Sunday, May 30, 2021

Rear View: Glenn in Wonderland (2021)

The Rear View Column from the May 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Glenn in Wonderland

”When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.” A similar disdain for language would seem to be shared by Lewis Carroll’s character in Alice Through the Looking-Glass and Glenn Greenwald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Glenn ‘… went on to say that he ‘would describe a lot of people on the right as being socialists,’ such as former White House strategist Steve Bannon and ‘the 2016 iteration’ of former President Donald Trump as a candidate, ‘based on what he was saying.’ ‘I consider Tucker Carlson to be a socialist,’ Greenwald said of the Daily Caller co-founder. He then described an instance where Carlson and Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a self-identified socialist, agreed in their mutual opposition to Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo wanting ‘to give tens of millions of dollars to Amazon to bring an office to New York.”(dailycaller.com, 3 March). The word socialism, as originally used by the followers of Robert Owen, appeared for the first time in their Co-operative Magazine of November 1827 and meant common ownership (not nationalisation or state capitalism). The American Marxist Daniel De Leon understood this and saw socialism as a revolutionary change in society. He explained: ‘As a poodle may have his hair cut long or his hair cut short, as he may be trimmed with pink ribbons or with blue ribbons, yet he remains the same old poodle, so capitalism may be trimmed with factory laws, tenement laws, divorce laws and gambling laws, but it remains the same old capitalism. These ‘humanitarian parts’ are only trimming the poodle. Socialism, one and inseparable with its ‘anti-rent and anti-capital parts,’ means to get rid of the poodle’ (Daily People, 2 November, 1908).


Tweedledee and Tweedledum

Helen Keller said of democracy in the US: ‘Our democracy is but a name. We vote? What does that mean? It means that we choose between two bodies of real, though not avowed, autocrats. We choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.’ Will the Marxist Unity Slate save us? They say: ‘Thousands of DSA [Democratic Socialists of America] members are inspired by Marxist politics, and we want to unite them around a credible vision for an independent socialist movement in the United States. ‘Slate’ refers not to a slate of leadership candidates, but to our three-point lineup of (1) Constitutional amendment and (2) Resolutions. We believe our three-point slate will help DSA develop a strong ‘programmatic unity’: unity based not on theoretical dogma, but on common struggle and a shared political vision. WE NEED 100 SIGNATURES ON EACH ITEM TO PROCEED TO THE NEXT STAGE! With your support and signatures we can begin to build an ecumenical mass socialist party based on Marxist principles’ (undated, marxistunity.com). Wait! Here’s one that genuine socialists made earlier: the World Socialist Party of the United States. Since its formation in 1916 by 42 defecting members of Local Detroit of the Socialist Party of America (SPA), the WSP has consistently advocated a fully democratic society based upon co-operation and production for use, opposed every single war, participated in working-class struggles, and functioned as a democratic and leaderless organisation. Writing that same year, Keller noted: ‘I became an IWW because I found out that the Socialist party was too slow. It is sinking in the political bog. It is almost, if not quite, impossible for the party to keep its revolutionary character so long as it occupies a place under the government and seeks office under it. The government does not stand for interests the Socialist party is supposed to represent’ (from an interview written by Barbara Bindley published in the NewYork Tribune, 16 January, 1916).


The (Mad) Hatter

‘Deng Xiaoping is famous for the saying ‘it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white provided it catches mice.’ As I am an unashamed Dengite in economic theory the equivalent of this is that it is perfectly possible to understand China’s socialist economy in terms of either Western or Marxist economic theory…’ (undated, learningfromchina.net). The author John Ross is a Senior Fellow in Financial Studies at Renmin University, China. The socialism Marx envisaged involved ‘abolition of buying and selling, of the bourgeois conditions of production’ (Communist Manifesto). Oh, the irony! In his Report of an Investigation into the Peasant Movement in Hunan (1927), Mao admitted that the coming revolution would not be socialist: ‘To overthrow these feudal forces is the real objective of the revolution.’ Writing four years earlier Sylvia Pankhurst stated: ‘Socialism means plenty for all. We do not preach a gospel of want and scarcity, but of abundance. Our desire is not to make poor those who today are rich, in order to put the poor in the place where the rich now are. Our desire is not to pull down the present rulers to put other rulers in their places’ (Socialism, Workers’ Dreadnought, 28 July 1923). Does this sound familar? What follows is almost prophetic: ‘…We do not call for limitation of births…’! Socialism in a post-capitalist world of production for use and allocation according to self-defined need will make finance, including Marxian economics, redundant.

”If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there.’

Socialism with Chinese characteristics is another dead end. Alice in Wonderland has been banned in multiple countries including China. ‘We are drawn back to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because when we read it, we become the heretics, dreamers and rebels who would change the world’ (theconversation.com, 16 February).

Pathfinders: Whales, Scales and Fishy Tales (2021)

The Pathfinders Column from the May 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Big waves were caused recently by the release on Netflix of the documentary Seaspiracy, which sets out to harpoon the supposedly sustainable global fishing and aquaculture industry. A furious backlash by industry insiders immediately ensued, accusing Netflix of screening ‘vegan propaganda’. Netflix however, keen to drag an increasingly vegan-oriented millennial audience away from YouTube, won’t care about treading on a few people’s raw sushi.

First-time film-makers Ali and Lucy Tabrizi travel the world to research the documentary, showing at times considerable courage in evading arrest, or indeed much worse. What they discover is shocking and designed to shock. It takes nerve to watch a whole dolphin pod being hacked to death with cleavers, even more to see real footage of humans being shot in the sea. Former slaves in Thailand relate being press-ganged and made to work at gunpoint on trawlers for years, and executed and thrown over the side if they refuse. The filmmakers have to flee in a car chase to the airport with a criminal gang in hot pursuit. An industry spokesperson at a trade show laughs and denies any such nonsense. EU ministers offer bland assurances. Environmental charities dodge the issue. This is an industry which, the documentary makes plain, will stop at nothing to prevent the public from knowing what really goes on.

This is an unregulated and often illegal industry in which vast factory ships trailing miles of floor-scraping nets drag the ocean for everything it contains, including not just the target fish but also ‘by-catch’, variously estimated at between 10 and 50 percent, which is then thrown back dead. The impact is global and catastrophic. When the Deepwater Horizon oil spill occurred in 2010, instead of marine wildlife in the Gulf of Mexico being destroyed as predicted, it actually recovered, despite all the oil, because commercial fishing had been suspended. The tragedy and the irony is that the oceans would recover easily enough if humans would just leave them alone. More whales would help us too. Marine life is a huge carbon sink. A tree absorbs up to 48 pounds of CO2 a year. Each dead whale that sinks to the ocean floor sequesters 33 tons for centuries (Link).

The scale of marine destruction is not common knowledge. Catches are supposed to be ‘dolphin-safe’, and sustainable, and there are industry-approved labels to certify it. But the documentary makes clear that none of these certifications mean anything, because there is no way to enforce them. It’s too expensive for observers to go out with every boat and check, so they only have the captain’s word that no by-catch was destroyed in the process. Issuing agencies get paid by the industry to certify catches as ‘dolphin-safe’, a clear conflict of interests. ‘Sustainable’ doesn’t mean what we think either, that fish stocks are 100 percent healthy. Some species have seen population crashes of up to 90 percent, and ‘sustainable’ may only mean that they are being fished at just above extinction level.

Then there’s the fact that marine trawling is the biggest food-related carbon emitter after beef and lamb farming, equivalent to global air travel, and dwarfing that from pigs, chickens and grain crops (Link). And while we are encouraged to obsess about plastic straws and cotton buds, a media displacement strategy that George Monbiot, a contributor in the film, describes as ‘micro-consumerist bollocks’ (Link), fishing produces up to 800,000 tons of discarded heavyweight plastic fishing gear a year, making up approximately half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch and destroying untold wildlife.

Monbiot lambasts the BBC for making nature programmes that never spotlight the destructive fishing industry (Link). In fact the BBC’s own Reality Check journalists went over Seaspiracy and failed to find much to criticise (bbc.in/3tiLqGu). There were some out-of-date statistics though, which gave ammunition to the doc’s detractors. Yet data is a perennial problem. You can’t just count fish in the sea like cows in a field, so fish stocks are guesses. Catches can remain level while stocks plummet, because of greater trawling efficiency. The documentary says 50 percent by-catch, other sources say 10 percent, but with no monitoring there is no way to know. The film perhaps has a motive to paint a bleak scenario, but the industry has an equally strong motive to dismiss all concerns. Who do you believe?

Just before Seaspiracy aired in March, New Scientist also looked at the global fishing industry (13 February). This article was slightly more upbeat, pointing to some small improvements, yet came to the same broad conclusions. Since 1950 the human population has gone up by 175 percent, but fishing by 750 percent. Despite three global agreements to stop the decline in fish stocks, almost nothing has been done to reverse the trend. And fish farming is no solution, because it’s a net consumer, not a producer of fish protein. More human-edible fish are fed into the aquaculture system as fish meal than come out as product, at a ratio of anywhere between 3:1 and for tuna, 20:1. And this is quite apart from the 22 million tons of fish – nearly 30 percent of the human-edible catch – fed to domestic livestock for the meat industry, once again with back-to-front protein ratios (Link).

So if industrial fishing is so bad, and fish farming is no answer, what’s the solution? Don’t eat fish, says the documentary. It’s true that the health benefits of fish are overrated, despite the NHS advice to eat more of it. Omega 3s aren’t made by fish, but by the algae they consume, so we could just make edible foods directly out of the algae.

But telling viewers not to eat fish is meaningless unless you also tell them not to eat animals or keep pets fed on them, or use products made with them, and in any case overlooks the bigger picture. The fishing industry is just one aspect of a spectacularly destructive global production system which operates the way it does because it makes money. And where money leads, destruction follows. As the fish stocks fall and the prices go up, the plundering will if anything increase. Capitalism is a war of profit against humans, profit against wildlife, profit against the planet, all for the benefit of a few billionaires, and changing your diet isn’t going to change that. The only thing that will is to get rid of capitalism, and share the world as a democratic cooperative. If you want to save the oceans, being vegan is not enough, you also have to be a revolutionary.
Paddy Shannon

In a League of Their Own (2021)

From the May 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

April is known for showers and fools. The shower presently in charge of six leading Premier League football clubs seemed determined to make fools of the rest. Their stated intent was to form an elite of European teams to secure the largest possible slice of the revenue pie.

As it turned out they were the April fools as the scheme quickly collapsed as all six English (geographically, if not by ownership) clubs withdrew from the scheme. However, even though a Spanish and an Italian club followed suit, according to Real Madrid’s president, the European Super League isn’t dead, it’s ‘on hold’).

The other 14 Premier League clubs had been joined by the rest of football and publicity-seeking populist politicians, including the prime minister, in condemning this blatant money-driven assault on purported sporting values. Many a pious platitude was solicited from commentators, pundits, former players and supporters.

Whether this was a serious proposal or a high pressure negotiating position remained unclear. It did seem remarkably coincidental that it appeared as football authorities were announcing changes to present structures. Whatever the purpose, money will be the driving force behind it. How could it be otherwise under capitalism?

Those loudly protesting this assault on the values of the game have more than a little hypocrisy about them. The Premier League was formed in 1992 for precisely the same reasons offered in support of the European Super League.

Sky Television offered fabulous amounts of money for exclusive rights and football was reformed for that reason alone. Subsequently, other media platforms have bought into the product, the only value actually realised being the commercial one.

Football has succumbed to modern capitalist financial practices. Clubs are purchased via leveraged deals, whereby the buyers borrow the money they need, but then settle that borrowed amount as debt on the club. Manchester United led the way in this sort of trading, but even smaller clubs are now subject to these methods.

One such is Burnley, recently bought out this way by an American deal, ending local ownership for the first time in the club’s history. Burnley was one of the original 12 founding members of the Football League in 1888, when the town was a major centre for cotton textile manufacture.

Of those 12 clubs, 6 were in Lancashire, the rest were in the industrial heartlands of the Midlands. The common factor was economic dynamism. The original Football League was itself a product of the financial circumstances of the day.

Football served an ideological function, encouraging workers to identify with their local team and, by association, the local capitalists who actually owned the clubs. It also encouraged workers into rival groups, sometimes leading to violence.

The link between football and violence of supporters is usually portrayed as emerging in the 1970s. However, a Times report on the 1914 cup final between Burnley and Liverpool made a point that the two sets of supporters did not assault each other, which suggests such events were not unknown.

Capitalism is all encompassing. Sport is not, and has never been, exempt from that. Even amateur football cannot escape: there’s the hire of the ground to play on and facilities to change in, kit to change into and various other expenses. Free it is not.

Whatever the eventual formulation, huge sums of money will be involved. One often-voiced criticism is that footballers are generously remunerated while nurses, for example, aren’t. Which are of greater value?

While the word ‘value’ has various dictionary definitions, for capitalism there is only one significant meaning, and that relates to profit alone. Footballers sell far more media subscriptions than nurses. Which is why the major factor driving the Super League is the production of a commodity that can be marketed around the world.

The big difference between1888 and now is that capitalism has moved on from the local (as it was already beginning to do even then) to the global. Football must reflect this. If it’s not the Super League then some similar formation will be required.

Supporters can gather outside clubs, chant their dissatisfactions and burn replica shirts all they like, but sooner or later commercial decisions will be the deciding factor in how the game is organised and played. It might be football in Britain, soccer in America, but the name of the game, as it’s always been, is profit.

The media has alleged that a deciding factor in making the infamous 6 change their minds was fan power, as supporters outraged at the prospect of their game being threatened by greedy businessmen forced them to abandon their plans. If only it was so.

When the Premier League was first launched a major concern expressed in the media was that the ready availability of televised football would result in fans no longer going through the turnstiles. Indeed, it was posited that entrance to games would become free to attract a crowd to provide the atmosphere.

Clever marketing sold the concept of glory by association to the point that some clubs had a waiting list for season tickets being sold at inflated prices. Cinemas showed matches live for those who could not afford either tickets or subscriptions.

The elite league as it then was quickly became a financial juggernaut, attractive to oligarchs, Middle Eastern princes and American speculators, among others. The Premier League became the ‘promised land’, the only worthwhile place for a club to be. A European Super League, by capitalist logic, would have been a reasonable next phase.

That it will not now be realised in its proposed form does not mean some version of it will not eventually emerge. If the financial imperatives require it to happen it will, whatever the opinion of fans, politicians or a media willing to curb their usual enthusiasm for free enterprise to court populist opinion. Not that such enterprise has anything to do with being free.

As with all aspects of life, free development is contingent on freeing society from the obligations of capitalism. Sport in general, football in particular, will mirror the social environment it exists in. Only with socialism and the subsequent absence of money can true sporting values be allowed to develop freely.
Dave Alton

Carney rethinks capitalism (2021)

The Cooking the Books column from the May 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘Rethink capitalism to solve the climate crisis’ was the title New Scientist (20 March) gave to an interview with Mark Carney, who until last year was the Governor of the Bank of England. Carney didn’t actually use the word ‘capitalism’, though he had done in a previous interview in 2019 with Jon Snow on Channel 4 which the Guardian (31 July 2019) reported under the headline ‘Capitalism is part of solution to climate change, says Mark Carney’.

Capitalism is a system of production for profit under which capital, in pursuit of profit, tends to flow into those lines of production that promise the most. Carney has no objection to this and wants to harness it by pointing to the opportunities for capital to make a profit from investing in alternative energy sources to fossil fuels:
  ‘… people recognise that if they can crack, say, green hydrogen as a fuel for trucks or direct air capture of carbon, there will be an enormous use for those and they or their company will make a lot of money.’
Or, as he told Jon Snow, ‘the most important thing is to move capital from where it is today to where it needs to be tomorrow… there will be great fortunes made along this path aligned with what society wants.’

The same as Boris Johnson blurted out to Tory MPs in March: ‘The reason we have the vaccine success is because of capitalism, because of greed’ (Guardian, 24 March).

For Carney, however, the profit motive is only ‘part of the solution’; the state needs to play a role too by using taxes and other measures to make investment unprofitable in fossil fuels and industries that burn a lot of them. He is no free marketeer and has criticised this ideology for turning capitalism from a market economy into a market society where, as he told New Scientist, market value ‘applies not only to material goods, but increasingly to the whole of life’. He wants ‘to get market value and societal values back into an equilibrium’.

But, to return to reality, could capitalism solve the climate problem? One thing is obvious – if it is going to move in that direction it will only be because it is profitable to do so and unprofitable not to. Carney is right to say that the state would have to intervene. Despite what the free-market ideologists say, capitalism could not exist without the state and never has. In fact, one of the state’s roles, as executive committee of the capitalist class, has been to intervene to impose the longer-term general capitalist interest against, if need be, the short-term interest of some capitalists.

This was the situation in Britain in the first half of the nineteenth century. The capitalist factory owners so over-worked their workers that they threatened the future supply of fit workers. The state had to intervene to limit the working day to ten hours. As Marx commented:
  ‘The immoderate lengthening of the working-day, produced by machinery in the hands of capital, leads to a reaction on the part of society, the very sources of whose life are menaced; and, thence, to a normal working-day whose length is fixed by law’ (Capital, Vol. 1, ch. 15, section 3c).
We are in a similar situation today with the ‘immoderate’ burning of fossil fuels. We can expect, as happened in 1850, the capitalist state to intervene. So attempts will be made, and are being made, under capitalism to do something about the climate crisis. But what sort of society is it that requires intervention to try to stop its economic system from menacing the very sources of life on which society depends?

The Right to be A Wage Slave (2021)

From the May 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Over the years we have seen a growth in the number of temporary and part-time workers, many of whom are identified as self-employed. The gig economy forms a significant part of this trend, which covers a wide range of occupations from IT consultants to Uber and Deliveroo drivers. One definition offered is ‘it is a labour market characterised by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work, as opposed to permanent jobs’ (‘What is the ‘gig’ economy?’ BBC News, 10 February 2017). What distinguishes the gig economy is that the workers are paid for a particular piece of work, as opposed to those on zero hours contracts who are paid by the hour. The term ‘gig’ was coined by jazz musicians in 1915 who were paid for each live performance. It is a term still used by today’s rock and pop musicians. According to a TUC report, the gig economy has doubled in size since 2016 and with just under 5 million workers (‘Gig economy in Britain doubles, accounting for 4.7 million workers’, Guardian, 28 June 2019).

Insecure, casual working has always been a feature of capitalism. At one time, it was common for building workers to be hired on a day-to-day basis. In the US in the 1930s many farmers had to sell their land because of drought and falling prices and ended up as itinerant workers. After the Great Depression, temp agencies sprang up, which supplied workers to employers on a temporary basis (The History and Future of the Gig Economy, Small Business Trends, 12 November 2019).

Some claim that the gig economy is a product of the new digital technology. It is the case that firms like Uber use smartphone apps to organise jobs for their workers, but there are employers, such as Hermes, who also employ gig workers, but use more traditional methods to run their businesses (‘What is the gig economy and why is it so controversial?’ Wired, 14 September 2018). This explanation of the rise of the gig economy doesn’t give us the full picture. In the last fifty years, Western capitalist countries have experienced a decline in their manufacturing and traditional industries with the concomitant erosion of trade union power and accompanying loss of relatively well-paid jobs. Insecure, casual jobs have, to a large extent, taken their place. In the less developed capitalist countries there is a pool of underemployed workers who are prey to these gig employers. It is probably no coincidence that Uber was founded in San Francisco in 2010 in the aftermath of the 2008-9 financial crash when unemployment was high. Under capitalism, competitive pressures compel businesses to grab a greater share of the market by undercutting their rivals by offering a product or service at a lower cost.

Supporters of the gig economy insist that its workers enjoy the flexibility and independence that come with being one’s own boss. No doubt for some gig workers, such as video producers, working this way can be a relatively lucrative venture. However, for many it is just ruthless capitalist exploitation by another name. Firms like Uber and Deliveroo designate their workers as self-employed so they don’t have to fork out holiday pay and sickness benefits, contribute to their pensions, pay the minimum wage or any redundancy payments, but receive the fruits of their labour like any traditional capitalist. The benefits of flexibility have been illusory as it is their employers that ultimately control the hours they work. Despite the capitalist spin, more and more gig workers are seeing through the con. They know that they are workers, not independent contractors.

They are fighting back. In 2016 two Uber drivers launched legal action to be recognised as workers. The London employment tribunal ruled in their favour, that they should be classed as workers and be entitled to holiday pay, paid rest breaks and the minimum wage. Uber appealed this ruling to the Employment Appeal Tribunal and when they lost in November 2017, they went to the Court of Appeal which also upheld the ruling in December 2018. Uber made their last stand with the Supreme Court, the highest court in the country, which, on 19 February, dismissed their appeal and upheld the ruling that Uber drivers are workers and are entitled to employment benefits. Uber responded by claiming that the verdict only applies to the small number of drivers who brought this case. However, thousands of Uber drivers are filing claims for compensation.

On 7 April, Deliveroo drivers went on strike for higher pay and better work conditions. This followed similar strike action in August and September 2019. Some gig workers are even organised in trade unions, one is the App Drivers and Couriers Union and another is the Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain.

Despite all the guff written and spoken about living in a postmodern society where the class struggle is a thing of the past and we are now all aspiring individuals, it is evident that workers, even the more precarious ones, are still collectively organising to defend and, if they can, improve their working conditions. We think it is great that some workers are winning their battles. However, we must go on and win the class war.
Oliver Bond

Material World: Gender oppression in India (2021)

The Material World Column from the May 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard 

In the past couple of months we have witnessed a massacre in Atlanta USA targeting Asian women, the New York Governor accused of being a serial harasser of his female employees, police forcibly dispersing a women’s protest against femicide in London, and large marches in Australian cities highlighting the violence against women. In Mexico, there have been protests against the government’s support for a political ally accused of rape as well as widespread police inaction concerning the assaults and murders of women. While in Turkey nationwide demonstrations took place as President Erdogan withdrew Turkey from an international agreement to prevent violence against women. With such resistance from women against the violence inflicted upon them now featuring in the media, we should not forget other forms of repression and oppression of females.

In India, dowry is another form of injustice done to women and it is an ubiquitous system alongside the pernicious arranged marriages where daughters are traded as property and a commodity. The heavy toll demanded by dowry prices has resulted in female foetuses being aborted to ensure families have boys.

Dowry is the tradition when a new bride from all kinds of families and backgrounds will present the groom and his family with property, gold, money, household appliances, a motorbike or car, and in rural districts, livestock. The dowry system has been prevalent in South Asian countries for centuries. Among the Adivasi tribes and in other nations such as Thailand, the dowry system works in the reverse direction, the groom’s family pays the dowry price.

India has an alarming rate of crime over dowry and great numbers of suicides of women. It is essentially a commercial contract between the family of the bride and the family of the groom. There are countless other stories of abuse, and dowry-related deaths if the contractual agreement is not completely fulfilled. The man’s family’s honour and status are seen to be impinged.

Statistics show that every 16 minutes there is a rape, one death in each hour and 20 women die in a day. There were 7,000 dowry-related deaths in 2017. However, these are only the reported figures and they do not include deaths from ‘kitchen fires’ and other suspicious ‘accidents’.

Dowry persists as part of India’s marriage customs although its form and the damage to women vary according to the norms of the different communities. Dowry in India is not limited to any specific religion. Although dowry is primarily associated with marriages in Hindu society it has permeated over the generations into other religions such as Muslims, Christians and to some extent also the Sikh community. Religions have reinforced male domination where the woman is subject to her husband and her in-laws. In addition, the dowries and consequent elaborate wedding ceremonies bring financial debts that can rarely be paid off.

India has already enacted legislation in attempts to counter the problems of dowry. 60 years have elapsed since the Dowry Prohibition Act was passed to prohibit the practice of giving or receiving dowry and has been subsequently amended to curb the practice of dowry. To further strengthen the anti-dowry law and to stop offences of cruelty by the husband or his relatives against the wife, new provisions were added to the Indian Penal Code to provide extra protection from dowry harassment. India also passed legislation specifically for Muslim women, while Bangladesh passed a Dowry Prohibition Act in 1980. This law legally banned dowries and imposed sanctions by declaring that accepting dowry could land someone in jail, or a fine, or both.

Those laws have not put an end to dowry. It is an understatement to say that dowry-violence-related laws have failed, as India still has the cruel reality of dowries and dowry-related crime. These laws have been largely ignored or not effectively enforced and when prosecutions do occur the acquittal rate is high with the dowry disguised as a ‘voluntary contribution’ to the wedding expenses. It is a cultural convention which cannot be eradicated solely by law alone. In India, patriarchal practices have relegated millions of women to mere procreation and performing the household chores.

Legislation is an inadequate tool to ensure that women who marry stay unharmed and alive. Such a conclusion also applies globally with violence against women endemic in every country and culture even where there exists no dowry system. Violence against women can only end with education, empowerment and the emancipation of all humanity. Socialism will be the source of the freedom of a life without fear.
ALJO

Human Nature: What Is It? (2021)

Book Review from the May 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

In any conversation about a different kind of society organised on principles of cooperation rather than competition, of common rather than private ownership of the means of living, the subject of human nature inevitably arises. To those who support a society of from each according to ability to each according to need, the answer is often given that it could not work, since human beings are by nature selfish, possessive, competitive and always wanting more. It’s not an easy argument to combat, as all around us, in present society, we see examples of this kind of behaviour both on a personal and a collective level.

It is backed up furthermore by much written ‘authority’. As early as the 16th century the Italian political writer Machiavelli, in his famous essay The Prince, stated that human beings are ‘ungrateful, fickle, dissembling, hypocritical, cowardly and greedy’ and ‘never do anything good except out of necessity’. This view of humans has often been quoted since, as has the similar idea expressed in the following century by the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his Leviathan that human beings are greedy by nature and human life is ‘a condition of war of all against all’. For Adam Smith too in his late 18th century Wealth of Nations, private interest (or ‘self-love’, as he also put it) was the basis for his argument for the free market. Though, in the two centuries that followed, the rise of views contesting the inevitability of the market and the social and economic inequality that went with it saw some questioning of the fixed human nature theory, it is only in very recent times that such questioning has come to the fore and now seriously contends with the ‘original sin’ idea, whether religious or secular, of human beings as deep-down selfish, wicked and aggressive.

This change in perception (though not yet a sea change) has come about partly through the arguments put forward by organisations such as the Socialist Party arguing for a cooperative society of common ownership, but more widely through a slew of publications, especially over the last few decades, by thinkers and writers from a variety of fields. The latest of these is a remarkable book entitled Humankind. A Hopeful History (Bloomsbury, 2020) by the Dutch historian, Rutger Bregman. This work has already received praise from many quarters and it isn’t difficult to see why. It comes at ‘human nature’ with in-depth scholarly research from a whole variety of areas (an ‘immense sweep’, as one reviewer put it) and is unfailingly informative, instructive and thought-provoking. At the same time, for the informal ‘in your face way’ in which it’s written, it manages to be highly and consistently entertaining, a page turner in fact. So a real ‘good read’ for absolutely anyone.

Bregman’s main line of approach is to examine the evidence presented for what he refers to as the ‘veneer theory’ of human nature and to show it as severely flawed. By veneer theory he means the widespread idea that the civilised, communal behaviour which characterises many of the normal day-to-day interactions of human beings only take place because of the pressure social and political authority puts upon us to behave in a civilised way and not tear one another to pieces. But, the theory goes on to say, the pressure that this authority creates is only a thin layer (a veneer) and as soon as it is relaxed or things go wrong, our true savage individualistic nature manifests itself and we are revealed for what we are – self-centred, individualistic and even savage. So, according to this notion (referred to by the writer as ‘the zombie that keeps coming back’), evil simmers just beneath the surface in us all. He looks at the various writings and life events that are used to support this theory – e.g: the immensely successful novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding about children stranded on an island turning savage; the story of the supposed cannibal inhabitants of Easter Island; the famous ‘shock machine’ experiment by Stanley Milgram, anthropological works by ‘big name’ writers such as Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond and Yuval Noah Harari – and proceeds to drill down into the reality of these and show us new perspectives.

So, for example, the only real-life instance known of children being lost on a tiny island (which he calls ‘the real Lord of the Flies’) shows those children to have set up a friendly cooperative way of living before being rescued rather than establishing some kind of cruel hierarchy as depicted in the novel. In the same way Milgram’s experiment, which purportedly showed volunteers willingly administering increasingly powerful electric shocks to people in obedience to an authority commanding them to do so, is shown, when examined closely, to have encountered significant resistance from those taking part and the outcome to have been reported in an unbalanced, one-sided way. Again, amidst the carnage of the First World War, Bregman provides evidence that very few soldiers in the trenches actually fired their weapons at members of the enemy they could see and many deliberately fired into the air. Likewise, during the Second World War he quotes research showing that only a very small percentage of soldiers actually managed to fire their guns when they came into direct contact with the enemy despite being under orders to do so. Other real-life extreme situations such as the impact of aerial bombing on populations are also seen in a light rarely considered. For example, one of the expectations of aerial bombing by both sides in the Second World War was that it would cause social chaos with people turning on one another. But, in fact, just the opposite happened. Despite the extreme circumstances and the casualties, there was no breakdown of morale. The communal spirit was actually greater than before. In Britain there was the ‘blitz spirit’ and in Germany the mass bombing of civilians towards the end of the war resulted in people working harder than ever and actually increasing production of food and other necessities as well as war equipment. The numerous examples he cites of this kind of thing allow him to state that ‘catastrophes bring out the best in people’ and to regard the ‘bad’ behaviour frequently seen in human beings and their societies as aberrant. He dates it back to the invention 10,000 years ago of settled agriculture, seeing it as a ‘mismatch’ that did not fit the human psyche. Yet it became a game-changer in destabilising and stratifying populations that had previously lived in relative harmony and equality and had not been plagued by the idea of scarcity or the constant desire for more which agriculture introduced.

Though other writers too have presented arguments for seeing ‘human nature’ in a positive light (a recent example is Team Human by Douglas Rushkoff), Bregman goes further than these in a particularly striking way. Like him, most of them reject the notion of an innately self-serving, potentially evil human species, explaining anti-social behaviour as the reaction of hugely adaptable and flexible beings to conditioning and circumstance. Bad circumstances can make us bad people. But Bregman goes a step further. He looks beyond that idea to claim that the innate, fundamental default of human beings is to be friendly, communal, kind-hearted and cooperative, to the extent that he attaches to humans the label Homo puppy. This may seem sweeping or extreme and perhaps the jury is still out, but his arguments are certainly compelling. He sees as the main driver of human behaviour the desire to act together even in the most dire circumstances, leading to tolerance and mutual support even when things seem to be falling apart. Apart from the ‘blitz spirit’ in Britain in the Second World War, he also gives the surprising example of the apparently inexplicable dogged resistance shown by the vastly outnumbered and outgunned German forces as the Nazi regime was falling apart towards the end of the war. They found it impossible not to continue cooperating with one another. More generally, the author points to the plethora of everyday gestures of help, cooperation, solidarity and compassion people in all societies all over the world show to one another on a daily basis and quotes approvingly the statement by historian Tine De Moor that ‘History teaches us that man is essentially a cooperative being, a homo cooperans’. Another way he puts it is that ‘human beings claim togetherness and interaction’ and ‘our spirits yearn for connection just as our bodies hunger for food’.

On violence too, after presenting the evidence put forward by war historian Samuel Marshall in his book Men Against Fire that ‘the average and normally healthy individual (…) has such an inner usually unrealised resistance towards killing a fellow man that he will not of his own volition take life’, the author expresses agreement with sociologist Randall Collins that ‘Humans are hardwired for (…) solidarity (…); and this is what makes violence so difficult’. In view of all this, it is perhaps unsurprising that one reviewer has seen Bregman’s analysis as leading to ‘a new understanding of human nature’ and lighting ‘the path to a brighter future’ and another as ‘a devastating demolition of the misanthrope’s mantra’.

This is truly myth-busting stuff and all good news for socialists who have always argued that there is no ‘human nature’ obstacle to a society of common ownership and democratic organisation based on from each according to ability to each according to need. But what about any political conclusions or prescriptions by the author from the wealth of evidence he presents? Well, he expresses strong support for ‘participatory democracy’, even if with no clear explanations of its content, and recommends people associating with one another as closely and directly as possible as ‘the best remedy for hate, injustice and prejudice’, since, once they come into close contact, their Homo puppy nature, their innate friendliness, will dissipate any hostility, prejudice or lack of empathy. He doesn’t go much further than this, and he had already done that in a previous book, his best-selling Utopia for Realists (reviewed in the August 2017 Socialist Standard). In political terms that book roundly criticises the market system for its ‘bullshit’ jobs and the waste of skills and energies it engenders and sees a remedy for this in various reforms such as a shorter working week, a basic income scheme (here now renamed ‘a citizen’s dividend’), increased taxes on wealth, and open borders. From the socialist point of view, though Humankind is an impressive and important book, it’s a pity he didn’t go any further, since the changes he recommends, apart from being unlikely to happen given the nature of capitalism, would clearly not, even if enacted, get to the root of the problems caused by the money and profit system with its imperative to produce come what may for profit rather than for need.

There is, however, one point in Humankind in which the author does seem to make an argument against the money system by pointing out that in capitalist society, even of the Western democratic kind, ‘the threat of violence is still very much present, and it’s pervasive. It’s the reason families with children can be kicked out of their homes for defaulting on mortgage payments. It’s the reason why immigrants can’t simply stroll across the border in the fictions we call ‘Europe’ and ‘the United States’. And it’s also the reason we continue to believe in money (…) Money may be a fiction, but it’s enforced by the threat of very real violence’. Yet in the end, disappointingly, money and the violence behind it are not something he seems to want to look outside of. As in his previous work, he fails to go beyond recommending anything beyond what would in practice be relatively minor reforms to capitalism, easily withdrawn if the going got tough for profit making. Indeed, he’s on recent record as saying that ‘sometimes markets work best, sometimes the state has the best solution’. This is a pity, given that he expresses an unequivocal liking for the kind of non-hierarchical social arrangements which characterised the pre-agricultural past of our ancestors, people who were ‘allergic to inequality’ and ‘universally – and all but obsessively – concerned with being free from the authority of others’. What is the objection, therefore, to such arrangements – without the market and without the state and at a secure level of technology – for our own future now?
Howard Moss

Paris Commune 1871 (2021)

From the May 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

May 28 marks the 150th anniversary since the French Army captured the Communards’ final positions, officially marking the end of the Paris Commune, the first living example of workers in control of political power. Preceded by the Franco-Prussian War, which ended after Prussian forces besieged Paris for over four months, the Commune began on March 18, 1871, following a failed attempt by the French Army to seize 400 cannons that the Government of National Defence deemed ‘state property’, even though Parisians themselves paid for the cannons via a subscription. The French Army retreated to Versailles and Paris’s National Guard then took control of the city for over two months before the French Army could gather enough reinforcements to return and slaughter the Communards during Bloody Week. Along with the Prussian Army, who’d just defeated the French, they injured as many as 10,000 Communards and massacred as many as another 10,000, with 147 alone being shot at what’s now called Communards’ Wall in Père Lachaise cemetery the day before the French and Prussian armies fully suppressed the uprising. The French Army captured over 43,000 prisoners during and immediately after Bloody Week, 13,500 of whom were either sentenced to imprisonment, deportation, forced labour, or death.


Barricade at Paris 1871

The Paris Commune arguably stands out as the first peek at what the last phase of capitalism might have looked like, as well as what challenges the working class might face in attempting to surpass it. Though the Commune was ultimately foiled, events like this are always worth analysing for any lessons that can be learned, whether good or bad, and applied to the future.

The Good

One of the best aspects of the Commune was that it was leaderless. Leaders necessarily imply followers placing all their faith in them, even though no one’s infallible. Having a leader also allows an easy target to be picked off, incapacitating their followers at the drop of a hat. Rather than leaders, the Commune had mandated delegates, elected by the Communards themselves, who were recallable any moment the people felt a delegate wasn’t carrying out their will — a direct democracy. They also had plans to implement the same structure of self-government across the rural areas of France, having district assemblies in the central towns and having those send delegates to the National Delegation in Paris — decentralised self-government. Magistrates and judges were elected and immediately revocable, as well.

The Commune also passed a decree which implemented a separation of church and state, as well as another allowing everyone to attend school free of charge, with some arrondissements giving out free school supplies, clothes, and food for children — mutual aid. The police were also made revocable, and they abolished conscription, along with the standing army, declaring the National Guard — which included all citizens able to bear arms — as the Commune’s only armed force. Much to the surprise of the bourgeois government, there was no violence between Communards during the entire two months. Pensions were also granted to the unmarried companions and children of national guardsmen killed in active service. The death penalty was abolished and the guillotine was even brought out by the National Guard and publicly burned as the crowd celebrated.

It’s said that the highest salary given to an employee of the Commune was 6,000 francs, though that claim has been contested. Regardless, they abolished child labour, as well as night work for bakers, since it’s very difficult to get sleep while you’re cooking bread. Employees were given the right to take over and run any businesses that were abandoned by their owners and any fines imposed by employers on their employees were prohibited. All workmen’s tools and household items that were given to pawn shops during the siege, valued up to 20 francs, were returned for free and, later, the Commune ordered the closure of all pawn shops themselves, since they were deemed a private exploitation of labour. There was a moratorium on all rents during the siege, meaning they were supposed to be paid back afterward, but the Commune forgave all rent for homes from October 1870 through April 1871, with any amounts already paid counting instead towards future rent, along with a postponement of commercial debt obligations, and the abolition of interest on any debts.

The Bad

It’s much easier to play Monday morning quarterback with uprisings rather than actually participate in them, but it’s always important to take a critical look at these kinds of situations to parse out any decisions made due to bad circumstances from those made due to bad foresight. One of the first that stands out is the fact that, despite many women playing important roles in the Commune, they weren’t allowed to vote in the Commune elections. Only three countries had ever granted women suffrage before this, but — considering the fact that the Communards were seeking economic equality — it wouldn’t have been much of an ideological leap to extend that equality to women, too. Another drawback was the fact that they opted to keep the Commune Council’s meetings secret, citing war with the bourgeois government as their reason. They obviously should’ve tried their best to prevent any sensitive information from getting back to the French Army, though perhaps a reasonable middle ground could’ve been reached.

Aside from those decisions, there were a couple made that were pretty useless. One was the adoption of the French Republican Calendar. Considering the Commune was still at war, finagling with the date should have been the last thing on anyone’s mind, if only because it could complicate communications with allies outside the city. Communards also took to burning various buildings and monuments, two of the most prominent being the Vendôme Column and the home of Adolphe Thiers, the chief executive of the French government during the Commune. While individuals may decide to do that themselves, the only things the Commune administration should have been focused on at that time were keeping Parisians alive and surviving as a political institution— and burning buildings assists with neither of those.

As far as the financial decisions go, the Communards decided to take a loan from the Rothschild Bank to cover their expenses, rather than seize the 254 million francs in gold coins and banknotes left inside the vaults of the Bank of France — essentially leaving their greatest bargaining chip on the table. Had the Commune threatened to collapse the French currency, they might have got Thiers to do anything they wanted. Not only did they neglect to exploit that opportunity, but if employees took over a business, they also recognised the previous owner’s right to compensation. Employers rob employees for their surplus value and, by virtue of that alone, would have no reasonable right to compensation in this circumstance. That money could instead be used for more mutual aid.

Another big issue was censorship and repression. The Commune banned multiple pro-Versailles newspapers and created a Committee of Public Safety to hunt down and imprison enemies of the Commune, in the same vein as the Committee of the same name which committed the infamous Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Considering how many times efforts like this had taken a turn for the worse before, the Commune should have avoided them at all costs. They also issued a decree which accused the Catholic Church of ‘complicity in the crimes of the monarchy’, arresting roughly 200 church officials afterward, along with another decree later called the Decree on Hostages, which stated that for every prisoner of war or Commune official that was executed by the French Army, the Commune would execute three hostages. However, it’s worth noting that, despite this decree and the fact that the French Army executed multiple Communards beforehand, the Commune executed none of their hostages until after the start of Bloody Week — and even then it was only 63, which pales in comparison to the roughly 10,000 Communards murdered in cold blood during that same week by the French and Prussian armies.

Arguably, there were also more than a few mistakes made on the military front. A major setback happened when the National Guard tried to march on the French Army in Versailles. The National Guard took power after the French soldiers refused to fire on them once instructed to during the soldiers’ attempted seizure of the cannons. The Communards naively assumed the same thing would happen again and advanced without cavalry, artillery, food, ammunition, or ambulances. Not only that, but they didn’t even scout the area ahead, subsequently passing a line of forts on the way that they thought were occupied by more national guardsmen but which had actually just been re-occupied by the French Army, causing the National Guard to suffer heavy artillery fire as a result.

As the French Army was returning to recapture Paris, divisions arose within the Commune about whether to give absolute priority to military defence, or to political and social freedoms and reforms. This decision honestly should’ve been a no-brainer, considering that any reforms would be undone if the Commune were to be drowned in blood. A key fort, Fort d’Issy, was captured by the French Army and the National Guard left the fortifications undefended by one part of the city wall at Point-du-Jour, allowing 60,000 soldiers to enter the city within a few hours. Without an overall planned defence or many barricades having been prepared in advance, it quickly turned into a bloodbath. To add insult to injury, when the Commune Council found out the walls of Paris had been breached, they were holding a trial for a former General — something that clearly could’ve waited until the war was over — and the last military commander they’d chosen, Louis Charles Delescluze, was a journalist who had absolutely zero military experience.

Most importantly, though, even if the Communards had done everything correctly, they were still acting prematurely. Not only was the majority of the working class still not socialist, but the majority of the Communards weren’t socialists in the proper sense, either. Aside from that, capitalism was still in its relative infancy, far from the complete global hegemony we’ve reached now and any developments that are bound to happen in the future. As frustrating as it may be, we have to remember that, no matter how badly a minority of the working class may want to establish socialism, they’ll fail until the material conditions have developed for them to succeed — two key conditions being productive forces capable of sustaining a socialist society, as well as a vast majority of the global working class understanding what socialism is and what responsibilities it would entail, while actively wanting to establish it. Nonetheless, the Commune was a noble effort that will surely go down in history as one of, if not the greatest, attempt at liberating the proletariat.
Jordan Levi
(WSPUS)

Marx’s considered opinion on the Paris Commune:
“[A]part from the fact that this was merely the rising of a town under exceptional conditions, the majority of the Commune was in no sense socialist, nor could it be. With a small amount of sound common sense, however, they could have reached a compromise with Versailles useful to the whole mass of the people — the only thing that could be reached at the time. The appropriation of the Bank of France alone would have been enough to dissolve all the pretensions of the Versailles people in terror, etc., etc.” (Letter to F.D. Nieuwenhuis, 22 February 1881) (see Marxist Archive)