Monday, July 18, 2022

Voice From The Back: Deep sea diving (2000)

The Voice From The Back Column from the May 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Deep sea diving 

 . . . has always been a hazardous job, but now industrial pollution of the sea bed is making it silently deadly. The Western Australian published a two-page feature last October about three experienced divers working for the Texan company Oceaneering under contract to Hyundai Heavy Industry 40 metres down in the South China Sea. As soon as they left the diving bell foul smells invaded their air supply. They were told to ignore it. They felt dizzy, the fillings fell out of their teeth. Then their teeth began to fall out. After repeated complaints, their diving bell, itself letting in the lethal volatile chemicals, was moved, still pressurised, to another site for two weeks while the toxic area was dredged, when they were taken back again, but it was little better. One man was close to death when they were finally brought up after a month. Even the laboratory technicians who tested samples of the mud became ill. HHI then hired Chinese divers who were poisoned one after another. The Australians are still fighting for adequate compensation. The Chinese will probably get nothing. The only thing that finally matters in capitalism is money.

Das Kapital Vol.III summarised 

Only a fool thinks price and value are the same. Silk Road, Chinese Fortune Cookie.

Forcing homeless people 

. . . off the streets may prove harder than the government thinks. Chris Holmes, director of Shelter, says present hostel places are 99.8 percent full the year round and Shelterline, the housing advice phone service gets 100 calls a day from single people desperate for somewhere to stay that night. There are over 600 a night sleeping on the streets of London, 2,400 people a year.

The Scottish Socialist Party

. . . is campaigning for a new bus shelter in Fort William, protesting about water rates in Inverness and complaining about the condition of a school in Easter Ross. This “socialism” has brought them “phenomenal growth” according to their Highland regional organiser, Steve Arnott. He doesn’t explain what bus shelters have got to do with socialism.

The American family farm 

. . . is almost extinct. In the 12 years of the Reagan-Bush administration 85,064 were taken over for $3.5 trillion. In the seven Clinton years, 166,310 corporate mergers, worth $9.8 trillion, have almost completed the job. Farms are no longer viable alone. They are only a small part of a vertical agricultural monolith in which the money is mostly made in processing and sales—not growing crops. Food retailers over the last ten years have returned 18 percent on investments, food manufacturers, 17.2 percent, agricultural banks 10.8 percent and farmers only 2.38 percent.

Half the population of Britain 

. . . have less than £750 in savings and investments, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. About one in ten have no savings at all.

Another Tony Blair promise 

. . . has fizzled out. The reform of company law to make “stakeholders” replace shareholders as the controllers of companies, taking into account the interests of customers, workers and environmental interests, has been thrown out by the officials responsible for reviewing the Victorian statutes. In a report which will surprise nobody who has any understanding of the capitalist system, they have reiterated the supremacy of shareholders. They do suggest, however, that directors should be aware of wider social responsibilities. So that’s all right then.

Clare Short is foolish 

. . . enough to believe that getting a ministerial job in a Labour government enables a concerned person to achieve improvements for the poor, the homeless, the starving. She told the World Trade Organisation meeting in Seattle last year facts like:
  • A fifth of the world’s population own 86 percent of its wealth.
  • If the world’s richest 200 people gave up one percent of their wealth per year, it would pay for free primary education for every child on earth.
  • As it is, 1.3 billion people have to live on 60p a day.
  • The tiles in Bill Gates’s kitchen cost £450 each—twice the average annual income in Africa’s poor countries.
Clare Short hasn’t realised, what the delegates to the WTO meeting know only too well—that capitalism can work in no other way. The poor are poor because the rich are rich.

Editorial: Against capitalism? (2000)

Editorial from the May 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Let’s assume you’re not just here for the crack, and you’re worried about the state of the planet and what capitalism is doing to it. So what do you want to do about it?

– Burn down a bank, maybe? 
You could do, but there’re a lot of banks, and even if you burned them all, they’d just build them again.

– Kick a copper, perhaps? 
Maybe, but they can kick harder than you can, every time.

– Start a revolution then?
Well, now you’re talking. But what kind of revolution? That is the question . . .

For a revolution to be any good, you have to be for something, besides being against big capitalism (WTO, IMF, World Bank, GATT etc) as if somehow “small” national capitalism is a completely different thing, and perfectly nice. It’s not. They’re the same. Let’s have a definition.

Capitalism is: commodity production for sale on a market.

Instead of that you could have: co-operative production for use and free distribution on the basis of need. this would involve: no markets, no money, no commodities, no private property, no rich class and poor class. No Third World and First World, no profit-led profligacy of any description, and amazingly, no ecological destruction, no famine, virtually no crime, and no war.

Think that’s unlikely? It isn’t. Capitalism has taken us as far as it can go, but there’s a lot further we can go without it. It doesn’t matter whether you call it. It is feasible and desirable. And given that ten Nobel scientists have recently cited 2012 as the point of no-return for environmental destruction, the word “urgent” springs to mind too.

Interested? Then contact us at

Why should we have to pay for things? (2000)

From the May 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
If the bogey word “socialist” gets you annoyed, please give us a chance to explain why, though we are called the Socialist Party, we are not supporters of what other “socialists” call for.
Has socialism been tried already? No! In dictionaries it’s “common ownership of the means of production and distribution”. That is, manufacturing, utilities, transport, fuel, etc owned by the people. But at no time, in no country, has a population directly owned and controlled these productive assets. Private and/or state owners have always possessed and run these, and consequently—surprise, surprise—they’ve benefited most.

Does ownership of these assets really matter? Yes! Increasing cancers and illnesses due to pollution and unsafe food; no or inadequate essential services due to profit-making and cost cutting; excessive or dislikeable work; burglaries; homelessness; robberies; ageism; no free time; inequality; unemployment; racism; wars; mortgages, bills, rent, taxes etc. With genuine socialism, all those worries would end—not just get a little better. Take cash troubles. If we all owned tomorrow what a few do today, money would then be obsolete. Directly owning those vital assets means we would also own all the food, goods and services that these provide. And as one of the new collective owners, you’d then have a right to these as required. So, real socialism would bring free access to whatever you need.

Free access would not mean people grabbing everything in sight, because the whole purpose of working would have then changed from today’s provision of goods and services for sale (causing artificial shortages and exclusion for the non-wealthy), to provision of goods and services purely to meet needs.

No more money might seem bizarre—even frightening—but what’s money for? It’s for buying things others own, and those owning what people need most (capitalists) benefit most. We are led to see money as offering freedom from worries, when in reality, it deliberately and barbarically maintains them. By making money essential for life, asset owners can then compel those able to work to become their employees (governments help out by imposing very low and hard to get unemployment benefits, and “educating” children to accept money and wages etc). Workers must then buy what they actually produced in the first place. Even working hard, they can’t earn enough to quit for good, because if they could, capitalists would then be unable to use them to make profits. Money is basically just one part of a big scam to control and exploit the majority.

Obviously, cash is needed while this scam goes on, but if we want a far more agreeable, healthier, plentiful free-access society, we only have to take care over who we support and how we vote. Most people certainly would gain. Even those now with reassuring incomes and savings would benefit from this new system—not experience worse lives as a result of millions of others obtaining better ones. However, after a lifetime hooked on must-have money, we know this radical change to cashless co-operation can be hard to take in. But if you can calmly weigh up the facts, then we can show why socialism would be much better.

Would free access to what we need mean harder work? No! Ending capitalism also ends its unemployment, so millions of people unwanted because employers can’t profit from exploiting their abilities could then participate. With no private asset rights to protect, or money, millions more, soldiers, solicitors, bureaucrats etc and those just tinkering with cash in retailing, banking, insurance etc, would all then be freed to contribute something of real value. What’s more, many repetitive jobs could be done by automation, which won’t happen today unless it’s “cost-effective”. For these reasons, real socialism would bring a far shorter working week, and jobs that people enjoy—and are never again forced to do for money, or by governments.

Instead of getting money—which for most is too little and never makes up for all the harm and misery that capitalism causes—those who work, the sick and elderly would all have: entirely free food, appliances, housing, health care, car, rail and bus travel, electricity, water, gas, phones, TV etc, as required; far more spare time; fast progress due to no financial restraints; a safe, unpolluted, stress-free environment. And much more.

Today, work is for profits, but this means employees aren’t paid the true value of their labour. Someone working six days may have done enough after two or three to cover their wages, but is kept at it so shareholders can sponge off profits, and owners can retain a viable firm. Even a “good” boss must exploit workers to buy better equipment, premises, advertising etc to remain competitive. So, to some extent, all employees are cheated.

Exploitation of workers is unavoidable with capitalism, as without it, the system won’t work. This in-built abuse happens here now, just as it did in a supposedly “socialist” Russia. In reality, old Soviet Russia was capitalist too. It had employers (the state), money, wages, profits, inequality, leaders etc. None of these would exist if genuine socialism was established—a fact elitist “left-wingers” choose to ignore even today.

No point in tinkering
It’s the 21st century, yet these groups and individuals still absurdly claim to be “socialist” while calling for “Full employment”, “Strong trade unions”, “Higher top-earner taxes” and “Nationalisation”. What they are therefore supporting is capitalism continuing, since waged work, labour bargaining, taxation and full-blown state ownership of productive assets are all features of a capitalist system. Even replacing private bosses with state bosses changes nothing, as work will still be profit-driven. These would-be reformers may hope to change market capitalism into something better, but they’ll never succeed. The Labour Party has proved this. They, too, set out wanting to gradually reform capitalism until we achieved socialism. But in the end, it was unchangeable capitalism which reformed Labour—into yet another “New” Tory party.

These naive let’s-make-it-nicer fiddlers are quick to claim that capitalism can help those suffering if more money is taken off the rich, or if it’s governed “properly”. Now this may sound good, but it’s just tosh that ignores the only way capitalism can operate: exploiting assets in the most profitable way. If firms are made to pay higher wages, more tax for state services and welfare, use the very best food ingredients etc, then companies can’t compete in a global market. As profits suffer, businesses go broke. Investment shifts overseas. The economy fails. Public services collapse. Unemployment and poverty rise. Even more people suffer, and the government of the day probably get booted out of office. So, no matter who governs, capitalism can never be run to benefit a suffering majority, as majority exploitation is its unavoidable fundamental purpose—for the chief benefit of a grasping minority.

Due to this fundamental bias, the Socialist Party do not seek to govern—only to enable voters to both obtain direct ownership of productive assets, and elect themselves to power, by voting for real socialism (once established, having served its purpose, the party will then cease to exist). We say that together, we are capable of running our own lives. That we should all be able to decide (e.g., through occasional electronic referenda) how assets are used—not just a privileged few, aided by egocentric two-faced puppet politicians.

Today’s rat race requires a me-first, devil-take-the-hindmost attitude to get by or “succeed”. This also happens to strengthen and delight capitalists, because it causes disunity, a lack of faith in one another and pessimism about ever achieving a real change. Are the fat cats right to feel jubilant and invincible? Has distrust and dog-eat-dog living left you crushed or cynical about human co-operation for shared gain? Is your choice merely to go on paying, until the very end? Whose future and benefit—yours or theirs?
Max Hess

A Mayday from the sinking ship (2000)

From the May 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mayday as a cultural event seems to be dying. It has become increasingly dissociated from the cultural horizon of the vast majority of the working class—becoming a mere preserve of enthusiasts and the official Labour movement.

Mayday has fallen into the hands of the Labour hierarchy and its trade-unionist minions, and has become a celebration of their organisations: a day for Labourite triumph and self-congratulation, to the extent that this year’s TUC’s main celebration, in an act of superlative lick-spittlery, kow-tows to the awful taste of their political masters in being held at the Millennium Dome.

The reason why Mayday has become dissociated from relevance and meaning to most working class lives is that the bodies associated with it, and with the whole way of life it typifies, have become divorced from the lived and meaningful experience of most workers. Like, alas, so many divorces, this one too is the result of an affair—a bitter and tragic business that has led merely to disappointment.

The state and the unions came together in the dark days of the last World War. Their collaboration produced production agreements and no-strike clauses, coupled with an increased say for unions in the running of industry. The result of this collaboration was to produce what is known as “the post-war consensus” in which Tory and Labour governments took it in turns to manage the corporate state, bringing business and unions together in formal institutions. So great, in fact, was this desire for unions and state to work together that Churchill’s government after 1951 actually appointed more trade unionists to state positions than Attlee’s had. The full consummation, though, of the corporatist state came under the Harold Wilson government, in the form of the National Economic Development Council, in which the unions, government and the CBI took part. The unions were gradually seduced by the prospect of having more of an institutionalised say in how capitalism was administered.

Empty illusions
As with, sadly, too many seductions, it was based on illusions and empty promises. Capitalism can only ever be run in the interest of the masters. In repeated endeavours to save their rocky relationship, the corporate collaborators entered into repeated incomes policies and agreements. In return for helping to organise the working class for the capitalists’ needs, union leaders were given some rewards, legal protection from union’s being sued, and legal enforcement of closed shops—so the unions could increase their head-counts and incomes. Up until then the state had been largely content to leave shop floor industrial relations to the respective parties, but the corporatist period began a serious increase of state involvement.

The involvement of the state increased the power of the leaders of the unions, and strengthened their position. However, when economic conditions dictated and conflict sharpened between employers workers, they found it harder to keep their members in order and their relationship to the employers began to sour. The unions clung ever closer to the state, determined to save that friendship, and tied their fortunes to the Trade Union and Labour Relations Act (1974), and later to the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act (1978) which guaranteed the right of workers to join a union and engage in union activities.

The increased conflict with employers began under the Wilson and Callaghan Labour governments which took steps to discipline the workers and which led to the Winter of Discontent. The advent of the Thatcher government provided the means by which to bring the unions to further heel. This turn, though, was not unique, and not solely down to the wickedness and enmity of Tories. Union organisations all over the advanced capitalist world began to suffer from the late 70s on, as endemic unemployment weakened the workers’ negotiating position.

State control
The Tories’ first strike was to increase state involvement in the internal affairs of unions. The Employment Act (1980) was intended to “provide for payments out of public funds towards unions’ expenditure in respect of ballots”, whilst at the same time repealing the 1974 Act’s protection of the closed shop. This proved to be only the first of a number of salami tactic assaults upon the unions, which gradually, and almost irrevocably tied them in to state power.

In the eighteen Tory years a total of eight Acts (almost as many as in the rest of the century) were passed with regard to regulating unions. The course of this tactic was clear, the eventual “juridification” of industrial relations—increasingly bringing the courts in to organise industrial relations, with the continual threat to the funds and structures of the union hierarchs. The Employment Act (1982) removed unions’ immunities given by the 1974 Act, so that their strikes could be challenged in the courts (section 15). It made contracts requiring employers to deal only with unionised businesses unenforceable in law, making it more difficult for unions to support one another’s struggles. Further, in all the cases where the unions were actionable in the civil courts, the 1982 Act required a responsible officer to sanction all union activity, clearly forcing union leadership to choose between protecting union funds, or backing members’ actions.

As state protection through contract law was removed, so too was the state used offensively, to interfere with the internal workings of unions. The Employment Act (1984) laid down procedures for organising union ballots, requiring a secret postal ballot by “marking paper” (as opposed to a show of hands); laying down a legal duty to have union officers elected; and spelling out the exact legal duties for how unions must keep their accounts and keep lists of members. This legal enforcement of “democracy” was precisely the opposite of that: it meant that the members of a union no longer had any power to shape or build the rules of their union as they wished, and that, effectively, the internal organisation of the unions became a state matter.

The assault on the internal democracy and independence of the unions was continued in the Employment Act (1988) wherein—in the double-speak of the Act—it was prohibited to “unjustifiably discipline” (i.e. expel from branch, fine, etc.) any member of a union. The Act defined unjustifiably disciplining, as such occasions where a member was guilty of “failure to participate in or support a strike or industrial action”, even where such action had been properly and democratically voted upon. Such members, of course, were free under this and previous Acts, to take their union to court if the union failed to follow those procedures properly.

In 1992 these union laws were codified into the Trade Unions and Labour Relations (Consolidation) Act (TUCRA), which became the effectively mandatory trade union rule book. New unions need no longer bother drafting their rules, that Act supplies them ready made. The great Neo-Liberal Conservative government, bane of state interference, privatiser by principle, was responsible for the de facto nationalisation of the unions.Though they are subject to strict state and judicial control, they are still referred to in law as “independent unions”. The divorce was nearly complete, and the unions no longer resembled anything remotely like autonomous self-creation/organisation of the working class.

Same old story 
Yet the officers of these unions remained true to their darling state—and lo, they were rewarded in 1997 by the election of a Labour government. This, far from releasing the unions, has merely extended the principle of state-co-opted unionism, though with throwing some new bones to the union officials. The main bone given them was compulsory union recognition, so that instead of the workers needing to organise themselves to demonstrate their collective existence to an employer, unions only needed to fulfil certain (cumbersome) bureaucratic requirements to add to their head count. Of course, all of this must be conducted under the continuedly strict judicial control. Further, the government introduced the minimum wage, wherein the state steps in to fulfil the role of the working class in unions of setting their own wages.

The process has been one of ideological assault on the idea of unionism. The Tories persistently presented their assault upon unions, with all its contradictions, as being a battle for individual rights. Individuals were given the right not to join unions, to not be “unjustifiably disciplined”, to use the courts to influence the unions. The requirement for unions to have to officially defend, or renounce actions of their members means that unions are prevented from articulating their message in the public space. The damage this has done can most clearly be seen in the fate of the Liverpool dockers, where the strike was crushed by silence as the union leadership stood by. The government cannot stop industrial action occurring, but what it can stop is the ideas spreading, and stop people spreading consciousness of unionism.

The process is one of continual removal of the working class from any real control over their own economic lives, alienating institutions they created into state domination. As such people become increasingly alienated from the cultural manifestations of workerdom, enabling Labour and their union lackeys to make Mayday their day. However, all need not be lost. Remembering that 364 days a year belong to their employers, workers can take steps towards wrenching Mayday from the grasp of alienated union officialdom, and making Mayday our day.
Pik Smeet

Banks – Who needs them? (2000)

From the May 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

There are few places in the world more pointless than a bank. There are few compelled to toil more uselessly than bank employees. In every respect, the function of banks is to facilitate a form of exchange in which nothing is produced and much can be lost. A world without banks would be a wholly better place.

Under capitalism banks are temples to the secular god of Money. These temples have no time for obsolete rituals of prayer and worship, the fool’s dances of a bygone age. In the bank capitalism does its business, in much the same way as a dog in the park does its business, and with remarkably similar effects. People in banks spend their time doing bizarre activities which seem to emanate from quasi-religious commandments. They fill in endless pieces of paper. They count pieces of paper and then recount them to be sure. The high priests sit behind unbreakable glass windows and the unclean feed them with more pieces of paper. There are machines built into walls which, upon revelation of secret numbers, pour out more pieces of paper. Upon these papers are written not one word of intelligible prose, less still poetry. These scribes of the bank are not working on writing dissertations, new equations or even their random thoughts. No, they fill in prescribed codes and figures and in return are given other papers, equally without content, which they guard with their lives.

Some enter the bank as wage slaves, there to count, shuffle and recount for a living. It is work so tedious that now they are training computers to do it so that the bank staff can be liberated to the dole queues. Some enter with grand schemes. These usually involve borrowing, a relationship which calls for much paper-filling, nail-biting and human degradation. Others enter with lost hope. They come to claim what they know is not theirs. They ask to have access to that which the bank machine will not give. They are full of excuses, promises and submission without depth to the petty gods of the counter. But they leave more often than not as dejected and poor as when they arrived. Banks are not there to listen to the cries of the needy.

Unlike the wretched churches of yesteryear, banks charge you for using them. The machine charges for pressing its buttons and the clerks now charge to answer questions about what has happened to your money. Of course, they will not answer very profound questions about where your money has been invested, the rate of profit and how it arises. But even a question about how much of your money they’ve got costs money these days. They even charge money to write you a letter telling you that you have no money. If they owned the pavements they would probably charge you for walking past.

Ah, the wonders of the internet! Now we can do our banking by computer. Bank employees can be sent to get jobs as walking puppets in the Dome while you key in your personal details and . . . clickety click: you’re broke, buster.

Of course, it’s not the sewers that are smelly and unclean, it’s the crap. It’s the same with banks. There’s no harm in banks as buildings. Put a snooker table down the middle and turn the counters into bars and they could be quite jolly. Money is what stinks. Banks stink of money and money stinks of property—yours-mine-not yours. And because we live in a yours-mine-not yours society where few things are yours or mine, but most belong to a small minority who own and control the world, the stench of money prevails.

So, we need to abolish money before we can get rid of banks. But to get rid of money we need an end to property. And you can’t abolish property relations until you abolish capitalism. Good idea. Let’s abolish capitalism and live in a moneyless, propertyless world without bloody banks.
Steve Coleman

Reflections on “Reflections on June 18” (2000)

From the May 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

The events in London and in many other places around the world on 18 June 1999 were significant and, in many ways, encouraging. Here we had “an action which attacks capitalism itself”. An action which claimed to attack capitalism itself, rather than a particular aspect of it. What’s more, let’s not forget this was global: actions and demonstrations were undertaken from Bangladesh to Nigeria to Germany to Uruguay. Since then there has been the “Battle in Seattle” accompanying the World Trade Organisation meeting and there’s more to come with events planned for 1 May no less (M1Y2K).

So, plenty of interest for those of us trying to organise for world socialism—and we in the Socialist Party are serious in wanting to talk with anyone who shares our aim of abolishing capitalism, with its destruction and wage slavery, and replacing it with common ownership and a united, classless human society.

One of the interesting things to come out of J18 has been a collection of articles written mainly by people involved in the events, called Reflections on June 18. What is most heartening is that these contributions show a critical and thoughtful attitude. Without exception they are written with a view to progressing from what they see J18 to have been towards a deeper understanding of how capitalism really dominates us, and of how we can get rid of it. They are particularly aware of the dodgier political perspectives of some of those involved. Specifically, they pre-empt what may become a major ruling class tactic to stifle any coming movement against capitalism—i.e. that of presenting “capitalism” purely in terms of finance capital (stock market wheeler dealing) and “multinational corporations”. And in a way, by concentrating in the UK on “the City” J18 has shown the dangers of this. All the Square Mile is is one of those places where the thieving bosses gamble with the wealth they extract from us. The profits and power of the ruling class comes though from the wider capitalist mode and process of production and exploitation. As one article puts it:
“Capitalism is not a place (‘financial centres’) or a thing (‘multinational corporations’), it is a social relationship dependent upon wage labour and commodity exchange where profit is derived from capital’s theft of unpaid labour” (our emphasis).
Concentrating on “nasty” finance capital and multinationals and defining “capitalism” in those terms can only end up as a massive diversion from the goal of abolishing the capitalist system. In fact it is potentially disastrous. As more than one contributor in Reflections on June 18th notes, targeting “finance” and “big business” (or the WTO) is something a lot of disparate groups can agree on—including those of the extreme nationalist right. The idea of “bad” multinationals as the “undemocratic” enemies of government and the nation state is bound to be seized on enthusiastically by both nationalists and smaller, local capitalists. Equally with the notion of “globalisation” being the real problem—as though capitalism as a system hasn’t always been a globalising one. It is the nature of capitalism as a system to seek to expand remorselessly—until, that is, we end the whole system of class ownership of the means of production, of wage labour and of production with a view to profit.

Which sort of leads to the issue of the “activist mentality” raised by one article. This makes an important point about what social revolution is all about:
“[T]he identification of some cause separate from one’s own life . . . is fundamentally mistaken—the real power of capital is right here in our everyday lives—we re-create its power every day because capital is not a thing but a social relation between people (and hence classes) mediated by things.”
Until, of course, we decide as a majority to take the political action necessary to change our lives.
Ben Malcolm

World View: Famine or farce in Ethiopia? (2000)

From the May 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Sixteen years after television cameras first brought the plight of Ethiopia’s starving millions into our living rooms, sparking the Live Aid rescue mission of 1985, history appears to be repeating itself on the Horn of Africa.

Just as it needed live images of children starving to death to shake Western governments out of their complacency all those years ago, having had prior warning that a famine was on the cards, so too now has the full threat of a famine had to become a reality before the world could sit up and take notice.

This time round, the Ethiopian famine was well predicted. In April of last year, the UN’s early warning system (GIEWS) reported that two years of drought were threatening two million people in Ethiopia with starvation. Nobody listened. Five months later, with further rain failures, the World Food Programme warned that 5.3 million Ethiopians faced starvation. Still, the cries fell on deaf ears. In January of this year, a UN mission in Ethiopia reported that 8 million faced starvation and that 800,000 tonnes of food were urgently needed to avert catastrophe.

At the beginning of April this year, the Ethiopian story finally hit the news headlines, but now with 16 million facing starvation in Ethiopia, as well as Eritrea, Djibouti, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda, and with a further two million expected be added to this figure if the May rains fail to save the June harvest.

Perhaps many Ethiopians will recall the comments made by one key Ethiopian minister back in 1998 and recounted recently in the editorial of one Ethiopian daily.

In Kissingerian* fashion, the minister in question announced that “hunger in Ethiopia is already a thing of the past . . . has already been eliminated” and that Ethiopia would be food self-sufficient within five years and producing a food surplus ( Tamret Bekele in the Addis Tribune, 6 April).

Of course, we cannot criticise this individual for failing to foresee the present tragedy. He after all has no more control over the weather than the Ethiopian economy. But his remarks do point to the misplaced confidence people have in the present system and the inability of capitalist society to avert catastrophe because of its insistence in prioritising profit before need and in failing to implement long-term provisions.

Most of the aid given to Ethiopia in the 1980s was spent on emergency provisions, with little set aside for forward planning and for heading off the problems that made rescue missions so difficult back in ’85. Roads and bridges came low on the list of priorities, as did systems for storing what water did fall on the drought-prone regions. Vulnerable areas, like the Ogaden region were known to offer precarious living conditions but no plans were made for population relocation.

Again, much is hampering the current relief effort. Firstly, as in 1985, there is another war with Eritrea, sparked by an Eritrean invasion over a border dispute and which provides western governments with an excuse to cut aid – the logic being that aid is side-tracked into the military machine. Though not exonerating the likes of Clare Short, Britain’s overseas development minister whose idea it was to penalise Ethiopia for its border dispute nor the Ethiopian government who claim they did not start the conflict in the first place, as socialists we are upset that in an area desperate for concerted human co-operation and a willingness to work together in face of an overwhelming crisis, half a million men are dug into trenches preparing to kill one another over a piece of land none of them will profit from.

As in 1985, food distribution is also proving a logistical nightmare, with poor roads and the threat of inter-clan warfare and banditry halting the relief effort. Moreover, since the conflict with Eritrea, land-locked Ethiopia has since lost the use of two key Eritrean ports And, at present, mid-April, only 50 percent of the food needed has actually been pledged, with only a small percentage of this actually getting through.

Again, the current crisis and the famine of 1984-5 were sparked off by rain failure. But there are major differences now. The Ethiopian population is now 60 million, twice its size in 1985, which means an increasing rural population has had to work, and overwork, smaller parcels of land, which could only ever produce weaker and weaker yields. Added to this has been the shrinking availability of fertilisers. Ethiopia’s use of fertiliser, at 7kg of nutrients per hectare is half the sub-Saharan average and about seven percent the world average (statistics from Addis Tribune, 6 April).

After the 1985 famine the Ethiopian government sought to hold 350,000 tonnes of food in reserve to help avert further crises, but with 50,000 tonnes remaining at the beginning of April, it is evident a massive overseas contribution is needed to help provide the basic 7.2 million tonnes needed to feed the Ethiopian population in the year ahead.

What percentage of pledged food actually gets through remains to be seen, but it’s a fair guess it will fall far short of the 1.2 million tonnes the Ethiopian government estimates is needed urgently. Again, it is too early to predict whether or not the May rains will come and provide a desperately needed source of water to a country in which only 27 percent of the population have access to clean water even in the wet seasons, as well as saving the June harvest.

Only a month ago this journal reported on the natural disaster Mozambique encountered when the skies dumped a year’s rain on the country in a few short weeks, flooding tens of thousands of square miles. It seems something of a sick irony that we now comment on a country a few thousand miles up the same east coast of Africa that has awaited rain for three years.

In the years ahead we can well predict to comment on further natural disasters as the effects of global warming kick in and, more, to continually point to the failure of capitalism to effectively mobilise its vast technological resources to the benefit of those in direst need. As in Ethiopia 15 years ago, so too now will history continue to repeat itself, as tragedy, then as farce.

*At a world food summit in 1973, Henry Kissinger announced that global hunger would be eradicated within 10 years. There were then 400 million chronically malnourished people on the planet (a 75 million increase over the previous ten years). That figure now stands at 800 million.
John Bissett

World View: Target Indonesia (2000)

From the May 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Is Australia preparing for a possible war with its erstwhile ally Indonesia?

In outback Western Australia, on a road to nowhere (actually a place called Warburton north of the Great Victoria Desert), lies Laverton; and nearby there is a forest of metal towers, military structures, which form part of a new, until recently secret, “Jindalee” over-the-horizon radar network that spies on Indonesia. There are similar radar sites at Longreach in Queensland and at the United States/Australian Joint Defense Space Research facility at Pine Gap, south-west of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory. These link to 16 beacon sites from Ajana, north of Geraldton in Western Australia, through RAAF Leamouth, RAAF Curtin, Broome, Humpty Doo, Horn Island south of the Torres Straits opposite New Guinea, Queensland, and downwards to RAAF Schenger and Lynd River¸ also in Queensland. Importantly, they link to a beacon station on Christmas Island, an Australian possession 250 miles south of Jakarta. The while system connects to RAAF surveillance headquarters in Adelaide.

The network enables radar operators to observe all air and sea traffic up to 2,000 miles beyond the Australian northern coast, and halfway across the Indian Ocean, to link up with the United States base on Diego Garcia, without the need for air or sea patrols.

According to the West Australian (18 March) the Jindalee network underpins “Australian defence planning based on repelling an invader through the Indonesian archipelago”. The Laverton base has twice the range of the Longreach and Alice Springs sites. The new radar system is so accurate that its operators in Australia can see RAAF Hercules C130 troop carriers turning on their final approach Dili Airport. And Jindalee radar can also detect US stealth bombers, which normally remain invisible to ordinary conventional, land-based radar. The cost, however, has not come cheap. Comments the West Australian:
“Jindalee’s losses have contributed to more than $1 billion overspent on botched Australian defence projects. Mismanagement of the original Jindalee project cost prime contractor Telstra a whopping $609 million in cost overruns before the project was rescued in 1997 by Lockheed Martin.”
Another $250 million was required for the first two of Australia’s six new Collins Class submarines; and another $272 million is needed in the current year to top up the original “defence” estimates to refit two former United States Navy ships for the Royal Australian Navy.

At the time of writing, there are about 40,000 Australian troops in East Timor. They are not there to defend Timorese workers, but to defend Australian business interests and investments, the vast oil fields and reserves under the sea between East and West Timor and northern Australia and, if necessary, to take on the Indonesian armed forces in any future dispute. It should not be forgotten that, in 1964, the government of Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies, planned to bomb Indonesia and its capital, Jakarta, if it escalated its confrontation with Malaysia. And, in fact, Australia sent troops as well as the SAS into Indonesian Borneo/Kalimantan. Such are the priorities of capitalism.
Peter E. Newell

Irish workers feel the pinch (2000)

From the May 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

All is not well in the “Celtic tiger”. Just after trade unions, employers and the government were passing the Partnership for Prosperity and Fairness (PPF)—a national agreement on pay and conditions—Dublin bus drivers were taking strike action in support of a 20 percent pay claim with the promise of more to come.

For the employers, government and trade union leaders, the PPF is presented as a genuine attempt to divide up Ireland’s new found wealth equitably between capitalists and workers, but in fact it is an attempt to head off the increasing likelihood of further class struggle as the Irish economy shows signs of slowing down.

The PPF which is set to run for a period of 33 months, allows basic pay to rise by 5.5 percent for each of the first 12-month periods and four percent in the final four-month period. However, linked to pay rises are agreements on productivity increases. This had led to unions such as the Teachers’ Union of Ireland rejecting the deal outright whilst others such as SIPTU (public-sector—including bus drivers) and building workers (BATU) are threatening militant action.

Dubbing Ireland the “world’s fastest growing economy” has almost become a cliché of late. Over recent years a combination of EU membership and subsidy plus massive Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) from American multinationals desperate to set up inside the single market has propelled the economy forward. Last year a growth rate of 7.5 percent was recorded and this year, according to the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) a rate of 7.25 percent is expected. However, with six percent being predicted for 2001 the importance of the PPF for the employing class should be obvious. However, many Irish workers do not feel that they are fully participating in this new prosperity. They are certainly working harder—often in low paid employment—but the capitalists have been the main benefits of the boom.

Another problem for the capitalist class is that the Irish economy is facing a potential labour shortage which on its own terms threatens the growth of the economy. This has led to the government actively recruiting skilled labour from overseas (including Irish emigrants) to bridge the gap. Some economists have pointed out that such a policy is likely to put intolerable pressure on public and private housing in terms of provision and surging house prices (especially around Dublin). However, a labour shortage puts the working class in a strong position and clearly the employers wish to counteract this.

The labour shortage problem was foreseen by the government as early as 1995 when it passed immigration legislation deliberately widening the definition of “refugee” in order to recruit skilled labour. This, however, has not prevented anti-asylum seeker outbursts from leading politicians and headlines in Irish newspapers talking of “floods” in much the same way as tabloid newspapers do in Britain. Asylum-seekers have been blamed for the shortage of public housing, but a cursory look at the government’s own figures reveal that this problem already existed. The Labour Party leader Rory Quinn has even suggested that asylum-seekers with skills should be integrated into Irish society for everyone’s benefit, which is reassuring for everyone but especially the capitalists who can smell profit from asylum-seeker labour power.

As boom turns to recession, which under capitalism is as inevitable as night following day, expect to hear more from the Emerald Isle as workers begin to fight for a bigger slice of the pie and the capitalists remind everyone of “social partnership” and the PPF, not to mention the asylum-seekers—the usual scapegoats.
Dave Flynn

Highland Hypocrisy (2000)

From the May 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Spare a tear for that hard-up aristocrat John MacLeod of MacLeod. The poor man’s castle is badly in need of repair so he has had to put on the market his beloved Cuillins. This is an area of real estate consisting of 35 square miles of mountain range, bordered by 14 miles of coastline and two salmon rivers. So desperate for the readies is the poor fellow that he is prepared to let it go for a mere £10 million.
 “I regard the Cuillins as priceless”, he said. “They are part of my soul and putting them up for sale is an extremely painful experience. They are my ancestors. Our clan grew out of the history of the Cuillins” (Times, 23 March).
What the fellow doesn’t tell us of course is that, like all Clan Chiefs, his ancestors stole the land in the first place. The ownership of the land was vested in the whole clan until the Chiefs stole it from them. It is a process that is well-documented by Karl Marx in Capital:
“The Highland Celts were organised in clans, each of which was the owner of the land on which it was settled. The representative of the clan, its chief or ‘great man’, was only the titular owner of this property, just as the Queen of England is the titular owner of all the national soil. When the English government succeeded in suppressing the intestine wars of these ‘great men’, and their constant incursions into the Lowland plains, the Chiefs of the clans by no means gave up their time-honoured trade as robbers; they only changed its form. On their authority they transformed their nominal right into a right of private property, and as this brought them into collision with their clansmen, resolved to drive them out by open force” (Volume I, page 681).
The journalist John MacLeod mockingly describes how the title of “MacLeod of MacLeod” is another piece of robbery as the man exulting in that grandiose title was actually born John Wolridge-Gordon. Commenting on the proposed sale of the estate, he digs up some edifying information about how a previous MacLeod “great man” tried to raise money:
“In 1739 The MacLeod kidnapped dozens of his tenancy and attempted to sell them as slaves to Barbados” (Herald, 4 April).
Richard Donnelly

Agitprop (2000)

Book Review from the May 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

More Agitation: Political Satires and Other Poems’, by Bob Dixon. (Artery Publications: Bromley, 1999)

There are some good little poems in here, and a few I could either take or leave. Bob Dixon has also written some criticism on children’s fiction in his Catching Them Young books, looking at the head-fixing “literature” that has been aimed at children in order to help mould them into good little workers with the required levels of patriotism, fear, and conformity. In this spirit a foreword to this collection states his principled position that he would like these poems to be used in schools, but never “in connection with any examination, test, or competition”. Good stuff. Though it is debatable whether poems called “The Poet, in Capitalist Society, Speaks” or “Fascist Haiku” are ever likely to see the light of day inside the classroom.

In the poem “The General Election” the poet is visited by various politicos who don’t impress him much. Refusing to pledge allegiance to the Labour candidate he asks, “I’m a socialist/so why should I vote for you?”. Too right.

Then, a “Marxist man” sails into view. Who could this be?! I’d like to think this might refer to someone presenting the case for common ownership and self-emancipation, but fear we may be talking the Left Wing of Capital here. However, the poet is going to vote for him—as long as there’s not going to be any backstabbing or “shilly-shallying”. Get those pigs ready to fly! Next up is some fascist knuckledragger. So, it looks like Tweedledum and Tweedledee have been joined by Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber.

Apparently some of these poems have appeared in Socialist Worker. Funny; they don’t really seem them, y’know. Perhaps some eulogy to the massacre at Kronstadt would be more in the SWP line.
Ben Malcolm

Obituary: Len Young (2000)

Obituary from the May 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Len Young, the longest serving member of Birmingham Branch died of cancer on 5 April at the age of 81. He joined the Socialist Party in 1942. Although his health in recent years prevented him from being active, he was one of the main pillars of the branch for many years, speaking regularly from the outdoor platform in the Bull Ring. He had a loud, deep voice (quite unlike the gentle speech he had in casual conversation) which could gather listeners from far away. And because he was a big man he made an imposing figure on the platform. The post-war years saw outdoor meetings of hundreds of people and it was members like Len who developed into impressive orators to take advantage of the interest and enthusiasm for politics and explain the necessity of removing capitalism before there could be any amelioration in the position of the working class.
Ron Cook

See you, Jimmy (2000)

TV Review from the May 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Louis Theroux seems to have spent the last few years investigating all manner of weirdness and eccentricity, reporting on his findings for BBC2. Last month, as documented in When Louis Met Jimmy, the object of his investigation was Sir James Savile OBE, former miner, wrestler, disc-jockey, charity campaigner and general celebrity fix-it man. It turned out to be the most compelling viewing on TV for some while.

Theroux spent a week with Sir Jimmy, travelling up and down the country with him and spending time at some of his seven residences. They developed one of those relationships whereby one person (in this case Theroux) is constantly treading on eggshells when in the presence of the other. That this was the case is partly explained by the fact that no room has yet been built large enough to accommodate an ego in addition to Jimmy Savile’s own. It was accentuated further by the actions of Theroux himself, whose prevailing air reflects the type of studied insouciance normally associated with disaffected undergraduates.

Theroux’s line of approach is generally one of seeking out significant and revealing minor details about people that others would tend to miss. In this regard, he can be too clumsy for his own good on occasion and at other times tends to latch on to details that are less instructive than he hopes. In this particular programme, Theroux demonstrated a fixation with Sir Jimmy’s underpants and the revelation that he only seems to use the one pair. It was indeed a revelation of sorts but quite how instructive it was meant to be was less obvious. In this sense Theroux himself was revealed as an interviewer specialising in Hello-magazine type intrusion, but with the cynic’s cutting edge.

More instructive was Theroux’s exposure of how Savile manipulates the media for his own ends, and almost maniacally so at that. When he’d broken a bone in his foot walking near his Highland retreat”I fell off my own mountain”he rang up the local hospital pressurising them to let in the media (including Theroux) so that he could be filmed having his plaster cast put on. By way of reminder, he told hospital staff that he’d bought them “lots of machines”, just in case they were wavering about being invaded by the media circus. When Savile saw his picture in all the tabloids the next day he was as happy as he got throughout the entire week, as if the packaging of his life, and his appearance as a media commodity, was real and tangible evidence that he, as an individual, did actually exist.

Tell us about the money, honey 
But amongst all of Theroux’s snooping, there was plenty that he missed, most of it of more significance than Savile’s y-fronts. We were told, for instance, that Savile has seven homes, many of which look hugely expensive. He wears jewellery that costs hundreds of thousands of pounds, including an extortionately-priced diamond-encrusted Rolex watch. He gets driven around in a limousine (amongst other things). Yet not once did Theroux attempt to comment about how this formerly working-class Yorkshireman could afford all these things. Did he really get them through presenting radio programmes, Top of the Pops and then Jim’ll Fix It? Or does he have other massive sources of income, especially now that the only “work” as such that he does any more is for charity?

Speaking of which, Theroux didn’t bother asking him why he feels charity is quite so important either. The impression Savile likes to give is that the £40 million he claims to have personally raised for charity defines his status and justifies everything he does, meaning that he can deflect impertinent queries with remarks like “well how much have you raised for charity then?”, the same technique habitually employed by Bernard Manning. Though Theroux looked like he was going to tackle Savile about this on one or two occasions, he never did, nor, unfortunately did he ask him why he thought charity was—or should be—so necessary. Did Theroux not see a link between the patronising attitude adopted towards him by Savile which he complained about on occasion, and the whole charity shebang that Savile is immersed in as some sort of benevolent Godfather of Largesse?

That Savile is an intelligent man is without dispute, and it would therefore have been instructive if Theroux had given him the chance to explain why charity is still necessary in a world of plenty and if, for that matter, he ever feels in his charity work like he is performing the labours of Sisyphus. This is a pity for us and Theroux because Savile’s reply may well have been far more revealing of his egomania and tendency towards self-justification than a thousand wry comments about the state of his underwear.

Blogger's Note:
Obviously a lot of stuff has come out about Savile since his death. He really did pull a fast one over a hell of a lot of people.

50 Years Ago: Misery from Surplus, Profit from Disaster (2000)

The 50 Years Ago column from the May 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

[. . .] One of America’s problems is too many potatoes. The Government pays the farmer the guaranteed price for his potato crop on the farm, then the farmer pays a trifling price to the Government and buys them back again, but only on condition that he does not sell them in the market but uses them as animal feeding stuff. He can if he likes let them rot. Some potatoes are painted with blue dye so that they cannot illicitly be sold to the public for human consumption.

The truth is that capitalism can produce a surplus in terms of the market, the final result of which will be a cutting down of production, but it never has produced enough of all the things human beings need to satisfy their requirements.

The powers of production reached under capitalism could, if fully used and if devoted to human needs instead of being largely wasted on armaments, etc., satisfy all the requirements of the human race. But to allow them to be so used would wreck the complex and delicate marketing and profit-making organisation of the capitalist system.

(From editorial, Socialist Standard, May 1950)

Greasy Pole: The Death and Life of Selsdon Man (2000)

The Greasy Pole column from the May 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

It was early in 1970 and Harold Wilson’s government, which less than four years before had been returned with an emphatically increased majority, was sinking deeper and deeper into unpopularity. The Conservative opposition’s leader, Edward Heath, was very different from his predecessors Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home, with their image of long days slaughtering on the grouse moors. In keeping with this, the Tories went out to persuade the voters that they were a party of radical change. Some months were devoted to labouring over policy reviews and draft manifestos and in February 1970 the leaders met at the Selsdon Park Hotel to draw it all together into a programme designed to win them the next election.

The discussions at Selsdon were driven by Heath’s desire to get into Number Ten with a more or less clean sheet, as a leader who was reacting against the past. This meant against the confused and erratic blundering of Wilson’s government, which the prime minister liked to describe as pragmatism but which others might call a triumph of opportunism over principle. In fact, in electoral terms there was something to be said for the “clean sheet” because there had been several examples of stunning victories after the promise to be a purgative change from a dismal, discredited past. This was the case when Labour won in 1945 and again in 1964 and since then it has happened with Thatcher in 1979 and Blair in 1997.

The decisions taken at Selsdon Park were centred on a concern about tax cuts, a more vigorous programme of law enforcement (both of them voter-attractive) and a more selective access to social services and state benefits (which have become more popular in recent times). “After the 1964 and 1966 defeats,” wrote Margaret Thatcher in her memoirs The Downing Street Years (apparently forgetting that a few other people were also involved), “I joined with Ted Heath in a rethinking of party policy which seemed to foreshadow much of what we later came to call Thatcherism”. Selsdon was treated to an overdose of media interest, partly because of a panicky response when an unprepared Heath was required to face a band of reporters on the Saturday and was advised that it would be most useful to emphasise a tougher policy on law and order. It was thus no surprise when a strident communiqué came out of the conference, promising the electorate an invigorating dose of market-driven economic liberalism as an alternative to Labour’s hopeless blunders.

Heath began to talk about a “new style of government” which would abolish the policies of wage restraint which previous governments (including Conservative) had seen as so essential to the prosperity of British capitalism. “We have always been opposed to compulsory wage control,” he informed us soon after Selsdon, “We opposed it in the House when the Bill was going through, and we are opposed to it and we will not introduce it”. At the same time, there would be no more government investment to rescue failing companies; “lame duck” firms would have to “stand on their own two feet” or expire. The market, left to itself without any interference from the government, would operate to ensure that only the strong and useful—the profitable—would survive, which would be to the benefit of everyone.

The first reactions to Selsdon were that it was a boon to the Labour Party and a terrible mistake by the Tories. Wilson made the most of it; he was then at the top of his form as a political con-artist and came up with the name of Selsdon Man for those responsible for spawning such primitive, brutish ideas, as against Labour’s model as a party standing for a modern, civilised, caring society. Selsdon Man, a political cave-dweller, was assumed to have lost the next election for the Tories.

In fact there is some reason to think that Wilson got it wrong, that Selsdon was not so much out of tune with the times. In his biography of Iain Macleod, Robert Shepherd states that the discussions were not as fervent as most people imagined; it was more a matter of sorting out policies which would distinguish them from the Labour Party. Heath described the event as “quite unspectacular” and grumbled about the “fuss” in the press: “I can think of no major new departure which emerged”. Robert Blake, the historian of the Conservative Party, thought that Selsdon did the party more good than harm and John Ramsden, in his history of the party—An Appetite For Power—considered that, in contrast to Labour’s obvious disarray, a co-ordinated policy which looked as if it might endure would be a vote winner.

And so it turned out, as Heath won the election in June 1970 and the voters waited to see whether he would live up to the brave declaration in his preface to the Tory manifesto: “Nothing has done Britain more harm in the world than the endless backing and filling which we have seen in recent years. Once a policy has been established, the prime minister and his colleagues should have the courage to stick with it.”

The voters did not have long to wait. In July that year the news came that Rolls Royce was in deep trouble, largely through losing massive amounts of money over the design and production of an aero-engine for Lockheed. This, clearly, was a “lame duck” company which should be left to die because it could not “stand on its own two feet”. But instead of having “the courage to stick with” their declared policy and allowing Rolls Royce to go under the Cabinet, after trying to persuade some banks to put up the necessary money, unanimously decided that the state would have to step in with a virtual nationalisation of the firm. “Ministers had been forced to consider,” Heath excused himself afterwards, “whether we should allow our political reservations about state aid to outweigh considerations of the unemployment effects which would result if we let such a great concern go to the wall.” He did not say so, but the effects on votes was also on their minds. Pragmatism, in other words, ruled OK.

It ruled again, a couple of years later, when the affairs of the long-ailing Upper Clyde Shipbuilders reached crisis point. A 1969 memorandum written by the mad marketeer Nicholas Ridley had advocated a complete government withdrawal from UCS but this kind of ideological approach was, even after Selsdon, in reality unacceptable. Pragmatism—a concern for the effects on employment and therefore on votes—demanded that, first, the Yarrow yard should be separated from UCS, with a sweetener in the form of a large government loan. Then, in February 1972, during a debate on unemployment, the decision was announced to bail out this latest “lame duck” with state aid.

By that time the Selsdon policy of non-intervention in wage bargaining had also gone by the board. In April 1971 Heath was “encouraged” when the secretary of the TUC, Vic Feather, offered to negotiate over an incomes policy, wrongly described as not only “voluntary” but also “new”. If Heath had stuck by the Selsdon policies he would not have been encouraged, but outraged, by Feather’s offer. By the autumn of 1972 we were back with an attempted government freeze on wage rises, through various stages of severity, policed by something called the Wages Board.

So Selsdon Man did not live long after the election which he had so generously helped the Tories to win. There are still attempts to bring him back to life; the wretched Trade Minister Stephen Byers was once an ardent advocate of the beneficial effectiveness of the market but—like those before him who were confronted with a similar problem—he had to stop his attempts at resuscitation when he met the crisis at Rover cars. Selsdon Man may have seemed to be before his time but he did achieve one thing—to expose how ready are politicians to abandon the plans which, they have solemnly assured us, are the one sure way of dealing with capitalism’s problems.

Editorial: Socialism — the efficient society (1978)

Editorial from the July 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

Much of the propaganda work of the Socialist Party of Great Britain is spent, before we are able to talk about the better world of socialism, in debunking the host of fallacies which support capitalism.

One of these is the idea that the profit motive in production makes for efficiency, that profit ensures we make goods which are needed (otherwise no one would buy them) and that those goods are turned out to the highest standards (otherwise they would not sell).

This fallacy sees the profit motive acting as a kind of agent of natural selection, in which anything unable to adapt to the demands of commodity production simply does not survive. And the logical development of this argument is that we are surrounded with the very best of goods, produced in just the quantities we need them and carried to wherever there is a demand for them.

It takes very little thought, or experience, to see that this is not true. To begin at the basis, capitalism produces wealth in the form of commodities — wealth which is turned out with the motive of selling it to realise a profit and to amass further wealth in the form of capital.

The first consequence of this is that, if there is no chance of a profit being realised, there is no production. In this situation it is of absolutely no consequence, that there may be a need for the wealth — people may be starving or homeless, but if the production of food or houses is not profitable they will not be made.

One result of this is unemployment, in which the normal everyday poverty of workers descends into outright destitution. Again, when this happens capitalism takes no account of people’s needs; there may be millions desperate for the little extra income which a job would bring them but if it is not profitable to employ them they will stand — and perhaps starve — on the dole queue.

The drive to produce for profit means that capitalism is always under pressure to turn out goods as cheaply as possible, since the lower a commodity’s cost of production the more scope there is for undercutting a rival’s commodities on the market and, if the market allows, the higher the profit which can be realised.

But producing things cheaply usually means that they are shoddy, sub-standard, jerry-built or even dangerous. It also means that human beings, who may be highly trained and knowledgeable, have used their skills and knowledge in ways which have demanded of them less than they are capable of; they have been forced to prostitute themselves in the cause of commodity production.

There have been many cases of this, which have been spectacular enough in their consequences to make them classic scandals of capitalism — buildings which have collapsed beneath their inhabitants or people needlessly diseased or killed, like the workers in the asbestos industry or the tragic victims of thalidomide.

In a world in which we can solve so many technological problems, and achieve to an extent which would have been regarded as miraculous only a short time ago, there is waste of wealth, restriction of production, unused working capacity and sub-standard production. And this mess is sold to us by what is called an industry — an army of advertising men whose job is to tell lies about things which they need know nothing about. And the whole thing is costed and accounted for by a further army — of accountants, bank clerks, invoice checkers — millions and millions of people simply wasting their lives away doing something which does not produce an ounce of wealth. By no standards of acceptable judgement can capitalism be described, then, as an efficient system of society. But we have not yet mentioned its supreme waste — the poverty to which it condemns its people. Commodity production means the vast majority are deprived of access to the means of producing wealth; left with nothing else, they have to sell their working ability in order to live.

But this labour power is itself a commodity and it is sold, overall, at its value — at what it takes to produce and reproduce the worker in terms of food, clothing, housing, recreation and so on. The effect of this is that the working class always live at the level of subsistence — sometimes, perhaps, rising a little above it while at other times they will fall below. But overall they exist at a level of existence which can only be called poverty.

At the same time, the other class in society — the capitalist class — because of their monopoly ownership of the means of production and distribution are able to live, if they wish, in idle luxury. Beside the poverty — and sometimes destitution — of the workers exists the opulence of the capitalists.

There is, then, a division of interests in society today, a class division which means that every social issue has two sides and that there can be no unity or co-operation. A divided society is not efficient — it is restrictive, hampered, stumbling along at a fraction of its real ability.

Socialists oppose capitalism because it is inefficient. We want a society in which human ability is given full reign, in which people can co-operate to use their abilities and knowledge to the full to produce wealth in abundance and to build a world of freedom and security. That is socialism — the efficient society.

Human energy and capitalist inefficiency (1978)

From the July 1978 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines efficiency as “the ratio of useful work performed to the total energy expended” meaning the greater the amount of energy input required to produce a given output the less efficient the work. So efficiency is a measure enabling us to compare different ways of achieving something with a view to minimizing energy input (including labour) and maximizing output. Such a comparison can be made between capitalism and socialism which would demonstrate how vastly more efficient would be the latter social system in utilizing the mental and physical energies of people to satisfy social needs.

This however prompts the question: what are social needs? From a human standpoint the answer is obvious: adequate and decent shelter, food, social amenities. What does not appear to be obvious to many outraged and idealistic observers of the appalling toll of human misery is that the worldwide capitalist mode of production is not and cannot be directly geared to the satisfaction of social needs. Under capitalism, wealth is produced as commodities for sale on a market with a view to profit. The fulfilment of human needs is incidental and secondary to this basic motivation. To sell his commodities the capitalist has to find buyers and people can only buy as much as they can afford. Thus the working class are condemned to poverty and to a permanent insufficiency of purchasing power which cannot be redressed by income redistribution (redistribution of poverty) or inflationary policies of printing more money.

Such deprivation is quite unnecessary. For decades the world has technically been capable of producing a superabundance of wealth to satisfy all mankind’s needs. The gap between this accelerating potential and actual output has widened immensely during this time. Experts compute that the world can comfortably support a population many times its present level with existing technology and “known” resource reserves. Patrick Moyniham, ex US Ambassador to the UN, has stated that India alone could feed the world. Historically capitalism has during its brief existence developed the forces of production immensely on the one hand and on the other, has increasingly restrained their application with insurmountable economic barriers.

Since capitalism artificially restricts production we can directly attribute to it the widespread poverty and its effects. One such effect is malnutrition. The magnitude of this problem was illuminated by a UN Food and Agricultural Organisation report in 1974, which revealed that an estimated conservative figure of 460 million people suffered from severe malnutrition prior to 1972 and this number has rapidly increased since then. The consequences are pervasive and profound as Professor Jean Mayer explained:
The child of a malnourished mother is more likely to be born prematurely or small and is at greater risk of death or of permanent neurological and mental dysfunction. Brain development begins in utero and is complete at an early age (under two). Malnutrition during this period when neurons and neural connections are being formed may be the cause of mental retardation that cannot be remedied by later corrective measures. The long term consequences not only for the individual but also for the society and the economy need no elaboration. (Scientific American Sept. 1976).
Moreover, millions are killed or maimed by stress and appalling cost-effective work conditions generated by the commercial rat-race. The resultant wearing and tearing of the fabric of social existence necessitates costly social services. Thus capitalism deliberately vitiates the quality and potential of human labour-power which might otherwise be efficiently expended in the production of wealth. Capitalism is incapable of efficiently applying existing technology to produce even the sort of conditions and requirements favourable to the reproduction and development of efficient labour- power on a satisfactory scale. Instead it creates a vicious circle of poverty and incompetence — as the social scientist, the late Oscar Lewis wrote: “Once the culture of poverty has come into existence it tends to perpetuate itself”.

But not only is capitalism wasteful in stifling its prodigious productive potential: the way in which it organizes manpower within its productive apparatus is itself an inherently inefficient process. This is because it generates priorities which stem directly from the way in which it functions as a mode of production. From the standpoint of actually improving the material wellbeing of society these priorities are socially useless and the rifulfilment engages a considerable and growing proportion of productive effort. Thus capitalism has spawned a gigantic administrative- bureaucratic edifice which has mushroomed in size and complexity in response to the developing economic requirements of the profit machine.

Economists refer to this process as tertiarization. A nation’s occupational structure can be divided into three broad categories: Primary or extractive sector, secondary or manufacturing sector and tertiary or services sector. According to one theory, the Clark-Fisher thesis, tertiary employment increases relative to total employment chiefly at the expense of primary employment in the course of development. The tertiary sector, which is the most advanced economies is the largest, includes a huge proportion of jobs which would be eliminated in socialism such as those in advertising, finance, government and retailing industries. The Clark-Fisher thesis has the qualified support of research findings. The growing proportion of socially useless employment is yet another indictment of capitalism’s obsolescence.

But waste does not end there. In an article in the Economist (30/7/76) it was revealed that office equipment makers predicted that by 1980 annual spending on office machinery will reach $3 billion at 1974 prices or £300 outlay for each of the 10.5 million office workers in Britain . . . who are largely concerned with the mechanics of capitalist finance and commerce. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

World military expenditure at £122,000m in 1976 is equal to the entire income of the poorer half of mankind. Nearly 30 per cent. of worldwide aluminium production is allocated to military usage. Yet war, for which armaments production is a preparation, is merely an inevitable extension of the normal commercial rivalries inherent in capitalism. Such examples represent an enormous drain of human energy and resources in primary and secondary sectors into activities which are socially useless but essential to the maintenance of capitalism—energy and resources which is socialism could be constructively applied to the betterment of society.

Even when workers are available capitalism is incapable, because of its finite markets, of assimilating them into its productive apparatus and yet a considerable amount of energy is expended in their maintenance through the “welfare state” machine (not that this is done out of charitable concern). Millions of even skilled workers with years of costly training invested in them are not permitted to make use of their abilities because they are unemployable or pensioned. This is a grossly inefficient use of available labour power.

Even the wasteful framework of capitalism’s production priorities workers are inefficiently used in relation to the technology at their disposal. Underemployment, as this is called, and unemployment in the so-called third world is flickering between 25 and 30 per cent and still rising according to the New Internationalist May 1974. Another dimension of this problem is the phenomenon of square-pegs-in-round-holes — workers economically compelled to work in particular jobs when their inclinations and skills lie elsewhere. A worker will be industrious and efficient when his interest is in his work. The alienation, drudgery and lack of variety which workers confined within the straitjacket of a “job” experience generally under capitalism must contribute immensly towards inefficient work performance.

What more could be said of capitalism, its planned obsolescence, its status-conscious meretricious trash, its coals-to-Newcastle phenomena, its rotting mountains of unsaleable food? It is a panorama of stupendous waste, of wasted human endeavour. Less obvious examples of waste emerge from a shadowy background of interacting factors congruent with and expressive of property society. Such examples are legion but one will suffice.

In many parts of North West Europe the cultivated land is fragmented into a mass of patches so that one man’s “farm” could consist of a number of plots interspersed among other farmers’ holdings and separated by long distances. As a result the efficiency of movement between plots is seriously impaired. Chisholm in Rural Settlement and Land Use calculated that in Europe “one third or even one half of the agricultural land is fragmented and in need of consolidation” (p. 46). Even without altering land use patterns — although the size and shape of properties can prohibit the use of efficient mechanised techniques for example the subdivision of inherited properties amongst third world peasants into tiny plots — the total transformation of the agrarian landscape on the basis of common ownership is the obvious solution to facilitate the most efficient utilization of the land.

There are many reformist groups who concern themselves with the problem of waste but who in fact employ an extremely narrow definition of waste which they invest with a sense of horror-stricken incredulous alarm as if all this pollution and rape of the land is something new in capitalism. Theirs is a hypothetical world of scarce resources, of exploding populations, of mounting insurmountable pollution levels. Where they circumscribe their notion of waste to what they see as just the excesses of the social system, socialists see waste as something integral to and ineradicable within the framework of commodity production. The destiny of the world has not been pre-programmed. Given the necessary socialist consciousness coupled with the latent productive potentialities imprisoned within the structure of the capitalist economy, the exhilarating vision of an efficient world without waste or want can become a reality.
Robin Cox