Monday, March 21, 2022

Dirty War in Colombia (2006)

From the March 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Workers in Colombia are amongst the poorest in the world yet live in an area rich in natural resources. Colombia’s complex and on-going war between the government’s armed forces, drug producers and traffickers, leftist guerrillas and rightist paramilitaries, with blurred distinctions between each side, continues. Trade unionists, students, activists, journalists and those accused of collaborating with any side in the conflict are potential victims, not just combatants. This is not only a civil conflict, for following the globalisation of capital we see the globalisation of the means of defending capital: war.

In the late 1980s the Andean Group of governments further liberalized investment regulations to ease the repatriation of profits from foreign investments and to allow a greater foreign involvement in the national economy. This led to the Andean Pact free trade agreement in 1992. The most recent figures show that free-trade capitalism has done little to benefit workers in Colombia. World Bank figures show that the national poverty rate declined from 65 percent in 1988 to 64 percent in 1999. According to the FAO, the number of undernourished people in the population decreased from 6.1 million in 1990-92 to 5.7 million in 2000-02. If this is the World Bank’s current motto of ‘A World Free of Poverty’ in action, then Colombians will be waiting several decades before they even have enough food to eat in a country with the some of the richest natural resources on the planet.

In the late 1980s, when Colombia began to attract British capital, Margaret Thatcher sanctioned military assistance to Colombia’s notorious armed forces. This assistance continues to this day. Despite the efforts of journalists and activists, the British government refuse to disclose the full amount and nature of all the military assistance given to Colombia’s armed forces. It is known that British military officers have trained their members in the UK as well as in Colombia. The UK government has also aided the Colombian government to set up the National Intelligence Centre a co-ordinating body for the Colombian security forces. The UK government has also sanctioned arms sales to Colombia; indeed Colombian delegations have attended the Defence Systems and Equipment International Exhibition (DSEi) in London and Farnborough International Airshow at the invitation of the Ministry of Defence. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office issued arms export licences to the value of £3.5 million in 2004. The British government can refuse to allow export of arms, for example, on the basis of risk of use for internal repression, risk of contributing to internal tensions or conflict in the recipient country or the preservation of regional stability. Perhaps the case of Colombia is an administrative oversight.

US security assistance amounted to $98 million in military financing, $1.7 million for military training and education and $474 million for counter-narcotic operations in the 2004 financial year. Corporations are also thought to make donations to the Colombian military.

The US Department of State’s Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2004 state that members of the security forces continued to commit serious abuses, including unlawful and extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. Also police, prison guards, and military forces mistreated detainees in harsh, overcrowded and underfunded prisons. State security forces were responsible for 124 extrajudicial killings during the first six months of 2004 and at least 17 of the 65 cases of forced disappearance. Victims are often portrayed as guerrillas killed in combat.

One of the controversial aspects of US-funded counter-narcotic operations involves the eradication of coca and opium poppy plantations by aerial herbicide spraying. The US Department of State’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs reports that 2004 was the fourth consecutive record-breaking year of aerial eradication: 136,500 hectares of coca and 3,061 hectares of opium poppy were defoliated. The use of broad-spectrum, non-selective herbicides means that not only is coca and poppy production affected but also food crops, pasture and forests, to say nothing of the possible effects of large amounts of herbicide on livestock and humans. The illicit crop eradication programmes have simply meant that new areas are brought into cultivation. The result is that the increasing destruction of immensely diverse natural forest as farmers are displaced by removal of their means of living and by poorly targeted spraying. Some compensation is available as part of the eradication programme but is inadequate when set against the losses, and not enough to act as a disincentive to further planting of illicit crops.

Commentators have suggested that US-funded counter-narcotic operations are little more than an attack on the financial supply lines of the guerrillas. Quoted in the New York Times last year, a spokesperson from the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said ‘Key indicators of domestic cocaine availability show stable or slightly increased availability in drug markets throughout the country’. It seems that the eradication programme has had little effect on the supply of cocaine within the USA.

The Caûo Limùn oilfield in the Arauca region, which accounts for 30 percent of Colombia’s oil production, has seen some of the greatest violence in recent years. A pipeline which pumps oil to the Caribbean for export has been a major target for guerrilla forces seeking payment for not sabotaging the pipeline. The 18th Brigade of the Colombian military which is funded and trained by the US government and an oil company has been accused of abuses against civilians and of co-operation with paramilitaries. Health workers, trade unionists, teachers, journalists and activists as well as members of displaced peasant communities who lived near the pipeline have been victimised by the both the military and paramilitaries.

The US State Department and Amnesty International both state that despite the near impunity with which military personnel carry out atrocities, they continue to fight a ‘dirty war’ by collusion with paramilitary groups. The extent to which this occurs is unclear, reports vary from the merely sharing intelligence to paramilitaries and the military being trained, transported, armed and fighting together.

Paramilitaries were responsible for numerous violations of international humanitarian law and human rights according to the US Department of State’s Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2004. There are approximately 12,000 paramilitary fighters in Colombia, mostly members of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), a coalition of paramilitary groups. Though officially the AUC is demobilising and announced a ceasefire in 2002 more than 1,800 killings and disappearances have occurred since then. Paramilitaries were responsible for at least 304 of such killings during the first six months of 2004, including journalists, activists, trade unionists, indigenous leaders, local politicians and others who threatened to interfere with their drug trafficking activities or those suspected of collaboration with guerrillas. There are also reports that paramilitaries continued to commit ‘social cleansing’ killings of prostitutes, drug users, vagrants, and the mentally ill in city neighbourhoods they controlled.

One of the most well publicised aspects of paramilitary killing in Colombia in recent years involved the Coca-Cola company. SINALTRAINAL, a Colombian food and drink workers’ union, claim that members and their families have been abducted, tortured and murdered by paramilitaries hired by the management of Coca-Cola bottling plants. With no means of redress in Colombia, the union with the help of the United Steel Workers of America and the International Labor Rights Fund attempted to bring a case against Coca-Cola in Florida under the Alien Tort Statute and Torture Victim Protection Act. The court found the Colombian government complicit with the paramilitaries but absolved Coca-Cola of responsibility as the bottling companies were separately owned, despite Coca-Cola then being the major shareholder in the company. The union’s case against the bottlers is unresolved. Since the beginning of the case SINALTRAINAL have called for an international boycott of Coca-Cola products.

The paramilitary groups and guerrillas have their roots in La Violencia, the war of 1948–1957 between supporters of the oligarchic landowners and supporters of a liberal state and land reform. At the end of La Violencia several independent republics existed within Colombia. The armed forces of the state, supported by the US military, took these areas by force. From one of these republics known as Marquetalia, the creator and future leader of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) emerged with a small band of guerrilla fighters to continue to fight against the official parties who had now formed a power-sharing coalition. It was later that they aligned themselves with the Colombian Communist Party (PCC). FARC and the PCC severed links in the late 1980s. However, despite the differences between Marxism and the PCC’s Leninism, and the obvious discrepancies between FARC’s openly stated political programme and that of Marx, FARC and the smaller pro-Cuban National Liberation Army (ELN) are often referred to as ‘Marxists’ in the popular press. In fact, FARC declare themselves to be Bolivarian and call for ‘Colombia for Colombians, with equality of opportunities and equitable distribution of wealth and where among us all we can build peace with social equality and sovereignty’, rather than for Marx’s call for workers of all lands to unite for the overthrow of all existing social conditions.

FARC and ELN members were responsible for a large percentage of civilian deaths attributable to the armed conflict according to the US Department of State’s Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2004. FARC are thought to be responsible for hundreds of intentional killings and have injured hundreds of civilians with bombings and land-mines. FARC also kidnap, torture, and murder off-duty members of the public security forces. Both FARC and ELN kidnap hundreds of civilians to help finance their activities. The Colombian Presidential Programme for Human Rights reports that from January to November 2004, the FARC killed at least 99 persons in massacres. Guerrillas targeted local elected officials, candidates for public office, religious leaders, suspected paramilitary collaborators, and members of the security forces.

The war in Colombia reminds us that we are living with a globalised capitalism. The war is of a global nature and not just a domestic war. Tragically most workers still look to a beneficial national government for amelioration of their conditions. However, as long as the social conditions of capitalism exist, and minority ownership of the means of production and distribution, competition to be that minority will all too often turn to war. Be it the benevolent liberal democratic state with a mixed economy, or the free-market economy or a government of nationalized industry free of foreign influence, this has ever been the case. World socialism will destroy the social conditions that create poverty and war.
Piers Hobson

Cooking the Books: World poverty not yet history (2006)

The Cooking The Books column from the March 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

At a meeting in London on 2 February the “Make Poverty History” campaign decided to disband itself. A case of making itself rather than poverty history.

That world poverty most definitely hadn’t been made history was illustrated by a news item the previous week. “Global jobless rise hampers efforts to cut poverty”, read the headline in the Guardian (25 January). “£1.5bn living on below $2 a day is same as 10 years ago”. The article was reporting on the annual global employment survey from the International Labour Organisation. There are some 2.85 billion workers in the world, more than half of whom are existing on less than $2 a day. The number of unemployed in the world stands at 191.8 million.

When in the 1790s Malthus claimed that the cause of poverty was a tendency towards overpopulation, a view still held by many, he was answered by his contemporary, William Godwin, who was the first to point out that every extra mouth brought with it an extra pair of hands. According to the ILO, there are 192,000,000 pairs of hand in the world that are not currently being used. In a world geared to serving human welfare, these could be put to producing the useful things needed to make world poverty history.

The ILO’s sister UN agency, the Food and Agriculture Organisation, estimated, as quoted in a book review in the Toronto Globe and Mail (30 July), that in 2004:
“852 million people faced chronic hunger, up 15 million from the previous year. And in the same year, according to Unicef, one billion children – nearly half the children in the world – were severely deprived. More than 600 children didn’t have adequate shelter, and every day, 4,000 died because of dirty water or poor sanitation.”
It was to mobilise people to protest against such obscenities in a world of potential plenty that the Make Poverty History Campaign was set up – ostensibly. It now seems that the charities and others behind this were exploiting the good will and empathy with suffering fellow humans that most people feel have, for a passing narrow political end: to bring pressure to bear on the leaders of world capitalism gathered at Gleneagles in Scotland last July to get them to adopt a few much-publicised but ultimately ineffectual measures peddled by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

The phoney “Make Poverty History” campaign may be over – and the charities behind it gone back to trying to empty the ocean of world poverty, each with their own teaspoon – but the campaign to make capitalism (and so world poverty) history continues.

Oil: the Niger Delta crisis (2006)

From the March 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard
On January 11, 2006, four oil workers were kidnapped in the Niger delta in Nigeria by the militias and were released only after several weeks of negotiation between the local authority and the central government. As in so many other places, the basic issue was oil.
Nigeria’s Niger Delta crisis goes back to 1920 and the treaties that the forefathers of the people of the region signed with the imperial masters in Bonny. The Niger Delta spreads out over several states and even before Nigeria’s independence in October 1960, there had been serious tensions surrounding the arrangements for the government of the region.

Warri in Delta state is the second most important oil town in the country after Port Harcourt, the capital of River state. Delta state produces approximately 40 percent of Nigeria’s oil, and it is the richest state in the Nigerian federation. Its capital is Asaba near Onitsha, the biggest commercial market in Africa. But Warri town is claimed by three ethnic groups. Port Harcourt, the capital of River state, has a mixture of small ethnic groups.

When you look at the situation in the Niger Delta, you will see reasons why they took fighting the Nigerian federation. The Niger Delta has been devastated by pollution from oil spillages. Shell has caused a lot of destruction on their land. Capitalism is only interested in making profit at the expense of the poor masses. These people have no shelter; no food, no electricity, no hospital, no school, no road, even no water for them to drink.

This struggle started in the sixties when the late Major Isaac Adaka Boro, a renegade Ijaw soldier, declared an Ijaw secession in February 1966. After him came the writer Ken Saro Wiwa. He fought against environmental pollution in the Niger Delta under the junta of General Sanni Abacha. He was tried and condemned to death by hanging in the late 90s. Recently, Alhaji Dokubo Asari, leader of Niger Delta Peoples’ Volunteer Force (NDPVF), started a rebellion against Nigeria. The NDPVF has been in existence since the late 1980’s but not on as high a level as today.

The Niger Delta oil is shared in the following ways by the political bandits: Shell owns 30 percent, Total (formerly Elf) 10 percent, Agip 5 percent. The rest goes to Nigeria and the private partners in business. According to OPEC, Nigeria’s total oil production is 2.018 million bpd per day. And a barrel of oil cost $30 to $35. Where is the money from oil since the sixties till today?

The Niger Delta crisis has been going on for years but no government in Nigeria has taken the problem seriously. The people have been appealing to the government to negotiate by a peaceful political process on how to increase the little percent of oil revenues that was given to them but the government never bothers to deal with the request or the suffering of the people. And that is capitalism for you.

On December 30 1998, some unarmed Ijaw youths went on a peaceful demonstration to express their grievances to the military administrator of Bayelsa state to tell the multinational oil corporations operating in Ijaw lands and territorial waters and indeed in the larger Niger Delta to pack and leave. Instead of calming the youths down and passing their message to his boss, General Abdulsalam Abubakar, the governor ordered his military boys in the state house (which was built with oil money) to open fire on the protesters. And some protesters died and some were wounded from the gunfire. And that made the youths to go wild in their struggle.

President Abubakar and the governor who were being paid their salary from the tax collected from the poor people, moved in artillery pieces, tanks and armoured personnel carriers, as well as fast attack amphibious craft with 700 soldiers to kill their fellow compatriots whose gold and glass skyline rose out of the Delta’s wealth of poverty.

The current president, Obasanjo, promised the Niger Delta that if he was elected, he would introduce a comprehensive development plan for them. But, all those promises were false; after all what did he do when, as General Obasanjo, he was head of state from 1976 to 1979?

The Nigerian military regimes have stolen so much money from the country that they have impoverished it. Each time the Niger Delta people protest, the government refers them to the secretary to government or the minister of petroleum resources or some other officials who really have no capacity to take decisive steps to address the problems.

The stealing of the Nigerian mineral resources by few groups of political bandits at the helm of government has caused Nigerians to drench in misery and abject poverty. These politicians are happy to drive Lincoln navigator, Lamborghini, limousine, Cadillac, Ferrari, helicopter and jets. Whereas millions go to bed on an empty stomach in this one world. And thousands of people squeeze themselves into dilapidated buses that have no roadworthiness again or technical control.

The oil in Niger Delta is enough to sustain born and unborn Nigerians happy till eternity if properly shared among the people. Not to mention other mineral resources like coal in Enugu, rubber in Benin, cocoa in the West, palm produce, precious stones, tin ore, bauxite and even groundnuts, etc.

Because of the government negligence to the masses, unemployment is massive. Master’s degree holders from reputable universities have devised their means of surviving by using motor-cycle to carry passengers for commercial purpose. Armed robbers are terrorising the poor masses. There is no security of life and property as a result of capitalism.

Today the political juggernauts who were elected to improve on the standard of living of the people are now using the resources of the people to buy property overseas. The majority of the Nigerian politicians often have up to ten executive cars in their homes. Some even have helicopters and private jets, all at the expense of the poor masses. Without talking about their special suites in the Nicon-Noga hotel and Sheraton, all in Abuja for free at the expense of the masses from the Niger Delta oil.

The Nigeria finance minister, Mrs Ngozi Okonji Iwuala, is working tirelessly to retrieve the millions of money that was sent overseas by our political leaders, whereas millions of Naira are lying on her doorstep from these corrupt politicians. These politicians don’t pay taxes or rates. They are institutions and untouchable. Nigerian politicians drive their cars freely on the roads without police control because they all have police escorts that are always with them. But, for a poor Nigerian to travel from Lagos to Enugu or Owerri or Umuahia or Abakaliki or Uyo or Calabar is like trying to get into heaven. The Nigerian police and the tax collectors are everywhere in the Niger Delta to the Eastern Nigeria roads stopping commuter buses and taxis every hundred metres demanding for tax and rates from the people whose resources are taken overseas by the capitalist leaders.

It was because of the nonchalant attitude of the government, the marginalisation of the Igbos and other minorities in non power sharing, together with outside capitalist interference, that triggered the declaration of independence by Biafra in 1967. And today many are rising against the state, such as Niger Delta Peoples’ Volunteer Force (NDPVF) and the Oduduwa Peoples’ Congress (OPC) for the Yorubas. Also, the Arewa Republic for the northerners. Today, many Nigerians are no more thinking of one Nigeria but thinking of their own state secession.

Remember too that the oil that is produced in the Niger Delta costs more money to buy in Niger Delta than in Abuja or in Sokoto, which is about 3500km away from Port Harcourt. Capitalism has no soul or respect for humanity in this one world. Capitalism in Nigeria should be totally eradicated from our society otherwise there will be more kidnapping, armed robbery, guerrilla attacks by militias, strikes, violent demonstrations and anarchy that can lead to total collapse of Nigerian federation like Yugoslavia. The cruelty of capitalism in Nigeria is so cumbersome that 70 percent of Nigerians live on under one dollar per day. While a privileged minority of capitalists and corrupt politicians live more like Bill Gates.

Many Nigerians are running away from the country in search of white collar-jobs in the West because of abject poverty, political crisis and ethnic and religious inquisitions that the government cannot control. In the process, many have died in the desert or on the sea trying to cross borders to the West. Many are languishing in prisons in Europe and America, just on immigration offences. Nigerians in the diaspora and at home should organise against capitalism and take the challenge upon them to address the raging crisis in Nigeria for the interest of the people through a political and economic revolution.
Bamidele C. Iloanya

Tourism: sea, sand – and land speculation (2006)

From the March 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

We all need a break from time to time but do we ever stop to consider the impact and negative effects on the local communities where we choose to spend our hard-earned leisure time? Do we stop and consider what kind of holiday the people who are servicing our needs on our holiday get, if at all?

The majority of employment opportunities created by tourism worldwide for local populations is that of the low-paid service sector kind. Rarely regular work, and for a few months of the year only with no health insurance or pension contributions and no promise of job security. No thought of a holiday for them – just will there be enough money to last through the lean months, to feed the family, buy new school clothes and books for the kids, or fuel for the winter?

The following observations are based on eight years of being domiciled in a part of south west Turkey.

The small town in whose administrative area I live is but one example of what is happening at an ever-increasing rate in many areas of Turkey and other parts of the world too – a headlong rush to develop anywhere, anyhow, the primary criterion to make as much money as possible in as short a time as possible and never mind the consequences. As everywhere, the few get richer whilst some of the poor sell family land during the boom expecting a one-time sale to provide benefits and long-term security for this and the next generation, expectations far exceeding realistic possibilities in many cases. Teenagers are sent to study at one of the many tourism schools or colleges in order to learn English well enough to enter the world of work in the service sector.

Traditionally, farming was the major occupation in this area, mostly small owner-occupier farms with a few animals. Crops are cotton, maize, sesame, citrus fruits and salad crops. Plus there has always been a small fishing community. Electricity arrived about forty years ago, at about the same time as a tarmac road from the nearby small market town. At that time tourism was virtually unknown, more a backpackers’ destination for those prepared to camp out or have access to only basic facilities. Now this has become a destination of choice. A week or two of guaranteed sun, cheap accommodation, food and booze, family holidays, adventure, discos and dancing. Tree-covered mountainsides with fabulous sea views are being cleared to be crowded instead with concrete holiday villages. Rivers, reed beds and formerly remote coves are being polluted by the influx of too many people too much of the time. Marinas, golf courses, all-inclusive hotels and the inevitable infrastructure needed to connect them to highways and airports; huge road widening projects, tunnels through mountains – great for GDP and jobs in the short term, catastrophe for the environment in the long term.

Now, however, the latest developments move in another direction. Prime farming land is being turned into housing estates for incomers as it is in other areas currently seen to be ‘good value’ (i.e. cheaper than Western Europe), e.g. Slovakia, Bulgaria, Romania etc, etc. The western working class, or some of them, can now afford to saddle themselves with a second mortgage/home, can invest in property in order to cash in later or offer their property for holiday let and probably pay no tax on earned income in either country. There is a feeling of well-being, having succeeded in obtaining a level of affluence once only dreamed of, an affluence entirely dependent on the system continuing to keep them in paid work for years to come. The incomers are perceived as wealthy, their ‘second home’ here being much bigger and more luxurious than the locals’ single, existing and often shared, home. The difference in average wages between host country and the home country is such that it adds to the illusion of everyone in Europe being wealthy. Both sides are guilty of being unaware of the other’s actual living costs. The incomers aren’t familiar with the real (lower) monetary cost of things here or of the actual wages to be had and the locals think the visitors have unlimited money to throw around if they don’t question the prices quoted or constantly comment on how cheap everything is in comparison with western Europe; a mix which causes problems of rip-offs and frauds, imagined and real, followed by mistrust on both sides. Resentment is growing. In a national, daily Turkish newspaper there was an article recently referring to ghettoization which said, roughly translated, ‘Don’t be surprised to wake up one morning to find GO HOME BRITS scrawled on your wall.’

This aspect of ‘foreigners’, i.e. Europeans, letting their property through the internet or privately but admitting only to owner-occupation (although the truth is clear to others in the neighbourhood) has begun to be a bone of contention with local hotel, boarding house and restaurant owners who see their own business potential declining and income reduced as a consequence of unfair competition. Legitimate businesses have overheads not encountered by private individuals and undeclared income in the capitalist system is seen as theft and unfair advantage.

Outside the central area (where most development has taken place and little farmland remains) some families are keen to sell land to cash in before the bubble bursts but they can only sell it once. Once sold there is no possibility to farm it and herein lies another problem. Why would anyone want to sell good productive farmland? The farming sector is suffering from the unfair market place and falling prices for producers. Tomato crops are being ploughed into the ground. The area once prized for cotton sees less of it grown year by year. Foreign subsidised imports are cheaper for the textile industry. Unless they have a large family to work for free the farmers can’t afford to pay pickers (last year at £4 a day) and the crop is left to rot. Some farmers and/or their children are moving into the tourism sector and allied occupations, occupations with low pay and no security. Government, however, has policies regarding tourism numbers etc., as do governments the world over, all seen as large £, $ or Euro signs. It’s the fastest growing industry and therefore to be prized and commended. The money comes into the country; where it goes after arrival is not of primary importance. Laws have been relaxed allowing (encouraging?) the sale of land which was formerly protected from development, even in environmentally sensitive areas.

The rich get richer, the poor – well, we know about that one….

According to received wisdom, for ‘richer’ read ‘more money’, ‘more buying power’, ‘ownership’ and for ‘poor’ read ‘less money’, ‘less buying power’, ‘dependence’; a scale of measurement based on one factor only.

A brief scan of television advertising by the tourism agencies of a number of countries shows a large representation from those ‘poorer’ countries. As is to be expected, only the positive side is promoted, the advertisers seeking to trick potential travellers into seeing only what the advertisers want them to see and often carefully protecting them from seeing the ‘real’ country when they arrive by arranging suitable tours and escorted visits which skirt the worst areas, i.e. the areas where the majority of the population have to live and work. ‘Incredible India’ portrayed as rich in culture, diversity, history; ‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’ steeped in ancient culture with a rich variety of wildlife and welcoming nationals to serve all your needs; ‘Jordan’- history, architecture, wild, exciting landscapes and outdoor activity; ‘The Maldives’ destination for outstanding hospitality, crystal clear sea and mouth-watering cuisine. No mention or sight of the teeming millions living in abject poverty in huge slums with no access to clean water; or of undemocratic repressive regimes, or of sensitive environments being degraded to build first-world standard accommodation and golf courses, or of human rights abuses. Just bring us your money and let the ever-increasing divide grow some more.

Who’s to blame? The ‘rich’ working class of the West? No, they’re guilty of having been duped by the system they live under to believe that they have a good life, even while they’re complaining about working too many hours, worrying what will happen to their pension, trying to live up to the expectations thrust on them by the capitalist media. The poorer working classes of the countries now being subjected to tourism can hardly be blamed either for trying to improve their lives and living conditions. Why shouldn’t they have a piece of the pie?

Both sections of the working class are to be blamed for one thing though and that is for not recognising that they aren’t on different sides, they are one and the same. They all need employment, a job or a handout on a regular basis. Without this they are finished. No holiday. No home. No food. No clothes. No nothing. They are to be blamed for not recognising it is the capitalist system itself that is to blame, that causes the divide between rich and poor, of whatever level, that actively works to set one section of the working class against another, to prevent them from working together against the system. How else could such a pernicious system prevail? When the working class of the world eventually understand this we’ll be well on our way to achieving our goal.
Janet Surman

Get Rich, Get Well (2006)

Book Review from the March 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Michael Marmot: Status Syndrome. Bloomsbury £7.99

Sir Michael Marmot is Professor of Epidemiology and Public Health at University College, London. The author is not a socialist – if anything he is something of an establishment figure, a doctor working as an epidemiologist (that is a medical statistician) – but he is very much concerned with health and how it is affected by the kind of society we live in. And he makes his case with polished logic, humanity, and humour. This is not a dry-as-dust book of statistics, but a critical examination of the relationship of society to health.

The basic premise is that matters of disease and mortality follow a gradient that has been statistically proven to be hierarchical. Those at the top of the hierarchy have less illness and live longer and as we go down the hierarchy illness increases and life gets shorter. No surprise there, One would immediately conclude that this is purely a matter of economics: the rich live better than the poor. But there is more to it than that. For instance in a Whitehall study of English civil servants, at the ages of forty to sixty-four those at the bottom of the hierarchy have four times greater risk of dying than those at the top.

Taking it as read that absolute poverty has very definite effects on health, Marmot puts the question in true socialist style, ‘what is poverty?’, and quotes Adam Smith’s definition that poverty is relative to the standard of what is considered necessary to exist in the society in which you live. The level of what can be considered as poverty is changing all the time and varies from country to country, between rich and poor nations. Therefore the state of health of the absolute poor in say North America may be better than that of the absolute poor in Gambia. But as you go up the ladder health and mortality also vary in direct relationship. In other words those at the top in a rich country will live longer and have less disease than those at the top in a poor country, and this applies to all the gradients in between. Why? Are there other factors than money involved?

Marmot answers this question by identifying the missing factor as that of control. It is the amount of control you have over your life. He illustrates how this can vary by whatever position you occupy on the social ladder. He then shows how this is related to the amount of stress you are under and backs this up with medical expertise from his training as a doctor to show how physiological and neurological stress can affect health. This is especially connected with heart disease, one of the biggest killers of all.

To quote, “The importance of money for health depends on how much money you had to begin with. If you have little to begin with more money will improve health by meeting basic needs of food, shelter and sanitation. Above that level, when the problems of privation have been solved how much money you have is not as important as how much you have relative to others in society. It is this relative income that determines what you can do with what you have. We need a richer understanding that poverty and wealth are not only about money.”

Marmot raises all the objections that could be raised to his arguments and knocks them down one by one. On the genes versus environment battle he demonstrates how environment can shape genetic influence, and he is particularly scathing on the pro-genetic argument that the rich are where they are because they are genetically programmed to be successful, and demonstrates conclusively that advantage comes from social background, i.e. that where you come from largely governs where you end up. He punctures the league table myth of school results, and demonstrates that league tables are a very accurate indicator of where the school is situated in society. All of this is backed up with statistical evidence.

Neither does he think that poverty and social hierarchies are inevitable. They can be changed. Well, it seems that he thinks there will always be a hierarchy of some sort, but that the gap can be narrowed. At heart he is a reformer who thinks that the answers come with government action, but then he wouldn’t be a sir if he was a socialist, would he? Never mind, this is a cracking book and a very good read, which backs up the socialist case from an impeccable source. Reading this book, you are left in no doubt that capitalism is bad for your health.
Cyril Evans

Dictator revealed (2006)

Book Review from the March 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Simon Sebag Montefiore Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar. Orion, £9.99.

Montefiore’s blockbuster is a mighty, novel-like biography of Stalin and the evil apparatchik that attained the economic and political dominance of a ruling class in Russia following on the Bolshevik coup d’etat of 1917. But don’t look for explanations of the Bolshevik phenomenon or why someone like Lenin, closely familiar with the writings of Marx, Engels and the pioneers of scientific socialism, should lay the foundations for the establishment of an empire at least on a par with the concurrent social evil of Hitler’s Nazi Germany.

All things within the wide ambit of the awful world of Joseph Stalin’s Russia are explicable to Montefiore in terms of an ill-conceived notion of Marxism. His research is punctilious to the extent where he can report dialogue between some of the most nefarious characters to (dis)grace European history between capitalism’s two world wars. With minute precision he reports the economic lunacies of the forced collectivisation period, the mass murder of literally millions of peasants, the grim destruction of the lives of men, women and children who are made enemies because they are not deemed to be friends; here and there is the profanity of humour within this coterie of evil men with power over life and death who themselves are beholden to a master with power over their life and death. And all this is put down by Montefiore as a consequence of a contamination by ‘Marxism’, a claim with as much justification as blaming god for the ravages of a tsunami; a claim unsupported by the pointed absence of any of Marx’s writings from the generous bibliography.

The fact that the author knows nothing about Marxism, while clearly doing no service to that subject, perhaps rescues the narrative from a taxing analysis that might have impeded this grim, gossipy biography of men and women striving for power with the tenacity of private entrepreneurial billionaires because power in state capitalism, like money in ‘western’ capitalism, is truly a universal medium of exchange.

Stalin is an easy read, perhaps a little tedious in its replication and its ‘facts’ coloured often in that they are the post-Stalin ‘justifications’ by Stalin’s surviving accomplices or relatives of both friends and foes still extant. In summary, Montefiore is an good writer, a good storyteller and a lousy historian.
Richard Montague

Cooking the Books: What is capitalism’s true course? (2006)

The Cooking The Books column from the March 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Is capitalism inherently anti-human-welfare or is it just bad policies that make it that way?

An article in the Financial Times last year (11 October) by Raymond Baker and Jennifer Nordin entitled “How dirty money thwarts capitalism’s true course” put the case for the second view. According to them, capitalism’s “true course” is to take into account ethical considerations, what Adam Smith called “moral sentiments”, when pursuing profits. Unfortunately, they say, these days this is no longer the case (but was it ever?). “Global capitalists” have chosen to put “maximising profits” before “pursuing lawful and just business transactions”, with the result that a “dirty money” structure has grown up consisting of “tax havens, secrecy jurisdictions, abusive transfer pricing, dummy companies, anonymous trusts, hidden accounts, solicitation of ill-gotten gains, kickbacks”, etc, etc.

They ask themselves:
“Why has so much unethical behaviour become business as usual? One explanation is greed, pure and simple. But this does not adequately explain the phenomenon and demeans many in business who believe they are operating in an ethical manner. An overriding commitment to maximising gains, taking priority over principles comes closer.”
Not just “comes closer” , we’d say, but is the whole explanation. Capitalism runs on the basis of firms seeking to maximise profits which are then accumulated as further capital invested in further profit-making. As Marx put it, “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!“ (Capital, Volume I, chapter 24, section 3). But Becker and Nordin are right that this has nothing to do with personal greed on the part of individual capitalists. It’s something that is built-in to the system which those having to take decisions about economic matters have to abide by or risk the business they own or manage going under. Which is why the authors’ vision of a “free market system with a sense of justice and fair play” is no more than a pipedream.

A more realistic assessment of capitalism was given by Robert Newman in an article in the Guardian (2 February):
“Capitalism is not sustainable by its very nature. It is predicated on infinitely expanding markets, faster consumption and bigger production in a finite planet. And yet this ideological model remains the central organising principle of our lives, and as long as it continues to be so it will automatically undo (with its invisible hand) every single green initiative anybody cares to come up with. Much discussion of energy, with never a word about power, leads to the fallacy of a low-impact, green capitalism somehow put at the service of environmentalism. In reality, power concentrates around wealth. Private ownership of trade and industry means that the decisive political force in the world is private power. The corporation will outflank every puny law and regulation that seeks to constrain its profitability.”
This is well said. A green capitalism is just as much a pipedream as an ethical capitalism or, as we have been saying for ages, a capitalism reformed to benefit the workers. The only possible capitalism is the one we’ve got: a profit-maximising one.

50 Years Ago: Middle East Diary (2006)

The 50 Years Ago column from the March 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

One of the most recent and rather curious examples to appear on the nationalisation scene, is the Israeli General Zionist (Conservative) Party. They want to nationalise the various Israeli water-schemes, the Health Service and the Labour Exchanges.

Strangely enough the Mapai (Labour) Party, who have been in power since 1948 are bitterly opposed. Through their domination of the Jewish Agency and the Histadrut (roughly analogous to the T.U.C. but also owning and controlling the major part of Israel’s industry) the Mapai control most of Israel’s economy and are extremely loath to give up their political plums!

The General Zionists, on the other hand, want nationalisation measures to break the Mapai Party’s hold on the state machine, all of which we can well understand, sectional struggles amongst the Capitalist class being a regular feature of Capitalism. The tragedy is that Israel workers take sides in this struggle between these parties (both of whom are only interested in perpetuating Capitalism), instead of organising for Socialism.

Two Classes in Israeli Society

In March of last year the Jewish Observer and Middle East Review (25.3.55) informed its readers that
“Israel has become divided into two nations . . . an upper crust and a lower layer. The privileged crust is composed of a variety of substantial and mixed elements who enjoy a privileged position in the country. They are made up by the plutocracy of some three hundred families, by the Government ‘aristocracy’ which includes a wide range of officialdom, the Histadrutocracy with its manifold operations, the business pressure groups entrenched in the upper reaches of the General Zionists, the old Kibbutzim, such workers’ organisations as the Dan and Egged Bus Co-operatives, the upper reaches of such institutions, as the Jewish Agency and of the main political parties—Mapai, the General Zionists. . . .”

The four per cent.: These are the people in the swim. They can get things – flats, cars, trips abroad, the comforts and conveniences of life, or the profits of business, or the positions of power, according to the category to which they belong. . . .”

“Newcomers since 1948 comprise 60 percent of the population and occupy one percent of all Government posts and virtually none in the high grades.”
The article goes on to point out that the personal consumption budgets of the above mentioned 300 families is “around £50,000 per year per family at a time when the income of the highest official is less than a tenth of this amount”.

All of which was pointed out by the Socialist Party of Great Britain years ago and only goes to prove our contention, that national struggles, whether of the Zionist (Jewish Home) category or otherwise, are not in the interest of the working-class.

(From an article by Jon Keys, Socialist Standard, March 1956)

Greasy Pole: The Whip Who Cracked (2006)

The Greasy Pole column from the March 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

It can’t all be fun, being a Blair Babe. When Labour came to power in 1997 quite a few of those female MPs were spoken of as future Prime Ministers. With nice, expectant smiles they clustered around their leader, still aglow from his promise that “A new dawn has broken, has it not?” But since those intoxicated days a cruel reality has taken over as one Babe after another has slid down the greasy pole.

Ann Taylor was sacked from the job as Chief Whip, apparently because of her inept manner of telling Blair what to do and say – which would have been some way beyond the job of simply offering him advice. Estelle Morris dismissed herself from the Department of Education because it was all too much for her; she worried so cripplingly about decisions that in the end she disabled herself from taking any — apart from her resignation, that is. Beverley Hughes had to go from the Home Office after denying that she knew about fraudulent asylum applications from Romania and Bulgaria when there was conclusive evidence, which eventually washed her away, that she did know. Ruth Kelly’s hold on the job of Education Secretary looks increasingly fragile; apart from anything else, the fate of the latest clutch of changes in education looks more uncertain by the day.

And then there is the present Chief Whip, Hilary Armstrong, who has always been one of the more vociferous and combative Blair Babes, but who upset Blair when she lost a crucial House of Commons vote through her own misguided efforts. It happened when the Commons defeated the government on amendments to the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill. Armstrong miscounted the votes in favour of the unamended Bill and told Blair that it was safe for him to go home; in the event, with the aid of rebellious Labour MPs, the government lost – by just the one vote.

Armstrong was a leading light in the 1997 Blair Babes, apparently looking forward to a bright future. It is different now, after eight years of New Labour’s version of controlling British capitalism. “A disaster where women are concerned,” was how one of her colleagues described her. “She has no respect in the parliamentary party… She is seen as someone who crawls to Downing Street and regards the parliamentary party with contempt,” was the opinion of one peeved MP. Such ratings probably don’t register with her; she is, after all, a kind of Labour Party aristocrat, inheriting her seat — Durham North West — from her father, who was also a Chief Whip in a Harold Wilson Government in the days before bouncy media types had titillated Labour’s women with a saucy brand name like Blair Babes. She has said that her father’s diaries informed her that a Whip leads a hard life, although her rise to the Cabinet was rather easier than it usually is for others; she was selected as the candidate for Durham North West at her first attempt and was appointed as Chief Whip after only a brief spell as a junior minister for local government in John Prescott’s cumbersome monster of a department covering Environment, Transport and the Regions. There are comforts in the patronage traditionally associated with an aristocracy and clearly Armstrong has taken advantage of them.

The office of the Whips came into its own with the polarisation of the parties consequent on the 1832 Reform Act. Before then parliamentary business had been the concern of the Speaker; the Whips, using a social network centred on exclusive London clubs like Brooks and Whites, were supposed to “give advice” to MPs on how they might think about voting. The pairing system, now an important part of the Whip’s work (as Armstrong, after her disastrous miscounting, must now know) was largely left for the MPs to arrange themselves. After the Act the Whips took on these duties, as well as developing links between MPs and the government. This was, they said, a matter of “continuity” – a word ominous rather than reassuring.

The late Ted Heath, who was Chief Whip in the Conservative governments between 1955 and 1959, described the work as “above all, to hold the parliamentary party together” and in more detail: “I was determined to get away from the generally held view . . . that the Whips were a gang of ignorant bullies, forcing Members of Parliament to vote in certain ways, all too often against their wishes.” There are, of course, other responsibilities. Heath recalled one, not untypical, early morning incident when he telephoned an absent MP whose vote was needed, to be told by the MP’s sleepy wife that he was, as usual, at the Commons. Such chance events, said Heath, helped the Whips keep an eye on Members with long-term matrimonial problems and so avoid a scandal. He did not also say that such wayward MPs might be effectively reminded of their obligations to vote as the party wished by a little prudent blackmail.

In his memoirs The Course of My Life, Heath gives some indication of what is implied by the phrase “to hold the parliamentary party together”. His time as Chief Whip coincided with the Suez invasion; he had serious reservations about this, in particular about the secret agreement between Britain, France and Israel which encouraged Israel to attack Egypt and so provide a spurious justification for the Anglo-French attack. But when a Tory MP who had abstained in the Commons vote on the war asked him outright if there had been such a secret plot, Heath “looked (him) straight in the eyes and said nothing. He understood completely”. But it seems that such adaptability of principles on Heath’s part was only achieved at some cost. Before he joined the Whip’s office Heath was known as a gregarious, convivial Member.

The years devoted to “holding the party together” — suppressing his own responses to events in order to stifle potential rebellion and to manage the government vote — had left its mark on him. He was on course to become Prime Minister but he had become an unbending, obsessive man with an apparent mission in life to be as rude and contemptuous to as many of the people he called his colleagues, as possible. Iain Macleod, who was one of his bitterest enemies in the Tory party, damned him as “totally unable to make a speech that anybody can listen to . . . no feeling for words at all, no feeling for the rhythm of language”.

Heath would have been appalled to the point of apoplexy at the confusion which led to Hilary Armstrong losing the vote on the Racial and Religious Hatred Bill, and in such humiliating circumstances. Of course she has had what might be called her successes, which means she has wangled, or cajoled, or bullied, MPs into voting against their first inclinations and to support the government on issues like the attack on Iraq, with its loss of tens of thousands of lives. Such achievements in the cause of British capitalism have not softened the antagonism towards her. When she is full cry in the Commons she makes her points — if that is what she is doing — in a voice which has earned her the nickname of Squawker. When Michael Howard, then Tory leader, taunted Blair by reading extracts from Stephen Pollard’s highly embarrassing biography of David Blunkett, Armstrong’s contribution to the debate was to throw the book across the despatch box into the groin of a Tory front bencher (who reacted as if he had been shot there. Well, this was the House of Commons and not a school playground).

Armstrong’s blunder on this Bill was only one of a series of recent defeats for the government which, with other events such as the result of the by-election on Dunfermline and West Fife, seem to have persuaded many Labour MPs, up to now myopically loyal, that their best hope of survival at the next election lies in timely rebellion. In the face of this cynicism Armstrong has a desperate struggle to hold the parliamentary party together — a struggle in which she will employ as much cynicism as have the rebels. Of all the dirty jobs in politics that of the Chief Whip is among the dirtiest, most contaminating. And that goes for much of what capitalism demands, day in and day out, to hold it together.