Sunday, September 19, 2021

Material World: Afghanistan: another empire fails (2021)

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

Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, fell to the Taliban last month, with every other provincial city having already capitulated in what can only be described as a rout. Now the Taliban are in full control of Afghanistan. At the time of writing, the USA and the UK were rushing troops to facilitate the hurried evacuation of foreign nationals and diplomats from Kabul. Already Turkey, Iran and Tajikistan were reporting the arrival of refugees fleeing the threat of the Taliban.

The invasion of Afghanistan was the first action of America in what it called the ‘war against terror’ in response to the 9/11 attack in 2001. Afghanistan had been the base of operations for Al Qaida with the Taliban’s complicity. It has now become yet another embarrassing military defeat for the world’s greatest superpower.

In July as American forces departed Bagram Airbase without any advance notice to their Afghan allies, the United States’ top military general, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Mark Milley said to reporters, ‘This is going to be a test now, of the will and leadership of the Afghan people, the Afghan security forces and the government of Afghanistan’ (LINK).

We now know the result. Despite being a formidable force of 2-300,000, well equipped with some of the best US weaponry and trained by expert NATO instructors, and despite receiving continued American air support, the Afghan National Government army and police have melted away with a surprising lack of resistance.

The USA had invested almost $83 billion on just the training and arming of Afghanistan’s forces. From 2001 to 2018, the U.S. spent $730 billion on the war, the U.K. spent $28.2 billion, Canada $12.7 billion, Germany $11.1 billion, Italy $8.9 billion, and France $3.9 billion, all filling the coffers of the armament industry.

In addition, from 2001 to 2018 they each provided billions of dollars in foreign aid to Afghanistan which still remains one of the world’s poorest countries. The US donated $32.32bn, Germany gave $5.88bn, the UK’s contribution to aid was $4.79bn, Canada, $2.42bn, Italy, almost one billion and France, just over half a billion in foreign aid, with much of it going into the pockets of the profiteers and corrupt Afghan officials.

Of course, there will be other Great Powers ready and eager to take advantage of America’s defeat. After all, Afghanistan’s potential mineral wealth is still there to be mined and remains to be exploited. While China’s Belt and Road project will be viewing the trade routes through Afghanistan with great interest.

General McChrystal, the former Joint Special Operations Command and Afghanistan War commander, when asked if the ‘War on Terror’ had been worth it answered, ‘It would be impossible to argue that it was. The outcome just hasn’t been positive enough to argue that…’ (

While McChrystal may view the war through the lens of military strategy and the geopolitical context, socialists think about the human cost of this Afghan war and the consequences to come. What for governments is the price in the blood of the innocents, the pain of the wounded, the suffering of the displaced refugees?

An estimate is that the war has killed 171,000 to 174,000 people but the fatalities are an underestimate as deaths by disease, loss of access to food, water, infrastructure, and other indirect causes from the war are not fully included. Atrocities were conducted by all sides in this war and no country held the moral high ground although each claimed it.

There are millions of refugees from Afghanistan who comprise the largest refugee population in Asia, and the second largest in the world. Now those figures can be expected to rise sharply.

While some on the left may take a feeling of ‘schadenfreude’ from the West’s humiliation and claim another victory for ‘anti-imperialism’, our sympathy goes out to all our fellow workers.

A few Afghans who cooperated with the Afghan government and the occupation armies are being fast-tracked through the asylum-seeker process but many more who the Taliban, not known for their mercy, consider collaborators will face a very uncertain and insecure future. We can be sure that the Taliban will not be keeping to any conciliatory promises made to the USA back in 2020 during their peace talks at Doha.

Socialists can confidently predict that civilians will still be paying a terrible price for the actions of Osama Bin Laden back in 2001 and the American miscalculated response to it, and will continue to bear the cost of the ‘War on Terror’ for a long time to come. The best way to halt all the killing and maiming is to finish the fighting and we hope that the hand-over of power may reduce the extent of the conflict. But, as with all conflicts in capitalism, don’t expect any permanent end to human misery and tragedy.

Capitalist philosopher (2021)

Book Review from the September 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Clipped Coins, Abused Words, and Civil Government. By George Caffentzis. Pluto Press. 2021.

This is a slightly revised, second edition of a book that originally came out in 1989 in which Caffentzis argues that John Locke, who lived from 1632 to 1704 and whose writings all university students of politics and philosophy are required to study, was ‘the philosopher of primitive accumulation’. Even supporters of capitalism recognise, in fact hail, Locke as an early advocate and ideological defender of their system. This is because of the justification he provided for the private ownership of land and industry and his view that the basic role of governments is to protect property ownership.

Locke’s argument was simple enough. Accepting the traditional Christian view that God originally gave the Earth to humanity for its members to use to satisfy the needs of all of them and not to waste, he argued that in a ‘state of nature’, i.e. before governments and laws were established, individuals worked the land to satisfy their needs and were entitled to what they mixed their labour with – his so-called ‘labour theory of property’. However, at first this was only up to the point where their needs were satisfied; if they produced more than they could consume themselves, they couldn’t let it go to rot but were obliged to give it away or let others use it. This changed, Locke went on to argue, with the emergence of money as a means of exchange and a store of value as it meant that any surplus could now be converted into something that would not rot – the precious metals silver and gold.

This – what Caffentzis calls a ‘state of money’ – led to a ‘social contract’ between people to set up a government to protect the property of property-owners, especially of the wealthier among them. Locke used the ridiculous, in fact outrageous, argument that in agreeing to the use of money the non-wealthy had tacitly agreed to its consequence of ‘a disproportionate and unequal possession of the earth’ and ‘an inequality of private possessions.’ This, argues Caffentzis, shows that Locke supported not only some members of society becoming landless but also the accumulation of wealth in the form of money, the two conditions Marx pointed to for capitalism to get going as an economic system.

Locke was not just a philosopher. He was involved in government. For instance, he drew up a constitution for the Carolinas, then still a British colony, which condoned chattel slavery. He was also involved in monetary policy, a discussion of his view on which is the theme of Caffentzis’s book. The main currency in England in Locke’s time was silver coins of a given weight. By the mid-1690s, due to clipping, most no longer contained their face-value weight of silver. To remedy this, which had become a hindrance to trade, it was decided to call in all existing silver coins, melt them down and re-coin them. The question was at what rate. Some wanted to devalue the pound and the shilling by defining them as a smaller amount of silver. Locke was against this. Caffentzis interprets this as meaning that Locke realised that, without a currency free from government manipulation, Britain would never come to dominate world trade. He also links this to Locke’s theories of knowledge and language.

Caffentzis presents his case in a clear, easy-to-follow style. The same cannot be said of the 23-page Introduction by Paul Rekert. This should be skipped or read afterwards in case its academese puts you off going on to read Caffentzis himself.

In a Preface Harry Cleaver writes that ‘escaping money has only recently returned to the agenda of revolutionaries’ as events ‘have made growing numbers of those looking beyond capitalism conclude that decommodification of life and escape from money are essential to the conceptualization and building of new, non-capitalist worlds’ (that could be said simpler too). Which is all to the good, though for some revolutionaries it has never been off the agenda.
Adam Buick

Parasites (2021)

From the September 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Will we ever see the end of these airborne parasites?

There can be little doubt about the impact this dreadful virus has had on predominantly the world’s working class.

Nowhere has escaped this awful pandemic. With some parts of the world faring worse than others, and so much loss of life and suffering – much of it down to the gross incompetence of world governments and their inept ministers trying to grapple within the financial considerations and constraints of life under capitalism. Nearly everything boils down to costs and affordability.

But could and would things have been handled any better within socialism?

It would be crass to suggest that viral outbreaks such as coronavirus could never happen within socialism. However, it’s also fair to say that in a society where all due care and attention will be given to the living conditions and welfare of farmed animals, and the preparation and storage of agricultural foodstuffs for human consumption stored in careful conditions, this should reduce the chances of any such occurrences considerably. Moreover, in the event of an outbreak, humankind will have developed a much quicker and more effective way of dealing with the issue. Without being burdened by considerations of costs and the search for profits, response time in closing down the spread of the virus in the shortest possible time would take priority, without the dither and delays that have impacted on the efficacy of dealing with pandemics under capitalism.

Coming out of lockdown

The past 18 months of living through lockdowns and restrictions has been difficult for most people. Each of us have had different experiences, with some finding the quiet routine of lockdown and staying at home actually bringing some comfort and respite from, amongst other things, the daily commute. Meanwhile others have been craving the social contact and routines of life before COVID-19. With most restrictions now lifted in the UK, it’s understandable for some to feel nervous about the new challenges we’re facing, such as the anxiety of returning to the office or finding it difficult to socialise in groups again.

Although some people may seem excited about the lifting of restrictions, rest assured that for many the uncertainty and potential insecurity of employment and a regular income is a source of great anxiety. Socially it might be about when we should or shouldn’t wear a mask, how close to get to people or where to go and what to do in any given social situation.

And let’s not forget the ongoing impact on our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world where coronavirus is every bit as severe now as it ever was. Countries such as India, where the government saw fit to export 66 million doses of vaccines overseas. Enough to have inoculated the major cities of Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata. While the virus was still raging and people were still dying in very high numbers. All in the name of profit before people.

Life has changed unimaginably since the beginning of the pandemic. The idea of ‘going back to how things were’ may feel completely impossible. Our mental health has been affected by the financial pressures of being furloughed and the reduction of income, and your life may have changed so much that it can be hard to see a positive way ahead.

As socialists we understand the pressures that workers around the world are facing, not only because of the impact of the pandemic, but because of the social system that underpins it. As a party we kept in regular contact with each other through online communication platforms such as Discord and Zoom. These modern sources of digital technology have enabled many of us to share, learn and laugh together in a way that only a generation ago would not have been possible.

What lies ahead?

Although still very much with us, COVID-19 is gradually becoming less of a threat. More and more people are surviving this dreadful disease, thanks to the ingenuity of science and scientists, through widespread vaccination. This naturally gives us hope as a political party that we can once again resume our programme of various activities and reconnect with our fellow workers in the physical environment, including for example the forthcoming COP26 conference in Glasgow later this year. Something we have been preparing for with much anticipation. And should you wish to participate in that particular event in any way, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. Your input would be most welcome. We have a world to win and nothing to lose but our chains.

Will we ever see the end of these heir-born parasites?

As one of the oldest extant monarchies in the world, the British royal family seem to have survived the test of time – so far. Whilst its immediate existence is reasonably secure despite Prince Harry and his wife Meghan Markle’s recent claims of racism, the cultural rifts exposed by the row could signal trouble ahead. The revelations certainly do raise questions about whether the monarchy can or should survive at all.

Queen Elizabeth, on the throne since 1952 (no quips about constipation please) is now 94 and still remains reasonably popular with the general public, with a 79 percent approval rating that many a politician could only dream of. A recent Ipsos Mori poll also indicated that only 17 percent of people believed the country would be better off without a monarchy. This despite a year in which Harry and Meghan quit the royal family and questions swirled about Prince Andrew and his involvement with convicted paedophile Jeffrey Epstein. A closer look at the poll also reveals a much less favourable opinion of the queen’s oldest son and heir Charles, particularly amongst younger generations, making him a potentially greater risk to the future of the monarchy. The reason for this must in part have been the characterisation of his uncaring attitude, as disclosed by his son and one-time piss artist and party animal formerly known as Prince Harry, during his recent infamous interview with Oprah Winfrey. This generational attitude also bodes ill for the royal image overseas, with the under-40s in the USA far more supportive of Harry and Meghan’s version of events, than that of the other royals who tried to play down the allegations.

Meanwhile further charges of racism against an ‘unnamed senior royal’ particularly resonated with Britain’s younger generation, who have grown up in an increasingly diverse country. Only 29 percent of the 18–34-year-olds polled said Britain would be worse off if the monarchy was abolished, while 45 percent said it would make no real difference– a view we largely share, and 19 percent saying that it would make the country better.

So while the British monarchy’s immediate survival is relatively secure despite Harry and Meghan’s claims of racism, the cultural rifts exposed by the row could signal trouble ahead. The revelations do raise questions over whether the monarchy can or should survive at all, with Charles next in line to the throne and not scoring well for general popularity.

While we as socialists might sense an opportunity as the current monarch’s reign draws to a close, we still face the prospect of persuading many of our fellow workers that these blue-blooded spongers, malingerers and work-shy freeloaders have outstayed their welcome. One only has to observe the absurd out-pouring of grief from so many misguided flag-waving subjects whenever a member of the royal family dies and the BBC’s royal correspondents begin their sanctimonious arse-kissing rituals, crocodile tears and fake platitudes, to realise what a challenge we have ahead of us.

And while as a party of the working class we may not have been around for anything like as long as the monarchy, we should all rise to the challenge to stop this outdated institution from reigning over us, and look forward instead to the day that their position of privilege will come to an end. When the castles and palaces they inhabit become little more than museums, we might look back in wonder and incredulity at a period in our history when we lived under that kind of rule and all the other insane rules and regulations of capitalism.
Paul Edwards

Letter: Principles of the future communist society (2021)

Letter to the Editors from the September 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Principles of the future communist society

Dear Editors

Nothing is more wrong than the view that we need not worry about the basic structures of the future communist society. On the contrary, only the attractiveness of the capitalist alternative creates, among other conditions, the preconditions for overcoming capitalism.

Despite its enormous destructive effects, the capitalist form of rule and mode of production managed in many ways to bind the majority of the population to itself. Many dependent employees today are of the opinion that capitalism has a number of weaknesses, but that there is no desirable alternative to it in view of the negative experiences with real socialism. Therefore, all efforts must be made to tame the capitalist system and make it socially sustainable.

This pro-capitalist imprint on consciousness, which is inherent in capitalism, can only be lifted if, in addition to the existing discontent and the associated everyday struggles, there is a well-founded and convincing concept of a communist future.

Capitalism contains endogenous levers that point to a post-capitalist society. These include its economic, financial, hunger, poverty, refugee, agricultural and state crises, its climate and environmental catastrophes, its wastefulness, its exploitation and undignified working conditions, its permanent wage pressure, its mass unemployment, its pandemics, its lack of sustainability and plundering of resources, its huge gap between rich and poor, its regional inequality, its technological developments, its overwhelming corporate power, its elbow mentality and its social exclusions and loneliness. But these levers will not bring about a change in the system unless wage-earners act as the gravediggers of capitalism and free themselves from its shackles. An overcoming of capitalism is only possible if the majority of the population loses confidence in the capitalist mode of production and fights for and builds up the communist system against all odds. It is the emancipation struggles of the wage-dependent population that bring about a sense of togetherness, strengthen their consciousness of power and their courage to fight, and break the capitalist shackles.

This gravedigger function arises:

a. by their own unbearable plight,

b. by the resulting discontent and protest movement,

c. by the insight into the inability of capitalism to reform,

d. by the insight into the superiority of a post-capitalist society,

e. by the existence of a revolutionary workers’ party, and

f. by the subsequent politico-economic struggles of wage earners to overcome the system.

The workers’ party has the task of enlightening, convincing, coordinating, showing solutions and supporting the revolutionary struggles.

In view of the negative experiences with real socialism, confidence in the communist society of the future presupposes knowledge of its principles. Marx and Engels themselves did not describe communism in detail, but stated the following principles:

1. the means of production belong to the community,

2. there is a council (direct) democratic society,

3. the economy is organized in a planned and democratic way,

4. income consists only of labor and social income,

5. gainful employment is reduced step by step to a minimum,

6. money is abolished in the long term and everyone can increasingly consume according to his needs.

7. in the transitional period, in the consumer market, money is replaced by labor vouchers, with the value of the goods and the income being based on the labor time incurred.

These principles are to be supplemented today by others, such as zero growth and the circular economy, but they remain the decisive measures by which the capitalist forces of destruction can be overcome.

They are not only valid in the distant future, but are already to be introduced and further developed within capitalism. It is not storming the government or waiting for the distant future, it is direct democratic transformation steps that overcome capitalism and lead to the communist mode of production.

What does this mean in concrete terms?

First, direct democracy must be introduced in all spheres of life and extended until it comes to power. Direct-democratic structures must be established in workplaces, companies, daycare centers, schools, universities, the military and retirement homes, and the population’s individual and collective self-determination must be substituted for external determination.

The direct-democratic transformation path demands a departure from parliamentary democracy and the struggle for comprehensive direct-democratic forms of work and life. In contrast to radical left and anarchist ideas, the direct-democratic path does not mean abandoning parliamentary work. Parliamentary activities serve the purpose of enlightment, to implement minor improvements for the broad population and to support extra-parliamentary struggles. However, participation in parliaments excludes participation in government, because the revolutionary left in government has no choice but to defend capitalism and thus abandon the overcoming of the system due to the constraints of the situation.

Secondly, it is not green market socialism that is to be striven for, but the repression of the market through an increasing supply of free goods and through the extension of national economic planning. According to the motto: planning as far as possible and market as far as necessary, digital planning systems are to be promoted, tested in practice and used. The market cannot be abolished immediately. It must be pushed back to the extent of free goods and macroeconomic planning expansion.

Taking their cue from bourgeois economics, many leftists criticize the planned economy. They argue that it is inefficient, leads to a scarcity economy and centralization. Under today’s technical and political possibilities, however, democratically organized macro-planning is more efficient than the anarchistic market mechanism. It improves the supply and leads to the extension of democratic decision-making processes. Only the democratic planned economy makes it possible to involve everyone in the shaping of the economy, to abolish the crises and unemployment, to avoid the climate catastrophes and to shape the way of work and life in a sustainable, peaceful and just way.

Those who continue to believe in the healing powers of the market (like the neoclassics) and/or in the healing powers of the capitalist state (like the Keynesians) are on an erroneous path that is incapable of reversing the destructive effects of the capitalist mode of production.

Thirdly, a progressive reduction of working hours causes working people to extend their leisure time and thus increasingly to shape their lives according to their own needs and to lead a fulfilled life. If this expansion of leisure time is increasingly coupled with the free supply of goods, a society will develop in which it is no longer money but individual freedom, based on solidarity, that determines well-being.

Fourth, the abolition of property and power income leads to a reduction of income differences to a small gap, and income development is determined by productivity progress and income distribution by respective area tariffs. Those who are unable to work for health reasons and who have ended their working lives receive an adequate social income.

Fifth, the climate and environmental catastrophes require us to say goodbye to economic growth and to shape the economy in a way that is compatible with the climate and the environment. Since neither is possible under capitalism, an effective climate and environmental policy presupposes a communist society.

For Marx and Engels, communism is both a social goal and a social movement. The principles outlined formulate the set of goals and the movements result from the struggles to abolish the capitalist condition. Marx and Engels did not depict the future post-capitalist society in detail like the utopian socialists. The details will emerge in the transformation process and will change with the historical and regional conditions. But those who renounce the recognition and implementation of the principles of the future communist society will remain in the capitalist swamp and the struggles will not get beyond the critique of capitalism.

The process of direct democratization will not fail because of the resistance of capital, as long as it is supported by the broad population. It is a necessary and successful way to replace the rule of capital by the rule of the people (the dictatorship of the working class). Those who today renounce the direct democratic path and seek their salvation in parliamentary work inevitably end up with Bernstein and his politics of the further development of capitalism.

Only in the practical implementation of communist principles is there a chance to dissolve capitalism and to build a new peaceful, just, crisis-free, environmentally friendly and needs-oriented society.
Alfred Müller, 

We agree with your criticism of capitalism and that a communist (or, as we normally call it, a socialist) society can only come into being if, and when, a majority have come to want and understand it and have organised themselves democratically to get it. We also agree that the socialist movement should contest elections with a view to entering parliament. However, you seem to be suggesting that some ‘communist principles’ could be gradually implemented ‘within capitalism’ by ‘direct-democratic steps’; that workers should form more and more democratic councils until the point is reached where they are so widespread, including in the military, that the state is dissolved. We don’t think this is a realistic scenario.

No doubt, as more and more ‘dependent employees’ come to want and understand socialism, they will organise outside parliament in the sort of ways you suggest, both to wage the day-to-day class struggle and to take over and keep production and essential services going once capitalist ownership is ended. But the state cannot be ignored or by-passed as that would leave it, and the coercive power it is able to wield, in the hands of those opposed to socialism. It needs, at the very least, to be taken out of their hands. Incidentally, insistence on the need to win political control is a key omission from your list of Marx and Engels’s principles.

This does not involve ‘storming the government’ in an insurrection. It can be done by turning universal suffrage from an ‘instrument of dupery’ into an ‘instrument of emancipation’. Since you say that socialism can only be established when a majority understand and want it, and also that socialists should contest elections and enter parliament, then a socialist majority outside parliament will reflect itself as a majority in parliament. This, where political democracy exists, will be enough to give the working class political control which they can use to formally abolish capitalist ownership of the means of production, allowing workers in useful production and essential services to take over their workplaces without hindrance and begin to run them on behalf of society.

Your list of Marx and Engels’s ‘principles’ is a mixture of principles (the first three) and an obsolete proposal for labour vouchers, as an expedient for dealing with need-based consumption, that would only have been relevant if socialism had been established in the nineteenth century.

It is not clear what ‘transitional period’ you are talking about – that between capitalism and socialism or that between a first phase of socialism (when distribution according to needs would not have been possible) and a higher phase (when it would be). Unless you regard labour vouchers as money (which Marx didn’t) then it doesn’t make sense to envisage money existing in the second period.

In any event, we ourselves have never supported the idea of labour vouchers and have never considered such a system as being either necessary or workable. It wasn’t necessary as there were other ways of bridging the gap between there not being enough, and full free distribution. Direct rationing, for instance. That would have avoided the need to give consumer goods a labour-time ‘price’ and so have a quasi-market for them, with the danger of this degenerating into a real market and an evolution towards state capitalism rather than socialism.

It is now nearly 150 years since labour vouchers were first suggested. In the meantime the problem they were put forward to deal with no longer exists. Socialism (the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources by society as a whole) can be introduced just as soon as a socialist-minded majority wins political control. Capitalist ownership today is not individual possession but through limited liability companies and corporations. Since these are legal entities created by states they can all be abolished in one go. Similarly, the forces of production have developed to such an extent since 1875 that, right from the beginning, free distribution according to need can be introduced immediately for the vast majority of goods and services. So, despite what you say, money and markets can be abolished immediately. Today socialism can be a post-scarcity society from the start