Monday, September 27, 2021

The Pace of Change (2021)

From the January 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Capitalism in England began at 5 pm on Saturday, 14 October 1066, when William the Bastard became William the Conqueror. This, to some, will appear a contentious proposition, after all that was surely the advent of feudal supremacy.

However, while the Norman nobility and church secured their domination behind the daunting walls of castle and cathedral, ensuring the mass of the peasantry remained firmly bound to the land, there was one group of commoners spared such ties.

The Normans liked rabbits. Not fluffy bunnies as playthings for their children, but as the meat in pies and stews. So it was that along with the mail-clad knights came the warreners. Although of common stock, unlike the peasants they were free men.

Warreners, as the name suggests, constructed warrens, the means of production, which was their property not the local lords’, for cultivating rabbits. These rabbits were rare and valuable, not being native to Britain nor adapted to the climate, and they were sold on the market as commodities.

Thus, at the very moment of the triumph of feudalism, an element, a very minor element, of capitalism was introduced. The question is, when did the implicit principle really begin to become the explicit economic tendency that challenged, then superseded feudalism? Choose your own significant historical moment.

The point here relates to a frequently made assertion that Covid 19 marks a fundamental change in society. That people’s consciousness has significantly changed. Society must find a new way to go about its business.

Socialists will say amen to that (alright, perhaps not amen) if it means people more generally begin to grasp that their best interests are served by collectively deciding to end capitalism. Replacing it with a system of common, democratic ownership of the means of production and distribution to freely meet everyone’s needs is surely an attractive prospect.

Unfortunately, the evidence at the moment seems to indicate no such general ambition. There is a radical change in distribution, but it’s from high street and mall to online, a switch from one set of capitalist enterprises to another. The actual production of commodities remains largely unaltered.

This will entail large scale redundancies amongst those employed in the high streets and malls, impacting also on the social environments. Such is the nature of capitalism. What seems like a fixed dominant industry is quickly swept away by those infamous market forces.

For example, coal mining was regarded as a traditional industry in South Yorkshire, but it existed as a major force for little over a century, already well into decline before the 1984/5 strike. Much of what replaced it was lower skilled and paid. As with King Coal, so it was with Queen Cotton in Lancashire.

And so it’s likely to be with changes today, with zero-hours-contracted delivery drivers and warehouse hub workers replacing salaried (with pensions) shop workers. Consumer capitalism will continue to dominate.

Is this a counsel of despair for socialists, the more things change, the more they stay the same? Not at all. Firstly, it shows people can adapt rapidly to change. It wasn’t that long since it was popular to refer to ‘retail therapy’ as a leisure activity. This arose from the development of the huge out-of-town shopping centres.

They were a change in themselves, drawing huge numbers away from towns. Come a technological advance, IT, add a pandemic, and there is a new retail equation, readily accepted. The point here being that the catalyst of change, in this case Covid-19, cannot be predicted.

It would be all too easy to view a socialist party founded well over a hundred years ago as having failed in its quest to further the realisation of socialism, as capitalism remain ideologically, as well as economically, dominant.

However, as Engels indicated in The Peasant War in Germany, a revolution cannot occur and succeed before its time. Any attempt to force the issue ends in disaster, it certainly doesn’t end in socialism.

What will precipitate a change in the general economic, political and social views of a significant majority of the world working class cannot be artificially engineered or foretold. Socialists can only persist in maintaining the political resources as widely available as possible for the working class to draw on when ready.

Socialists can also keep up a constant critique of capitalism and all it entails to feed into the general discourses of society. Even hearing the oft-made comment, ‘I like your ideas, but they’ll never work in practice’ is positive. The notion has been planted, the negative can be worked on.

To return to the warreners. It is unlikely they spent much, if any, time fretting over whether or not the free market would eventually become the successor to feudalism. They would have gone about their business looking out for any other opportunities that came their way.

Perhaps there were those who thought it might be more generally beneficial if society adopted their freer way of working. Surely there were peasants who looked to the warreners and thought their lot could be improved by similar social and economic arrangements.

Yet, for hundreds of years, feudalism maintained its ideological grip until a pandemic, the Black Death, loosened its grip. A peasants’ revolt notwithstanding, it would be centuries more before the warreners became mill owners.

There is no time scale for, and no certainty of, the achievement of socialism. Whether the Socialist Party ultimately plays a significant or insignificant role in that achievement cannot be known now. For the moment though, today’s socialists are the warreners adding the freely cultivated meat to the political stew.
Dave Alton

Material World: Blame the old for being alive (2021)

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

Society’s treatment of many old people is shameful. Shut away in institutions, out of sight and out of mind, treated as expendable and collateral damage. The claim that we live in a civilised society is challenged by the miserable manner present-day society looks after old people. Too often the attitude is that ‘senior citizens’ are already living on borrowed time as a result of modern medical skills that extend their lives and therefore they should not receive any priority to prolong life.

The callous way that capitalism has developed ‘care’ of the elderly is shown in the manner where all of those with poor immune systems are placed together in one institution so when an infection strikes, it spreads through the unfortunate residents. As with dementia, take patients away from the one place they know and feel comfortable in, and place them with similarly confused people, in unfamiliar surroundings and then wonder why the dementia then deteriorates.

The number of cases of abuse is projected to increase of the aged whose needs may not be fully met due to lack of resources and insufficiently trained staff. The WHO reports that globally around 1 in 6 people 60 years and older experienced some form of abuse in community settings during the past year with levels of abuse high in nursing homes and long-term care facilities, with 2 in 3 staff reporting that they have committed abuse in the past year.

As many as one in five people in the UK over the age of 65 have been abused. The charity Hourglass, in a survey it conducted, said that more than a third of people did not believe that ‘inappropriate sexual acts directed at older people’ counted as abuse. 30 percent did not view ‘pushing, hitting, or beating an older person’ as abuse. 32 percent did not believe that ‘taking precious items from an older relative’s home without asking’ constituted abuse.

And not just the UK. An Australian Royal Commission has uncovered widespread mistreatment. Overall, investigators estimated that over 32,000 assaults – physical, sexual and emotional had occurred in a year in such homes. The abuse was perpetrated by carers as well as other residents. They said about 2,520 sexual assaults had happened in residential nursing homes in 2018-2019, an estimated 50 sexual assaults occur each week. ‘Unlawful sexual conduct’ is believed to have affected 13-18 percent of aged care residents.

The pandemic has exacerbated problems. Worldwide, the elderly in care homes were initially designated as low priority but it was the continuation of a trend that began with care becoming a for-profit industry.

In the last week of November, Covid-19 has claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people who lived and worked in long-term care facilities in the United States. According to public health expert Michael Barnett, one in 13 have now died as a result of Covid-19. So far, at least 75 percent of Australia’s coronavirus deaths have been aged care residents.

When the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, Julio Croda, from Brazil’s Department Of Immunisation And Transmissible Diseases, said he experienced a lack of urgency from the government when his department predicted that the elderly would bear the brunt of the coronavirus and would be more likely to die from the disease. Solange Vieira, who helped restructure Brazil’s pension system, said the quiet bit out aloud, ‘It’s good that deaths are concentrated among the old. That will improve our economic performance as it will reduce our pension deficit.’ In Britain too the pandemic has been an ill wind, with the Office for Budget Responsibility calculating that:
'The Government will save over £600m in state pension payments this year following a steep rise in excess deaths among the elderly, according to the budget watchdog’ (Daily Telegraph, 25 November).
Even in ‘progressive’ Sweden, its policy of promoting herd immunity led to older people being acceptable sacrifices. The ‘herd’ will survive, but what about the weaker and frail members of society? Anders Tegnell, the chief epidemiologist at Sweden’s Public Health Agency, answered, ‘Unfortunately the mortality rate is high due to the introduction [of the virus] in elderly care homes.’

Yet long before the present pandemic, back in 2013 the then Japanese finance minister, Taro Aso, at a meeting discussing social security reforms said that the elderly should be enabled to ‘hurry up and die’ to relieve pressure on the state to pay for their care (Guardian, 22 January 2013).

Society traditionally emphasised respect towards the elderly but as families and communities became increasingly atomised, abuse and abandonment has increased and our elders have been more and more stripped of their dignity. Is it really an exaggeration to claim that in today’s world old people are seen as disposable, to be discarded when the need arises?

Providing for the infirm and elderly is a social responsibility which all the able-bodied members of working age should share in equally. ‘From each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’, no matter their age. A socialist world will not treat old folk like machines that have been rendered obsolete and fit only for the scrap heap. Only a socialist society is capable of supporting the increasing longevity of its people and honouring and respecting our aged fellow-workers.

All that glitters . . . (2021)

Book Review from the January 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

The London Dream. Chris McMillan. Zero Books. 2020. £19.99

Subtitled ‘migration and the mythology of the city’, this is a critical look at London and the immigrants who are attracted to live and work there. McMillan writes broadly through a lens of Marxist class analysis, though also draws heavily on some of the ideas of non-Marxists such as Richard Florida, who has written extensively about the ‘creative classes’ within capitalism and the dynamic turbulence of which they are an intrinsic part. In London’s case, much of this is perceived as being centred on the so-called ‘flat white economy’ and Silicon Roundabout in Shoreditch, though it stretches much further and wider than this.

For McMillan, the ‘struggle between the hope of the London dream and the exploitation it fuels’ is the main focus of his investigation. Through analysing a variety of themes and sectors (the cleaners that service the City of London travelling in on the night buses, to jobbing actors and writers seeking their fortune but struggling to make any sort of living, through to the Uber drivers), McMillan does a good job of laying bare the exploitation that keeps the city going. He interviews a number of people who have come to London to chase their dream and is mature and reflective in analysing their success (or – largely – otherwise). In this respect he knowingly treads some similar ground to Ben Judah’s excellent This is London, which we reviewed in the Socialist Standard in June 2016.

London is now very much the ‘world city’ and whereas in 1951 as few as 5 percent of the population was born outside the UK, now the total is well over a third and growing – indeed two thirds of children born in London today have at least one parent who was born outside the UK. The Huguenots and Jewish refugees of earlier stages of capitalism have been replaced by Afro-Caribbeans, Bengalis and latterly eastern Europeans and those seeking their fortune and new experiences from the old colonies like Australia and New Zealand. But it is the low-paid, gig-economy jobs they typically fill – the waitresses, bartenders and delivery drivers. While two-thirds of registered London black cab drivers identify as ‘white British’ this only applies to 6 percent of Uber drivers, many of whom sometimes earn as little as £2 per hour net pay.

Though the book seems to be marred periodically by an unusually large number of typos and similar errors, McMillan is a good writer and brings the city and its people to life. He ends by saying: ‘London is a city of hope, a city of misery. A city where there is always something to do and no shortage of precarious workers struggling to do it. It is all part of the London dream. And still, they come. But for how much longer?’ (p.258). True enough, though what the book really lacks most is a re-imagining of the city in a way that transcends capitalism itself and the exploitation it engenders. But it is a stimulating read and a book that demonstrates that all that glitters in not all gold – and why.