Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Letters: Love on the Dole (2000)

Letters to the Editors from the February 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Love on the Dole

Dear Editors,

In his review (Socialist Standard, November) of Love on the Dole, Michael Gill alleges that the British Board of Film Censors would not allow the play to be filmed. The Board existed only to censor films once made but had no powers to prevent a film being made. In fact the film of Love on the Dole was made in 1941.
Denham Ford, 
Westcliff-on-Sea, Essex

You are quite right, the British Board of Film Censors has no power to prevent a film being made. However, since in practice all films shown in public places must have a certificate from the Board, it is regularly consulted by film makers before and whilst films are being made. You will find interesting details of how the process is managed, for instance, in the material for Open University Course A420, Cinema and Society: Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. It is very revealing.

And you are quite right that Love on the Dole was filmed in 1941. Ironically, the production company’s stated aim was “to show the public the true state of affairs which arose after the last war in the industrial areas and which must not be allowed to flourish when the immediate conflict is over”. So whilst, as we said in our review, the BBFC effectively “prevented this ‘very sordid story in very sordid surroundings’ from being filmed in the 1930s” (NT programme), when the Second World War began the same story was made in support of the war -Editors.

Pure chance?

Dear Editors,

I take it from your letter column (December) that you socialists are all firm believers in Dawkins’s blind watchmaker operating in evolution without any purpose at all.

That being so I wonder where you socialists draw the line between Darwin’s natural selection and human beings as producers of many civilisations in the past 6,000 years.

If human beings are a product of a blind mindless watchmaker surely you should accept this belief as being a miracle of nature even as much as the divine miracles that appear in the pages of the bible.

One could easily say that evolution from lifeless matter brought about by a blind watchmaker is a supreme miracle which one could also interpret as a miracle of matter.

As the bible is not the only book to look for miracles as evolution has plenty of them.

Nevertheless, Darwin did not explain the mutation in evolution which produced the consciousness of human beings who managed to produce civilisations.

Are we to believe civilisations are also a product of a blind watchmaker?
R. Smith, 

No, human civilisations are not produced by the same blind, biological processes that led to the evolution of all the various species of life on Earth, extinct and extant, including homo sapiens. Once humans had been evolved (by the “blind watchmaker” process) then, thanks to their biologically evolved ability to think abstractly and make conscious, purposeful, decisions as well as their ability to extend their anatomy by means of tools, human evolution ceases to be biological and becomes social and cultural, reflecting the development of the tools humans make and use.

Because human action is always purposeful, an element of purpose is indeed involved in this type of evolution (but it is of course, human purpose, or rather the different purposes of different humans, not that of some supernatural, miracle-working being). However, humans do not have a complete free hand here. As one well-known 19th century materialist put it, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past” (Karl Marx). This means that the evolution of human societies is subject also to the working of objective, non-purposeful processes which can be found by study and research, but these are not at all the same as those that governed biological evolution.

And yes, the biological evolution of life, consciousness and the self-consciousness which humans alone possess can be explained without having recourse to the concept of “miracles”, i.e. the intervention of some supernatural being(s). We don’t yet know enough to state definitely how life first evolved, but we will get there eventually. For the present state of knowledge and study of this matter see the collection of articles in Skeptical Inquirer (Sep/Oct 1999) “Where Do We Come From? The Biology Of Life’s Origin”-Editors.

World solution

Dear Editors,

Whilst I do not have a problem with much of Simon Wigley’s “Open Letter to Reclaim The Streets” (Socialist Standard, January), I would be interested to understand how the statement: “we are glad to see the emergence of organisations attacking capitalism as a system rather than merely its particular evils” is compatible with Clause 7 of our party’s Declaration of Principles, namely: ” . . . the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party”?

Simply being opposed to capitalism does not make a person or an organisation socialist i.e. one seeking working class emancipation.

Being a socialist surely implies agreement with:
  • Our class and economic analysis of capitalism,
  • The need to replace that social system by one based on the common ownership and the democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all society,
  • The need to establish socialism through democratic political action, that is, by winning control of the state apparatus.
I see no evidence from Simon Wigley’s letter that the anarchist organisations he wishes us to welcome share the conclusions which make the Socialist Party contribution to political and economic thought so distinctive and clear.

Associating ourselves, albeit fairly critically, by expressing general words of support and identifying alleged common ground with non-socialist organisations can only create confusion amongst those we are trying to win to the socialist case and thus puts back the achievement of socialism itself.
Andrew C. Northall, 
Kettering, Northants

We never went that far, nor meant to. We were not seeking common ground with non-socialist organisations nor saying that people should join them but welcoming the fact that some people were moving towards identifying capitalism as the cause of problems they had previously sought to deal with on a single-issue basis, and urging them to take the next step and join us in the struggle for socialism as the only practicable alternative to capitalism.

“Recognition that the global capitalist system, based on the exploitation of people and the planet for the profit of a few, is at the very root of our social and ecological troubles” (as a leaflet for J18 put it) is, as you point out, not the equivalent of socialist understanding but it is a step—indeed, an indispensable step—towards it and the more widespread it is, the easier it must be for us to put our case across. So how can we as Socialists not welcome its emergence? And where else, if not amongst such people, are we to find “those we are trying to win to the socialist case”? -Editors.

Death and destruction in Dili (2000)

From the April 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

In 1996 (Socialist Standard, March) we reported, and commented upon, Indonesian repression in East Timor and Australian interest in, and control of, the vast oil deposits under the sea between Australia and East and West Timor. Much has happened since then.

East Timor is now “independent”. The Indonesians have gone. But not before they had killed thousands of Timorese and largely reduced the capital, Dili, to a burned-out ruin. Much of this has been levelled against Eurico Gutterres, a former Indonesian militia leader, now living under an assumed name in Jakarta. According to the West Australian (18 December), “the Indonesian military recruited and trained Guterres who commanded a paramilitary group called Aitarak, or Thorn, which was given the responsibility for security in Dili”. He ordered the destruction of East Timor, “carrying out his threat to turn East Timor into a wasteland if the Timorese voted to rejected Jakarta’s rule”. He now says that he does not feel guilty. He was only carrying out orders, he said.

In what the West Australian (15 January) calls “the razed capital” of Dili, “thousands of the deeply religious East Timorese Catholics turn out for Mass to thank god for delivering them from the horror of 24 years of Indonesian occupation”. But just outside Dili there are hundreds of children starving. Of the situation, reports the West Australian of the same date:
“Stagnant pools of sewage lay nearby, mixing with the regular afternoon rains, virtually ensuring that all open wounds would become infected. A girl, aged about five, stands half-naked except for a skin of massive, infected lesions which stretch from under her jaw to her waist.”
“A blackmarket for food and goods has sprouted in Dili, with tonnes of rice and noodles being imported and held under guard in warehouses in the razed capital.”
Meanwhile, thousands of Timorese are starving in West Timor refugee camps. President Clinton is said to be concerned about a possible military coup, and the spread of religious violence in Indonesia; and Richard Holbrooke, the US Ambassador to the UN, “accused pro-Jakarta militias of blocking the return of about 125,000 East Timorese remaining in camps in West Timor. Responsibility for this lies primarily with the Indonesian military who continues to support the militia in the camps, he said” (West Australian, 17 January).

By last September, 75 percent of East Timor’s population had been displaced, and 70 percent of its houses, public buildings and essential utilities had been destroyed by the Indonesian-backed militias and military (West Australian, 8 January). However, Australian companies “have a chance to grab a slice of the $800 million which will be spent on rebuilding on East Timor over the next three years”. Indeed, more than £300 million will have been pumped into reconstruction by June this year.

There are, of course, problems for Australian capitalists, if not exactly the same as for Timorese workers and peasants. Land ownership was a problem, as records had been destroyed; and it was impossible to know who owned what. ” Conditions in Dili were tough, but foreign businesses were working there,” said Malcolm Murray, the international projects team leader with the Australian Department of Trade and Commerce. Nevertheless, Australian construction businesses have moved into Dili “with gusto”. There were many unemployed Timorese workers; but “the Australian Council for Overseas Aid also warned that pay rates for local workers could lead to gross inequality in wealth” (West Australian, 17 January).

Meanwhile, reported Agence France-Press (17 January), Australian, international and East Timorese officials held a conference to discuss a new Timor Gap oil treaty to replace the “illegal” treaty signed in December 1989, between Australia and Indonesia over the oil-rich waters between northern Australia and East Timor (see Socialist Standard, March 1996). However, Indonesia said that it would “accept a review or a cancellation of the treaty with Australia”, presumably as it now has little choice.

The UN made it clear in 1979 that the Indonesian invasion of the former Portuguese colony, and its subsequent occupation, was illegal and that therefore so was the so-called oil treaty. But “the Australian government has always maintained that the treaty is legal”, reports the West Australian of 18 December. As of December last year, Australian companies BHP, Santos and Petroz had already extracted 32,500 barrels of oil daily from three wells in the zone jointly controlled by Australia and Indonesia. BHP, however, have since sold its assets to the US company, Phillips Petroleum. There have been, it would seem, disputes over a number of as yet unstarted fields, including the Woodside’s Laminaria field and BHP’s Buffalo field which “would fall into an area which might be claimed by East Timor as well as Australia” (West Australian, 18 December).

East Timor has now replaced Indonesia as Australia’s partner in the Timor Gap oil treaty, according to the West Australian (12 February). The official ceremony was held in Dili at the beginning of the month, James Batley, Australia’s resident consul in East Timor, who signed the new treaty, said that “there are important investment prospects here, and this has smoothed the path for those to go ahead”. Of course! And the United Nations secretary-general, who recently visited Dili, said how pleased he was at Australia’s quick response to the UN’s call for troops to go to East Timor. Yes; of course, of course!

Meanwhile, the poverty-stricken, propertyless, often starving workers and peasants of East (and West) Timor watch, sometimes pray, and hope that things will get no worse.
Peter E. Newell

The Mozambique floods (2000)

From the April 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

During four days at the end of January, the skies dumped a year’s rainfall on Mozambique. The consequent floods killed many and displaced over one million people. Within one week of the first rains, Mozambique’s economy and infrastructure had been set back 25 years, the floods causing more damage than the 16 years of civil war that devastated the country. More was to come as Cyclone Eline moved in from Madagascar.

In front of our TV sets in the relative safety of our living rooms, most of us watched with empathy the plight of the thousands left clinging to tree tops and bridges and with a shared feeling of human pride in the frantic and selfless efforts of the South African helicopter crews who flew countless missions to rescue those most in danger.

TVs are useful in this regard, allowing viewers to witness, almost live, the colossal tragedies endured by our fellow humans around the world, evoking in us all manner of emotions, whether it be the urge to send a cheque off to some charity, the despair at not being able to help out more, or a certain numbness born of an over-familiarity with such events, a kind of donor fatigue.

What TV sets don’t seem to get across is the behind-the-scenes stories, the kind of stories that hint at our powerlessness to help out at once, the futility of the controllers of capitalist society in putting the vast technological resources that are available in case of such emergencies into operation.

Weeks into the Mozambique disaster, arguments sprang up as to who was to pay for the continuing South African search and rescue missions. The US argued with the South African government over landing rights and, here in Britain, a battle raged between the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development over who was going to pay the £2.2 million cost of sending five Puma helicopters. Never did it occur to the latter reprobates that in 24 hours the British public had chipped in £4m to help out or that the Blair government was throwing more money into the wastage of the £750 Millennium Dome.

So incompetent were the British government in getting their act together, in fact, that the Puma helicopters arrived after the search and rescue phase had been called off. Even then, they proved of little use because the limited range they could cover meant they could not offer assistance in the north of the country where they were needed. Moreover, the officer in charge of the British party had no experience at all in disaster relief.

We can well ask why there was no information on hand that could have suggested that Mozambique was about to face such devastating floods and a cyclone. While there are established international protocols for the sharing of meteorological information, there is no international obligation to do so. With advanced scientific equipment, and with satellite technology now widely used, the know-how exists to provide the world with data regarding soil absorption water run-off in rivers and anticipated rainfall. However, as one Guardian writer observed:
 “It costs money to amass, monitor and analyse data and pass it on to the people who need it most.” (6 March)
And this is the crux of the problem. Who will pay for this level of technology or, more importantly, how much immediate profit can be gleaned from investment in the same?

After each natural disaster and the rescue missions that slowly swing into action, the “experts” tell us we can learn lessons from it. As much was said after the December 1999 Venezuelan flood that left 20,000 dead, and after the Orissa, India, cyclone that left two million homeless and Central America’s Hurricane Mitch which created one million refugees.

Each time there are calls for an International rapid deployment force of rescue and first-aid teams. Each time there were questions as to how such devastation could not have been foreseen and for more co-operation and sharing of information.

Resources for war – too costly for aid
Few make an attempt to set the problem in a wider social and economic context, for instance making that crucial link to the perennial priority of profit before human need. Few point to the mountain of red tape that has to be cut through before rescue teams can be mobilised, red tape that the functioning of capitalism makes necessary (i.e. the observance of national boundaries and air-space, getting the okay from this and that government, working out who will foot the bill before operations are underway etc.)

While a case can be made that global warming is at least a contributory cause of recent floodings, hurricanes and cyclones (i.e. the greenhouse effect means more warmth, which means more evaporation, which means more wind and rain) there is no current planning for future disasters—and they will come. Foresight as ever proves an expensive luxury to those who at currently have the greatest say in our lives.

Right now, we not only have the technology to begin reversing the effects of global warming, and to predict the patterns and consequences of changing global weather conditions, but we have more than the capability to meet any natural disaster head on, thus preventing the loss of further life and the waste of valuable resources. At present, however, control over such technological resources is in the hands of a small elite, the capitalist class, and their executive, the world’s governments.

As we await further natural disasters we can only guess at how long it will take the “experts” to contemplate a system of society in which the earth’s scientific and technological resources are the common property of all and in which the death tolls from such disasters are greatly reduced.
John Bissett

Caning the teachers (2000)

The Greasy Pole column from the April 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

David Blunkett is Secretary of State for Education and the author of a crushingly boring autobiography (On A Clear Day). Unless, of course, you like long, trivial stories about his dog upsetting the dignity of some eminent person (“We all enjoyed a good laugh . . .”). Or dollops of self-admiration garnished in mock modesty (“I believe that, at the time, Neil Kinnock thought I had let him down . . . whereas, as he later generously ackowledged . . .”). And the poetry—too embarrassing to repeat in a journal meant for a placid socialist readership. Any teacher who addressed their class as Blunkett does his readers would very soon lose control of the kids.

This is not to say that Blunkett does not sometimes let slip some arousing comment. A recent example was his statement that poverty is not an excuse for a school failing to meet the GCSE pass targets set by the government. “Cynics out there” was how he described anyone who accepts what seem to many people a self-evident fact, namely that “. . . school performance is all about socio-economics and the areas that these schools are located in”. That is another way of saying that only cynics would question whether a school in, say, a run-down part of Hackney should be expected to produce the same level of achievement as Eton or Harrow. It is another way of saying that if a school does fail to meet its targets that must be due to the teachers, who in Hackney are lazy and stodgy while at Eton and Harrow they are industrious and charismatic.

Jack Straw 
We have heard this kind of criticism of workers before. We hear it when companies go broke, or when governments are swamped by an economic crisis. Then we are told that all the problems are due to greedy, short-sighted workers. When the crime statistics are published we are informed that offending is not the blindly despairing act of people who are trapped in the dirt and decay of inner cities or rural slumdom but the behaviour of people who are intrinsically anti-social. When pensioners die of hypothermia they are chided because they have not learned how to keep warm in an unheated home.

Blunkett should have a word with his fellow minister Jack Straw, who was once Labour’s Shadow for Education. In those days Straw did not seem to have any doubts about the cause of struggling schools. At the 1987 Labour conference he told the delegates that ” . . . there is only one culprit responsible for falling standards (in education)—the government which has been in power since 1979″. Two years later he returned to the theme, denouncing “a government that blames teachers for the ills of Thatcherite society” and promising that, far from harrassing them, Labour would “…train teachers better, support them better and, yes, reward teachers better”.

Of course in those days it was safe to make that kind of a speech. Like Straw’s 1987 complaint that “. . . the weakness of the Cabinet’s commitment to public education is shown by the fact that all its ministers have sent their children to private schools” and that as a result of the Tory government’s cuts in spending on education “the morale of the teaching profession has been destroyed”. Well this government’s persistent attacks on teachers have not exactly resuscitated their morale and one reason is that so many Labour leaders, like the Tories before them, have placed their children in private schools.

Results Culture 
For his part, Blunkett has never been been among the wilder animals in the swamps of left-wingery. In July 1987, for example, in an article in the Independent, he claimed that the Thatcher government were stealing Labour policies when they declared war on the “dependency culture”—which did not mean the system which allows the ruling class to live off the exploitation of the workers but the few people whose means were so reduced they relied on state hand outs to survive. The repressive attitudes implied in that article have been all too evident in Blunkett since he was put in charge of the schools, for he has been pre-occupied with the results culture, the obsession with exam results which has millions of neurotic parents scanning the league tables to see how their childrens’ school has done—knowing that head master Blunkett will wreak a terrible revenge if the results are not good enough. There have been other Blunkett policies which have given offence—for example his sturdy championing of the odious Chris Woodhead, the boss of the dreaded OFSTED, when it was revealed that Woodhead’s, er, private life did not live up to the standards his inspectors demand of teachers and pupils.

So it is hardly surprising that Blunkett should feel the need to attack the notion that bad social conditions have an effect on schools just as they do on health, crime, families . . . His evidence for saying that poverty is not an excuse for a failing school is, not surprisingly, supplied by his own Department, who say that schools with low exam results exist in areas other than run down inner cities. So what? The results may be due to a number of factors which are conveniently left unilluminated but Blunkett, in an exercise in logic which would be unacceptable coming from a ten year old pupil, chooses to draw the conclusion which suits his already formed opinion—that teachers are to blame and must be punished, sacked, driven out in revenge.

Watch My Lips . . . 
In any case nobody, least of all the teachers, would argue that the skill and sensitivity with which a subject is taught does not make a difference. The skills of teachers vary, just like the skills of people in other jobs—for example politicians, who can be very clever in the lies they tell and the manner in which they cover up their failures. And then again they can be embarrassingly clumsy. As was Blunkett, when he was on the spot about his policy on schools selection, which is now in such sharp contrast to the statement he made to the Labour Party conference in 1995: “Watch my lips, no selection, either by examination or interview, under a Labour government”. When he was faced with this, Blunkett chose to defend himself with the feeble protest that his 1995 statement was a joke. This may have been more convincing if, as he was receiving the delegates’ rapturous applause, he had said something like “Well wait a second. You know me, always ready for a laugh. That was a joke. When I get into office there will be selection because we’ll be a government which is too scared of the Daily Mail to do otherwise”. This shabby episode brings up the question of what sort of a role model Blunkett is to the teachers he so persistently harasses about their professional standards.

The evidence that conditions outside the schools have a more powerful, eventually decisive, influence is overwhelming. The Guardian of 6 March described a school in Brighton where 45 percent of the pupils conform to the generally accepted measurement of poverty—they have free school meals. Many of them come from families struggling to survive under the stress of long term unemployment, on an estate where life has always been that bit harder. What kind of material do the teachers there have to work with? Unsurprisingly, some of the pupils are on drugs—the police suspect they are working for a drugs syndicate from Scotland. One boy was a male prostitute on the sea-front. A former pupil, 17 years old, was murdered on a rubbish tip next to the school. A pupil was accused of helping in the murder of another pupil’s brother.

The Real World
Of course exceptionally brave, talented teachers might hope to have some effect in that kind of situation. What actually happened , as is to be expected in the real world away from Blunkett’s cruel fantasies, was that the teachers simply collapsed under the strain—like politicians often do, when their failure to control capitalism becomes too obvious. One teacher died, it was thought through a stress related illness; another disappeared. Several developed serious illnesses including two cancers. Others had nervous breakdowns. Because that is how poverty deals with people who are trying to make sense of this society—in their homes, their jobs, their schools. Peter Mortimore, director of London University Institute of Education, put it that “All the work of school improvement professionals shows that schools can make a difference, but they cannot completely overcome the effects of disadvantage.”

And what if we applied the standards which Blunkett imposes on the teachers to people like him—to the political leaders? What if they were to be judged on their failures, their impotence and the deceptions they use to conceal this reality? Should we punish them? Or wouldn’t it be better to close down their organs of power and make them redundant?

Environmental disasters ahead (2001)

From the April 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

At election times it often suits politicians to make sympathetic noises about environmental issues, but after the elections are over the same politicians can usually find "practical considerations" that make them have "re-appraisals" of previous "policy statements". This cynical manipulation is rife throughout the capitalist world, but it is doubtful if any of the political con-men could beat President Bush for the rapidity of his volte-face on the environment.
"In a letter to Republican Senators, Bush reversed his election campaign promise to limit C02 emissions from coal-fired plants, saying a new study shows it would be too expensive. He also reiterated his opposition to the Kyoto protocol, a 1997 agreement which aims to reduce greenhouse gases in the industrialised countries by 5.2 per cent by 2012" (New Scientist, 15 March).
This is of course, the crux of the matter—cost. We live in a capitalist world based on commodity production with the aim of obtaining a profit. In competing with other capitalists, both nationally and globally, it is necessary to drive down costs in order to grab a bigger share of the market. In such a cut-throat society environment considerations count for little, except perhaps a little electioneering rhetoric. With the USA putting the interests of their capitalist class before the needs of the planet the future looks grim indeed.
"The reversal was a blow to Kyoto supporters, since limits on power plants are probably necessary for the US to reach the goals. Christopher Flavin, President of the WorldWatch Institute says: 'It is essential since those plants are one of the main reasons for the recent sharp increase in US C02 emissions. In the last two years, the US has passed China to be the world's number one coal burner'" (New Scientist, 15 March)

The General Election (2001)

Party News from the April 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party will be contesting one seat in the general election, Jarrow, where our candidate will be John Bissett. Unfortunately, because of a recent change in the law making it a condition for a party's name to appear on the ballot paper that it refuse to accept "foreign" donations—which we have refused to accept because, stand ing for world socialism, we reject the concept of a "foreigner" and assert our right to accept financial help from socialists and workers in any part of the world—our name will not be appearing on the ballot paper alongside that of our candidate. Nevertheless, John Bissett will be standing as the official candidate of the Socialist Party and this will be made clear on all the election material we will be producing.

If you want to help out in the election campaign to get the socialist message across, contact North East at: 
Secretary, 10 Scarborough Parade, Hebburn, NE31 2AL.
Phone: (0191) 489 XXXX.
Email: johnbissett@cableinet.co.uk.
Website: www.communities.msn.com/RealWorldSocialismNorthEast

Offers of help from "foreigners" welcome

The internet and capitalism (1) (2000)

From the January 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Just over 30 years ago in October 1969 the first email was sent, and the world took no notice. Even in 1990, in Megatrends 2000, the authors Naisbitt and Aburdene failed to mention the Internet. After ten more years, the world is still largely unprepared for the scale of the communications revolution overtaking it. According to Andy Grove of Intel: “The Internet is like a 20-foot tidal wave coming, and we are in kayaks.”

The Global Internet Project (GIP) (http://www.gip.org), a collective including AT&T, Sun, Visa, Fujitsu, BT, IBM and Deutsche Bank, believes that the Internet explosion will be good for capitalism, a “cause for unambiguous celebration” as they put it in a recent report. The figures they have supplied illustrate the explosive colonisation of cyberspace.

In 1980 there were just 100 Internet host computers. The World Wide Web did not exist in 1991. In 1992 there were just 100 web sites. In 1996 there were 10 million host computers. Today there are 120 million hosts, 250 million users in hundreds of countries, there are uncountable millions of web sites, and the Web is growing by 300,000 new pages every seven days. The amount of information on the Internet has reached a level almost beyond human comprehension, and it doubles every year.

Gold fever has been evident at the stock exchange, with Internet company values being grotesquely over-inflated and largely responsible for the share price bubble. Start-up companies with no assets and no profits have been valued at millions. Oddly, there exists an uncanny parallel with the overvaluation of RCA shares in the, then, new technology of radio prior to the Wall Street Crash in 1929 (Money Programme, BBC2, 24 October). As then, Internet company valuations are also likely to be wiped out, but this won’t stop them in the long run. The speed of growth is breathtaking, and contributes to the speculative hysteria. The accountants just can’t keep up. Mobile phone sales were not even included in GDP figures until 1998, while there is still no reliable estimate for Internet sales, although GIP puts it at about $6.6 billion for this year.

In October of last year, Tony Blair announced to a startled population that 100,000 computers would be made available to poor families, at just £5 a month. The significance of a move to put even the poorest online should not be underestimated. Meanwhile, huge pressure is being brought to bear on BT to make Internet calls free, as they are in the USA. If they don’t, somebody else will. Callnet UK announced the first such, free and no strings, service in late October. A rash of similar services is expected to follow. The expense of being online is rapidly heading downwards, to almost zero, as capitalism anticipates a cyber-bonanza of sales that will make free calls, even free computers, more than worthwhile.

Falling costs
Capitalism is rushing with orgiastic zeal headlong into cyberspace. The prospect of global reach for free is the Holy Grail of any business, and the “technology of the ether” can make transaction costs so small as to amount to their elimination. “What market can ignore transaction costs, when there is one that has none?” says Michael Vlahos of the Progress and Freedom Foundation. The potential savings are enormous in other areas too. The cyber-based company of the future may need far fewer staff, no premises, little capital expenditure, tiny running costs, no stock or warehousing, and have no distribution overheads. Yet they will be more efficient than any business has ever been before.

“By putting everyone on the Web accessing information in both directions internally and externally,” says Barry Demak of Cadence, “we suddenly had a cohesive view of our markets, customers, and technologies—it all started coming into focus for us. And if you compare the cost and time to train the sales force, and factor in the difference in time to market, the returns are awesome” (Quoted in GIP).

There is a revolution in advertising and marketing theory too, as technology makes possible the placement of tailored advertising on the screens of specific customers. XTV, the new wave smart video, not only records the TV programmes it knows you’ll like, it gives you bespoke personalised commercial breaks too (Observer Business, 7 November). Every user’s every movement on the Internet is a piece of valuable marketing information. Now the talk is of “infinite stratification” of demand and “micro-niches”, of industrial mass-based society being remoulded by an individualistic assortment of micro-demands and micro-viewpoints, with customised low-volume production replacing the conveyor belt. Already the biggest engine of growth in the US, so-called Mom and Pop stores, will proliferate in cyberspace, the one place they can really compete with the big players. Here they can use “knowledge robots” or “knowbots” to roam the Web, create customised reports and newspapers, find specific products at the best prices, and even negotiate on behalf of the trader and customer.

As the expense of being online plummets to near zero, the speed of connection is soaring. The slow modem is obsolete as fibre-optic lines no thicker than a human hair with a trillion bit per second transfer rate are being installed in the US at the rate of 4000 miles per day, while in Britain BT is promising nationwide permanent ADSL links (50 times faster than modems) within two years. Project Oxygen plans to lay ocean-floor optical cables across the Atlantic, while satellite data broadcasting offers wireless Internet connection. Bandwidth (the bottleneck of the data exchange process) doubles every year. Bill Gates in 1994 predicted “we’ll have infinite bandwidth in a decade’s time”. Information will before long be able to travel at almost literally the speed of light.

In consequence of all this, there is an orgy of buyouts and alliances as capitalism races to reconfigure its entire business system, including everything from Hollywood to hard drives:
The business of computing (hardware, software, and services), communications (telephony, cable, satellite), and content (publishing, entertainment, advertising) are . . . collapsing to create a new industry sector. This new media industry is the engine of the new economy and will be critical to leading a successful transition. The rise of this new sector and the transformation of corresponding markets is forcing every company to rethink its very existence . . . (Don Tapscott, author and chair of Alliance for Converging Technologies).
One can easily envisage the telecommunications companies becoming the new giants, eclipsing all others as one box does everything and all bills are paid through one tele-account. Yet talk of “boxes” is itself an obsolescent concept, as Xerox have perfected “e-paper” (Observer, 22 August) and research continues towards wristwatch computers and even brain implants, giving rise to talk of “synthetic telepathy” in the more distant future. And as science revolutionises the Internet, so the Internet is revolutionising science. With the spatial decoupling of the scientist from the task, the so-called “collaboratory” is born, enabling multiple users to share a single physical resource, enhanced productivity with no travel time, and participation by experimenters in multiple, geographically-distributed projects. Remote science not only levels the playing field for researchers, it also offers more rigorous standards of specification, note-taking and reproducibility of results. Capitalism’s R&D department is as excited as the Accounts department and the Board of Directors.

Yet despite all this breathless enthusiasm there may be serious problems for capitalism inherent in this revolution. That the marriage of the state and the capitalists is fraught with mutual suspicion is evident from their attempts to reach a solution to the problem of devising a code to keep details secret (see GIP report on House of Lords Encryption Summit, 1997). The capitalists want a system which is unbreakable, for customers will not expose their bank details in an unsafe medium, and corporate secrecy remains essential in a competitive market. However, the state cannot afford to allow it, citing terrorism as its pretext, and demands a master key for every code. The capitalists respond that they don’t trust governments not to use these keys for their own unsavoury purposes, such as interfering in business, and back and forth it goes. At present it seems unlikely that the state will get its way. It could probably happily do without the Internet altogether, but conversely, capitalism needs the Internet, possibly as much as it needs the state, given that local lawmakers are anyway creating a global maze of parochial laws and regulations that offer nothing but obstructions and impediments to the progress of capital. The cry of “free the market” is heard everywhere from boardroom to newsgroup to government office, and legislators do not seem to be winning.

Price-less information 
There is a worse problem. Information, as a buy and sell commodity, carries a curse unknown to any other type of commodity. In the words of an old computer hacker slogan, “information wants to be free”. When one disgruntled ex-employee of a software firm recently posted the company’s products on a free website, the site was closed down in two hours. Yet twenty minutes would have been enough to start mirror sites containing the free software, at a stroke wiping out the firm’s profits. It is worth recalling what really makes a commodity—it is restriction of access. Air is just about the only use-value in existence which is not yet a commodity, in other words it has no exchange value. If access cannot be restricted to a good, money cannot be charged for it. The unique property of information is that you can make infinite exact copies, you can “steal” it without removing the original, or leaving any trace of the “theft”. Just as the music industry had to learn to live with music piracy (which of us does not have pirate tapes on our shelves?) so the information industry must live, not only with piracy, but an extremely short shelf-life. The price of any information commodity will tend towards zero more rapidly than any other commodity. The traditional product-cycle will contract to a single, sharp peak and steep descent. Whereas capitalists now salivate over a presumed bonanza this short-term pay-out will give way to a cut-throat and dog-eat-dog business world characterised by a falling rate of profit and a desperate race to stand still.

Impossible though it seems, it gets worse for capitalism. The goose could be laying a golden bomb. Unlike any other sector of production, the knowledge-producing sector which produced the Internet has always incorporated a strong ethical tendency towards free distribution—the gift economy. In a far-sighted study of Internet sociology, Richard Barbrook’s essay on Cyber-communism (Link) argues powerfully that a knowledge-rich society will increasingly tend to share rather than sell, just as socialist common ownership is a logical adaptation to material abundance. In an ethical reversal, it is selling, not piracy, which will be seen as anti-social. All in all, capitalism would appear to be staking its future on a commodity it can never control:
  The scarcity of copyright cannot compete against the abundance of gifts . . . At the cutting edge of modernity, the exchange of commodities now plays a secondary role to the circulation of gifts. The enclosure of intellectual labour is challenged by a more efficient method of working: disclosure.
Barbrook foresees the collapse of production and market relations in the same way as other business observers have been worrying for years about the “technology paradox” of “zero cost production” in industry (Business Week, 6 March 1995). As the computer world gapes at the meteoric rise of a new operating system called Linux, designed by a student as an antidote to the “bloatware” of Microsoft and, more to the point, given away free as “Open Source”, there does indeed seem to be some basis for the optimism of the gift economists. The implications for the future of capitalist market relations are huge and contentious. There are no guarantees that capitalism will drown in its own Third Wave, but equally there are no guarantees that it won’t. But as if this wasn’t enough, there arises a new problem which has no precedent and for which no avoidance strategies have yet been devised. In the knowledge explosion, what happens when we know too much?
Paddy Shannon

(In Part Two of this three-part series, Paddy Shannon explores the consequences of the information revolution for the ideological foundations of capitalism.)

Link to Part 2

Capitalism and the Internet (2): The Internet and Ideology (2000)

From the February 2000 of the Socialist Standard

Link 1
  The Internet is being hailed as a saviour by both capitalists and anti-capitalists alike. Rarely has any technology been so universally viewed as a holy grail by sworn mutual enemies. Who is right? Will it destroy capitalism or rejuvenate it?
At the Christopher Columbus school in Union City, New Jersey, a dustbin school with a dropout rate as high as its pass rate was low, an experiment was conducted in 1993. Each student was given a home PC and taught online, with both teacher and parent training to assist. The dropout rate fell to near zero, the daytime attendance rate rose to near perfect, and test scores rose 10 points higher than the NJ state average, in every subject. (http://www.gip.com).

Though schooling is unlikely ever to be entirely online, for social reasons, the possibilities of education in general via the Internet are nevertheless enormous. Traditional education—in real time—relies on too many ingredients being present in the right order, amount and quality. Virtual schools can tailor classes to individuals to a far higher degree of precision. Night school does not have to be at night, or local, or regular, or in one place, or reliant on one teacher. Educators have literally a world of resources to draw upon, while self-educators have the best access to knowledge of any generation that has existed. The establishment of the global knowledge network which we are now seeing has been aptly described by Douglas Rushkoff as “the hard-wiring of the global brain” (Cyberia 1994). Education, once the province of the rich and jealously guarded by them, is being democratised at an unprecedented rate. And ideology cannot change without a change in education.

Education is also about debate, and the lack of a public domain or sphere in which to discuss ideas has been held to be a key factor in late 20th Century ideological stagnation (Habermas, Schneider, Rheingold, quoted in Alinta Thornton’s Masters thesis, University of Sydney, (Link). Now, however, Usenet, the global network of mailing lists and newsgroups, is becoming an organic encyclopaedia and coffee house which permits debate on every issue 24 hours a day. As the Romans had the Forum, so we have Usenet. It is the new theatre in the war of ideologies now heating up. Good ideas will spread there. Bad ones will die there. Usenet is where theorists become activists, and where activists learn their theory. Capitalist ideologues are going to have to work harder in future, for educated populations cannot be fobbed off with fairy tales. They start to expect things their forebears didn’t even imagine. They start to make demands.

The DD Digerati
The first demand is more democracy. Capitalism in its advanced form relies on a model of liberal democracy to get the best out of workers, but it has to take a chance on them asking for too much. Now, governments from Britain to Malaysia to Costa Rica are “enthusiastically” experimenting with virtual council meetings and online voting in an effort to keep abreast of the public expectation of more open government. That this enthusiasm is ambivalent is shown by the fact that many of these same governments are also trying to legislate controls into the Internet—unsuccessfully as it happens. The cybergeek contingent—the “digerati”—are excitedly lyricising about running society with Direct Democracy instead of representative government, which they somewhat naively imagine was a democratic expedient imposed by geographical and other practical limitations.

Astonishing technical advance
Nobody who comprehends the class struggle will believe for an instant that the rich will allow Direct Democracy—except where it can’t do any harm and where it might bore us stupid with trivial decision-making. However, the expectation of more democracy is an important and empowering development nonetheless, for it represents a line of convergence with socialist thinking and away from the leadership mentality which plagues radical thinking. When it becomes loud enough, it will be a sign that the working class is gaining a little self-respect at last.

The second demand is a new agenda. As the organisational ability of “wired” protesters is now increasingly on a par with that of governments, as we saw with J18 and N30 and may see again with Mayday 2000, a new sense of potency seems to be sweeping through the radical mind. We don’t have to take it lying down. Corporations are not invulnerable. Individuals can be held to account. Even an entire social system can be challenged, as disparate and sometimes frankly deluded single-issue activists coalesce under the gravitational pull of common experience into what may yet become an embryonic anti-capitalism movement. Instead of being a passive consumerist mass, we can learn to think of ourselves as a proactive team of individuals. The Internet is creating a climate of new possibilities that cuts away at the dead growth of apathy and spawns a new idea: the network consciousness, a concept of interactive, interlinked human nodes in a vast, decentralised and co-operative process, a foretaste of working class consciousness.

Custodes custodiamus
Schooled however in the old thinking, we might conclude that the state will take over the Internet and use it as a new and terrible weapon of control over the working class. Accepting that they have always won in the past, we can only imagine that they will always win in the future. Is there not now a CCTV camera on every street corner? Do they not have their satellites, listening stations and Cray computers monitoring every move, purchase and phone call we make? Well, they may do, and those dedicated to underground criminal or insurrectionary activities may indeed worry about this, but there is something here for the monitors to worry about too—we can also watch them.

The near-level playing field of the cybersociety means that whatever they can do to us, we can do right back to them. This mutual integrated surveillance is already taking place, as US state governors now find themselves and their domestic affairs interrogated by an international brigade, and the government of Mexico finds its attempts to quietly crush the Zapatistas constantly harried and hamstrung by the unwelcome attention of the global online community. Amateur video of Rodney King helping police with their enquiries started the LA riots, and protesters now typically tool up with camcorders, laptops and mobile phones. Anything one protester discovers, all soon know. Governments, like the burglars they are, hate to work in the spotlight, and now it isn’t only the news media which are directing the beams. This is a game we can all play. Quis custodes custodiat? Answer: we do.

Bomb damage
Much is made of government censorship, and governments can certainly close down any website they don’t like. But only temporarily. Just as the forerunner of the Internet, ARPANET, was devised by the military to route around bomb damage to any node, so the Internet can equally route around censorship damage. Besides, the Net is global, whereas governments are local, and what one government dislikes another will frequently allow or ignore. China, so keen to imprison radical Internet users, is nevertheless in a minority of one where censorship is concerned, and its control of internal information flows is haemorrhaging at a thousand different points.

Monitoring of users worldwide is easily countered by the rapid growth of “anonymiser” sites (e.g. www.anonymiser.com), which strip out your personal details and let you roam without fear of identification. Autocensorship software is notoriously unreliable and it is easily outmanoeuvred. Besides, the rich themselves are not keen on government control. A book called Friendly Spies quotes the IBM office in Paris as having done a set of experiments to demonstrate the fact that the code keys they were required to share with the French government were being used for industrial espionage purposes (quoted in GIP).

It may not be states we have to worry about. The omniscient state may be an obsolescent dinosaur in any case, as capitalism militantly embraces the ‘free’ market and multinationals grow so powerful that “an estimated one quarter of all world trade now consists of sales between subsidiaries of the same firm” (Alvin & Heidi Toffler, War and Anti-War, 1993).
  “The flow of information into or out of a nation can no longer be effectively controlled by the state; information is everywhere and accessible. To participate in the burgeoning economic benefits of world commerce means adopting practices that undermine state control . . .” (Carl Builder, Strategy analyst, RAND Corporation).
Riccardo Petrella, a former science and technology director at the European Commission, predicts the collapse of the nation state and the rise of a ‘hi-tech archipelago’ of city-states in conjunction with multinational companies, while Warren Christopher, former US Secretary of State, predicts “5000 countries rather than the hundred-plus we have now” and George Yao, Singapore deputy PM, foresees the disintegration of China into hundreds of city-states. (Quoted in Toffler).

Today, cutting edge; tomorrow, garbage
Were this to occur, it must be a disaster for fascist ideology, since it gives the nationalists just what they think they want, and lets them choke on it. People might fight for the right to be called Basques, Latvians or Chechens, but it is hard to imagine them fighting over Coke or Pepsi in the same way. In any case, war is likely to become increasingly hard to justify when the global working class is just that, global. Much of the hate propaganda necessary to stoke public sympathy for a war will be impossible to foist on an internationalised class which works together, online, every day of the week.

The String Vest of Secrecy
Even secrecy is on the wane in the future, if one believes the former science adviser to President Reagan, G. A. Keyworth. Pointing to the fact that traditional intelligence gathering has been on the monumental scale (the US Government produced 6.3 million classified documents in 1992 alone) and involves a huge industry of chaff sorting and “analysis paralysis”, he says: “The price of protecting information is so high that classification becomes a handicap”. Meanwhile Robert Steele of US Intelligence, a critic of the secrecy industry, says: “The hidden costs of secrecy are so immense they often outweigh the benefits by a wide margin.”

Steele and others argue for an open system, with very little secrecy. It is surprising what is already in the public domain. Larry Seaquist of US Naval Intelligence reports that they get more useful information from one Internet PC than all their private and highly secret SPARC workstations put together. There are already few things which are really secret, even if we might wish they were. An underground nuclear cookbook called Basement Nukes prompts Michael Golay, professor of nuclear engineering at MIT, to say: “What’s classified today is how to build a good weapon, not how to build a weapon.” In a wider sense, the Internet will by its nature militate against the holding of secrets, for risk-free disclosure is a button-press away for any individual and information sharing has long been the accepted mode of transaction online. The global brain, one might say, will steadily illuminate its own dark areas. Capitalist ideology, insofar as it depends on secrecy, is due for a hammering.
Paddy Shannon

(Next month: we continue the discussion of the impact of the Internet on capitalist ideology.)

As if to prove that computer technology is not infallible, in Part I of this series the first two paragraphs on page 9 of the January Socialist Standard , were garbled as a result of the unexplained introduction of material from another article. The garbled passage should have read:
Yet talk of “boxes” is itself an obsolescent concept, as Xerox have perfected “e-paper” (Observer, 22 August) and research continues towards wristwatch computers and even brain implants, giving rise to talk of “synthetic telepathy” in the more distant future. And as science revolutionises the Internet, so the Internet is revolutionising science. With the spatial decoupling of the scientist from the task, the so-called “collaboratory” is born, enabling multiple users to share a singe physical resource, enhanced productivity with no travel time, and participation by experimenters in multiple, geographically-distributed projects.
Our apologies to readers and the writers—Editors

Capitalism and the Internet (3) (2000)

From the March 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Link to Part 2
Despite a clear tendency towards enlightening social relations, the Internet does not promise to give revolutionaries their socialist society on a plate. In fact, it offers us the parallel “disinformation revolution” as well. Unlike misinformation, disinformation is deliberate.

 Although mass propaganda can be expected to decrease quantitatively, customised propaganda may increase qualitatively. Propaganda and spin could become more, not less, powerful, as mass media gives way to “mess media” and a proliferation of micro-channels, micro-markets and perhaps micro-cultures makes the targeting of disinformation against selected individuals more feasible. It’s as if the ultimate dream of the free-marketeers is of six billion separate Earths, a doppelganger for each of us, and consensus or revolution impossible in any of them. But humans aren’t so easy to control, nor communication so easy to stop. The right-wing utopians forget about our critical faculties and our propensity to gossip amongst ourselves:

The hypnotic spell of years of television and its intense public relations is broken as people learn to deconstruct and recombine the images intended to persuade them. The result is that the population at large gains the freedom to re-examine previously accepted policies and prejudices” (Rushkoff, Cyberia, p.55-6).

Micro-propaganda just isn’t going to cut it unless we collectively agree to brick up our windows and doors and never go out. Realistically, the ideology of capitalism will not be able to rely on permanent, large-scale disinformation. The best it can expect is to muddy the waters.
The danger of participation is that there are . . . thousands of potentially critical eyes watching every entry. A faulty fact will be challenged, a lie will be uncovered, plagiarism will be discovered. Cyberspace is a truth serum (Rushkoff, p.18).
Monocultural studies 
As global monoculture advances upon us in the real world of Wal-Mart and McDonalds, cyberspace , in contradistinction, is going the opposite way by reinventing diversity. There is a double irony at work. First, the right-wing free marketeers parade their hypocritical “cult of the individual” as a justification for a sociopathic mentality of self-centred consumerism, while at the same time making every effort to destroy cultures and reduce individuals to a grinding uniformity of alienated clones. Second, their own system is producing an atomised multicultural cybersociety which may yet undo their work. Where capitalism tried to keep us apart while making us the same, cyber-capitalism will have the effect of bringing us all together while making us different.

Trouble at’ McMill 
Yet if this view of capitalism’s future seems to have a rosy tint, it’s probably a bloodstain. There is likely to be a ferocious and global scramble for the ever-decreasing number of real jobs in the hi-tech labour market. The “digerati” may get excited about their hi-tech utopias but the future looks grim for workers. The former proletariat may become the future sophisticated “cognitariat” (Toffler), but they are going to be mostly underemployed part-timers battling each other for short contracts. Meanwhile the rest of the population will presumably be fighting for work in leisure malls, call centres and other dispiriting and low-paid McJobs. And when things get really bad, workers tend to wake up from the American Dream and smell a rat. Carl Davidson, editor of Cy Rev, a “Journal of Cybernetic Revolution, Sustainable Socialism & Radical Democracy”, sounds a warning:
 In 1992 the size of the world labor force was something like 1.76 billion people; by 2025, if current trends stay more or less what they are, the world labor force is going to be 3.1 billion people. That means every year for the next thirty years the world economy needs to create 38 to 40 million new jobs. And it’s got to do that at a time when the main technological trend is going in the opposite direction of net job liquidation” (http://www.eff.org/pub/Publications/E-journals/CyRev).
What then of free-market philosophy, this wonderful doctrine from two centuries ago which thinks capitalism would work fine and dandy if the stupid politicians would just go away? Free-market capitalists think the poor don’t matter and will obligingly roll over and die, but when the first riots start, these same capitalists will remember pretty quick what they were paying the state for in the first place. Civil unrest may be most cheaply staved off by bread and circuses, and excuses, as it once was in ancient Rome, but for these angry modern workers the bread will have to be good and the circuses had better be terrific, since the excuses, as usual, will be lousy.

Virtual Unreality 
Of course, the entertainment will be awesome, if nasty, after capitalism’s tastes. Frighteningly convincing graphics and sensory experiences will create seamless mirages, a virtual unreality that might forever close the door to political change. Certainly it is curious to note that technology has brought the “circus” ever closer, from arena to stage to screen to TV to PC monitor. Ultimately we will watch our little mirages on “drop-down” corneal displays, a final triumph of the circus as it climbs right inside our heads. Better still, with full-body virtual reality, the viewer gets to climb right into the ring. But for all that, the charade, however mindbending, has to stop sometime. Circuses pall, just ask any overworked clown. Humans will never really lose sight of the distinction between real and virtual, unless they can be made to forget that they are rational animals. Besides, so much of their reality is patently bullshit that nothing short of mass lobotomy could disguise it.

Credo Greedo
And bullshit is what lies at the heart of capitalist ideology. Even capitalists themselves believe it. On Page One of every school economics textbook it says that resources are limited but wants are unlimited. As wants are satisfied, new wants always appear. Now if this were true, socialism would be impossible. Relying on this anti-human and quite unsubstantiated prejudice the capitalists, knowing the extremely short shelf-life of information commodities, expect to be able to produce new commodities indefinitely, to replace old ones that have become free or nearly so. Yet here is their mistake, for wants are not infinite. As more things become free (for example, MS Explorer, Netscape, Winzip, Apache, Acrobat, Linux and a thousand other useful programs) they expect us to keep paying for upgrades, assuming we will always want more, but we won’t. Instead, we will reach a satisfaction threshold. And then, we’ll just start expecting everything else to be free too. And why not? With modern robotised manufacturing, costs are falling in all sectors of commodity production. If they cost next to nothing to produce, why should we pay at all? Kevin Kelly, founder editor of Wired, doesn’t see a problem for capitalism in this, and argues that businesses should give their products away for free, in order to reap later returns:
Ubiquity drives increasing returns in the network economy. The question becomes: what is the most cost-effective way to achieve ubiquity? And the answer is: give things away. Make them free (New Rules for the New Economy, Fourth Estate, 1998).
One can only hope that all capitalists, convinced of our insatiable natures, are daft enough to follow Kelly’s advice, and indeed many companies are doing just this, and not just with software, (free mobile phones, free calls, free satellite decoders). Even if this loss-leader strategy just makes a loss, it plants another expectation in the public mind, and subtly undermines its own creators. Things can be free. There is such a thing as enough. Abundance does exist.

It may be that the sacred cows of capitalism and property society will be sent to the slaughterhouse one by one. Even that feared and revered symbol of ultimate power, the coin, may lose its lustre, its relevance reduced to a meaningless abstraction. Where once we bartered real things like sheep or sacks of salt, then paid with iron bars, gold ingots or copper coins, then latterly with decorated scraps of paper, now we will be held to ransom by mere electronic digits. The case for abolishing digits may not seem so far fetched in the future when nobody handles real cash anymore and the fetishised idol no longer has even a visible face.

The Socialist Virus
As well as the notion of insatiable greed, the ideology of capitalism also rests on the notion of natural inequality, the cult of the leader and of the expert. The better educated workers become, the more this cult suffers. As contempt for our politicians rides as high as voting figures sink low, the idea that we must rely on the unique expertise of superior individuals is beginning already to look decidedly comical. But in the wired network consciousness, where “no-one is as smart as everyone” (Kelly, p.14) the expert and the leader may become positively antiquated concepts. The days may be dying when the “ignorant masses” can be led, misled and mystified by some “social elite” who know better. Instead, the wired world may experience a new renaissance of democratised creative thinking, as good ideas begin to spread through the ports and wires of a billion terminals, the electronic synapses of a revolution: “You don’t attack the monster. You infect him, like a virus.” (Rushkoff, p142). And small ideas can grow big in cyberspace, as Kelly, in a backhanded paraphrase of William Morris, makes clear:
 The network economy has set into motion the power of hobby tribes and informed peers . . . The law of increasing returns can feed a small interest into a mid-sized interest. Whereas once there was a lone fanatic for every notion, now there is a devoted website for every fanatic notion; soon there can be 10,000 fellow enthusiasts for every fascination (Kelly, p.105).
Internet disinformation
Yet disinformation remains for the time being the best weapon against workers. When the truth can no longer hide in the dark, the logical thing is to dazzle us with data. It doesn’t even have to be false data, just so long as it’s irrelevant and it wastes precious time. And as the Nobel economist Herbert Simon points out: “What information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of knowledge creates a poverty of attention.” (Kelly, p.59). The grim truth is that this crude strategy will probably work, for a while at least. According to the Critical Art Ensemble, who may be perhaps thinking primarily in the short term, the vast majority of Internet users will be passive consumers, rather than active participants:
They will be playing computer games, watching interactive TV, and shopping in virtual malls. The stratified distribution of education will act as the guardian of the virtual border between the passive and the active user, and prevent those populations participating in multi-directional interactivity from increasing in any significant numbers (Alinta Thornton, Ch.5, http://www.wr.com.au/democracy/thesis1).
If this sounds depressing, one has to remember that it is a conservative estimation of human behaviour as it is now, schooled into a passive consumption of goods, news, ideas and entertainment. If there is one key hallmark of pre-internet mass society it is probably this conditioned passivity. Our pre-internet generation cannot in all fairness be expected to adapt thoroughly to such a major cultural innovation, and will certainly fail to exploit its real long-term potential. A second-generation wired society is likely to be very different, more individualistic yet better integrated, more critical and proactive, and with higher expectations. The longer capitalism lasts, the more bolshie the workers are likely to become.

For now, like everything else in capitalism, any attempt at disinformation overload will work only partially and unreliably, if it works at all, and cannot depend on any conscious or systematic conspiracy by the owning class. Conversely, we as workers have no free ticket to easy victory through the Internet. When all is said and done, it is an instrument only, an “enabling technology”. The printed word didn’t liberate us either, but it made a huge difference, and so will this, if we learn how to use it properly. With the means of knowledge—the key to the means of production—now out of the private bag and in the public domain, it is fair to say that the working class has never been in a stronger position to take control of its own future.

Revolutions are made by people, not machines, people working together, people in communities. Much is made of supposed “online communities”, but it is precisely in the real physical world of community, rather than its ersatz virtual counterparts, that the revolutionary potential of the Internet may be storing up its greatest surprise.
Paddy Shannon

(Next month, in the concluding article, we examine the Internet and Community.)

The internet and capitalism (4) (2000)

From the April 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Link to Part 3
In this concluding article in our series on the impact of the Internet we examine its possible effect on community.
Anyone who comes from a small village knows that one can get too much community. The close and frequently closed communities of feudalism were suffocating, parochial worlds with narrow horizons and narrow minds, a sink of intellectual inertia and ritual. Yet though the club wasn’t inspiring, one’s membership at least was not in doubt. Alienation from other humans was unknown.

One hundred years ago in Britain, urban workers lived together, worked together, went to school, got drunk, went on holiday or strike together, and were buried together. In such a milieu, an idea could take hold, and then spread. People were influenced by each other, they had common ground, they thought as a group, and they were not afraid to talk.

Today, after fifty years of the Welfare State and worker mobility, nobody seems to know or care who lives next-door. Friends are scattered and remote. Isolation is normal, experience and consciousness are private, discrete and discreet. Life is a claustrophobic micro-universe containing a TV and a closed front door. Unfamiliarity breeds contempt as our greatest desire is for the drunks and the drug addicts, the bores and the Christians to leave us alone. We don’t have community because we don’t want community.

Contrary to the claims of the Internet fraternity who see something new and exciting about “virtual communities”, we in the West have already been living in virtual communities for years. Virtual, because we have been remote workers, remote from our community, remote, one might say, from ourselves, stuck in motorway madness chasing remote jobs, going on ever more remote holidays, or slumped exhausted on the sofa with—you guessed it—the remote control. And when we’re at work, in spare moments, we gossip with people we barely know about people who don’t even exist.

Soft soap and schadenfreude 
Nowhere is the virtual community more realised than in the TV soap, the ultimate cry for help from an alienated society. Now the pundits talk sickeningly about “virtual e-soaps” where the viewer—you— can give these “people” advice. The soap characters are one-dimensional caricatures whose only purpose is to provide a cathartic release for workers after a hard day’s slog. It is simply an exercise in schadenfreude, that delight in other people’s problems so essential to those whose own problems could scarcely get any worse.

Yet nobody ever stops to consider that, quite apart from the characters, there is an even greater peculiarity about the soaps which is manifestly out of touch with reality. In Marxian terms, it is their economic base. None of the characters works away from the area. In fact, most if not all of them are sole traders, in other words, artisans. You get the publican, the tea-shop owner, the local entrepreneur, the corner-shop owner, the market-stall owner, the garage owner, and so on and so forth. Each works for himself or herself. Each owns his or her own means of production. Comfortingly, each has an income which we can guess is in rough parity with the other characters’ incomes. One or two of them employ people as staff, or more correctly as apprentices, but these are always locals too, with ambitions one day to start their own local business or to inherit the present one.

It is obvious that this improbable scenario is devised purely in order to allow the creation of a local community. Clearly it would not be possible for an Eastenders character to work in Brighton or Oxford but still appear regularly in the show. And community is very important in the soaps, because it provides the dynamic for drama but also because it provides vicarious relationships for real people to “relate to”.

Back in the 19th century a very popular reformist programme was that of Proudhon, a programme which in essence involved a society of artisans. Proudhon was very concerned at the tendency of employers to exploit employees, and thought that if society was made up of artisans then no such exploitation would take place, each worker would own their own means of production, and would sell their products at the market rate, since the market is an unbiased process of checks and counters, this would tend to balance incomes and prices and provide an equitable system of commodity production and sale, but without the massive problems of class division and exploitation.

There are people today who still believe this, Marx’s efforts to debunk it notwithstanding. The soaps encourage this belief. They provide an apparently working and stable model of an artisan economy, upon which is mounted a community-based superstructure which, despite being populated largely by cartoon characters, is fiercely attractive to the community-starved worker. The fact that this economy is fiction is overlooked. The focus of the plots is always kept away from the underlying economy, and while protagonists frequently experience exaggerated personal problems the artisan economy their community relies on remains perpetually in the background, innocuous and unchallenged. Markets do not change. Economic conflicts do not arise. Nobody goes bust. The plot-writers do not wish to present themselves with insoluble dilemmas – if they allow a character to lose their livelihood, they must either drop them from the soap or find them some other plausible occupation within the narrow confines of the community. It is in general easier for the writers not to let this situation arise. One insidious consequence is that people are always the focus of problems, while their economic circumstances are never seen to be the source of any conflict or difficulty.

Artisan production did exist in the late feudal era, when commodity production was in its infancy, but it was very rapidly overtaken by modern capitalism. As a model of commodity production, the artisan society becomes very quickly unstable in reality. To believe in a form of capitalism based on sole traders is to believe a fairy tale or, indeed, a soap opera. It is essentially a step backwards in time, a reversion to an earlier form. People want to believe in an artisan society (many idealistic left-wingers call this “socialism”, and it is intrinsic in much of the thinking of Greens) because in reality they want their communities back, and see this as a way to get it.

Doing your homework 
And yet, bizarrely, it is just possible, despite this, that history might repeat itself. The real revolution of the Internet isn’t online, it’s offline, in the world of the “homeworker”. If global destruction does not intervene beforehand, a new form of hi-tech artisanal society might indeed appear in the West. As production becomes computerised and the Internet pervades the workplace, more and more people are going to find it feasible to work from home, or from “hot-desks”, or from their portable “teledesk”. Due to the difficulty of defining “homeworking”, estimates for home-workers vary in the US from 10 to 15 million workers, or about 14% of the labour force, up from 4 million in 1990 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, quoted in American Demographics, July 1999: www.demographics.com). In Britain there are about 1 million home or teleworkers, and an estimated “52 percent of the working population will be homeworking by the year 2010” (Teleworking Survey: Link). That this has not happened faster or sooner can be ascribed simply to traditional business structures: “The barriers to teleworking tend to be managerial rather than technological. Traditional attitudes need to be chipped away at to make it happen.”

In addition, the casualisation of work contracts means that the main working pattern of the future may be freelance. Operating from home, many workers may find themselves doing not one but several different jobs for different companies, not as employees but as sub-contractors. They will in effect become sole traders, online artisans plying their wares and skills in a virtual marketplace. Although surveys show that homeworking is the most desired option by hi-tech workers (Washington Post, February 11, 1999) it is the capitalist class who stand to gain most, by saving on wages, costs and overheads, and by eroding worker’s rights:
  Behind the technological part of the information highway is the business community’s attempt to use the new information and communications technology to shift power from governments and the nation state to multinational corporations, from the public to the private sector, from small business to big business, from a unionized to non-unionized environment, from citizens to consumers, and from group rights to individual rights (Unions and the Information Highway: http://www.ofl-fto.on.ca/ftp/ppaper5.txt).
Even though homeworking would save a Londoner on average 10 working weeks per year in travel time (Home Office Partnership: http://www.hop.co.uk/) the chances are the worker won’t gain the full benefit:
the current wisdom is that up to half the commuting hours saved by telecommuting employees may be given directly back to the company as additional work hours. The Gartner Group estimates that telecommuting improves employee productivity by 10 percent to 40 percent (American Demographics).
Yet the home-working revolution is likely to bring some fundamental advantages which no amount of capitalist exploitation can outweigh:
 The community will benefit in the longer term as larger numbers of home workers abandon the peak-hour rush. There will be fewer cars on the road, less air pollution and traffic congestion, fewer health and work-induced stress problems and more community participation (International Journal of Career Management Conference, August 1995: http://www.mcb.co.uk/liblink/ijcm)
From the Tudors to telecentres 
But then there arises a new social dilemma for which people will have to devise a new solution. The isolation and domestic interruptions which working from home imply and which are cited by many workers as problematic may result in the development of a new kind of working environment, the work or telecentre. Just as the artisans of the Tudor age began to find it convenient and cheaper, as well as more sociable, to band together under one roof in order to share tools, materials and heating, so online workers of the future may find it desirable to band together under one local roof.

The result may be that local people will once again be able to work together locally. That they will all be working for different companies in different parts of the world hardly matters. The implications for the rebirth of local communities are obvious. The car culture evaporates and motorways empty of commuters as workers walk the five minutes to their local telecentre, greet their friends and neighbours, sign on to their individual company, and discuss politics and local affairs in their lunch and tea-breaks. In addition, the non-gender specific nature of teleworking means a sea-change in the realm of sexual politics and childcare, as homelife and working life converge in the local community matrix and gender becomes less significant than at any time since the agricultural revolution.

The social, cultural, political and environmental consequences of such a change in western working patterns are hard to overstate. But the class war won’t go away, indeed it may intensify. If unions presently fear the atomisation of an isolated homeworking labour force, the communalisation of working may change for the better the means by which workers organise in defence of their pay and conditions. Unions, previously based first on individual trades and latterly on individual companies, may in the future find individual telecentres the locus of organisation. This would cut across the traditional corporate divisions as workers from various sectors of industry, commerce, finance and other services band together to defend themselves. As capitalism becomes global, workers will need to globalise their strategies of defence, and one way to do this would be to network between these local centres.

Déja vu
But in yet another twist, as capital becomes ever less dependant on geographical considerations, companies may find it expedient to invade these local telecentres and take them over, lock stock and barrel. The way to do this would be to buy into the management of these centres, the capitalist bodies which administer everything from catering to arbitration, and then gradually take over the role of central employer, accountant and contractor.

Nevertheless, even in this worst case scenario, workers would have achieved, or rather re-achieved, the community which they lost in the period after the Second World War. The significance of this should not be underestimated. Community is essential to socialism, indeed community and communism are really the same word. A society with a strong sense of community is a society which can communicate the idea of a socialist revolution, and can bring it about. Far from representing some terminal retreat into virtual reality, the Internet may finally precipitate a wholesale flight out of one. If the future online world leads, not to a society of isolated electronic cave-dwellers, but to a new flowering of community working and activity, and to an explosion of communication, the prospects for social revolution cease to look unlikely, and begin to look possible, and even probable.
Paddy Shannon