Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Letters: Galloway defended (2006)

Letters to the Editors from the August 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Galloway defended

Dear Editors

Pik Smeet’s article (July Socialist Standard) is yet another criticism of George Galloway which to my mind, although there are perhaps some valid points made, is not really very helpful in the immediate struggle that we of the Left need to advance against the creeping neo-fascism excreting from Number 10 and Washington D.C.

Galloway, regardless of his personal motives, is a voice in Parliament roundly criticizing the murderous policies of this mutant ‘ersatz’ Labour Government and its Washington cohorts. Where are the other voices?

Galloway is able to speak to the masses via the media. Maybe he’s not a one hundred percent ‘kosher’ socialist but ordinary people are hearing him and know about him and are thinking about what he is saying. ‘It’s no damn good refining our socialist ideas, concepts and understandings amongst ourselves. Socialists need to be out in the community at large offering the light of reason to the people. Galloway, for all his faults , is doing that.
Leo Aliferis (by email)

The message Galloway projects is hardly an advance for the working class. We refrained from retelling his ghastly support for Saddam Hussein: he went so far when he appeared on Big Brother as to claim that the Iraqis supported and were happy with that vile old-style fascist dictator; he even saluted Hussein to his face for his “strength [his] courage, [his] indefatigability”.

Far from being a voice for the oppressed in the mass media he is the voice of wealth and power in the Middle East, and his role in the workers’ movement is to poison it. Ordinary people hear this poison and think it has something to do with socialism.

 He and his ilk are just as great an enemy to the spread of socialist understanding as George Bush, and the Socialist Party must oppose them.
– Editors.

Ban the ultra-right?

Dear Editors

I read your article titled “the case against censorship” (March Socialist Standard). I am also in favour of freedom of speech. It is true that Islamists and racists as individuals should be free to express their viewpoints and that atheists and socialists should also be free to criticise them by any unconditional means they find appropriate.

Islam’s “prophet” knew how to read and write and wrote the Qoran that reflects the tribal beliefs of barbarian Arabs who lived in pre-feudal socio-economic conditions but announced that was unable to read and write and that the “holy” book had been “posted” by god to his address in Saudi Arabia.

Racists deny equal rights for non “white” and non “English” citizens of this country and want to apply force and remove them from this bullshit country and also answer workers’ and socialists’ demands for the right of freedom of speech, press and organization by police force, jail, torture and murder exactly like terrorist Muslims. In other words, they both represent social forces that want to add more dictatorship to the present level of dictatorship of capitalists and their murderous suppressive British regime.

I think that those Islamic organizations that support and organize terrorist activity and also “white founded” organizations that preach for “white power” or even “English power”, should be banned from doing activity, since every year quite a few “whites” and a few more “non whites” are killed by these terrorist organizations.

When we can make workers accept that ultra right, whether it is Muslim terrorist or racist fascist, should not exist as an organization we would deprive the capitalist ruling class of the use of the ultra right to suppress the looming socialist revolution by using these ultra reactionary forces as its political and suppression machine representatives.
Siamak Haghighat,

Reply :
We are opposed to appealing to the capitalist state to ban any political ideas. It doesn’t work anyway.
– Editors

Civil War in Uganda

Dear Editors,

There is a war which has been going on the Northern part of Uganda for now 20 years. This is a war between the Ugandan Government and the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel armed forces led by one Joseph Kony. It is clear that any solution resulting from violence or confrontation is not lasting. It is only through peaceful means that we can develop better understanding between ourselves.

Though lies and falsehood may deceive people temporarily and the use of force may control human beings physically, it is only through proper understanding, fairness and mutual respect that human beings can be genuinely convinced and satisfied.

 There is one world and we exist as one people in need of each other and with the same basic needs. There is far more that unites us than can ever divide us along cultural, nationalistic or religious lines.

Together we can create a civilization worth living in, but before that happens we need the conscious cooperation of ordinary people across the world, united in one common cause-to create a world in which each person has free access to the benefits of civilization, a world without frontiers or borders ,social classes or leaders and a world in which production is at last freed from the shackles of artificial constraints of profit and used for the good of humanity.

War is not about our interests, but those of the bosses who rob us so that they can be rich and powerful. War is about the competition between capitalists. If we are to die it will be for them. Think about that as the masters of war ask for your support in the prevailing wars. Why should we die defending what is not ours and which we will never benefit from?

On the contrary our object is to obtain what is not now the possession of our class, the earth and its natural and industrial resources. The class war between the parasites who possess and the workers who produce-is the real struggle that need concern us. And to win that war we need not initiate the violence which is characteristic of capitalism’s wars. The war we should advocate is that which has to be waged on the battle of ideas-for the hearts and minds of the world’s people. And once we unite there will be no force that will stop us taking the earth into our common possession. There is nothing natural about war. Are we born with a desire to kill people who speak a different language or who have a different skin colour?

No! In fact peaceful cooperation is more fitting for human beings who are potentially rational human beings.

Once we live in a world of common ownership and democratic control of resources, there will simply be no reason to kill one another. No empires to build or markets to expand or profits to increase.
Weijagye Justus, 
Kabale, Uganda

Globalisation – what does it mean? (2006)

From the August 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard
We begin a two-part article on the continuing surge in capitalist globalisation. This month we deal with the globalisation of capital.
Following the downfall of state capitalism in Eastern Europe the idea of one global market soon found common cause in neo-conservative and neo-liberal circles. Indeed, for these ideologists of capitalism the world market  only became truly global once the former state capitalist regimes threw open their doors to private finance and capital investment from the G7 nations. Obviously, for such thinking to take hold it had to ignore a multitude of historical facts concerning the economic development of capitalism and its eventual transformation into a world system.

In 1865, for example the first global regulatory agency was formed with the creation of the International Telegraph Union, along with the first global medical resource, which we know as the Red Cross. Also, if globalisation only took place when the G7 nations became G8 (with Russia joining) then the new ‘thinkers’ need to explain how two wars commonly referred to as world wars were fought over who was to dominate access to global raw materials and a market that was already global. Another historical fact that is largely ignored is that despite supposed ideological differences the trade between the state capitalist regimes and the rest of the world increased throughout the Cold War.

This is how the economist Keynes confirmed – rather belatedly – in the aftermath of World War One, the process of globalisation that had gone on until then: 
“What an extraordinary episode in the economic progress of man that age which came to end in August 1914! . . .  The inhabitant of London could order by telephone, sipping his morning tea in bed, the various products of the whole earth, in such quantity as he might see fit, and reasonably expect their early delivery upon his doorstep; he could at the same moment and by the same means adventure his wealth in the natural sources and new enterprises of any quarter of the world, and share, without exertion or even trouble, in their prospective fruits and advantages; or he could decide to couple the security of his fortunes with the good faith of the townspeople of any substantial municipality in any continent that fancy or information might recommend.” (The Economic Consequences of the Peace, 1919)
Coming from Keynes it would be rather naive to expect him to describe the wave of globalisation that had taken place around the turn of the twentieth century in terms other than pro-capitalist ones. For unlike Marx, who saw the main instrument for social change originating with the class conscious workers, Keynes was convinced throughout his life that the capitalist class held the centre stage, albeit with the need of some interventionist help from the state.

Marx had also predicted the potential for capitalism to become a global system, with its attendant economic, political and social consequences, when he and Engels drew up the Communist Manifesto in 1848. And he confirmed, far earlier than anyone else, the trend for capitalism to evolve towards economic interdependency and globalisation when Das Capital was published in 1867.

Spoils of war
The arguments over the benefits of ‘protectionism’ versus free trade that existed during the nineteenth century, and then in the periods just before and then after the First World War, were never entirely resolved within the capitalist class one way or another. Fierce arguments raged with various policy initiatives and reversals, though for most of the dominant states of the time (such as Britain) what passed for ‘free trade’ gained something of an ascendancy by stealth.

But in terms of the globalisation of the system, the most crucial event took place rather later, towards the end of another war caused by competition over economic power and military interests — World War Two. Significantly, in the summer of 1944 at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire the gangster representatives of 44 countries held a meeting to hammer out a deal on global trade and sharing the spoils of (the latest) war. This included the creation of the World Bank and the IMF and the initial setting up of a General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT),with the latter coming into force in 1948.

Although these new institutions eased the existing rules on tariffs and the movement of currency, by seeking common ground on exports and imports and Foreign Direct Investment (FDI), they had no powers to control new forms of protectionism that had been instigated by the major powers in order to maintain their market share and economic dominance. And this was reflected in what happened shortly after the Second World War ended, when the US introduced the Marshall Plan in 1949 involving $13.5 billion of loans by the US government to near-bankrupt European economies. All told $90 billion was steered towards 16 countries that agreed to move towards currency convertibility, lowered trade tariffs, who promoted exports to the US and who were ‘tough on communism’. This not only meant that the US export market was protected in Western Europe but was also, in retrospect the first economic warning shots in the start of the Cold War.

Cold War Economics
The Cold War itself proved to be a nice little earner for those countries in the “developing” world who allied themselves to either East or West, with most of the proceeds ending up in arms deals or directly into the pockets of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. Not that this bothered the developed countries, for during this period of Cold War economics many developing and undeveloped countries found themselves accepting loan agreements whether they wanted them or not – and with very favourable terms of borrowing at very low rates of interest, plus longterm payback dates. They seemed at the time to have little to lose by becoming debtor nations. As for the creditor nations, both East and West, their aim during the cold war was to increase their hegemony and market share by making the client debtor nations militarily and financially dependent on them as creditor states and to gain the upper hand over their competitors.

The loans themselves came from a variety of sources: manufacturing and financial businesses, banks, donor states, the IMF and the World Bank being the main lenders. Much of this money was lent under a ‘no risk’ guarantee covered by Export Credit Agreements (ECA), where individual donor states with their export agencies would underwrite the loans through aid contracts — specifying that the capital investment could only be spent through named companies established in the donor state.

For instance, the Nigerian government could have decided to build a university, and could approach a donor state like the UK to finance the project, both seeking agreement as to the profitability of the aid. The UK government would then stipulate that the university could to be built by a UK developer and equipped by British manufacturers and key posts staffed with British-trained personnel. Should the Nigerian government default on their repayments of the loan what would usually happen is that the UK would agree to pay off the loan under ECA if the Nigerian government issued a bond tied to a percentage of Nigerian oil exports in order to cover the amount owed. This would ensure the capital invested stayed in circulation via petrodollars, despite the losses incurred. Obviously, deals like this could only continue whilst there was sufficient confidence in the strength of the US-driven Western economies.

Crisis of Over-Accumulation
During the early 1970s this changed dramatically when loss of confidence over escalating costs of the Vietnam War became evident with many countries selling off their dollar reserves in favour of gold. Unable to withstand this pressure the US came off the Gold Standard in 1971 and allowed the fixed exchange rate system that was pegged to the dollar to collapse. The price of gold increased and there followed a period of financial instability which, in essence, reflected the return of economic crisis in the sphere of production, with economic downturns in major western economies and growing unemployment. It was at this time that the main oil-producing cartel dominated by capitalists in the Middle East (OPEC) decided to quadruple their oil prices. These events eventually flooded the North American and European financial markets with vast amounts of accumulated petrodollars searching for profitable investment that was difficult to find in the more ‘traditional markets’ of the post-war period. Due to the European Economic Community (EEC) at the time being insufficiently organised or integrated to attract the massive amounts of capital in the OPEC countries, some of it filtered towards the Pacific Rim, commonly referred to as the ‘Asian Tigers’.

With the exception of the Multi-fibre Agreement drawn up by GATT, much of this investment for Asia hit a variety of protectionist barriers on the export of capital. Although GATT tried to get around monetary restrictions with the introduction of the SWIFT system for electronic interbank fund transfers worldwide and other measures, the pressure for change in currency regulations intensified throughout the 1980s as capitalism’s trade cycle returned with a vengeance with plummeting production and soaring unemployment.

Out of this emerged what came to be called the ‘Washington Consensus’ instigated by the neo-liberals within the US Treasury, IMF and World Bank who advocated a programme to free up capital assets by: privatising state owned monopolies; reducing personal and business taxation; deregulating financial institutions; removing restrictions on FDI; and reducing public spending, particularly on welfare benefits. Urged on by the collapse of the state capitalist regimes who could not compete economically or militarily any longer with the dominant Western economies, the pressure continued to intensify for deregulation of currency movement and the abandonment of GATT, and its replacement by the World Trade Organisation. This eventually took place in 1995 and under it trade and the movement of currency and capital assets has had a much more straightforward path to profitable markets.

Deregulation of currency movement and the removal of restrictions on FDI, however, proved to be just too late for the developing countries on the Pacific Rim. By 1997 these countries had found their credit was severely overextended, delivering a lower rate of profit than predicted by the pundits and speculators of the financial institutions. The unintended consequence of the crisis in South East Asia was the acceleration of the movement of currency into other areas still — like China and India — where there were better prospects of profits.

This is the nature of capitalism for the accumulation of capital is dependent on economic growth, regardless of the risk attached, and is essential to the workings of a system that puts competition and the pursuit of profit, at each link in the chain — from production to distribution and eventual sale to the consumer — above all else.

With the velocity facilitated by the internet, clearly the overall economic trend is towards short-term profits through FDI, currency speculation and by squeezing market share of competitors, particularly in manufacturing and services. But that does not mean that the developed countries are solely concentrating their investments in the developing countries — far from it. The greater volume of trade and investment is still between the G8 countries themselves who, forced by global market conditions, have taken into account the relative economic, political and social stability of the developed world, compared to what they would sometimes gain from relatively precarious investment in any of the developing, or even undeveloped countries.

Generally, what is most noticeable about this economic activity is that all the developing countries targeted by the World Bank, IMF and the WTO were selected because they have access to sufficient energy and water supplies to sustain a short-term industrialisation programme, rather than sustained long-term growth. For example, China is scouring the world for all the uranium ore available and every drop of oil necessary to accomplish its aim of overtaking Japan and becoming the main industrial nation in South East Asia and second to the US globally. And China is currently finding it very difficult to meet the increased demand for electricity and for bottled and industrial water, and consequently using 47 percent of the world’s cement to complete the damming of the Yangzi, and meet their targets on urbanisation and industrial capacity. In effect the Chinese have soon come to realise that without sufficient energy and water their plans for long-term growth are unachievable. Although this economic targeting over energy and water resources is undoubtedly a high-risk strategy, and has all the potential for military conflicts over essential resources, it is one explanation why the emphasis is on short-term profit and speculation.

What is also apparent is that the freeing up of the movement on capital has not entirely been accompanied by a corresponding deregulation in the movement of labour. Indeed, the restrictions on immigration have been tightened in some cases, and strictly enforced by some countries to hold back the flood of economic, and mostly illegal, immigrants chasing the movement of capital in the developed and developing countries. These phenomena have led to the growth in human trafficking — and the casualties are being found suffocated in the back of lorries at Dover harbour, or drowned on a beach in Morecambe Bay or even crushed by a train in the Eurotunnel.

There are also other risks associated with the pursuit of industrial growth in the developing world, the most obvious one being the spread of AIDS, particularly in Africa where it has been helped along by a tenfold increase in the transportation of commodities. And then there’s the risk that the increase in global pollution and the onset of global warming will put severe pressure on the relocation of coastal communities.

A less immediately obvious risk is of an increase in capitalist industrial growth in some countries facilitating and encouraging the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction and their eventual use in competitive power struggles between states. These and other risk factors can only accelerate as the demands for more energy and water increase in line with industrial growth.

The reasons why these patterns of risky economic activity are so pronounced are many and varied, but all are nonetheless based on capitalism’s inherent competitive drive to maximise profits regardless of the consequences. The actual growth in economic development in parts of the developing world attracting investment has been on a tremendous scale with developing countries like Brazil, China and India sucking in vast amounts of capital to increase their infrastructure and manufacturing base. In particular the annual percentage increase in GDP for China (9.8) and India (8.1) illustrates how these economies are being dramatically reshaped in the interests of capitalism.
Brian Johnson

Next month: the impact that the continuing surge in globalisation is having on people in the developing and undeveloped countries.

Who Are the Looters? (2006)

From the August 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard
A year after hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans we look at what was a media obsession at the time.
What is the first priority of government in the wake of disaster? Saving lives? Looking after the survivors? Disposing of the dead and preventing epidemics? Think again. At best these things come second. The first priority of government in the wake of disaster is exactly the same as its first priority at other times: maintaining or restoring “order” – that is, its powers of coercion.

 Moreover, the first purpose of “order” is to protect and enforce property rights. From this point of view, the main threat posed by disasters like Hurricane Katrina is not the threat to human life and health, to the environment, or even to the economy. It is the threat of “chaos,” the threat to “order” and “civilization,” but above all to property, arising from the temporary breakdown of government.

 The “looter” symbolizes and dramatizes this threat, conjuring up images of Viking warriors on the rampage, barbaric violence, evil incarnate. Of course, these particular “Vikings” were all the more terrifying for being black. In the days that followed the hurricane, the media stirred up racist fears of the poor black people of New Orleans, spreading rumours (the fashionable expression is “urban myths”) later shown to be exaggerated out of all proportion, if not completely unfounded. For example, in the week following Katrina the number of murders was average for the city (four) (see Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan, The Storm, pp. 124-8).

 All in all, we shouldn’t be too shocked or too surprised to learn that at 7 p.m. on Wednesday August 31, 2005 martial law was declared in the flooded city. Mayor Ray Nagin told police officers to stop rescuing people and focus solely on the job of cracking down on looters. This was just two and a half days after the hurricane made landfall and with thousands of people still stranded in attics and on rooftops.

 In one typically heroic encounter, police officers chased down a woman with a cart of supplies for her baby, handcuffed her – and then didn’t know what to do with her. All the jails were flooded. By the end of the week that problem was solved. A new makeshift jail was set up at the Greyhound bus terminal, with accommodation for 750 prisoners. This was the first institution in the city to resume normal functioning.

 True, it could have been worse. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 people were shot dead as looters while foraging in the wreckage of their own homes (see G. Hansen and E. Condon, Denial of Disaster, 1989). .Why did people loot? Or to use less loaded language, why did they take things that didn’t belong to them without paying for them?

 One man answered a TV interviewer who had asked him why he was looting by asking in turn: “Can you see anyone to pay?” The stores had been abandoned by their operators, but people still needed the things stored there. They needed food and fresh water, dressings for their wounds, new clothes to replace those ruined by exposure to the “toxic gumbo” of the floodwaters. Most of the so-called looting was of this kind – for the satisfaction of desperate need. In any sane society that would be a good enough reason for taking things.
Two paramedics from San Francisco who found themselves trapped in New Orleans wrote about the Walgreens store on the corner of Royal and Iberville Streets in the French quarter. The owners had locked up and fled. Milk, yogurt, and cheese could be seen through the window in the dairy display case, spoiling in the heat.

 Should we expect the parents of hungry and thirsty children not to break in, even at the risk of being pursued by the police? Would they have been good parents had they failed to do all in their power to see to their children’s needs? And what of storeowners who choose to let food go to waste rather than give it to needy neighbours? My first impulse is to wax lyrical about the sheer meanness of their behaviour. But probably they made no such conscious choice. As businesspeople they must have thought of the food and drink in their store not as products for assuaging hunger and thirst, but merely as commodities for profitable sale. If they could no longer be sold they might just as well go to waste.

 There were looters who acted not just for themselves and their families but for the benefit of the local community. For instance, the young men who collected medical supplies from a Rite Aid for distribution among elderly neighbours. Or the man who distributed food from a Winn-Dixie store to the 200 or so people holed up at the Grand Palace Hotel. “He was trying to help suffering people, and the idea that he was looting never crossed his mind.”

Socially responsible people of this kind are sometimes described as “commandeering” or “requisitioning” the goods they seize. That may well be how they view their own actions. In legal terms, however, only government officials, as representatives of duly constituted authority, have the right to commandeer or requisition property in an emergency. Private citizens who do so, whatever their motives, are engaging in theft and may be penalized accordingly.
Consider the feat of Jabar Gibson. This resourceful young man, purely on his own initiative, found a bus that was still in working order (the city authorities assumed that all buses had been ruined by the floodwater), took charge of it, filled it up with evacuees, and drove them to Houston. This was the first busload of evacuees to reach Houston after the storm (at 10 p.m. on Wednesday August 31). The police were forewarned that a “renegade bus” was on its way; if they had intercepted it Jabar might have been arrested and charged with theft. Fortunately he was in luck: he got through to his destination, to be greeted by Harris County Judge Robert Eckels. Presumably his crime has been forgiven.

 Of course, not all looters were responding to real personal, family, or community needs. Some were simply taking a rare opportunity to acquire coveted though non-essential consumer goods. For others looting (and shitting in) fancy stores was a form of social protest or “empowerment,” an outlet for pent-up anger against the endlessly advertised world of affluence from which they felt excluded.  

Finally, there was a phenomenon that I propose calling “entrepreneurial looting.” Entrepreneurial looters gathered assets with a view to later sale. As they got stuff for free, they could sell at any price and still make a profit. For example, “urban foresters” went after valuable lumber. Other entrepreneurs sold looted liquor. The cases of large-scale organized looting by armed groups (their weapons also probably looted) that received so much publicity must, I think, have been of this character. 

Brinkley reports an interesting conversation between Lieutenant Colonel Bernard McLaughlin of the Louisiana National Guard and a man selling liquor at a makeshift bar. When McLaughlin tells the bartender he is shutting him down, the man replies that he is “just being entrepreneurial.” Why shouldn’t he make some money? McLaughlin gets angry at this appeal to “true American” values. “This is looting. You looted that … That’s a 15-year felony. That’s a 3-year mandatory minimum sentence.” The man submits and McLaughlin proceeds to smash his bottles one by one. And yet the preceding account makes clear that McLaughlin’s real objection to such bars has nothing to do with the provenance of the alcohol. He doesn’t want the locals drinking alcohol because it makes them more quarrelsome and disorderly as well as further dehydrating their bodies. Would he have allowed the bar to stay open if it was selling – or giving away – only looted fruit juice, soda, and bottled water? Legally, however, looting remains “a 15-year felony,” be its social consequences good or bad. Property is sacred.

 The bartender might also have tried to point out in his defence that historically all capitalist enterprise is based on looting. Early capitalism looted land and other resources from peasants (in Europe) and from indigenous peoples (throughout the Americas and other colonial territories).The looting even extended to the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of human beings, such as the ancestors of most victims of Hurricane Katrina. Marx called it the primitive accumulation of capital.

 Looting is as American as cherry pie; the looters of New Orleans are keeping up an old American tradition and should surely receive all due credit as good patriots. But… it depends on whose possessions you loot, doesn’t it?

(Sources: Douglas Brinkley, The Great Deluge (New York: HarperCollins, 2006); Understanding Katrina website (understandingkatrina.ssrc.org), Kaufman.)

Calling Home (2006)

From the August 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

One aspect of globalisation is out-sourcing or offshoring: moving jobs from a country where they've traditionally been performed to another, usually on the grounds of lower wages and therefore higher profits. This has already happened with many manufacturing jobs: work is now carried out in China and India rather than in Britain or elsewhere in Western Europe.

But factories aren't the only workplaces to be outsourced, for it also applies to one of the 'boom' occupations of recent years, namely workers in the call centres which are often now the only way to contact your bank, insurers or credit card company. A huge office-cum-warehouse where employees essentially just answer the phone all day doesn't need to be in the same country as the caller or the company's head office. After all, if you live in Dover it probably doesn't matter if your call is answered by someone in Delhi rather than Darlington — indeed you may well not know where the person at the other end of the phone line is. Hence many call centres operate in India, which has a ready and keen supply of educated English-speakers. Workers there are given special classes in British TV, especially soap operas, so they can engage in chit-chat with callers, who often want to do a bit more than just talk about their bank account. Savings for the employers could be as much as 50 percent over a similar operation in Britain.

But now it seems that all is not so rosy in the garden of the outsourced call centre (Guardian, 30 June). For one thing, workers in India have turned out to be not so docile or grateful for the work after all, as absenteeism and staff turnover approach levels found in the UK. This is what happens with so many of the jobs resulting from globalisation: they're boring, there's no career structure, and workers are subject to a lot of petty controls such as the time taken for breaks. And for another, there have been complaints about poor service, and some companies make a point of advertising the fact that their own call centres are still in Britain. There's no doubt some prejudice operating here, against non-native speakers of English, but if companies lose customers because of their perceptions about call centres then they will sit up and take notice.

The sting in the tail of the Guardian article is the information that an Indian out-sourcing company is intending to set up a large new call centre in Belfast, attracted by the cheap property prices there. Capitalism truly is a global system, and those who own the means of production will go to any lengths to boost their profits.
Paul Bennett

Pensions myth (2006)

Book Review from the forthcoming August 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Phil Mullan: The Imaginary Time Bomb. Why An Ageing Population is not a Social Problem. (IB Taurus.)
There are too many old people. They are becoming an unsupportable burden on the pensions and health systems. If nothing is done about it there will be a generation war between pensioners and the decreasing proportion of those of working age.

So runs the argument consistently put over by the media. But, according to Mullan, it’s a myth based on faulty statistics, disguising a hidden agenda by people who want to cut pension and welfare benefits for other reasons and/or want to make money by selling private pensions.

He points out that while the proportion of over-64s in the population is indeed rising this is mainly a reflection of a reduced birth rate in the past, which has meant a fall in those now in the 16-64 age range. This has happened before in the last century without the dire consequences now being predicted. Most estimates, he says, don’t take into account the reduced expenditure on the under 16s that a fallen birth rate means nor the fact that a significant proportion of the 16-64s are also not working, not just the disabled and the recorded unemployed but also many who are on “incapacity” benefit as early retirees to whom capitalism denies a job.  Nor does it take into account the fact that over time the productivity of those at work rises nor that the health of the over-64s is improving.

 So, for Mullan, the “pensions time bomb” is an imaginary threat, but not just a panic cynically stirred up by vested interests. It is also a reflection of what he calls the current “age of anxiety” where : 
“The feeling of uncertainty and insecurity influences discussion and debate in all sphere’s of life. Politicians have lost popular authority and have tended to limit their objectives. The main idea coming out of political think tanks on both sides of the Atlantic seems to be that there are no more ‘big ideas’. Most Western governments have adopted a narrower agenda of managing what exists rather than seeking to intervene in society in pursuance of more ambitious aims. . . Interacting with the √©lite’s loss of nerve, the erosion of previous collectivities is a major source for this popular mood. The demise during the 1980s of trade unions and of less formal mechanisms of support, solidarity and community have left people more on their own than ever to face the problems of everyday life. The social fragmentation and individuation thas made life seem more insecure”.
This pessimism, bred (we would add) by the inability of capitalism to meet needs and by the failure of reformism last century, is the fertile ground on which the vested interests concerned have been able to sow this particular panic.
Adam Buick

“Red Elvis” (2006)

Radio Show Review from the August 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Dean Reed: Death of a Comrade. Radio 2, 11 July. Presented by Mark Lamarr.

For a time in the 1970s, Dean Reed was probably the best-known American in South America and Eastern Europe. Though, as he sang, “Nobody knows me back in my home town.” Born in Denver in 1938, Reed was a rock singer who never quite made the big time in the US. Understandably enough, he felt that nobody who worked in Hollywood could keep their integrity.

When one of his records became a hit in Chile, he travelled there to perform and was struck by the obvious inequalities in power and wealth. He later settled in Argentina, but after some unwelcome attention from the dictatorship he moved to Europe. His left-wing views attracted the attention of cultural bosses in Russia, and he was invited there. He became a great success with young people in eastern Europe, who were keenly interested in Western popular music.

In 1973 Reed decided to move to East Germany permanently. The secret police or Stasi were initially suspicious of him and spied on him, but they later tried unsuccessfully to recruit him as an agent. By the 1980s, however, he was no longer a star in Eastern Europe, as younger musicians from the West were touring there. He considered returning to the US, but remarks on radio and TV chat shows (e.g. comparing Reagan to Stalin and defending the Berlin Wall) led to him receiving hate mail. In June 1986 he was found dead in a lake near his home in East Berlin – officially an accident but probably suicide.

Mark Lamarr’s programme contained interviews with people who knew Reed and excerpts from his (unexceptional) music. It also made the point that he failed to see how ordinary East Germans felt about the regime that governed them and how they viewed him as an establishment figure. So the rebel became another apologist for the Bolshevik dictatorship, one who certainly would have had no place in a unified Germany.
Paul Bennett

Canned Laughter (2006)

From the August 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Some people, including some socialists, used to get quite irritated about the way that recorded laughter was inserted into, first radio, then television, shows that went under the generic heading of comedy. But we have slowly got used to this feature of modern life in capitalist society.

It is almost universal now. It is applied to quality comedy and poor comedy; those with real audiences and those with no possibility of an audience at all in the location of the action. Like anti-depressant drugs, canned laughter is prescribed for nearly everybody. Because, let’s face it, much of the time, if you didn’t laugh, you’d cry.

Many aspects of living in this increasingly dysfunctional world society are moving in the same direction. In Japan, as well as North America and Europe shopping has become the diversionary avenue of seeking feel-good factors. Clothes, to make us feel good about our appearance; various types of car, to make us comfortable about our status among our neighbours; health foods, to make us feel healthy; exotic foods to make us feel opulent; gyms, to make us feel confident or even superior about our physical fitness and sexual attractiveness. Houses, gardens, kitchens, etc., etc. Our electronic gadgetry, from mobile phones and digital cameras to MP3 recorders and players, offer us more power to do things we hadn’t even thought of and probably will never try.

The planet is being pillaged, plundered and polluted to make commodities for us to buy, partly because we need them and capital must have the flow of profit, but increasingly in the effort to obliterate our basic hunger for freedom, the one thing we cannot have. Like canned laughter, the temporary lift we get from commodity gratification is artificial,false. It hides a bad joke.
R. C.

50 Years Ago: Drugs and the Death Penalty (2006)

The 50 Years Ago column from the August 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard 

While the controversy about the abolition of hanging has been causing such a furore in this country, a significant change in the American law recently has passed by almost without comment. This is the passing by Congress of the Bill aimed at the drug traffic in the United States, which includes in its provisions increased penalties for trafficking in drugs and, in particular, the death penalty for those found guilty of selling heroin to young people under 18. The background of the Bill, the drug traffic,was recently reported on by a US correspondent of the Economist (14th July, 1956). The picture is horrifying.

 According to the Economist’s correspondent the United States is said to have more drug addicts that all the other Western nations combined, and the authorities are engaged in a constant battle against the traffic. The main impetus to it is given by the needs of 60,000 addicts who are prepared to spend anything from $10 to $100 a day to satisfy their craving. To get this money, many of them resort to crime, and it has been said that about half of the crimes committed in large cities and about a quarter of crimes in the US are the result of this drive to get drugs.

The police seem to be able to do little more than hold their own. Smuggling is fairly easy, and rife. The product is small and expensive, and profits are huge – nine ounces of uncut heroin can earn $50,000 when diluted for retail sale. New pedlars soon step in to take the places of those arrested and put in gaol.

 Apart from the sale of such vicious drugs as heroin, there is a large business done in other less dangerous drugs, much of it barely legal. In the words of the Economist :-
“But the narcotics problem extends beyond the underworld; it reaches on to the counters of unscrupulous chemists. Housewives eager to lose weight take amphetamines and do not realise that they have become addicts until it is too late. Officials are also worried about the widespread use of barbiturates (sleeping pills). In theory these are obtainable only with a physician’s prescription; in fact many chemists will sell them and users do not realise that addiction leads to grave dangers to mental health”. 
Altogether a terrible story. And made even more dreadful by the extension of the death penalty to try to deal with it.

(Article by S. H., Socialist Standard, August 1956).

Greasy Pole: Be kind to a hoodie (2006)

The Greasy Pole column from the August 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Although David Cameron, in his speech on youth offending, did not actually advise us to get out and hug as many hoodies as we could find, he should have suspected that his speech about the need to “…understand what’s gone wrong in these children’s lives” would be quickly summarised by the media in those sensationalist terms.

 Perhaps he thought he was being original (he wasn’t) or courageous (gambling would be more accurate) or progressive (in fact it’s all be thought of and said before). By the time of his speech hoods and hoodies had become, in New Labour speak and other such trendy verbiage, an issue.

For example last May the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent banned anyone wearing a hood, along with those who swore or behaved in similarly challenging ways. But there were apparent problems in this as there has yet to be a satisfactory definition of a hoody – does the term include the enthusiasts who gather on railway platforms to make a note of train numbers? When does an anorak become a hood, with all that implies in terms of a threat to mug old ladies who have just collected their pension from the post office? If a hood is made of the finest cashmere wool and sold in a trendy Notting Hill boutique is it still an aid to an offender trying to hide their identity? And what would the genuine hoodie think about having a fleshy Old Etonian approach him in the street, when he was out looking for an opportunity to do a bit of swift robbery, and start to hug him? Wouldn’t that be enough to put anyone off a life of crime forever?

Bluewater said they were delighted at the effect of their measure, which they claimed was responsible for a marked increase in their customers – although how many of  these were reporters and assorted media hacks is not known. Hood manufacturers made no comment; the company Bon prix continued to advertise its wares with pictures of pretty girls and muscular, handsome young men and slogans like “Ladies, your favourite hoodies at great prices . . .” Tony Blair was delighted – with his eye on the readership of the Daily Mail he recruited Bluewater’s experience as justification for his government’s introduction of Anti Social Behaviour Orders. Amid the panic a few voices were raised in question – like Harold Williamson, a policy researcher at Cardiff University, who thought “We need more politicians who are courageous, who stand up and say ‘Look, this is a complex issue and we need to think about it seriously’”. And there was David Cameron, adopting the role of the courageous politician who had something to gain by taking a markedly different, possibly unpopular, line :
 “The hoodie is a response to a problem, not a problem in itself…But hoodies are more defensive than offensive. They’re a way to stay invisible in the street. In a dangerous environment the best thing to do is keep your head down, blend in, don’t stand out.”
And then, crucially:
“… it’s about family breakdown. It’s about drugs, it’s about alcohol abuse, often it’s young people who are brought up in care when they should be in loving homes."           
Children Acts
This did not go down well with Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells (and, as we shall see, of Bromley and Chislehurst), who would have preferred the traditionally tougher attitude Cameron had expressed only weeks before, when he assured the Centre for Policy Studies that "We support tougher sentences" and ". . . improving the effectiveness of the courts, and the CPS, and making sure that our prisons really work". Furious Tory bloggers declared that they would never vote for the party while he was leader. Labour spin doctors, grateful for this opportunity to label the Tories as soft on crime, trotted out slogans about Hoody hugging. Nobody seemed to notice that Cameron was a bit out of date, in that he was advocating something which once almost had the status of accepted wisdom and was an article of faith among Labour Party members. The Children and Young Persons Act of 1969 was something of a zenith in the post war reformist legislation about crime. It was intended to deal with youngsters who had committed offences through local authority "care" rather than the courts. Decisions about whether a young offender stayed at home or went into residential care would be taken by Social Workers instead of magistrates (which did not please many a magistrate). The Act was driven by a mass of enquiry such as the Longford Committee which was set up in 1964 by the Labour government and which concluded that many of the offences by youngsters could be accounted for by their social conditions and that, therefore, the remedy lay in an examination of those conditions. In 1968 the Home Office stated that
"It has become increasingly clear that social control of harmful behaviour by the young, and social measures to help and protect the young, are not distinct and separate processes. The aims of protecting society from juvenile delinquency, and of helping children in trouble to grow up into mature and law-abiding persons, are complementary and not contradictory."
That was a long time ago, before the political parties concluded that there were more votes to be won through a repressive, rather than permissive, policy about crime and punishment. Michael Howard was among the more adept at this, rousing Tory conferences with flaming speeches on the theme that prison worked, advising criminals that "if you can't do the time then don't do the crime". Then there was John Major whingeing that what was needed was to "condemn a little more and understand a little less". And now there is Tony Blair and "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" which, as time passes and the criminal statistics do not support Blair's optimism, has come to mean simply being tough on crime. It will be interesting to see how long Cameron is able to persist with the policy of "understanding" and "loving"; he could not have been encouraged by the result of the by-election in Bromley and Chislehurst which, the first test of his popularity since he won the Tory leadership, saw the 13,342 majority of the staunchly right wing Eric Forth slashed to just 633.

Cameron is being accused now by his own membership of changing the Tory party so that it is almost indistinguishable from the Labour Party. Indeed, in the matter of the hoodies he has said more than Blair at his most ambitious would have dared to. Perhaps, like Blair and his drive to erect New Labour, Cameron calculates that his best chance of winning power is to make the two parties so similar that it is not just impossible but also pointless to search for enough difference between them to be worth a vote either way. But reality is clear. The politics of capitalism is the process of choosing between two or more parties which to all intents and purposes are identical. To make that choice is crass futility, while capitalism's problems, like violent crime, remain impervious to all efforts to legislate them out of existence. Instead, why not go out and hug a hoodie?