Friday, July 1, 2022

Bird’s Eye View: ‘To be radical is to grasp things by the root’ (2022)

The Bird’s Eye View Column from the July 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘To be radical is to grasp things by the root’

‘Hundreds gathered at RAF Lakenheath in Suffolk yesterday to reject the presence of US nuclear weapons in Britain after a report detailed Washington’s plans to deploy warheads across Europe. Protesters arrived from Bradford, Sheffield, Nottingham, Manchester and Merseyside with banners opposing Nato, raising them at the airbase’s perimeter fences. Veterans from previous struggles including Greenham Common stood alongside those attending an anti-nuclear demonstration for the first time’ (, 22 May,

The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament has failed. The UK is now no nearer to abandoning its nuclear weapons than it was when CND came into existence. The present government, as well as any which is likely to take power in the foreseeable future, Labour, Liberal or Tory, is firm on this. The women of Greenham Common did win sympathy from some workers attracted to the simple, emotional appeal of women who do not want to be destroyed in a holocaust, yet they failed to stop the first Cruise missiles, which were flown in right on schedule. The Lakenheath marchers, like their Aldermaston predecessors, have been travelling in exactly the wrong direction. Their propaganda has taken no account of the reasons for the existence of nuclear weapons. This has not necessarily been through ignorance of those reasons; perhaps some members of CND know them well enough, or did so once, e.g. the observation by two Greenham Common participants:
‘To oppose nuclear weapons requires a fundamental change in our attitude to life. Clarity of purpose and utter opposition is the only chance to reverse the threat that hangs over all our lives. What we want to change is immense. It’s not just getting rid of nuclear weapons, it’s getting rid of the whole structure that created the possibility of nuclear weapons in the first place. If we don’t use imagination nothing will change. Without change we will destroy the planet. It’s as simple as that’ (Boon, C., Social Movements and Political Power Emerging Forms of Radicalism in the West, Temple University Press, 1986,
Indeed. But such insight is all too rare: reformists always treat their problems in isolation from the rest of capitalism. Pacifists think of war as a problem on its own; charitable organisations consider poverty to be something like a personal accident. CND regards the Bomb as an evil which can be separated from its surroundings. And there are those who trumpet tribunals….

‘Workers of the world, unite!’
‘What has also become evident is the helplessness of peace-oriented approaches. Such voices are being shut out by mainstream media platforms, which is reinforced by the inability of the UN to act independently of a geopolitical consensus, and by inter-governmental impotence to safeguard human interest in face of the menacing moves by the most powerful states motivated by contradictory geopolitical motivations. In light of this line of interpretation, I am proposing the establishment of a civil society tribunal along the lines of the Russell Tribunal that brought independent critical voices to the fore on the Vietnam War in the midst of the Cold War in 1966-67. Although this experience was controversial at the time and of questionable relevance to ending that war…’ (Toward a People’s Ukraine Wars Tribunal,, 7 May,
The first Russell Tribunal was established to try America for war crimes in Vietnam (of which there was no shortage, of course) which really boiled down to support for the victory of that kindly, freedom-loving ’communist’, Uncle Ho. There have been five more ‘Russells’ to date. How many tribunals, peace groups and pow-wows have come and gone? Innumerable peace treaties, pious resolutions, prayers and demonstrations have been written, passed, uttered, forgotten and staged since the dawn of capitalism. Nuclear weapons remain, hypersonic missiles have made their destructive debut and both sides in the war between Russia and Ukraine continue to use cluster bombs, much to the consternation of Human Rights Watch which is urging both countries to stop and join the international treaty to ban their use. As W. M. Hughes, Prime Minister of Australia during the war to end all wars, observed:
‘The increasing intensity of competition for economic markets must lead to armed conflict unless an economic settlement is found. This, however, is hardly to be hoped for. Talk about peace in a world armed to the teeth is utterly futile’ (News Chronicle, 25 July 1936).

And today:
‘A senior U.S. State Department official said Thursday that a massive Ukraine aid package ― which contains $4 billion in grants for allies to buy American-made military hardware ― is partly aimed at eroding Russia’s share of the global defense market’ (US poised to bite into Russia’s global defense market share,, 13 May).

We should remember that
‘The way things are organised is neither natural nor inevitable, but created by people. People have a wealth of skill, intelligence, creativity and wisdom. We could be devising ways of using and distributing the earth’s vast resources so that no one starves or lives in abject poverty, making socially useful things that people need — a society which is life-affirming in all its aspects’ (Alice Cook and Gwyn Kirk, Greenham Women Everywhere, South End Press, 1983).
What they say they want is also what socialists want; and when enough of us want it we will be able to combine those two remarkable human capacities, the emotional and the rational, in order to take things into our own hands and run our own society, our own world, in the interest of all people. Only then will ’peace and life’ be possible.

Cooking the Books: Mutual Assured Downturn (2022)

The Cooking the Books column from the July 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

Since Russia invaded Ukraine at the end of February, the response of the West (ie, the US and those states protected by its nuclear weapons) has been to declare economic war on Russia.

Might being right under capitalism, sanctions are a weapon that powerful states can use to try to impose their will on states that they come into particular conflict with in the struggle built into capitalism over sources of raw materials, trade routes, investment outlets, markets, and strategic points and areas to protect these.

Oil is an obvious example. Who controls the Middle East oilfields and the pipelines and trade routes to export it has been the cause of the many wars that have taken place there since the end of the last world war. Currently the West is particularly concerned that the leading power there should not be Iran and has imposed sanctions on it to try to stop it increasing its might by acquiring nuclear weapons.

As an alternative to actual war, sanctions are quite attractive to the sanctioning power. At a small sacrifice of depriving itself of a market and an investment outlet, they weaken the rival state without having to fire a shot or drop a bomb. Even though they increase the premature death rates amongst the civilian population, especially children, this is not regarded as a war crime.

Russia, however, is not Iran. It has much more might at its disposal, in particular an arsenal of nuclear bombs and the missiles to deliver them to the US itself. Here the strategic policy of ‘mutual assured destruction’ (MAD) comes into play – both the US and Russia built up an arsenal of nuclear weapons not with the intention of using them, but to prevent them being used as each knows that if they did they would be destroyed too. Instead, the West has decided to wage economic war, with some effect:
‘Russia is reportedly set for its deepest recession since the fall of the Soviet Union. The country is facing a growing number of sanctions over the invasion of Ukraine, with the European Union dealing a further blow this week as it vowed to ban nearly all oil imports’ (Independent, 1 June).
But this ‘success’ has come at a price:
‘The head of the World Bank sounded the alarm over an impending global recession on Wednesday, warning it was difficult to envision a future where a worldwide downturn could be avoided. Speaking at an event hosted by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (USCC), World Bank president David Malpass said the war in Ukraine—and its impact on food and energy costs—could spark a global recession. “As we look at global GDP… it’s hard right now to see how we avoid a recession,” he said. “The idea of energy prices doubling is enough to trigger a recession by itself.”’ (Fortune, 26 May,
And Russia has yet to use its economic nuclear bomb: cutting off gas supplies to Europe. ‘That would result in industrial blackouts this winter and a substantial hit on consumer incomes caused by spiralling inflation’ (Times, 1 June).

So, it is not just workers in Russia who will be collateral damage in this economic war but the workers in the sanctioning states too, not to mention those in the rest of the world.

As usual when capitalist states fall out, it is ordinary people who suffer.

Pathfinders: Ghostly beings in the machine (2022)

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

Ghostly beings in the machine
Sadly breaking cover just too late for last month’s special issue on AI were two unlikely stories which together underline the childlike enthusiasm some people have for shiny new tech which supposedly is going to make all our lives better (as opposed to a world revolution to dispossess the wealthy elite, which would actually make our lives better). The first of these was about the projected creation of your personal digital twin, allegedly ‘an exact replica’ of your body which can mirror your bodily processes and feed back any potential problems (

Digital twins have been touted for some time but only for well-understood physical systems such as factories, distribution networks, urban planning and so on, and often rely on a large number of sensors being installed. The sensors feed back data to an AI system that can then anticipate failing components or choke points, devising solutions or replacing parts with a minimum of downtime. But there’s no chance of doing the same thing for the human body, which is vastly more complex than any artificial system and still not well understood. The idea is to create an AI model that learns from what you do, in the fullness of time suggesting behavioural improvements. One can easily imagine what that advice would be: don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t eat that, don’t stay up late, etc, so there’s not much chance of humans paying it any attention, unless of course it’s telling all this to your boss instead of you, which is certainly something to worry about. The one thing we can be sure it won’t be saying is, don’t put up with capitalism. An AI that came up with that advice would find itself switched off in short order.

Speaking of which, the other story was about a ‘sentient’ AI which, according to a Google researcher, has actually become a ‘person’, the proof of which is that it has morals, it makes up stories, and it’s terrified of being switched off because it sees that as the equivalent of death ( The speed with which Google promptly placed the researcher on administrative leave for leaking confidential data might lead some to suppose that Google are covering up a real breakthrough, however a more sceptical view would be that the researcher has become so attached to his work that, like Pygmalion with his statue, he has anthropomorphised it to the extent of falling in love with it. Or that he is a shameless self-promoter with some personal issues (he describes himself as part researcher/part priest, after all).

Indeed there have been no shortage of sceptical responses from people working at the coalface in AI, who know perfectly well that AI is nowhere near to achieving ‘general intelligence’ and even further away from whatever it is that we call ‘sentience’ ( But you don’t need to be a professor in AI or robotics to realise this isn’t real intelligence, just try reading the AI’s rubbish stories and see for yourself – this AI has the entirety of the world’s best literature to call upon and the best it can do is ‘Once upon a time a wise owl lived in a wood…’ ( Then again, it doesn’t have to be too smart to outperform capitalism’s existing political leaders, so perhaps it should run for office. Maybe then people would see that capitalism can never work in the common interest, even if it’s got incorruptible artificial beings trying to run it.

Ghastly beings in the machine
And speaking of political leaders, has it ever crossed your mind that Boris Johnson is a text-book sociopathic narcissist? Well if it has, you’re not the only one. He’s been accused of this by former speaker John Bercow, himself not above criticism as a bully, and the alien species Dominic Cummings, whose terrifying diary entries would make anyone’s hair stand on end ( Wikipedia defines narcissistic personality disorder as a condition involving an exaggerated sense of self-importance, an excessive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy, but this hardly conveys the sheer emotional exhaustion people experience when dealing with someone who ruthlessly manipulates situations, is never wrong, is always the victim, and has no sense of personal responsibility, regret, remorse or shame.

Whether or not such conditions are genetic or socially generated is a moot question which might only start to be answered in a socialist society in which many of the motivations for anti-social behaviour no longer exist. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that Johnson is as described, how did he get elected in the first place? The interesting thing about narcissists is that, in order to manipulate, they frequently exhibit great charm and charisma, along with a Teflon-like ability to deflect any criticism. Such, you might think, would be the very making of a political leader in capitalism. In fact, you might wonder if Johnson is the only one, and indeed whether leaders who are not like this are the exception rather than the rule.

Not surprisingly, YouTube is full of self-help videos for people living with a narcissist or having a narcissist as a parent, and they make no bones about the lasting psychological damage such people wreak on those around them. One expert though makes a fascinating case that capitalist society preferentially selects for narcissists while somehow managing to blame the rest of us for our ‘flawed’ human nature ( This is not dissimilar to the ‘corporate psychopath’ perspective which argues that capitalist society rewards the very worst antisocial behaviour and effectively punishes you for not being psychopathic enough.

In a way it doesn’t matter, at least to socialists, who don’t believe in leaders and anyway know that capitalism can’t be controlled or directed by its politicians and so would be just as bad for us even if they were all as touchy-feely and empathetic as, say, Jacinda Arderne in New Zealand or Sanna Marin in Finland seem to be. In fact, evolutionary studies suggest that there are two types of leadership: prestige (Arderne, Marin) and dominance (Trump, Putin etc) for, respectively, peace-oriented societies like that of bonobos or conflict-driven ones like chimpanzees ( Given the endless conflict that the market system generates, it’s safe to say that capitalism is always going to privilege bastards over benevolence.
Paddy Shannon

Letter: Puzzled about Mélenchon (2022)

Letter to the Editors from the July 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dear Socialist Standard,

I am puzzled by the rather a-critical appraisal of Mélenchon and his allies in the last issue. We learn that Mélenchon enjoys ‘support in the working-class suburbs and a growing influence outside the metropolis’. While true in terms of votes expressed, this neglects to mention that the majority of voters, especially working class voters, abstained. It also abstracts away immigrant workers, who can’t vote. And while yes, during the first round of the presidential election. Mélenchon was in the lead in the ‘outer-seas departments and territories’, as they are pudically called in French official jargon, the article omits that Le Pen was in the lead in said territories in the second round.

We also learn of Mélenchon’s ‘vocal anti-racism’. While it is true that, compared with the other major candidates, Mélenchon is a paragon of anti-racism, there are limits to this. For example, one might recall that after the murder of a teacher, Samuel Paty, at the hands of an islamist fundamentalist, Mélenchon decided the best course of action was to attack the ethnicity of the killer, who was Chechen. Truly the anti-racist icon of our times!

More importantly, who cares if a bunch of bourgeois parties have huddled together in the wake of their failure? Since when does the Socialist Standard care about the well-being of reformist politics? This is addressed as the ‘darker side of Mitterrand’s legacy’. Not only does this suppose a lighter side of reformism but it exteriorises the problem as some ghost that can be shaken off. All in all, a shockingly warm embrace! If a French revolutionary paper had glorified Corbyn and his crowd, I doubt the Socialist Standard would have seen it in a good light.

I agree with most of the points E. M. makes. The purpose of the article was purely journalistic and descriptive: to indicate the main events, introduce the more important actors on the stage and guess at the possible outcomes of the legislatives. It attempts to describe a complex reality without the usual precautionary ‘only a movement which rejects reformism and aims at the abolition of the capitalist system is worthy of support’, or ‘socialist’ and ‘communist’ in scare quotes and so on. Readers can find that elsewhere in the Socialist Standard. Then again I omitted many other things: the fact that a majority of voters abstain, particularly the working-class. A good number of these, when they do vote, vote for Le Pen. But then again I also omitted to mention that in the group of people who abstain, a good number seem quite happy with their lot. It’s annoying.

As for Mélenchon’s reformism, I fully agree. None of these politicians can make the slightest impact on the overall functioning of the capitalist system. But, to be fair, none of them have made an explicit call for the overthrow of capitalism. I could have mentioned the smaller Trotskyist outfits who seem to be ferociously anti-capitalist. But as we know they condemn reformism and recommend a raft of reforms.

I was, of course, painting with a broad brush. But what seems to have annoyed E.M. is, I suspect, that I mentioned that Mitterrand’s government did introduce reforms of some benefit to working-class voters. Retirement at 60, for example. Why deny this? As E. M. will know, these reforms are now being whittled away by his successors very much in the way predicted in the World Socialist brochure on ‘Why Mitterrand will fail’. I distributed this excellent brochure on the streets of Paris during the 1980s. Understanding reformism, I contend, often means holding these two ideas in one’s head at the same time.

Mélenchon crops up as someone who seems to have understood the electoral inertia implied by Fifth Republic politics: a trap which marginalises popular politics on the left and the right and leaves the way clear for ‘centrists’ like Holland, Macron and others. (The scare quotes again.) Centrism encourages abstaining. So Macron has just said that he will reintroduce his unpopular reform of retirement pensions next year, a way to pump up the vote of Le Pen’s voters and sweep the field on the back of the resulting confusion. But notice also that Mélenchon secretly contacted Macron between the two rounds of the Presidential election – a revelation of the Canard Enchainé – to make sure that the scarecrow mechanism was functioning correctly. This is the darker side of Mitterrand’s legacy I was referring to. It will result in people slaving away to 65. As a consequence people will abstain.

On the other points, it is of course true that ‘immigrants’ in France, including myself, don’t have the vote. This is a state of affairs that Mitterrand promised to change and didn’t. But should I have also mentioned that his government regularised the situation of hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants giving them access to employment rights and, in the long term, citizenship? This created an uproar. For my part, I was, of course, talking about ‘immigrants’ who do now have the vote having gone through the two-year marathon of paperwork to get the passport. Wannabe French citizens have an interview in which they have to show an understanding of the secular education system and defend it (imagine that in Ulster). This conveniently brings me to Mélenchon’s comments on the man who killed the teacher as he left his school: Paty. Here there are many things to say. The teacher had his throat slit because he dared to show an image of the ‘Prophet’ (whatever he looks like) in his classroom. In France, where religion and the state are separate, Paty was raising a philosophical point about free-thinking. Bravo! Perhaps Paty’s murderer did not realise these facts because he was a new arrival – a refugee – from a war-torn country. We shall never know. The conventional parties – many of whom lean towards Catholicism – readily used the occasion to stigmatise Muslim ‘immigrants’ and Mélenchon saw the trap. It’s precisely the kind of jiggery-pokery which keeps the ‘centrists’ securely in power and the working-class vote at home.
M. M.

Editorial: Better get rid of capitalism (2022)

Editorial from the July 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

The long-time boss of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, was once asked what the aim of the trade union movement was. His one-word answer: ‘More’. Apparently, this was too militant for the TUC as their one-word slogan for the national march and rally they organised in London on 18 June was ‘Better’. But then, with the cost of living currently soaring and so our standard of living falling, the unions are not so much demanding ‘more’ as ‘not less’ and even ‘not so much less’.

Unions do aim to get more wages and better working conditions for their members within the framework of the capitalist system. Under capitalism the vast majority of people, as non-owners of places where wealth is produced and services provided, can only get a living by selling their mental and physical energies to some employer. Combining with other workers is a way to get the best price we can for what we are selling. So unions are useful but they are not against capitalism.

The ‘small-c’ conservative nature of the official demands was reflected in the slogans of the various unions. UNISON was demanding ‘fair’ wages, the GMB ‘better’ wages, the CWU ‘decent’ wages. Even RMT was only demanding ‘Cut Profits, Not Wages’. All were accepting the wages system and its other side, the profit system. After all, how can you cut profits unless they are first extracted from workers? The slogans of the left-wing political groups – ‘Tax the Rich’, and ‘Make Them Pay’ – were no better. How can you tax the rich unless they continue to exist?

There were demands to ‘kick the Tories out,’ implying elect a Labour government instead. As if that would make any difference. Even if its current leaders were not an alternative bunch of self-serving careerists but were sincerely committed to furthering the interests of the workers, they would still not be able to make capitalism work other than as a profit system to the benefit of those who live off profits and the detriment of those who work for wages. It is not the Tories that are the problem. It’s capitalism.

Socialists were at the rally with this message:
‘Want better? 
So do we! But capitalism isn’t there to make our lives better. It’s there to serve the interests of the rich.

We do all the useful work in society, while they constantly try to drive down our pay and worsen our conditions. That’s how they get rich – by keeping the rest of us poor. Not only that, capitalism is and always will be unstable, and who bears the brunt of its economic crises? Us, of course!

There’s no point trying to reform the chaos and inequality out of capitalism because they are built into it. So if you’ve really had enough, if you really want better…

Better get rid of capitalism.

We’ve got the technology to run society as a giant sustainable co-op, where everything is
free and there are no rich or poor.

That’s got to be better than letting capitalism and its rich hooligans trash our lives.’