Saturday, February 19, 2022

‘You’ve Never Had it So Good’ (1960)

From the February 1960 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mr Macmillan has served the Tory party very well indeed. Along with shrewdness and other qualities he has shown himself to be a master showman in a team of showmen. But when he told the British workers that they’ve never had it so good, there must have been some of his fellow Tories who doubted its wisdom. A tag like this labels a politician and his party for a very long time and when their luck runs out—as it always does—they will never live it down. But a master showman has to take risks and so far the thing has exceeded beyond all possible expectations. He persuaded his followers that it is so, and then the Opposition, so that we now have Mr Anthony Crosland, Labour MP for Grimsby, endorsing it. He confessed this at a Labour Conference at Utrecht, and he told them that the British workers “now scarcely seem, either to themselves or to other classes, to be suffering from oppression or capitalist exploitation”. (Daily Mail 11.1.60). It helped to win the support of a majority of the electors for the Tory party. It convinced the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Fisher, though it failed to win his approval. He calls it a “dreadful phrase”. “Whenever I hear it”, he said, “I say to myself in the words of Our Lord, ‘how hardly shall they that have riches enter into the Kingdom of Heaven'”. (Daily Telegraph 11.1.60). With his comfortable £7,500 a year he is worried lest the general affluence of the workers should imperil their souls.

But just how much substance is there in this propaganda, and how much of it exists only in the distorting imagination of the politicians and Press?

Half the Story
There is no lack of supposed evidence to back it up. Let us look at some of it.

The Evening Standard (1.1.60) greeted the new year with an editorial telling us about the “Age of Plenty”. The opening paragraph set the tone:-
The age of scrimping is over. The age of affluence has begun. In the past 10 years Britain has passed through a social revolution whose full impact is only likely to be felt in the new decade which has just begun. For the first time in history the greater part of this country’s people—and not just the fortunate minority—have money to spare beyond their immediate needs.
Even a light-hearted journalist would hardly make this claim without evidence, and evidence is there.
One figure sums up the progress of this revolution. As the 1960’s begin, everyone living in this country has an income higher by an average of £3 a week than at the beginning of the ‘fifties.
But before passing on we must look more closely at the average increase of £3 a week. It was clearly derived from figures that turned up in the Press about that time. In the Financial Times (31.12.59) under the heading “Standard of Living” we were told that average personal income per head of the population jumped from £220 in 1950 to £375 in 1959. Sure enough the difference, £155 a year, is £3 a week so what more need be said? But what the writer omitted to point out was that in the same period, on official figures, the price level (cost of living) rose by 47 per cent. To buy in 1959 what could be bought for £220 in 1950 would need £323. So the real increase was not £3 a week but the difference between £323 and £375, a matter of about £1 a week, and that the £1 a week would buy in 1959 only about half that a like amount would have bought in 1950.

Another figure published by the Financial Times showed “expenditure” per head of the population (after deducting from average income the amount of taxation and the amount put aside as savings). This produced an increase between 1950 and 1959, of nearly £2 a week. But again, after allowing for the increase of prices this seemingly large increase gets cut down to a mere 4 per cent-—not a lot to show for 10 years of “social revolution”.

It is particularly surprising that the Financial Times should give figures in this incomplete form because four years ago (6.9.55) when that paper looked at similar figures published then, they pointed out what a miserable showing the figures gave when compared with 1938.They made the point that the real increase per head of the population (after allowing for higher prices) was the trifling rise of 4½  per cent as compared with 1938.

It happens to be useful to the case of those who see a vast increase of the standard of living to have chosen the year 1950 because average expenditure in all the post-war years up to 1952 (after allowing for higher prices) was actually below the pre-war level.

Mr George Schwartz in the Sunday Times (10.1.60) had his own line of comment. He at least is very well aware of the fact that much of the current statistical evidence of higher incomes is merely a reflection of the steady rise in prices and a corresponding decrease in the purchasing power of money. On this occasion he wanted to make the point that booming production and exports are not a new phase in British capitalism. He reproduced columns of figures showing how “peace and prosperity” were booming in the years 1903 to 1913. Again some very imposing figures, but when we look at prices in these ten years we see that they were steadily rising, a total rise of about 12 per cent. Wages were rising more slowly so that the higher wage actually bought less.

Staggering Truth
What is really astounding about Macmillan’s boast is that, at least on average, it contains an element of truth, remembering however that the rich too are in the average figures. The state of most British workers really is a little better than it has ever been before. Of course there are large numbers of clerical workers (including most of the civil service, bank clerks and others) who are worse off than they were before the war, and some industrial workers, including London busmen, are also worse off. But with fewer unemployed and several million married women enjoying the dubious advantage of doing two jobs, home and away, working class purchasing power has gone up. But what a commentary on capitalism that this small advance can be hailed as a social revolution and set the church worrying about the corrupting influence of working class “riches”!

Just about the turn of the year agricultural workers advanced to £8 a week for 46 hours toil. Hundreds of thousands of other men in industry and transport are on much the same level. The average earnings of women of 18 and over in manufacturing industry is £6 17 0 a week—hardly a corrupting level of affluence. And there are over 2 million people who in the course of a year are poor enough to qualify for National Assistance—with wives and children the number is much larger.

Real Capitalism
In spite of the talk about a social revolution capitalism has not changed. It is still a system of minority wealth and mass poverty and insecurity—and just at present it is profits, stock exchange prices and the emergence of new crops of millionaires that truly mark the phase of “you never had it so good”. And the Church, with a rise of £50 million in the value of its investments in the past five years, hasn’t done badly.

Just before Christmas, the People (20.12.59) gave unintentionally a close-up of the capitalism we still have with us. Mr Gilbert Harding ran a charity fund and invited readers to subscribe. He was proud to report that 40,000 readers had sent in £15,000 (it later reached £30,000). In particular he recorded that 89 workers in Reading had voted to his fund the £630 held by their defunct Social Club. They had been employed by a biscuit firm but a week before Christmas the firm closed down, unable to meet the competition of larger firms. In all, 290 workers got the sack, “with not a penny in compensation from the firm”, although many were likely to get other jobs, “for most of them the Christmas prospect looked bleak”. Mr Harding was entitled to single out the charitable mindedness of the workers who gave the money to his fund, the money “they had scrimped and saved to put the social club on its feet”.

But there was another item of interest. The People disclosed that when the chairman of the firm died “he left a quarter of a million pounds—all made out of biscuits”.

How much more useful it would have been to point out that the quarter of a million was just part of the tribute levied by the capitalist class from the workers, not “made out of biscuits” but out of them.

The socialist struggle has not ended, it has hardly begun, and it will achieve in due time a social system which really will be a social revolution. One in which, incidentally, it will not be necessary for workers to scrimp and save to help the discarded members of their class.
Edgar Hardcastle

February (1960)

From the February 1960 issue of the Socialist Standard

We know a brawny young man who, because he was born on February 14th, was nearly named Valentine. And that, you might say, is taking the anniversary business too far. Of course, it’s the young ones who keep up Valentine’s Day—especially the girls. Why? However off-hand about it they pretend to be, somewhere they are nurturing the dream of marriage. That way, they think, they’ll get security. If the fellow's got looks as well as money—well, that’s just as Woman’s Own says it should be. The reality is the monotonous typing job from nine to five-thirty and then two bobs-worth of dark with Sid Osgood. Life can be better than this. Socialism is ours for the taking: which means that peace, security and freedom can be had right away.

THE SOCIALIST PARTY OF GREAT BRITAIN NEEDS MONEY BADLY. PLEASE SEND ALL YOU CAN TO THE TREASURER AT OUR HEAD OFFICE.

The Problem of Race (1960)

From the February 1960 issue of the Socialist Standard

As Socialists, we recognise race as a field of genuine scientific investigation. What we emphatically repudiate are the doctrines of racialism, which deliberately ignore or misuse the findings of science, and seek to convince by clothing themselves in a mantle of scientific jargon and primitive emotionalism.

What is Race?

In attempting to divide the human species into races the scientist bases his investigations, as has already been stressed, upon physical characteristics. The more important of these are skin, hair, and eye colour; shape of head; hair formation (straight, wavy or woolly); shape of nose (broad or narrow nostrils, high or low bridge, etc); and stature. There are also numerous other features like lip-formation, shape of face, bone-formation, etc, which are of comparatively minor importance. Using these various physical traits, either singly, or, as is more often the case, in groups, scientists have, according to their own particular interpretations, divided mankind into races. 

And it is here that we encounter our first stumbling-block. For when these scientists, logically and scientifically, and with the available evidence before them, try to distinguish between the various races of mankind, they find themselves in difficulties. Their investigations are quite dispassionate; for the most part they have not the slightest desire to bolster up any pre-conceived theories; yet, whenever they have ventured to put forward estimates even of the number of races of human beings in the world, they have been quite unable to come to anything like general agreement on the question. The great majority of them wisely make no attempts at estimating; they realise the uselessness and absurdity of doing so. Despite the fact that they, more than any others, are in possession of the fullest evidence obtainable, despite the fact that they have often made a life-time study of the subject, and despite the fact that, like all human beings, they are anxious to see some definite result emerge, if possible, from their labours, we find the conclusions of the scientists are tentative, their observations cautious and non-committal, and their whole attitude guarded and reserved.

One thing is obvious; physical differences between people do exist. This cannot be denied. We may go further and say that certain groups of people do possess physical traits in common, which serve to distinguish one group from another. We may be even more explicit and distinguish three main groups, the White, the Black, and the Yellow. We may also forestall a probable objection and extend the list to include a further group, the people with Brown skins. But how much further than this can we go? To be quite honest with ourselves, we cannot even afford to be dogmatic about the few statements we have already made, because, when all is said and done, we have only divided our groups on the basis of skin colour alone, and there are many other physical differences between people besides this. To classify mankind rigidly on the basis of skin-colour alone is manifestly absurd. One has only to note the different physical characteristics of the inhabitants of one’s own street to realise this. They may all be possessed of white skins, but what differences exist between them in other respects! Even their skins vary, from chalky-white to swarthy, with numerous shades in between. As Whites, we notice all the differing traits of people whose skins are the same colour as our own, but fail to notice all the many variations that occur in other groups. To us, most Negroes look alike; we notice only their black skins. Yet we are surprised to learn that the great majority of Africans are not pure Negroes at all, but are, in fact, a varying mixture of Negro and Arab stocks. 

Race mixture

Why is it so difficult to divide the human species into races? 

Unlike the other creatures of the earth, man is no longer the plaything of natural forces. Through the countless years of his evolution from the first primitive state, he has gradually made himself the master and controller of nature. He is no longer its slave; through generations he has made himself capable of withstanding and overcoming many of the hostile forces with which he has to contend. By virtue of his superior brain development, he has learned to make and control fire; he has learned to temper the rigours of harsh and bitter climates by means of artificial clothing and shelter; he has learned to fashion tools; and through this increasing control over his environment, he has been able to spread his species over almost the whole of the earth’s surface. He has migrated everywhere; into the cold, barren, inhospitable wastes of the sub-Arctic regions; into the hot, arid deserts of the five continents; into the humid forests of the Equatorial lands. 

Wherever he has gone, he has, in course of time, adapted himself to the most varied of environments. And, moreover, most important of all from our point of view, wherever he has wandered he has interbred. The process of interbreeding has gone on as long as man himself has existed on the earth. With the possible exception of the Pygmies of Central Africa, a small isolated group that has bred within itself for generations, there is no “pure race” in existence in the world to-day.

Race and Nationality

Probably the most common of all errors is the assumption that race is identical with nationality. Reference is frequently made to the “British race”, the “German race”, the “Japanese race”, and so on, in the belief, we must presume, that the existence of certain frontier lines and political boundaries determines the racial make-up of the people living within them. This belief is utterly false. To talk, for example, of the “British race”, is to render the term devoid of all meaning. The inhabitants of Great Britain possess all manner of varying physical characteristics. They vary through the widest extremes of colouring from very fair to very dark; in stature they range from very tall to very short; they are straight-haired and wavy-haired; thin and thickset; long-headed, medium-headed, and broad-headed; they eyes may be brown, blue, yellow or green; in short, they constitute a great mixture, a “hotch-potch” of different racial types.
“Thus from a mixture of all things began
That heterogeneous thing, an Englishman”
                (Daniel Defoe, The True-born Englishman.)
It is only necessary to take a very cursory glance at British history to see the truth behind the gibe of Defoe. During its history, Britain has received all kinds of peoples, and all of these, whether they arrived as invaders, immigrants, or refugees, have left their mark upon the present population. Most of these peoples have been thoroughly absorbed into the general population

Race and Language

Race is often also confused with language. For example, people often talk of the “Latin Races”, the “Celtic Races”, the “Slav Races”, and in doing so use terms which are, strictly speaking, self-contradictory. To take an instance, the use of the phrase “Latin Race” can only be taken to refer to those peoples who speak a language originally derived from Latin. Countries whose inhabitants speak such languages are France, Italy, Spain and Roumania, and their various offshoots and colonies, if they have any. No person in his senses would attempt to link up all these people on a racial basis, but the use of the term can imply this. Most of us use these phrases more in ignorance than by design, but it is as well to remember that they have, on more than one occasion, been used by various governments as cloaks for nationalistic ambitions. Such was the so-called “Anglo-Saxon” movement in England during the nineteenth century, and as though to offset this there also developed in France the cult of “Celtism” in which certain people professed to find the true source of the so-called “French spirit”. Similarly, the idea of an empire which would comprise the whole of the “Slav races” has long been a catch-cry of Russian governments whether the character of the ruling class be Tsarist or “Communist”. 

The most notorious example, however, of the deliberate misuse of a linguistic term to cover the propagation of false racial theories is the word Aryan, which was seized upon by the Nazis in Germany, and was so distorted by them that in time it came to be synonymous with non-Jewish. The word Aryan is a linguistic term. Used in the sciences which deal with the study of the development of languages, it describes a huge group of languages which are thought to have originated from a common stem. This group, to which is also applied the description “Indo-European”, includes languages as far apart as English, Latin, Greek, German, the Slav grant and Sanskrit. It has absolutely nothing to do with race.

As far as race and language are concerned, then, there is no argument but that they are both distinct and independent of each other. The factors which go to form the physical make-up of an individual are passed on from parents to offspring; they are hereditary traits. Language, on the other hand, is learned and acquired after birth and the capacity to learn it is in no way affected by the racial composition of the individual.

The Nazis

The use to which the Nazi regime put their race theories stands as a warning to the working-class of the dangers they fall victim to when they lend a willing ear to them. The Nazis, coldly and deliberately, step by step, adapted their theories according to the needs of the occasion. They so defined "Aryan", a distortion in itself as we have already shown, to include every German who was not also a Jew. After the signing of the treaty of alliance with Italy and the subsequent formation of the “Rome-Berlin Axis”, they carefully amended their doctrines to include their new allies, though according to their former ideas the Italians belonged to an inferior racial group. The most amazing example of their contempt for fact was when they “squared the circle” to provide the necessary racial basis for their alliance with Japan. To do this, they had to specifically exempt the Japanese from the ranks of the non-Aryans and by other devious, doubtful, and unconvincing means, they attempted to wriggle round the glaring contradictions between their theory and their practice.

With the Nazis the doctrines of racialism reached their logical and inevitable conclusion: the complete and utter prostitution of the true facts to the false theory. The absurdities of previous racialists appear sensible when compared with the efforts of their counterparts in Nazi Germany. As for the results of these doctrines in terms of human suffering and misery, they defy description. Millions of human beings finally fell victims to the Nazi’s policy of racial extermination.

Extracts from The Racial Problem. Published by the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

50 Years Ago: The Freethinkers (1960)

The 50 Years Ago column from the February 1960 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mankind is prone to many errors. When, for instance, one mistake has been discovered and the error removed, many men fancy they have rid themselves of all wrong notions. Those people who, because they have abandoned certain religious superstitions are fond of calling themselves Freethinkers, often imagine they have banished superstition from their minds altogether. Vain delusion. The bulk of the so called Freethinkers, including their leading propagandists (such as C. Bradlaugh, G. W. Foote, and J. M. Robertson) still accept and repeat the wholly unsupported assertion of the parson Malthus, that the cause of poverty is over-population. In spite of the example of Ireland, which, under their very eyes, has had its population steadily decreasing during the last 50 years, yet the misery of its working-class continuing, they reiterate the same old superstition like the parsons they so often condemn.

From the Socialist Standard, February, 1910.

Race Prejudice (1960)

From the February 1960 issue of the Socialist Standard

The root cause of modern race-prejudice is the capitalist system of society, a society of competition and struggle; struggle between capitalist and worker; struggle between capitalist and capitalist; struggle between worker and worker.

For the working-class, who constitute the overwhelming majority of its population, it is a society of poverty and insecurity; to most of them it offers not the slightest chance of escape from a lifetime of constant, heart-breaking effort to earn a living. For the working-class, it is a society which breeds war and strife, in which their masters, on whose behalf they fight, use every device to stimulate antagonism and haired between them. From the cradle to the grave, they are subjected to a mass of propaganda which deadens their minds, works on their prejudices, and endeavours by every means possible to turn their thoughts away from the real cause of their troubles. They are the tools of political leaders and demagogues who make them promises which they do not keep. Disappointed, they exchange one set of political leaders for another, whose promises are no more fulfilled than the promises of those before them.

They become disillusioned, bitter, and cynical; fair game for dictators and “strong men” who promise to lead them to a “promised land,’’ but instead lead them into greater disasters and misfortunes. All the time they are experiencing unemployment, poverty, insecurity, competition for jobs, struggles to “rise up the ladder." They seek to escape from the harsh world of reality in dreams and games of make-believe, in football pools and cinemas, but only for brief moments, for capitalism soon brings them back to things as they are, and not as they would wish them to be. They still have to contend with poverty, unemployment, insecurity, and war. For the working-class, capitalism is a society of mental, social, and economic frustration; as such it breeds race-prejudice as a swamp breeds pestilence.

Life and Times: The Charity Shop Manager (2022)

From the February 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

I have a friend who volunteers in a local charity shop. Its purpose is to support the district hospice and my friend tells me that the volunteers she works with are ‘to a tee’ dedicated individuals happy to give their time and energy to help an institution they see as a social asset. The fly in the ointment for a long time, however, was that the paid employee appointed to manage the shop was what could only be called a tyrant.

She spent a lot of the time barking orders to the volunteers, criticising them for supposed mistakes and being unpleasant to customers coming in to look around and buy things. Not infrequently customers walked out when they were spoken to sharply by the manager or made to feel uncomfortable and one might imagine that, under such conditions, the volunteers too would vote with their feet. But that is not what happened. The volunteers, though doing unpaid work and finding themselves harassed for their trouble, didn’t walk out but stuck at it because they considered the contribution they were making to what they considered a worthy cause overrode their own comfort and convenience.

What Was To Be Done?
But clearly this could not go on indefinitely and, eventually, my friend told me, when the hospice organisers invited all staff to attend a meeting to discuss potential changes and improvements to the shop, the volunteers saw an opportunity to bring things into the open. They wrote a letter outlining what had been happening and at the meeting put it to the organisers that the shop was not working as well as it could since everyone was having to bear the brunt of what seemed to be the manager’s own unhappiness with her existence. The manager herself was at the meeting and remained silent, even though the hospice organisers seemed keen to defend and excuse her. The volunteers were discouraged, but then suddenly the manager was gone. She had left apparently and everyone agreed that the new manager who then came in was a breath of fresh air. She treated all, volunteers and customers alike, in a friendly, polite way and everyone said how much they enjoyed coming to work in the shop.

Human Nature
When I told this story to another friend, her first response was the ‘human nature’ one. She said that many people behave badly when they are ‘in charge’ and that’s the way things are naturally. But when I replied that the new manager was not behaving like that and that, given half a chance, most people, whether in charge or not, will actually behave in decent cooperative fashion towards those they come into contact with, she relented somewhat and said that the very fact that so many people volunteer to do things to help others without payment of any kind shows that human nature is actually a ‘mixed bag’. And she was right. People’s behaviour towards others is largely dependent on the situation they find themselves in and the state of mind that arises from that. In fact given the damaged lives of so many people in the society we live in and the pressures caused by work, want or insecurity, we might reasonably expect less decent, less cordial, less empathetic behaviour than we actually find. Yet the reality is that, given even half the chance, most people most of the time will behave decently towards others in most circumstances.

The Lesson?
What lesson to draw from the charity shop story? Here was a band of people prepared to give up their time and energy without any kind of payment to help less fortunate fellow human beings but being stymied in this by one individual whose own troubled life drove her in an uncooperative direction. The hierarchically organised nature of work in the society we live is a fertile breeding ground for such situations. But it is clearly not the way of organising things that the vast majority of people, given freedom of choice, would want. Of course, such freedom of choice is rarely available in the current society of production for profit with its imperative of ‘making a living’. But, in a different kind of society, it could be. That different kind of society is one based on cooperation instead of competition, on free access to all goods and services instead of buying and selling. As many studies have shown, the human race has survived not because humans wish to compete with one another or to do one another down, but because they cooperate, as the title of one book on the subject, The Survival of the Friendliest, has it. So, as socialists maintain, in a future society of production for use not profit human beings will be eminently capable of cooperating as free and equal men and women to run a social system in which mutual help and support for the satisfaction of social needs is their guiding principle. Just, in fact, as those charity shop volunteers, assisted by an empathetic manager, are doing now in their own small way – though, it must be said that charity, while an inevitable feature of today’s society, will disappear in all its forms in the society of voluntary cooperation and free access on which socialism will be based. It will simply not be necessary.
Howard Moss

Pathfinders: Is capitalism making us lose our marbles? (2022)

The Pathfinders Column from the February 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

The ongoing pandemic is more than a global health emergency, it’s a global mental health emergency, with evidence-based reasoning looking especially battered and bloody. Social media and preference algorithms have in the past decade escalated what were mostly marginal beliefs about pseudo-science, conspiracy theories and vaccine scepticism into what looks like a proliferating mass-psychosis.

Even some Marxists are not immune. A recent email from a French class war group begins ‘Behind the endless statist lie of the Coronavirus, a spectre haunts Europe: the spectre of communism.’ The spectre of Covid paranoia is more like it.

One doesn’t have to dig deep to find the shoddy capitalist motives behind all this. It’s not just would-be demagogues like Trump promoting barking-mad QAnon fantasies to get votes. Online ‘influencers’ have found they can monetise attention by making increasingly outrageous claims that attract shocked followings, thereby earning money from advertisers. Some, like the YouTuber who claims the Roman Empire never existed, will probably remain lone and batty outliers. Others including anti-vaxxers are literally making millions by exploiting people’s fear and suggestibility. Twelve of the richest and most shameless grifters are responsible for 65 percent of vaccine misinformation on all social media and 73 percent on Facebook (bit.ly/33pusOJ). Plenty of others are queuing up to plough this lucrative field.

At least half of the population at any one time believes in one or more conspiracy theories (bit.ly/3I9a2II). Why are humans so vulnerable? Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, currently touting his new book on rationality, thinks we have a natural tendency to tribalism and magical thinking, reined in by civilised society’s apparatus of science, fact checking and peer review (bbc.in/3I6WM7m). This is of a piece with his Hobbesian view that we are basically murderous brutes who need to be kept in line by coercive state regimes. But it’s a bit rich to be lectured on how to think rationally by someone rather obviously operating from his own set of a priori assumptions. As an example, in a recent BBC series on violence, Pinker commits an egregious sleight-of-hand in extrapolating evidence of Neolithic warfare (ie, from property societies of the last 10,000 years) backwards into the vast 300,000-year period of the non-propertied Palaeolithic, where no good evidence for it exists (bbc.in/3rt9K8E). As for science, that didn’t fall on us like a gift from the gods either. We created it ourselves precisely because we don’t need magical thinking, any more than we need police states.

Nonetheless he’s right that rationality is not a natural skill but an artificial one, like literacy and numeracy, and one which needs to be cultivated for the good of our ‘epistemic environment’. But we’re not cultivating it very well, a fact which the monetisers are able to exploit.

They know, for instance, that more than 90 percent of people hold some form of non-rational or delusional belief, from touching wood to wishing people luck. We’re all prone to well-known cognitive foibles such as confirmation, desirability and clustering biases, as well as the common intuitive short-cut of leaping to conclusions to save the slow analytical effort of slogging through evidence (bit.ly/3nsXrIl).

Poverty and low education are obviously fertile soil for an angry distrust of authority, leading to ‘establishment or world-order types of conspiracy’, but conversely, smart people can often be the easiest to fool, because of vanity and ‘a mistaken belief in their own abilities to filter truth from bullshit’ (bit.ly/33hlHGx).

People have a tendency to associate minor events with minor causes, and major events with major causes, a kind of symmetry bias. In one study, a group shown a fictitious story where a presidential assassination attempt failed were willing to believe a lone actor was responsible, but a second group, told the attempt succeeded, were more likely to believe there was a conspiracy behind it (bit.ly/3fpOTh0). If a princess has a car accident, it’s just an accident, but if it’s upsettingly fatal, that explanation feels too small to fill the yawning emotional hunger for cause to fit effect, so non-random explanations are hunted for, the more convoluted the better. Such an emotional need can be weaponised. Thus a global pandemic becomes no longer just an unforeseen catastrophe but an intentional plot to abolish liberty and turn us into zombies.

Biases creep in when we’re not looking. One recent study showed that ‘People share fake news online even when they can tell it’s not true’, but only if the fake news resonates with their own political views. Conversely, they are far less likely to share it if they think it’s true, but not in line with their own beliefs. The study found however that if people are first asked to evaluate a news story, they are much less likely to pass it on if they think it’s false, regardless of their own views, suggesting that we can be more analytical if prompted (bit.ly/3ttRDCm).

Then there is the remarkable fact that if you are simply told a thing, you are less likely to believe it than if you have to solve a puzzle to discover it, so that a cleverly written narrative using fake evidence is more effective if it makes the reader work to unravel the implications (bit.ly/3nrdvdQ).

Fortunately these tricks don’t work on everyone because there are also other mechanisms at work, notably ‘plausibility checking’, which relies on comparing new information to known and reliable sources. This may explain why, for instance, studies show that political campaigns don’t really work in changing the minds of voters, and why Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda had little effect in areas with no history of prejudice (bit.ly/31Y9yFM). Nevertheless, it’s questionable how many people routinely employ plausibility checking given that it runs against the grain of intuitive thinking, in short, it’s more effort.

So the internet is confronting us with a rationality crisis, because there’s money in them thar shills. In one town, fake news is the main industry (cnn.it/3Ab6Vx5). Capitalism could do more to fight this trend, of course, but it has no great interest in us being rational because rational people would get rid of it. It spews myths the way a factory spews smoke, hiding itself inside a cloud of bogus values, bogus facts and bogus scapegoats.

How should socialists answer those who believe in global hoaxes and conspiracies? Patient refutation doesn’t work because their views are built on self-fulfilling logic. Expecting attack, they become adept at defensive attrition, demanding evidence and then ignoring it, changing the subject constantly to keep you off-balance and playing catch-up, knowing it’s all more exhausting for you than it is for them. But despite everything, people often do recover from such cognitive traps, just like they recover from religious delusions. Some deeper reason reasserts itself. All we can do is show empathy for whatever emotional need has driven them into the trap in the first place, and nudge them supportively towards the larger truth, which is that their real enemy is not a thing you can touch or a group of people you can hate, but a simple set of social relationships, ones we have the power to change together.
Paddy Shannon

Reading Capital as Crisis Theory: Part 2 (2022)

From the February 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

We conclude our article on Marx’s theory of crises based mainly on the interpretation of the Marx-scholar Samezo Kuruma.
What factors within capitalism transform the possibility of crisis (discussed in Part 1) into an actual crisis? Considering this question requires an understanding of what Marx means by his enigmatic statement that the ‘true barrier to capitalist production is capital itself’ (Capital Vol. 3, Penguin, p. 358).

Capitalism tore down the external barriers posed by feudalism and other modes of production, and in so doing freed up the space needed for its own development. But even though it eliminated ‘the limits not corresponding to it, which were barriers to it’, Marx observes, ‘it is by no means the case that it thereby suspended all limits, nor all barriers’; it remains limited ‘by itself’ and ‘by its own conditions of life’ (Grundrisse, Penguin, p. 650).

In Volume 3 of Capital, Marx notes that ‘the methods of production that capital must apply to its purpose and which set its course toward an unlimited expansion of production’ continually run up against the ‘barriers within which the maintenance and valorization of capital-value has necessarily to move’. In short, “the means – the unrestricted development of the forces of social production – comes into persistent conflict with the restricted end, the valorization of the existing capital’ (pp. 359–60).

The powerful drive of capital to continually augment itself by developing the productive forces without limit runs up against a barrier that capital itself imposes as self-expanding value. In Grundrisse, Marx says that capital by its nature ‘posits a barrier to labour and value-creation, in contradiction to its tendency to expand them boundlessly’ and as such ‘it is the living contradiction’ (p. 421).

A crisis can be understood as arising from the tension generated from capital pushing beyond its own barriers to develop productive power without limit.

Capital as a ‘Living Contradiction’
In the first volume of Capital, Marx explains the motive underlying the incessant drive to raise productivity under capitalism. Introducing improved production conditions that raise the productivity of labour allows individual capitals to produce commodities using less labour time. As a result, the ‘individual value’ of those commodities is lower than the ‘social value’ for the given commodity type, which is determined by the labour time necessary under average production conditions. If the commodities produced under improved conditions are sold at the prevailing market price, an ‘extra surplus value’ can be obtained (as the difference between the ‘individual’ and the ‘social’ value). But an even neater trick is to sell the commodities below the ‘social value’ but above their ‘individual value’ so as to still pocket extra surplus value but also ensure the sale of the commodities and undersell competitors.

The desire among individual capitals for profit is insatiable, expressing a survival instinct in the capitalist jungle, so their drive to raise productivity toward that end is also without limit. But this drive that seems absolute collides with barriers imposed by capitalism as a system of production for profit.

In the realm of immediate production, where the aim is the creation of surplus value, capital confronts three barriers according to Marx: it must have the necessary means of production, a sufficiently large working population, and an adequate level of labour exploitation (i.e. rate of surplus value). Capital does everything in its power to secure sufficient labour power that can be adequately exploited, including extending the working day and tapping into cheaper sources of labour power.

But capital cannot rest on its laurels after extracting surplus labour from workers in the production process. That only brings the ‘first act’ to an end: it is still necessary to sell the commodities produced to realise the surplus value created. If this ‘second act’ is a flop, all that good exploitation will have gone to waste and it will be difficult, if not impossible, to continue capital accumulation.

The barriers within the circulation process include the need for sufficient demand for specific use-values (backed by adequate purchasing power), enough money to realise the surplus value created, and the transformation of the commodities produced into money via sales. Capital is restricted, in other words, by the ‘proportionality between the different branches of production and by the society’s power of consumption’. But the barrier posed by consumption is not determined by the absolute consumption needs of society, Marx is careful to note that this is ‘the power of consumption within a given framework of antagonistic conditions of distribution, which reduce the consumption of the vast majority of society to a minimum level’ (Capital Vol. 3, p. 352). Reformists who think that crisis could be overcome by raising working-class consumption are treating capitalism as if it were a system of production for use rather than profit.

‘Double-edged Law’ of Accumulation
Understanding how capital as a ‘living contradiction’ relates specifically to crisis requires taking a closer look at the consequences of raising productivity.

As productivity rises, relatively less labour is needed to utilise the machinery and other means of production, so that the quantity of the means of production increases in proportion to the quantity of labour. Expressed in terms of value, this means that the quantity of ‘constant capital’ invested in the means of production increases compared to the quantity of ‘variable capital’ invested in labour power. Marx calls this a heightening of the ‘organic composition of capital’.

The ‘constant capital’ is so named because its value is merely transferred to the finished product (without adding any new value), whereas the use of ‘variable capital’ in the production process can generate surplus value. This is why the rate of surplus value, which expresses the degree of labour exploitation, is calculated by dividing the quantity of surplus value by the variable capital. The rate of profit, in contrast, is surplus value divided by variable and constant capital. Thus, even if the rate of surplus value remains the same, the profit rate will fall if the proportion of constant to variable capital increases.

Marx argues that the rate of profit will tend to decline as the organic composition of capital rises through the development of productivity. This is his ‘law of the tendential fall in the rate of profit’ presented in Volume 3 of Capital. But Marx is careful to describe this as a ‘double-edged law’ because the ‘decline in the profit rate [is] coupled with a simultaneous increase in the absolute mass of profit’ (p. 326).

If individual capitals are to survive through continued expansion, they must make up for the fall in the profit rate by expanding the quantity of profit. For example, a capital of 1,000 at 40 percent produces 400 in profit, so if the profit rate falls by half to 20 percent, the capital invested would have to increase in the inverse ratio, to 2,000, in order to just yield the same 400 in profit. And if the mass of profit is to grow, the capital would have to increase at a higher ratio than the ratio at which the profit rate fell. The declining rate of profit thus accelerates the accumulation of capital.

Marx has been ridiculed for arguing that there is a tendency for the rate of profit to gradually fall, but this was widely considered an unquestionable fact that had to be explained. Adam Smith had attributed the tendency to increased competition among capitals, while Ricardo pinned the blame on increased grain prices due to the ‘law of diminishing returns on land’. For Marx, the key question was not whether the profit rate tended to fall or not but why the decline is not more rapid despite steadily increasing productivity. In other words: Why is the fall tendential rather than absolute?

Marx answers this question by pointing to counteracting factors to the law, which include the more intense exploitation of labour (ie, increased rate of surplus value), the cheapening of the value of constant capital, and the expansion of the relative surplus population that drives down the value of labour. Such factors are said to moderate the tendency for profit to fall. However, it is important to note that the counteracting factors operate within the same ‘law’ since they all arise from the same reasons that produce the tendential fall in the rate of profit, namely the increase in the productive power of labour.

Phases of the industrial cycle
One way to understand the relation of the ‘double-edged law’ to crisis is to trace the way the law unfolds across what Marx calls the ‘industrial cycle’ (also known as the ‘business cycle’). Marx identified the following phases of a typical industrial cycle: moderate activity, prosperity, overproduction, and crisis and stagnation.

The destruction of capital through the explosion of crisis and the stagnation that follows is not enough to get a new cycle going. Some impetus is needed, whether the emergence of important new use-values, expansion of new markets, or improved production conditions. Under such an impetus, stagnation can give way to moderate activity in at least a few sectors of production. At this stage, the relatively low wages and prices for machinery and materials, as well as expanding markets, help to raise the rate of surplus value (and profit), so even when individual capitals raise productivity to obtain extra surplus value, it does not immediately lead to a fall in the rate of profit. The ‘counteracting factors’ mentioned earlier exercise considerable force.

Moderate activity gives way to the phase of prosperity, when the profit rate tends to rise in not only some leading sectors but generally. Moreover, the expansion of one sector leads to increased demand for products in other sectors, creating a virtuous cycle for capital. But the new production methods introduced at first by individual capitals within the leading sectors steadily spread more widely to raise the productive power of labour across the economy. This results in a heightening of the organic composition of capital that begins to bring down the rate of profit. The lower profit rate spurs even more rapid accumulation by making it necessary to invest a greater quantity of capital to obtain even the same amount of profit. And that increased accumulation in turn heightens the organic composition of capital even further.

During the phase of prosperity, the accelerated accumulation and increased sale of products leads to an absolute rise in the quantity of profit despite the falling rate of profit. On the surface, everything seems to be humming along. At this point, as the memory of the last crisis fades away, articles may begin to appear in the financial press about how ‘things are different this time around’.

However, the fall in the rate of profit that accompanies the increased pace of accumulation ‘gives rise to a competitive struggle’ (p. 365) between capitals, marking the point at which the phase of prosperity begins to give way to the phase of overproduction. The ‘competitive struggle’ Marx refers to arises from the need to compensate for the fall in the rate of profit by an increase in the mass of profit. He notes that big capital possesses the conditions necessary to succeed in that endeavour, whereas smaller capital and new capital ‘must first acquire them’, leading to a fierce struggle between these actors.

This competitive struggle is fuelled by an expansion of the credit required by individual capitals to cover the steadily rising minimum level of capital investment. Capitals unable to keep up must either shift to some production sector with a lower minimum level or take the ‘adventurous paths’ of speculation and swindles. The frenzied competition that emerges from (and in turn spurs) accelerated accumulation increases demand for labour power, thus shrinking the ‘relative surplus population’ of workers. The temporary increase in wages that results drives down the rate of surplus value, causing the profit rate to sink further.

Nevertheless, on the surface of things, the economy is ‘booming’: the quantity of profit, wages, stock and real-estate prices continue to rise. But this is just the ‘storm before the calm’ – the phase of overproduction that will be followed by prolonged economic stagnation.

As the cycle enters the phase of overproduction, there is a ‘plethora of capital’, which Marx defines as ‘capital for which the fall in the profit rate is not outweighed by its mass’ (p. 359). Under the sharp decrease in the rate of profit, additional investment of capital only yields the same or even less profit than before. Marx says that the ‘overproduction of capital’ (which ‘always involves overproduction of commodities’) means the ‘overproduction of the means of production’ that ‘can be applied to exploiting labour at a given level of exploitation’ below which ‘disruption and stagnation in the capitalist production process, crisis, and the destruction of capital’ (p. 364) would occur. Crisis is the forcible solution to the overproduction of capital through mothballing or destroying the means of production and labour power that cannot serve the immediate needs of capital augmentation (even though otherwise they could be used to produce useful things).

The contradictory process of capital accumulation that culminates in crisis might be summarised as follows:

The development of productive power in pursuit of profit raises the composition of capital, leading to a fall in the profit rate accompanied by an increase in the mass of profit; this ‘double-edge law’ in turn spurs even faster capital accumulation and concentration that heightens the capital composition further. The falling profit rate raises the minimum level of capital investment necessary, unleashing a ‘competitive struggle’ between individual capitals that larger capitals are in an optimal position to win, while smaller capitals are forced into desperate speculation and swindles (further inflating the real-estate and stock bubbles). Amidst the intensified competition, demand for labour power drives up wages temporarily, leading the profit rate to fall sharply, which generates a ‘plethora of capital’ unable to function at the low profit rate. Crisis temporarily resolves the overproduction of capital by clearing away the excess and driving down wages, thereby exposing the absurdity of a social system that leaves human needs unmet while letting its means of production and labour power go to waste.
Michael Schauerte

Consumerism and Literature – The Epoch That Ate the World (2022)

From the February 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

Through the medium of fiction, writers and poets have always shed a spotlight upon their own societies or speculated upon the possible directions in which said societies might travel. From William Morris’s uplifting News from Nowhere to Huxley’s and Orwell’s dark dystopian futures and more, fiction provides a platform for the unthinkable and unknowable. Science fiction writers have often been in the front of the field, exploring the unimaginable.

The Space Merchants, serialised in Galaxy Science Fiction magazine in 1952, is one of a number of sci-fi novels co-written by Frederick Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth. Here government and corporatism have become subsumed in the power of the advertising agencies. The sub-continent of India has been turned into a ‘single manufacturing complex, Indiastries.’ Mitchell Courtenay is a Fowler Schocken Associate who is now in charge of the account to ‘sell’ Venus to the public. There’s a rocket built already to go. The red in tooth and nail capitalism is being opposed by an underground organisation, the World Conservationist Association known as ‘the Consies’. Courtenay is an avid supporter of the existing system, not least because of the material benefits he derives from being a star copy advertising executive. Courtenay’s thoughts on Gus, a Consie whom he’d had close contact with: ‘I hated the twisted minds who had done such a thing to a fine consumer like Gus. It is something like murder. He could have played his part in the world, buying and using and making work profits for his brothers all around the globe, ever increasing his wants and needs, ever increasing everybody’s work and profits in the circle of consumption, raising children to be consumers in turn’.

A few years after The Space Merchants was published we commented: ‘Consider the advertising profession. Is it not one of the most typical of capitalism’s great institutions, and also one of the most necessary processes between the raw material and the commodity we consume? If there was no advertising, how would we know that our very life depended on our using pink toothpaste? In fact, without advertising, how would we know what to eat, drink, wear, inject, smoke, etc.? We would be completely lost’ (Michael La Touche, Socialist Standard, May 1960).

How indeed would we know? Toothpaste (Gibbs SR) was the first advert broadcast on ITV (Independent Television) on 22 September, 1955. To channel the late Kirsty MacColl, (Innocence), innocence has passed us all by a long, long time ago.

The Man who Ate the World
, Frederick Pohl, Panther, 1979, has a fantastical plot twist because the poorer you are the more you’re forced to consume. This is Sonny: ‘The worst time was at night, when the baby sister was asleep and the parents were grimly eating and reading and dancing and drinking, until they were ready to drop. And of all bad nights, the night before his twelfth birthday was perhaps Sonny’s worst. He was old enough to know what a birthday party was like. It would be cake and candy, shows and games, it would be presents, presents, presents. It would be a terrible, endless day’.

This collection includes The Day the Icicle Works Closed, a science fiction version of straightforward capitalist greed: ‘The Icicle Works was the most profitable corporation in the Galaxy… Dickon had plenty (of shares). But he wanted more… And for the last twelve months he’s been picking up stock for a penny on the dollar while the rest of us starve.’

A 2020 novel by R. J. Ellory, is, like Pohl’s, also titled The Man who Ate the World. Roger Ellory says of the title, ‘(It) came about simply because it sounds really good in French (L’homme qui a mangĂ© le monde)! Lots of alliteration. I guess it’s also figurative, in that the truth is more than capable of consuming all the evil of the world.’ The story is contemporary and there is no similarity to the Pohl story.

The protagonist here is named Joseph Conrad. JC is not a very naughty boy nor is he the Messiah although that question is occasionally posited. Joseph is a wage slave in a non-specified and nondescript job. He is made redundant. With his money assets totalling fourteen thousand pounds Joseph decides to discover who he is and what he’s supposed to be doing with his life. There are faint echoes of Chauncey Gardiner (Being There) and of Forest Gump in the character of Joseph Conrad but he is not autistic or an idiot savant. There are echoes too of the Queen Latifah 2006 film, Last Holiday. Here again, a working class shop assistant who is under the impression she only has a very short time to live, gathers her assets and goes off to a luxury hotel in Europe to enjoy her remaining time. Her kindness to everyone is contrasted to the attitude of the bourgeois there too. Unlike in real life, in films good deeds are mainly rewarded, though the film’s ending is a very ambiguous one.

The characters in Ellory’s tale are all named after poets and writers. Spoiler alert: an exception is Richard Dadd who, although an artist, also murdered his father. The ‘heavy’ discreetly employed by the state to carry out its dirty work is named Richard Dadd. Nigel Dennis, publisher and blackmailer in the 1957 film The Naked Truth, with Terry-Thomas, Peter Sellers and Dennis Price, would have been very jealous of Ellory’s Dadd who, as an information sponge, uses his control of data for the establishment’s nefarious purposes.

Throughout the book Conrad is to be found quoting words of wisdom from various literary figures. Joseph’s boss is named Menella Smedley (Menella Bute Smedley (1820–1877) was a novelist and poet, and relative of Lewis Carroll, who wrote some minor novels and books of poems). The characters who meet in a brief sojourn in Ireland repay investigation by the reader into their histories and outputs. Joseph Conrad accidentally becomes the fountainhead of a social movement, Random Acts of Kindness. Various arms of the Establishment are less than enraptured to see the sheeple beginning to act independently.
‘This Kindness business was all very well and good, but it was uncontrolled and seemingly uncontrollable. It was a wildfire, and firebreaks were needed. Perhaps those who sought to control public opinion were anxious about repercussion. The suggestion that individual citizens could make a difference was dangerous, but nowhere near as dangerous as collaborative effort to effect social change. The public did not understand. They never had and never would. They were little more than children, if truth be known. Politicians and bankers and media conglomerates needed to filter information, decide interest rates, enact laws and dictate codes of conduct, and if they did not then the society would tumble into the abyss of anarchy.’ 
‘New ideas were fine, as long they did not disestablish and unsettle the old and proven ideas that had served to maintain the order of things for more generations than anyone cared to remember. There was a way to do things, and no one had a right to change that way but those who were set to make the most money from it. Everything was dependent upon confidence – confidence in the government, confidence in authority, confidence in the banks and the police and everything else the establishment provided for the good of the people – and that was something that can never be threatened nor undermined.’
Typing ‘Kindness’ and ‘Covid’ into Google brings up ninety seven million plus results. The only reason that the working class have to be kind toward capitalism is that it long ago laid the foundations for the transition to a truly emancipated society.

Pressure to persuade the working class that capitalism, not socialism, is the best in this ‘best of all possible worlds’ is continuous. But, the choice is still ours. When are we going to become dangerous and collaboratively effect real social change?
DC