Friday, May 27, 2022

Voice From The Back: Suicides rise as yen falls (1998)

The Voice From The Back Column from the August 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Suicides rise as yen falls

As the Japanese economy enters recession with record unemployment since the war, the Japanese National Police Agency reports that suicides related to economic failure leaped by 18 percent last year. “Among the 3,556 who took their lives were three business partners who committed suicide together in a Tokyo hotel because of debt” Guardian, 13 June.

Controlling lives

Workfare, and welfare reform in general, offer a way to “break the culture of poverty and dependence” as Bill Clinton said during the 1992 presidential campaign. The idea is not merely to give those on welfare the dignity of earning their way. The hope is that once work is required, those not on welfare will avoid making the decisions – like having children out of wedlock – that might put them on welfare. New York Times, 5 May.

The alchemists

A fortnight ago, consultants acting for Monsanto, the biotechnology company whose recent merger will make it one of the largest corporations on earth, wrote to some of Africa’s most prominent academics and politicians, inviting them to sign a stirring public statement called “Let the Harvest Begin” . . . 

Monsanto’s suggestion that the continent’s freedom from famine depends upon its technologies would be hilarious if it were not so sinister. For Monsanto’s operations can now be numbered among the hungry continent’s greatest threats. The leading edge of Monsanto’s new work is not the production of food, but the production of feed; crops, in other words, grown not for humans but for animals. Last month the company announced a joint venture with the gigantic multinational grain merchant Cargill, to produce and market the seeds of genetically engineered fodder plants, particularly maize . . . Feed production is a growing component of Third World agriculture, supplying the ever-increasing consumption of meat, eggs and dairy produce in the First World. It is also one of the engines of African Famine, as land previously devoted to meeting local people’s necessities has been expropriated to supply the rich worlds luxuries … But this is the least of the ways in which Monsanto threatens Africa. Three months ago, American Delta and Pine Land Company patented a remarkable technology. Its “Terminator” gene ensures that the plants which contain it produce only sterile seeds: farmers planting these crops, in other words, will be forced to buy new stock every year. The new technology’s “primary targets” are, according to the original patent holders, “Second and Third World” countries. Four weeks ago, Monsanto bought the company… Monsanto, in other words, threatens to become the hunger merchant of the third millennium. Guardian, 4 June.

We all agree—don’t we

SAN DIEGO—A high-school sophomore who objects to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is fighting for the right to sit quietly during the daily exercise in patriotism. “Until a few months ago, I stood and faced the flag with my hands over my heart and mechanically said the Pledge of Allegiance” Mary Kait Durkee said Friday. “But I thought about what the pledge actually meant and I disagreed with its message,” She said she doesn’t believe in God, thinks the US government is corrupt and that American society is too violent, so she shouldn’t have to show respect for a country that has so many problems. For the ensuing three weeks, Durkee sat silently in her seat during the pledge. On April 25, she was notified she had to serve four hours of detention and stand during the salute. Seattle Times, 3 I May.

With a whimper

With only 562 days to go until the millennium, fearful Americans are heading for the hills armed with the four Gs of survival – God, guns, gold and groceries . . Gary North, a Christian economist [!] and Y2K preacher, predicts martial law will be declared by 15 january 2000. “I think there will be a collapse of Western civilisation if the power grid goes down.” Observer, l4 june.

What took you so long?

Early this summer, I enjoyed a weekend at the Long Island home of a college friend – a highly intelligent and levelheaded Englishman whose career has taken him (by way of the upper echelons of the British Civil Service and a financial firm in the City of London) to a big Wall Street investment bank. There he has spent the last few years organizing stock issues and helping his firm milk the strongest market in living memory. Between dips in his pool, we discussed the economy and speculated about how long the current financial boom would last.To my surprise, he brought up Karl Marx. “The longer I spend on Wall Street, the more I am convinced that Marx was right” he said. I assumed he was joking. “There is a Nobel Prize waiting for the economist who resurrects Marx and puts it all together in a coherent model” he continued quite seriously. “I am absolutely convinced that Marx’s approach is the best way to look at capitalism.” New Yorker, October 1997.

The anti-imperialist delusion (1998)

From the August 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
In the course of the 20th century socialism, as a word, came to be transformed from a doctrine and aim associated with the emancipation of the working class into a doctrine and aim associated with the coming to power of nationalist, anti—imperialist elites in the economically less developed parts of the world.
The starting point was the coming to power in Russia in 1917 of an elite which had inherited its ideology from the workers movement but which in practice used the state to develop Russia economically and turn it into a power that challenged the domination of the world by America, Britain and France. As such it provided an attractive model for modernizing elites in other countries suffering from economic backwardness and domination by the advanced industrial capitalist states of the West.

The trouble was that this elite continued to use the language and terminology of the workers movement with which it had once been associated. Thus they described their seizure of power as a “workers’ revolution” arid their regime as a “workers’ state”, the first breakthrough by the international workers movement which workers everywhere had a duty to support. And they described the accumulation of capital under the auspices of the state which they were carrying out, not as the state capitalism it was, but as “socialism”.

Marx, who had pointed out that when studying history you should not analyze social and political movements by what they said they were doing but by the material results of what they did, would have been the first to understand (if not to appreciate) how socialism, indeed how his own theories, had become the banner under which a quite different struggle was fought out.

The English Revolution of the 1640s was carried out under an ideology derived from the Old Testament. The French Revolution of the 1790s was carried out under one derived from Roman times. The Russian Revolution, which was the equivalent in Russia of these anti—feudal revolutions, was carried out under an ideology derived from the workers movement but it was no more an attempt to establish socialism than the English Revolution had been to establish the New Jerusalem or the French to revive the Roman Republic.

Although it was Mao who replaced the slogan “Workers of the World, Unite” by “Oppressed Peoples of the World, Unite”, the roots of this change of perspective go hack to Lenin.

Lenin’s highest stage
In exile in Switzerland in the middle of the First World War Lenin wrote a pamphlet which he entitled Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. In it he argued that, through a process which had been completed by the turn of the century, capitalism had changed its character. Industrial capital and bank capital had merged into finance capital, and competitive capitalism had given way to monopoly capitalism in which trusts, cartels and other monopolistic arrangements had come to dominate production. Faced with falling profits from investments at home, these monopolies were under economic pressure to export capital and invest it in the economically backward parts of the world where higher than normal profits could be made. Hence, Lenin went on, the struggle by the most advanced industrial countries to secure colonies where such “super-profits” could be made.

Lenin exaggerated both the degree to which capitalism had become monopolistic and the difference between the rate of profit at home compared with in the economically backward parts of the world. But it was the political implications of his theory that were to prove the more damaging to the workers movement.

When, after 1917, Lenin became the head of the Bolshevik regime in Russia the theory was expanded to argue that the imperialist countries were exploiting the whole population of the backward areas they controlled and that even a section of the working class in the imperialist countries benefited from the super—profits made from the imperialist exploitation of these countries in the form of social reforms and higher wages,

This was nonsense in terms of Marxian economics which does not measure the level of exploitation by how high or low wages are but by reference to the amount of surplus value produced as compared with the amount of wages paid, whether high or low. By this measure the workers of the advanced countries were more exploited than those of the colonies, despite their higher wages, because they produced more profits per worker.

Lenin’s expanded theory made the struggle in the world not one between an international working class and an international capitalist class, but between imperialist and anti-imperialist states. The international class struggle which socialism preached was replaced by a doctrine which preached an international struggle between states.

The Russian revolution itself was situated in an anti-imperialist context. The whole thrust of Marx’s own analysis of capitalism was that the workers movement would first triumph in the economically advanced parts of the world, not in a relatively backward economic area like Russia. Lenin explained away this contradiction by arguing that Marx had been describing the situation in the pre-imperialist stage of capitalism whereas, in the imperialist stage which had evolved after his death, the capitalist state had become so strong that the breakthrough would not take place in an advanced capitalist country but in the weakest imperialist state. Tsarist Russia had been the weakest link in the chain of imperialist countries and this explained why it was there that the first “workers revolution” had taken place.

This was tantamount to saying that the Russian revolution was the first “anti-imperialist” revolution, and in a sense it was. Russia was the first country to escape from the domination of the Western capitalist countries and to follow a path of economic development that depended on using the state to accumulate capital internally instead of relying on the export of capital from other countries.

In the early days of the Bolshevik regime, when Russia was faced with a civil war and outside intervention by the Western capitalist powers, Lenin realised that this was a card he could play to try to save his regime. Playing the anti-imperialist card meant appealing to the “toiling masses” of Asia not to establish socialism but to carry out their own anti-imperialist revolutions. The ‘super-exploited” countries were to be encouraged to seek independence as this would weaken the imperialist states, who were putting pressure on Bolshevik Russia.

This strategy was presented to the workers movement in the West as a way of provoking the socialist revolution in their countries. Deprived of their super-profits, the ruling class in the imperialist countries would no longer be able to bribe their workers with social reforms and higher wages; the workers would therefore turn away from reformism and embrace revolution.

After Lenin’s death in 1924, this strategy of building up an “anti-imperialist” front against the West was continued by his successors. Because it taught that all the people of a colonial or a dominated country had a common interest in obtaining independence, i.e. a state of their own, it was very attractive to nationalist ideologists and politicians in these countries.

They called on all the inhabitants of the country they sought to rule to unite behind them in a common struggle to achieve independence. As a result, in these countries “socialism” became associated with militant nationalism rather than with the working-class internationalism it had originally been. The political struggle there came to be seen as a struggle, not between the working class and the capitalist class, but as a struggle of all patriotic elements – workers, peasants and capitalists together – against a handful of traitorous, unpatriotic elements who would have sold out to foreign imperialists.

Whereas in Europe and North America, and parts of Latin America, socialism was a movement for the emancipation of the working class represented by various different currents in Asia and later in Africa and the rest of Latin America it was the name of a nationalist, revolutionary anti-imperialist movement. Marxism, in its original sense, has never really existed in many of these countries. What passed for Marxism was in fact Leninism and it appealed to revolutionary modernising intellectuals rather than to workers. It has only been towards the end of this century that groups of workers in these countries have come to realise that Leninism and its anti-imperialist ideology had nothing to do with real socialism. But the damage had been done. To millions of workers in these parts of the world socialism still means nationalism and state capitalism which some of them still they see as something positive rather than a barrier to the working-class co-operation across frontiers which is an essential condition for socialism.

Through the influence which state capitalist Russia used to have over a part of the workers movement in Western countries this is what it came to mean to many working class militants in these countries too. The Russian rulers used the Communist parties outside Russia as simple auxiliaries to their foreign policy which was based on the strategic interests of Russia as an up-and-corning (state) capitalist power. What was “progressive” was what coincided with Russia’s foreign policy’ interests.

During the 1950s Russia moved towards a policy of acceptance of the status quo with the West known as “peaceful coexistence”. The Chinese Leninists, who had come to power under Mao in 1949, perceived the interest of their state differently and sought to become the champion of “anti-imperialism” in place of Russia.

The splits that resulted in the world Communist movement were thus provoked, not as might superficially appear to be the case, by differences over what tactics the workers movement should pursue but over which so-called socialist country’s foreign policy – Russia’s or China’s – should be supported. This was not a dispute which concerned the working class interest at all, but was an argument between states in which workers were being asked to choose whose foreign policy pawns they wished to be.

Lenin’s theory of imperialism had contained the seeds of such a shameful outcome from the start as it made the most significant struggle at world level not the class struggle but the struggle between states, between so-called anti- imperialist and progressive states and so-called imperialist and reactionary states. This was a dangerous diversion from the class struggle and led to workers supporting the killing in wars of other workers in the interest of one or other state and its ruling class.
Adam Buick

What happened in history (1998)

From the August 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
Socialists have long argued that an appreciation of history is a key to understanding the present and making the future.
The materialist conception of history is the essential tool for explaining social development, on the basis of society’s economic foundations. People have to live before they can make history, so the way in which production is organised—how food, clothing and so on are produced—must be of crucial importance. Implicit in these ideas is the view that the environment in which people live itself affects production and hence the economic bases of society, as Karl Marx once wrote:
“Men make their own history but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.”
The circumstances that confront people include the geographical and ecological situation in which they live.

The important role that geography, climate and so on play in human history has recently been emphasised by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel (Vintage £8.99), which bears the intriguing subtitle “A short history of everybody for the last I3,000 years”. Diamond is an interesting writer, and his previous book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, was discussed in the Socialist Standard of May 1993. His aim here is to address the question of why different continents developed in such different ways. Why, for instance, did people from Europe conquer the Americas, rather than vice versa? Why did agriculture and industry not emerge among the Aborigines in Australia prior to Western occupation? His own one-sentence of his book is:
“History followed different courses for different peoples because of difference among peoples’ environments, not because of biological difference among peoples themselves.”
Racist explanations, along the lies that (say) Australian Aborigines or Native Americans were too unintelligent or uninventive to achieve any kind of social progress, are excluded. The solution lies rather in the different circumstances that confronted people in different locations.

According to Diamond, one very important factor in determining the manner and rate of historical development has been the availability of wild animals and plants that could be domesticated. Most wild plants are of no use to humans, and in fact only a relative handful of plants have been domesticated to become staples of human diet.The Fertile Crescent in the Near East had a number of suitable wild plants and a favourable climate, and so was able to lead the way in the development of food production. Australia, in contrast, had few usable plants and much drier climate. Equally, domesticable animals were not distributed evenly throughout the world, being far rarer in Australia, the Americas and sub-saharan Africa, so that Eurasia had much greater opportunity to domesticate horses for riding and oxen to pull ploughs.

Geographical reasons also made diffusion of crops easier in some areas than others. Australia and New Guinea were too isolated to benefit from discoveries made elsewhere. Africa and North and South America have a north-south axis, with vastly different climates in different areas, so it is hard for a crop grown in one region to spread to another part of the same continent. But Eurasia has a basically east-west axis which, despite many climatic contrasts, does make it possible for crops to diffuse, and with them many other aspects of social organisation. Plant domestication and the use of writing, for instance, were not invented or re-invented in Britain but imported after spreading gradually across Western Europe.

The development of agriculture enables higher and denser populations, and leads eventually to villages, cities, chiefs, states and technology. When a Spanish army conquered the Inca empire of Peru in 1532, it was the Spanish who had the guns, armour and horses that gave them an overwhelming military superiority, and also had the writing-system that made them far more knowledgeable. Another, perhaps less obvious, “advantage” of agriculture society is the boost it gives to infectious disease. The domestication of animals increases the likelihood of diseases spreading from animals to humans (as happened with smallpox, plague and cholera, among others). These diseases need a sizeable and dense population in order to sustain themselves, and so flourish best in cities. One result is that infected communities develop immunity, as people with resistant genes survive and pass them on to their descendants. But other continents developed neither the diseases nor the immunity, which explains the devastating consequences of Eurasian diseases in conquered parts of the world. According to Diamond, “Far more Native Americans died in bed from Eurasian germs than on the battlefield from European guns and swords.”

In very broad terms, the last few paragraphs give an idea of Diamond’s arguments, and also of the enormous scope of his book. As he says, most historians do not even ask the kinds of questions that he is attempting to answer. He does provide an invaluable complement to the account given by historical materialism of class society and how the class struggle impels society forward.

But it is disappointing that Diamond only mentions Marx only once, in passing, and more so that the role of class in history is consistently played down. He has a chapter on the origin of government and religion, in which appearance of a tribal chief is viewed as a means of limiting conflict as communities grew too large for everyone to know everyone else:
“With the rise of chiefdoms around 7,500 years ago, people had to learn, for the first time in history, how to encounter strangers regularly without attempting to kill them.”
The chief had a monopoly on the use of force, and could therefore prevent violence on the part of others. This harks back to the argument of his previous book, that people began living in groups as a means of defence against other humans. And it is just as unsatisfactory, since there is no reason to think that, left to themselves, people will go around murdering each other.

Economics and the development of capitalism play very little role in Diamond’s explanations: he discusses the technical progress that enabled the Spanish army to be in Peru, but does not examine why European powers wanted to expand into the New World in the first place. Economic factors such as trade rivalry and the expense of overland routes to the East are crucial here. The impact of the conquest of Americas on the rise of capitalism in Europe also needs to be told in socio-economic terms. Without such a perspective, Diamond’s work, impressive though it is, is telling only part of the story.
Paul Bennett

Some facts and figures (1998)

From the August 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
“According to the calculations of renowned economists, the world economy grew six-fold and the production of wealth and services grew from less than five trillion to more than twenty-nine trillion dollars between 1950 and 1997. Why then is it still the case that each year, 12 million children under five years of age die—that is to say 33,000 per day—of whom the overwhelming majority could be saved?

Nowhere in the world, in no act of genocide, in no war, are so many people killed per minute, per hour and per day as those who are killed by hunger and poverty on our planet – 53 years after the creation of the United Nations.

The children who die and could be saved are almost 100 percent poor and of those who survive, we must ask why 500,000 are left blind every year for lack of a simple vitamin which costs less than a pack of cigarettes per year? Why are 200 million children under five years of age undernourished? Why are there 250 million children and adolescents working? Why do 110 million not attend primary school and 275 million fail to attend secondary school? Why do two million girls become prostitutes each year? Why in this world—which already produces almost 30 trillion dollars worth of goods and services per year— do one billion 300 million human beings live in absolute poverty, receiving less than a dollar a day – when there are those who receive more than a million dollars a day? Why do 800 million lack the most basic health services? Why is it that of the 50 million people who die each year in the world, whether adults or children 17 million — that is approximately 50,000 per day—die of infectious diseases which could almost all be cured—or, even better, be prevented—at a cost which is sometimes no more than one dollar per person?

How much is a human life worth? What is the cost to humanity of the unjust and intolerable order which prevails in the world? 585,000 women died during pregnancy or in childbirth in 1996, 99 percent of them in the Third World, 70,000 due to abortions carried out in poor conditions, 69,000 of them in Latin America, Africa and Asia? Apart from the huge differences in the quality of life between rich and poor countries, people in rich countries live an average of 12 years longer than people in poor countries. And even within some nations, the difference in life expectancy between the richest and poorest is between 20 and 35 years. It is really sad to think that just in the area of maternal and post-natal services, in spite of the efforts of the WHO and UNICEF over the last 50 years, the number of deaths from lack of medical services has been 600 million children and 25 million mothers who could have survived. That would have required a more rational and more just world.

In that same post-war period, in the area of military expenditure, 30 trillion dollars were spent. According to UN estimates, the cost of providing universal access to basic health care services would be 25 billion dollars per year—just three percent of the 800 billion dollars which are currently devoted to military expenditure—and this after the end of the Cold War.

There is no let up in arms sales, which have the sole purpose of killing, while the medicines which should be provided to save lives become increasingly expensive. The market in medicines in 1995 reached 280 billion dollars. The developed countries, with 14.6 percent of the world’s population—824 million inhabitants— consume 82 percent of the medicines. The rest of the world—4 billion 815 million people—consume only 18 percent.

Prices of medicines are prohibitive for the Third World, where only the privileged sectors can afford them, the control of patents and markets by the large transnational companies enables them to raise those prices as much as ten times above their production costs. Some of the latest antibiotics are priced at 50 times their production cost”— from a speech by President Castro of Cuba, to the World Health Organisation in Geneva on 14 May.

Russian capitalism in crisis (1998)

From the August 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Russia is in trouble; and its economy is in dead crisis. According to many commentators, the country is facing its biggest test since the collapse of communism. By the end of June, the Russian stock-market had dramatically fallen; and, at one point, the MT5O index of the top 50 companies was down 37 percent over the previous month. Yeltsin was forced to raise interest rates to 150 percent, in an attempt to stop speculators from transferring their roubles into American dollars.

Russia’s crisis is not unexpected; nor is it surprising considering the slump affecting Japan. Indonesia, Malaysia, Korea and other economies of the so-called Pacific Rim. That a weak economy such as that of Russia should be affected by the downturn to the east was inevitable. To state, as have socialists for decades, that capitalism is global, is no more than the bare truth.

The former Soviet Union, of which the Russian Federation was the central core, has indeed collapsed. The former border republics, such as the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan have all become independent or at least quasi-independent of Moscow; and, in the main, no longer supply Russia with many of its raw materials at less-than-cost. The so-called Commonwealth of the former Soviet Union is a farce. Russia is largely dependent on loans from the International Monetary Fund.

However, what collapsed was not communism (or socialism), but a Russian-dominated empire, misnamed the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, ruled by a one-party dictatorship and an economy which was over 90 percent state-controlled and owned: a bureaucratic state capitalism in which a relatively small elite (the apparatchiks) creamed off the surplus wealth produced by the workers and peasants of the country. The Soviet empire, and economy, collapsed due to a number of factors: state-run capitalism in the Soviet Union was grossly inefficient and had outlived its usefulness; the Soviet state could no longer carry the weight of the cost of enormous military expenditure, and large sections of the population were no longer prepared to support, or even tacitly accept, a one party form of government. Moreover, nationalist movements in such areas a the Baltic states and Western Ukraine, had become increasingly bold an active.

The change has not, however, benefited the Russian working class or peasantry. Far from it. Throughout the existence of the Soviet Union, they had existed in poverty and degradation particularly during the first 50 years ~ the “primitive accumulation” of state capital; and, throughout the period a the collectivisation and “liquidation of the kulaks’, and the purges of the 1930s, together with the forced labour of the Gulag, life for the majority had been insecure and brutal.

But at least, throughout much of the Soviet era, Russian wage-slaves regularly received their monthly wages and although unemployment always existed to some extent throughout the Soviet period (but denied by so-called Communists), today many Russian workers, still creating surplus value for their new masters, have not been paid for months – “either because the company has no funds available or the have been allocated elsewhere. Last month coal-miners who had not been paid for up to 10 months blockaded the Trans-Siberian Railway” (Guardian, 16 June).

Other workers, including coal-miners in Southern Russia, have gone on strike, although this has been of little use to them: they still were not paid. The only way in which many unpaid workers have been able to exist is by growing food on small plots of land and gardens. Unemployment is rife, and the actual number unknown.

Not surprisingly, Russian society is dominated by corruption.At the top are the rich haute bourgeoisie, capitalists, of whom many were previously Soviet apparatchiks. Again, the Guardian:
“Many analysts believe they have played a significant part in Russia’s crisis. Far from stepping in to bale out the economy, they have been actively enjoying the collapse by trying to weaken the rouble. They then hoped to make huge financial rewards by selling oil and other goods for US dollars.”
Organised crime, run by local mafias, is also rife; and there is now an enormous black market, in which millions of Russians take part; but which, naturally, largely benefits the rich.

Taxes are the life-blood of the state; they provide the finance for both the administrative and repressive agencies (including the police and armed forces) with cash. However, the Russian government has, over the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, failed to collect billions and billions of roubles in unpaid taxes, mainly due to corruption and inefficiency. In 1997, the Russian government collected just 50 percent of the taxes it was owed. Many—probably most—of the largest debtors are prominent capitalists who have done well out of Russia’s semi-privatisation (many large industrial complexes and companies are, in fact, still state-owned). Lukoil, possibly the largest of Russia’s oil companies, owes the state millions of dollars. Yeltsin has promised to reform the tax system. Not that that will make any difference to the poverty of the average Russian worker.

What of the future? The Russian economy may ultimately pick up; corruption may be tackled; most workers may even get paid their salaries on time, but whatever happens. whilst capitalism remains in any form, state or private, or some of each, the workers will still be exploited and repressed, and live in comparative poverty compared to their masters. Looking back to a nonexistent “communist” paradise in the former Soviet Union, as have a few mainly older workers, is as much a waste of time as looking forward to prosperity and security in a capitalist, “free-market” Russia.
Peter E. Newell

Greasy Pole: False identities (1998)

Richard Huggett: A Literal Democrat
The Greasy Pole column from the August 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

The job of a Member of Parliament is to represent the interests and the opinions of their constituents. Obvious as that may seem it would not appeal to many New Labour MPs, whose allegiance is principally to the Whips and their directive pagers and their ever-driving ambition. This can—and does—lead to them supporting measures pushed through by the Blair government—like cuts in single parent benefit and tuition fees for students— which their constituents may not support. If they are criticised for this Blair’s MPs have an answer available. They are not just Members of Parliament, they are New Labour MPs; they were elected because people wanted them to implement the party’s programme and by doing that, whatever the cost, they are in fact representing their constituents.

This raises the question of how many voters actually need and consciously support a party’s election manifesto and whether what actually happens is that they vote for a party because they are fed up with the other bunch or they like the looks of one leader better than those of the other or they just feel like a change of government. For example the voters in May 1997 might have disappointed New Labour because they had a vague idea that Blair would ensure his government would be pure of the kind of sleaze practised by the Tories and would not have any truck with lobbyists like Derek Draper and Roger Liddle earning fat fees organising contacts with ministers Or they may have assumed that a Labour government would not attack the living standards of the poorest and weakest people. It also raises the question of what those ambition-crazed New Labour sycophants think about the bits of their election manifesto—like smaller class sizes and shorter NHS waiting lists—which might well have attracted voters but which remain unfulfilled promises.

The issue of whether MPs go to Westminster to represent their constituents or to be servile party hacks was supposed to be clarified in 1969, when the Representation of the People Act was amended to allow a candidate’s party to appear on the ballot paper Before that elections were conducted on the fictional basis that the candidates were independent of political parties and if elected would look after their electors. The problem with this, the big parties argued, was that it was confusing for the voters to have only a name to go on. What if the names were similar—if Labour’s candidate was called Johnson and the Tories’ Johnston? It was not unknown for people who had a grudge to create problems by standing for elections after changing their name to that of one of the other candidates.

If this was a problem it put in doubt all those confident assumptions about the voter consciously endorsing a party’s programme and sending their Member to the Commons with a mandate to implement it. Could it really happen, that people would conscientiously wade through all those manifestos but then, during the short journey from their home to the polling station, forget the name of the candidate of the party they wanted to support? Or, after all that mental exertion, would they overlook the need to jot down the name on a scrap of paper? In any case if lots of people whose memory was so faulty voted for Johnson when they really supported Johnston, isn’t it reasonable to assume that just as many would have erred in the opposite direction, so that any miscast votes would have pretty well levelled themselves out?

The 1969 Act was supposed to have cleared up that problem, so that never again would anyone vote for a party by mistake and all the candidates could live happily ever after But it has not worked out like that because where before there was created confusion over people’s names there is now the same thing over the parties’ titles. In recent elections there have been candidates winning votes by standing for phantom parties like Real Conservative and Labour Change. Perhaps the most notable example was that of Richard Huggett, who stood as a Literal Democrat and as the Liberal Democrats fumed it cost them a seat in the last European elections because he got some 10,000 votes while their candidate was defeated by 800. (In a later parliamentary by-election Huggett’s cover was blown and he got only 59 votes.)

So angry are the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties at what they say is the frustration of the people’s will that a new Bill is to be rushed through parliament, to do what the 1969 Act failed to do. It will cause no surprise that the minister behind this is none other than the restless jack Straw, who is sure that the parties” . . . will soon be protected from spoiler candidates, who use deliberately confusing descriptions on the ballot paper”. In itself this is a sensible measure in that it is an elementary democratic principle that candidates should not be able to deliberately mislead voters as to who they are. But what about candidates who deliberately mislead voters as to their ability to improve things?

Why politicians like Straw confine themselves to clearing up confusions over misleading names when the big, important, immediate task in politics is to attack the parties’ deliberate misleading of people over the nature of capitalism and the impotence of the political parties to moderate or change it? Why should we get upset at the antics of people like Huggett when there is the massive, relentless, fraud of parties like New Labour assuring us that they can control capitalism so that it becomes something which it cannot be?

And this brings us to the final, essential point. When we consider the record of the Labour and Conservative parties and those like them; when we consider how they have failed, how capitalism remains a repressive, destructive, murdering society; how politicians conceal their failures with more lies, more evasions, more promises—when we consider all this we are brought to an encompassing question: Who, in their right minds, would want to be mistaken for them?

Letters: Taxing problem (1998)

Letters to the Editors from the August 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard

Taxing problem

Dear Editors,

I’d like to point out what I think is a mistake in the Socialist Party’s thinking on tax – that workers don’t really pay tax because they can’t afford to, and that it’s always a tax on profits. The poll tax fell most heavily on the poorest people and was not passed on to capitalists in paying higher wages – certainly not for unwaged people. The workers pay a lot of tax in VAT on fuel, electrical goods, taxes on cigarettes and alcohol. The council tax is much more of a burden to poorer people too. It got left to anarchists and Leninists to oppose the poll tax and these people are not known for believing in fairness and justice.
Lynn Stewardson,

Actually, we don’t deny that workers pay, in the sense of themselves handing over the money, some taxes. Our argument is that the burden of taxation does not fall in the end on the working class but on the propertied class and profits.

This is based on the assumption that in the medium term workers sell their ability to work at its cost of production (or what Marx called its value), i.e. at the cost of what they must buy to keep their skills up to scratch and also to raise a family to take their place on the labour market when they retire. It follows from this that any permanent increase in the workers’ cost of living, whether from taxes or from higher prices will be passed on to employers as higher money wages and salaries (On the other hand, any permanent decrease in their cost of living, as from rent control or from subsidies to food or transport, will end up being a subsidy to employers in the form of lower than otherwise money wages.)

Having said this, most taxes in Britain are not even paid by workers but are collected and paid by businesses. Obviously, this is the case with corporation tax. It is also the case with income tax on wages and salaries, which is deducted by employers from nominal wages under the PAYE system and never even get into the hands of bank accounts of employees (income tax, in fact, is mainly a means of ensuring that workers without families don’t get that part of wages meant for raising a family)

Perhaps less obviously, this also applies to VAT. It too falls on and is collected by businesses. As its name implies it is a tax on “value added” which, in capitalist economics, translates into a business’s wages bill plus its profits. As we have just seen, wages in the medium term represent the cost of production of labour power, so though the amount of VAT payable is calculated on the amount of “value added” in fact just like corporation tax it only comes out of profits. Firms can’t automatically increase their prices by the amount of the tax; they reduce their profits by it.

Excise duties on beer, spirits and tobacco are also paid out of their profits by the firms involved. Only in this case prices are raised. The government in effect creates an artificial monopoly position allowing monopoly prices to be charged – and then taxes away the monopoly profits for its own benefit. lnsofar as these goods, selling at their monopoly prices, enter into the general cost of living of the working class they are reflected in higher wage levels.

The taxes workers actually pay out of their own pockets are such things as car licences, TV licences and, if they are owner occupiers, council tax – but, once again, in so far as these enter into the general cost of living they are reflected in wage levels.

As regards the poll tax, the Thatcher government clearly made a major blunder in imposing a tax which had to be physically paid by every adult. Not only was this not cost-effective in capitalist terms (the extra costs of collecting it) but it led to resentment amongst those who had never paid such taxes and in many cases couldn’t afford to anyway. In the end a combination of non-payment, riots, demonstrations and the loss of votes in by-elections, caused the government to back down and restore something akin to the old system under which only owner-occupiers paid local taxes.

As to the unwaged, since they depend tor their income mainly on handouts from the state, taxing them does not make much sense from a capitalist point of view – its just takting back part of what’s been handed out, so why hand it out in the first place? This is why the government will he introducing so-called “tax credits”, under which what is to be paid as tax (if anything) is to be set against what is to be paid as benefit and only the difference paid. So, as with PAYE, the poor will never see the taxes they “pay”. Forcing the poor to physically pay a tax like the poll tax doesn’t make sense either as the level of income support (formerly supplementary benefit, formerly national assistance, formerly the poor law) is fixed as the minimum supportable level which in theory can’t be reduced further. If you try, you get riots even in small peaceful towns like Wells and Taunton. 

Doom and gloom

Dear Editors,

You have high ideals and good ideas and if these stood a chance of success I would willingly carry on supporting you. However I have come to the conclusion that the human race is a self-destructive organism and incapable of redemption.

It is all right talking about a moneyless, classless society, but try preaching your ideas to the Taliban eroding the freedoms of the people of Afghanistan; tell it to the Jews and Palestinians battling in the Holy-lands; tell it to the Muslim and Christian extremists and government forces butchering the peasants of Africa; tell it to the Christian bigots in Ireland murdering their neighbours; tell it to the ruling juntas in Burma and Nigeria slaughtering and jailing their political opponents; tell it to the thugs in Britain who murdered Stephen Lawrence and tell it to the racist police who could not be bothered to investigate the murder of a young black . . . is there any need to go on?

I’m afraid, my friends, the writing is on the walls of the war-torn villages of Yugoslavia and the Middle East; in the polluted fields and forests of our decaying planet, in the infertile deserts of once productive areas; in the over-fished and unsanitary oceans of the world. Sell your socialist ideas to the corporations and governments plundering the riches of the world, to the logging companies devastating our forests; to the oil and chemical companies spilling irreversible contamination into the atmosphere, soil, and oceans of a fragile ecosystem.

What other species over-breeds, fouIs its nest and slaughters its own and every other species around it? What other species is on an out of control spiral of self-destructive violence and wanton destruction? I see no way of halting this suicidal self-flagellation of our doomed species.

To my mind, your preaching of socialism to the world is in the same category as a doctor dabbing tea tree oil on a casualty who has just had a one-to-one with a combine harvester.

Call me a doom-dealer if you like, but if I were you I would substitute ego for idealism and call upon everyone to enjoy what they had today and forget about the future. Establish a definite scepticism – savour life today, for tomorrow is a dubious dimension.
Philip McCormac,
Hinckley, Leics

No, if that’s what you really believe, you tell women in Afghanistan yourself that they should enjoy what they have today and forget the future. You tell that as well to the Palestinians being shot at by Jewish settlers, innocent Israelis being bombed by Palestinian terrorists, those oppressed by the governments of Burma and Nigeria, the victims of racist violence in Britain, etc.

Having said this, we would agree that capitalism does appear to be descending into barbarism, at least outside those areas where your philosophy of “eat and be merry for tomorrow we die” has a superficial plausibility. But this is an argument for socialism not against it, making it even more urgent.

We should point out that, although concern for what capitalism is doing to our fellow human beings is partly what motivates us to want socialism, so does “ego”. We want socialism because it will improve our lives. We are not idealist do-gooders but have made the hard-nosed assessment that only through co-operation with other fellow humans can a better world be built.

We reject your suggestion because it wouldn’t improve our lives nor, we suspect, yours.