Thursday, August 4, 2022

Capitalism rips us off, NGOs soothe the pain (2000)

From the July 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
When governments and business have done with keeping us in line and exploiting us, NGOs step in to soothe us with left-overs

“Give us fish and you feed us for a day, Give us the fishing rod and you feed us for life”
Non-governmental organisations in general come in to assist where governments fail. Today however many of them claim they are now shifting their focus to the economic development of poor countries. But it is common knowledge, from the concrete situation on the ground, that the main thrust of NGO activity is still within the framework of alleviation and not eradication of poverty and want. And even in that regard, a cursory glance at their intervention reveals nothing but a catalogue of failures and deceit. But what else is expected of any organisation that tries to reform a system which is inherently evil and incorrigible? In this article three reasons are advanced to explain why NGOs are like the proverbial decorated donkey which is “still an ass”.

The unholy trinity
Even if NGOs were groups genuinely seeking, on humanitarian grounds, to reach out to the needy (as some may honestly do) they would still not escape being branded blind groups groping in the dark. But a closer scrutiny of the entire NGO set-up reveals almost a sinister plot against the wretched of the earth—those whose suffering they claim to be alleviating. This is easily understood when one considers the life and role of the NGO as being largely determined by a three-dimensional interplay of forces.

To begin with, it is evident that governments, big business and NGOs constitute the three sides of a triangle. The three are one and their efforts are complementary. Are we in the poor peripheral countries not constantly reminded, both in the print and electronic media, of some three “basic facts”?
(a) that government has no business doing business, that government only provides an “enabling environment” for free trade,
(b) that the business community, aka Foreign Direct Investment, aka private sector is the key to, and the engine of, our economic development,
(c) and that NGOs are partners in development, the third estate of African economic development.
In real terms what the three propositions mean is that whilst governments keep the people in check with their armies, police, prisons, the judiciary, etc, the capitalists rip us off through exploitation and retrenchment. The NGOs then intervene to soothe, console and cajole the victims with sweets and second-hand (discarded) materials.

Though this unholy collaboration is done in a discreetly Mafia-like style, it is not uncommon, once in a while, to see such back-scratching manifested openly. A case was seen in Ghana in the mid-1990s, when an NGO—The 31st December Women’s Movement—diverted huge sums of aid money to the ruling NDC government to foot its electioneering campaign bills. Another example of this government/NGO collaboration is the issue of World Vision International helping the Honduran government to track down and kill suspected dissidents (Graham Hancock, Lords of Poverty, London, 1989). Where NGOs fail, to fulfil their part of the unwritten connivance, governments do not hesitate to take firm measures against such NGOs. In 1989, for instance, when Oxfam advocated sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa, it (Oxfam) was censured by the England and Wales Charity Commission for contravening UK charity law. Then in 1995 the Ghanaian government was bitterly confronted by the opposition for trying to impose an NGO Act on the people. The law was meant to boot out all NGOs which were not subservient to the government. In a similar vein, NGOs are known to be promoters of big business through the purchase of (sometimes expired) drugs and food and also obsolete or faulty machinery. It is on record for instance that Bob Geldof’s Band Aid wasted $4 million in purchasing eighty unusable lorries from a Kuwaiti business group and dumped the junk as aid to Sudan (Independent, 25 November 1987).

Fund raising
The second dimension to the three-pronged characteristics of the NGO system relates to their source of funds. It is an undeniable fact that individuals filled with fellow feeling donate to NGOs to assist the needy. However, large sums do come from owners of capital, corporate bodies and governments. The donations of these latter, like “aid” in a profit-oriented society, are not without ulterior motives and strings. Who pays the piper calls the tune and even since one does not bite the finger that feeds one, whatever well-meaning intentions that motivated the setting up of the NGO is sooner or later compromised in favour of having more funds. They would henceforth dance to the tune of “major” donors and benefactors.

Such tendencies reduce many an NGO to a complete business enterprise where “profit” now their major concern. This is expressed in the methods employed to attract funding. Advertising is an expression of an unwholesome competition in the quest for profits. NGOs spend huge sums on adverts. Sometimes this is done using typical capitalist fraudulent methods. A clear example is the famous “wire fraud” of World Vision International, on the Los Angeles-based relief agency Operation California. The latter had organised a fundraising concert for Kampuchea refugees which was televised by CBS. Unknown to the organisers WVI had managed to have its toll-free number flashed at regular intervals during the concert for potential donors to pay into that account (The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio, 21-27 December 1982).

Another dishonest method of ensuring a bumper harvest is the raising of false alarms through a gross exaggeration of the plight of “vulnerable groups”. In the NGO business the commodity is the misery of the downtrodden. So intense is this hunt for super-profits that the bugbear of unhealthy rivalry (typical of big business) often raises its ugly head within the NGO community. Part of the causes of the Somali famine in the late 1980s , for instance, was a result of the refusal by relief groups to heed Oxfam’s fully substantiated warning of imminent hunger. These agencies rejected the warning just so that Oxfam would not take the credit (Lords of Poverty).

The result of this business-oriented voluntarism is the tendency to accumulate. The recent imprisonment of Allan Boesak in South Africa for embezzling NGO funds is only the tip of the iceberg. There is also the case of International Christian Aid (ICA) a US-based NGO, which was accused, in 1985, by the UN and the US State Department of failing to send anything to Ethiopia though it had raised $18 million for famine there (Daily Mail, 14 January 1985). Many more monstrous cases of this nature are either not discovered or hushed up in the interests of the dubious capitalist fraternity. Thus set up to help the needy NGOs often only help themselves.

Needless to say, the work and assistance programmes of NGOs cannot be anything but a red herring. Having been brought into existence by the exploitative money-oriented system and being completely dependent on the same underhand methods of this unfeeling system for their survival what else can the activities of NGOs be if not messing about in trivialities? The main problem confronting humanity revolves around ownership of the means and instruments for producing and distributing (social) wealth. How many NGOs mount platforms to explain this simple truth to their target groups? How many NGOs ever distribute tracts about working people replacing this profit-oriented system with a higher social system based on collective and democratic ownership of the means and instruments of production?

It is not by accident therefore that NGO activities in poor southern countries never approach education, shelter, food, clothing, healthcare, etc with a view to finding a lasting solution to them. These areas are the exclusive lucrative business of private capital. A good lot of NGO programmes involve organisation of seminars and talk-shops on such superstructural issues such as female circumcision, the empowerment of women, prostitution, drug abuse, etc. Most of the relatively few projects end up as white elephants or never even get complete. No wonder then that as the number of NGOs keeps rising, ignorance, homelessness, hunger, poverty, disease, etc are getting out of control (instead of the other way round).

Of course poverty and want are necessary offshoots of the capitalist socio-economic formation. Trying to get rid of the former whilst leaving the latter intact amounts to putting the cart before the horse. The only genuine assistance the NGO community could lead to the suffering people of this capitalist world is to stop collaborating with the owners of capital and instead, join forces with socialists to get rid of this system based on money. NGOs could use their resources to help usher in a system where production is not for profits’ sake but for the satisfaction of needs. Under such a system nobody will have to run around begging for funds in order to help the needy—in fact there wouldn’t be any more needy people.
Suhuyini Nbang-Ba, 

LETS not make the same mistake again (2000)

Book Review from the July 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
Alternative currencies are coming back into favour but, as a solution to the problems of capitalism, they have been tried before, more than once, and each time have been found wanting. This time will be no different.
According to David Boyle in his recent book Funny Money there are various local currencies currently in use in the USA: (1) “social money” (particularly involved with helping old people, reforming young offenders etc); (2) “labour money” (exchangeable scrip received for work done); and (3) “local currencies” (based on a fixed amount of a commodity – e.g. $10 of meals in a restaurant or a cord of wool!). Essentially these are all variations upon LETS.

In the old days poor folk used to do each other favours—a lift to town or some home-grown veg. Sadly this sort of social behaviour is disappearing and alienated individuals often need an intermediary to be brought together. This is what the local currencies can do. There is therefore some use for such self-help schemes within capitalism.

These kind of currency schemes are also useful to socialists in showing how people can co-operate—how human nature is not just all war and whacking off. In many cases (in particular the “Time Dollars” used in Washington) the system is little more than the able-bodied doing something for the old folk. Charity, if you want to sneer, but all the same a form of voluntary labour for the good of the community, surely the basis of work in socialism. As an addition one might add that in the Washington case the scrip is a useful way of indicating the extent of voluntary work done by an individual.

If these currency cranks stuck to giving lifts to old ladies and trading organic lentils between themselves nobody would be particularly interested. But they’ve got bigger plans. According to Boyle these local currencies are “revolutionary” and “will turn the world upside down”, poverty will be abolished and it is even predicted that “Funny Money” will solve the Northern Ireland conflict (this is reminiscent of the Pankhursts’ claim that female suffrage would abolish prostitution and VD).

Like all reformist schemes the problem lies not in these flabby and ineffectual palliatives themselves but in the hope attached to them by often desperate members of the working class. Alternative currencies, like experimental communities and a dozen other half-baked schemes, have been tried before, more than once, as a solution to the problems of capitalism and each time have been found wanting. Funny Money shows that even as palliative measures “alternative currencies” fall down. The Philadelphia scheme operating in a hell-hole called Camden (one in every thousand of its population murdered each year, 60 percent on welfare, probably the poorest place in America) collapsed before Boyle could get there. Since up to 85 percent of scrip can remain unused this outcome is hardly surprising. People actually do like to help each other. Formal something-for-something schemes can get in the way and are a waste of time so far as voluntary work goes. Meanwhile in Washington the alternative money scheme is being phased in to replace simple food handouts so that, as the “liberal” twerp running it said, the poor folk can make friends. The comment of one slum dweller “I don’t need no friends—just gimme the free food” just about sums it up.

What is worse is that such measures help to do the capitalist class’s dirty work. In Washington “Time Dollars” mean that old people can live at home rather than having to be lodged in old folks’ homes “at far greater expense to the public purse”. Similarly in Minneapolis it is hoped that “people will flood off welfare” to earn “Commonweal Service Dollars” (Jesus!). In other words, Boyle’s “revolutionary” schemes help lower taxes—a great boon to the capitalist class. And this of course is a good clue to why most of the “alternative currency” organisations in the US are backed by grants from the government.

Marx of course has to enter the arena at some point. Boyle thinks “the old monster” unworthy of consideration but one of his comrades holds that local currencies must be communist as they operate on the basis of “from each according to their ability and to each according to their needs”.

Boyle also finds time to sling mud at Morris. He wonders what a “medievalist” like Morris would think of credit cards, “invented” in Bellamy’s Looking Backward. Only the wilfully ignorant could read News from Nowhere and not know that it was a direct response to Bellamy’s statist nightmare.

Boyle also pours scorn at those who spend their Saturday mornings in “dull committee meetings trying to change the world” and says they would be better off joy-riding. Presumably he spends his Saturday mornings in dull LETS meetings trying to piss in the wind. Perhaps if he spent his Saturday mornings reading some decent stuff he might get his economics sorted out.

Boyle is clearly one of those blokes aware that “something is amiss in the state of Denmark” and who wishes to do something about it. His solution is local currency based on “something spiritual” inside us. But the real problem is the capitalist mode of production of which money (as wages) is an essential component. According to Boyle money is “too useful” to be abolished. So useful to the people of Camden, New Jersey and all the rat-holes of the earth. But people of Camden, New Jersey, just like the people of Camden, London and Camden anywhere else come to that, need currency, DIY or otherwise, like they need a boil on the bum.
Keith Scholey

Religious fanaticism kills in Uganda (2000)

From the July 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

The tragedy that befell Uganda in the month of March this year is worth analysing and talking about. This was in South Western Uganda in the village of Kanungu. Over 500 religious believers, belonging to a sect (cult) called The Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, set themselves ablaze and all perished in the inferno. Worse still, as police continue to search, mass graves of believers of the same cult were found in different places in the homes of the followers’ leaders and elsewhere.

The impact of religion on people especially in Africa is that of doom. The principles of religion are all similar and only differ on the surface. First, there is a belief in supernatural power. Second, there are prayers and rituals. And third, there is a belief in life after death.

The belief in supernatural powers, a god and a spirit world arose out of people’s lack of understanding of the universe and their own particular limited environment. This was coupled with their own curiosity, desires and needs. Humans have been the creator and inventor of God in their own image. In fact, it’s not a case of God creating Man but of Man creating God. God and all gods exist in people’s minds only.

The Kanungu incident is a case of religious fanatics whose leaders had predicted the end of the world come December 31 1999; they believed that there was not to be a year 2000 with the old generation but a new generation with they, believers of this cult, going to heaven. So they made their heaven.

Their mass graves at Kangunu, like any other graves, are an indication that there is no life after death. There is only death after life. Their testimony was based on biblical extracts. However, as usual, false testimony always testifies against itself. It is an easy thing to tell a lie but it’s difficult to support a lie after it has been told.

By extracting verses from the bible and relying on them in addition to trying to put them into practice, some religious groups have gone as far as destroying fruit trees, having free sex and not accepting family planning methods, refusing medical treatment, and selling their possessions.

Christians marching ‘the way of the cross’ in Uganda

The bible, which claims to be a holy creation and the foundation for christianity and several other religions, was of course a human creation and there is still a minority today who would accept it word for word. Yet it is inconsistent and self-contradicting. In fact it would stand no favour had it to face a court of law. It’s a book of lies. Today numbers of “educated” and “artistic” people are employed to blend truth and lies in whatever proportion they calculate is most effective in misleading the public. The big lie being that people should be contented with the life which the market system imposes on us while waiting for “a paradise life” after this life.

From childhood people are mentally conditioned into religious beliefs, superstitions and the like. And as people sense a lack of control in an increasingly complex and alienating world, they are more susceptible to beliefs in the supernatural whether religion, magic, dreams, creatures from other planets or whatever. People who have religious beliefs replace faith for reason and logic.

We live in a harsh, competitive society where everyone’s hand is turned against everyone else. Yet human beings need social contact and companionship. The harsher the reality the more fantastic the solace offered by religion. It is no accident that early christianity spread amongst the slaves of the Roman empire, nor that in Africa and Asia where poverty is so harsh, we have the devout religious zealots.

The religious view sees workers as incapable of solving the problems that confront them. The consolation they offer is one beyond the grave. They believe that human beings should adapt a slavish attitude, be humble, be grateful and not attempt to abolish the ills that afflict them.

We socialists see humans as an animal species that has succeeded in adapting the natural world to meet its needs. We view with wonder and astonishment its magnificent accomplishments in the fields of science, medicine, agriculture and advanced technology. We place our faith not in gods and supernatural forces, but in the intelligence and knowledge of the working class.

The transformation of society will not be brought about by the action of gods, but by real men and women determined to end capitalism and establish socialism.
Weijagye Justus 

World View: New times for Syria? (2000)

From the July 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Rarely are constitutions changed so quickly. On 10 June, the corpse of President Hafez al-Assad had hardly cooled when the powers that be in Syria changed the age at which ministers are allowed to hold office from 40 to 34, thus enabling his son Bashar to be named as perhaps the sole presidential candidate in a referendum to be held within 90 days.

As is the norm when a president dies, the condolences and tributes flow in. Whilst Israel newspaper Yedioth Abronoth could announce they were “not too sorry over Assad’s death . . . we are happy”, the Western line was that he had been “a great statesman”, and whilst Hafez al-Assad was remembered as “the Lion of Damascus”, the obstinate stance he maintained in the Middle East peace process and the missed opportunities he notched up over thirty years of autocratic rule were enough to earn himself the title “the Donkey of Damascus”.

All things considered, Hassad was no first-rate statesman. Never democratically elected, he came to power during a bloodless coup d’état in 1970, was the leader of a quasi-military dictatorship, with a corrupt Ba’athist political faction—religiously an Alawite minority elite who dominated all aspects of Syrian society—whilst overseeing a parlous command economy and a country noted for internal repression and scant civil rights.

In the perennial game of Middle Eastern politics, Hassad upset as many Arab states as he won friends, whilst siding with both superpowers as needs dictated. As well as Israel, neighbouring Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Egypt and Turkey came to view Hassad’s Syria as a thorn in the side of Middle Eastern peace. His implacable position on the US brokered round of talks resulted in constant hold-ups with the present round of discussions having been on the back burner since January, with Syria demanding land at the foot of Golan and access to Lake Galilee. Whilst Israel might have contemplated such a move, it was widely viewed in Israel to be part of a wider Syrian game plan to get Israel to withdraw beyond the 1967 borders, and in this respect Israel could no more sell the idea of a Golan withdrawal to its people than Hassad could coerce the Alawite elite into accepting they had no hopes of retrieving this strategic gem.

What path Bashar heads down remains to be seen. Up until now he has held no official party post, though he has been delegated policy briefs such as Lebanon and the rooting out of high-ranking corruption. Whilst he can generally depend upon the support of the military, it is probable his anti-corruption drive against those in power—the chief culprits being those loyal to his father—will make him enemies. Studying ophthalmology in Britain before he was called back to Syria to begin his grooming for leadership, he is said to be “modest, considerate and intelligent”, keen on new technology and with ideas on reform and political change, such as more representative forms of government, that will undoubtedly sicken Syria’s old guard—an elite made up of the security services, the army and the Ba’athist party hierarchy.

And it remains to be seen just how much of his father’s baggage Bashar will inherit. Hafez was after all a staunch anti-zionist, still maintaining 35,000 troops in Lebanon—in which he held sway over the guerrilla movement Hizbullah—after the Israeli withdrawal, reluctant to concede Israel an inch, cautious about investing in new civil and military technology or to reform the country’s clannish hierarchy.

Bashar, though, comes with the full backing of British Foreign Minister Peter Hain—which perhaps amounts to little, bearing in mind Britain’s track record on giving its support to bloodstained dictators for 30 years—and with hopes in Washington that he can make some headway in the Middle East peace process and in time for the US Presidential elections in which the Clinton clique will be aiming to present some foreign policy success to US voters.

Waiting in the wings—though at a distance—is uncle Rifaat, younger brother to Hafez and the former vice-president; the same disgraced vice-president who once ordered the bombardment of the town of Hama (a Sunni Muslim Brotherhood haven) killing 40,000 inhabitants and who attempted a coup d’état when Hafez was ill in 1983. Presently in exile in France with an entourage of 30 bodyguards and threatened with arrest the moment he enters Syria with presidential ambitions, Rifaat has a fortune of $2—$4 billion, looks after 100 companies, controls two newspapers and is therefore more than capable of buying many strategically placed allies. Rifaat maintains that Bashar’s ascension to the throne of Syrian power will be “illegal” and many anticipate he will mount some challenge.

Safeguarding interests
The chances are, however, that Bashar will be the sole presidential candidate, if for no other reason than his father’s Alawite cronies will close ranks to ease his political ascendancy and safeguard their own interests. And whilst some equate his reformist ambitions with an Israeli/Syrian peace, it does seem unlikely that in the foreseeable future he will advocate the concessions that Middle Eastern peace is claimed to necessitate. If politics is difficult to predict in the West, then it is nigh on impossible to make any forecast as to how events will unfold in this part of the world, where the number of competing factions is only matched by the number of religions, where there are numerous strategic and mineral interests to be fought over and in which the West continue to manoeuvre their pawns as if playing on a gigantic chess board.

No leaders
Of course, as socialists, we side with no leaders or any Middle Eastern faction, taking no sides in their wars over territory; for we have the insight to see where disagreements over resources, such as oil and water, and artificial borders lead and in whose interests such conflicts are waged. Our thoughts lie with the exploited majority of the Middle East—the common folk—who continue to pay the price of power politics, and eagerly await the day when they have the chance, along with their counterparts the world over, to at last vote for themselves and, more, in their own interests, a world devoid of Assads, Saddams and Ayaltollahs and the misery their games bring.
John Bissett

World View: Bombs and poverty on an American island (2000)

From the July 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Vieques is in the news. The United States, it seems, just can’t stop bombing it. It’s the best place in the world (maybe the Universe?) for bombing, says the chief of US naval operations, Admiral Jay Johnson. “Vieques is an irreplaceable asset,” he claims.

Vieques, which is a 20-mile-long island eight miles east of Puerto Rico, is administratively part of Puerto Rico, and its inhabitants, like the Puerto Ricans, are American citizens although they cannot vote in Presidential elections. In 1941, the US navy appropriated more than two-thirds of the island’s 52 square miles, forcing the 9,300 local population to live on a small central strip between the naval bases at the east and west of the island. For almost 60 years, the navy has used Vieques for bomb and bombardment exercises for up to 200 days a year. Up to 12 months ago, only one local civilian had been killed by a missile; and operations were then suspended as protesters occupied beaches on the firing ranges littered with unexploded munitions. Since then, more protesters moved on to other sealed-off bomb sites and beaches, and dared the US authorities to bomb them or arrest them. On Thursday, 4 May, about 160 protesters were removed from the beaches, but were not arrested.

According to the Guardian (5 May),
“The islanders blame the navy for a cancer rate that is 27 percent higher than on the Puerto Rican mainland, stunted economic development, damage to the environment and to fishing grounds which, other than tourism and service industries, provide the local employment opportunities.”
The unemployment rate is 50 percent.

President Clinton has suggested a compromise by which the navy would drop dummy bombs until 2003, and then leave Vieques, in return for US investment of $40 million in the local economy. However, a referendum which many of the islanders consider to be a bribe, has been mooted whereby $50 million of Federal money would be added if the islanders support a return to live bombing.

The United States took possession of Puerto Rico and Vieques in 1898. According to Josué de Castro (Geography of Hunger), “it found a population which, if not exactly swimming in wealth and abundance, was far from the misery and hunger that it suffers in our times” (1952). Until the United States’s occupation, 75 percent of the arable land comprised smallholdings of about 12 acres, devoted mainly to subsistence crops. Following the occupation, the United States Military Census Commission noted that “this general ownership of farms has unquestionably had a great influence in producing the contented condition of the people”. The main industry, sugar, flourished. But, as de Castro points out: “Profound changes were soon brought about” in Puerto Rico.

The small growers were driven out, and were replaced by great, American-owned plantations; and “through the agency of United States’s capital, the sugar industry fell under monopolistic control of a small but powerful group of absentee owners”. American corporations also developed tobacco and coffee production—all for export to the American mainland. The Puerto Ricans were no longer able to feed themselves. And the island had to import 60 percent of its food, all of which was expensive, from the United States. Not surprisingly, for decades during the last century, undernourishment was prevalent and living conditions deteriorated. By 1950, the population of Puerto Rico had doubled (people suffering from malnutrition and dietary deficiencies always have high birth-rates). Of course the Americans built roads—and even luxury hotels and the like. Denis Healey MP, recalled that when he was Labour Chancellor of the Exchequer, in 1977, “President Ford invited us all to Puerto Rico . . . we met in a millionaires’ holiday camp on a palm fringed beach, and stayed in luxurious bungalows, travelling from one to another in electric buggies” (The Time of My Life).

Meanwhile, between 1945 and 1965, one-third of Puerto Rico’s population emigrated to mainland United States; and by 1980, two million Puerto Rican workers lived in America, with around three million remaining on the island, where at least conditions had improved somewhat.

In the early part of the last century, the reformist American Socialist Party, both among Puerto Ricans in New York, where most Puerto Rican immigrants lived and on the island itself, had considerable influence. It popularised trade unionism and, in a somewhat general form, class-struggle politics. In the 1930s, with the decline of the Socialist Party, the political scene came to be dominated by nationalist and Labor parties, together with the leftist People’s Democratic Party, in both the mainland and on the island. Puerto Rican nationalists supported an uprising on the island in 1950, when an attempt on President Truman’s life was made by members of the Nationalist Party. In the late 1960s, radical groups similar to the Black Panthers emerged; and, later, a Maoist party, the Organisation of Puerto Rican Revolutionary Workers, was formed in Chicago and New York. On the island, another reformist and pro-nationalist Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP) was founded in 1971, which had a strong base in the trade union movement. Unfortunately, however, no party as yet has been formed by Puerto Rican workers with the sole object of establishing socialism and rejecting nationalist and reformist programmes.

They have embraced the cul-de-sac of nationalism, to a large extent, because of the repressive and exploitative actions of both American-based corporations and the American state. The use of Vieques Island as a base by the CIA in the 1960s to infiltrate Cuba, and the more recent use of the island for bomb practice, has only exacerbated the situation. As a postscript, it is worth noting that the US navy “often lends Vieques to its allies, including Britain, for bombing exercises” (Guardian, 3 May). How thoughtful!

The US navy resumed bombing on Vieques on 8 May, using non-explosive ordnance. By the middle of May, 225 protesters had been removed from the site.
Peter E. Newell

Letters: What’s utopian? (2000)

Letters to the Editors from the July 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

What’s utopian?

Dear Editors,

Your Party’s ideals are well meaning but quite unattainable in a world of big bucks, and human instinct of greed. Without money who would control how much material any one person or family needs? It’s as open to corruption as is capitalism. At least money gives spending power on choice, and freedom of such.

The utopian concept we need is redistribution of money via taxes and work availability at living wages. This can be achieved by the tax system being fairer, and an international convention on closure of offshore havens. And if everyone paid going-rate taxes, and “harmony” was practised with a fair progression system, how long do you think the Third World would take to be first (e.g. investment in African pipelines/canals)?

With money, everyone is a capitalist, like it or not e.g. the price of food and material contains an element of recovery of outlay, capital matters like land, property, stock, equipment. What doesn’t use them for production? In your system half the world’s luxuries would never be made.

A fairer world only comes from tax reality, consensus democracy agreement, and racial unity, allied to environmental facts about survival and either main party (or Jesus!) could deliver it. Or “3rd forces” in merger.
Tim Collier, 
Kettering, Northants

In a world dominated by big bucks, promoting real socialism certainly isn’t a doddle, but nor is it “unattainable”. All that influential money may have the world’s population in its grasp, but that grip is crushing and restrictive for billions of people—a potential revolutionary majority in fact. And greed comes not from “instinct”, but is a necessity for “succeeding” under today’s system. It is behaviour that occurs only because capitalism itself has greed at it roots. Because there is exclusive ownership of productive assets, resulting in excluded access to goods and services unless able to pay, rapacity, selfishness and envy permeate society, and become the norm.

By replacing minority asset ownership with collective possession by us all, artificial shortages of products then end, and “greedy” behaviour is no longer necessary. As for who then gets to “control” the freely available products, it is the individuals and families themselves, according to their own determined needs. Taking more than is required would simply not occur to people to do when all their work and organised living is then conducted in a co-operative moneyless environment, geared purely to fulfilling human needs. The “corruption” you envisage would be pointless. You can’t wheel a trolley-load of food out of a store today without paying since it is capitalist-owned, but when it’s collectively owned in the socialist future, the notion of grasping as many goods as you can carry before others beat you to it, and rushing them home, will be as senseless and laughable as it is criminal and punishable today.

Presently, money may bring limited choice and freedom to choose (for some of the world’s population), but socialism would not prohibit access to alternative products, and “luxuries”, if that’s what the new owners (all of us) want—a choice and a freedom which would then, however, extend to everyone.

As for money, taxes and waged employment, these are merely capitalist features intended to facilitate and maintain that system, not provide a “utopian” world for the many. So it is futile to expect and pursue monetary “redistribution”, “fair” levies and “living wages”. However, if it’s a “fairer world”, serious attention paid to “environmental facts” and global “democratic agreement” that you want, then it is real socialism that will deliver—not capitalism (or Jesus)—Editors.

Miserable old men?

Dear Editors,

I write as a supporter of the Socialist Party and as a friend, but I’m writing to say that I’m increasingly frustrated by the tone of the Socialist Standard. This is the shop window for the party and for your views and yet it comes across as the rantings of a group of elderly, cynical, miserable old men who are against . . . well . . . everything.

Of course, it’s easy to be against capitalism and very few of your readers would disagree with you there but you go much further and criticise the activities of everybody else who might be trying to do something about it. This wouldn’t be so bad except that you don’t really offer any constructive alternative—except the rather glib mantra of “it’ll be different under socialism, everything will be free and you can have as much of it as you want”.

Of course, it’s easy to be against capitalism and very few of your readers would disagree with you there but you go much further and criticise the activities of everybody else who might be trying to do something about it. This wouldn’t be so bad except that you don’t really offer any constructive alternative—except the rather glib mantra of “it’ll be different under socialism, everything will be free and you can have as much of it as you want”.

Also, there’s no discussion—debate about how socialism would work after a critical mass has been developed and the revolution successfully achieved—what are your policies on education? Do you, for example, support the continued mass incarceration of our children, or do you support some variant of the home schooling movement? Health—how do you assign priorities in the development of expensive life-support machinery against other health programmes and the other needs of society? Transport—are you in favour of an integrated transport policy and how might this work? And even the economy—where you would expect a socialist party to be strong—you have nothing really concrete to offer in debate—how, for example, would distribution be achieved, priorities assigned across a range of product needs and local demands, how would exchange be recorded and controlled to prevent abuse.

Let’s hear some positive ideas from you—let’s discuss them—let’s develop them into a programme that we can offer the electorate.

I won’t begin to talk about your marketing which doesn’t really exist—not even any car stickers or leaflets to hand out on a Saturday morning. How are people expected to know you even exist? Come on, wake up, you’ve had 100 years to think about these things. I realise you don’t have any money but even a little can be used to at least improve brand recognition.

P.S. I’d also like to see some photographs/pen pictures of the Socialist Standard journalists. Whilst none of us believes in the cult of personality, it helps if you can identify with the people concerned.
Andrew Stephenson, 
Newhaven, East Sussex

You seem to have misunderstood what we see the role of a socialist party as being. We don’t think a socialist party should seek passive support from people on the basis of what it would do for them if they voted for it. In fact you would seem to be more committed to the so-called “parliamentary road to socialism”—a majority of socialist MPs voting in socialism for a passive majority outside—than we would be. This is not how we see socialism coming about. Socialism is something people must do for themselves, organising themselves consciously and politically to establish it and actively participating in the movement. They alone can establish socialism using parliament with the socialist party merely an instrument to this end.

This is why we limit ourselves today to carrying out general agitation against capitalism and for socialism. We fully accept, however, that when the “critical mass” of socialists has been reached, people will be discussing all the issues you raise and working out detailed plans about how to tackle them once capitalism has been ended. But even then it won’t be a question of the socialist party presenting them with a programme for them to vote for, but of them democratically deciding for themselves, via the socialist party and other bodies such as trade unions, professional associations and neighbourhood committees, what the practicalities of establishing and running socialism in its first days should be.

Of course the relatively few of us who are socialists today do have our ideas on how education, transport, health services, etc might, and even should be, organised in a socialist society, but this is all they can be at the moment: ideas and suggestions. This is because the exact details will have to be decided by the people around at the time, most of whom are not yet socialists and who might, and probably will, have different ideas from us on the details of some of these issues.

We have, in fact, produced a pamphlet called Socialism As A Practical Alternative which does spell out some of the possibilities of socialism, particularly as regards possible institutions of democratic control and ways of organising the production and distribution (we prefer this word to “exchange” which has connotations of buying selling) of goods is a moneyless context. You should read it. We’ll be pleased to send you a copy for 80p (post paid).

As to leaflets, we’re sending you a selection. Please let us know which, and how many, you’d like. We’re also sending some stickers for your car.

The Socialist Standard is not written by professional journalists but by ordinary people like yourself who have a day job too. If we don’t publish our photos this is because the Socialist Party does indeed not believe in leaders or the cult of personality, but also because they are not just expressing personal views but are writing on behalf of the membership as a whole. But if we did you might be surprised to discover how many of us are not half as old as you have assumed.-Editors.

Greasy Pole: Two brains? (2000)

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

When a prime minister takes over after winning an election victory, what are the jobs awaiting attention? There is the triumphant waving to the crowd, there is the speech saying how humbly proud they are to be given this sacred trust which they will keep by running a government of all the people. There are the ministerial jobs to be dished out, to award faithful acolytes on the one hand and to pay off old scores on the other. Then, very soon, there is the business of planning the next election. Because that must never be far from their mind. Alastair Campbell, the spin doctor supremo of this government, recently told the magazine Vanity Fair that every morning he and Tony Blair get up thinking “Right, how can we lose the election”. That may not be exactly true but it does illustrate the fact that any government must be persistently pre-occupied with pulling off at the next election the same kind of confidence trick which succeeded before.

As the election gets nearer the matter takes on a greater urgency. We are subjected to a kind of electoral auction, in which Tories and Labour make bids to buy off votes with extravagant promises to solve economic and social problems, as if it was all suddenly blindingly obvious and simple.

Criminals and Immigrants
An ever-popular subject of the electoral auction is crime, with each party bidding to outdo the other with schemes which are presented as the final, all-consuming remedy. No more drug addicts mugging old ladies for their pension. No more burglaries while we sleep in our beds at the dead of night. No more stolen cars. The inhabitants of inner city slums, of high rise housing estates, will learn to live with their misery without taking it all out in offending. The last Tory Home Secretary, Michael Howard, was a past master at thinking up such schemes and his Labour successor has carried on where he left off and beyond.

Since the Fifties immigration has been another item at the auction. From the first Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962 both parties have rolled out laws to cut immigration which have had the effect of pandering to, or stimulating, some of the ugliest of racist prejudice. In the Nineties the immigrants have become asylum seekers, who are often characterised as “bogus” or “economic”. Ace auctioneer Jack Straw has been most active here, restricting the income of the asylum seekers and forcibly dispersing them around the country, often to places where they have no family or friends. Straw’s Tory rival, Ann Widdecombe, has tried to outbid him with her call to slap all asylum seekers into detention centres—a sort of “lock up first and ask questions afterwards” policy.

At one time it seemed that this government had written pensioners off as a significant source of votes so it didn’t really matter if they upset them, for example by upping the basic pension by the staggering sum of 75p a week. There had to be a re-assessment when it became clear that this miserly rise had provoked a lot of anger and then when the Tories saw that there were votes in the issue. Pensions, like most state benefits, are not simple. A pension starts at a basic sum which can be increased or reduced according to the pensioner’s circumstances. In addition there is an extra £10 a week at Christmas, which would not even buy a bottle of whisky and each winter £150 to pay for extra fuel. Anyone over 75 gets their TV free of a licence fee. Taking everything into account, it needs a mathematically alert brain and a calculator to work out exactly how much a pensioner should get.

The Tories put the matter into the auction with William Hague’s bid to raise the basic pension by between £5 and £10 a week—at once, if the Tories win the next election, which could mean next April. This may have sounded pretty tempting to anyone eking out a spartan existence on their pension but when Labour ministers had got their breath back they were able to show that Hague was not really offering a rise because his offer was intended to replace the £10 Christmas pay-out, the fuel payment, the free TV licence and a few other things. The Tory scheme was based on the argument that pensioners don’t like being forced to accept a bonus for Christmas, for winter fuel and so on and would prefer a straightforward increase to spend how they like. Anyone who thinks that people who struggle to get by on a state pension are able to spend their money how they like—blow it all on a luxury cruise instead of on food, perhaps—is seriously out of touch with reality.

How Many Brains Have You Got?
The person responsible for the Tory bid was not William Hague but his social security spokesman David Willetts, who is known as “Two Brains” Willetts because he is so much cleverer than normal people.

He went to Oxford, where they know when they are in the presence of a great mind so they gave him a first class degree. After Oxford he became one of John Major’s earliest gurus, which would mean a lot more were it not that Major was famous for making disastrous choices in the people he promoted. In the 1992 election Willetts was elected as MP for the safe Tory seat of Havant. His progress in penetrating into the world of the brash and brilliant was illustrated when he became a regular at Peregrine Worsthorne’s lunches at the Sunday Telegraph, where they may well have discussed clever ideas like raising pensions with one hand and lowering them with the other. Willetts was welcome at these exercises in pretentious futility until his overbearing conceit got on everyone’s nerves—which, since none of those present were short of self-esteem, is saying quite a lot. The crunch came when he put his feet on the lunch table and began lecturing Michael Howard on how to run his ministry—something which Howard, who was hated by his civil servants and a few million other people, did not need. “No further invitations,” recorded Worsthorne, “were forthcoming for Mr. Willetts.”

It took Willetts rather longer to reach serious fame when, as a junior Tory whip, he earned the severe displeasure of the House of Commons Standards and Privileges Committee. This committee, as its name implies, is supposed to watch over the standards of conduct of those people quaintly called Honourable Members, which means that anyone who deals with them is supposed to tell the truth. In October 1994 the committee were expecting to get a complaint about the conduct of Neil “Cash for Questions” Hamilton. It was an embarrassing episode for the government. It is at such times that whips, especially if they got a first at Oxford, come into their own. Putting both his brains to work at the same time, Willetts came up with a brilliant idea designed to obstruct the work of the committee and so get the government off the hook.

In a note to the Tory Chief Whip, he suggested that the committee should either set aside the complaint against Hamilton until the MP’s libel action against the Guardian had been settled—by which time much of the embarrassment should have subsided—or investigate the complaint as quickly as possible “…exploiting the good Tory majority at present”. Referring to the Tory chairman of the committee, Willetts wrote “He wants our advice”—in other words the chairman wanted to be told the best way of stopping the committee doing the job it had been set up to do.

Unluckily for Willetts the note was leaked and he was hauled up before the committee to explain himself, when he was stupid enough, instead of making a clean breast of the matter, to try to get away with the feeble excuse that his phrase “he wants our advice” really meant “he is in want of advice”. With the media hot on the trail, this attempt to wriggle out of the problem had no chance of succeeding. The chairman sensibly wanted none of it; he described Willetts version of the affair as “astonishing”. Left hanging in the wind, Willetts had to absorb the committee’s censure: “. . . very concerned . . . dissemble on his account . . . substantially aggravate the original offence”.

For anyone with fewer brains—or with less arrogance—that might have been a crushing blow. But not so for Willetts, who came bouncing back and is now shadow spokesman for social security—which cannot be reassuring for anyone who depends on state benefits for their survival. But that is the reality of life under capitalism, for the millions of people who do all the useful work in society and whose lot is to be exploited in the interests of sustaining the system responsible for it all—and to be patronised by arrogant, conceited cynics into what might be called the bargain.

Marx Museum (2000)

From the July 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

If you are touring the Moselle Valley in Germany this summer, a visit to Trier to see the Marx Museum there is well worth the detour. The Museum is situated at 10 Brückenstrasse in the centre of the city in the house were Marx was born in 1818. Because the so-called Communists never had anything to do with it, the exhibits in the museum give an honest as well as an interesting and informative picture of Marx’s life and times and of the development of his ideas.

Non-market socialism (2000)

Book Review from the July 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘The Market: Ethics, Knowledge and Politics’, by John O’Neill. (Routledge)

John O’Neill takes on all the arguments put forward by defenders of the market, not just extreme free-marketers such as Von Mises and Hayek but also by mainstream economics textbook writers (free consumer choice, efficient allocation of resources, rational economic calculation, etc) and demolishes them one by one. He argues for a “non-market economic order” in which goods will be produced directly for use and not for sale on a market and calculation concerning production done exclusively in kind. He also argues in favour of the abolition of the state and its replacement by an “association of associations”, i.e. by a co-ordinated network of neighbourhood councils and producer-controlled production units.

Unfortunately, the book is not an easy read as it is put together from articles previously published in academic journals and because O’Neill frequently employs the specialist terminology of “moral philosophy”, of which he is a professor. It is, however, an important addition to the growing library of books arguing the case for an (entirely) non-market socialism.
Adam Buick

Obituary: Trudy Mertons (2000)

Obituary from the July 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Trudy Mertons who died in April at the age of 95, joined the Socialist Party in 1932. Her father, Tom King, was a founder member of the SPGB but Trudy joined in her own right.

She will not be well known to the younger members of the Party, but she was part of the loyal comrades, who kept the Manchester Branch alive during the Second World War. After the war when the Party was able to engage in wider political activities she was involved in the administration of Manchester Branch and was very supportive at party meetings, along with her husband, Arthur Mertons, who was a well-known speaker in the area. Across the years they both gave hospitality to numerous members whose party work took them to the Manchester area.

During her long illness she was still able to uphold her socialist principles and never forgot the Party.
Margaret Hopwood

Editorial: An orderly society (1979)

Editorial from the August 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

A great deal of what is called education is nothing more than the forcing into impressionable minds of the idea that capitalism is the most benign, efficient and sensible social system ever conceived by the human race. A natural extension of that idea is that capitalism should also be seen as eternal and as the correction of centuries of muddle, mistakes, cruelties . . . On this theory, all history was no more than a preparation for the great day when capitalism dawned upon the world, the society of reason.

That version of history — and of society today — obscures and ignores many of the most obvious facts of our lives. How can a society of reason explain away the millions who are undernourished and who starve while food is left rotting in store or is destroyed? Is it logical that a small minority of people should be able to live in unproductive opulence while the vast majority, who produce all the wealth, should endure poverty varying from a genteel but persistent downward pressure to vagrancy?

Can we describe as benign a system which devotes so much of its material resources and its intellectual energy to the design and use of ever-developing methods of killing people and of destroying where they live? Did the inhumanities of former societies teach us so little that we replaced them with one which subjects most of its people to the indignities of a lifetime’s depersonalising exploitation? Do we have no more to show for history than a world which cannot satisfy its people’s needs?

It is the work of socialists to ask such questions — to attack the justification for capitalism. For example, this issue of the Socialist Standard, in the light of the Conservative government’s avowed policy, has something to say about the law as it affects the interests of trade unionists. This is an important matter, for nowhere does capitalism’s propaganda work harder than in its attempts to justify what is known as Law and Order.

This justification argues that the law is as eternal and as firmly based on human verities as it assumes capitalism is itself. It encourages us to believe that the law is a painstakingly constructed code of conduct which protects us all — our possessions, our ability to walk the streets in safety.

To sustain this argument it is necessary to view capitalism rather as through the wrong end of a telescope. Workers suffer a great deal through crime burglary of a working class home which carries off the colour TV, the stereo, some money — or the taking away of a worker’s car from the kerb outside. When this sort of thing happens a policeman will turn up and, with varying degrees of interest, ‘investigate’, which may convince the victim that the law is on his side.

The same may happen when a worker is subjected to illegal violence — when someone is mugged for what is in their purse, or when they are assaulted or even killed during an armed robbery. Again, the law may be seen as aiming to deter and to prevent such things, and the police as the agency to carry out that policy.

This might be more convincing if breaking into a council house and emptying the gas meter carried the same scale of penalty as holding up a Security Express van and taking thousands of pounds. Capitalism reserves its harshest penalties for those who offer the greatest threat to the orderly conduct of its business of exploitation, commodity production and the accumulation of capital. It is that threat the law is intended to resist; it is the interests involved in that, which the state machinery of Law and Order exists to protect.

Whatever the working class suffer as a result of crime is of comparatively little account to the law makers; workers have no property, in any sense of the term, to protect. The subject class in society, they have no position of privilege to be upheld by a coercive state machine. These facts should persuade them to look at the matter with different eyes, and to view the claims of capitalism’s propagandists with suspicion.

While Law and Order professes to work for an orderly society, it licenses massive acts of socially organised murder, destruction, pillage and repression such as the most hardened of criminals could not dream of. Even more — it exists precisely to ensure that those acts continue and are carried out in the most effective manner.

The laws of any social system rest upon the social relationships arising from its mode of wealth production. A class society — where the means of wealth production are owned by a class — will write its laws so as to defend the privilege of the owning class against all threats. Thus the morals of class society are coercive and defensive; in defence of class privilege they will condone any acts, if need be to the very limits of violence. In many ways this is the explanation of a human history spotted with sickening barbarity — all of it perfectly within the law.

How then should trade unionists act when they find themselves in conflict with the law? Do we encourage workers to disregard or to break capitalism’s laws? If in some cases there is no other way, this should not obscure the fact that the problem cannot be removed by our becoming outlaws. Capitalism is not eternal; it can be abolished in a way which the most powerful state machine will not be able to resist. When the working class come to an understanding of socialism, their will to establish the new society will be all-powerful. And socialism will be a world whose morality is that of freedom and human interests, where the coercion and the barbarities of capitalism will be seen as a curiously wasteful episode in human experience.

50 Years Ago: The Right to be Lazy (1979)

The 50 Years Ago column from the August 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard 

According to the Daily Chronicle (2 July 1929) there are 1,142,400 out of work, an increase of 24,593 on the previous month. The total on 1 July comprised 889,000 men, 28,300 boys, 199,500 women and 25,500 girls.

In the same paper, same date, same column, we also read under the subheading “Society Acrobats”:
The diverse activities of well-known people have been keeping the photographers exceptionally busy, according to this week’s issue of that bright review, the Sketch. Half the social world appears to have shipped over to Le Touquet for the golf tournament of Buck’s Club, while the other half were either at the Peterborough Foxhound Show or the extraordinary circus held in a West End mansion. Polo and a water party at Roehampton claimed many notable people, some of who are seen doing complicated ‘physical jerks’ on Major Paget’s lawn to time set by gramophone.
We are not killjoys, nor arc we much concerned with these antics about which the tripe journalists write so much trash. What we do object to is the humdrum existence we, like the rest of the workers, have to submit to because they do not understand the case and comfort possible for all if the present means of wealth production were commonly owned and utilised for that purpose. 

(From an article by MacHaffie, Socialist Standard August 1929.)

Rod of iron (1979)

From the August 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

Three months after the Tories won power, it is becoming more and more obvious that we are being governed by a curious mixture of people. On the one hand there is Willie Whitelaw, who may be considered by a few ungrateful electors not to have the most agile intellect in politics. On the other there is Keith Joseph, whose legendary brilliance has the political correspondents searching through their Thesaurus for some fresh adulation. When he was last a minister, Joseph startled many of his admirers by suddenly discovering something he called the Cycle of Deprivation and by declaring that he intended to do away with it. This cycle which Joseph had come across was in fact the process by which poor people tend to raise deprived children, who in turn do the same. It may not have been the most original idea ever to come out of a Whitehall office, but it provided Joseph with the material for a lot of speeches, so we should all be grateful.

But any shortcomings in the new government are more than compensated for by the fact that they are presided over by one of the most remarkable women in the entire history of the human race. Margaret Thatcher, it will be remembered, was once castigated as the Iron Lady by the Russian press. Perhaps the Russians were really trying to bring about Labour’s defeat at the election; at all events, their sneer did Thatcher no harm. It has, however, had its repercussions; she now seems to feel the need to act out the role which has been thrust upon her. For example, in a recent article in the Sunday Telegraph, Graham Turner wrote:
. . . Mrs. Thatcher’s own impact has been explosive, both within the Cabinet and in Whitehall, part of which she has turned into a distressed area within the space of a few weeks . . .
Nor is it only civil servants who go in fear of Mrs. Thatcher. Some ministers, too, are distinctly nervous of her. It needs an especially arrogant and assertive personality (one who springs to mind is Michael Heseltine) to stand up to the Iron Lady and, if we are to believe the Sunday Express, this government is not overloaded with such people. Indeed, the Express recently sneered at the Tories as a bunch of vacillating weaklings, with Thatcher the only ‘man’ (sic) among them. No eyebrows will be raised at the sexism in this, typical of the Express, but what should be said about the paper’s abrupt change of favour? It is, after all, only a few months since they were advising us to vote for those same Tory weaklings.

Perhaps, in attacking the underlings while bolstering the leader, the Express is showing its sensitivity to the fact that the Tories have had some unhappy experiences with their leaders over the past fifteen years. At one time they could go about their business under the comfortable assumption that they were the natural governing party of British capitalism and that this would last for ever. This assurance did not lessen the ferocity of their infighting, in which not a few of their leaders perished, usually because they had failed to win an election. The process by which the leader of the Tories came to the front was once described by one of their MPs:
Great leaders of parties are not elected, they are evolved . . . I think it will be a bad day when we have solemnly to meet to elect a leader. The leader is there, and we all know it when he is there. (Ernest Pretyman, 21 March 1921)
In theory, a leader chosen by that process could hang on to the job for as long as he liked. In practice, his hold was not that secure; if he lost the support of the party in Parliament he was disposed of as effectively as in any formal ballot.

That was what happened when the Tories got rid of Douglas-Home and, to some extent, when Edward Heath was forced to put his leadership up for re-election — and lost to Thatcher. But in calmer times it is usual for the Conservative Party to present the image of a happy, united family, at one behind the leader. It is almost as if the leader had come down from some supernatural existence to harvest the votes; every word they utter is treated with reverence, and when they speak at a Tory Conference they must be rewarded with a prolonged standing ovation, no matter how banal and boring (which it usually is) their speech has been.

This is the treatment which is now being given to us over Margaret Thatcher. Here, for example, is how one Tory MP describes her:
. . .  She has the power of total concentration, an immense capacity for work, and great physical stamina. This is unusual in a woman. (Nigel Fisher, The Tory Leaders)
Nobody need be misled by Fisher’s confident assertions about women’s alleged lack of concentration, industriousness and stamina into thinking that he knows anything about biology. Perhaps his knowledge of politics is also suspect; why, for example, did this woman he praises so fulsomely have such a hard time of it being recognised by the Tories for the unique genius Fisher says she is?

When the campaign for the leadership opened, Thatcher was not among the front runners; likelier candidates were Whitelaw, Joseph and du Cann. Enoch Powell, not noted for his tact, said bluntly that Thatcher’s election was a matter of chance (and therefore, presumably, not of merit); earlier or later, it would not have happened. And it is almost certain that if the Tories had still been choosing their leader under the old system, they would not have ‘known she was there’. An important element in that system was that there should be some sort of consensus in a candidate’s favour among the more influential members of the party. As Fisher points out, Thatcher did not have this:
Before Neave assumed control, there was very little declared or positive support for Margaret Thatcher. Most members were reluctant to commit themselves, many thought she was unelectable and a few were openly anti-feminist.
But all that is past now, and Thatcher is at Number Ten. For the present (which probably means for as long as she wins elections) the ranks are closed behind her and the Tories bend their minds to a relentless campaign to convince us that we are the luckiest people ever to have such a person running British capitalism. Of course we are wearily familiar with this; the late John Davies, for example, could not have been described as a dazzling success as a politician, even by the standards which capitalism applies. Still less should the working class feel any warmth or sympathy towards a man who so openly represented the social system which degrades and exploits them. But when Davies died, the praise for him gushed uncontrolled:
. . . delightful, modest and very able... a person who believed in serving others. (Margaret Thatcher)

. . . a delightful colleague, who never spared himself . . . (Edward Heath)

. . . a genuinely nice man. (Ian Aitken, The Guardian)
This sort of nonsense is depressingly capable of convincing most workers not only that their leaders are an exceptionally able and self-sacrificing lot, but also that leaders of one sort or another are essential. How, without leaders, would capitalism go about its daily business of exploiting the working class, designing slums, regulating poverty, prosecuting war, protecting the privileges of a parasitic minority? How could it convince so many people that it is natural and progressive for the majority to work all their lives for nothing more than the achievement of keeping that minority in their parasitism?

For example, at a recent party of ‘high society guests’ at the Dorchester, the first prize in a raffle was a £1,000 facelift by a top Harley Street surgeon. What sort of person, one wonders, would buy a ticket in such a raffle? Or go to such a party? What sort of ‘doctor’ would agree to be the prize? And what sort of people doggedly, even happily, allow themselves to be exploited to support it, and at election time vote in favour of its continuing?

Perhaps the working class do not object to being robbed and insulted provided that it is done artistically. Thatcher’s success or failure as a politician will be judged by that standard. At the present she is largely an unknown quantity, but one thing is clear: no one will try harder.

Running Commentary: Carter's Collapse? (1979)

The Running Commentary column from the August 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

Carter's Collapse?

After the blue-chinned scowl of Nixon and the fumbling, stumbling of Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter’s grin was meant to represent a new era in American politics.

They said Carter was clean — no hint of a Watergate hung about him. He was clever — no after-effects of playing too much American football without a helmet clogged up his mental processes. He was energetic, skipping from his campaign ’plane with the spring of a young deer.

And his smile — open, warm, ready, friendly. With his pretty wife and his photogenic daughter, he just had to be the greatest president since Roosevelt dominated American politics from his wheelchair.

Carter started as if he intended to be different, running his Cabinet meetings in open-necked sportswear and with the press watching. This, we were told, was truly open government, as if there has ever been, or is likely ever to be, a capitalist state which really allowed its secrets to be open to public scrutiny.

And then Carter kept talking about human rights, as if this was his own original discovery, and as if a politician mouthing about human rights had any significance for those humans.

Well, it has all collapsed very quickly, and the news from America indicates that the voters there are disillusioned with their grinning president, whose hold on his position gets more precarious each day.

Carter, it is said, fumbles and delays, changing his mind almost day by day over issues like the fuel shortage which is so hot in America. His financial policy is described as indecisive and inconsistent. Meanwhile, American capitalism gets deeper into crisis, with the threat of worse to come.

Even if Carter were decisive, clear and firm, it would make absolutely no difference to the grim realities of life under capitalism for the American workers. That is one lesson for them to learn from this, the collapse of their latest idol. Another is that all politicians are powerless in the face of the anarchy of capitalism, which means that the ecstasy with which their coming to power is greeted always turns soon to disillusionment and then to despair.

Jimmy Carter’s grin won a lot of votes, but for the American workers it is no laughing matter.

Crueller Cuts?

Like the Flanders swamps of 1914-18, there are many much fought-over fields in the politics of capitalism. One of these is so-called public expenditure, about which there promises to be an increasingly fearsome battle during the Tories' period of office.

The term public expenditure generally refers to money spent by government and councils. About this there are many myths, one of them being that public expenditure is good; it means hospitals, social services and — something beloved by millions of workers — big new roads.

Because of this, public expenditure is supposed to actually create something also beloved by millions of workers — jobs. (There is no actual record from earlier societies of slaves ever welcoming the making of new chains for themselves, but let that pass.)

One thing which must be said is that public expenditure also finances agencies like the police and the prisons which are, perhaps, not beloved by quite so many workers, and armed forces and armaments, which are beloved only by those workers who take sides in the matter.

But a myth we are going to hear a lot of over the next few years is that since public expenditure is good, it is something favoured only by the Labour Party and which the wicked Tories will do their best to abolish.

Memories in politics are notoriously short, so it is useful to remind ourselves that the last Labour government, like all its predecessors, made consistently savage cuts in public spending.

As a result of these cuts, hospitals were shut in the face of strong objections, social services were severely restricted, schooling was cut back. A Conservative government could hardly have been more Scrooge-like in its zeal.

This fact of history was clearly illustrated in a recent (June 19) article in The Guardian by Joel Barnett, who was Chief Secretary to the Treasury in Callaghan's government. This article, by a typical Labour sleight of word, was both an attack on the Tories for their planned cuts and a justification of those imposed by Labour:
I don’t believe present levels of public expenditure should be sacrosanct, nor that every programme should be, as it were, untouchable, and free from cuts.
In the battles to come, and in the increasing pressures on their living standards, workers will — as usual — be bombarded by lies, myths, distortions. It is vital that they remember: both Tories and Labour run capitalism as savagely as they need to. And capitalism cannot be coaxed out of its own basic savagery into benignity by spending money, public or private, big or small.

Anti-Social Insecurity

It is not often that any person — and still less, any capitalist agency — is given the gift to see themselves as others see them. It is even more surprising that this should happen to, of all things, the Department of Health and Social Security (for such it is described).

To explain this strange happening, let us go back a little into recent history. During the last war, the British capitalist class realised that mere patriotism was not enough to persuade the workers to accept what they were required to endure.

Something more was needed: a mixture of threats and promises. Out of this latter grew the assurances that after the war capitalism would bend all its efforts to building a better society, free of the mistakes which were made before 1939.

And out of that came the famous Beveridge Report, parent of the National Health Service and the National Insurance Scheme introduced by the post-war Labour government. A central principle of National Insurance was that its benefits would be available as of right to anyone in need — in other words, without being subject to the notorious Means Test — and that they would be enough to meet all needs. It was envisaged that a small minority of people in rare cases would need extra help, and for those there would be the Supplementary Benefits, which would be means tested.

Well, it has not worked out like that at all, and now the original idea of Beveridge is in tatters. About one-tenth of the population — something like six million people — need to apply for Supplementary Benefit, which pays out some £2 billion a year.

This increasing reliance on what was supposed to be only a safety net has meant that the scheme has become more and more complex something unwelcome to workers who are sick or old or infirm, and who need a simpler method of claiming benefit.

A recent report by the Supplementary Benefits Commission called attention to this crisis and suggested that, to meet the needs of applicants, the scheme needs an extra £200 million a year. The Commission chairman described the need as “urgent” and said that unless the government acted swiftly, “it will be impossible to maintain standards of service for people in Britain who are in real need . . .”

Those workers who rely on Social Security will be amazed to learn that the treatment they get from the DHSS is called a service and that it aspires to standards. On the receiving end, they know how this patch-up job of capitalism simply does not work. They may get some consolation to know that the SBC now thinks the same.

Would that some ghostie would give the same gift, of seeing themselves as others see them, to all the agencies of so-called reform within capitalism.

One law for the rich . . . (1979)

From the August 1979 issue of the Socialist Standard

While there are many uses for law, two are fundamental: to enforce and maintain the barrier between those who own property and those who do not, and to perpetuate the illusion that a world of rich and poor is inevitable.

Most workers still have only occasional contact with the law, but when they do it is often a nightmare experience. Every day courts throughout the world haul workers before them and put them through a most degrading experience, treating them like animals — even locking them up in cages.

A common tourist attraction in London is the Old Bailey, one of the traditional sights conveniently near to St. Paul’s, to which it is remarkably similar. The latter is a monument to the cowering of the working class by the means of a very old, but still potent, myth. The former has the same purpose, but uses more direct means of coercion. Whereas most tourists go into St. Paul’s, few bother to enter the Old Bailey. If they did, they would find every day a bizarre sight — members of the working class (the jury) condemning other members of their own class. And for what? Mostly for offences which beside the large-scale crime that goes on every day — the theft by the capitalist class of the wealth produced by the workers — are positively trivial.

In the Thorpe case, for example, a working class jury carefully listened to the arguments, patiently sat through the speeches and (almost on the instructions of the judge) like good dogs, did not bite their masters. Next door, meanwhile, the swindler, bank robber or housebreaker was getting different treatment. Few people were watching, and even the jury who usually convict without too much persuasion were often inattentive. In the magistrates courts where most cases are heard, there is not even a jury. Sometimes magistrates convict on the word of the police alone.

Historically, there is some evidence to suggest that jurors used to be far more conscious of working class interests. Juries were not always mere sops, dutifully doing as the representatives of the authorities told them. They would frequently refuse to convict, especially where they knew that savage penalties would follow. But it was not just the cases of ‘hung for a lamb’ where juries asserted their independence. Right across the board they would try to redress the balance of savagely repressive laws by acquitting the ‘guilty’ as well as the ‘innocent’. This must not be exaggerated; many a poacher, for example, suffered death or transportation even though poaching was common and in some areas absolutely essential for families to exist at all. But juries, at least on occasions, provided some sort of buffer against the savageries of pre-capitalist and early capitalist legislation.

By contrast, juries now seem more docile. That could mean that the rule of capital has become even more effective as it has increased its insidious power over the minds of those it exploits. But if times are hard, then the efforts to counteract the prevailing ideas must be stronger. No amount of pleading, no amount of reforming, marching, demonstrating is going to alter the fact that capitalism is a society of haves and have-nots, rich and poor, owner and non-owner. From this follow all the problems faced by workers, including problems of spending part of their lives in cells or, in some parts of the world, of being officially murdered on behalf of those whose rule and property some workers appear to threaten. There can be only one verdict on capitalism — guilty: and only one sentence — death.
Ronnie Warrington