Saturday, June 26, 2021

Housing crisis 1984 (1984)

From the June 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

In a previous article we saw that recent government housing policies have sought to make council tenancy the residual tenancy category, thus giving it the same stigma as the dole. However, below the council tenant there is a significant number of workers, many of them small family groupings, such as single parent families and young newlyweds with perhaps one child; others are immigrants suffering discrimination and ostracism. The present stock of council houses have quite a high proportion with three bedrooms and it is “inefficient" to place these small families there. While attempts to enforce minimum standards tend to be defeated by recurring drives to reduce “public" spending, when they are followed they can aggravate this “problem”. This happened to a certain extent under the 1945-51 Labour government.

The result is that these groups are thrown onto what is left of private rental. It also leads to the standard of this accommodation being well below that of council housing, 68.5 per cent being built before 1914 as against 3.7 per cent of the “public” sector and 30 per cent of “owner-occupied" (J.R. Short, The Post War Experience: Housing in Britain. University Paperbacks. 1982). While the standard of “owner-occupied" houses, taken as a whole, is above that of council accommodation, significant exceptions are developing, mainly in inner city areas. Here many older private sector houses have been abandoned as these areas have depopulated and the emphasis of housing policy has shifted from clearance to renovation. Demand for these has been particularly strong among immigrants, particularly Asians.

In the earlier article we said that we would use the term "owner-occupier" in its current sense, even though it lumps together capitalists with those who arc really anything but owners, having in some cases not one but two or even three mortgages to repay. On this topic Martin Pawley (House Ownership, The Architectural Press. London, 1978) has an unusual viewpoint:
  Compared to the property owners of history we might he tempted to suppose that today's owner occupier is hardly a property owner at all. In contrast to the great estates of the past, his property is rarely handed on from father to son and indeed on average remains in his hands for only five or six years before being exchanged for something better. The size of his possession too leaves something to be desired; both dwelling and plot of land being so small that the poorest yeoman of the Feudal era disposed of greater estates. Furthermore the triumph of the flexible interest mortgage means that his wealth is dependent on the vagaries of interest rates and employment: his home only being a castle to the extent that his credit card is a shield. Yet even this uncertainty has historical parallels: the Feudal knight or farmer enjoyed rights over his fiefdom only so long as his landlord could (with his compulsory aid) defend it himself. During the Wars of the Roses . . . numerous estates were confiscated and bestowed on others, only to be confiscated again according to the ebb and flow of advantage during the struggle . . . Like the modern mortgage holder the medieval land-owner had no absolute title to his property, only certain rights which a run of adverse circumstances could remove altogether.
The previous article also touched on the discrimination applied by the building societies in allocating mortgages. In their efforts to ensure that their money is safely invested they inevitably tend to make the largest loans to those least in need. In order to reduce expenditure on “public” housing, governments have introduced schemes to get round these mortgage restrictions, one of which gives powers to local authorities to enter the mortgage business themselves. In 1971 the Heath government laid down explicit guidelines on who these loans could be made to. As easier terms on initial deposit mean larger repayments, these dictates illustrate the difficulties faced by lower paid workers. Out of seven groups specified the following two are specially significant (quoted from Short op. cit.): (a) Applicants who are homeless, threatened with homelessness or living in overcrowded or unhealthy conditions, (b) Applicants who wish to buy older or smaller property but who are unlikely to get a commercial mortgage". It might have been expected that these would have been found council housing in the “residual tenure" category. And of course few workers “wish" to live in old small dwellings; they are forced to settle for them because that is all they can afford.

For workers with some measure of choice there are a few advantages to owner-occupation. For those who have been able to stay in one place for some time, repayments on a house “bought" 15 years ago for £4,500, but selling today at £22,000, would only be about £7.50 a week. This situation however can only continue if government policies of inflating the currency continue. In these cases the burden has been shifted onto first time buyers saddled with inflated prices and high rates of interests.

Tax relief on mortgage repayments was until recently considered a great benefit of the mortgage system. In fact the workers do not pay tax. The price of their labour power as a wage or salary reflects the cost of their means of subsistence. Of necessity it is the take-home pay which corresponds to this price so that any tax deduction is in reality a charge on the employer, not the worker. The increase in house prices since the war is again something which may not continue. Taking advantage of the situation is not easy, for the workers must have somewhere to live. Older workers whose children have left home can sometimes sell and take smaller accommodation. For most however any gain would be at the expense of moving into an inferior dwelling, or alternatively subletting rooms, a common practice among tenants also. High house prices reflect a shortage of cheaper working class dwellings which the building interests will be reluctant to change for fear of lowering prices. Housing is a commodity produced to make profits, not because workers require a roof over their heads.

Further evidence of the plight of the low paid is given by Mary Smith (Guide to Housing. Housing Trust Centre. London, 1977). The proportion of first time buyers has been falling for some time, from 63 per cent in 1969 to 47 per cent in 1975. More "owners" are now mortgagees, 58 per cent in 1975 against 52 percent in 1965, with correspondingly fewer outright owners. (Private landlords are included in this assessment.) In 1976 the number of mortgages allocated to first time buyers of new houses had fallen to 9 per cent.

These increasing inequalities within the mortgage paying bracket are illustrated by information given by Short (op. cit.) on the distribution of what he calls “economically inactive household heads”. Such a hybrid term encompasses capitalists, retired workers and the unemployed, a type of confusion-mongering which cannot be entirely accidental. We must therefore use Short's information with some care. First we find that over Britain as a whole 33 per cent of household heads are classed as inactive. However, among the “owner occupiers" only 4 per cent of those paying off mortgages come into this category, but as many as 57 per cent of outright owners qualify. The message here is pretty clear: attempted purchase is for workers who have steady jobs. If unemployment strikes the worker will probably have to sell. In contrast, outright owners comprise mainly capitalists and retired workers. From this we see again that most workers who do become outright owners are near retiring age, and retirement usually means a drop in income.

Just as interesting are statistics given by Short of housing assets as a proportion of gross personal wealth. Housing assets are calculated by subtracting outstanding mortgage repayments from the market price. The following table, which is based on 1980 figures, compares the percentage of housing assets and company securities for gross personal wealth up to £200,000.

This table shows that housing assets are a small portion for the impecunious mortgage repayer. Then as wealth increases so the value of the house increases considerably more, leading to more under-occupation of good quality housing when measured against human needs. When we come to the mansions of the very rich, we find that as a proportion of the whole they are actually less significant. Here the emphasis is on stocks and shares, perhaps a few works of art. with less importance attached nowadays to conspicuous consumption in housing.

Where workers are able to make a choice between tenancy and the mortgage game it is of little concern what they decide, but political actions aimed at altering tenure distributions, in whatever direction, are an entirely different matter. On an individual level, workers "buying" a home, preoccupied with DIY decorations (or to quote Pawley, with “balancing car port against loft conversion against kitchen modernisation") may be turning their attention from the class struggle. Socialist workers, whatever their form of accommodation, realise their subservient position and the similar plight of the rest of their class, irrespective of the type of dwellings they inhabit. Their attention cannot be distracted by the superficial. but is concentrated instead on how to end the housing problem once and for all.
E C Edge

Bleeding parasites (1984)

From the June 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

In 1980 the United Nations General Assembly launched the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade. Ambitiously, it was hoped that Third World governments and International Aid donors would massively step up their investment from a current annual level of $6-7 billion to something like $80 million a day—a four- to five-fold increase—to provide clean water and sanitation for all by 1990. Such a sum may seem immense but bears comparison with the daily global expenditure of $250 million on cigarettes and more than $1,400 million on arms.

Whatever its intentions it is clear that the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade will fall a long way short of its target: within the profit system’s structure of priorities the necessary funds are just not there. The recession and the cuts in public spending have added to the problem by hitting overseas "aid” from the developed to the developing countries. Nevertheless, the basic needs to which the campaign has attempted to address itself remain pressing indeed.

In the "Third World”, three out of four lack adequate waste disposal facilities while more than half the population lack reasonable access to safe water supplies. These difficulties are particularly pronounced in the rural areas. Partly this is because it is more convenient and cheaper to supply densely populated urban areas but partly also because of government sensitivity towards the rapidly growing numbers of city dwellers who wield more political clout than their relatively atomised rural cousins. It is not uncommon for people—usually women and children—to walk ten or fifteen miles each day simply to fetch water from the nearest available source. Yet the alternative in many cases is to resort to an unsafe water source nearer at hand: according to the World Health Organisation, about 80 per cent of all diseases in the Third World—and about 25 million deaths—are related to inadequate water and sanitation.

Prominent among these are the diseases caused by parasitic infestations. These are mainly concentrated in the tropics, for climatic and economic reasons, and affect literally hundreds of millions of people. Parasites may range in size from tiny single-celled organisms to stomach-turning intestinal horrors exceeding 40 feet in length. What they all have in common, however, is that they live on or within some human host with debilitating, even deadly, consequences.

For example, there are at present, out of a world population of 4½ billion, about 3 billion cases of infection by parasitic worms. Of these, the dreaded hookworm accounts for just under a third—932 million people—causing widespread iron-deficiency anaemia and a reduced ability to withstand other diseases. Hookworms are transmitted through contact with the faeces of infected individuals. The larva;—Nature’s entryists—bore their way through the skin of feet and via a complicated route reach the small intestine where the worms feed on the mucosal tissue as a result of which the host loses a certain amount of blood.. According to the New Scientist (8 March 1984). on the basis of an individual hookworm causing a leakage of 0.15 ml of blood daily, "one parasitologist estimated some 20 years ago that the daily blood loss due to hookworms was equivalent to the total exsanguination of about 1.5 million adults, representing a loss into the gut of about 3.75 tonnes of iron per day"! If one takes into account also the impaired absorption of food due to the damage done to the intestinal lining—not to mention the physical presence of the worms themselves which impede the digestive process—the amount of nutrients lost as a result of hookworm infestation can be quite significant indeed.

This example illustrates an important point that can be made about the general pattern of disease in the world today—its close correlation with the problem of malnutrition. It is not simply that most cases of malnutrition happen to occur in precisely the sort of unsanitary environment most conducive to the spread of disease. This, we can clearly see, is no coincidence: both hunger and poor sanitation are symptomatic of the same thing which is the economic poverty of the victims of this double onslaught. But more than this, the relationship between disease and malnutrition is in fact a synergistic one. In other words, the occurrence of one exacerbates the other and vice versa so that when they occur together the damage done is greater than had they occurred separately. As James Grant. Executive Director of UNICEF explained, malnutrition:
  . . . is inextricably interlocked with the illnesses and infections which both sharpen, and are sharpened by malnutrition itself. Perhaps as many as half of all cases of severe child malnutrition, for example, are precipitated not primarily by the lack of food but by intestinal parasites, fever and infection—especially diarrhteal infection—which depresses the appetite, burns the energy, and drains away the body weight of the child. The net result is that every day of this last year more than 40,000 young children have died from malnutrition and infection (The State of the World's Children 1982-43).
In short, the elimination of disease cannot be effectively tackled in isolation. But by the same token, progress in combating disease can contribute to the solution of other problems—like malnutrition—that impinge on it. In Grant’s words:
  A cats cradle of synergisms link almost every aspect of development . . . in an endless pattern of either mutually reinforcing or mutually retarding relationships which can minimise or multiply the benefits of any given input (ibid).
Some of the world's most serious parasitic diseases—and the prospects of eradicating them—were investigated in a thoroughly absorbing Horizon documentary, The Conquest of the Parasites, shown on television recently. Interestingly, a reference was made in this programme to the hugely successful campaign launched by the UN in 1967 against smallpox—the last natural case of which was recorded on 26 October 1977 in Somalia. It is curious how often the example of smallpox is cited (particularly by the supporters of the United Nations) both as a source of hope and a practical model for campaigns against other diseases. But—as the programme hinted—such faith overlooks certain important factors such as the nature of the disease itself which favoured the successful outcome of the campaign against smallpox. It can be easily identified and speedily contained by vaccinating the surrounding population and thus systematically eliminated in a relatively cost effective way. Such factors do not apply (or at any rate, not with the same force) in the battle against the intractable parasites.

The problem with parasitic infestations is that they are largely rooted in the social landscape of poverty, a poverty that is part and parcel of the normal workings of world capitalism. Take, for example, schistosomiasis or Bilharzia, as it is otherwise known—a wasting disease endemic in about 70 countries and affecting roughly 200 million people (mainly children). The infection cycle passes through humans and certain kinds of freshwater snails which act as intermediary hosts. The eggs of the schistosome worm, which leaves the body in urine or faeces, must be deposited in waterways. Once hatched, the larva; have at most 26 hours to find a host snail in which they can mature and multiply asexually, producing many more larva;. These later leave the snail and penetrate the skin of people wading in water. Inside the human host the worms live in the veins of the bladder and bowel where they mate, producing eggs that enable the cycle to be repeated.

For schistosomiasis to be brought under control it is necessary to break this cycle at some point. One way is to eliminate the snails on which the larvae depend. But this is not as easy as it may sound. In an experimental programme carried out in Sudan's vast Gesira irrigation scheme, health workers spent about five years in one particular village attempting to eradicate the disease. One of the measures taken was to clear the irrigation canals in the area of snails. At first this proved very successful and by 1977 no more cases of schistosomiasis were reported. But subsequent investigation revealed that “92 per cent of boys and all but two of the girls in local schools were reinfected . . .These snails had somehow managed to invade the area again” (Guardian, 12 August 1983).

Ironically, economic development in the form of newly-built dams, reservoirs and irrigation projects can actually exacerbate the problem by encouraging the spread of snails. The ripples caused by such development can be registered in places as far away as the Hospital for Tropical Diseases in London (where this hapless writer once had to spend a few days). As the Observer Magazine pointed out in an article on the famous “Hotel Tropicana” (as the Hospital is nicknamed): “Every time a new dam is built in Africa there is a feedback in the increase in cases of schistosomiasis” (26 November 1978).

It is possible to treat the victims of this disease. One newly-developed drug. Oltipraz, has had an 80 per cent cure rate, but at $8 for a course of four tablets it represents a considerable outlay to an impoverished farm worker in Sudan. There are cheaper treatments but whether they are as effective is another matter. But in any case treatment is no substitute for prevention. As long as the necessary preventive steps are not taken, the possibility of re-infection and thus the need for re-treatment will remain. Clearly, the most important of these is the provision of adequate sanitation — a step which tends to come up against the familiar economic barrier of the profit disincentive. Yet without proper sanitation the waterways will remain often the most convenient, and sometimes (as on the Gesira plains) the only private, place to do what Nature bids.

The three other major parasitic diseases examined in the Horizon documentary were trypanosomiasis, filiariasis and malaria. Trypanosomiasis — or sleeping sickness — is essentially a disease of Africa south of the Sahara. It is transmitted from one person to the next through an insect vector, the tsetse fly. The trypanosome parasite also infects cattle (causing the disease Nagana) and game animals who serve as a reservoir for the parasite. The eradication of the disease is chiefly geared to the destruction of the tsetse fly. usually a “scorched earth” policy that requires cutting back foliage alongside rivers where the fly has to breed. However, a new method of control may make this unnecessary: trials in Upper Volta and the Ivory Coast using insecticide-impregnated strips of cloth have reduced the tsetse population by 99 per cent in a matter of months. There have also been attempts to devise some means to destroy the parasite itself which the tsetse fly carries, but these have met with little success: the trypanosome is notoriously adept at outwitting the vaccines developed so far. The eradication of trypanosomiasis is important not just on grounds of health. It will also increase significantly the agricultural potential of sub- Saharan Africa by opening up quite sizeable parts of it to farming.

Like trypanosomiasis, filiariasis is transmitted through water related insect vectors — the mosquito and the blackfly. It is a disease which focusses its attack on the poor, for it typically occurs in heavily populated areas with inadequate sanitation which favours the breeding of vectors. Filiariasis affects about 300 million people and comes in two main forms: elephantiasis (250 million people) which causes an enormous swelling of the limbs and onchoccrsiasis or river blindness (30 million people). The latter variety takes its heaviest toll of victims in the Volta basin where some 65.000 square kilometres of fertile river valley have been vacated because of the disease. No words can express more forcefully why once vibrant villages have been turned into empty husks than the pathetic sight in the Horizon documentary of a human chain of blind people led by a young child.

One of the biggest killers in the world is malaria, a disease from which 800 million suffer with 150 million new cases recorded each year. The disease is transmitted through the female anopheles mosquito which sucks the blood of an infected individual containing the plasmodium parasite, which is passed on to others it bites. The campaign against malaria is one of the oldest of all mass campaigns. In the two decades following the Second World War, malaria's toll was drastically reduced by mammoth anti mosquito drives. In the 1970s, however, the disease staged a comeback especially in South and Southeast Asia and Central America. Partly to blame was increased resistance to both drugs and pesticides like DDT (it is said that the Vietnam War greatly facilitated the mosquito’s acquired resistance to such chemicals). But in the Mediterranean, malaria was eliminated except in parts of Turkey — a fact which has been widely interpreted as suggesting a link between the disease and the level of economic development.

New drugs are being developed which could destroy the parasites in malaria victims, thus breaking the transmission cycle. In addition, it is possible that a vaccine may now be developed though a lot of research has yet to be done before this can be said for certain. As for controlling the mosquito population, one of the latest proposals being examined is to release millions of sterilised mosquitos into high risk areas. All such developments will require a substantial injection of resources — according to one estimate about $2 per person a year. But as the New Internationalist (March 1984) put it, “In many countries such as India. Pakistan and Ethiopia this would be more than the per capita health spending for all health services”.

This is not to say that a disease such as malaria will never be eradicated while capitalism continues. Such a view would be absurdly dogmatic: it is possible that some technological breakthrough may be sufficiently cost effective to permit a repetition of the success in the case of the smallpox campaign. Our point is simply that capitalism acts as a drag on the process of technological discovery and implementation where there is little or no prospect of profit. Indeed, as the WHO noted in 1975, the global research budget for the six major tropical diseases was a tiny $30 million. Animal parasitology, on the other hand, presents a very different picture: cattle, it would seem, are more valued for their meat than the lives of human beings.

Meanwhile, the number of people living in a state of “absolute poverty” is rising relentlessly. All the summit meetings, all the wringing (not to mention washing) of hands in public places, all the reports, have been to no avail. With every passing year it becomes more and more obvious that nothing short of a revolutionary transformation of society will serve to wrench the mass of humanity out of the debilitating cycle of deprivation and despair. Paradoxically. it is those who want anything less who are the worms in the gut.
Robin Cox

Correction (1984)

From the June 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the article “Nationalisation changes nothing" in our May issue we state (p.88, top of centre column): ". . . more of them (the media) insist that the NUM, also in the interest of democracy, should not settle the strike until after the workers have, by ballot, agreed. This should have read “ . . . . none of them insist . . .". Our apologies.

In the drink? (1984)

From the June 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the drink? If the opinion polls are to be believed, Neil Kinnock’s popularity, although he is nowhere near passing through the doors of Number Ten, is on the wane. The newspapers are beginning to tell us that since he became Labour leader he has been on a honeymoon with the voters which is now at an end. This news can only make the Labour Party even more worried; they may well be wondering now whether anyone, or anything, will ever be able to beat Thatcher.

Kinnock was supposed to be able to do this because of his youth, because he has something called charisma, an attractive wife and an ability to provide good copy for media like when he fell into the sea at Brighton. He also comes from Wales, which is supposed to give him an instant understanding of poverty and a fluent tongue. And of course he was a left winger. In spite of that episode on the beach at Brighton, perhaps he was the man to turn the Tory tide.

In fact there is nothing new about Kinnock. It is an established Labour Party tradition that their leaders come up on the left wing, which causes a lot of excitement among the punch-drunk membership about the dawn of the revolution. As the new leader adjusts to the realities of their position the excitement dies as the membership perceives, through the tangles of the grass roots, that their hero is moving to the right.

This was what happened with Wilson and Foot, who both had the problem of keeping their hold on the support they had built up on their way to the top. For a long time, Wilson was slickly clever at this trick but Foot made a bumbling hash of it. Kinnock's popularity may well depend on what sort of a job he makes of it, on how effectively he reconciles the irreconcilable.

This typical history illustrates the messy impotence of capitalism's leaders who, far from controlling the system, can only stumble from one crisis to another. Whatever hopes now rest on Kinnock's head must in the end be disappointed for, if he ever gets to Number Ten, he will have no choice but to run capitalism as it must be run — against the interests of the working class who elect him to power.

There is an alternative to this which is neither messy nor impotent but which cannot be written up by the media in terms of heroic charisma — and it is the more effective for that.

Euro-capitalism or world socialism? (1984)

From the June 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard

At the time of the first European Elections in 1979, we asserted that the European Parliament was not a step towards world unity and nor was it meant to be. We put forward the socialist proposition that the only solution to social problems is the establishment of a world without frontiers, based upon common ownership and democratic control of the means of living, with production solely for human need.

This argument was a condemnation of the political and trading arrangements entered into by various European states, in order to further the interests of their capitalists. It also put out the challenge of positive and practical action which could establish a sane world operating in the interests of the whole community.

The argument still stands, vindicated by the experience of the past five years which have been tragically wasted. These have been further years in which society has remained trapped in the insanities of economic, political and military power structures.

What has happened during these years in this so called “European Economic Community?” Disregarding the empty promises of Labour, Conservative and other reformist politicians, what, in reality, did the electorate support in 1979? Governments have paid farmers to destroy cattle, tear up orchards, plough back vegetables and destroy fruit. They have created milk and wine lakes and butter mountains. Now they are cutting milk production in the overall interests of profit. All this in a world in which 40,000 children die every day from starvation. In Europe itself, over 30 million of the population are living below the official poverty line with many seriously undernourished.

In reality, what does the “common market” mean for workers? It is the labour market in which our powers of work are the commodities. We sell our skills and energies producing goods which the capitalists then own. Just as commodity goods are unsold when they are surplus to the market, so our powers of work are unsold when they are surplus to the labour market. Millions of workers are unemployed in the EEC, but at the same time billions of pounds, francs, marks and guilders are extracted as profit from those who are “employed”. We are used as the source of profit and live on wages or salaries while the capitalists maintain their economic power and their grip on the means of living.

This is what the “European Economic Community” is all about. It is part of the profit system, and to protect the capitalists interests involved, millions are wasted in the armed forces and in armaments production. This could provide for Europe as a power bloc to stand against such existing power blocs as America or state capitalist Russia.

Market surpluses amidst deprivation; unemployment amidst poverty; economic exploitation; preparations for war; waste and pollution of the atmosphere; these are the destructive forces which promote the interests of the capitalists in their so called “European Economic Community”. How many more years will be wasted on a system which is utterly unworkable as far as the interests of the whole community are concerned.

Only one interest rises above the economic, political and military divisions of national and international capitalism—our single, world-wide common interest as workers. Its political direction is clear—we must ensure the growth of the world socialist movement with the object of capturing political control of all the powers and machinery of governments by democratic political activity.

From this position we will enact the common ownership of the means of living. This will strip the capitalist class of their monopoly of land, industry, manufacture, transport and resources, whether maintained by private ownership or state control. We will establish free access by the democratically organised community to all these productive means and resources so that they can be freely used to provide directly for human needs.

This will involve the abolition of the state and the conversion of all useful government functions for the democratic administration of needs, operating through a decentralised system of decision making on world, regional and local levels.

Socialism will remove all economic constraints on social action, and will involve the abolition of not just the “common market” but all distribution by buying and selling through the use of money; and therefore will establish free access to all the goods and services which the community could more freely make available. The wages system, which is the market for labour power, will be replaced by direct co-operation between people.

With this world co-operation, socialism would abolish all armed forces and armaments production. Thus all the potentially useful resources of labour, materials, technique and equipment now used for the military would be re-directed for human needs. During all the years which have been wasted on support for capitalism, socialism could by now have solved the major social problems.

Again, the choice between capitalism or socialism is the issue which socialists are raising in this election. The urgent priority is for workers to join the growing world socialist movement. This is the only practical activity which is now being directed at the solution of social problems. Support for parties seeking to participate in the administration of capitalism through the European Parliament will prove as irrelevant and futile now as it did in 1979. But those who want and understand socialism will use the electoral process as and when possible. In the meantime they can show their support by writing “SOCIALISMUS”, “SOCIALISM”, “SOCIALISME”, as the case may be, across their ballot papers.
The Executive Committee
The Socialist Party of Gt. Britain

Voice From The Back: What immigration problem? (2006)

The Voice From The Back Column from the June 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

What immigration problem?

The US government has recently had a crack down on illegal immigration and the French and British press have been full of the problems of immigration in those countries, but for one group there seems to be no problem in settling in another country. “Seven of the wealthiest billionaires living in Britain come from overseas, according to this year’s Sunday Times Rich List. Indian steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal comes out on top with a fortune estimated by the newspaper at £14.8 bn. Roman Abramovich drops to second place, but the Russian oil tycoon and Chelsea football club owner is reckoned to be worth £7.5 bn.” (BBC NEWS, 3 April). So far none of the seven billionaires seem to be having any trouble with housing, schools or social security and no one has suggested passes or tagging for any of them.

Not so bright

When socialists attack the inequalities of capitalism we are often told by its defenders that the owning class deserve their wealth because of their hard work or superior intellect. No one could ever accuse Paris Hilton of hard work, she recently celebrated her 21st birthday by having 5 birthday parties in 5 different countries, attended by thousands of friends. The rich tend to have more friends than the poor. If she couldn’t be accused of hard work she certainly could not be accused of possessing a grasp of world affairs. “The word ‘mother’ confused her, a friend of Paris Hilton explains the hotel heiress’s request to meet Mother Teresa’s children in preparation for playing the nun in a new film” (Observer,16 April).

Primitive Accumulation 

In recent months we have highlighted the process of the capitalist class grabbing land and throwing off the previous occupants in India and China. Now from Botswana comes another example of this “primitive accumulation of capital” so well described by Karl Marx in Capital in the 19th century. “Since 1997, more than 1,500 Gana and Gwi Bushmen have been evicted from their homes in the Kalahari” (Observer, 16 April). They have been found to be “primitive and a barrier to progress” ever since De Beers took an interest in the area’s diamonds. 

The American Nightmare

The journalist Heather Stewart in her Letter from Washington describes the contrast between the rich and poor in what is described as the most affluent country in the world. “Men in chinos and women with neat hair and brilliant white teeth sip giant cappuccinos or chat animatedly into their cellphones. …Look closer, though, and there are signs of another DC. Tired looking black men stand on street corners holding out the same giant coffee cups to collect coins. The Washington Post details a horrific crime wave of car-jacking and gunpoint robberies. Less than a mile from the grandeur of the White House are neighbourhoods with all the deprivation and social issues of the poorest inner cities” (Observer, 23 April).

A Fishy Story

Russia, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan are in dispute with Iran in a bitter controversy. What is it all about? Civil rights, nuclear armament? No way. This is about caviar! “Iran may be increasingly out of favour with the UK Security Council, but the UN Secretarial for International Trade in Endangered Species gave the country the thumbs up last week, when it gave Iran’s quota to export 44,000 kilos of caviar this year. Exports from the other countries have been banned by the UN since January” (Times, 27 April). The price of caviar is currently £6,000 a kilo, so the furore is easily understood. After all Russia alone caught 650 tonnes in 2001. Millions of thousands of hard currencies is more important than war, poverty or civil rights to capitalist governments.

Do-Gooders Do Badly

“The world is failing children by not ensuring they have enough to eat, says the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef). It says the number of children under five who are underweight has remained virtually unchanged since 1990, despite a target to reduce the number affected. Half of all the under-nourished children in the world live in South Asia, Unicef reported. And it said poor nutrition contributes to about 5.6 million child deaths per year, more than half the total” (BBC NEWS, 1 May). Despite the efforts of Unicef and countless well-meaning charities capitalism is still starving millions of children to death every year.

A Depressing Tale

“Depression is the biggest social problem in the UK, says Richard Lanyard, a health economist who advises the Government on mental health. He claims that 15 per cent of the population suffers from depression or anxiety, and that the cost in lost productivity is about £17 billion” (Times, 2 May). It is typical of capitalism that not only does it drive us screwy, it can only see mental ill-health as a productivity problem.

They call it sport, m’lud (2006)

Editorial from the June 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Prepare yourself for the big business and sporting festival (we put them in this order for a reason) that is the World Cup. From the first game in Munich on 9 June to the final in Berlin one month later, there will be sixty-four matches, each one keenly contested by players, media and supporters alike.

Like all big international sporting occasions these days, sponsorship and advertising are very much the name and motivation of the game. The tournament’s ‘partners’, such as McDonald’s, Budweiser and Mastercard, are paying vast sums of money to get their brands and logos in prominent positions both during and between matches. Moreover, one ticket in eight (nearly half a million in all) will go to sponsors, enabling their bosses and other VIPs to enjoy the games while genuine fans are excluded. In many of the grounds, seating capacity has been reduced in order to increase the number and size of advertising hoardings and hence the income for the organisers, FIFA. The ‘rights’ to TV coverage will of course add millions more to their coffers.

No doubt the media will stoke up nationalist sentiments, especially the rivalry between England and Germany. ‘Two World Wars, One World Cup’ will be the refrain, particularly if the two countries play each other, as they may well do in the second round. Sadly, many of the supporters will echo the jingoistic nonsense of the press, fighting the wrong battles and misdirecting their energy and enthusiasm. How many St George’s flags will be flying from cars, houses and pubs while the tournament is on? Those supporters actually in Germany will additionally be paying the rip-off prices for tickets and accommodation, and trying to steer clear of the attention of police and hooligans.

Of course English nationalism is not the only kind which will be on display, for each of the thirty-two countries competing will bring its own brand of patriotic myth to the proceedings. The invented and historically-accidental entities known as countries have become the focus of so many workers’ loyalties, as if it really matters which bit of the earth people were born in or ‘belong’ to. It would be nice to think that meeting supporters from elsewhere will show that ordinary people, whatever language they speak or whatever passport they carry, have far more in common with each other than with their bosses and rulers.

So, if you like football, enjoy watching the World Cup if you can. But behind all the endless televised replays and the post-match inquests into fouls and offsides, remember that it’s all part of the greater game of dividing workers from each other. A socialist world would have no countries and no national teams. And there would be no sectional interests for some group of people at the expense of other members of the global community. In the meantime, the crying need is for workers to realise that nationalism is a diversion along the road — not to Wembley or Cardiff or Berlin — but to a sensible society.

Pathfinders: Game On (2006)

The Pathfinders Column from the June 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Game On

A man from Sydney, Australia, buys an island populated by wild animals for $26,500, and charges tax for hunting rights, as well as renting beach front property. This is perfectly normal behaviour in capitalism. The money he earns from it is real enough. The island, however, does not exist. It is a virtual island, with virtual animals. (New Scientist, May 20)

Elsewhere, in Shanghai, a man lends his prized sword to a friend, who then secretly sells it for 7200 yuan (£500), back-pocketing the proceeds. Furious, the man complains to the police, who do nothing. Enraged, he breaks into his friend’s house, and stabs him to death. The knife he uses is real enough, and the man gets life imprisonment for murder. No action is ever taken over the original theft, because the sword does not exist according to any known law. Real blood spilled by a virtual sword.

From Carolina, one man has made a fortune selling rare virtual furniture and other items, which, he discovered through a bug in the program, he could duplicate, and sell over and over again. Nobody knows if he has broken a law. The game company closed the bug hurriedly, but not before the man had cleared $100,000.

Online gaming is moving beyond the purview of geeky kids. Virtual items and goods, though theoretically worthless, acquire value in the real world as players seek to shortcut the time-consuming process of acquiring them in the game, and serious money is being made in the ‘grey market’ of virtual trading. Now game currencies have been indexed to real currencies, and one game developer, MindArk, has launched an ATM cashcard that players can use to withdraw real cash, calculated according to MindArk’s exchange rate of their ‘game’ wealth. The global trade in virtual goods is currently estimated at $880 million and rising, with 30 million, mostly western and mostly affluent gamers, playing games for up to 18 hours a day. In one popular online game, Second Life, a third of the players spend more time in the game than in the real world.

It’s not hard for socialists to see why people would want to escape the rigid fetters of real-time capitalism. People have been escaping the real conditions of life ever since the Greeks invented the outdoor theatre. What is slightly depressing but perhaps not very surprising is that people work so hard at their escapist fantasies only to create societies of lawlessness, savagery and insane self-destructive cruelty that make capitalism look like a pussycat by comparison. In one game, players are dedicated to the task of setting off virtual semtex bombs and blowing themselves and their online world up. In others, there are virtual assassinations, or random slayings, where players find their character has been murdered for no particular reason, apart from somebody’s idle amusement. A player can take a long time, sometimes years, to build a character up, provide it with its special faculties and powers, as well as its virtual property. To be robbed and murdered after all this work is no small thing and can be deeply upsetting to the player. But this is the virtual wild west, and there is a nihilistic appeal. Law doesn’t appear to work in people’s interest in the real world (true, in many ways), so the idea is to get rid of all law and have an orgy of violence and blood in the games.

The problem is, as with the Shanghai murder, the violence is starting to spill over into the real world, prompting some observers to suggest that law and punishment should be introduced into the games. The game developers are opposed. What is the point of playing a game that lets you do nothing? That’s just like real life, the very thing people want to run away from.

The other problem, from a socialist view, is the constant reinforcement these bloodthirsty games give to the perceived need for law and policing. For these are, in a way, highly moral games, in that they strongly emphasize what dread chaos results from ‘amoral’ or lawless behaviour. Socialism proposes to abolish all coercive law which serves class interests (which is to say, all property law, at the very least). What laws or rules socialism would retain is a moot but interesting question. What is evident however is that no rational debate on the socialist need for laws, or rules, or their nature or means of enforcement, is possible among workers while they are bamboozled into believing that a society without repressive legal structures is always going to look like a scene from Conan the Barbarian. Play one of these online games for a week and you will either become a nightmare axe-murderer from the Dark Ages or you will be screaming for the return of capital punishment and school floggings.

Why normal bank clerks and home heating engineers should want to lead double-lives as marauding rapists and genocidal maniacs is a topic too large to enter into here. But it would be interesting to speculate what a socialist society would make of it. Would they look back at capitalism and trace a pattern from the Boy’s Own stories of Empire days with their strongly moral content, through the poignant emptiness of punk culture and on into the cybernight of shoot-em-ups and global conquest games and say: there, that was a society in decline? By giving reality to the horrors of the repressed mind is capitalism liberating or enslaving us even more deeply? Will there come a point, perhaps with the total abolition of hard cash, when capitalism will itself become a virtual game, with a human population of players who try to amass arbitrary ‘units’ of currency in order to buy arbitrary artifacts? The difference between real life and a game is that you always have to return to real life eventually, but it is just possible that this difference may one day disappear, and our grip on reality may disappear with it.

Game Off

On a more positive note, a friend who is a computer repairman reports a recent case where a young man came in to have his computer repaired. The graphics card, an expensive one, had blown, and the cost would be over £300. The man appeared, and was given the bad news. He went away to think about it. A week later he returned.

“£300 is a lot of money when you don’t have a job. I can’t get a job because I’m too busy playing online for 16 hours every day. I haven’t been to a pub in two years, all my friends have disowned me, and I never see anybody. On top of that, I’m bored with the games because I am Grandmaster in all of them and can’t be beaten. In the past week I’ve gone to the pub, gone to a party, found all my friends and even met some new ones. In fact, I’ve had the time of my life. Tell you what. You can keep the bloody thing.”

And with that, he walked out into the real world.
Paddy Shannon