Monday, May 2, 2022

Life and Times: Will We Always Have Food Banks? (2022)

From the April 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

This week we are looking for:
  • Small coffee – jars
  • Custard – tins
  • Rice – tins
  • Packed flavoured rice
  • Milk – long life
  • Dog food
  • Tinned fruit
said a post on my local community Facebook page calling for contributions to the week’s food bank collection. It went on: ‘Please try to help us, I will be at Pantygwydr Church on Tuesdays between 9 and 12.30. Food can still be dropped off on Mondays to Fridays at the Church between 9.30 and 12.30. Thank you for your continued support, you lovely people. Well done to you all.’

Enough to go round?
That this food bank ‘thrives’ is at one and the same time both a tribute to people’s kindness towards their fellow human beings and a matter of unutterable sadness that it is necessary at all. Though exact figures are hard to ascertain, a House of Commons Library report from 14 July 2021 stated that ‘both the number of food banks and the quantity of emergency food parcels they distribute have increased. In February 2021 there were over 1,300 Trussell Trust food banks in the UK, in addition to over 900 independent food banks’. It has been further estimated that, in 2021, up to 10 million people will have depended on food banks.

Of course, the UK is by no means alone among ‘developed’ countries where people either go short of food or are driven to the humiliation of queuing to be handed it from stores by volunteers. The USA, for example, the wealthiest country in the world, has a chronic problem of hunger, with 35 million people suffering severe food insecurity, especially among the 3.5 million of its population who are without homes – even while the number of vacant homes is 18.6 million. And, according to United Nations data from 2019, 746 million people worldwide – nearly 10 percent of the earth’s population – are likely not to know where the next meal is coming from.

Yet all this is happening in an era when, according to Tristram Stuart’s book, Waste, ‘farmers worldwide currently provide the daily equivalent of 2,800 calories of food per person – more than enough to go round’ and he goes on, if food were produced and distributed rationally (by that we understand for need rather than for profit), there could be enough to feed those going hungry 23 times over. So there is patently enough to feed everyone on the planet. Yet large numbers continue to go hungry – or even die of malnutrition – and, even in countries where food is manifestly plentiful, many people are still forced to have recourse to food banks.

A food utopia?
So what do we do about a situation in which existing resources are not in themselves a limiting factor to feeding the whole world at a decent level? Various ideas have been put forward. The 2020 book by Carolyn Steel, Sitopia. How Food Can Save the World, for example, argued that world hunger could be solved by making the existing structures of money and the market work more benignly and cooperatively. And now the ethnobotanist James Wong, presenter of the BBC’s ‘Follow the Food’ series, has made a BBC webcast entitled ‘How We Can Reach for a Food Utopia’ (Link), in which he too proposes ways of feeding the world adequately. He asks the question ‘What if we could reimagine the global food system so that it worked perfectly?’ He attempts to answer this by talking about food being made ‘more affordable, either by making it less expensive, or by tiering it based on people’s incomes’, and he explains how food could be produced in far greater quantities using fewer resources and less land, water and carbon using such methods as hydroponics and vertical urban farming with robots. He also talks about how negative environmental impacts can be remedied by using technology such as drones, satellites and GPS and by making basic natural processes such as photosynthesis more efficient with new innovative techniques.

Money the barrier
But among all this, James Wong fails, as Carolyn Steel did before him, to consider that, no matter how technologically efficient food production may become, under the current economic system it can only feed the people with money in their pockets to pay for it. We could, it seems, produce at least ten times as much food as now, but, as long as the buying and selling of it stands in the way, the world’s hungry or less well fed will not have access to that food. This is what the scientific and technical experts who write about food, no matter how well meaning they may be, seem incapable of taking into account. They either fail to understand or do not want to understand that use of the current system of money and markets to produce and distribute food, regardless of any tweaks to it that may be proposed or enacted, will never cease to lead to massive wealth for the few and hunger or the food bank for many. Adequate resources to provide a decent life for all are indeed available, but that decent life cannot be realised under the profit system. It can only be possible in the kind of moneyless, marketless society that we stand for.

Failing that, the food bank volunteers at Pantygwydr church, behaving in the cooperative and human-centred way we all applaud, will continue to be needed. And will only cease to be needed when we have a whole organisation of society that is cooperative and human-centred.
Howard Moss

See also:
Review of Carolyn Steel's 'Sitopia. How Food Can Save the World' (June 2020 Socialist Standard.)

Obituary: Jim Fleming (2022)

Obituary from the April 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is with sadness that Glasgow branch has to announce the death of James Fleming on January 30th at the age of 85. James – Jim to his friends – was born in Glasgow’s Rottenrow hospital on the second of September 1936. He lived with his parents in a one room rat-infested flat with an outside toilet shared with 17 other neighbours in the Maryhill district. He attended the local school where he excelled at art his favourite subject. He was also proficient enough to be selected for the school football team where, coincidentally, the goalkeeper was Dick Donnelly, a future comrade in the SPGB. Also in the team was Bertie Auld, who would achieve legendary football status as a member of the Celtic team which in 1967 was the first British club to win the European Cup. Rubbing shoulders with famous personalities would be a constant throughout Jim’s life.

Jim was introduced to politics at a young age by his parents who would take him along to the Glasgow Workers' Open Forum where people of different political persuasions would participate in heated debates. One of Jim’s fondest memories was of his father straining to read Capital by the light of a candle. His father was an accomplished accordion player who would entertain their neighbours who would cram into their tiny home during air-raids. As a railway employee, his father was tasked with overseeing a group of Italian prisoners of war put to work on the rail tracks, during which he would sneak them away to their home where Jim’s mother would share their meagre rations.

Jim’s first job at the age of 15 was in a hat shop in Glasgow’s Buchanan St where on one occasion he was instructed to accompany a customer to another hat shop to purchase a hat that was out of stock in Jim’s place of work. The customer was Maurice Chevalier. After the war Jim obtained work at Renfrew Airport as a warehouse boy where he worked really hard eventually attaining the position of Cargo Manager for Glasgow and Manchester airports. As a manager Jim was required in the event of an industrial dispute, to represent the employers as was the case when he found himself seated across the table from the shop steward who incredibly, was also an SPGB member, and who prior to the meeting had been coached by Jim about avoiding saying anything that could be interpreted as weakness. The union won the day.

Jim had innumerable flights during his 40 year career but undoubtedly the most memorable resulted from a last minute memo requiring representation at a meeting scheduled for later that day in New York which would be an impossibility by a conventional flight. His boss had other ideas and Jim found himself aboard Concorde arriving at the venue just as the meeting was about to commence.

After coming into contact with the SPGB he became a member in October 1961. A very capable speaker, Jim had an uncanny knack of exerting a calming influence on any belligerent member of the audience who took exception to being referred to as a wage slave. However, on one occasion when speaking in Paisley, his ability was ineffective with one man who threatened him with violence before departing and then reappearing, brandishing a discarded empty milk bottle which he smashed against a wall before rushing the platform, then realising that all he was holding was the neck of the bottle. He then bolted. Jim returned to Glasgow to meet up with the other members in the Horseshoe bar after they had concluded their meeting in Royal Exchange Square. He related the bottle tale which was met with much hilarity, including from the one non-member who had attended previous meetings and had been invited to join the members in the pub – Billy Connolly, who in a later album told a tale about being threatened by a drunk guy with a beer bottle which he smashed…

Jim was still active, attending branch meetings until Covid struck. Away from the Party, his main activities were golf, ballroom dancing, and walking, which he continued as long as he was physically able. We extend our heartfelt condolences to his children, Peter, Kirstyn and Karl.
A.Mc.N.

Pathfinders: Tales from the Crypto (2022)

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

One of the less apparent effects of the ongoing Ukraine situation has been a rejuvenated interest by western governments in regulating cryptocurrencies, into which Russian oligarchs, among others, have invested billions. The problem with crypto, from the capitalist state’s point of view, is that it is a decentralised, peer-to-peer money system over which the state has no control. Naturally the state will point out that crypto is a gift to organised crime because transactions are not trackable through any central bank system, but they will also pedal hard on the urgent necessity of regulating the market for the sake of protecting you, dear consumer.

The real motivation is that state power over your money means great power over you. For instance, in response to a recent truck driver protest disrupting Ottawa’s main road network, the supposedly liberal and progressive Canadian government used emergency powers to freeze protesters’ personal and business bank accounts (bit.ly/3CWJFV3). Obviously, if you have all your money in crypto, the state can’t grab you by the proverbial short and curlies.

Small wonder then that China has banned crypto entirely. In somewhat less draconian style, the US Justice Department has set up a National Cryptocurrency Enforcement Team with the FBI providing backup services in ‘blockchain analysis and virtual asset seizure’. UK regulators are also calling for tighter controls, again flying the consumer protection flag, with the Treasury and Bank of England in urgent consultation on the matter (bit.ly/3CYkAc2). Conversely, after having first banned it last September, Ukraine has just performed a volte-face and legalised Bitcoin, as crypto donations to its war chest have surged north of $100m (bit.ly/3uhBG0C).

One reason why states haven’t cracked down harder and faster may be cultural inertia due to perceived notions of value, as people struggle to come to terms with the idea of currencies that are simply conjured into being, and virtual commodities like non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that have no physical or independent existence. How can you buy a thing that isn’t there using money that’s been made up?

For socialists though, all commodities are essentially imaginary, in the sense that their ‘value’ is a socially agreed perception and not an intrinsic physical property of the object. In socialism, where everything is free, things will be valued only in terms of their usefulness, not in terms of what they’re ‘worth’ in a non-existent market transaction. And currencies – at least government-issued fiat currencies – are all made up anyway. These days, as currency is no longer convertible on demand into gold, that piece of paper in your pocket may say £10 on it, but it’s only worth £10 because governments say it is and because we accept it is. Otherwise it’s just a firelighter. It’s the same with NFTs, which can be thought of as virtual limited shares. You can sell a share in anything, a meme, a song, a photo, if someone is willing to buy it, no matter how ‘worthless’ it might seem to anyone else. It might sound bonkers but that’s capitalist logic for you.

One vital consideration in all this is that it must not be possible, under any circumstances, to sell the same thing twice over, or the whole system is instantly discredited. Until recently, all money was managed through the central state banking apparatus, making double accounting impossible. Now blockchain technology prevents double accounting without central state involvement. Another essential requirement is ensuring that the supply of this virtual currency doesn’t increase exponentially, causing runaway inflation. The genius – if that’s really the word – of Bitcoin and other cryptos is to make the process of issuing or ‘mining’ new currency so extravagantly difficult through artificial problem-solving processes that they require enormous and ever-increasing amounts of computer number crunching. The solution of both these requirements has allowed crypto and NFTs to break free and take on a life of their own.

None of this is without cost however. Currently Bitcoin mining uses more electricity than 185 countries and 7 times Google’s global consumption (bit.ly/34XFWtC), with a growing carbon footprint that’s surpassing that of New Zealand (bit.ly/3tsNRbQ).

Now chip manufacturers are producing custom ‘blockchain accelerator’ chips especially for crypto-mining, which demonstrates, if you hadn’t already realised it, that what capitalists want and what governments want isn’t always the same thing (bit.ly/3L104dF). And crypto has largely contributed to the well-known chip famine of the past couple of years. These days, it’s chips with everything as the world surges ahead with 5G and the Internet of Things, VR, augmented reality, smart cities, lights-out factories, drone swarms, robotics, 3D printing, AI, electric vehicles, self-drive tractors, you name it. The problem is, the manufacturers of all these gadgets generally don’t make the microchips in-house, as the R&D and the ‘fabs’ are too expensive. Instead they outsource the work, mostly to one key place in the world, Taiwan, which has a GDP of around $670bn, close to that of Saudi Arabia, and a per capita workforce productivity 6 times higher than China’s.

Taipei is home to the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co (TSMC), the world’s largest and most sophisticated semiconductor ‘foundry’. In 2020 TSMC accounted for 54 percent of global semiconductor revenues, and is a supplier to Apple, Qualcomm and Nvidia. No other foundry comes anywhere close, not even Samsung in South Korea or GlobalFoundries in the US, and China is not even in the picture.

Which, incidentally, adds a David and Goliath element to the tense situation between China and Taiwan over questions of political ‘sovereignty’ and strategic questions of control over the South China Sea.

So, while Ukraine spends its crypto windfall on guns before butter, China is currently keeping its cards close to its chest over the Ukraine question, and watching Nato very closely to see how muscular its response to Russia is. Today Ukraine, tomorrow Taiwan, is the big question exercising the geo-strategic wargamers. Just when you think capitalism can’t make things any worse, it displays its true inventive genius.
Paddy Shannon