Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Marx misunderstood (2008)

Book Review from the February 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Economics Transformed. Robert Albritton. Pluto Press, 2007

Classical economics began with the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations in 1776. It continued with John Stuart Mill’s Principles of Political Economy, first published in 1848, which was to remain a standard textbook on the subject for nearly a century. After the Second World War, neoclassical economics became the new orthodoxy in academia. The main difference with neoclassical economics is a much greater emphasis on mathematical formulas. However, what unites classical and neoclassical economics, together with all its various sub-divisions, is a theory of price with explicit or implicit policy recommendations for running the economy – unemployment levels, interest rates, cures for inflation, and so on. Where does Marxian economics fit into all this? The short answer is – it doesn’t. Marxian economics provides a theory of profit and doesn’t presume to tell the capitalists and their governments how they should run their system.

Profit-making is the life-blood of capitalism, though you wouldn’t guess it from the news reports that economic well-being is threatened by a lack of “consumer confidence” – in other words, you’re not buying enough stuff from the shops. Capitalist economics is there to explain that profit is untouchable as the reward for waiting for investments to pay off for the capitalists, and as a reward for risking their capital. But these are an attempt at justification of profit, not an explanation of the source of profit, which is what Marxian economics is concerned with. Waiting and risk in themselves do not create profit. There is only one way that vast personal fortunes and the social accumulation of capital can be satisfactorily explained: as the result of the unpaid labour of the working class being appropriated by the capitalist class in the form of profit.

And then there are the consequences of the profit motive: crises, recessions and mass unemployment; and all the other effects which create human and environmental degradation in its wake. Albritton doesn’t deal adequately with any of this, which is unfortunate in a book which claims we can be “Discovering the Brilliance of Marx” in economics. Moreover, Albritton’s understanding of Marx is undermined by his claim that we can “democratically manage markets so as to serve the needs of social justice.” Firstly, Marx never made that claim and in fact specifically argued against the use of markets of any sort. Secondly, markets presuppose private or class ownership of the means of production and distribution. Students of Marxian economics will need to look elsewhere.
Lew Higgins

Bronterre O’Brien (2008)

Book Review from the February 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Bronterre O’Brien and the Chartist Uprisings of 1839 by David Black. (Radical History Network, 2007)

James O’Brien contributed articles to the Poor Man’s Guardian under the pseudonym “Bronterre” and eventually adopted it as his middle name. O’Brien soon became the Poor Man’s Guardian editor as it campaigned for universal suffrage at the time of the 1832 Reform Act. This Act however merely redistributed the vote amongst the ruling class, leading to the drawing-up of the People’s Charter in response (“essentially a program for universal male suffrage,” according to Black) in 1838 by the suppressed its leader, John Frost, was sentenced to death (later commuted to transportation for life) and O’Brien was sentenced to eighteen months in prison for making seditious speeches.

Black’s short tract on this particular episode reads like a Trotskyist analysis of the event as a failure of leadership (in Trotskyist literature working class setbacks are always the result of a betrayal of leadership). Thus Black argues: “if the Rising in Monmouth had not been led by John Frost it might well have succeeded.” Succeeded in doing what? Taking and holding Monmouth? Creating a revolutionary situation? Such fantasies were dismissed by O’Brien who had withdrawn from active involvement by this stage. According to Black:
“He explained later that he could not conscientiously take part in secret projects which could only at best produce partial outbreaks, which would easily be crushed and would lead to increased persecution of the Chartists.”
The Chartist campaign lasted another 10 years before collapsing in failure.
Lew Higgins

Blogger's Note:
David Black replied to Lew's review.

Greasy Pole: The mass debaters (2008)

The Greasy Pole column from the February 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
Who will win the race? Which horse is your money on? Will we notice when they win?
The excitement is killing me. Who has seen whiter, glossier, teeth and lies whiter and glossier still than those that were bared on television during the recent debates between Democrats and Republicans? The race culminating in the presidential trophy in late 2008 is solidly on, with these wealthy members of the capitalist class vying for leadership of the world’s most prosperous land, brought to them by the generous contributions of our dear readers’ unpaid surplus value.

These sellers of capitalist reforms are so impeccably dressed and groomed, so charming and witty, so passionate in their determination to give a structurally exploitative society a new lease on ideological life, that it might well take an Odyssean resistance to temptation on your part to keep from falling for their well-oiled sell, written and rehearsed with a large team of marketing professionals from behind the curtains.

Senator Obama, for all his oozing liberal rhetoric and strong likeability factor, while an Illinois Democratic senator has always supported a free market system. Isn’t that the one in which most of us must work so hard to produce free surplus value for our employers that we don’t even have enough free time to ourselves? One of the most popular bills that he signed in 2007, the Shareholder Vote on Executive Compensation Act, also known as “Say On Pay,” allowed shareholders to limit the inflated salaries of corporate CEOs but while this was easily and incorrectly perceived as a Robin Hood move, the reality was that studies in the Wall Street Journal had previously demonstrated that poorer CEO performance was correlated with more inflated salaries, and also that in economically troubled companies, worker morale suffered the most when CEOs were receiving pay of exceptionally bloated dimensions. In short, fiscal policies and laws must attempt to look after the interests of the capitalist class as a whole, even at the minor expense of individual capitalists. Behind each liberal dream sits a wallet somewhere waiting to bulge.

Obama was further criticized and praised last year for spending $18 billion on promoting merit pay of the nation’s teachers by cutting costs from the NASA Constellation Program, delayed now by 5 years. On the surface, noble and caring, no? Well, in capitalism the only nobility are the ones who still own parts of the land, and even the most caring sentiment finds a way out of the heart and into the coffers of the rich. His plan to improve merit pay for teachers was harshly criticized by the National Education Association (the largest labour union in the U.S.), the Urban Institute and the Cato Institute, on the grounds that merit pay could actually end up favouring schools in better neighbourhoods whose track records were stronger as a result of the inflow of local resources, could lower the morale of teachers owing to the resulting competition between them, and could create a new expensive bureaucratic superstructure overseeing the programme itself. Isn’t it sickening that in capitalism resources cannot be directly accorded to those who deserve it the most, our children’s teachers, without producing such negative consequences upon the institutions and atmosphere in which our children are learning?

Obama is also on record for stating that he is not opposed “to all wars, only dumb wars” (famous Fall 2002 speech at the anti-war rally at Chicago’s Federal Plaza). While urging for a date by which de-escalation of the militarization of Iraq should begin, Obama has also consistently refused to actually cut funding for the Iraq War. Capitalism makes it hard for seemingly honest, intelligent and good-intentioned politicians such as Obama to take a solid stance against the murder of the innocent (who are always the ones in war to die in greater numbers than the intended targets), even for those politicians who would likely come across as largely anti-war in a private conversation (if they too openly challenge the status quo, they may be attacked for undermining the war on terrorism – and as a result of their careful public manoeuvring, their platform always seems unpredictable and inconsistent).

Hillary Clinton lost the Iowa caucus but won the Democratic Party primary in New Hampshire. She is thus very much in the race to become her party’s presidential candidate at this time, with the biggest next date that may tip the scales in favour of Clinton or Obama what is dubbed by the press Big Tuesday on February 5th (something to get so excited about when we get home from work that day). Clinton is garnering a lot of support for her life-long struggle to medically insure all Americans, however she no longer advocates a single-payer insurance system as she once did and as all other capitalist nations around the world presently provide. Another example of the compromise she had to make to remain a viable leader of the Democratic Party, and a perfect example of how the needs of capitalism so taint the original ideals of those running for big offices that by the time they arrive there, they look, smell and sound like anyone else in the White Lie House. Indeed, the only Democratic Party candidate who does presently advocate a single-payer insurance plan is John Edwards, who is presently tailing significantly behind the other two in the race.

Hillary Clinton is assuredly not going to be making the world any safer from war, either. It is true that she has worked to improve the medical and psychiatric treatment benefits available to veterans, thus leading one to assume that she is more willing to improve in the patching up of those who fought abroad than in preventing their being massacred physically and emotionally there in the first place. However, as the potential leader of one of the world’s great powers, her job will be to make sure that she protects the economic interests of this country’s industries and their standing in the marketplace as a whole. Rather than attempting to make the world safer from war, her own website recites the same sort of patriotic dribble one finds frothing out of the mouths of every other leader running for president, in her case: “every member of our armed forces will receive a fair shot at the American dream when their service is over.” We all know, of course, how “fair” the American dream is, especially the millions of American presently failing to pay off their mortgages at a landslide rate, and the volunteers at the 51,000 food pantries across our “fair” land that are presently providing food assistance to the millions of extra customers turning up at food banks in recent years (according to America’s Second Harvest “2006 Hunger Study”).

Ron Paul
Ron Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, actually came out in the recent debates the strongest opponent of the Iraq War. His opposition seemed partially fiscal in nature, as he deplored the $300 billion spent on it thus far. But it was also ideological, as he felt the arming of groups who later turn against the United States (e.g., the Kosovars who aided Islamic terrorists, or the Afghan jihadists themselves, and their friend Osama bin Laden) had acted to fuel increased national insecurity rather than security, and increased terrorism rather than less. And of course, Ron Paul is probably right on this score, surprisingly coming from a member of the Republican Party, the party that always advocates small government but seems in each office hell-bent on creating a bureaucratic gigantean proto-fascistic war economy state.

However, Ron Paul, like the rest of the Republicans or Democrats, feels that capitalism can somehow behave more rationally than it does – or at least they want us to believe that with our vote they can transform its foul waters to fine wine. The reality is quite the opposite, as history shows again and again. Tensions between nations are always present over shifts in political allegiances between countries that may benefit some better than others. Global politics is a macrocosm of the local economy, with each company vying to get as much of the business as it can, such as trade, material resources and opportunities for future economic growth. From the perspective of a capitalist enterprise or a nation, the planet is a great big hamburger to chow on, with the unneeded parts thrown away on the landfill – children, nature, women, the elderly, education, health, and common sense. It is, at the bottom-line, a violent and wasteful way for humans to treat both each other and their world. It benefits only those in control of the resources and keeps the rest of us in a state of emotional tension about the relative lack of security that exists around the planet, at any time potentially plunging us all into another world war or terrorist attack. It is a world gone mad.
Daniel Vogel,

50 Years Ago: Old familiar faces (2008)

The 50 Years Ago column from the February 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Here it is, then: Universities and Left Review. Very well got up, good typography; indeed, the Abbey Press (the people who print it) are to be complimented on having a range of bold, large and display types almost sufficient to keep up with the editors’ delight in Names. The cover bears the contributors’ names (Isaac Deutscher, Claude Bourdet, Peter de Francia, E. P. Thompson, G. D. H. Cole, Joan Robinson, etc..) in massive black letters, their topics in small ones. ( . . . )

What purpose, then, does the Universities and Left Review serve? Pretentious, empty of ideas, its material picked from ideological dust-heaps, it has set out to make a splash—or, as the first editorial put it, to take a beachhead. Its avowed purpose is to publish discussion on “the common ground of a genuinely free and genuinely socialist society.” Its way, the editors say, is “to take socialism at full stretch — as relevant only in so far as it is relevant to the full scale of man’s activities.”

If that were true — “the full scale of man’s activities” — it really would be interesting. But, of course, it isn’t. Search the Universities and Left Review, and only in a line here and a phrase there will you find the working class mentioned. Professor Cole has a good word for them, and there is a little lofty patronage from David Marquand (“in the thirties, there had to be an effective mass movement for the intellectuals to join”) and E. P. Thompson (“the experience of rank-and-file political activity teaches us and keeps our ideas on the ground”). The names in the Universities and Left Review see themselves (bear witness, the articles on art, the cinema, architecture) as members of an √©lite: the General Staff on that beach-head, the upper crust of the “genuinely socialist society.” ( . . .)

Universities and Left Review seeks comment from the socialist viewpoint. It can be simply made. There is not a word concerning Socialism from beginning to end of the Universities and Left Review. Reformist claptrap, yes; pretentious verbiage, indeed; chatter about how things are for the intellectuals, above all. But of the interests of the working class, the great majority of mankind—not a whisper.

The most useful left-winger we ever saw was Tom Finney. The day he scored against the Arsenal—now, that was worth three-and-six.

(from article by Robert Coster, Socialist Standard, February 1958).

Letter: Some questions (2008)

Letter to the Editors from the February 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Editors,
I would be interested in your answers to the following points:

(1) Massive social improvements have been achieved since WW2 by modifying capitalism. This is a proven strategy for improving the lives of working people. Abolishing capitalism is unproven and so ambitious and unlikely that most people can’t even imagine it. Better to play the percentage game and stick with a socially modified form of capitalism along Scandinavian lines.

(2) I work for a company owned by capitalists so why don’t I feel oppressed? I make as much money as I want doing a job I enjoy without being an owner or shareholder.

(3) People need a contrast between work and leisure in order to appreciate and enjoy their leisure time. This would be lost if paid work was abolished.

(4) Are NHS workers also wage slaves? If so, why? Since they work for the good of the whole of society not a capitalist’s profit.
N. B., 

(1) It is true that, compared with their equivalents in 1945, most people in Britain today are better off in terms of what they consume. But this hasn’t been the result of Scandinavian-type “social modification” of capitalism since it has also happened in other countries, such as the US, which have not adopted such a policy. It will have been the result partly of workers working more intensively than they did in 1945 and so needing to consume more to regenerate their mental and physical energies and partly also of their increased productiveness allowing the capitalists – under trade union pressure – to pay higher wages while still extracting more profit. Even so, most people do probably see things like you do, which will be one of the reasons why they have not been interested in socialist ideas. But they still have money problems and they are also affected by wider social problems – wars and the threat of war, pollution, crime – which can only be solved in the context of a socialist society. On the world scale of course it’s a different story with record numbers living in absolute poverty.

As to Socialism being ambitious – what worthwhile goal isn’t? 99 percent of the socialist revolution consists of imbuing our class with the confidence and ambition to succeed, and a revulsion of living as wage slaves whether pampered or ill-fed: once we have this our numbers will carry the day.

(2) Just because you don’t feel oppressed doesn’t mean you are not being exploited. Why do you think your capitalist company employs you if not because it is getting more money from what you do than what it pays you? It’s certainly not doing this just to give you money to live on. Wait and see what will happen if the company ever runs into financial difficulties or is taken over.

(3) All that those socialists who have speculated about the disappearance of the distinction between work and leisure in socialism mean is that work, like leisure activities today, could become something people like doing – not an impossibility since even under capitalism today you yourself say you like the job you’re doing. Of course, there will still be a distinction in socialism between organised work to be done during set hours, even if enjoyable, and recreational activities carried out at the individual’s discretion.

(4) Yes, NHS workers are wage-slaves in the sense that, not having any large unearned income from owning property, to get the money to buy the things they need to live, they have to sell themselves – or more accurately, their working abilities – on the labour market for a wage. They may be employed by a governmental body and be doing a useful job (at least some of them, not those working in accounts) rather than for a profit-seeking capitalist firm, but they are still exploited in the sense of working for a longer time than the value of the working skills they sell and are paid for.

The Ire Of The Irate Itinerant (2008)

 From the February 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Uprising in Kazakhstan (2022)

From the February 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

The latest wave of protests began in Janaozen (sometimes spelled Zhanaozen), an oil town in western Kazakhstan. It was here that police shot down unarmed strikers in December 2011. Ten years later, the oilmen again struck for higher wages, better working conditions and the right to organise. The immediate triggers were the layoff in December of 40,000 workers by the main local employer, Tengiz Chevron Oil (75 percent US-owned), followed on New Year’s Day by the doubling of the price of the liquefied natural gas used in vehicles.

On 2 January a protest meeting started in the main square. Next day the strike began to spread. Roads were blockaded. By 4 January all the oilmen of western Kazakhstan were on strike; in the evening they were joined by the coalminers and metalworkers of central Kazakhstan. Non-stop mass meetings were now in progress in some dozen cities. New demands appeared, such as lowering the pension age, but the emphasis remained on ‘bread-and-butter’ issues.

On 5 January mass meetings began in the Russian-speaking cities of northern and eastern Kazakhstan. The protests now encompassed the entire country, with the exception of the capital of Nur-Sultan – previously Akmola and then Astana before being renamed in honor of former president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

The last few days before the crackdown saw a politicisation of the protests. Political as well as economic demands were now raised, including an end to arrests, release of political prisoners, the resignation of President Tokayev, Nazarbayev’s successor, and the final departure of Nazarbayev himself, no longer president but still head of the Security Council of Kazakhstan. Some called for restoration of the Constitution of 1993, which had divided power between president and parliament more equally than later ‘super-presidential’ constitutions. Others demanded a purely parliamentary system with no executive presidency.

It seems that at this time there were also attempts to form committees and councils to coordinate the protest movement, and also a ‘Council of Elders’.

It is worth noting what sorts of demands were not raised. In sharp contrast to the mass protests in Ukraine, there were no demands to change the foreign policy orientation of the country. Nor did any of the demands raised concern ‘ethnic’ issues such as the relative status of the Kazakh and Russian languages (Kazakh is the ‘state language’ but both are ‘official languages’).

What happened in Almaty?
Although protestors in several cities did topple statues of Nazarbayev or occupy government buildings, protests in most places were peaceful: they did not entail violence against people. However, events in Almaty developed very differently.

Almaty is the biggest city in Kazakhstan. During the Soviet period and the first few years of independence it was the republic’s capital. Even after the capital was moved to Akmola/Astana in 1997, Almaty remained the country’s main commercial, cultural and intellectual centre.

On the night of 4 January, protestors marched to the main square of Almaty, where they managed to push back the police lines and gain the upper hand. Some policemen were seen to flee or even change sides. Stores were looted, bank branches trashed, police cars burned. There were also raids on armouries – a fact that helps explain the emergence of armed insurgents who that night seized control of Almaty International Airport and a number of suburban districts.

The protestors dispersed in the early morning hours of 5 January, but returned about 10am. Over the course of the day, both the city administration building and the police headquarters were stormed and set on fire.

The insurgency in Almaty lasted no longer than 24 hours – from nightfall on 4 January to nightfall on the 5th. It appears that at this time President Tokayev was afraid of losing all control over the situation. He announced a series of concessions: he made the government resign, removed Nazarbayev, lowered the price of gas, and promised to provide assistance to the poorest families. This was also when he appealed for help to other members of the Collective Security Treaty Organization. Russia promised to send troops, as did Belarus and Armenia.

As it turned out, Tokayev was able to defeat the insurgency without the aid of foreign troops. On the night of 5 January, police units regained control of central Almaty, the airport and the suburban districts that the insurgents had seized the night before.

The plane carrying the first ‘peacekeepers’ from Russia landed on 6 January. Their trucks and armoured vehicles trundled around the streets of Almaty. Now and then residents could hear what sounded like gunfire. On 16 January the last Russian troops flew home.

Who were the organisers?
While most strikers and protestors came from the regular workforce, the looters and insurgents in Almaty were ‘marginals’ – resentful young men from the countryside who live in certain suburban districts and are unemployed or occupy poorly paid casual jobs. But armed insurgency – and especially seizure of the airport, 15 kilometres from the city – requires a certain amount of organisation, planning and preparation. So who were the organisers?

Putin and Tokayev point the finger at ‘criminals’ and ‘radical Islamic terrorists’ backed by unidentified forces outside Kazakhstan. While this may help explain disturbances elsewhere in Central Asia, especially in Uzbekistan, it is highly implausible in the case of Kazakhstan. Although most Kazakhs are nominally Moslem, Islam lacks deep roots in Kazakh society and political Islam has very little influence. The purpose of resorting to this bogeyman may be to justify a harsh response to the protests in the eyes of Westerners and Chinese who know little about the people of the region and are influenced by racial stereotypes. This effect is enhanced by blurring the distinction between armed insurgency and peaceful protest and by ignoring the fact that members of all of Kazakhstan’s ethnic groups participated in the protests, including traditionally Christian Slavs.

A Russian colleague who knows Kazakhstan well has a much more plausible explanation in terms of clan politics. Why, he asks, did Nazarbayev move the capital to Akmola in 1997? The official reasons were that Almaty is susceptible to earthquakes and too close to the border with China. He suggests another reason: the danger to Nazarbayev’s position posed by hostile local clans. The recent insurgency may have been organised by the heads of these clans, who are at the same time small or medium businessmen and therefore dispose of the necessary resources.

Be that as it may, the events in Almaty point to the need to investigate possibly significant regional differences in how the uprising developed and whose interests it served.

Another Colour Revolution?
The leaders of authoritarian post-Soviet regimes in Russia and its close allies live in mortal fear of so-called ‘Colour Revolutions’ of the kind that have overthrown similar regimes in other post-Soviet states. These revolutions, though justified in terms of democracy and human rights, are in fact carried out on the initiative and in the interests of Western powers.

The EU and the US were indeed deeply involved in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution. However, there is hardly any sign of such involvement in the uprising in Kazakhstan.

True, there is a party called Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan (DCK), led by a group of anti-Nazarbayev Kazakh businessmen and former state officials in exile in France. It stands for parliamentary democracy and genuine – as opposed to crony – capitalism. The DCK website (bit.ly/3tzU6Ly) focuses extensively on the gross corruption of Nazarbayev and his relatives (he, his daughter and his son-in-law are all billionaires). Apparently DCK has used social media to encourage and facilitate protest inside Kazakhstan. It is hard to judge its impact. Perhaps its leaders have connections in Western intelligence agencies.

What seems more significant is that Western oil companies with investments in Kazakhstan have been demanding the restoration of ‘order’. Strangely enough, they don’t like strikes and demands for higher wages. The main interest of Western capitalists in Kazakhstan is continued easy access to its vast natural resources. It doesn’t bother them if Kazakh politicians grab a hefty chunk of the proceeds for themselves. What else is new?

As for drawing Kazakhstan fully into the Western sphere of interest, this is not currently viewed as a realistic goal. No one is talking about admitting Kazakhstan to NATO or the EU. For Kazakhstan, as for Central Asia more broadly, there are just two candidates for hegemon – Russia and China.

Gradually but surely, things are returning to normal – or so the Astana Times assures us. The official figure for the number of people killed, probably much too low, is 164. Some 10,000 people have been arrested. Where are they and what will happen to them?

A new government has been appointed. Not quite as new as it might have been, seeing that 11 of the 20 old ministers are back in office and the new prime minister is the first deputy of the old prime minister.

President Tokayev acknowledges that socio-economic problems underlay ‘the tragic events’. Measures must be taken to narrow the gulf between rich and poor. Taxes on the extraction of mineral resource must be increased. At the same time, foreign investors must be reassured so that they do not withdraw their capital (by making them pay higher taxes?). He calls on citizens to ‘get involved in building a new Kazakhstan’. Time will tell how far this reformist rhetoric will go and how long it will last.

Karim Massimov, head of the National Security Committee and a former prime minister, has been arrested ‘on suspicion of treason’. Educated in China, fluent in Chinese and friends with senior Chinese officials, he has promoted economic ties with China and advocated a foreign policy of ‘balancing’ between Russia and China. It is hard not to see ‘the hand of Moscow’ behind this astonishing event. The Russian leadership seem to be exploiting the dependence of the Tokayev regime on Russian support to exclude any Chinese influence from Kazakhstan.

Nazarbayev has disappeared from view. He may be in Switzerland, where his daughter and son-in-law have a $75 million luxury villa.

Proper Gander: The Shape Of Things To Comet (2022)

Film Review from the February 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

Movies about giant lumps of space-rock crashing into the planet come round every few decades, some having more impact than others. The earliest was the hit 1916 Danish film The End Of The World, made within recent memory of a fly-past by Halley’s Comet. 1979’s flop Meteor drew on contemporary Cold War tensions between the USA and the Soviet Union, and was inspired by Project Icarus, a plan to strike a potentially incoming asteroid with missiles. More recently, these films have come back into our orbit every twenty years or so, and in pairs, with blockbusters Armageddon and Deep Impact (both 1998) turning impending catastrophe into a glossy spectacle. The latest two have switched emphasis more to how people on the ground might respond to such an event. 2020’s Greenland followed a family’s attempts to escape from the impact, although the only doomsday-from-space movie anyone’s been talking about lately is Netflix’s ratings smash Don’t Look Up.

Producer/director/writer Adam McKay wanted to make a film about climate change, and with leftist journalist David Sirota, developed the idea that the lack of media coverage about it is like a comet heading to Earth which no-one cares about. The end result keeps the bluntness of this metaphor, while focusing not as much on apathy as on how capitalist society’s priorities detract from dealing with the problem. Don’t Look Up was devised before the pandemic, which has now given its message another topical spin.

Astronomers Kate Dibiasky and Randall Mindy (played by Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio) discover a comet six months away from striking the planet in an ‘extinction-level event’. Teddy Oglethorpe (Rob Morgan), head of NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office, arranges for them to present their findings to President Janie Orlean (Meryl Streep), who is dismissive and says that the government will ‘sit tight and assess’. Frustrated, Dibiasky and Mindy then take their apocalyptic discovery to a newspaper, which drops the story when it fails to generate enough internet traffic, and The Daily Rip, a vacuous talk show with an ethos of ‘keeping the bad news light’. On social media, Mindy trends as a ‘hot’ scientist, while Dibiasky is turned into a bitchy meme as a hysterical doom-monger. For the media, ratings and clicks are what’s important, rather than substance.

President Orlean only takes an interest in the looming end of the world when it becomes a convenient distraction from a sex scandal. She agrees a strategy to fire missiles at the comet, and because ‘Washington’s always gotta have a hero’, a gruff Colonel takes command of mission ‘American Savior’ to fly out and blast the comet away. In one of the movie’s cleverest scenes, the President explains how announcing this plan to the public will be pitched more like an advertising campaign for her government, filmed on a warship, ending with fireworks. The announcement hits its target, with the President’s approval rating reaching 99.1 percent, but the missiles don’t hit theirs. The launch is aborted when Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance), creepy tech billionaire and prominent donor to Orlean’s party, finds out that the comet contains trillions of dollars’ worth of minerals. He comes up with a hasty and scientifically dodgy alternative plan to mine the comet, which gets support because of the jobs (ie, profits) it’s expected to create. Dibiasky and eventually Mindy realise that the problem can’t be resolved by working with the administration and corporations, and join and galvanise the ‘Just Look Up’ grassroots protest movement. This is countered by the government’s ‘Don’t Look Up’ campaign, complete with MAGA-style baseball caps. Isherwell’s plan fails, as does a probably sabotaged attempt by countries cut out of the mining deal, leaving the comet on its collision course.

Don’t Look Up isn’t at all subtle in its messages that protecting state power and the profits of big business are more important than saving the planet, and that the media trivialises and distracts from the issue. It’s refreshing to find such obvious anti-capitalist points made in a mainstream, widely watched movie, and it would be nice to think that its popularity is because of its subversive slant. The way the film satirises a government’s priorities is a bit blunted, though, as criticising a Trumpesque president is old hat these days. Its mistrust of the motives of tech companies is a blatant dig at the out-of-this-world ambitions of the likes of Elon Musk and, more pointedly, Jeff Bezos, Executive Chairman of Netflix’s rival Amazon Prime Video. But while the film exposes some of the structures which hamper us in dealing with major problems, it doesn’t offer any viable alternative, and didn’t intend to. The ‘Just Look Up’ movement isn’t in a position to make real change, as it’s only a protest group shouting at those in power. The general public are relegated to background details, depicted as media-fed sheep or angry rioters, without their motivations being considered. The film risks being misanthropic by disparaging everyone, apart from scientists who stick to their principles: NASA is the only institution which isn’t lampooned. So, alongside its criticisms of society, the positive lesson in Don’t Look Up is to ‘follow the science’ concerning climate change and Covid, as well as any comet collisions. But as the film demonstrates, science doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it is shaped by the priorities of capitalist institutions like big business and the state, so ‘following the science’ always leads back round to what works within capitalism. The film doesn’t discuss this problem, though, and again it didn’t intend to. Unfortunately, Don’t Look Up’s critique of capitalism doesn’t go far enough, but still further than your average flick.
Mike Foster

Machines and Hell in the US (2022)

Book Review from the February 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

E. Sylvia Pankhurst: A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change. (Edited by Katherine Connelly) Pluto Press £16.99.

Sylvia Pankhurst visited the US in 1911 and 1912, each trip lasting about three months; the first included a few days in Canada. She wrote an account of her visits, but it was not finished or published. Here Katherine Connelly provides a timeline, an extensive general introduction and short introductions to each chapter of the original text; she also supplied the title.

The visits were undertaken partly for financial reasons, but also to spread suffrage ideas in the US, where in only five states did any women have the right to vote by 1912. Pankhurst spoke to many suffrage organisations, but her write-up is more concerned with the social situation: the lives of working women, prison conditions, racism, and so on. In New York she observed that bad pay and conditions, such as a seventy-hour week, were not just applicable to immigrants but to all women workers. In a laundry the workers ‘moved as though they were part of the machinery’. A factory in Nashville ‘might well serve as a representation of Hell’, such was the noise and dust. Prison conditions were appalling, with a ‘dehumanising atmosphere’.

The visit to Nashville was a deliberate choice to study the situation in the American South and Pankhurst specifically chose to speak to a black audience. This was because many suffrage organisations marginalised or excluded black women activists, and some campaigners even argued that giving white women the vote would restrict the influence of black voters.

In 1912 Pankhurst also spent several days in Milwaukee, where a supposedly Socialist local council had been elected. The mayor, Emil Seidel, was the vice-presidential candidate when Eugene Debs ran for president on the Socialist Party of America ticket that year. She acknowledged that the council had achieved relatively little and that women’s needs had been overlooked. Such a ‘top-down’ approach to policy was not appropriate, and this may well have influenced her views back in the UK, when she rejected the authoritarian attitudes of her mother Emmeline and sister Christabel, and set up the East London Federation of Suffragettes, which linked the suffrage struggle to trade union activities.

For socialists the most interesting part of Sylvia Pankhurst’s career came a decade later, when she rejected Bolshevism and stood for ‘the total abolition of money, buying and selling, and the wages system’ (see our pamphlet Sylvia Pankhurst and Socialism). This volume, however, provides a useful and informative look at her earlier views and the political situation in the US.
Paul Bennett

50 Years Ago: Student Unions (2022)

The 50 Years Ago column from the February 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Department of Education and Science have published a consultative document with a view to restricting the finance of student unions. This document will effectively limit the activity of organised students throughout the country. Apart from the obvious effect of severely restricting social life for resident students, all extra-mural activities, such as societies and clubs, will be impinged upon.

The reason given for the restructuring of finance is that the public money is not subject to public accountability, and that money entrusted to students unions can easily be abused. It is strange that the schooling of children can be entrusted to student teachers, yet funds cannot be. This is indicative of the common capitalist maxim that money and property are more important than people.

In point of fact, abuse of union funds is an extremely rare occurrence, and is anyway illegal without these new measures, hence the appearance of some of the officers of Sussex University Students Union in Court recently. The measures contained in the consultative document, therefore, can only be seen as an attempt to silence an avenue of protest that might at times embarrass the capitalist class.

The Socialist Party of Great Britain recognises that all unions (trade or student) are only necessary in a capitalist system where workers are in such an inferior position that they have to “go mob-handed” in order to be listened to. As unions are part of a capitalist system, and no more, it follows that union organisation cannot lead to Socialism, but can only try to provide its members with the best possible living conditions under capitalism. However, it is to be remembered that all working class organisation in the form of unions are a gauge to the maturity and consciousness of the working class. For this reason it is quite correct to protect student unions from any attempt by a capitalist government (Conservative or Labour) to restrict to any degree the effectiveness of an organised body of workers, (or unpaid apprentices in the case of many students.)

(Socialist Standard, February 1972)

Editorial: Sabre-rattling over Ukraine (2022)

Editorial from the February 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

Western capitalist powers – the USA and its allies in Europe – won the Cold War when the USSR finally collapsed in 1991. It was a humiliating defeat for state-capitalist Russia. Russia lost not only most of what it had conquered in Eastern Europe after WW2 but even parts it had held before. On paper the USSR was a voluntary union of so-called ‘socialist republics’, one of which was Ukraine, an area that had been contested for centuries and which afterwards became an independent state.

The Western capitalist powers moved quickly to extend their sphere of influence and signed up as members of the NATO military alliance all the states that had formed part of the Russian Empire in Eastern Europe. They have long had their eyes on Ukraine, Europe’s second largest country after Russia.

A revived and more confident – and openly capitalist – Russia under Putin regards the incorporation of Ukraine into NATO as a threat to its vital interests. Already Russia has taken back Crimea and some Russian-speaking areas in eastern Ukraine. Now it has massed troops on Ukraine’s borders to back up its demand that Ukraine should not join NATO as this would bring US military influence and missiles up to its southern border.

It’s a conflict of interest between two openly capitalist powers. This time, ‘The West’ cannot use the pretext, to disguise its geopolitical aims, of it being an ideological struggle. It is a naked struggle between capitalist powers over spheres of influence. That the Cold War was a case of capitalism versus communism was a sham. And they knew it. When Mikoyan, a top member of the Russian ruling class, visited the USA in 1959 the then US Secretary of State, Dulles, sent a farewell message to him on behalf of President Eisenhower which began: ‘The President is aware that you operate under a system of State capitalism’ (Daily Telegraph, 21 January 1959).

Will it come to war? Probably not as, from a military point of view, Russia could easily overrun most of Ukraine. The Western powers will probably not insist on formally incorporating Ukraine into NATO. They will back down just as the USSR did in 1962 over the Cuban missile crisis, which is the nearest the world has come to a nuclear war. In fact, according to a headline in The Times (13 January), ‘Russia threatens US with a new Cuban missile crisis unless NATO stops eastern enlargement’. This will just be more sabre-rattling as the US could easily conquer Cuba and Venezuela.

So, it’s a stalemate, a balance of terror. This is why no state can refuse to arm itself with the most terrifying weapons it can afford. Under capitalism might is right and disarmament a pipe-dream.

The tensions over Ukraine remind us that the climate crisis is not the only threat to the world and its population. Nuclear war is too, and that threat needs to be removed as well. The only way to do this is to end capitalism and replace it with a frontierless, stateless world community based on the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources. In short, world socialism.