Tuesday, April 13, 2021

What is common ownership? (2005)

From the April 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
  John Major didn’t believe in ‘class society’, Margaret Thatcher didn’t even believe in society, but private ownership is the defining factor of both. Meanwhile the concept of common ownership has only resulted in feeble nationalisation programmes. So, the question is What is common ownership?
The basis of any society is the way its members are organised for the production and distribution of wealth. Where a section of society controls the use of the means of production, then there is a class society. Another way of putting this is that the members of this section or class own the means of production, since to be in a position to control the use of something is effectively to own it, whether or not this is accompanied by some legal title deed.

It follows that a classless society is one in which the use of the means of production is controlled by all members of society on an equal basis, and not just by a section of them to the exclusion of the rest. James Burnham put this rather well in a passage in his book The Managerial Revolution:
  “For a society to be ‘classless’ would mean that within society there would be no group (with the exception, perhaps, of temporary delegate bodies, freely elected by the community and subject always to recall) which would exercise, as a group, any special control over access to the instruments of production; and no group receiving, as a group, preferential treatment in distribution”
In a classless society every member is in a position to take part, on equal terms with every other member, in deciding how the means of production should be used. Every member of society is socially equal, standing in exactly the same relationship to the means of production as every other member. Similarly, every member of society has access to the fruits of production on an equal footing.

Once the use of the means of production is under the democratic control of all members of society, class ownership has been abolished. The means of production can still be said to belong to those who control and benefit from their use, in this case to the whole population organised on a democratic basis, and so to be “commonly owned” by them. Common ownership has been defined as:
  “A state of affairs in which no person is excluded from the possibility of controlling, using and managing the means of production, distribution and consumption. Each member of society can acquire the capacity, that is to say, has the opportunity to realise a variety of goals, for example, to consume what they want, to use means of production for the purposes of socially necessary or unnecessary work, to administer production and distribution, to plan to allocate resources, and to make decisions about short term and long term collective goals. Common ownership, then, refers to every individual’s potential ability to benefit from the wealth of society and to participate in its running” (Jean-Claude Bragard, An Investigation of Marx’s Concept of Communism, his emphasis).
Even so, to use the word “ownership” can be misleading in that this does not fully bring out the fact that the transfer to all members of society of the power to control the production of wealth makes the very concept of property redundant. With common ownership no one is excluded from the possibility of controlling or benefiting from the use of the means of production, so that with reference to them the concept of property in the sense of exclusive possession is meaningless: no one is excluded, there are no non-owners.

We could invent some new term such as “no-ownership” and talk about the classless alternative society to capitalism being a “no-ownership” society, but the same idea can be expressed without having to do this if common ownership is understood as being a social relationship and not a form of property ownership. This social relationship—equality between human beings with regard to the control of the use of the means of production—can equally accurately be described by the terms “classless society” and “democratic control” as by “common ownership” since these three terms are only different ways of describing it from different angles. The use of the term “common ownership” to refer to the basic social relationship of the alternative society to capitalism is not to be taken to imply therefore that common ownership of the means of production could exist without democratic control. Common ownership means democratic control means a classless society.

When we refer to the society based on common ownership, generally we use the term “socialism”, though we have no objection to others using “communism”, since for us these terms mean exactly the same and are interchangeable.

Not state ownership
Common ownership is not to be confused with state ownership, since an organ of coercion, or state, has no place in socialism. A class society is a society with a state because sectional control over the means of production and the exclusion of the rest of the population cannot be asserted without coercion, and so without a special organ to exercise this coercion. On the other hand, a classless society is a stateless society because such an organ of coercion becomes unnecessary as soon as all members of society stand in the same relationship with regard to the control of the use of the means of production. The existence of a state as an instrument of class political control and coercion is quite incompatible with the existence of the social relationship of common ownership. State ownership is a form of exclusive property ownership which implies a social relationship which is totally different from socialism.

Common ownership is a social relationship of equality and democracy which makes the concept of property redundant because there are no longer any excluded non-owners. State ownership, on the other hand, presupposes the existence of a government machine, a legal system, armed forces and the other features of an institutionalised organ of coercion. State-owned means of production belong to an institution which confronts the members of society, coerces them and dominates them, both as individuals and as a collectivity. Under state ownership the answer to the question “who owns the means of production?” is not “everybody” or “nobody” as with common ownership; it is “the state”. In other words, when a state owns the means of production, the members of society remain non-owners, excluded from control. Both legally and socially, the means of production belong not to them, but to the state, which stands as an independent power between them and the means of production.

The state is not an abstraction floating above society and its members; it is a social institution, and, as such, a group of human beings, a section of society, organised in a particular way. This is why, strictly speaking, we should have written above that the state confronts most members of society and excludes most of them from control of the means of production. For wherever there is a state, there is always a group of human beings who stand in a different relationship to it from most members of society: not as the dominated, nor as the excluded, but as the dominators and the excluders. Under state ownership, this group controls the use of the means of production to the exclusion of the other members of society. In this sense, it owns the means of production, whether or not this is formally and legally recognised.

Another reason why state ownership and socialism are incompatible is that the state is a national institution which exercises political control over a limited geographical area. Since capitalism is a world system, the complete state ownership of the means of production within a given political area cannot represent the abolition of capitalism, even within that area. What it does mean is the establishment of some form of state capitalism whose internal mode of operation is conditioned by the fact that it has to compete in a world market context against other capitals.

Since today capitalism is worldwide, the society which replaces capitalism can only be worldwide. The only socialism possible today is world socialism. No more than capitalism can socialism exist in one country. So the common ownership of socialism is the common ownership of the world, of its natural and industrial resources, by the whole of humanity. Socialism can only be a universal society in which all that is in and on the Earth has become the common heritage of all humankind, and in which the division of the world into states has given way to a world without frontiers with a democratic world administration as well as local and regional democracy.
Adam Buick

Could we organise things without money? (2005)

From the April 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
  How would common ownership and democratic control work in practice? Without a price mechanism some critics do not understand how signals can pass from the user to the producer or how decisions about  production can be made. Yet such non-market systems already exist even within capitalism and a study of  these can give useful insights into the practical operation of a socialist production and distribution system.
What distinguishes the Socialist Party from the leftists is that when we talk of common ownership we do not just include the means of production, but also, specifically, call for the common and democratic control of the means of distribution. Equal access to the common store without requirement of exchange or payment is one of the things we consider to be the hallmark of genuine socialism. After all, you cannot buy something you already own.

To people living in a society where everything has a price, where access to any aspect of our society from necessities to leisure and culture comes with a price tag, such a system seems alien, or possibly even naively utopian. Clever apologists of gross inequality and privilege even try to claim that it is categorically impossible to organise provision of any good or service without the vital signals of monetary exchange or market haggling.

Socialists are loath to draw up blue-prints of the future. It would be undemocratic for a handful of us now without access to the exact details of available resources and conditions to try and draw up rigid plans. We also recognise that there may not be one single way of doing things, and precise details and ways of doing things might vary from one part of the world to another, even between neighbouring communities. Of course, we can reach logical conclusions based on basic premises – that socialism will be necessarily democratic, for example – and can outline broad principles or options that could be applied. That is, we do not have to draw up a plan for socialism, but broadly demonstrate that it is possible.

We draw upon scientific methods, that is, we do not come up with a dream and try and fix it to reality, but, rather, we look to the real world to see how it is, and how it could be. Just as the market – the central feature of capitalism – pre-dated the explosion of that society across the globe, so too are principles and practices that socialism could use latent in our world today. That is, provision of services based on free access at the point of use are more common in the world today than the ideologues of capitalism would have us believe.

Consider shopping in socialism. A person would walk into the store, browse the shelves, select what they want, and then arrange to take it away. They would take as much as they think they would need, sure in the knowledge that more will be readily available should they need more not to try and take and hoard everything. If what they want is not available, staff and procedures would be on hand to obtain the goods from another source. Before they go, they could let the store crew know what they’ve taken, so that both the staff and other consumers would know what was and was not available from the inventory.

Put like that, it sounds convoluted, but it is what happens everyday in local public libraries throughout Britain. Under the Libraries, Archives and Museums Act of 1963, local authorities must provide books and magazines free of charge, and obtain (by purchase if necessary, but usually from other libraries) anything they do not have immediately to hand. Currently, over 60 percent of library patrons get what they want from just cold calling into their local branch.

Big businesses provide a similar service. Blockbusters video stores provide rental goods for a charge per loan. Libraries too provide videos, and the difference between their operating parameters is clear. Big video stores overwhelmingly stock the latest hits in huge bundles, with older or niche films harder to find, while local libraries have a wider range of stock. Market provision leads to conformity more than conscious service. Libraries, however, are compelled by competition law not to undercut video stores (which they could do). That is, they are prevented from out-performing commercial rivals by legal fiat.

Libraries exhibit a number of non-monetary techniques for allocating resources, which they mix to various degrees, and each of which would be suitable for use in socialism. Library staff use published data to provide items to fulfil the publicly stated service level agreement in terms of the stock that users can assume they will find in the library. Once the stock is there, users can take it from the shelves on a first-come first served basis. If it is already taken, they can be put into a queue to receive it next, or they can order one to be brought in from another institution. If an item is highly popular, its terms of availability may be restricted to enable more people to have access to it, and people always have the option of trying a different source of information. In some libraries, if some users have particular needs, they may have their borrowing limit increased to be able to take more items out.

That is, a mix of queuing, lottery and rationing are used in various mixtures to maximise the use of resources. Alongside this, the library catalogue – the inventory of available stock which includes its current location and status – can be used to co-ordinate between both library users and staff so that everyone can control their use of the library and its goods. This information, unlike market information which travels at the speed of goods to market, travels at the speed of light. Today, it is possible to discover, via the internet, that the Communist Manifesto is available in the Mary L. Cook Public Library in Waynesville Ohio, shelved in the social sciences section. If that book were not available in a local library, it would be possible to ask them, possibly ultimately, to obtain it from this source.

Even the objections that these libraries exist within capitalism doesn’t bear much scrutiny. Although they must buy their books, it is possible to calculate how much would need to be spent to maintain the agreed stock levels, and set the budget accordingly. Publishers often tailor their print runs to their expectations of the number of libraries that will stock a title (and will often cancel titles if too few institutions do not order it via pre-publication data). The money largely follows the quality management.
Some parts of library management now might not be needed. Currently, a lot of personal detail is held by libraries in order to help protect their stock and monitor its usage. To generalise this might require some sort of identity registration, which some people may or may not find objectionable; but even then, an anonymous system like loyalty cards wherein the bearer of the card can simply record information whenever they remove stock could be used to see what combinations of goods people generally withdraw in so as to help ordering and stocking the stores. Again, this is a detail that can be left to the people who will live in socialism, but it is clear that we do not need an authoritarian state dictating each person’s precise ration as some commissars of capitalism might pretend.
This is just one, almost random example of the ways in which workers, with all their skills and experience of co-operating to run capitalism in the interests of the capitalists, could begin to run society in their own interest. We do not need to build the new society in the womb of the old, that is here already. What we need is to decide that we have the way to actively declare an end to unnecessary want, and build a free co-operative commonwealth so that “poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality and slavery to freedom.”
Pik Smeet

The profit motive : a case study (2005)

From the April 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

In January Sony, the multinational electronics corporation, announced it is to declare 300 redundancies at its two factories in south Wales – 80 from the Bridgend factory, producing cathode ray tubes, and 220 from the TV factory adjacent to the M4 at Pencoed –  a move that almost certainly signals the imminent closure of an operation that once employed 3,300 working people. This latest news will be of no surprise to those working in the two factories where Sony has been quietly shedding jobs since the late 1990s.

Production from these factories relies on ‘old’ tube technology and, as a spokesman explained, “The move away from CRT-based TVs accelerated last year with flat panel products now accounting for around half the UK market” (Guardian,  21 January). It is now evident that the managers employed in Japan to make profits for shareholders had decided by the late 1990s that investment to support flat screen televisions would go elsewhere and after 30 years have decided to call it a day in Wales. So where did it all go wrong?

Sony’s Bridgend factory, officially opened by Prince Charles in 1974, was the first major manufacturing venture in the UK by a Japanese multinational corporation. The main imperative of capitalism is to expand – a fact well understood in Japan where by 1972 the country had the largest television industry in the world producing in excess of 8 million sets a year and a domestic market on the verge of saturation. Japanese exports had already devastated the American television industry and while UK imports of Japanese colour TVs were rising, UK manufacturers found some comfort under a 1962 treaty that limited imports of Japanese televisions.

Sony needed unrestricted access to European television market and the UK government was on the verge of joining the European Economic Community (EEC). Assembling televisions inside Europe would circumvent the agreement limiting imports and end the stream of accusations from European manufacturers that Japanese televisions were being ‘dumped’ on the market at ‘uneconomic’ prices.
The British government was friendly to Japanese investment and politicians quickly warmed to the prospect of new jobs. This, combined with financial grants made available to ease job losses in traditional coal and steel industries, an established market and a region crying out for employment made Wales an attractive proposition. Bridgend was to be Sony’s assembly base to compete in the EEC, a venture viewed by Britain’s partners in Europe, particularly in Holland – the home of Philips – as a ‘Trojan Horse,’ an apt description for a company importing 90 percent of its components from Japan. In 1976 the British government, under pressure from the EEC and the European television industry, moved to protect  ‘home’ producers. It agreed that unless 50 percent by value of components had European origin, sets could not claim to be ‘British-made’ and would therefore count towards Japanese import quotas agreed between the two industries. By this time, however, Sony was operational and employing over 500 people and compliance with this ‘origin rule’ was quietly forgotten.

Other Japanese television manufacturers followed and by 1977 Britain had ‘overcapacity’ in both set and component manufacture. The Radio Industry Council made representations to government for protection and again policy was altered. In future inward investment was to be encouraged provided it either took over existing capacity or resulted in joint ventures with established manufacturers – hence Rank-Toshiba and GEC-Hitachi. But by 1979 it was apparent that British television manufacturers were unable to compete with Japanese design and manufacturing technology and in October 1980, Pye at Lowestoft was shut with the loss of 1,100 jobs. Despite the higher wages paid to Japanese workers, “the direct labour cost of a set made in the UK was almost double that of one made in Japan because the Japanese set took 1.9 hours to make and the British one 6.1 hours.” (Keith Geddes, The Setmakers, 1991) Japanese television sets incorporated 30 percent fewer components by making greater use of integrated circuits, and automatic insertion accounted for 65 percent of components against 15 percent in the UK. These advantages forced a spate of factory closures and ‘consolidations’ as European producers tried desperately to compete.

Sony’s output at Bridgend had now increased to a level that justified investment in a tube-manufacturing factory, built alongside the television factory and opened in 1982. This expansion was essential because Sony holds patent rights to a cathode ray tube – “Trinitron” – fundamentally different from its competitors and available only from Sony in Japan. Local production was needed to reduce enormous importation costs. Further expansion to tube manufacturing came in 1989 when the television factory was relocated to a site 3 miles away allowing the tube factory to double in size. The new television factory – hailed as Sony’s ‘European Flagship’ – was constructed on former farmland in Pencoed and opened in 1992 at a cost of £30 million. By the early 1990s Sony had a major share of the European television market and was locked in bitter competition with Philips. Output peaked at about 1.75 million televisions and computer monitors were added to the production line-up. The combined turnover of both plants was approximately £800 million.

But then things started to go sour. Intense competition from manufacturers producing high quality, low cost televisions and the collapse of a major market in Russia started to eat away at profits. The market demanded cost reductions, and Sony  –  which had traded for so long on a brand name that marketing gurus had made synonymous with quality and price premiums – could not deliver, at least in Wales. A further threat emerged as Sony’s recently opened television-factory in Barcelona, employing the latest technology, gathered momentum.

The ‘centre of gravity’ of the European TV market was moving eastwards and factories in Wales were no longer suitably placed. The company then negotiated generous grants and tax concessions and, eager to exploit cheap labour, opened new factories in Hungary and Slovakia to improve competitiveness in the growing east European market that had once been supplied by the Pencoed factory. The factories in Wales had served their purpose and utilising ‘old’ technology were now to be run-down while ‘new’ technology and investment went elsewhere. The workforce now lived under threat that production would be transferred unless profits improved, serving to keep wages and benefits fixed, while the trade union, effectively anaesthetised since the 1970s, collaborated with management on projects to increase profits. Desperate to cut costs, investment in manufacturing was slashed; internal component production contracted out, permanent workers were replaced by temporary employees and leavers not replaced. Discipline became oppressive and workers grew demoralised and indifferent to the continuous demands to improve performance. The company’s reputation as an employer plummeted and official redundancies were first declared in April 2000.

The bottom line
So who is to blame? Why did the bubble burst? It would be easy to blame local management employed to squeeze profits from working people or the working people who became dispirited or perhaps even market conditions. But all this evades the fundamental issue that we live in an economic system that demands that corporations must roam the world in pursuit of lower costs to remain competitive to increase profits for shareholders. Sony, like any other corporation with global aspirations, cannot stop to consider how its working people, many employed since the beginning in 1974, are to survive when the factories in Wales close, as they must surely do in the near future. The fact that Wales already suffers dire poverty and comparable jobs will virtually impossible to find is of no consequence on the balance sheet, where the only consideration can be the bottom line. It should not be forgotten that the social cost of Sony’s years of successful profit-making in Wales was achieved at the expense of forcing thousands from employment in factories across Europe with all the misery and trauma this entails. The wheel has turned full circle and it is now the turn of people employed by Sony in Wales to by abandoned, cast aside in the pursuit of greater profits. This is capitalism.

In capitalist society there can be no allegiance or loyalty to a workforce or community. Production is motivated solely by profit, regardless of the social consequences. As a recent article in the Economist states, ‘corporate social responsibility’ – “a kinder, gentler capitalism,” is a non-starter. Instead, we learn:
  “The goal of a well-run company may be to make profits for its shareholders, but merely by doing that the company is doing good works. Its employees willingly work for the company in exchange for wages; the transaction makes them better off” (22 January).
Now we are asked to shallow the outrageous proposition that capitalism has a benevolent social purpose – but try telling that to the people until recently employed by Sony or those formerly employed by the thousands of other companies that have shed working people when higher profits are demanded. The choice is stark; the working class either sells its labour power in return for wages or salaries or goes without the essentials of life. This is not willingness but compulsion. It is wage slavery. 

Capitalism has outlived its usefulness and must be immediately replaced by socialism. Capitalism divides the world’s population into two classes, the majority who sell their labour power in return for wages and salaries and those who own the means of producing wealth and live on profits. It is class struggle where workers will always be the losers, with the impending closure of Sony in south Wales a testimony to opposing class interests of workers and owners. As ex-Sony workers go about rebuilding their lives, they, and working people everywhere would do well to reflect on the fact that capitalism cannot operate in any other way and is incapable of being reformed to do so. Like millions before them, capitalism has condemned these workers to an uncertain future, breeding the stress and anxiety that is linked to a Jobcentre interview likely to lead nowhere.
Steve Trott

The Windmills of Change (2005)

Book Review from the April 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

In Search of Sustainability. Edited by J. Goldie, B. Douglas, and B. Furnass. (CSIRO Publishing, Australia 2005)

Sustainability can be an unquestionably good thing or not – it depends on what you want to sustain. In this collection of twelve essays by academics in different fields of environmental research the editors define sustainability as “the capacity of human systems to provide for the full range of human concerns in the long term. Sustainability, when applied to humans, refers both to long-term survival of our species and the quality of our lives.”

There are chapters on ten areas of concern: health, inequality, limited growth, land use, water, climate change, energy, transport, work and population. A final chapter is about achieving a sustainable future. The recommendations are all of a “motherhood” nature and well known to those in the environmental trade. For example, “children must better understand the ecological framework within which the human species lives”, we must “shift away from the pursuit of economic growth as an end in itself” and promote “affordable renewable technologies.”

Plenty of talk about key issues we must address, challenges we must face, changes in our current approaches we must make. But not a solid word about the need to fundamentally change the system from capitalism to something else. Capitalism does get a mention in the article on limiting growth, but the worry there is that capitalism will collapse and throw everything into chaos.

The editors believe that sustainability “can provide the vision we need to draw together the government, the private sector community and academics to help solve our many deep-seated problems.” So no real revolution there, then. Indeed, one of the contributors trots out what amounts to the “human nature” objection to socialism. Comparing modern nation-states to ancestral warring tribes, he suggests that “this competitiveness, selfishness and ‘short termism’ is deeply programmed into the human species.” It may suit defenders of capitalism to draw attention to such alleged deep programming, but socialists rely on other demonstrable characteristics of the human species: mutual aid, co-operation and (despite the dominant ideology of capitalism) the capacity to think and plan for the long term.
Stan Parker

More reasons not to shop (2005)

Book Review from the April 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets by Joanna Blythman (Harper Perennial £7.99)

Supermarkets: places to buy food at low prices, selling a wide range of produce in bright well-lit shops situated in convenient locations, with everything designed to make life easier for customers. If that’s your view of what supermarkets are, then Shopped is likely to change your mind.

For one thing the illusion of choice is just that – an illusion. Many companies make ready meals for a variety of supermarket chains, for instance. More generally, the supermarkets sell what suits them, not what the customer might want. Fruit and veg in particular have to fit a standard model in terms of size, colour and shape, just because that makes them easier (= cheaper) to transport and display. Any offerings that don’t come up to standard (e.g. because of minor blemishes) will be rejected, at the supplier’s expense. This might include, for instance, cauliflowers that are ‘not white enough’. One consequence of this emphasis on uniformity is a drastic reduction in the number of varieties grown, which puts in danger the genetic spread that can help to reduce the impact of disease.

The suppliers (from largish companies to small farmers) are often at the supermarkets’ mercy in other ways too. They may be encouraged to sell their produce to one chain exclusively, invest in new equipment, and then be dropped from the approved list for no apparent reason. If they complain about the supermarket’s stranglehold on their sales, they will be threatened with delisting. Customer complaints are passed on by the supermarkets to the suppliers. Low prices at the counter are enabled by ever-lower prices to the supplier: cereal farmers, for instance, get just 8 percent of the price of a loaf of bread.

Supermarket profits of course come not just from the way they exercise their power over the suppliers, but from the way they exploit their own staff. With pay rates at levels like £4.94 an hour, compared to the £4million that the boss of Tesco’s was paid in 2003, it’s easy to see why some of the bigger chains have an annual staff turnover exceeding 20 percent.

And the ‘fresh’ food they sell is often not fresh at all. It is quite likely picked prematurely, before developing its full flavour, so it can withstand a few days’ shelf life and then a few more in the customer’s home. Taste and nutrition come a long way second to appearance and how long the food will keep. Wholesale markets like Covent Garden now supply greengrocers and restaurants with decent fruit and veg, while supermarket shelves are weighed down with tasteless, unripe pap, much of it grown on vast plantations in places such as Lincolnshire.

Nor is food-selling the be-all-and-end-all. Supermarkets have for some time been expanding into areas like insurance, wills, credit cards, books, CDs, key-cutting, and so on. If they could get away with it, they’d probably stop selling unprocessed food (processed food is far more profitable), but they know that ‘fresh’ meat and veg does get customers into the stores. Tesco is approaching a 30 percent share in UK consumer spending (that’s total spending, not just on food).

One of the blurbs the cover of Shopped says it “should be required reading in every household”. Well, the Socialist Standard would be a better choice for this, but Shopped does give a pretty good idea of the power of big companies under capitalism and the reasons why the customer is certainly not in charge.
Paul Bennett

Red Snapper: Sound bites and unsound nibbles (2005)

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

“I don’t think we should be battering this subject to death.”
Martin McGuinness to John Humphries, on IRA members who murdered Robert McCartney by, er, battering him to death. BBC Radio 4, March 9, 8.00am.

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“It will be scrapped. I am determined to ensure that the rights of those who play by the rules are respected.“
Michael Howard on the Human Rights Act, The Guardian, March 19.

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“People who have been arrested say they’ve been brutalised – the tactics used are beyond belief.“
Dr Rafiullah Bidar, regional director of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, on the
treatment of detainess by the US in Afghanistan. Guardian, March 19.

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 “Afghanistan is being transformed into an enormous US jail.“
Nader Nadery, of the Human Rights Commission. Guardian, March 19.

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 “One might have expected a little humility from the Bush administration after its destruction and occupation of Iraq.“
Lindsey German, convenor of March 19th’s anti-war protest in London. Independent, March 19.

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“I’ve not seen anything like this since the Julius Streicher Nazi campaign against Jews.“
Mike Jempson, Mediawise, on The Sun’s recent campaign against Travellers. bbc.co.uk, March 11.
 War on gipsy free-for-all”. The Sun, March 9

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“The man who gave us the dodgy dossier is now giving us The Big Lie…. The man is rattled.“
Liam Fox, co-chairman of the Tory party, Independent, March 19

Blockbuster profits (2005)

From the April 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

The cinema and video industries make two things: films and, more importantly, money. Shed-loads of it and over a long period. In the 1910s The Birth of a Nation cost United Artists $110,000 to produce; it eventually grossed sixty million (thanks due to L. Menand in the 7 February issue if the New Yorker for that and some other facts in this article). More recently, Titanic took in $1.85 billion at the box office – many times what it cost. Of course some films don’t make money and some even lose it. But overall Hollywood, Bollywood and lesser-known ’woods are oligarchies designed for the enrichment of the oligarchs.

It isn’t just the movie business that seeks and makes a profit from movies. The key to the system is marketing. A lot of money is spent on creating “buzz” – a diffused sense in the public that a particular movie is on the way. Previews are part of “buzz”, as is “coverage” of forthcoming movies in media outlets that are often owned by the same conglomerate that owns the studio. The makers of Jurassic Park sold a hundred licences for a thousand dinosaur products.

The content of the films and videos reflects conditions in the world of which they are part. Soon after 9/11 Hollywood temporarily abandoned the hyper-violent spectacles that dominated cinema in the late 1990s. The public was thought to be in need of escape from such horrors. However, by 2003 it was a return to business as usual. Daredevil, Cold Mountain, Gods and Generals and The Core offered spectacles of contemporary, futuristic or historical destruction and carnage.

A recent British study of blockbuster audiences (by M. Jancovich, and L. Faire, ‘The best place to see a film’, in Movie Blockbusters) indicates that at least some audiences are not happy with the conditions in which they are paying customers. Apparently a fairly common complaint is that the cinema is an emotionally cold place. The audience is a mass but not a community. There’s no place to interact with one another or talk about the film afterwards.

What of the future of the cinema and the video in socialism? To some extent I go along with the safe but insipid view that “the people at the time will decide”. But I’d like to be a bit braver (or more foolhardy?) than that. I endorse Menand’s rejection of films that include any combination of wizards, slinky women of few words, men who can expertly drive anything or leap safely from the top of anything, characters from comic books, explosions, a computer whiz with attitude, or an incarnation of pure evil. I hope there will be more films like Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, a moving and beautiful depiction of British working-class life in the 1950s.
Stan Parker

TV Review: Apocalypse Not Yet (2005)

TV Review from the April 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Supervolcano, Sun 13th and Mon 14th March, BBC1
Supervolcano: The Truth About Yellowstone Sun 13th and Mon 14th March, BBC2

Considering that science is a constant adventure of astonishing discovery it’s amazing how many people have no interest in it, a fact which explains why ‘serious’ programmes like BBC Horizon are nevertheless obliged to adopt a relentlessly sensational and tabloid approach to everything they do. Drama documentaries about super-eruptions killing off most of the USA are the apotheosis of TV schedulers’ attempts to tick their public service education boxes and still keep the viewers. ‘Super-volcano overdue!’ they cry. ‘Millions dead!’ ‘Civilisation in ruins!’ Buried underneath a hundred feet of hyperbole, like a dead dog at Pompeii, is the prosaic fact that this event is only really expected some time in the next 60,000 years and that meanwhile there may be more pressing concerns facing us all.

One wonders if viewers would be so interested if the offending volcano was one of those in the Sumatra chain, like the Toba volcano that apparently brought us to the edge of extinction 74,000 years ago. Or does the idea of cataclysm in the heart of the world’s only superpower carry with it the extra frisson of schadenfreude, as we contemplate the Americans being spectacularly trashed instead of dishing it out for a change? Perhaps it is simply logical that a major disaster in America would have more far-reaching effects across the world because as we all know America is the prop holding up global civilisation.

Interest in supervolcanoes and Yellowstone in particular was sparked by Horizon two years ago, but the recent tsunami has primed the TV viewer for a big ‘what-if’ docu-drama and the sleeping giant in Wyoming is clearly an irresistible subject. Besides, Hollywood proved with ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ that disaster sells, especially if you sex up the boring facts a little. Given that capitalism is such a miserable struggle for existence for most people there’s a strong psychological impulsion to comfort oneself in the knowledge that things could be a lot worse, and for morale’s sake it’s best to find something that can’t be blamed on capitalism.

But for all the Armageddon prophesying, what would really be the result of such an event? The four horsemen of the apocalypse would have to ride forth and ravage the New World in their spare time, since they’re already so busy elsewhere. Imagine making a programme with the idea that five million kids were going to die pointlessly because they couldn’t get decent drinking water. Viewers would switch over to Pop Idols immediately. Natural disasters like that happen already, so what’s exciting about that? Besides, goes the secret thinking, they’re just poor black kids and they’ve all got AIDS anyway.

What would make a programme like this truly scary is if it was made in the context of a cooperative socialist society. Then it would run like this: first you get the disaster, then you get the breakdown of society and the halting of production, then (shock horror!) it might get so bad that you collapse backwards into the barbarity, cruelty and unequal distribution of resources that characterised the previous age – of capitalism. If socialists wanted to give each other nightmares, they couldn’t do better than paint millenarian scenarios of a return to capitalism to each other. But of course, people in a socialist society would be life-affirming and positive about the future, not paranoid and neurotic neurasthenics paralysed into hopeless contemplation of a society that is in reality one long slow-motion train-wreck. Yellowstone wouldn’t kill a fraction of the people that capitalism routinely kills every year. Capitalism is the world’s worst natural disaster bar none. Now, where’s the drama documentary about that?
Paddy Shannon

50 Years Ago: For what is the Labour Party fighting? (2005)

The 50 Years Ago column from the April 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Having had six years in power running capitalism the Labour Party is on the outside looking around for a way to get back again. Now as it is not generally thought that the Labour Government merely ran capitalism let us explain what we mean by capitalism, in order to see if we are correct when we claim that the Labour Party is just another capitalist party.

Capitalism is the social system which exists today throughout the world, wherein the means of production and distribution are owned by a fraction of the people (the capitalist class, state or private) and the mass of people being without means of production MUST work for WAGES in order to live. Further the wealth of capitalist society (produced by the workers but not owned by them) is produced for SALE and PROFIT, that profit being the capitalists’ loot from the exploitation of the class of employees. To sum up, the basic features of capitalism are – class ownership – wage labour, buying and selling and profit.

You will note we say class ownership not private enterprise, we say “state or private” because it is the basis we are concerned with not merely the form of administration. From the very start the Labour Party never sought to change the basis, to abolish capitalism, they merely proposed another form of administration. After six years in Government the whole ugly structure of capitalism remained intact, and still no proposal to abolish wages, buying and selling and class ownership is forthcoming. The Labour Party has no horizons beyond those of capitalism and when all the schemes have been put into operation the position of the working class will be exactly the same. The past record of the Labour Party in supporting wars, freezing wages, breaking strikes, and forming coalitions, with Tories and Liberals, should be enough to finish them with the working class for keeps; the tragedy is that it won’t. (…)

Throughout its existence the Labour Party has done everything but what need doing most and said everything but what most needed saying. Although from time to time they paid lip-service by using Socialist sounding phrases when it met their purpose of deluding the workers, nothing they have ever said or done has advanced the workers one inch. While certain of their reforms might have helped in keeping workers contented and in staving off unrest, they have had the desired effect of giving the boss class a new lease of life. What would the capitalist class do without a Labour Party to patch up their vile system for them?

(From an article by ‘H.B.’, Socialist Standard, April 1955)

Obituary: John Ball (2005)

Obituary from the April 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard 

John was someone I first came across in the early 90s in Norwich along with Heather prior to us all being properly acquainted with the Socialist Party. Our enthusiasm for responsible anti-authoritarian values and the politics of a world so different from this one, along with the reasonably close proximity of our houses helped to create a lasting bond and friendship.

John was born in Plumstead, in London, is 1932 and worked for most of his working life as an electrician. He was a warm and generous person, very down to earth who would call a spade a spade; at the same time he could be very understanding with people he got close to whose conclusions may have been  different from his own, seeing the basis of those conclusions as a possible connection to build on. He was well-read and enjoyed connecting with people of all ages and backgrounds and had a penchant for helping the underdog sometimes to the detriment of his health. He was a vegan, painted in oils, and loved upbeat music and dancing.

Towards the end of his life John would say that he felt ever more convinced that the Party’s sole pursuit of socialism and not reformism was the correct and only practical solution to the ongoing problems that a capitalist world is always throwing up. He recognised the importance of humour, connected to a  constructive politics and philosophy in contrast to the sober authoritarian politics of the Left he was always falling foul of in the earlier period of his life (he had been in the Communist Party, which he left in 1957, and then in the Trotskyist SLL, from which he was expelled in 1960).

John died in February. I’m sure his way of being would and did affect positively many people he had come across throughout his life.

Greasy Pole: On tactical voting (2005)

The Greasy Pole Column from the April 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Here is something else for all those bewildered and dispirited Labour supporters to blame on Blair and his government. In their glory days of 1997 and 2001 voting was a happily uncomplicated business, requiring them only to go to their local polling station and plonk their cross against the name of their New Labour candidate, then go home congratulating themselves on participating in the drive to raise living standards, make everyone healthier and more secure, tackle global poverty and climate change.

But since then it has been borne in on the most starry-eyed Labourite that their party is not only unable to make good on its promises but has carried through other, unpromised and unwelcome, policies like cutting single parent benefit and hounding those on incapacity benefit, imposing student tuition fees, introducing the market into the NHS and other public services, taking part in the invasion of Iraq. All of this makes voting, for many a Labour supporter, a matter fraught with indecision. There has been an anguished debate from which has emerged – or rather re-emerged – the concept of tactical voting. This means voting for a second choice candidate – like a Liberal Democrat – in the hope that this will influence the Labour government to change its policies. This is a sight more complex than simply opting for their first choice candidate.

A jolt
The case for tactical voting has recently been stated by John Harris in his book So Now Who Do We Vote For?, in which a Labour ex-minister outlines his dilemma:
  “And why don’t we like Michael Howard? Partly because of his right wing record when he was home secretary. But we’re more right wing than Michael Howard was. I’m not saying I want the Tories, but how bad would it be? The thing is, the Labour party needs a fright.”
Harris concludes that in Labour heartlands like Scotland, Wales, South Yorkshire and London “the Blairites need a jolt”. He discusses some of the other parties – the SNP, Plaid Cymru, Green, Respect – which, if they amassed a considerable vote, would administer that jolt. This line of reasoning does not recognise the futility of voting for one unsatisfactory party in order to disturb another. After all it is not so long ago that voting Labour was sometimes used to give a Tory government a jolt. There must be another, more hopeful, more enduring method.

A rather desperate-sounding parliamentary group under the name of “Impeach Blair” has campaigned to get Blair on trial for his part in the Iraq war and the deceptions he practised in that cause. The idea made very little progress, which is probably just as well because Blair may have been able to defend himself successfully on the grounds that he was only following precedent. For example there was Neville Chamberlain who in 1938 came back from Munich holding a piece of paper which, he claimed, was a guarantee of peace in our time, although even as he spoke this country – and quite a few others – were busily preparing for war. Then there was Anthony Eden, who in 1956 lied to the House of Commons when he denied that, in order to justify the attack on Suez, there had been a conspiracy between Israel, France and Britain to collude in the Israeli invasion of Egypt. Blair might point out that Eden, far from being prosecuted, was elevated into being Lord Avon. An acquittal would undoubtedly follow.

Standing in Sedgefield
As a result the group turned its attention to an idea dreamed up by Adam Price, a Plaid Cymru MP who is threateningly rumoured to be a brainy maverick, to persuade someone to stand against Blair in his Sedgefield constituency. This person would need to be – rather like Martin Bell in Tatton in 1997 and Blair in his younger days – of impeccable character and antecedents and to be allowed a clear run by the other parties, to focus the anger against Blair effectively enough to unseat him. As we write nobody has been found to take this on. Sedgefield has been rock-solid Labour for over 90 years; the people there are apt to refer to Blair as “our Tony” (perhaps as the people of Tatton called Neil Hamilton “our Neil” before they threw him out in 1997) and in 2001 they gave him a majority close on 18,000.

It would be highly unusual, if not unprecedented, for a sitting prime minister to be opposed at an election by a single candidate. This did happen in 1945, when Winston Churchill’s seat at Epping was contested by Alexander Hancock. The other parties had agreed not to stand in Epping, as a “mark of respect” for Churchill, but there were unacknowledged advantages for them in allowing “the man who won the war” to have a free ride to Westminster. However there were people who did not accept this; most prominent among them was William Douglas-Home whose brother, then Lord Dunglass, was Chamberlain’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, closely involved in the Munich negotiations which effectively handed Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany. Douglas-Home was an ardent fan of Chamberlain and a bitter critic of Churchill; during his time in the Army in the war he fought three by-elections in opposition to the manner in which the war was being conducted. In September 1944 he refused an order to participate in the “mopping up” of the German army in Le Havre, on the grounds that this would result in heavy civilian casualties – which, when the attack came, did happen. Douglas-Home was court martialled, discharged from the Army and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment with hard labour.

Contest in Epping
With this background Douglas-Home was an obvious possibility to ignore the party truce and stand against Churchill at Epping. He did at first intend to do this but then withdrew, which allowed Arthur Yates, another soldier (although not one who disobeyed orders; the Daily Mail affectionately described him as “an earnest, hardened and freckled young man”) to stand in his stead. The Army flew Yates over from Austria for his nomination but he arrived too late, which left the field to Alexander Hancock, who got his name on the ballot papers as an Independent. Hancock was a local farmer; Churchill dismissed him as “somewhat crackpot” and it is true that he did have an unusual approach to politics.

To begin with he confessed not to have any desire to become an MP or to deny that to Churchill. When he was asked about his chances of defeating Churchill he shrugged “could anyone?” His principal objective was to publicise his “philosophical plan” under which “able bodied” people would do about an hour’s compulsory work each day to provide the essentials of life and spend the rest of the time producing non-essentials. It might have occurred to the more reflective voters in Epping that the plans put forward by the other parties for trying to control British capitalism had little more than did Hancock’s to commend them in terms of relevance and effectiveness. At all events over 10,000 of them voted for Hancock, or perhaps that was, in fact, tactically against Churchill, who survived with a majority of around 17,000.

Sadism and masochism
If someone is willing to offer themselves as another Alexander Hancock it will be in response to the widespread anger and disgust at Blair and the fact that his party’s record in government has led to many ex-supporters feeling they are disenfranchised. Labour’s election manipulators are already worried about the possibility that they will lose some seats by default because a lot of its supporters will be unable to summon up enough enthusiasm even to vote. To such people the prospect of a candidate taking on Blair one-to-one in his own territory has its attractions. If the unthinkable happened sadists might find pleasure in the downfall of a politician as plausible, dishonest and obsessive as Blair. But what then? Blair was after all once the great young hope of the Labour Party and of millions of people outside the party. What reason is there to suppose that a successor would be any different, any more acceptable? Why should we believe that another party, brought to power through tactical voting, would be any more successful? What hope is there that it would be useful to concentrate on one problem, one leader, one election? The working class persist in choosing between different versions of the same weary, discredited palliatives for capitalism’s problems. This is not sadism; it is masochism and it will be a massive relief when it stops.