Sunday, April 4, 2021

Voice From The Back: The Obscenity of Capitalism (2008)

The Voice From The Back Column from the March 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard 

The Obscenity of Capitalism

The columnist Richard Morrison, in an article mocking the ridiculous prices paid for modern art, refers to Don Thompson’s book The $12 Million Stuffed Shark and brings to notice the obscene wealth enjoyed by a handful of billionaires. Remember we are dealing with the social system of capitalism where many exist on a $1 a day. “He looks at the buyers for ‘trophy’ art; billionaires such as the American asset manager Steve Cohen, who bought the shark with what, for him, was loose change (it would have taken him five days, Thompson estimates, to have earned the $12 million price tag).” (Times, 16 January) Overlooking the term “earned”, we are talking about someone whose income is over 2 million times that of another. Doesn’t capitalism make you sick?

Not So Primitive

Daniel Everett once was a missionary in Brazil dealing with so-called primitive tribes, but his experience of the Pirahã people made him give up that calling to become a linguist. When asked how he had changed his views he replied: “They lived so well without religion and they were so happy. Also they did not believe what I was saying because I did not have any evidence for it, and that made me think. They would try so hard to understand what I was saying, but it was utterly irrelevant to them. I began to think: what am I doing here, giving them these 2000-year old concepts when everything of value I can think of to communicate to them they already have?…” (New Scientist, 19 January)

Toothless Watchdog

The sole purpose of capitalist society is to make profits, so we can imagine the following report will come as no surprise to anyone who knows anything about how it operates. “The government will be publicly castigated this week over its failure to help poor people – by the watchdog that ministers set up to monitor fuel poverty. Ofgem, the energy regulator, will also be criticised for not stopping energy companies from making excessive profits at the expense of consumers. Peter Lehmann, chairman of the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group, will criticise the government over its record on fuel poverty, which he labelled ‘incomprehensible, unjustifiable and shocking’. Consumers now pay more than 50 per cent more on utility bills compared with five years ago, yet energy companies’ costs have risen by only a fraction of this. In the past month, four of the biggest suppliers have announced substantial rises in the price of gas and electricity.” (Observer, 3 February)

Loaded But Stupid

We are constantly being told by supporters of capitalism that the extremely rich got that way because of their superior intellect. That seems invalid thinking when we see how much the extremely rich will pay for a stupid pointless motor car licence plate. “But nowhere is the craze for a unique plate more intense than in the United Arab Emirates, the oil-rich Persian Gulf nation that holds the world record for the six most expensive plates. Here, it’s all about how low you can go — with people battling it out at auctions to win the chance to show off license plates with the lowest digit. The numbers “5” and “7” have already been snapped up,

Transcendental Materialism

The death of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi led to many newspapers rehashing the stories about the Beatles contact with his Transcendental Meditation, but it has transpired that his TM could have more properly stood for Transcendental Materialism. It seemed the great man had sited his HQ in a Dutch village for tax reasons. “As ever, the business-savvy guru was ahead of the game: the big draw is a financial regime that has made the Netherlands the EU’s top tax shelter. Among those who have set up holding companies there are Ikea, Nike, Coca-Cola and Gucci.” (Guardian, 7 February) Like many religious leaders before him this guru told his followers not to be concerned with the material things of life, but in practice was very shrewd about the way capitalism operated.

To Campaigners for Nuclear Disarmament (2008)

From the March 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

The first ban-the-bomb march from Aldermaston to London took place at Easter 50 years ago. We reprint here a leaflet we put out for the 1961 CND March.
“Writing only a few years after the end of the second world war and witnessing on every hand the active preparations for another on an even more gigantic scale, it is not necessary to emphasise that war is literally an issue of life and death for men, women and children in every part of the globe. Nor is it necessary to prove at length that another war may be immeasurably more destructive of life and the means of sustaining life than were the wars from which the human race has suffered already during the present century. Everybody who takes even a casual interest in news of the atom and hydrogen bombs and other weapons of mass destruction of cities and peoples has received some impression of the agonising fate that may be in store for all the centres of civilisation if the Powers again come into armed conflict.” (From Socialist Party and War, June 1950).
Ten years ago the writer stood on a Socialist Party platform in a North London suburb, flourishing a copy of the “Bulletin of Atomic Scientists.” The atomic scientists had written with concern – many with disgust – about the horrible effects of the weapon (conceived in 1942), which in desperate haste, the American Government was developing in an attempt to maintain its atomic supremacy – the “Hydrogen Bomb.”

Few stopped to listen. People did not want to hear about nuclear weapons or war or politics. They had had their fill. The piteous agonies of the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were relatively unknown and their import not understood. Such knowledge tormented only an insignificant few who lacked the resources to make known all the terrors of the past and the perils of the future. Others even more knowledgeable, such as the Labour Cabinet, under Mr Attlee, whose representative was present at the bombing of Nagasaki, quietly arranged the making of a British atomic bomb – thereby smoothing the way for nuclear weapon development under the Conservatives. The so-called Communists who in 1945 had called for further attacks on Japan, were engaged in nullifying the Western monopoly of atomic striking power by a hypocritical “Ban the Bomb” campaign.

Later, in 1954, the tragic incident of the Japanese fishermen aroused the anger of millions in Japan and stirred many thousands in other countries to protest. In Britain information about the nature of atomic weapons was gradually assimilated and after a number of false starts, the National Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapon Tests came into being. From it, in 1958, sprang the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND). Long before the emergence of the anti-nuclear movement, members of the Socialist Party had become aware of the problems associated with nuclear warfare and weapon tests. Did the use or testing of nuclear weapons make it necessary to modify our political standpoint in any way? Must we deal with the nuclear menace first in order to make the world safe for Socialism? Much discussion ensued and in this article, therefore, we put forward a point of view which is neither a dogmatic response to a new situation nor a hastily conceived compromise designed to gain political support.

As there are still a number of “Campaigners” who are attempting to change Labour Party policy, it may be useful to comment briefly on the Labour Party’s actions in the past. In its history it has supported several major wars; it was in office when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. It has supported the testing of nuclear weapons and in fact, is committed to the use of hydrogen bombs in an “all-out” war.

Those who support the Labour Party – which is alleged to have been struggling for Socialism and the “Brotherhood of Man” – are now reduced after fifty-four years of “Socialist” thinking and re-thinking, to seek CND support on grounds which, were the issues not so tragic, would be laughable. After having played a vital part in the making and using of atomic weapons they have the effrontery to claim a sympathetic hearing from “Campaigners” on the grounds that a minority of the Labour Party are now wholly or partly opposed to nuclear weapons – and this is supposed to be a “Socialist” Party!

In 1950, the writer recalls asking a Labour Party member how he could reconcile his party’s support of atomic weapons with its professed concern for human brotherhood. After a very apologetic defence, his parting words were. “Ah! Wait for the Conference! We’ll show the right-wingers!” Every year we have heard the same pathetic tale. Now, when pressure from CND and elsewhere has made an anti-nuclear weapon vote a possibility at the Labour Party Conference, the Parliamentary Labour Party is considering ways to avoid implementing such a decision! It is a tragedy that so many well-meaning people spend their lives attempting to build a more sensible world through the Labour Party. If they pondered deeply they would see that in the early days of this century, when Labour Party supporters chose to disregard the sounder theoretical (and therefore more practical) position of the Socialist Party, the path was taken which eventually led to Labour Party support of the trench massacres, the deliberate saturation bombing of working class dwelling areas, the atomic bombings, nuclear weapons and their testing and other chemical and bacteriological weapons. May we say to those young people who seek to use the Labour Party as an instrument of social change, that the problems which now confront us are, in fact, the result of the allegedly more practical policies of those parties prepared to administer capitalism. It would be quite illogical to assist those who bear a share of the responsibility for a world where our innocent children play in the shadow of deadly rockets, as yet unaware of the insidious strontium in their bones.

Do not fall under the spell of left-wing orators who one minute talk feelingly of a world socialist community and who, in the next breath, admit that the Labour Party is hardly ‘socialist’.

Whenever the deeds of the Labour Party give rise to dismay among its active minority, wherever there is the possibility that numbers way break away, there always appears to be on hand, a ‘militant’ left-wing leader to challenge’ the leadership, to thunder against capitalism or “the Establishment” and to give fresh hope to the doubtful.

When, however, it is time for voting, it is not unknown for these ‘militants’ to seek support for the Party whose policy they had bitterly opposed!

We do not question their sincerity. We merely point out that this kind of action is inevitable while these left-wing leaders give their support to parties which are prepared to administer capitalism.

What is required is not a trust in leaders and their promises but an attitude of self-reliance and a determination on the part of ordinary people to understand the nature of world problems.

The Communist Party?
In 1945, two days after the bombing of Hiroshima, the Russian Rulers fearing, perhaps, a belated American attempt to deprive them of some of the spoils of Yalta, hastened to declare war on Japan. A right to participate in the final share-out of the Far Eastern loot; a desire to safeguard their sphere of influence, these were the real concerns of the Russian Government. No protest at a sickening outrage. No sorrow expressed at the agonies of the Hiroshima victims, the seared, stunned survivors; the radio-active remnants of what had been men, women and little children! So much for the party of Lenin and Stalin in the glorious fight for Peace!

The Russian Government has not hesitated to test high-yield nuclear weapons when it has considered this necessary, and it has contributed its share of Strontium 90 to the atmosphere. It Is obvious that the major H-Bomb Powers have carried out sufficient large-scale nuclear weapon tests for their Immediate needs – this is the main reason for the suspension of such tests. It should be noted, however, that in common with the Western Powers, the U.S.S.R., in spite of its propaganda sallies, did not commit itself to unconditional, unilateral cessation of these tests – it reserved the right to resume if it deemed that its security was in jeopardy. Time-honoured diplomatic double-talk!

It must not be thought that Russia comes into conflict with the other powers because of. ideological reasons; because its social system is alleged to be “Socialist.”

Russia is a capitalist country. All the basic features of capitalism exist there; class monopoly of the means or production, backed up by a powerful state apparatus, the dominance of commodity production and the profit motive, the subjection of the majority to wage-labour, the “anarchy or production” called “state planning;” all are there.

All modern nations have these basic attributes. They may have particular features arising from the different national and economic backgrounds from which capitalism developed in each country. Each emerging capitalist class was born into a certain historical situation. The new industrial capitalists of England in the nineteenth century had the world at their feet; the later arrivals to the capitalist jungle, while having advantages in being able to learn and apply the latest techniques, found themselves surrounded by already entrenched rivals.

It is not what men think or say about themselves that is crucial to the analysis of a social system. It is how they are related to other men about the means of production, what role they play in the productive process, what, in fact, they do. In struggling with the traditional capitalist groups of the world, the top representatives of Russian capitalism, are different in no fundamental way. They are all as helpless to prevent war, and all as ruthless in its prosecution when diplomacy has failed.

The Campaign?
What have we to say about the Campaign itself? To Socialists, to see so many people expressing their displeasure, after a long period of political inactivity, at the stupidity and recklessness of their rulers, was a refreshing change. Discontent, however, if it is not to undergo an eventual decline from determined idealism to a hopeless cynicism, must partake of sound theory. What has held “Campaigners” together, so far, has been a common revulsion against one of the weapons of mass-murder and a belief that even if the movement was divided in its aims and methods, it was the only means by which the semi-apathetic majority of ordinary people, on whom the pro-Bomb parties relied for support, could be shaken from their dangerous lethargy.

When one examines the propositions of the Campaign (“Sanity or Suicide” Page 8), its inadequacies can clearly be seen. CND says that all wars, even if they did not start as nuclear wars, would become nuclear wars, because the losing side would use nuclear weapons. If it accepts that all wars are going to be nuclear wars, then it follows that it should oppose all wars. It does not take up this position, however, at no time has it advocated opposition to conventional programmes.

The fundamental weakness of the Campaign is emphasised in one of its own comments on the subject of nuclear weapons, for it says: “Even if they had been outlawed and stocks destroyed, the knowledge would be there in the heads of the scientists and they’d be made again.” In other words, even if the Campaign achieved its aim it would soon have to start all over again . . . and again! If, as it suggests, however, society would not survive another war, it would be wiser to take sound political action rather than wait to see the awful results of an admittedly futile policy.

Some “Campaigners,” while agreeing that capitalism is the cause of war in the modern world, maintain that although a new social organisation may be necessary, a nuclear war would prevent the establishment of this, perhaps for all time, and therefore the anti-nuclear movement should be given priority over Socialism. This argument is logically unsound; it assumes that which has yet to be demonstrated. It presupposes that the campaign will be able to prevent a nuclear war occurring. For the Campaign to “succeed” it must have a majority of people who are opposed unconditionally to nuclear weapons, in the major countries of the world. These majorities must be prepared to oppose their own governments, to put aside all nationalistic or racial feeling, and be immune to all attempts of their rulers to influence them during periods of international crisis and tension. Is it possible that such international solidarity could be achieved by a movement which is composed of so many fundamentally diverse elements and which lacks any clear conception of an alternative to our inhuman social system? Only a revolutionary Socialist consciousness could ensure such a united unshakeable attitude and in that event the question of opposition to nuclear weapons alone would be redundant.

Some members of CND are conscious of its lack of a positive social policy and they have devoted much effort to examining the causes of war and other current social problems. It does not seem, however, that the depth and value of the genuine Marxist analysis of society have yet been understood. The leaders of the Campaign still have many illusions about the effectiveness of the United Nations Organisation as an instrument for peace, although they are not unmindful of the economic and political pressures which can be brought to bear on it by the two great power blocs. Sincere attempts to initiate a serious discussion within their movement seldom go beyond a humane liberalism; even the contributions of its associates in the New Left movement are devoid of any ideas radically different from their political predecessors of past decades.

The Vote
It is worth recalling that, during the last General Election, the CND was reluctant to demand of its members that they should abstain from supporting candidates who were not unconditionally opposed to all aspects of nuclear weapon policy.

The S.P.G.B. is opposed to war, and is opposed unconditionally to all weapon tests of any kind by any government. We do not seek support at election times on specific issues other than that of Socialism in the sense that we mean, i.e. a world-wide system without frontiers, where the means of production and distribution are held in common and production is carried on solely in order to meet human needs.

In our election literature we write to ensure, as far as possible, that only people who agree with our fundamental position will vote for our candidates. No advantage can ever accrue to a genuine socialist party from vote catching.

Members of the S.P.G.B. vote only for S.P.G.B. candidates or, where there are none, they abstain or spoil their voting papers. Our view is that there is no way out of the contemporary dilemma other than by the building of a new kind of society.

Conditions favoured the rapid growth of the CND. Who could foresee the results of active, determined, knowledgeable support of genuine socialist ideals, by those who have become disenchanted with the political parties and groups that sought to lead them?

Letters: Work and leisure (2008)

Letters to the Editors from the March 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Work and leisure

Dear Editors

Although I agree with much of what the editors write in reply to the letter by N.B. (February Socialist Standard), I think there is more to say about work and leisure in a socialist world.

N.B. writes “People need a contrast between work and leisure in order to appreciate and enjoy their leisure time.” The editors comment on this: “Of course, there will still be a distinction in socialism between organised work to be done during set hours, even if enjoyable, and recreational activities carried out at the individual’s discretion.”

Both N.B. and the editors assume that the line commonly drawn between work and leisure by people in capitalism will also be drawn by people in socialism. I question this. A few people today—some retired workers and some capitalists who are more than non-employed parasites—are able to live productive and enjoyable lives which they don’t divide into work and leisure segments. In socialism I expect many more such people and society will be the better for having them.

In capitalism it is understandable that workers do divide their lives into work (paid employment) and leisure (mostly as customers of the leisure industry). In socialism there won’t be employment or the leisure industry. Instead there is likely to be a division (though not a hard and fast one) between socially committed activities and individually chosen activities. Both types of activity will straddle what we today call work and leisure.

Most of us will commit some of our time to being, for example, train drivers, classroom teachers, members of orchestras or football teams. Most of us will also spend some of our time doing things that don’t require being with other people at a specified time and place—for example, handicrafts and individual sports.

Michael Schauerte (in the same issue) writes of the socialist revolution: “The first change that seems likely, for a number of reasons, is a major reduction in the length of the working day.” Michael shows too little creative imagination about what work will mean for us in socialism.

Certainly we won’t want to spend more time than we have to on activities or in circumstances that we find unpleasant, boring or damaging. But why should we be concerned with “the length of the working day”? Some activities and interests—socially committed or individual chosen—may be so absorbing, thrilling or delightful that it wouldn’t make sense to long to reduce time spend on them.

People will have much more choice about their lifestyle than they do now. Some may choose Marxian multi-tasking: hunter, farmer, critic, philosopher, blogger, all in one day. Others may devote their whole lives to one interest or activity, bordering on the obsessive. I guess most of us will be somewhere between these two extremes.
Stan Parker, 
London NW3.

Northern Rock

Dear Editors

The Tories have always presented themselves as the party of low taxation, and with another ‘former left’ turned New Labour Cabinet Minister carcass for them to succulently devour (Peter Hain over allegations of sleaze), are naturally revelling in the government’s current dilemma over whether to either nationalise completely Northern Rock or initiate a cobbled up tax funded financial scheme that acts as a veneer for doing something.

The principal question therefore for a party which is allegedly in opposition and whose fundamental tenet of ideology is low taxation to promote free enterprise (albeit also rigidly upheld by New Labour) is why don’t they let this tenet do the talking, by insisting that Northern Rock is an unequivocal market failure and should, like other failed firms, go into liquidation to save the billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money necessary to prop it up?

The reality is, despite all the hype and bluster between both, neither they or New Labour could possibly allow this to happen because if a financial institution of this magnitude were allowed to collapse it would expose to the voting public at large the underlying fragility of the entire capitalist system. Hence this is why most mainstream financial commentators seem reluctant to emphasise that Northern Rock is the first obvious symptom in the UK of a far greater endemic problem of the global financial system where borrowing and speculation has basically outweighed actual economic growth. Indeed the term ‘credit crunch’ is simply a useful euphemism that conveys the myth that it was all down to politicians or financial gurus failing to exercise foresight beforehand. In fact the majority of mainstream politicians in parliament today simply oversee these inept ‘fat cat’ policies as a formality, regardless of the detrimental effects they have on the livelihoods of millions of their constituents particularly if they are working class or homeowners with mortgages.

So for the Tories, as long as New Labour carries the can for this Northern Rock debacle the better. However for the average voter, where the whole fiasco and the billions that are conveniently found to save it should be precipitating a public revival in socialist thinking in some shape or form, the chronic ideological vacuum that exists in British politics today is comprehensively exposed.
Nick Vinehill, 
Snettisham, Norfolk

Good point. The ideological supporters of capitalism like to preach the virtues of competition eliminating lame ducks, but the government – guardian of the interests of a national capitalist class as a whole – doesn’t always let this happen, especially not in a case like Northern Rock which could have a domino effect and even if this costs “the taxpayers” (i.e., the rest of the capitalist class) money. 

The Hull Floods

Dear Editors

Last year’s floods were the widest spread, if not the worst on record, in Britain. Great swathes of the country were affected including the West Country and Yorkshire. Worst affected, however, was Hull, my home town. Local events did not attract much attention in the national media. Hull is a visually uninteresting town, off the beaten track, with few rich people to make a noise (it is the ninth most deprived area in England). The death toll was low, with only one person killed, and, unlike in Gloucester, the floods did not generate any stunning aerial views. However in terms of human impact the northern port was certainly in the front line as can be seen in the recent “The June 2007 Floods in Hull: Final Report by the Independent Review Body”.

Stated simply the rainfall on the 25 June was exceptionally heavy and followed in the wake of another heavy storm ten days earlier. The soil was already completely saturated and the drains filled to capacity. There was just nowhere for the water to go. This is a matter of some concern for the area is completely flat with much of the built up area below sea level. Nearly 9,000 homes and 1,300 businesses were affected and 91 of 99 schools in the area damaged, 43 severely so. Institutions affected included the University, where the library (once run by poet Philip Larkin) was badly damaged. As might be expected, the poorer areas, including Bransholme (said to be one of the worst estates in Britain), suffered most. Some 6,300 people had to seek temporary accommodation; around 1,000 are still living in caravans, upstairs or in lodgings.  The trauma of being flooded out has been considerable and, with repairs badly backlogged, long lasting.

Immediately after the event great play was made in local papers over the state of the roadside drains. Undoubtedly in some cases these were blocked due to reductions in street cleaning budgets. However the official report largely negated claims of any major impact. The Independent Review Body did find there were “serious issues” with the drainage facilities, specifically a failed pumping station on Bransholme, and commented “detailed information about the performance and operation of water utilities’ drainage systems should be in the public domain”, a clear condemnation of the damaging privatisation undertaken over the past quarter century. It also picked up on insurance problems faced by many, recommending that the state underwrite flood risks.

Ironically given these proposals of intervention by the state (which clearly isn’t interested), it was the community response which provided back up to most people: “The people of Hull showed extraordinary levels of goodwill, comradeship and willingness to help neighbours during the floods”. So much for selfish human nature.
Keith Scholey,

The Ire Of The Irate Itinerant (2008)

From the March 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Pieces Together: Tough at the Top? (2008)

The Pieces Together column from the March 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Tough at the Top?

“A study by the Bow Group, a centre-right think-tank, found that 27 per cent of FTSE 100 chief executives have contracts that continue to pay bonuses if profits rise by as little as 1 per cent above inflation. Nearly one in ten firms will still pay bonuses if profits fail to beat inflation.” (Times, 4 February)

Smile, damn you Smile

“Microsoft is developing Big Brother-style software capable of remotely monitoring a worker’s productivity, physical wellbeing and competence. ... The system would allow managers to monitor employees’ performance by measuring their heart rate, body temperature, movement, facial expression and blood pressure.” (Times, 16 January)

Words of Wisdom

David Attenborough in an interview said: “Every society that’s ever existed has felt it necessary to have creation myths. Why should I believe one? People write to me and say: `You show us birds and orchids and wonderful, beautiful things - don’t you feel you should give credit to He who created those things? My reply says: what about a parasitic worm that’s boring through the eye of a four-year-old child on the bank of an African river? It confuses me that I should believe in a god who cares individually for each and every one of us and could allow that to happen” (Observer Magazine, 20 January)

This is Progress?

“Josette Sheeran, the head of the World Food Programme (WFP) in Rome, said: ‘We’re seeing more people hungry, and in greater numbers than before. We’re seeing many people being priced out of the food market for the first time. We’re seeing less crop production in many places; shorter harvest times.’ ... According to the UN world food index, prices rose by 40 per cent last year. Ms Sheeran said oil prices were driving up costs because oil was used for planting, fertiliser and delivering food.” (Times, 13 February)

Labour’s Sorry Record

“Poverty affects 3.8 million children in the UK, making ours one of the worst rates in the industrialised world. Children living in poverty are likely to have lower self-esteem, poorer health, and lower aspirations and educational achievements than their peers. Poverty also shortens lives. A boy in Manchester can expect to live seven years less than a boy in Barnet, North London.” (Times,  February)

A Brave New World?

“Here’s a vision of the not-so-distant future: Microchips with antennas will be embedded in virtually everything you buy, wear, drive and read, allowing retailers and law enforcement to track consumer items — and, by extension, consumers — wherever they go, from a distance. A seamless, global network of electronic ‘sniffers’ will scan radio tags in myriad public settings, identifying people and their tastes instantly so that customized ads, ‘live spam,’ may be beamed at them. In ‘Smart Homes,’ sensors built into walls, floors and appliances will inventory possessions, record eating habits, monitor medicine cabinets — all the while, silently reporting data to marketers eager for a peek into the occupants’ private lives.” (Yahoo News, 26 January)