Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Nothing New (2022)

Book Review from the January 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

No Bosses. A New Economy for A Better World. By Michael Albert. Zero Books. 2021. 220 pages. £13.99.

Another book by Michael Albert arguing for his blueprint for a future economic and social system that he calls ‘participatory economics’, or ‘parecon’. He presents it as an alternative buying-and-selling economy both to one where wages and prices are determined by the market and to one where they are fixed by the government. His blueprint involves your work and income being decided by your work colleagues and what you consume by your neighbours. It also involves numerous meetings and votes to decide what should be produced.

Yanis Varoufakis, in a politely critical preface, makes the point that it could turn out to be a dystopia rather than a utopia:
‘While I see how Michael’s proposed organisation would rid workers of individual bosses and market pressures, I fear they may end up being bossed around by tyrannical majorities.’
Yaroufakis is writing from the position of someone who thinks that giving the market a role would allow people a greater freedom of choice. We don’t agree with that of course but would make the same criticism on the ground that post-scarcity conditions make free access possible along with the application of the principle ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs’.

Albert, however, insists that consumption should be linked to the ‘duration, intensity and onerousness’ of the work an individual does and is implacably opposed to ‘from each to each,’ devoting four pages to criticising it, or rather a caricature of it. Basically, he thinks that it would lead to people not working hard enough and/or consuming too much. He calls it ‘The Anarchist Objection’ and, indeed, Kropotkin and Alexander Berkman who he cites as among those who have influenced his blueprint, could both have answered his arguments. It is not just an objection made by some anarchists but also by us, as he knows since he has debated with us, both in person and in the columns of the Socialist Standard (April 2006).

There is nothing new in the book except for Varoufakis’s point.
Adam Buick

Scottish Clearances (2022)

Book Review from the January 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Sutherland Clearances: The Highland Clearances, Volume Three. By Alwyn Edgar. Ebook: ISBN-13: 9781838275 006.

Before the Rebellion of Prince Charles in 1745, each Highland clan owned its own land. No one else, including the Government in Edinburgh, had the power to deprive them of it. (Travellers saw that in the mountains every crag was a new fortress for men defending their own country.) But the Highland Jacobite rebels having been defeated at Culloden and scattered, and the Lowland Government in Edinburgh now being much stronger since the Union with England in 1707, the British authorities decided to incorporate the Highlands into Great Britain in fact, as well as in theory. The anglophone legal system was successfully imposed, and the clan chiefs were made into landlords, owning all the land which had once belonged to their clans. Scots law now gave each chief-landlord the right (for any reason or no reason) to turn his entire clan out of their homes and farms, and keep the whole clan land as his private back garden, if he wanted. So when the new landlords realised that big grazing farms, for cattle or sheep, would make a lot of money, the clearances started. Well-to-do Highlanders, Lowlanders, even a few Englishmen, rented the clan lands; the chiefs evicted their folk; and the chief/landlord found his income shooting up over the years to five times or fifteen times what it had been (and there was no income tax!). Many of the evicted Highlanders were given an acre or two of worthless, barren land, and told to make it fertile: and when by donkey-work the crofters were able to grow a few potatoes, they had to pay rent for the value they themselves had created. Others – either immediately or after years of rack-rented drudgery on the croft – went to the Lowland factories, or abandoned Scotland entirely for arduous pioneering lives in North America (those who survived the journey).

The Earls of Sutherland were chiefs of the Sutherland clan, Murrays, MacKays, Sutherlands and others. Adam Gordon married a daughter of the Earl of Sutherland about 1500, and managed to cheat the rest of the family out of their land-charters. After that the Earls of Sutherland were Gordons. The 18th earl died in 1766 leaving a year-old daughter, Elizabeth Gordon, to succeed him. She inherited nearly two-thirds of the county of Sutherland, over 1250 square miles, an estate about the size of Gloucestershire. The long wars with France between 1793 and 1815 meant there was a desperate need of soldiers, such as the Sutherland small tenants could provide: but (despite being married to one of the richest men in England, the Marquis of Stafford) she wanted the much higher rents which big sheep farms would supply. (You can never have too much money.) She was indifferent to the fate of the small tenants – ‘good many of them’, would ‘inevitably be tossed out’, she wrote; they would be ‘driven from their present dwellings by the sheep farms’. She cleared her estate between 1807 and 1821, greatly increasing her rents. She and her husband became the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland.

The second greatest Sutherland landowner was Lord Reay, the chief of the Reay MacKay clan. Reay cleared his estate even before Elizabeth Gordon, beginning about 1800. (Thirteen smaller landlords owned the rest of the county, and rivalled the countess and Lord Reay with their own clearances.) Reay belonged to a London firm which provided finance to slave-traders, and spent most of his time in gambling dens and brothels. Having wasted vast amounts of money, he sold his estate to the Sutherlands in 1830, and bought a slave plantation in the West Indies. When the slaves were freed in 1833, like the other slave-owners he was compensated. (The slaves weren’t.) – from the blurb.

Interview with the author here:

Blogger's Note:
Alwyn Edgar gave a talk on his series of books last July via the SPGB discord discussion list.

Material World: a world without war (2022)

The Material World Column from the January 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

We go into another new year and as in previous years, it is under the looming prospect of war. Working people may once again be called upon to take part in another slaughter where men, women and children will suffer.

It is easy to blame individuals for starting wars, and some are certainly guilty, but the fundamental culprit is the capitalist system. Since capitalism is a predatory social and economic system, predatory personalities tend to rise to power who view the world through a lens of aggression. But it’s not merely a capitalist delusion, they are in fact surrounded by enemies.

When the Soviet Union disintegrated into independent regimes of oligarchs, and when China’s Communist Party promoted private enterprise as government policy, the intellectuals who had insisted that the Cold War was a conflict between competing ideologies were proved wrong. Meanwhile the small Marxist voices that had always explained the rivalry between the Great Powers as an economic one for the control of raw materials and trade routes were shown to hold the more accurate analysis. The danger of war arises inevitably out of the very nature of capitalism.

As 2022 begins we are faced with a number of flashpoints that could feasibly ignite into war. These are:
  1. The important sea-lanes of the South China Sea with its scatter of strategic small islands, as well as the unresolved status of Taiwan. The UK, USA and Australia have established the AUKUS security pact, complementing treaties with Japan, the Philippines and others, aimed at the encirclement of China. Capitalism forces countries to compete in the world market and to strive for aims that cannot be satisfied. The rivalry between China and the US is unavoidable and a trade war can so easily escalate into an actual blood-and-guts war.
  2. With echoes of the Eastern Front, at the borders of Ukraine and Belarus, Russian forces confront those of the NATO alliance. Army manoeuvres are regularly taking place to be prepared for military conflict.
  3. Iran, an aspiring regional power in the Middle East, enduring the slow strangulation of stringent economic sanctions, challenges the neighbouring oil sheikdoms using proxy militias, and the Gulf States now have a new friend in Israel. A shadow war is already being engaged in with the mining of ships and in the Straits of Hormuz, the main sea route for oil tankers, the scene is of regular stand-offs between warships.
  4. And then there is the Horn of Africa, where countries are too poor to feed their peoples yet have the ability to build armies and engage in wars which too often involve other countries.
Of all the many problems that capitalism has not solved, war is a perennial and always ominous threat.

War is fought for the interests and advantages of the ruling class, to protect or extend capitalist profits. Of course, no politician will ever admit going to war for such shabby motives. Every war has to be justified with such reasons as ‘humanitarianism’, the defence of the national interest, or upholding international ‘justice’, otherwise, very few citizens would sacrifice their lives or surrender their liberties so willingly. Each nation’s political leaders will argue that ‘our’ government’s foreign policy is ‘just’ while ‘their’ government’s foreign policy exists because their leader is a warmongering militarist adventurer. ‘Our’ side was forced into a ‘defensive’ position due to the other nation’s ‘aggression’. The noble talk about protecting ‘democracy’ is cant and hypocrisy. Every war is justified by a massive propaganda effort to demonise the enemy. It is the bait to hook us into giving our approval to an orgy of armament spending and profiteering.

Capitalism breeds wars. In order to secure peace we need to create a cooperative commonwealth where things are no longer produced for profit, but to satisfy people’s needs. This involves a struggle known as the class war, and this is the only war which workers should engage in. Yet the tragic reality remains that men and women still seem more willing to work and die for capitalism than to work and live for socialism.

If we are to eliminate wars we must understand that we need to transform the minority class ownership of the means of production and distribution into common ownership, producing for use instead of for profit.

Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) – What if? (2022)

From the January 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

So it’s official – unidentified flying objects are ‘real’ phenomena. So said the US Department of Defense on 27 April 2020. Upon this date they released three videos containing footage of, and reaction to, unidentified aerial phenomena. These videos had been seen some years before on a UFO enthusiast’s website but had been dismissed as hoaxes. Subsequently an investigation by the New York Times revealed them as genuine footage of a real event. As a result of this the Pentagon reluctantly admitted this was true and that they had been studying such phenomena for some years in an attempt to discover if they represented a ‘threat to national security’. Let’s take a look at this evidence with a less paranoid eye to ascertain what possible effect this might have on how we understand nature and technology.

In 2004 the aircraft carriers USS Nimitz and USS Princeton off the California coast, and then in 2014 the USS Theodore Roosevelt off the east coast of the USA, reported similar sightings by radar tracking and then infrared cameras aboard strike force aircraft. The pilots reported swarms of 50 ft. long white capsules (they dubbed them ‘Tic Tacs’) performing impossible aerial manoeuvres at high speed with no evidence of wings, rocket or jet exhausts or propellers. They could seemingly stop and accelerate instantaneously and appeared equally adept in the ocean, sky and space. The objects reacted to the aircraft and appeared to play with them as dolphins sometimes do with human swimmers. The radar and infrared footage seems to rule out any element of mass hallucination or visual illusion or any form of known natural phenomena. The observed ability of these objects to defy the known laws of nature would also seem to preclude the possibility that they were the result of any human technology. Of the many attempts to explain this exceptionally enigmatic phenomenon let’s choose the extraterrestrial origin hypothesis and indulge in a thought experiment to investigate the possible implications for the world of politics.

Many of us have enjoyed films and novels that feature an ‘encounter’ with alien creatures from another world. Depending on when they were made they reflect the different levels of fear and hope represented by such a discovery within certain cultures at certain times. During the Cold War these stories were essentially born of the paranoia around nuclear weapons and any superior technology was seen as a threat. But what is the response of global capitalist culture in 2021? The international bourgeoisie will always be suspicious of anything or anyone that they cannot corrupt or intimidate but most people seem either indifferent or profoundly intrigued by the possibility of an alien encounter. One particularly important possibility represented by the performance of these objects is that the immense distances between stars and their planetary systems may not preclude such visits as scientists have long maintained. Our laws of nature are certainly incomplete and interstellar travel might be a real possibility for advanced alien cultures. That the owners of these Tic Tacs seem indifferent to humanity does not imply that other elements of our planet might not be of more interest to them. If they were to choose to interact with us what might be the result?

It seems reasonable, from a socialist point of view, to believe that if any civilisation has achieved the level of technological sophistication to make interstellar travel possible they would have survived and overcome private property relations and the tribalism and violence associated with it. Therefore it’s unlikely that any alien visitors would be a threat to us or any other species on Earth. Likewise, their technological status would greatly limit any threat from us. What would be the nature of any communication? Perhaps, just as we value the art and culture of our own past, our visitors would be interested in our cultural activities down the centuries. Or perhaps they would be interested in our biological evolution compared with their own – the topics of conversation would be fascinating and endless. Presumably they would be wise enough to observe the ‘prime directive’ and not share any of the secrets of their technology. Of course, should it ever occur our history would change forever once the encounter had happened. Some believe it already has in the distant past but there seems no evidence for this – something our visitors might like to deny or confirm. Perhaps they’re waiting for our species to overcome its atavistic adolescence and establish socialism before they make contact. For socialists it would be a great chance to confirm the process of cultural evolution (materialist conception of history) as universal. It would also be immensely reassuring that intelligent life can evolve beyond the chaos and despair that we see on our own planet.

On close inspection of the footage itself it has to be said that it’s rather underwhelming. The fuzzy objects in themselves are too enigmatic to provide any proof of their nature or origin. It is rather the pilot’s reaction and narration that makes the incident so compelling. These are trained members of the military who are not known for feverish hallucinations. Something is going on. Will it prove to be the beginning of something historically significant or continue to be merely a mysterious but unimportant part of every pilot and astronaut’s working life? Now that the subject has outgrown its pulp fiction origins and has become part of scientific research we can now perhaps all look at the skies and report what we see without the associated ridicule of the past. It may well be that this fear of derision has led to an under-reporting previously and that such sightings are relatively commonplace. Even socialists can now take time out from the relentless class struggle and look up at the sky and ponder the possibility of other intelligent life forms on other worlds, together with ourselves, as aspects of the incarnation of the universe becoming conscious of itself.