Thursday, April 1, 2021

Warring Windsors (2021)

From the April 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Some socialists will have loftily ignored last month’s media frenzy over the Meghan and Harry interview, dismissing it as puerile celebrity trivia of no concern to socialist revolutionaries. Quite right too. But some of us were probably glued to our TVs, agog for scurrilous gossip, just like hundreds of millions of others around the world. Everyone loves a bit of scandal.

Socialists will not be surprised to find ruling class families with their knives stuck in each other’s backs. If history for workers has always primarily meant the history of inter-class struggle, for the dominant class it’s been a history of intra-class struggle, involving war, betrayal, adultery, child murder, gluttony, poisonings, incest, rape and every other depravity by which they fancy themselves our social betters. Maybe the UK royals don’t murder each other as much as they used to but make no mistake, underneath each Windsor breast beats the icy heart of a Plantagenet or a Borgia.

But two things really do baffle socialists. The first thing is how they, with the backing of their fawning media admirers, can possibly carry off the effrontery of describing themselves as ‘working royals’. This audacious bit of stagecraft can surely only succeed through a collective willingness to redefine the word ‘work’ out of all recognition. These coddled, self-important parasites are given everything they could possibly want, riches, luxury, sycophantic adulation at every turn, and yet it’s still not enough for them. Now they have to take from us the only thing they don’t possess – the right to call themselves workers. Never mind that they live on rent from land ownership and interest from investments, and in some cases profit from business deals, to say nothing of the roughly £100m a year for the ‘Sovereign Fund’, and never mind the untold (literally, because it’s a secret) private royal wealth and assets.

Nope, just like anything’s a poem or a piece of art nowadays if somebody says it is, and anyone’s a woman if they say they are, a royal is a worker if they self-identify as such. Perhaps us workers should all self-identify as royals in that case (probably true, genetically speaking), and demand to be treated as their social equals in turn.

The other baffling thing is why we are still having this discussion, in an advanced capitalist country in the 21st century. There are hardly any royal families left anymore as countries around the world have sensibly dispensed with such archaic mediaevalisms. But not the UK. When King Farouk of Egypt was overthrown and forced to abdicate in 1952, he is supposed to have remarked that soon there would only be five kings left in the world, the kings of England, Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds and Spades.

This is something socialists find genuinely hard to understand. Of course we know it’s all wrapped up with rabid nationalism by red-top readers and those of the Daily Heil, but you don’t need royalty for rabid nationalism, as shown by Trump supporters in the US or those of Marine Le Pen in France. And incidentally, tourism seems to rub along just fine in those two republican countries.

The anachronistic ‘batshittery’ of it all was entertainingly summed up by Patrick Freyne in the Irish Times: ‘The contemporary royals have no real power. They serve entirely to enshrine classism in the British nonconstitution. They live in high luxury and low autonomy, cosplaying as their ancestors, and are the subject of constant psychosocial projection from people mourning the loss of empire’ (8 March).

Even so, this hardly explains the global fascination with the UK royalty. Joking aside about the average intelligence of the UK royal-lover, what’s in it for the gawping masses in other countries? Presumably the Hollywood fairytale of it all. In capitalism, in theory, anyone can get rich through hard work. In practice everyone knows that’s a load of hokum. But in a fairytale, anyone just might fall in love with a handsome prince or princess, and be swept off their feet to an orchestral score and a shower of Disney fireworks, and what’s not to love about that?

What’s also intriguing is what the rest of the ruling class get out of the royals, given that the ‘taxpayers’ money that pays for them really derives from the business owners. No doubt the British state, having little overseas influence and even less since Brexit, and virtually no military capability worth talking about, relies heavily on the prestige of old tradition, and UK industry too sees a commercial virtue in being touched with the fairy dust of royal patronage. The prestige of a thousand-year rule is a marketable asset that Trump, for all his money and self-aggrandisement, just couldn’t buy. Next to the British royals, even the most respectable global politician looks like a jumped-up used-car salesman. But are they really worth the considerable fortune the capitalist class pays them every year to perform merely light ceremonial tasks?

Well, it doesn’t really concern socialists either way, in one sense. Republican countries are just as capitalist and just as brutal to their workers as monarchical ones, and sometimes more so, which is why we wouldn’t bother advocating republican reform. A commodity is no more socialist for being royalty-free. But it makes you think, doesn’t it? If workers are so mesmerised by tinsel and glitter that they can’t even agree to put a bunch of pampered parasites out to grass in favour of someone who, for all their capitalist faults, is at least electable, they’re probably not going to support a socialist revolution anytime soon. At the moment, the republican voice is fairly quiet, despite these latest public squabbles by the royals, and egregious accusations of child sex that have done the rounds lately. But if the voice grows again, and swells to a chorus, socialists can at least see that as an encouraging sign.
Paddy Shannon

A ‘New Phase’ of Capitalism (2021)

Book Review from the April 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Share the Wealth: How to End Rentier Capitalism. Philippe Askenazy. Verso £16.99. Translated by Gregory Elliott.

As the subtitle suggests, this focuses on one kind of capitalism, the rentier variety, based on the receipt of rents. Askenazy adopts a broad definition: ‘rents are advantages that can be extracted on an ongoing basis by certain economic actors … via economic, political or legal mechanisms potentially open to influence by them.’ The list contained in the ellipsis in our quotation contains not just capitalists but also wage-earners, so it is clearly a very broad definition. The original French edition had the title Tous rentiers!, suggesting that everyone is a rentier.

As an initial example, pharmacists in France are paid about three times as much as their UK counterparts, since the French government has very strict regulations about where new pharmacies can open, and disallows pharmacy chains such as Boots. So the extra income derived from the lack of competition in France is an instance of rent. For a case more in keeping with the profits of companies, consider the cost of medicines, some of which are a thousand times more expensive in the US than in France, owing to the power of US pharmaceutical companies in enforcing patent and property rights there. More generally, in the US the top one percent’s share of national income is now back to the level at the start of the last century.

Real estate prices in London and Hong Kong far outstrip other cities, even New York and Tokyo. This is an example of propertarianism, whereby income derives from two kinds of property: land and real estate, and knowledge (the latter being exemplified by the medical patents mentioned earlier). This is part of the ‘new phase’ of capitalism that Askenazy claims to have identified: rents from property rights and rents from the labour of the ‘unproductive’. But it is not entirely clear what is meant by this last point (other than how low many people’s wages are), though the author does argue that employment is being increasingly divided into low-wage and relatively high-wage types, with medium-wage jobs being cut and people with degrees more and more finding themselves in low-paid jobs; this is known as job polarisation.

In addition, it has to be asked to what extent rentier capitalism is really a new development, and whether it is truly a different kind of capitalism. The book sometimes seems to imply that ‘ordinary’ exploitation by the extraction of surplus value no longer exists or has had its scope much reduced. But after all, capitalists have always benefitted from ‘economic, political or legal mechanisms’ to enforce and increase their profits. And Askenazy offers no real ideas on how to end capitalism, rentier or otherwise, beyond strengthening trade unions, which may help workers defend their wages and conditions but cannot transform the system.
Paul Bennett

It could never happen here (2021)

From the April 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

It may not have not escaped the notice of some, the irony of the police response to the vigil for Sarah Everard on Clapham Common. There were scenes of big burly policemen man-handling women, peacefully gathered to mourn the death of Sarah a 33-year-old woman snatched from the street and murdered, allegedly by an off-duty police officer. Women not only came to mourn but to express their anger over domestic violence, street harassment and sexual assault, mainly perpetrated by men against women and girls. The protest had been ruled unlawful due to the restrictions of the 2020 Coronavirus legislation, but women obviously felt that this was too important to adhere to the rules. Also in March a 61-year old nurse was issued with a £10,000 fine for organising a demonstration of about 40 people protesting against the government’s paltry 1 percent pay increase for NHS workers.

Governments need to keep control, even if this means quashing dissent and stifling anti-establishment ideas. States are passing ever more draconian laws, whittling away perceived freedoms workers think they have. Laws that are rushed through in response to calamities like the attack on the USA Twin Towers and the Coronavirus pandemic were and are supposed to be temporary, however, these laws so often never get repealed.

The USA Patriot Act, designed to counteract terrorism, was signed into law by George Bush in October 2001 six weeks after the attack on the towers. The Act expanded the abilities of law enforcement for surveillance, including the tapping of domestic and international phones, and abuses of the Act led to government spying on innocent individuals. It had to be periodically reviewed because of concerns that certain provisions could be used to violate privacy rights. Most of the Act, however, been written into permanent law.

In 2020 the UK Coronavirus Act over-rode Articles 10 and 11 of the Human Rights Act which refer to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly and association. The Guardian (3 November) commented:
  ‘Protections for protestors are set to be removed from the Coronavirus rules under the second national lockdown. An exemption that permits demonstrations to take place with additional conditions to mitigate the spread of the virus is expected to be omitted from fresh regulations being drawn up from this Thursday. The police had allowed and facilitated some demonstrations, however there have been questions as to whether the prohibitions on demonstrations were impartially and proportionately policed’.
Once the pandemic has subsided and we go back to no restrictions as promised, one wonders whether these laws will be repealed or will they be dragged out every time there is a demo or protest, citing health concerns.

Under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, currently going through parliament, protestors causing ‘annoyance’ could theoretically be jailed for up to 10 years. The government has passed almost 400 new laws and regulations in the past year, only a few of which have been approved by parliament.

Online social media groups are now being censored. The Department for Education has instructed schools not to use materials from organisations working to overthrow capitalism. There have been state shut-downs of the internet all over the world. Protestors have been using the internet to organise online and to assemble and protest offline. Governments are increasingly resorting to shutdowns in times of crisis, arguing they are necessary for public safety or curbing the spread of misinformation. Misinformation potentially meaning information contrary to what the government wants you to have. The worst offender is not some openly authoritarian state but India, the so-called ‘largest democracy in the world’. In Germany Netz GD is a network enforcement law which compels social media companies to remove ‘hate speech’ and other illegal content, illegal content as defined in the 22 provisions of the criminal code. This has been criticised by the Human Rights Watch saying ‘this law sets a dangerous precedent for other governments to restrict speech online by forcing companies to censor on the government’s behalf’.

In China the citizen identification number system or ID card is the only acceptable document used for everything from opening a bank account to registering for a mobile phone. It is used to buy train tickets and pass through security checkpoints and can be inspected by police for any reason; these cards also state the holder’s ethnic identity. Boris Johnson had at one time scoffed at the idea of ID cards and referring to China said it would never happen in Britain. At the moment we have to have special permission by way of a form or permit to travel out of the country, reminding one of the old USSR. There is the ongoing debate in parliament regarding the introduction of health passports which seem highly likely now despite murmurings to the contrary.

How long before these ‘ID’ cards carry more information than our supposedly private health status?

At the moment surveillance technology is mostly used for law enforcement and selling us stuff but information could theoretically be shared with companies or departments without our permission and used to monitor us.

An article in the South China Post (18 November) tells us:
  ‘Facial recognition technology has been increasingly deployed by countries to secure access and improve surveillance especially during the pandemic. The technology is controversial not just because data leaks are common but because of its potential to exacerbate racial or gender biases’.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, several companies including IBM, Microsoft and Amazon announced they would either pause selling their facial recognition technology or stop producing it entirely.

We are now encouraged to snitch on our neighbours for not following the rules, snitching on those in receipt of ‘undeserving’ benefits or lately on Covid ‘non conformers’. Workers turning on workers leaving the establishment unfettered.

The Socialist Party does not advocate reforms but we do denounce the worst excesses the state can dish out. What we cannot afford is complacency and the conviction that it could never happen here.
Carla Dee

50 Years Ago: Up in arms (2021)

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

If the success of a movement is to be judged by the amount of popular misconception about it, then Women’s Liberation Movement have almost won. Discontented women have traditionally been a target for lewd contempt from gentlemen, and any dissatisfaction with their social conditions is often treated as a projection of sexual frustrations. Thus any woman who has ambitions above being a shorthand typist at work, a housewife at home, or a sexual vehicle in bed, is liable to be dismissed as a shrivelled spinster, or a hairy lesbian, or at any rate someone in need of a good, cleansing orgasm.

It was this sort of contempt which gave such licence for the maltreatment of the Suffragettes, who could be kicked and punched and mauled by the police and subjected, by the gentlemen of London, to such indignation as would under other circumstances have earned a court appearance for indecent assault. When the last Miss World contest was disrupted by a few Women’s Lib members Bob Hope, who is not a famous anthropologist or psychiatrist or sociologist, but who was earning a few bucks as compere to the flesh parade, could attribute the incident to the only possible cause that the demonstrators were junkies. Of course, Hope was in trouble; his gag writers had not supplied him with material for such an eventuality. (…)

The aims of the Women’s Liberation Movement—a free association between men and women, pure of the contaminations of capitalist society—can be attained only when capitalism is no more. Conditioned as we are to capitalism’s degradations, it is difficult to imagine what the freedom of socialism will be like. How it will feel, for a woman and a man to associate only because they like and respect each other. How it will be when sexual activity is not a matter of conquest and possession, not a suppressive neurosis too easily exploited to sell cars, hair sprays, washing machines, suitcases, toothpaste, politicians—but a pleasure. To reach that we need all of us to be conscious of our role in society and the reasons for it. From there we will not be far from the will to change our roles by changing society.

(Socialist Standard, April 1971)

Editorial: A woman’s lot (2021)

Editorial from the April 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Every so often a terrible event takes place which reveals the inhuman nature of the capitalist system. In May last year, the killing of George Floyd shone a spotlight on the racism inherent in capitalism. On 3 March this year, the abduction and murder of Sarah Everard, while she was making her way home from a friend’s house in South London, laid bare the misogyny and sexism that is rife in modern society. This triggered an outpouring of anger among women at what they see as a society that engenders violence directed at them. This anger was further fuelled when the police roughly handled women attending a vigil in Clapham Common on 13 March, and by the revelation that the alleged killer is a serving police officer.

In the UK last year 118 women were murdered by men. The pandemic has witnessed a spike in instances of violent abuses. According to a YouGov poll, 86 percent of young women in the UK have said that they have experienced sexual harassment, with 71 percent of women of any age reporting the same (Four-fifths of young women in the UK have been sexually harassed, survey finds, Guardian, 24 March). There have been rises in the incidence of rape. As the perpetrators are invariably male, the focus has been on male behaviour. So there are suggestions that young boys should be educated at a young age to respect women and girls. The government has proposed sending plain-clothes officers into nightclubs and Jenny Jones of the Green Party advocated a punitive curfew on all men after 6 pm. However, none of these measures address the root of the problem.

If we are to combat misogyny and sexism, we need to look beyond individual male behaviour. With the rise of private property society, descent was traced through the male line, which allowed mainly men to accumulate private wealth and become dominant in the emerging ruling classes. The nuclear family, with the man at its head and the woman’s role mainly as mother and housekeeper, became the basic unit of social organisation. As social production moved away from home-based cottage industries to large-scale industry and manufacturing, women’s social power was further eroded. Although women have made advances in the better-paid ‘professional’ occupations and some have become political leaders, women are still disproportionately employed in the lower-paid and less secure jobs and usually earn less than their male counterparts. Under capitalism, women’s bodies have been sexualised through the pornography industry and are frequently used for the promotion of commercial products.

This does not mean that women and men have interests that are diametrically opposed to each other. On the contrary, working-class women and men have more in common with each other than they do with their counterparts in the capitalist class. They are both exploited by the capitalist system.

Therefore, working-class women and men must work together, not to work for palliative reforms that only treat the symptoms of the problem, but to get rid of the capitalist system altogether and establish socialism, where everyone, regardless of gender, can participate equally. A political movement where women are not treated as equals is not a revolutionary socialist one.