Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Letter: Working Class Self-Organisation (2021)

Letter to the Editors from the December 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard
We have received the following email from the Anarchist Communist Group on our review of their pamphlet in last month’s Socialist Standard.
We thank you for what is a mostly positive review of our pamphlet, The Politics of Division. We are heartened to see that the areas we agree on are many and substantive.

There are some differences, of course, and we are happy to reply to these. Your reviewer takes issue with our support for autonomous groups. As you know, we support working class self-organisation, and our support for autonomous groups is primarily based on two principles. First, these groups come from within the class and are organised on a class struggle basis. Secondly, it cannot be denied that in the past, revolutionary organisations have often been tone deaf to the voices of other oppressed groups within the working class. This is a failing on the part of revolutionary organisations for which we are not prepared to await the outcome of the revolution to address. Our criticism of such organisations attempting to operate without a clear class analysis remains.

Your reviewer also takes issue with our anti-parliamentarism. This must indeed be tangential, since we do not directly address it in the pamphlet. However, it is true that, as anti-parliamentary communists, we do not believe there is a parliamentary road to socialism. In the words of Kropotkin, “The representative system was organised by the bourgeoisie to ensure their domination, and it will disappear with them”.

Many in the early Labour Party said capitalism and the laws in place to sustain it could be legislated away once enough working-class parliamentary seats had been won. This didn’t work. They were co-opted into the system. We believe that genuine liberation can only come about through the revolutionary self-activity of the working class. Direct action is the political and social intervention of the working class in solving their problems without external mediation. Only this self-organisation, arising out of the social conditions, can end the present social arrangements. This is the social revolution. The current system and its institutions will not facilitate it. Parliament is structurally incapable of representing our interests; it is designed to represent the interests of capital.

For us, this is both a theoretical and operational issue. It is our praxis to continue to encourage and facilitate working class self-activity, and we will work with other anti-authoritarian socialists in furthering this aim whenever interests coincide.

Our Reply:
Since our differences with anarchists have tended to centre on the matter of the use of parliament, it was difficult for our reviewer not to make a connection between the support voiced in your pamphlet for ‘autonomous groups’, whose activities are distinctly reformist rather than revolutionary, and the rejection by most anarchists of what we see as the most likely path to achieving a liberated society of voluntary association and free access to all goods and services, i.e. by a class conscious majority voting for it democratically.

You mention the early Labour Party as an example of the failure to achieve socialism through parliament, but the fact is that that was never the aim or intention of those involved in that party. Far from being ‘co-opted into the system’, they were from the very beginning an integral part of the capitalist system – an alternative team to run it – and even the most militant among them never thought of abolishing that system and replacing it with a moneyless, wageless society of free access. At best they thought to try to make capitalism operate in the interests of workers – an impossibility of course.

As for the role of parliament, we would not dispute that, under capitalism, it is there, as you say, ‘to represent the interests of capital’, but that does not mean that it could not be used by a class-conscious majority of workers to democratically vote capital out of existence and thereby bring about the social revolution you refer to. This is in fact the only kind of ‘direct action’ that can bring about the qualitative change in social relations that we all agree is necessary, the only truly ‘revolutionary activity of the working class’.

And if not this, what other kind of ‘direct action’ could bring about that change? A mass insurrection of some kind? We would hope not, since it would be likely to provoke considerable violence – which is capitalism’s stock-in-trade – and would be doomed to failure, since governments have a monopoly on the means of violence. But using parliament tackles the problem ‘from the inside’ so to speak and gives a majority who vote their socialist delegates to parliament an automatic ‘legal’ right to take over the state machine in the name of the great majority of the population and then to abolish the state itself along with those coercive powers and agencies necessary to the maintenance of class society but superfluous in socialism. Would the capitalist class then attempt some kind of coup d’etat? Could they really do this against an organised class-conscious, determined majority committed to establishing socialism once there had been a democratic mandate via the ballot box for the changeover to socialism? We would argue not and we would strongly recommend anarchists and others who share our aim but may be sceptical of our views on parliament to read our short pamphlet on this subject, ‘What’s Wrong With Using Parliament? The cases for and against the revolutionary use of Parliament’, which can be found on our website. Especially relevant to the matter at issue here is the chapter in that pamphlet entitled ‘Anti-Parliamentarian and Anarchist Objections

Party News: Glasgow COP26 (2021)

Party News from the December 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

All the lockdowns of the past couple of years certainly put a dampener on Party activity and turned us all into real armchair socialists for a while, but it didn’t stop us making plans, and one of these, for COP26, took shape over several months from June onwards. We knew we couldn’t be there for the whole two weeks and we had to make an early decision about what dates to pick, so that we could secure cheap accommodation before all the prices skyrocketed. We thought it better to be there ‘en masse’ as opposed to in dribs and drabs, so we made bookings for Sunday 7 to Wednesday 11 November.

We also applied for an official pitch via Glasgow council so we could have a proper stall, then designed some leaflets, each with a QR code that people could scan with their smartphone camera to go to a special SPGB landing page on climate change, and liaised over a special issue of the Standard.

Then a national Day of Action was announced for Saturday 6 November, the day before we were due to arrive. Cue further organisation, this time of regional leafleting by other members in London, Manchester, Sheffield, Cardiff, Oxford, Bournemouth, Portsmouth and Frome.

As it turned out, torrential rain in Glasgow on the Day of Action made it nearly impossible for Glasgow members to do much leafleting, and bad weather affected operations in other cities too, but even so, well over 5,000 leaflets were distributed overall.

Heavy rain in Glasgow on Monday 8th effectively wrote off most of that day’s leafleting, but the weather improved and we fared better on the following two days, distributing around 1,500 leaflets. There were a few desultory marches and rallies, with Extinction Rebellion out in force with their Masque-of-the-Red-Death dancers bringing a creepy Vincent Price vibe to the proceedings. Local businesses cashed in for all they were worth, of course, like the Co-op which rebranded itself with marvellous effrontery as ‘Co-op 26’.

So what were the positives? We had a good stall in Royal Exchange Square, courtesy of the council which had only got round to replying days before we were due to go. This was right next to a statue of Wellington on a horse, both of them long-time wearers of traffic cone hats which the council had apparently decided were fine examples of ‘Glasgow humour’ and which, believe it or not, now feature in official city guide books. We had some well-designed tall banners which made us stand out, so we probably ought to get some more of those. Around ten members were present, and enjoyed a great sense of comradeship that you can only really get by participating in practical activities like this, which is a very good reason for more members to get involved. That pint in the pub afterwards tastes even better when you feel like you’ve done something to deserve it.

Result-wise, we found that the leaflet called ‘Climate on Collision Course’ was popular with COP delegates at the bus stops waiting for the special conference buses. Less predictably, the leaflet entitled simply ‘End Capitalism’ was well received elsewhere, an indication perhaps of how climate change is affecting people’s views of the current social system.

We collected stats to see how many people who had received a leaflet had bothered to scan the QR code to go to our special landing pages on climate change, and found it was around 200, which for a total UK leaflet distribution of around 5,000 was a ratio of one in 25. This was a better result than we expected and one which suggests that the combination of a QR code plus special landing page is the approach we should take with future leafleting events. In fact, given that leafleting is something most members can do without much difficulty, there’s a case for making leafleting a bigger part of our general campaigning, perhaps by targeting individual cities one at a time.
Paddy Shannon

Cooking the Books: Must prices rise? (2021)

The Cooking the Books column from the December 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Times (22 October) reported Alan Jope, the CEO of Unilever, warning that the price of many household goods would have to go up:
‘He highlighted how the cost of palm oil – the Anglo-Dutch company uses a million tonnes a year in its Dove soap and moisturisers – had increased by 82 per cent in two years due to labour shortages in Indonesia. Soya bean oil, used in its Hellmann’s mayonnaise, had risen by two thirds due to poor crop production in Brazil.’
To say that in such circumstances sellers are ‘forced’ to put up their price is misleading. Faced with an increase in the cost of producing their product, a seller cannot simply decide to increase its price to compensate. They could try but, if they misjudged the market, they would end up losing sales and profits. If the market won’t take an increase, they have to lump it and take a cut in profit margins.

As the Times went on to report, the supermarkets selling Unilever products won’t necessarily be able to pass on any price increase to buyers:
‘A retail source said that the intensely competitive food retail market meant it was hard for supermarkets to pass on higher prices, as shoppers might desert them for the likes of Aldi or Lidl.’
In short, when costs go up, it is the law of supply and demand that will bring about any price increase, but only as long as demand is maintained. Businesses do not have a free hand when it comes to fixing prices; it is the market that decides.

There is, however, one circumstance in which prices must go up. As long as it is government policy to depreciate the currency, the general price level has to increase. The reason is simple. Prices are expressed in a unit of currency and, if that unit depreciates, then more units will be needed to express a price.

It is government policy, not just in Britain but co-ordinated with the other members of the G7 (USA, Japan, Germany, France, Italy and Canada), that their currencies should depreciate by around 2 percent a year. They don’t put it that way but that is what it is. They present it as keeping prices from rising above or falling below this figure.

The justification for this is that a slowly rising price level is the best situation to encourage firms to invest and consumers to spend. Falling prices (which, due to increasing productivity, would otherwise be the case) would mean that firms and people would tend to hold off spending in the hope of a lower price. This is not always necessarily true as capitalism can, and did until the outbreak of WW2, function with falling as well as rising prices.

But Keynes noted another advantage for employers:
‘Keynes expressed, in numerous passages in The General Theory, the view that wages were “sticky” in terms of money. He noted, for example, that workers and unions tended to fight tooth-and-nail against any attempts by employers to reduce money wages (the actual sum of money workers receive, as opposed to the real purchasing power of these wages, taking account of changes in the cost of living), even by a little bit, in a way they did not fight for increases in wages every time there was a small rise in the cost of living eroding their “real wages”’ (bit.ly/3qBbVbD).
It’s not workers that cause rising prices. That’s another problem they have to face, forcing them to run fast to try to catch up. Keynes’s other policies have been discredited and abandoned but not this one.

So, must prices go up? Yes, in the case of currency depreciation. Not necessarily, in the case of the cost of supplies going up.

Material World: Economic meltdown in Lebanon (2021)

The Material World column from the December 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Lebanon, a small nation of six million, the host to Palestinian and Syrian refugees, as well as numerous migrant workers, has had an ongoing financial crisis since late 2019. According to the World Bank, Lebanon’s economic and financial condition ranks in the top ten, possibly top three, most severe crisis episodes globally since the mid-nineteenth century. The country is one of the most indebted in the world. In the 2016 budget, interest payments accounted for almost half of all government spending.

The Lebanese lira has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar over the past two years. Political inaction to halt the devaluation of Lebanon’s currency has contributed to an ever-growing wave of discontent and desperation. Protests have been driven by anger towards the country’s sectarian politicians and the endemic corruption and cronyism. Government officials are perceived to be acting to save the oligarchs (according to the World Inequality Database, in 2020 half of Lebanon’s population held less wealth that the top 1 percent). An assortment of religious and political factions have captured the State machine and govern almost entirely in their own interests, through a system of patronage, leaving public services to crumble.

It has become very much harder for the Lebanese to buy basic food and supplies or access public services. The crash of Lebanon’s national currency sent food prices soaring. Lebanon has seen a long series of large demonstrations. Everyone is fed up with power cuts caused by fuel shortages with electricity in most places available just an hour or two a day, the sky-high unemployment, the rampant poverty, the missing social safety net, and lack of healthcare. Then there is the cost of living rises because of black-market prices. Food is about five times as expensive as it was in 2019.

Millions of people have been locked out of their savings as the country’s banks place the burden of the crisis onto small depositors who cannot withdraw their wages and pensions. ATMs and bank buildings have been attacked.

Protests have erupted everywhere across Lebanon, with the unrest mounting as the protesters come together, independent of their religious origins and turning away from the sectarianism that politicians have used to divide the population.

Lebanon’s economy is in free-fall. According to the UN, ‘almost three-quarters of the population are living in poverty.’ Almost a quarter of the population was not able to meet their ‘dietary needs’ by the end of last year. The World Food Programme now provides food assistance to one in four people in the country.

United Nations Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Lebanon Najat Rochdi said, ‘The situation remains a living nightmare for ordinary people, causing unspeakable suffering and distress for the most vulnerable. Starvation has become a growing reality for thousands of people. Today, we estimate that more than one million Lebanese need relief assistance to cover their basic needs, including food.’

Three quarters of the total population live in poverty according to the Multidimensional Poverty in Lebanon: Painful Reality and Uncertain Prospects report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA). An even higher figure of 82 percent lives in multidimensional poverty, which takes into account factors other than income, such as access to health, education and public utilities.

UNICEF said that ‘more than four million people face the prospect of critical water shortages or being completely cut off from safe water supply in the coming days’. The reason for such a water shortage is that there is not enough power to operate Lebanon’s pumping stations and wells.

ESCWA last year suggested that the richest 10 percent in Lebanon, who held nearly $91 billion of wealth at the time, should fund the gap for poverty eradication by making annual contributions of 1 percent of their net wealth.

Alas, a forlorn hope. Instead, the export of capital by the wealthy is prevalent. The banks, the politicians and high-level civil servants are accused of facilitating the transfer of colossal amounts abroad.

Lebanon’s president Michel Aoun observed that ‘The foiling of every plan proposed for financial and economic recovery, or the failure to devise it in the first place, means one thing, which is that the corrupt system that is still controlling the country and the people fears accountability and penalization’.

The president added, ‘the people are robbed and are being robbed on a daily basis’.

As if working people all around the world didn’t know.

Stamping Out Capitalism (2021)

From the December 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Banning things in Britain has its antecedents. The Puritans banned Christmas for thirteen years. By the end of the seventeenth century festive parties were back with a swing. The peasants, that’s us, have always known how to have a good time. A Christmas Song, 1695, lays the scene: ‘Now thrice welcome, Christmas, which brings us good cheer, minc’d-pies and plum-porridge, good ale and strong beer; with pig, goose and capon, the best that may be, so well doth the weather and our stomachs agree’. Bad as things may get they’re nowhere near as bad as in eighteenth century Scotland: pity the poor inhabitants of Bannshire where it is recorded that they have, ‘no pastimes or holidays, except dancing on Christmas and New Year’s Day’ (Statistical Account of Scotland, Sir John Sinclair, 1792).

It’s all become a bit of a cliché hasn’t it? The encouragement to consumerism that starts earlier every year. There’s the accoutrements and ‘tranklements’ one has to have to provide a ‘real’ Christmas. Although with the announcement by a major social media player that life in the future will be lived in virtual reality perhaps a lot of Christmas stress and trauma could be removed by everyone just staying in bed with headsets and viewers glued to their faces. Apologies, that sentence was meant to read, a lot of stress and trauma could be removed if capitalism was replaced. For those of a gambling bent there has been the ‘will it’, ‘won’t it’ spectacle of politicians playing good cop, bad cop as they mess up people’s minds with the prospect of cancelling Christmas completely. Or not. When reflecting upon the events of 2021 the lesson that politicians are merely the errand boys/girls of global capitalism will, hopefully, be learnt and absorbed.

A frisson of uncertainty has however been introduced. With the supply chains disrupted and the possibility that the Chinese-made toys requiring a second mortgage to buy are still in a container somewhere on the high seas, the question is: will said commodity find its way onto the vehicle of an overworked haulage driver and then appear at a toy superstore near you? Many who express discontent with the Christmas experience will nevertheless justify their continued surrender to it with the words, ‘It’s for the kids really’ and ‘It’s tradition, isn’t it?’

Traditions. The Urban Dictionary has some interesting takes on what a tradition is: ‘peer pressure from dead people’ and ‘reason for doing something for no apparent reason’. Also defined as something that is carried on because people can’t be bothered or aren’t able to work out for themselves that it might not be a good thing to continue with. How long does it take before a tradition becomes a tradition? We do Christmas because it’s culturally ingrained. Certain things have to be done, because, tradition. Should you tip at Christmastide? Plenty of mainstream media articles are giving advice on that.

‘Etiquette specialists Debrett have drawn up an official guide to Christmas tipping, suggesting that nannies, au-pairs and cleaners should all receive at least a week’s extra wages, while a £5 gift would be appropriate as a thank-you for milk and post deliveries or refuse collectors’ (East Anglian Daily Times). Tipping of the milkman, postman, dustman, paper delivery boy/girl, coal delivery man was once widespread because these were all regular household visitors and were known personally. Whilst non-East Anglia residents may have missed this particular item, readers of the Standard will no doubt be extra generous in their appreciation of the service categories listed by Debrett’s. Why no mention of the butler, one wonders? Does management at all levels still acquire a haul of expensive alcoholic beverages at this time of year from salesmen and company reps? The ‘shop floor’, if lucky, might be given a bottle of whisky by the management to share amongst themselves (or sherry if the shop floor is mainly female).

‘The term “Christmas box” dates back to the 17th century… In Britain, it was a custom for tradesmen to collect “Christmas boxes” of money or presents on the first weekday after Christmas as thanks for good service throughout the year. This custom is linked to an older British tradition where the servants of the wealthy were allowed the next day to visit their families since they would have had to serve their masters on Christmas Day. The employers would give each servant a box to take home containing gifts, bonuses, and sometimes leftover food’ (Wikipedia).

In 1843 the first Christmas card for the masses sold at a price of over four pounds in today’s money. More affordable cards were produced from 1860 onwards. Rowland Hill’s postal services for the masses had begun with the issue of the Penny Black in 1840. In 1830 there were 98 miles of railway tracks in Britain, in 1840 there were 1,498 miles, and in 1860, 10,433 miles of railways. Mail was first moved by railways in 1830 and in 1838 Travelling Post Offices (TPOs) were operating. By the 1870s the cost of postage for a Christmas card (envelope unsealed) was half a penny (pre-decimal).

In 2003, to save Royal Mail ten million pounds a year, TPOs were taken out of service. The last TPO service ran on the night of 9 January 2004.

In 2018 it is estimated that UK sales of single and boxed Christmas cards was £384 million, very nice for that part of the capitalist class investing in the greetings card sector. Up to 150 million Christmas cards are expected to be delivered. One billion seasonal cards are thought to be sold annually in the UK. COP26 neglected among other things to make the decision to ban printed greeting cards. One tree is needed to make three thousand cards, or enough to service the needs of 176 people (GWP Group).

‘Stamp collecting! It had started on day one. And then ballooned like some huge… thing, running on strange mad rules. Was there any other field where flaws made things worth more?’ (Making Money, Terry Pratchett).

Without the postage stamp we would have been bereft of Postman Pat and his black and white cat, or of Cliff Clavin, the hapless mail deliverer and habitué of a Boston tavern in TV’s Cheers. The adventures of Moist von Lipwig and his efforts to resuscitate the postal services of Discworld’s Ankh-Morpork would be denied us too.

It might be debated whether Rowland Hill, the advocate for a cheaper postal service than was in existence in the middle of the nineteenth century, was being completely altruistic in his ultimately successful attempts to persuade the government to allow the population access to a cheaper means of sending mail. Hill made the case that if letters were cheaper to send, people including the poorer classes would send more of them, thus eventually raising profits. The use of adhesive, pre-paid stamps was seized upon by the capital class of various countries, and twenty years after their British debut stamps were being used in ninety countries. In 1840 the Penny Black doubled the number of letters sent.

In 1971 the cost of a Royal Mail first class stamp was 3p and a second class stamp was 2 ½p. Grumblies of a particular generation who accost others in the Post Office queue mumbling ‘I remember when you could buy a stamp for sixpence’ (old pennies, pre-decimalisation) don’t usually complain about the social system that makes them pay for a postal service in the first place. A little-known law states that comments of this nature must be accompanied by the codicil ‘And you could purchase various items for a ridiculously low price too!’ Five or ten shillings being the favourite amount quoted. For the majority still it’s the cost of living in a capitalist society that enrages, not the system itself. The cost of a first class postage stamp in 2021 is 85 pence. Riddle… why is the working class like postage stamps and railway carriages? Because they’re still second class in the society they keep moving every day.

‘In socialism posting will be free and rare stamps won’t have any value as an asset,’ a socialist will tell you. Both observations are decidedly true. In a future socialist society, will the practice of sending greetings cards continue? Will e-cards completely supersede the tree-birthed card? Wouldn’t it be much more positive for the environment to reduce the billions of cards currently produced? What would happen to postage stamps in a moneyless society? Would the hobby of philately grow stronger or die out? There’s a world of knowledge in postage stamps.

W.H. Auden’s poem, Night Mail, written to accompany the 1936 documentary film of the same name, describes the myriad types of letters sent and received: ‘Written on paper of every hue, The pink, the violet, the white and the blue, The chatty, the catty, the boring, the adoring, The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring, Clever, stupid, short and long, The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.’ Even in this age of instantaneous electronic communication there is still a thrill to receive through the letterbox a missive which is not junk mail or a bill. Auden captured perfectly the delight which accompanied the rattle of the letterbox. ‘But shall wake soon and hope for letters, And none will hear the postman’s knock Without a quickening of the heart, For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?’

Note to the ruling class: it isn’t the Christmas elves who are chopping down the trees, producing cards, designing stamps and running the printing presses, driving trains, delivering post all over the country, and keeping the wheels of capitalism turning.
Dave Coggan

Tang Ping, the new China virus? (2021)

From the December 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Usually it’s only Christmas, and maybe a week or two in summer, when more fortunate workers get to stay home for a while and put their feet up, though the break from the rat race is always too short to ever get used to.

But then we got the pandemic. Richer capitalist states collectively took a huge hit – the cost equivalent of a world war – by paying their workers to stay at home with furlough schemes. This might look like paternalistic generosity but in reality they didn’t have much of a choice. Capitalism has to have an available workforce, even when there’s no work, because workers producing wealth is how profits recover after a downturn. That’s why there’s a welfare system and why, historically, the British capitalist class tried to prevent the emigration of workers even during famines. So it was either a question of continuing to pay wages for nothing and probably bankrupting themselves in the process, or get the state – the executive committee of the capitalist class – to borrow the money and do it for them. From the government’s perspective, the enormous furlough bill was certainly more politically survivable than presiding over the wholesale economic and social destruction that would otherwise have occurred, even though it will very likely take generations to pay off the debt.

For workers this has been a true black-swan event, an unprecedented opportunity to stay at home and, basically, find out what it feels like not to be a worker, ie, not be forced to slave away in some dull and shitty job for 40 hours a week just to earn the price of their rent, food and bills.

What was the result? Well of course workers loved it, and now a lot of them don’t want to go back to work, or at least not the same work. When hotels, pubs and restaurants opened up after the lockdowns they found they couldn’t get staff, which may be because the hospitality sector is traditionally the least unionised and so generally has the worst pay and conditions. But it’s not just hospitality that’s suffering. The UK is seeing a record shortage of workers which economists are struggling to explain with a mixed bag of reasons including a spate of early retirements, Brexit, and people living on savings or starting their own micro-businesses. It’s not just the UK either, there’s a global labour shortage, estimated by the US government to be around 40 million, which is causing massive supply chain disruptions just as food and energy prices are hitting the roof. Capitalism has rarely looked so close to coming apart at the seams, though there’s no doubt it will recover in the fullness of time if workers stand by and let it.

What might not recover though is workers’ attitudes to employment after their recent prolonged holiday. For months the western media has been talking in gleeful tones about the phenomenon in China of tang ping, or ‘lying flat’. Just as the Chinese economy is set to overtake the US to become the most dominant global force, Chinese youth is apparently staging a quiet revolt against the ‘996’ turbo-capitalist culture of working non-stop, from 9am to 9pm, 6 days a week, to get ahead at any price. Instead, young people are proposing the less stressful and more humane option of taking it easy and doing the least amount of work possible to get by, aka ‘lying flat’ or, as we would call it, being a slacker. Naturally this has alarmed the Chinese ‘Communist’ Party and is one reason why it is currently cracking down on everything from karaoke to computer games to combat what it sees as a dangerously westernising trend (bloom.bg/3HyhGNd).

What would wipe the schadenfreude off the faces of western employers is if tang ping inspires workers to start spreading a new global ‘lazy virus’. And many post-pandemic workers are just in the mood to do so. Elle Hunt argues in a recent Guardian article that people should quit their job and join something called the ‘anti-work movement’, which questions ‘careerist values and the erosion of workers’ rights, while celebrating idleness’. Naturally Bertrand Russell’s well-known essay In praise of idleness gets a mention, although Hunt seems strangely unaware of the even-better-known The Right to be Lazy, by Marx’s son-in-law Paul Lafargue. At any rate, the argument is one that’s familiar to any socialist: what’s the point of flogging your life away solely for the benefit of the rich, when we should all be free to enjoy life and do whatever we want, just as the rich are? Now there is an ‘anti-work forum’ devoted to discussing the viability or otherwise of such a lifestyle choice in capitalism, as well as the reactions of employers to it (reddit.com/r/antiwork/). The forum has ‘gone vertical’ in the past year, with subscribers growing by 400 percent to around 900,000. Here you can find a big reading list from the likes of Bob Black, Fredi Perlman and David Graeber, plus little gems like ‘The idea of having to earn a living implies that, by default, you don’t actually deserve to be alive’. But it also includes opportunistic PC game adverts as well as dubious comments like: ‘you shouldn’t worry about your career. The world will be completely unliveable within 20 years. Just try and have a good time while you can.’ Such millennial fatalism is partly fuelled by climate change anxiety, but is also seen among today’s UK students, many of whom are spending their student loans with gay abandon on the assumption that they’ll probably never get a job earning more than the minimum £27,295 threshold which triggers loan repayments – which is undoubtedly why the government is proposing to lower the threshold to £23,000. That’s right, Rishi, kick the kids when they’re down!

On the other hand, the current labour shortages are driving up pay rates, as employers are faced with a seller’s market and forced to be a little less Scrooge-like, along with the UK government also raising the minimum wage again, this time by a comparatively whopping 60p to £9.50 an hour. All this ought to be great news for workers but unfortunately in many cases the gain on the swings is being offset by the losses on the roundabouts through the highest rate of inflation in the UK for a decade and in the US for thirty years, leading to a US net decline in wages of 1.2 percent (cnb.cx/3clYFiK).

Even so, employers are currently on the back foot as they try to increase profits with a workforce that stubbornly won’t play ball, so we should expect an epidemic of strikes in the next year or so as workers organise to press their collective advantage.

Elle Hunt does not tell us whether she’s planning to ditch her job as a journalist, however she does end with ‘The key, at this crucial juncture, is for all workers to align as a class of people’. Unfortunately she envisages this emerging class consciousness as serving only to ‘keep up the pressure on employers to make work work for us’. This is neither ambitious nor even realistic given that all profit derives from the exploitation of workers’ unpaid labour, so capitalist employment can never be made to ‘work for us’ but only for the bosses. While capitalism exists, workers are always going to be hamsters on a wheel, turning over profits as fast as they can.

So what are we to make of tang ping, anti-work and the mutterings of workers who sense they are in a strong position for once? Well, it’s a long way from revolutionary class consciousness. They’re not generally talking about getting off the hamster wheels for good, just about turning them a tad more slowly, or insisting on nicer-looking wheels and maybe better quality hamster food. And it may only be temporary. Once capitalism swings back into full operation, employers will return to grinding down workers’ pay, undermining class solidarity and stepping up their state and media propaganda against unions and opposition to capitalism. Meanwhile in China, anyone ‘lying flat’ may well find a tank rolling over them at some point.

But it’s all a step in the right direction. Workers need to be doing this, questioning their miserable existence in capitalism and asking what is the point of it all. And the fact that young people are doing just that is evidence for what socialists have always said, which is that, despite what you might think from the propaganda-wash of the movies and the media and the ‘official discourse’, capitalism never really wins the argument for capitalism because the everyday experience of it is viscerally hated by workers, even if they don’t always recognise or acknowledge the fact and they often have a tendency to blame the wrong things.

Something else we always say, which any aspiring slackers should note, is that work is not the same thing as employment. Employment in capitalism is, largely speaking, a useless waste of our lives in which, if we have any sense, we do as much slacking as we can. Bosses want as much work out of you for as little money as they can get away with paying. It’s only logical that you should aim to do the opposite. The class war exists whether you like it or not, and if you’re not actively fighting it, you’re passively losing it.

But work that you like and choose to do is a very different matter. Humans are not made to be idle. We’d get bored far too quickly. Idleness would be like a prison sentence. Anyone so jaded as to believe that humans hate work should see how eager young children are to help adults by doing whatever little jobs they can. In socialism there would be no lazy attitudes because ‘laziness’ is a construct of property societies that rely on forced labour and pour judgmental scorn on anyone who resists. And there would be no tang ping either, except at the end of the day when you’re lying down for a relaxing snooze after a nice day doing exactly what you wanted.
Paddy Shannon

Why do some Christians oppose vaccination? (2021)

From the December 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Some pastors call the Covid vaccination the ‘mark of the beast’, a biblical reference to the apocalypse. A Tennessee pastor who threatens to expel anyone who wears a mask to his church also discourages people from getting the vaccination, which he falsely claims contains aborted foetal tissue.

No wonder that white evangelicals are among the least vaccinated people. And no wonder that many in the vaccinated majority, increasingly angry with their unprotected fellow citizens, conclude that anti-vaccination evangelicals are just tools in the right-wing war on common sense and basic decency.

Yet the roots of vaccination hesitancy are much older and more interesting than that. Indeed, American scepticism of expert knowledge reaches back nearly three centuries, to a rebellion against religious authority.

During the first century of English settlement in North America, most colonists listened to university-educated pastors. Whether Congregationalist in Massachusetts or Anglican in Virginia, those pastors based their authority on their knowledge of Latin and Greek as well as of theology. Many dabbled in medicine. They were the experts.

But in the mid-1730s, charismatic preachers without college degrees suddenly drew huge crowds with harrowing tales of a furious God and wayward flocks. Embracing these revivals, the Rev. Jonathan Edwards of Massachusetts delivered one of the most famous sermons in American history, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (the title pretty much sums it up.)

The revivalists also denounced educated ministers as ‘unconverted’ impostors whose book learning led people away from real piety. One likened the regular clergy’s sermons to ‘rat poison’. Distressed by such attacks, Edwards pulled back from the fires he had stoked, calling for ‘humility and modesty’ in the face of conflicting views.

But the wounds of this religious revolution never healed. Unlike in crowded European countries, where congregants had to coexist, Americans kept spreading apart, moving west after 1800 and forming new churches that reproduced rather than resolved the bitter divisions that had begun back East.

As moderate Protestants began to stress the human capacity for progress with or without God’s help, wave after wave of revivals cast fresh doubt on anyone who claimed expert knowledge without divine inspiration.

New forms of fundamentalism emerged in the 1920s in response to Darwinian science and again in the 1970s in reaction to the women’s liberation and civil rights movements. While many Americans and Europeans drifted away from religion, except as a guide to moral conduct or a source of community, religious conservatives sustained the belief in God as an immanent presence in daily life — a power vastly superior to any kind of research or learning.

Some faith communities have embraced vaccinations and other medical breakthroughs, citing God’s benevolence and the golden rule. Yet modern evangelicals often see God as more stern than kind, encouraging a sense of epic conflict between the pious and the profane. And over the past few decades, evangelicals’ deep-seated distrust of society’s experts has merged with the increasingly nihilistic themes of the far right, creating a toxic disdain for science in general and public health in particular.

Covid and anti-vaxxers
Which brings us back to our troubled present. COVID-19 surges again due to vaccination hesitancy and growing hostility to basic safety precautions, while the experts throw up their hands. How can understanding the long history of anti-expertise help us overcome this deadly impasse?

To start, those of us who are vaccinated must accept that the non-vaccinated aren’t just political pawns for religiomaniacs like Brian Tamaki and Billy TK. Rather, they are bearers of a long and complicated history, one that has often enlivened our culture.

After all, the mid-18th century revivals that tore apart so many communities also helped prepare the colonists to defy the Church of England, and thus the British Empire during the American Revolution. The revivalism of the 19th century often inspired anti-slavery activism.

In non-pandemic times, a healthy scepticism of expertise has made the western hemisphere a place of free-thinkers and rule-breakers.

On that note, public health officials should more directly address faith communities, making clear that each church has a right to worship God according to its traditions and to question science when people’s lives are not in immediate danger. By taking that vital step across the great cultural divide, the experts can more effectively dispel the wild conspiracy theories swirling around the vaccines. They might even make the case that getting vaccinated is the moral choice, the kind, caring and Christian thing to do.

Many won’t listen. But some will, and fewer people will die.

In the end, we can all learn something from the Rev Edwards, who had the wisdom to step back from his longing for spiritual revival and speak instead to the simpler, humbler virtues of coming together in dark times.
Bruce Greville (New Zealand)

Proper Gander: Capturing The Christmas Spirit (2021)

The Proper Gander column from the December 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

Christmas began to edge into the shops around August, with the occasionally spotted box of mince pies on the shelves or roll of reindeer-themed wrapping paper by the checkouts. Once Halloween was out of the way, there was nothing to stop retailers going full-throttle with the pre-Crimbo drive for sales, starting with their festive advertising campaigns. Most of the big players launched theirs at the start of November, with online store Very getting in early a full 85 days before 25th December.

There’s something of an arms race around Christmas adverts, with each one aiming to be more glitzy or cosy or cute than the others. The most ambitious retailers use their adverts to make themselves seem like an integral part of the season. John Lewis, for example, pitches its campaign as something we’re supposed to eagerly look forward to in itself, which pundits are happy to buy into. ITV’s Good Morning Britain thought a sneak preview of it was worth interrupting a debate about Tory sleaze mid-flow, sparking a flurry of complaints. Advertising campaigns have aimed to make an impact on how we think of Christmas for a long time. The best example is Coca Cola’s 1931 campaign across billboards and in magazines, which fixed Father Christmas’s coat as being coloured red, whereas before he had a now-forgotten more varied wardrobe.

Many festive adverts don’t directly boast about the virtues of whatever’s on sale, but instead are little syrupy stories or showy song-and-dance numbers, such as Aldi’s condensed version of A Christmas Carol with animated fruit and veg and Asda’s tightly choreographed ice skating routine. Christmas adverts are meant to invoke a warm yuletide glow, which is then supposed to fire us up to head to whichever shop to buy our gifts and grub. The reasoning behind this strategy is that we don’t buy products for the product itself, but instead because of how the product makes us feel. This approach dates back at least to the work of propagandist Edward Bernays, who in late 1920s America used it to devise an advertising campaign for a brand of ‘feminist’ cigarettes. Women were encouraged to break the taboo of smoking in public, making an association between ciggies and feelings of independence and empowerment. And ever since, advertisers have been manipulating emotions and aspirations to sell products, and when else would it be more effective to do this than in the run-up to Christmas?

Bernays was a pioneer of the ‘woke’ advert, as he exploited first-wave feminism to flog commodities, in much the same way as Pepsi’s recent campaign insultingly used imagery from the Black Lives Matter protests. This kind of ‘woke’ advert latches and leeches onto a political issue, cynically using it to attract a target demographic of young socially aware consumers. Advertisers have seen what trends are stirring people up and want to channel some of their energy into purchases. Christmas isn’t really the time for getting on a soapbox, though, and so festive adverts are likely to avoid getting too political. Similarly, concerns about CO2 emissions and wasting resources tend to be put on hold during December’s spending spree, and none of this year’s crop of ads risked accusations of hypocrisy with an eco-friendly angle. Many were understandably built around the message of looking ahead to better days, with Tesco’s one making light of stock shortages and confirming that Father Christmas has been fully vaccinated against Covid. Amazon tried a more serious approach to real life with its mini-movie about a teenager whose mental health issues are eased when she receives a parcel in the post. Presumably, Amazon chose to present itself as a conduit for wellbeing to push away recent complaints about its hostile stance towards unionisation, its practice of destroying unsold goods and breaches of data processing laws.

The other, more commonly identified kind of ‘woke’ advert is one which attracts criticism from bitter right-wing trolls on social media because it doesn’t only depict white heterosexual people without disabilities. The trolls miss the point, though, which is that when advertisers emphasise diversity they are doing it to present their product in whatever way will make it most popular, and therefore profitable. These adverts are saying ‘Yay! People are different … but similar enough to buy THIS!’ What sales they lose from disgruntled whingers won’t matter compared to those they’ll gain from people taken in by businesses keen to appear progressive. Of this year’s Christmas adverts, John Lewis’s met with most online whining because it featured a black family.

Quality time with family and friends is a common theme, being the focus of adverts for Debenhams, Boots and House of Fraser, among others. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the festive season and its opportunity to spend time with loved ones, especially after the year we’ve just had. What taints that Christmassy feeling is when it gets twisted round and used to manipulate us, to channel money from our bank accounts to those of the elite. How this is done changes with the times, not only in what attitudes and outlooks are exploited in adverts, but also through the ever-evolving technology which the mass media relies on. TV is now less important to advertisers than social media, which comes with the lucrative advantage of beaming targeted ads straight into the laptops and smartphones we use to do our Christmas shopping.
Mike Foster

China’s never left the capitalist road (2021)

Book Review from the December 2021 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Communist Road to Capitalism. How Unrest and Containment Have Pushed China’s (R)evolution since 1949. By Ralf Ruckus, PM Press, 2021. 233pp.

The explicit thesis of this book, expressed in its title, is that post-1949 China was initially a communist (or socialist) society, later shifting to being capitalist, which it is now. This shift, according to the author, began to take place after the death of Mao, from 1978 onwards, and finally led to the firmly established form of capitalism that China has today under Xi Jinping. Regular readers of the Socialist Standard will immediately take issue with this characterisation on the grounds that, while China today is certainly capitalist (state capitalist), it has been ever since the Maoist takeover of the country in 1949 and, though it called itself socialist or communist, it was so in rhetoric alone. All that has changed since then is the way Chinese capitalism has been managed by its rulers and the country’s increasing integration into the world capitalist market.

Having said that, there is little in the book’s detailed analysis of the social and economic history of China over the last 70 years to argue with. Painstakingly documented and indexed and with an exhaustive bibliography, this ‘critical historiography’, as the author calls it, chronicles the ups and downs (mainly downs) of the China of this period and the dizzying movements and counter-movements of a state with countless changes of policy and practice in which those ruling it are struggling with one another and with their people for control and supremacy. It also gives us an intimate view of the harsh experience of life for most people in China during the whole of this period. The only trouble is that these people are said to have been living in socialism (‘actually existing socialism’) in the first part of the period, when it is clear from the author’s own account that they were living in a ruthless state-capitalist regime where the privileged few running the system had both wealth and power and the vast majority, both peasants and workers, lived in conditions of poverty and powerlessness, in which they often had cause to fear for their lives and their safety and there was torture, death and suffering for millions. The author himself quotes an estimate that, during the so-called Great Leap Forward (1958-61), anything from 15 to 45 million people died of famine. All this is as far as anything could be from the leaderless democratic society of voluntary work and free access to all goods and services that is socialism.

So why does the author insist that what existed in China in the first 30 years after Mao’s revolution was socialism? He does so because he is espousing the view often expressed by those on the left of capitalist politics (and indeed by many who see themselves as Marxist) that socialism can somehow be brought about by a violent revolution in which a minority establishes state control over a country and then rules by some form of central economic plan, even though they then effectively constitute a capitalist ruling class. This ignores the reality (clearly seen and expressed by Marx) that socialism is only possible in a situation of advanced capitalist development where workers can vote it into existence and then run it collectively and democratically. Just as in Russia in 1917, where workers were not in a position to do that and so all that could develop there was some form of capitalism, so in China too in 1949 it was inevitable that Mao’s regime could only develop along similar lines. And it did – and in a brutal and at times particularly horrendous way, as well illustrated throughout this book. It has been especially bad for minorities of various kinds whose treatment is described as ‘assimilation, control, surveillance and repression’.

In the book’s preface, the author states that his motive for writing it ‘is a desire and determination to overcome capitalist exploitation and all forms of oppression, as well as to learn from previous attempts to accomplish this goal (even if they failed)’. This is obviously a laudable aim, even if we would not share his view that what happened in China was any kind of genuine attempt to achieve what we would call socialism. But in the concluding section, entitled ‘Getting Over Actually Existing Socialism’, he does refer to the need ‘to transform and topple capitalism’ and to establish ‘a classless society without exploitation and oppression’. He heads one paragraph of this section ‘destroy national borders’ and states that ‘abolishing capitalism means abolishing it globally’. So though he insists on calling Maoist rule in China ‘socialism’, he does seem to be moving in the right direction and as he puts it himself, to be learning ‘from the pitfalls of this past experience’.

As for the future of China itself (referred to by its current regime as ‘The Harmonious Socialist Society’), the author refers to the regime’s ‘astonishing ability to deal with social and political unrest, while retaining a certain level of popular support’. However, he seems hopeful, despite increasingly authoritarian rule, enhanced repression and ‘the criminalization of open disagreement and discontent’ (described by one writer as ‘terror capitalism’), that the social unrest this is likely to cause may lead to more enlightened government policies or at least a relaxation of repression. As the author details in the course of this book, such unrest has sometimes had beneficial effects for workers (who now constitute the majority of the Chinese population) and he draws a parallel with ‘the late 1980s in Eastern Europe’ where ‘we have seen other seemingly stable regimes crumble’. What is certain is that ‘belt and road’ China’s increasing integration into world capitalism and the need this generates for the free expression of ideas and invention for economic development to proceed are in the long term incompatible with an anti-democratic, socially repressive, one-party form of government.
Howard Moss

Voice From The Back: Knowledge is power (1999)

The Voice From The Back Column from the March 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Knowledge is power

“Evolution,” says the message from the Alabama State board of education, “is a controversial theory some scientists present as scientific explanation for the origin of living things such as plants, animals and humans . . .” New York Times, 24 November.

The promise—

Mr Raynsford, MP for Greenwich, said that begging was the most disgraceful indictment of the present [Conservative] government’s policies. “Our task has got to be to eliminate begging in London and create a memory of how bad life was in the late 80s and early 90s.” Camden New Journal, 7 July 1994.

—The reality

Beggars who exploit youngsters to raise money face having their children taken into care, the [Labour] Government is warning. Ministers [including Nick Raynsford, Minister for London] are worried about the huge upsurge in street beggars using their offspring in an effort to extract cash from passers-by. Police and local social services departments are being told to intervene in such cases. Sunday Telegraph, 3 January 1999.

Strategic class war

Midland-based engineering giants Rolls-Royce today warned it could move production to America if Britain introduces costly new labour laws . . . Speaking at a business lunch in Sydney, Australia, Sir Ralph [Robins] said that social costs made it 30 percent more expensive to manufacture in Europe. “The last thing we want is the on-costs associated with the social costs of Europe,” he said. “But I don’t see any signs of it happening and the current government is not going down that path. But we will progressively move work to the United States if we find ourselves disadvantaged by those sort of social costs,” he said. Birmingham Evening Mail, 25 November.

How wealth divides the world

Here are some pretty amazing facts from the United Nations Human Development Report of 1998: The world consumed more than $24 trillion in goods and services last year, six times the figure for 1975. Of the world’s 6.8 billion people, 4.4 billion live in developing countries, the rest in rich industrial or transition countries. The three richest people in the world own assets that exceed the combined gross products of the world’s poorest 48 countries. Among the 4.4 billion people who live in developing countries, three-fifths have no access to basic sanitation; almost one-third are without safe drinking water; one-quarter lack adequate housing; one-fifth live beyond reach of modern health services; one fifth of the children do not get as far as grade five in school and one fifth are undernourished. Basic education for all would cost $6 billion a year—$8 billion is spent annually for cosmetics in the United States alone. Installation of water and sanitation for all would cost $9 billion plus some annual costs–$11 billion is spent annually on ice cream in Europe. Reproductive health services for women would cost $12 billion a year—$12 billion a year is spent on perfumes in Europe and the United States. Basic health care and nutrition would cost $13 billion—$17 billion a year is spent on pet food in Europe and the United States. $35 billion is spent on business entertainment in Japan; $50 billion on cigarettes in Europe; $400 billion on narcotic drugs around the world; and $780 billion on the world’s militaries. Washington Post, 2 December.

New Labour, old capitalism

On Monday, the new president of the Confederation of British Industry told his members that the greatest threat to British business was red tape. “Excessive regulation,” he said, would “suffocate the golden goose.” He singled out trade union recognition, the minimum wage and the Working Time Directive as measures which would “darken the business horizon” . . . but one speaker went further than most. We need, he told the conference, to hooting applause, “greater labour market flexibility” and “increasing capital market liberalisation”. The government must create “the most business friendly environment in the world”. Even bankruptcy should cease to be stigmatised. The speaker was the [then] Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, Peter Mandelson, Guardian, 5 November.

Pollution and profits

British Steel last night urged the Chancellor to exempt it from the proposed carbon energy tax designed to meet the Kyoto target of reducing greenhouse gases by 12.5 percent by 2012. It said the tax would undermine its competitiveness, putting plants and jobs at risk. Guardian, 28 January.

How could they!

Companies will be warned this week that they could be subjected to devastating computer hacking attacks from disgruntled employees who face the sack as part of cost-cutting programmes. Experts say that employees with only limited knowledge of computers are now able to download hacking programmes from thousands of illicit Internet sites around the world and use them to wreak havoc on their employers’ computer networks. In one recent case, an employee who feared he would lose his job used a hacking program to wipe his employer’s central computer database after his name was erased from the payroll list. Times, 26 October.

Editorial: A leader gets lost (1999)

Editorial from the March 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

So one of our leaders is to quit. The era of Paddy Ashdown has ended. The capitalist media predictably wailed at the loss of such a fine leader. What a loss to “the nation” the man will be! The man of action seems to have astounded British newspapers by his personal energy levels but such energy hardly constitutes great achievement since it is exhibited by thousands of men and women.

When you look beneath the hype Ashdown’s achievement as a leader was superficial, since he did not achieve the ultimate goal of leaders—power. Ashdown, unlike Blair, was never in a position to flounder around in the anarchy of capitalism’s cesspit trying to control the uncontrollable. The only real power the Blairs of this world have, as leaders, is to create scapegoats for their own failures to control capitalism. So the one-parent family, the unwaged, the homeless, the wage slave, and their demands, all are seen as demons trying to destroy the good work of the leaders of the nation. So they must be sorted.

Of course “the nation” has other sets of leaders; for instance the bishops and the Windsors, who are farcical in their prancings and pronouncements but devoid of any real power to affect the lives of the people. Not so the political leaders. Their fatuous pronouncements often have disastrous effects on those scapegoats they have decided should be picked on for a week or two (usually ably assisted by the capitalist press).

This is not a new phenomenon. It is a mark of leadership wherever it has reared its ugly head. Just like the fox who is blamed for ruining the country way of life and is hounded to death by the leaders of that way of life, so the scapegoats of capitalism are sometimes hounded to death to preserve the nation. Hitler the Leader or, in German, the Führer.

Since Ashdown never reached the dizzy heights of Blair he can only be looked upon as one of capitalism’s failures. His sexual meanderings entertained the wage slaves for a short while (just as randy Bill’s are entertaining now, as long as you are not immediately involved) but it is not a lot to be proud of, since there are far better comedians to entertain.

The only way for humanity is to step aside from the vicious deception of leaders and their telling us what we need. For that to happen the majority need to become conscious of their real interests. A socialist revolution, a democratic revolution without leaders, is an urgent necessity—before leaders lead us nowhere, or worse.

The wasted century (1999)

From the March 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

According to the UN, now at the end of the 20th century, of the world’s population of some 6 billion, over one billion lack access to safe drinking water while 800 million don’t get enough food.

Why is this? Is it because we don’t have the resources to produce the extra food, pipes and pumps, and health facilities? No, since the resources are there. Here are the views of two prominent scientists:
“Industry’s problem will be to find sources of energy which are inexhaustible and can be restored with a minimum of effort. Until now we have produced steam with the help of chemical energy released by burning coal: but coal is difficult to mine and its deposits decrease from day to day. Man should turn his thoughts to the utilisation of solar heat and heat from the earth’s interior. There is reason to hope that both sources will be used boundlessly. To bore a well of 3,000 to 4,000 metres is not beyond the powers of present-day engineers, let alone those of the future. The source of all heat and of all industry will thus be unlocked and if water is taken into consideration as well, all imaginable machinery on earth could operate, and there would not be any noticeable decrease in this source of energy in hundreds of years”.
“It is the energy of the sun, stored up in coal, in waterfalls, in food, that practically does all the work of the world. How great is the supply the sun lavishes upon us becomes clear when we consider that the heat received by the earth under a high sun and a clear sky is equivalent, according to the measurements of Langley, to about 7,000 horse-power per acre. Though our engineers have not yet discovered how to utilise this enormous supply of power, they will, I have not the slightest doubt, ultimately succeed in doing so; and when coal is exhausted and our water-power inadequate, it may be that this is the source from which we derive the energy necessary for the world’s work”.
These statements, however, are not recent. The first dates from 1894, from a speech by the French chemist, Marcelin Bertholet; the second from the inaugural address to the 1909 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science by Sir Joseph Thomson, physicist and Nobel Prize winner. (Both were quoted by the German Social Democrat [August Bebel] in the last edition of his book Women and Socialism in 1912, part of which was translated into English in 1971 under the title Society of the Future).

What these statements show is that, at the beginning of this century, humanity possessed the knowledge of how to harness natural resources so as to have produced enough to adequately feed, clothe and shelter the entire world’s population. But it didn’t happen of course. Capitalism existed then just as much as it does today, and the aim of capitalism is not to satisfy people’s needs or raise their standard of living.

The driving force of capitalism is to make a profit for those who own and control the means of living so that they can further increase their wealth by accumulating it in the form of additional capital. This does lead to an increase in productive capacity and, in some parts of the world, has led to increased living standards. But nobody can claim—the UN statistics quoted at the beginning show this—that capitalism has been able to produce and distribute enough so that every man, woman and child on this planet is adequately fed, clothed and sheltered.

If the common ownership and democratic control of the world’s resources had been established at the turn of the century—and there was no reason why it couldn’t have been had a majority in Europe and America so wanted—then the production of food and basic amenities would soon have been increased and no one would have died this century from starvation or poverty-related disease.

Instead, capitalism continued, and not only did millions die of starvation and preventable disease but millions more died in two world wars and a non-stop stream of smaller localised wars, fought out between capitalist states over trade routes, markets, investment outlets and sources of raw materials. Millions more died as victims of colonial oppression or in concentration and slave labour camps run by dictatorial regimes such as those of Stalin and Hitler.

All this was unnecessary. It could have been avoided. But it wasn’t. The big question now is: will humanity waste the 21st century in the same way that the 20th century was?
Adam Buick

American “prosperity” (1999)

From the March 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Are most Americans prosperous? Are they “middle class”? Is the United States “a nation of shareholders”? Do most Americans actually have a stake in the country?

Despite popular belief, most Americans—members of the working class—are not rich; and, over the last ten years, their living standards have deteriorated quite dramatically. John Schmitt, economist with the Economic Policy Institute in Washington DC, writing in the Guardian (18 January) exposes the myth of American prosperity. For example, he mentions that despite the hype, most Americans do not own any shares:
“According to most recent available data from the Federal Reserve, 60 percent of households in 1995 did not own shares, directly or indirectly, including the US equivalent of unit trusts and pension funds. Many of those who do own shares own very few.”
About 72 percent of American households had direct or indirect ownership, or holdings, worth less than 5,000 dollars. During the 1980s, shareholdings rose quite dramatically, but from very low levels. Professor Edward Wolff has suggested that between 1989 and 1997, shareholdings more than doubled; but “the typical US household held only $7,800 in all forms of investment. And in 1997, the top one percent owned shares worth $2.5 million, while the next nine percent held shares valued at $275,000”. However, a typical household’s assets (such as the house in which they lived, and its contents) were worth about $90,000.

Against this Schmitt notes that:
“Debt levels have rocketed. Between 1989 and 1997 the typical household’s debts rose $8,200, after adjusting for inflation. The increase in debt exceeded the total value of the same household’s shares at the end of the period.”
Furthermore, against the apparent assets of many American workers, their liabilities in the form of mortgages on houses and apartments, car loans and numerous credit card debts, demonstrate that they are not only largely propertyless in the means of living, but are permanently in debt. With the recent crisis in world capitalism, and its increasing effect in North America, the situation for most American workers may well get worse in the near future.

Prosperous they ain’t!
Peter E. Newell

City of despair (1999)

From the March 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

“The Japanese city of Osaka looks like a scene from a grainy black and white film about the Great Depression,” writes Leeroy Betti in the Western Australian (6 January). “Scores of cardboard and plastic shanties line the footpaths for block after block.” Thousands of men stand around open fires, many offering all kinds of rubbish for sale; others arrive as early at 5am outside the Imamiya Labour Centre, hoping to find jobs for building projects.

Officially, unemployment in Japan is 4.4 percent, or just on three million, but, says Betti, “the real jobless rate could be closer to 12 percent, according to some US economists”. And, he continues, “as the worst recession in Japan’s postwar history bites deeper, construction jobs, like those in other sectors, have dried up”. Moreover, many company executives are concerned at losing their jobs.

Betti concludes:
“As Japanese authorities search optimistically for signs that the economy will bottom out in 1999, its ninth year of stagnation, they could be caught unprepared for a burgeoning social crisis among those for whom time, hope and money already has run out.”
They may be whistling in the wind. Production in Japan, as elsewhere, is not geared for the satisfaction of people’s needs (Japanese workers need new homes while construction workers stand idle in Osaka), but with a view to profit for those who own the means of production. And without the likelihood of a profit, production will be curtailed or, ultimately, cease altogether, resulting in a surplus of the means of production and commodities on the one hand, and a surplus of unused labour-power, and mass unemployment, on the other. Indeed, in Japan, again as elsewhere in much of the world, too many commodities have been produced, not as compared with the actual needs of the overwhelming majority of the people but compared with their purchasing power. And workers in Japan, as well as Korea, Malaysia, Russia, and now Brazil, are discovering the hard way.

Is it not more than time that they organised to replace the chaotic, planless, society of capitalism with one in which rational planning, and the satisfaction of needs, social and individual, are paramount?
Peter E. Newell

Trouble at the mill (1999)

Theatre Review from the March 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Hindle Wakes by Stanley Houghton. Royal Exchange, Manchester

When first produced in 1912 Hindle Wakes soon found itself the centre of controversy. Watch Committees up and down the country censoriously voiced their disapproval; the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University tried to have the play banned from Oxford theatres, and failing this he succeeded in placing theatres “out of bounds” to the university population. As against this the Suffragette Movement took the play to their hearts and famously interrupted a production attended by Lloyd George.

It is easy to understand why the play should produce such reactions. Given the intense feelings of the time for and against women’s suffrage, any play which affirmed women’s right to choose was likely to be contentious. And this one, which used commonly spoken Lancashire speech rather than standard English, and which suggested that women as well as men might occasionally fancy a sexy weekend, was always likely to produce an exceptional furore. Still it was good for business. The programme reveals that in its first year it received over 2,000 separate productions in Britain and America alone. By this standard Lloyd Webber’s mind-numbing musicals will have to play for decades to reach the same number of people.

The story is simply told. Fanny who like her father works at the local cotton mill, spends a wakes week (holiday) weekend in Llandudno with the owner’s already engaged son, Alan. Their tryst is discovered, and the boy’s father insists that his son does the “right” thing and marry Fanny; a sentiment which is echoed by his disappointed fiancée who even concedes that Fanny now has more “right” to be his wife than she does. All seems settled when, out of the blue, we are presented with one of those wonderful dramatic moments when against expectations the plot line is turned on its head. Instead of talking about Fanny’s interests someone is bold enough to ask her what she thinks. Consternation and surprise: Fanny has no intention of marrying her errant swain. She likes him fine, but only as he liked her: as a casual lover.

It is always fascinating to monitor the reaction of audiences to “slice-of-life” plays like this. Things which might have offended or unnerved grandparents and great grandparents are seen as comic and absurd. Most people watch plays about the past conscious only of their own beliefs and opinions, little understanding that—given the spirit of the times—their own long-dead relatives were in fact behaving much as they themselves would behave today. Many in the audience laughed comfortably. How odd these people from another age seemed—what extraordinary attitudes. Yet although things have changed, much is still the same. Certainly women have the vote, but by almost any measure they still suffer institutional discrimination. And men continue to be demeaned. They are still seen as largely out of control of their sexual emotions; powerless in the face of their untrammelled sexual desires, victims of women of easy virtue.

The play has some powerful things to say about life in Britain at the turn of the century, and it says them engagingly and amusingly. Both its use of vernacular language and its examination of the cant and hypocrisy of contemporary sexual mores make for an entertaining and stimulating couple of hours. And in the light and airy Exchange Theatre, now delightfully restored following the IRA bombing of Manchester, the cast achieve a honesty of characterisation that adds conviction and credibility to the action.

But at the end, with Fanny triumphant, I imagined another play dedicated not so much to the independence of women as to the emancipation of the whole human race. I saw some latter-day Fanny, and her comrade Freddy, telling those who wished to continue to exploit and diminish them, that they had no intention of remaining the willing victims of their continuing imprisonment: that instead of deferring to their economic lords and masters they were intent on taking their own decisions, in their own interests, and in the interests of the generations still to come.

Now there’s a play that needs to be written. A play for today and tomorrow, showing evidence of a clear understanding of the past and the present.
Michael Gill

Greasy Pole: Byers Market (1999)

Byers before New Labour called.
The Greasy Pole column from the March 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Perhaps it was because he feared that Blair is coming across too effectively that William Hague complained in Prime Minister’s Questions about whether a British Prime Minister should spend time solemnly discussing a barmy football coach’s religion. Perhaps it was because Blair realised uncomfortably that the Tory leader had a point that made him react so sourly: he could scarcely believe, he snarled, that Hague had raised the matter—ignoring the fact that he had been the first to try to exploit that particular piece of mind-numbing triviality.

This may have been entertaining to football obsessives or students of the techniques of spin doctoring but it obscured the fact that this government came to power on promises to be something new, to so change the capitalist system that it actually worked in a way which had never been experienced before—that is to say in the interests of the majority of its people. That is what politics should be about; it is what should concern people when they vote at an election. On that basis, a more interesting and significant statement was recently (on 2 February) made by Stephen Byers, who took over as Minister for Trade and Industry when Peter Mandelson had to resign over the little matter of borrowing a lot of money to buy an exceedingly posh house.

When Byers got his promotion there may have been a few traditionalists in the party still clinging to the delusion that their party in power really could change how this society operates. They may have hoped, remembering that Byers was once well known as a stroppy leftist local councillor, that he would regard it as a priority to use the power of his new job to bring about that redistribution of wealth which the Labour Party were supposed to stand for. They would have been as disappointed.
“The reality [said Byers] is that wealth creation is now more important than wealth redistribution . . . Governments should not hinder (entrepreneurs) but work to ensure the market functions properly and contributes to creating a strong, just and fair society . . . I firmly believe that the best way to address inequality and social exclusion is to create a more affluent, more successful Britain with opportunities for everyone to fulfil their potential.”
Byers was sharing his thoughts on how to make everyone rich—although some rather richer than others—with a gathering of business people in the Mansion House, in the very heart of the City. We must also understand that this latest exponent of the “trickle down” theory of wealth distribution has recently been through the familiar process which renders the wildest and most romantic left wingers tamely compliant to the demands of capitalism as soon as they get a sniff of power.

But what happened when, a few days after making this speech, he had an opportunity to put into practise his new-favoured theories about leaving the market to work its own way without any interference from the government? On 5 February the news broke that the German car manufacturer BMW, which also owns the Rover car company in England, was considering the closure of the Rover plant in Longbridge which would put about 14,000 people out of work and affect tens of thousands in ancillary firms largely dependent on Rover as their market. The Rover plant is under threat because it was heading to make a loss of up to £400 million this year, after an investment by BMW of £2.5 billion not to mention the buying price of £800 million.

With the market for cars looking close to saturation it seems good sense for BMW to close Longbridge; after all, like any other company they are in business to make profits and not to give charity to thousands of workers or to make life easier for a minister in the British government. As an admirer of the way market forces operate Byers should have greeted this news with enthuisism. But tens of thousands unemployed workers are not fertile electoral material. And what kind of start would he have made in his new job if his message to those unemployed was that they were the inevitable victims of economic forces which, they would eventually agree, work to the benefit of us all?

So Byers forgot what he had said at the Mansion House and he intervened with BMW, to try to affect the way in which the car market is operating. “I intend to talk to Professor Milberg (the new chairman of BMW) this weekend,” he droned, “to stress to him the importance that the Government attaches to Rover and Longbridge. The Government has a very constructive relationship with BMW . . .” If BMW agreed to keep the plant open Byers will provide financial help to modernise it. Then he will be free to make another speech, stressing how vital it is for governments to be always ready to intervene if they are likely to get some bad publicity—and antagonise a lot of voters–through the closure of a factory which is losing money.

And if he does speak like that we may be sure he will not mention another way in which the market operates. Many recent surveys on the effects of poverty in the family have highlighted the fact that parents often go without food in order to make sure their children have something to eat. Almost without exception they say that they can rarely afford meat. The Guardian of 6 February had something to say about another side of this. Their reporter John Vidal went to see how hill farmers, who raise sheep, get on with the market for their produce. One farmer described the situation as “all doom and gloom” because prices are so low that he can hardly give away his animals. He had just tried to sell some at rock bottom prices only to be told that he would have to pay to have them taken off his hands. Another farmer told Vidal that in some cases sheep were being slaughtered and buried rather than trying to sell them. So while families suffer through being unable to afford perfectly good meat, edible sheep are being wasted—and all in the service of the market which Byers thinks is such a logical, useful safeguard of our welfare.

Even in the face of this we should not assume that Byers does not understand how capitalism works—how it can only operate on the basis of producing wealth for sale at a profit and not on meeting the needs of human beings. We should not assume that he is unaware of the fact that if profits cannot be made production stops and workers are thrown out of jobs. We should not assume that when he was drivelling on about the importance of creating wealth as distinct from its redistribution he was in ignorance of the fact that the wealth creators are the working class, who need to be employed in order to live and who in their jobs are exploited and degraded and then, if the wealth they have created cannot be sold at a profit, are deprived of that livelihood. Any militant leftist will have discussed these issues to the point of exhaustion. Byers now behaves as if he was never concerned. This may be seen as his achievement. Or it may turn out to be his insuperable problem.