporal misalignment of supply and demand” (p.5). China, whose water is mostly in the south and population centres in the north, is currently dealing with this ‘misalignment’ in a refreshingly low-tech way, with a big canal. Other countries, given the removal of economic and political barriers, could theoretically do the same.

World food supply is affected by a number of factors, including population growth and rampant urbanisation, land and water depletion, invasive species, pollution, climate change and El Nino events. But prices are a function of the market system and volatility here is also driven by protectionism, speculation, oil costs and consequent biofuel demand, and plain old fashioned hoarding to inflate prices. The problem with the forecasts of Nomura, the engineers and the Earth Policy Institute, is that they are obliged to think within the capitalist box, and as far as solutions go that box is pretty much empty. Socialists can only hope that the world doesn’t have to starve half its population to death before coming to the conclusion that leaders are not going to change anything and that capitalism is the real bubble that needs bursting.
Paddy Shannon

A century of progress? (2011)

From the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
Workers are still being killed in fires in garment factories because of locked doors.
March 25th will be the centenary of the greatest workplace disaster, prior to 9/11, in America’s history – the infamous fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York. Because of a locked door, 146 people died, most of whom jumped to their deaths on the street nine storeys below, obviously preferring a quick and painless end over being burned to death.

The Triangle Company occupied the top three floors of the ten-storey Asch building at the intersection of Washington Place and Greene Street in Greenwich Village. Architect Joseph Asch had boasted his building was fire-proof, which structurally it was. This didn’t mean everything in it was.

No one knows exactly what started the fire, but the most likely explanation was a cigarette end that had not been extinguished, was thrown into a barrel of unused clothing material. Smoking was prohibited for the obvious reason that the materials were flammable. Some of the cutters constantly defied this ban, believing themselves to be a cut above the other employees (no pun intended) and as such, thought the law didn’t apply to them. Workplace snobbery being another of the many ways capitalism divides worker against worker.

The fire began around 4:45 p.m. which was quitting time for the near 500 employees. Factory manager, Sam Bernstein, the brother-in-law of one of the owners, Max Blanck, attempted to douse the flames rather than sound the alarm, an action that cost many lives.

The fire, which began on the eighth floor, sped rapidly to the ninth and tenth, cotton being very flammable. Many did escape, some in the elevators (a few even threw themselves on top of it) and some made it to the roof. Ladders were extended from a nearby building to the roof.

Among those who scaled them were the owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, (betcha couldn’t see that one coming.)

Twenty four died on the fire escape, which did not extend to the ground and was too flimsy to hold that much weight and collapsed.

Though the fire department was called and arrived quickly and extinguished the blaze in thirty minutes, their ladders could only reach as high as the sixth floor. Those who died did so because the door on the Washington Place side of the ninth floor was locked. Controversy raged between whether it was locked to prevent people leaving early or to make them leave by the Greene Street door, then enveloped in flames. The usual procedure was, when they left by the Greene Street door, they would have their handbags checked to see they were not taking home products they had made. In other words, the company had to protect their legal theft as opposed to illegal theft. Whatever the reason for the locked door it made no difference to the deceased. Their choice was death by fire, or jumping.

Most of them were young immigrant women from Italy and the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. Though no one knows what their thoughts were, it’s possible that Jewish girls, having seen in the pogroms, what fire could do to their bodies, jumped so they would be identifiable. Those who remained in the building were identified by a shoe or a lock of hair, or jewellery; six were never identified.

Nothing should have been surprising about the fire which was a tragedy waiting to happen, especially at a time where there was so little workplace safety legislation in effect in America.

In the early 20th century, approximately 40,000 people lost their lives every year to workplace injuries: in mines, foundries, factories and on railroads. What made the Triangle fire sensational is the fact that so many died so quickly, so horrifically and in America’s most populated city.

For three months officialdom did nothing about it except point fingers. State governor, John Dix, said he was “powerless”, an amazing comment, which was interpreted as, “I don’t care.” Mayor, Bill Gaynor, told his secretary to deal with it, who then referred the matter to the Fire Chief, Ted Croker. This worthy had risen to power by the patronage of his uncle, Richard Croker, once head of Tammany Hall, the most powerful political organisation in America. Croker blamed the Building Department, who blamed the Fire Department.

State Labour Commissioner, John Williams, said it didn’t come under his jurisdiction and building owner, Joseph Asch, said he had fulfilled all his obligations. Harris and Blanck said the doors were never locked during working hours. The head of the reformist Socialist Party of America, Meyer London, sneered that, whilst safety reform should be enacted, it probably wouldn’t be, and that nothing would be done about the tragedy.

The press understandably demanded that someone be held accountable. William Randolph Hearst, even created his own panel of experts in engineering, real estate and fire prevention to suggest new laws for safer workplaces for his paper, American, to advocate.

For a time, it looked like London would be proved right, but a young man, ambitious for political office, District Attorney, Charles Whitman, persevered in his attempts to prosecute the owners.

Whitman interviewed survivors and hired a detective to go to the ninth floor and find the lock of the door that opened onto the Washington Place stairs. This lock showed it had not been opened, whereupon the detective, Barry Flood, secured an indictment against Blanck and Harris, whom he arrested.

The defendants obtained the services of Manhattan’s most successful attorney, Max Steur, who had himself once been a garment worker.

Steur, knowing he couldn’t prove the door was unlocked, resorted to cheap tricks like examining the handbags of survivors to see how many garments they could possibly have smuggled out. This was done in attempt to create sympathy among the jurors and to show the reasoning for keeping it locked.

Blanck and Harris, naturally enough, said they weren’t aware of any doors being locked during working hours. Steur emphasised it would be ridiculous if they were locked, considering the constant coming and goings of delivery people, errand boys and salesmen etc. All this was ludicrous when one considers that, when a fire prevention expert inspected the premises in 1909, he noticed the door on the Washington Place side was locked during working hours. Survivors, themselves, had said Harris was constantly checking to see the door was locked.

Judge Thomas Grain, charged the jury to decide, beyond a reasonable doubt, whether or not the defendants were aware the door was locked during working hours. The jury concluded they were not aware of it, so they were acquitted.

The “innocent” partners successfully filed insurance claims that worked out to about $400.00 for every dead worker.

Civil lawsuits were brought against the owners by the relatives of the deceased, but since Steur again defended them, nobody got a penny. Instead, twenty three relatives managed to get the princely sum of $75.00 each from an insurance company.

It is of small, if any, consolation to the relatives of the victims that the fortunes of the Triangle Company gradually declined, and by 1918 had ceased to exist. By 1920, Harris and Blanck split up, neither being prosperous after.

A person who took a great deal of interest was Frances Perkins, herself an eyewitness to the fire. Fifty years later she unveiled a memorial plaque to the victims, at the sight of the tragedy. Perkins became America’s first female cabinet minister, when President Roosevelt appointed her Minister of Labor in his New Deal government. This proved women could run capitalism just as incapably as men.

During the century since the fire, laws concerning workplace safely have been passed and enforced, till by 2006, (the last year this author could get figures for), only two percent of all deaths by accidents in the US were workplace related. As necessary as such legislation is, it is nevertheless merely an improvement within capitalism. But, as long as capitalism lasts, such events will occur. The fact they occur less frequently is no reason to defend capitalism

Obviously, they will happen more in countries where safety laws either don’t exist or are not enforced. In Bangkok in 1993, nearly 200 workers died in a toy factory, where the doors had been locked by their bosses to prevent them from taking toys home. There are other examples, especially from Bangladesh (see boxes).

Despite the tremendous technological advances we’ve seen, life hasn’t changed much under capitalism. Nor, can it be argued, such events are history in capitalism’s greatest power. In 1991, in Hamlet, North Carolina, 25 people died in a fire at a poultry plant, also because of locked doors.

With the profit motive being the main determining factor in production, it would be naive and idealistic to expect capitalists and politicians, who attempt to administrate capitalism, to care. Perhaps, nobody said it better than software capitalist and investor, Kevin O’Leary, who expressed his feelings on altruism by saying, “The emotional tie that I have at the end of the month is when I count the cash.” He also told a prospective business partner, “There’s something nasty about you and I like it.”

Socialists cannot say with any degree of certainty that there will be no workplace deaths in a socialist society. The exact nature of work and the workplace will be determined by the needs of society and the technology available. What socialists can say, is that with the abolition of money and therefore the profit motive, the very death blood of capitalism, priority will be given to workplace health in general and safety in particular. Events like the Triangle Fire will never occur again.
Steve Shannon

See Also:
June 2013 Socialist StandardCapitalism Kills: The Bangladeshi Garment Factory Disaster

Wages and the cost of living (again) (2011)

From the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
As inflation begins to kick off again, is it a return to the 1970s?
The government and the Confederation of British Industry are banking on an “export-led recovery”. They are hoping that, with the fall in the value of the pound making exports cheaper, there will be an increase in production in the sectors producing for export which will have a knock-on effect on the rest of the economy.

There is no guarantee that this will happen, especially as others – in particular, the US and German-dominated Euroland – are hoping for the same. But there is another side to a fall in the value of a currency. While it makes exports cheaper, it makes imports dearer.

When, in the days of formal devaluations, the Labour government of the day was forced in November 1967 to devalue the pound, by 14 percent compared against the dollar, the Prime Minister Harold Wilson made his famous remark about the “pound in your pocket”:
  “From now the pound abroad is worth 14% or so less in terms of other currencies. It does not mean, of course, that the pound here in Britain, in your pocket or purse or in your bank, has been devalued. What it does mean is that we shall now be able to sell more goods abroad on a competitive basis.”
Technically, he was right. If you had a pound in your pocket it didn’t become 86p (in today’s money). But he was being disingenuous as he knew that the devaluation would make imports dearer and so lead to higher prices for imported goods. The cost of living would go up, leading to “the pound in your pocket” not being able to buy as much as previously.

It’s happening again now. The government has let the foreign value of the pound fall; the price of imported goods (such as oil and gas, and oranges and bananas) has gone up. So, as a result has the cost of living. Figures for January for the Consumer Price Index showed a rise of 4 percent compared with the previous January, well above the 2 percent that the Bank of England is supposed to keep it at.

It’s going to continue. According to Sean O’Grady, the Economics Editor of the Independent (21 January), there is “mounting evidence that manufacturers are having to pass a rapid rise in import costs on to the consumers – with the acceleration in imported inflation at its highest since 1975, the year that recorded the highest import inflation in modern British history.” He went on to quote the CBI’s chief economic adviser, Ian McCafferty:
  “Manufacturers have come under intense pressure to pass on rising costs: they have increased prices markedly in this quarter [last quarter of 2010], and expect to raise them at an even faster pace over the next three months. This will drive further inflationary pressure in the wider economy.”
What this means for workers is clear. Unless money wages go up too (by the same percentage) real wages – what wages can buy – will go down. Which is what the government and other apologists for capitalism want. As Bank of England Governor Mervyn King declared in a speech in Newcastle on 25 January that “the squeeze in living standards is the inevitable price to pay for the financial crisis and subsequent rebalancing of the world and UK economies.” He noted approvingly:
  “Average real take-home pay normally rises as productivity increases – money wages normally rise faster than prices. But the opposite was true last year, so real wages fell sharply. And given the rise in VAT and other price rises this year, real wages are likely to fall again. As a result, in 2011 real wages are likely to be no higher than they were in 2005. One has to go back to the 1920s to find a time when real wages fell over a period of six years.” (LINK. His emphasis)
People on benefits are protected to a certain extent by these being indexed to the Consumer Price Index, so if this goes up so do their benefits. So are workers in unions, as unions are usually able to obtain a wage increase at least equal to the increase in the cost of living.

Now voices are being raised to stop this. As if to show that the Keynesians are just as anti-working class as the Free Marketeers, Keynes’s biographer Lord Skidelsky and Michael Kennedy wrote to the Financial Times (29/30 January) claiming that “the indexed incomes policies of the 1970s were a national disaster”. They called for increases in the cost of living due to increases in the price of imported goods to be excluded from the Consumer Price Index. Which of course would mean a reduction in the standard of living for those with indexed incomes.

Tim Shepherd replied the following week (Financial Times, 5/6 February) warning that manipulating the cost of living index would be “a slippery slope that will reduce the credibility of the indices” (as if this hadn’t already happened – only last October the government changed the link for benefits to an index that goes up more slowly). But he too asserted that “real wages need to fall when the terms of trade move against an economy”.

The terms of trade compare export prices with import prices and “move against an economy” when more exports are needed than before to pay for the same amount of imports. But this is precisely what happens when the value of a country’s currency falls; it decreases export prices and increases import prices, so increasing the gap between them.

So it really could be the return to the 1970s that Lord Skidelsky and the others fear. Then, governments, both Labour and Tory, tried all sorts of ways to hold wages down – wage restraint, incomes policies, wage freezes, anti-union laws – and the workers and their unions fought back. Strikes were more frequent than today. The governments and the media described this as a wages-prices spiral, blaming the workers for fuelling it with their wage demands. But it was more of a prices-wages spiral, with workers trying to keep their wages going up in line with rising prices (caused, at that time, mainly by currency inflation).

Strictly speaking, an increase in import prices is not “inflation” as inflation is not any particular price increase but only (as the word itself suggests) an increase in the general price level due to an overissue of the currency. Currency inflation is still moderately practised by governments who often aim to keep it at around 2 percent a year. One of its effects is in fact to increase export prices along with all other prices and is a factor in whether a currency floats up or down relative to others.

If the rise in the cost of living is going to speed up as in the seventies then the workers’ response will have to be what it was then – to push, including by going on strike, for money wages to go up to maintain living standards, even though this time, given mass unemployment, employers will be in a stronger position.

What this confirms is that built-in to capitalism is a class struggle between workers and employers. But it’s not just over wages and working conditions. It’s ultimately over the ownership and control of the places where wealth is produced.

As capitalist ownership of the means of production is created and upheld by the state, the struggle needs to be carried over from the workplace on to the political field. It means organising not only in trade unions and the like to wage what is essentially a defensive struggle. It means organising politically to put up candidates against the parties of capitalism (Tories, Labour, Liberals, Greens, Nationalists) with a view to wresting political control from them and using it to declare private, class ownership of the means of production null and void so that they become the common property of society as a whole. This is why, in addition to trade unionism, a socialist political party is needed.
Adam Buick

Production Values: the best a Man can Get? (2011)

The Production Values Column from the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
A sideways glance at capitalism through some of its products. This month: the razor.
It was a nostalgia web-site which first coined the phrase “jumping the shark”. This referred to the decline in the quality of the 1970s TV show “Happy Days” which ran out of ideas and ended up with a desperate episode where the show’s star water-skied over a shark.

The phrase has now entered general usage to refer to the point at which anything gets taken just too far and becomes absurd. Socialists argue over just when capitalism “jumped the shark”: when its dynamic and revolutionary nature was overtaken by its wastefulness and unhumanitarian priorities. It has been after all a useful society in terms of enabling – at least to some extent – society’s productive powers to increase massively over the last 200 years.

It would be churlish to criticise all product developments inside capitalism. Just most of them. A good example of this is the razor blade, the earliest example of which was a long open sharp metal blade. Unlikely to pass product safety regulations nowadays, it nonetheless – in skilled hands – did the job. The development of the safety razor seems to this writer to be a useful advance. Encasing the blade in plastic to minimise the depth of any inadvertent cut, the safety razor was a big hit when first developed.

The market leader Gillette held the patent for stainless steel blades which did not rust so readily, but had not acted on it. Why not pass this benefit onto the consumer? Because they made more profit from selling lots of the inferior carbon steel blades which blunted easily. Perhaps not the best “a man can get”, then.

Similarly the move by Bic and then all manufacturers into disposable shavers meant lower up-front cost for the consumer but larger long-term revenue. In particular the adoption of the cartridge system (separate blade unit from the handle) meant that the manufacturer “locked in” the customer to their brand which – unsurprisingly – wouldn’t fit any competitors’.

The wholly disposable razor came next, followed by adjustable heads (the razer that is, not the user). One sharp cookie came up with the idea of having two blades side-by-side, on the dubious grounds that this somehow made for a closer shave. It wasn’t long before the main competitor responded with a three-blade system.

Whatever would they think up next? Crack teams of researchers worked night and day in labs to keep ahead of the competition. They finally came up with “Quatro” – yes, you guessed it, four blades. The careful reader will have detected a trend here, and you’d be right: a fifth blade soon followed.

This is a brief history of just one product. Your own local supermarket will betray a thousand similar stories of artificial restrictions, artificial needs and wasted human ingenuity. Without splitting hairs, while you deliberate as to exactly when you think capitalism jumped this particular smooth-skinned shark, the steel mills of China are ratcheting up production again as news comes in (January 2011 ) of the Dutch supermarket chain Albert Heijn announcing the launch of … yes, you guessed it… a six-blade device. Happy days!

Jumpers for Jesus? (2011)

The Halo Halo! column from the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Do you, in your area, get those leaflets designed to look like charity appeals stuffed through your letterbox every week or so, asking for your unused items of clothing (in good condition) to be sold to help others in need? If you do, check the small print at the bottom to see if there is a registered charity number. There probably won’t be. (The point here is not that charities are better than anyone else at dealing with poverty. They’re not. It’s just an example of how some businesses will happily pretend to be charities in order to make a few bob.)

Where I live there are at least three commercial groups who come round regularly leaving large plastic bags to be stuffed full of clothing which they then cart off and flog. It’s a lucrative business. They even pinch each others bags of goodies sometimes.

One of these leaflets recently had in large red print across the bottom: “God will reward your good hearts.”

I took it down to my local Trading Standards Office and point out that the claim was totally unreasonable. If God is happy to sit on his arse and do nothing while millions starve needlessly I think it’s being a bit optimistic to expect him to reward me for giving my old socks and underpants to a private recycling firm. The man behind the desk gave me a puzzled look, then took the leaflet and consulted one of his colleagues. He came back a few minutes later and quietly apologised. “No,” he said, “there was nothing they could do.”

Apparently it’s quite acceptable to not only make these claims on behalf of God in churches up and down the country every Sunday, but now, even on commercial firms’ trading leaflets as well.

It seems that the Salvation Army is also willing to let a commercial business make vast profits out of people’s charitable donations of clothing – made under the assumption that because it is the Salvation Army, their donations will be used to aid the poor.

An article in the Guardian (31 January) describes how a firm in Kettering does very well out of Salvation Army charity. Its boss and three fellow directors have apparently made almost £10 million for themselves since 2008 through a deal in which they collect some 2,500 tonnes of clothes each month from the Salvation Army recycling banks and sell them in eastern Europe.

Trying to justify this Dave Hinton (or Lieutenant Colonel David Hinton, to give him his full Salvation Army title) stated “It would be na├»ve to believe or expect that such an operation would not incur administrative costs.”

The boss of the company, Nigel Hanger, was much more open about it though. Clearly not a man to mince his words, he stated: At no point have I ever not said what I am in this for, I am in business to make profit as best I can in the proper manner and to make as much money as I can for myself and my family.”

Doesn’t it make a refreshing change to meet an honest businessman?

Letters: Sweet charity? (2011)

Letters to the Editors from the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Sweet charity?

Dear Editors

I am writing to ask for your further explanation of a matter which has puzzled me, arising from the item “A Merry Christmas” on page 23 of the January issue. Commenting on the annual appeal of Crisis UK, the writer describes the organisation’s workers and volunteers as “well-meaning” and “obviously sincere”, but continues with the words “charity doesn’t work”. Well, no, inasmuch as while capitalism exists, there will almost certainly be homeless people needing help all through this and every year; but, nevertheless, it does work in that, for those few days at Christmas, some homeless people had some relief and comfort which they would not have had without that “charity”. Wasn’t that partial and temporary help better than nothing? Isn’t it possible that some of the people who worked to provide short-term help to some of capitalism’s victims, might also be working for the transformation of society to world socialism? Isn’t it possible for socialists to have both short-term and long-term aims? Can the achievement of world socialism really come about through ignoring immediate specific sufferings of individual human beings?
Andrew Durrant,
Garvestone, Norwich

Yes, charity can make a difference to some individual’s life; it is ‘better than nothing’. But it’s not much and certainly not enough, like trying to empty a lake with a teaspoon.

You partly answer your own query when you say that “while capitalism exists, there will almost certainly be homeless people.” It’s for this reason we stated that “charity doesn’t work” – i.e. that it can’t cure the problems it seeks to address. Whether it be homelessness or some other charitable concerns, such problems are an inevitable product of a society where profits matter above all else. So while some individuals can and do benefit from charity, it doesn’t stop the problem continually arising.

The sufferings of our fellow humans (and ourselves) is surely part of the motivation for socialists to organise to put an end to capitalism. As individuals – if inclined – we can choose to give what we can afford and spare time to help where needed, but for the Socialist Party our sole aim is nothing but socialism, however long it takes – Editors.

March madness

Dear Editors

Demonstrations in support of denied democratic rights in some countries lacking free elections and free speech are one thing; they have no other way of expressing their politics, so take to the streets. Here we do have people power and it is called an election.

Governments in the UK know they have a mandate and they also know that the ‘opposition’ usually has the same politics as they have. This is true about the issues of privatisation and public sector job cuts. Labour councils under a Labour government were closing down council-run residential homes for the elderly before the 2010 general election. Demonstrations aimed at changing government policy have failed in their objectives in the UK. CND rallied thousands to ban the bomb in the fifties and early sixties. When the Harold Wilson Labour government was elected in 1964 CND’s high hopes were dashed. Britain stayed nuclear and vast sums went to the manufacture and maintenance of nuclear horror weapons.

In 2003 a million marched against the Tony Blair Iraq attack. Blair lied, people died. There were no weapons of mass destruction, but the USA and UK had them and still do. Despite being exposed a liar Blair got back in when Labour won the 2005 general election. Marching around London streets, shouting at empty government buildings and tourists is futile. Violence at such demonstrations angers and disgusts the majority of workers. As for cuts, sackings in and privatisation of the NHS, these are going ahead and the majority of voters fully endorsed these ConDem policies. At least the SPGB don’t lead mobs of confused workers into riots. There is a minority amongst demonstrators who are trying to do just that.
Rob Jameson, 

You are right. We don’t. – Editors

Tiny Tips (2011)

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

A quarter of all of Britain’s income tax revenues this year will be paid by just one per cent of earners, according to official data:
[Dead Link.]

The British crime map doesn’t feature corporate crime so it is a bit like a British flood map that registers only bathroom floods:

Egypt’s secret police, long accused of torturing suspects and intimidating political opponents of President Hosni Mubarak, received training at the FBI’s facility in Quantico, Virginia, even as US diplomats compiled allegations of brutality against them, according to US State Department cables released by WikiLeaks:
[Dead Link.]

Four decades after the Green Revolution seemed to be solving India’s food problems, nearly half of Indian children age 5 or younger are malnourished. And soaring food prices, a problem around the world, are especially acute in India:

In one of the deadliest strikes on the Pakistan army, a schoolboy suicide bomber sneaked into a heavily-guarded Pakistani army training centre in the country’s north-west today and blew himself up in the midst of a parade, killing 31 soldiers and leaving 40 more wounded. “It was a suicide attack by a 12-year old bomber in school uniform,” top police officer Mr Abdullah Khan said:
[Dead Link.]

A jury in western New York deliberated for only an hour on Monday before finding a television producer, who ran a cable studio designed to promote understanding of his Muslim culture, guilty of beheading his wife:
[Dead Link.]

It seems President Hosni Mubarak isn’t the only leader who has grown out of touch with ordinary people following an extended period in power. Tony Blair has praised the Egyptian dictator as a “force for good”. Appearing on Piers Morgan Tonight on CNN, the former British PM said: “Where you stand on [Mubarak] depends on whether you’ve worked with him from the outside or on the inside. “I’ve worked with him on the Middle East peace process between the Israelis and the Palestinians and on that issue, I have to say, he’s been immensely courageous and a force for good.”
[Dead Link.]

Joe Biden says Egypt’s Mubarak no dictator, he shouldn’t step down…and wonders what the Egyptian protesters want:

What’s got to go (2011)

Film Review from the March 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Zeitgeist: Moving Forward (2011)
“…I’m 94 years old now and I’m afraid my disposition is the same as it was 74 years ago, THIS SHIT’S GOT TO GO!”
And so begins Zeitgeist: Moving Forward the third film in a series of independently produced and distributed films by Peter Joseph. For those unfamiliar with these films, which have enjoyed considerable success on the internet, perhaps a quick recap will be useful.

In 2007, following on from a live music and visual production, the film Zeitgeist was released on the internet. The content of the film was concerned with religion, 9/11 conspiracy theories, and fractional reserve banking. After viewing this film ‘social designer’ and ex-Technocrat Jacques Fresco contacted Joseph with details of his techno-utopian life work known as The Venus Project. Peter Joseph was so impressed by this that he devoted a large part of his next film the Addendum, and his subsequent life, to expounding these ideas.

In the closing lines of this second film, and as an apparent near afterthought, contained the words ‘Join the Zeitgeist Movement dot com’. On the back of this Joseph has been able to amass a large following on the web and through this fan base co-ordinate an international release comprising of 341 screenings without the association of a major distributor.

Moving Forward itself follows a similar format to the last film in that it is composed of interviews with various academics and journalists, though the range of interviewees is wider this time. There has also been the addition of cartoon animated sequences and other light-hearted sequences that help break the film up giving it a well rounded feel.

The first section of the film is concerned with how society affects physiology and psychology. The film criticises concepts such as ‘human nature’, genetic determinism, nature versus nurture in a way that would be acceptable to socialists, indeed in places covering issues close to those in the Socialist Party pamphlet Are We Prisoners of Our Genes? Nothing too ground breaking or controversial here but so far so good. Unfortunately things go rather downhill after this.

The shaky economic analysis of the first two films makes a re-appearance. Apparently private property originates not with the beginnings of agriculture but with the works of John Locke. Capitalism starts not with the rise of the mercantile class and the creation of a landless proletariat but with the works of Adam Smith. We are told that the current economic system is characterised by ‘cyclical consumption’ as if consumption under any other system of production could ever be anything other than cyclical, all goods get used up or wear out eventually.

An unfortunate consequence of this section is that it gives the impression that monetary reform would be at least some kind of partial solution. We are told that the problem is that the ‘life cycle’ of commodity production has become dis-attached from the ‘money cycle’ of the market and that people are forced to work because of the debt created by fiat currency; as if the market was ever primarily about human need and people didn’t have to work before the advent of consumer credit and the abandonment of the gold standard.

The fact is that a more thorough and scientific analysis of the capitalist system has already been undertaken, and well over 100 years ago, in the works of Marx; the makers of the film seem ignorant of this probably as they imagine he advocated the continuation of the money system. In fact Marx, along with all true socialists, recognised that money would pass away with the passing away of private property and capitalism.

Though, to be fair, despite these false beginnings the analysis is at least on the right track. In the closing lines of this sequence the narrator states that the fundamental problem facing humanity is not to do with greedy bankers or a secret ruling elite but ‘is in fact the socio-economic system itself at its very foundation’.

The next section of the film, entitled ‘project earth’ is mainly concerned with the Venus Project’s proposed technical solutions to the world’s problems. Anyone who has seen the Addendum would be familiar with what’s on offer here. Hi-tech circular cities, vertical hydroponic farms and suchlike are suggested as ways of producing enough means of subsistence for the world’s population to live comfortably; and perhaps they will be, but such ideas can only be taken as vague suggestions as it is impossible to know what other technological possibilities would have come into fruition by the time such a society becomes a real possibility. The underlying message here is that the technological means for the manufacture of abundance are already in existence, again something which socialists would not disagree with or haven’t said before.

A weakness of the film is that there is no mention of how to get from here to there. Democracy is written off as a fraud since monetary interests are the real guiding force in society. Whilst we would say this is true of all major parties we would also add that a popular movement aimed solely at the transformation of society would be able to exploit the democratic system to its advantage. The closing words of the film are; “The in group will do all it can to stay in power and that’s what you gotta keep in mind. They’ll use the army and navy and lies or whatever they have to use to keep in power. They are not about to give it up because they don’t know of any other system to perpetuate their kind”.

For socialists it can only be heartening that a film questioning the material basis of modern society has enjoyed such success. But it is important not to get too carried away. The ‘Zeitgeist Movement’ has certain attracted many well-meaning people though to the extent that this represents a cohesive organisation is debatable. Peter Joseph is solely responsible for the content of the films leaving the ‘movement’ to take a more or less passive role. If the movement is going to transform itself into an active agent for change it may well involve it becoming something else.