Thursday, September 1, 2022

Nationalism: deadly enemy of socialism (2022)

From the September 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

To many workers nationalism, like some other prejudices, is just another weird idea left over from the past. However, too many others still identify with countries and nations. Nationalism therefore still plays a large part in keeping workers divided.

Some try to make a distinction between patriotism and nationalism: with patriots identifying with their own imagined country without harbouring any ill-will towards people of other countries and nationalists who, as well as having special affection for their own imagined country, are also more xenophobic.

These concepts are so entangled that it makes no sense trying to disentangle them: it is the unsound nature of these notions which bothers us.

To the nationalists, whether Scottish or English, British, German, Russian, Chinese, American or whatever, the concept of the nation is a very important matter. For some it is the most important matter. Nationalists adhere to the strange notion that the nation, or nation-state, is an entity to which we should have automatic allegiance.

But why should we have such allegiance? And what exactly is a nation, and in whose interests does a nation-state operate?

Until the eighteenth century local feeling was much more important than national feeling. The pre- eighteenth-century community-spirit sense of nationality considered a nation to be composed of people living in a particular area with a common language, culture and history; but not necessarily ruled by the same state.

During the eighteenth century some new countries and nations were created. Great Britain, for example was a nation-state created by a merger between England & Scotland in 1707. This was not a ‘hostile takeover’ of Scotland by England, but a deal done between the ruling class of England and their counterparts in Scotland. Needless to say neither the working class in England nor the workers in Scotland were consulted.

Certain gentlemen in what was then the North American colonies became rather disgruntled over trade and taxation and their lack of representation in the British parliament. These grievances between the gentleman rulers on either side of the Atlantic eventually led to the American War of Independence. The British gentlemen on the American side of the ocean foreswore their allegiance to the King and declared independence from Great Britain. In their Declaration of Independence in 1776 they called the new country the United States of America.

The French Revolution in 1789 and its aftermath gave impetus to the further development of liberalism and nationalism throughout Europe and by the nineteenth century nationalism had become more important and much more assertive than the hitherto existing sense of nationality.

The new nationalism intertwined with liberalism was really part of the ideology of the rising bourgeoisie.

Eastern Europe was relatively backward but north-west Europe had reached an advanced stage of industrial and trade development. Industrialisation and increased commercial development spread from west to east along with the political ideas of the rising bourgeoisie.

The new nationalism was essentially the idea that the nation, whatever it was conceived to be, is the most important unit of organisation in society and should therefore be equivalent to the state: it was the concept of the nation-state.

Nationalism and liberalism posed a threat to the cohesion of states like the Habsburg Empire which contained Germans, Hungarians, Italians, Czechs, Poles, Croats and Serbs within its boundaries. On the other hand, new states could be established if the idea of nationalism captured the minds of Germans and Italians whose nations were both divided into various separate states. So, sometimes nationalism united territories into new countries and sometimes it tended to disrupt and divide existing countries.

In 1861 Italy went from being a ‘geographical expression’ to unification. There was at that time a number of competing notions about what a united Germany might be. The so-called Holy Roman Empire had been dissolved in 1806 leaving a collection of petty states which organised themselves during the course of the 19th century into a number of configurations and confederations which eventually led to unification in 1871.

The old absolutist system of government was diametrically opposed to the needs of a developing and dynamic capitalist economy and it was this antagonism of interests which gave rise to the attack by the middle class against absolutism and the feudal rights of the aristocracy.

Liberalism required the unity, inherent in nationalism, of nationhood in society to ensure the satisfactory operation of a liberal constitution. So bourgeois liberals promoted nationalism to further their own ends. But the acquiescence at least of workers and peasants was essential in achieving national unity and independence.

To maintain national cohesion, nationalist ideology is required. Various paraphernalia like flags and national songs/anthems are used to help indoctrinate the subjects of a nation with the myths and fantasies of nationhood. History books with a twisted account of how the nation arose and how it has done great things are also very useful.

A measure of how successful this indoctrination is can be seen at international sports events, where the participants go into a trance-like state as they sing the national anthems of what they have been trained to believe are ‘their’ countries and many are overcome with emotion.

‘Scots Wha Hæ’
The Braveheart Legend today owes much to the eighteenth century romanticised view of the Wars for Scottish Independence of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth century, which culminated in the Battle of Bannockburn in June 1314.

These wars were really struggles amongst the aristocracy, who had lands in both England and Scotland, for political power commensurate with their landholdings and their own perceived greatness.

The song Scots Wha Hæ, by Robert Burns, was ostensibly based on Robert Bruce’s speech to his troops before the Battle of Bannockburn, but Burns was influenced just as much by contemporary struggles in Europe and elsewhere when he wrote this song. He also knew that to openly write such a song about the ‘radical’ struggles of his own time, whether in Britain or abroad, could expose him to prosecution for sedition.

In more recent times the rise of the SNP as a political force results largely from the perceived failures of decades of Labour and Tory governments. It could be said, particularly from the 1970s onwards, that the misanthropic projects of Labour and Tory governments led to growing support for nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales.

To the Scottish National Party the nation is the most important thing. The essence of its argument is that the interests of the ‘people of Scotland’, whoever they might be, can be served best by a government in Edinburgh rather than one in London.

They claim nowadays that nationality can be defined in such a way as to include everyone who lives in Scotland. A bit like the USA, where you can become an American or a hyphenated one for a generation or two; or perhaps forever.

It sounds much ‘nicer’ than some of the more virulent and nasty types of nationalism. But unfortunately, many of the SNP’s supporters continue to be the more old-fashioned and nasty type of nationalist.

Change of rulers
Since the collapse of the British Empire after World War II, many nations have gained independence from British rule. None of this has led to any lasting benefit to the workers in these countries. As in the rest of the world the populations of these countries are divided into employers and their wage-slaves.

So, although the nation-state may be a convenient vehicle by means of which a local (national) capitalist class can exploit the workers within its boundaries, it brings no benefit to the workers.

Nationality is therefore something imposed upon the worker. In fact, the workers of the world have no country and therefore should not have any allegiance to this or any other country. Instead of worrying about the interests of the country or the nation to which they belong, their allegiance should be to their own class interests.

Our use of the possessive pronoun with respect to the employers and their wage-slaves was no accident: the countries are theirs – ie, the capitalists – as are we their wage-slaves. But the countries are not ours! We do not own enough of this or any other country to fill a flower pot.

Instead of worrying about the interests of the country to which they belong and its independence or lack thereof, workers should seek independence for themselves: independence from the tyranny of capital and silly flag-waving nations. Nationalism – like sexism, racism, and religious superstition – is anathema to socialists. We can have nothing but antipathy to it. It is totally incompatible with working class interests and the struggle for socialism.

The Scottish National Party argues that social problems in Scotland are caused by London government and that with an independent government in Edinburgh a start could be made in solving these problems.

The Socialist Party argument is that social problems in Scotland are not caused by government from England but, as elsewhere, by capitalism. Re-arranging frontiers or constructing a new state is no more a solution to working class problems than electing a new government of capitalism or changing the Prime Minister.

Such political changes, are irrelevant to the working class, since they leave the economic basis of society – the class monopoly of the means of production – unchanged; and it is precisely this that is the root cause of their problems.

Against all nationalisms
The Socialist Party opposes Scottish nationalism just as it does British nationalism which, of course, is supported by the Tories, Labour and the Liberals. We are opposed to all nationalism and insist that the solution to our problems lies in the establishment of socialism throughout the world.

The First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, has recently proposed holding another referendum on whether or not Scotland should remain part of the United Kingdom. She claims that she has a mandate to conduct one. The SNP together with the Scottish Greens, who have turned tartan in the last few years, constitute a pro-independence majority in Holyrood. Although this majority of nearly 56 percent in the Scottish Parliament is based on only 49.2 percent of the popular vote, it is a greater ‘mandate’ than Boris Johnson’s 43.6 percent of the popular vote which gave him 365 seats out of 650 in the House of Commons and control of the British state.

The question of whether or not the Scottish Parliament has the authority to conduct a referendum has been referred to the Supreme Court. Should the Supreme Court rule that the matter is reserved to the authority of Westminster and if whoever replaces Johnson still refuses to grant Sturgeon permission to conduct a referendum, the SNP will fight the next UK general election solely on one issue: separation. This would, they say, be a de facto referendum on independence.

Therefore the proposed referendum in October 2023 or the next general election in 2024, like past elections, gives us a ‘choice’: vote yes, get capitalism; vote no, get capitalism! It is like being asked if migraine is better than diarrhoea. Capitalism offers us innumerable such ‘choices’, in an attempt to pretend we are being consulted.

To borrow some of Burns’s words: ‘Now is the day, and now is the hour’, but not for supporting some madcap scheme to create a new nation, or restore an old one. It is time to get up off our knees and face the future: not a fairy-tale future promised by politicians but the future that we will make. Not Scotland for the Scottish, England for the English, Wales for the Welsh, or any other nationalist fantasy world.

A long time ago in the aftermath of a bloody war we claimed the world for the workers and called upon you, our fellow workers, to fight for socialism. Over a hundred years later our claim and demand is the same. By overthrowing capitalism and taking the world for the workers, we will have one world for one people. To do anything else is, just like the proposed referendum, an exercise in futility.
John Cumming

The Chumocracy (2022)

Book Review from the September 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

Chums. By Simon Kuper. Profile Books. 2022. £16.99

Simon Kuper is a writer and columnist for the Financial Times, specifically the FT Weekend magazine. He was also the co-author of Soccernomics, which analysed the finances and tactics of modern football as they have emerged in western Europe in recent decades.

Kuper is an excellent writer, arguably one of the best, and while his politics is not ours, he is a provocateur who thinks seriously about current affairs and trends, always looking for unconventional angles to analyse familiar issues. And in Chums: How A Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK, he has done it again.

For a start, 11 of the 15 post-war Prime Ministers (at the time of writing) went to Oxford. And five of these went to the very same school, Eton. In the 1980s and early 90s a group of politically minded students were at Oxford at similar times and Kuper – who was at Oxford himself then – has dissected their influence, political trajectory and growing power.

The incubating role of the Oxford Union debating society for toffs and aspiring toffs is paramount, the infamous and élite Bullingdon Club that Johnson, Cameron and Osborne were part of arguably less so, but Kuper chronicles it warts and all. His key insight is about Brexit, because in many ways it was at Oxford at this time that Brexit was conceived. Patrick Robertson, the founding secretary of the Bruges Group, was prominent at Oxford in this period, as was fellow Tory and later MEP Daniel Hannan, who set up a similar organisation of his own and was also to help Michael Spicer found a grouping of anti-EU MPs that became the European Research Group. Alongside these came Dr Alan Sked’s Anti-Federalist League, the forerunner of UKIP – and hence an entire Brexit ecosystem was formed.

The later role of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove in Brexit has been well documented and Kuper does not spare them:
‘Brexit was the sort of grand cause that Johnson and Gove had lacked all their political careers. It would give them a chance to live in interesting times, as their ancestors had… It would be a gloriously romantic act, like the Charge of the Light Brigade, only with less personal risk. The Oxford Tories would reclaim parliamentary sovereignty, the birthright of their caste, from the Brussels intruders. In private, they understood that Brexit might not work out brilliantly, but Britain had no natural predators and would survive even a blunder’ (p.160).
Whatever we may think of the Brexit/Remain debate and its ultimate futility, Kuper spots trends that others have missed here. Fascinatingly, there is a close alignment between the subjects that Oxford politicos studied and their subsequent position on the issue. Of the prominent Remainers that were at Oxford nearly all studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) – Cameron, Hunt, Hammond, Hancock, Truss, etc as well as the Milibands, Ed Balls, Yvette Cooper and in an earlier period, Mandelson. Yet as Kuper explains:
‘By contrast, all the leading Tory Brexiteers studied backward-looking subjects: classics for Johnson, history for Rees-Mogg and Hannan, and ancient and modern history for Cummings. Gove’s degree was English, which mostly meant the canon’ (p.40)
The overwhelming sense here is of a group of privileged Tory students who thought of themselves as rule-makers not rule-takers, and who were looking for the next grand project once Thatcherism was complete, and one that could hopefully restore their birthright and entitlements. That they succeeded as much as they did is a remarkable testament to the UK’s enduring class system and its networks into business and the press. But as they say, all political careers ultimately end in failure – and this cohort of political careerists has clearly been no exception.
Dave Perrin

Cooking the Books: Can banks create wealth? (2022)

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

Those who believe that a bank’s business model is to create money out of thin air, lend it at interest, and make a profit as the difference between the interest they receive and their running costs, must have been mystified by an article in the Times (6 July) which reported:
‘The Bank of England has warned the City against making ‘excessive’ cuts in lending to households and businesses as the economy slows because of the risks of exacerbating a downturn.’
If banks make loans out of thin air, why would they cut back on lending? One reason, compatible with this belief, might be an absence of credit-worthy borrowers; although it wouldn’t cost the banks anything to conjure up the money to make a loan, it would be pretty pointless if the loan wasn’t to bring in any interest.

This already shows that bank lending (whatever the source of the money to lend) depends on the state of the economy. If this is contracting there is less opportunity to make loans (even out of thin air). On the other hand, if it is expanding there is an incentive to make more loans. This suggests that theories that a boom is caused by banks lending too much put the cart before the horse. Bank lending depends on the state of the economy, not the other way round.

Ignoring for the moment where the money for a bank loan comes from, what is the source of the interest? With big loans to capitalist enterprises to invest in expanding their business, the interest comes out of their profits. As these profits come from the unpaid labour of workers, the source of the interest is human work. Smaller loans are given to individuals, such as to buy a house. Here the interest is paid out of their wages but, since wages are a share (the paid share) of what workers produce, in this case too the source of the interest is human work.

The belief that banks create money out of thin air assumes that banks can create wealth by a few keyboard strokes. If that were true it would indeed be amazing, on a par with alchemy let alone magic. It might be said that what banks create from nothing is a claim on wealth. But that doesn’t hold water either. That claim would be transferred to the borrower. As soon as the borrower uses the claim to actually acquire wealth by buying something, the bank has to honour it; it has to produce a corresponding amount to transfer to the person or business that the borrower used the loan to buy something from. These won’t be satisfied with thin air. They will want the real thing. The bank will either have to have the money already or get it fairly quickly. In other words, it is already existing money that is the source of what banks lend, which will be the monetary representation of actual wealth produced by human work in the past.

Banks are not financial alchemists but intermediaries between those with money they don’t want to spend for the time being and those without money who want to spend some. This is why the banks are wary of lending when the economy is contracting. If they lend to people or businesses that may not be able to pay it back, they risk losing not just the interest but also the money they lent.

The Bank of England can no more cajole banks into lending money when the economy is contracting than they can to lend less when it is expanding. Not that that stops them trying.

Proper Gander: A Problem Not Registering (2022)

The Proper Gander column from the September 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

It would be nice to assume that as knowledge and technology carry on improving, so would healthcare, as more and better treatments become possible. But as we know, the National Health Service has always struggled to provide enough of what’s asked of it, despite the hard work of its staff. One aspect of the NHS where it’s sadly become realistic to lower our expectations is dental care. In a recent documentary on BBC News, Disappearing Dentists, presenter Dominic Hughes highlighted some of the issues.

The programme includes some distressing interviews with people who have been unable to register with a NHS dentist and unable to pay for treatment privately. One woman was left without a dentist when the practice she was registered with closed and there were no other ones taking on new NHS patients available nearby. Since then, she has lost 13 of her teeth because of receding gums for which she can’t get any treatment. Another woman has resorted to making substitute dentures from mouldable plastic herself because there are no dentists she can access. A father is unable to find a practice which will accept his children, who need treatment for painful cavities and misaligned teeth.

The programme’s researchers got in touch with nearly 7,000 dental practices who have contracts with the NHS. They found that in England, Wales and Northern Ireland around 90 percent of practices said that they were not registering new adult NHS patients, and 80 percent were not accepting children. A quarter of practices had waiting lists to register, with most being a year or more long. Many areas, especially much of the north of England and all of the west country, have become ‘dental deserts’ with virtually no chance of being able to newly register. The situation isn’t quite as extreme in Scotland, where 82 percent of dentists are not accepting new NHS patients, and nearly everyone has already registered, according to the Scottish government.

The NHS manages dentistry different to other aspects of healthcare. Most dentists operate as independent contractors rather than being employed by the NHS like GPs and hospital staff. Therefore, dentists are able to treat both private patients who pay for this directly and patients registered through the NHS, which subsidises the cost. NHS patients themselves are charged between £23.80 and £282.80 for a course of treatment, with children, pregnant women, benefit claimants and some other groups having all costs covered. Only treatments which are deemed clinically necessary are available through the NHS, so cosmetic procedures are only performed privately.

The programme-makers spend a couple of days at the emergency clinic at Newcastle University’s School of Dentistry. Drop-in clinics like this treat people who are in pain, without them having to be registered or charged as private patients, although there aren’t enough of them to cover much of the country. Many of the people who come in and are interviewed didn’t expect they would need to go there as they thought they were registered at their local practice. When they tried to make a booking for their current problem they were told that they had been taken off the register because they haven’t had an appointment recently. Being in pain, they couldn’t take the option of joining a long waiting list to re-register, and without other practices able to enrol them as NHS patients or the means to pay privately, they headed to the emergency clinic.

One dentist interviewed for the documentary said that the current crisis is the result of reforms to the way that dentists take on NHS work brought in during 2006. The type of contract a dentist had with the NHS changed from them being paid for each piece of work they did to having a block contract with their Primary Care Trust which pays them for a set number of ‘units’ of treatment each year. One given reason for the reform was that the system of charging individually for each treatment was believed to encourage more work than was necessary and discouraged preventative advice. Dentistry was already in a bad way when the contracts changed in 2006, with an ongoing shortage of dentists, especially in more economically deprived areas. The situation is even worse in 2022, as illustrated by the documentary. The dentist interviewed says that his current contract fails to meet the costs of NHS treatments because it caps the budget available for them. His income from private patients covers the gap to some extent, but this reduces his overall revenue which isn’t in his economic interests. Having a maximum number of NHS treatments paid for means that the practice can’t expand its NHS work. And as the population increases, more people will want to be registered, leading to rising demand which isn’t being met. Alongside this longer-term trend are the more recent disruptions due to the pandemic, which are still having an impact.

The crisis in NHS dentistry provision has got to compete for attention among all the other crises going on at the moment. There’s no appetite for structural change, according to Nigel Edwards, chief executive at the Nuffield Trust. He says that there’s a risk of dentistry becoming a two-tier system, but this has already happened with the difference between NHS and private patients. Like everything else, dentistry is commodified, and the NHS is an inconvenient complication of this for the capitalist class. It’s easy to think that NHS dentistry is being deliberately neglected by the Tories in order to promote the private sector, although it was under a Labour government that the contracts blamed for exacerbating the situation were brought in. Regardless of how it’s funded, basic dental care is always going to be an awkward fit into the capitalist economic model: it’s a product which requires expensive highly-skilled staff and decent equipment and also one which we don’t want unless it’s needed. The documentary ends by saying ‘there’s no quick fix for NHS dentistry’, but it would be more accurate to say that there’s no real fix at all within capitalism.
Mike Foster

Obituary: Oliver Bond (2022)

Obituary from the September 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

Oliver Bond, one of our most active members, died suddenly at the beginning of August as a result of an unsuccessful emergency operation. He was 66 and had not yet got round to claiming his state pension. Oliver was born in Canada but was brought up in Scotland. He joined the old Islington branch in 1984 during its very active period. He worked as a programmer on mainframe computers but was made redundant in his 50s and was never employed again. Some of his work colleagues could only find jobs working in a call centre, such was the reduced demand for workers with their particular skills. In the Party he was involved in a whole range of activities, street selling, pub selling, writing (his last contribution was the editorial in the June issue), even speaking occasionally, and also as an election candidate and agent. At the time of his death he was on the ballot committee, the member responsible for subscriptions to the Socialist Standard, and Treasurer of the South & West London branch. Outside the Party he was a keen member of CAMRA. He was a quiet, thoughtful and diligent man, generous to a fault and who could never say ‘no’. He will be sorely missed by his friends and comrades. Our particular condolences go to his brother and sister in Canada.

50 Years Ago: The Five Jailed Dockers (2022)

The 50 Years Ago column from the September 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

The dockers are worried about their jobs, or rather about the drop in standard of living they will suffer if they lose them. Since 1967 the number of dockers has fallen by a third, from 60,000 to 40,000, mainly as a result of the so-called container revolution. One aspect of this problem has been that much container work, even in dock areas, has been done by workers other than dockers, some non-union, some members of other unions, but all generally at lower wages.

It is the policy of the dockers’ unions, the Transport and General Workers Union and the rival National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers (expelled from the TUC in 1959 for ‘poaching’ TGWU members), that the work should be done by dockers, at dockers’ wages. To this end, the dockers have taken various forms of industrial action, official and unofficial, legal and illegal, from blacking container firms to a national docks strike.

A number of the blacked container firms took the TGWU and some of the shop stewards (from both unions) to the National Industrial Relations Court complaining that the blacking was an ‘unfair industrial practice’. The Court agreed: the TGWU was fined at least £55,000 and, eventually, five dockers sent to prison for ‘contempt of Court’.

The reaction to the jailings shows that working-class, or at least trade-union, solidarity still exists. Besides other dockers, thousands of newspaper workers, miners, train drivers and others (including those at the blacked Midland Cold Storage depot) stopped work. Such was the pressure that even the TUC would have called a one-day general strike of all its ten million members if the five dockers hadn’t been released, an unprecedentedly daring move from the Knights of Congress House. And of course they were released, obviously as a result of this working-class resistance. The government itself may not have directly influenced the Courts, but the workers on strike did. The House of Lords and NIRC were left with no alternative but to hurriedly concoct some legal excuse for letting the men out.

This was a successful defensive action by the working class and one which the Socialist Party of Great Britain welcomes just as we would have supported the one-day TUC general strike.

(Socialist Standard, September 1972)

Editorial: The class war and why there is one (2022)

Editorial from the September 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

According to the loud-mouthed Transport Secretary, Grant Shapps, the rail unions are ‘dinosaurs’ who are ‘motivated by some outdated class war’ (Times, 15 August). But if the class war is outdated, why is the government waging it on behalf of the profit-taking class? Why has it given itself powers to allow agency workers to replace strikers? Why has the likely future prime minister promised to place yet more obstacles in the way of union members going on strike without breaking the law?

The fact is that class conflict is built into the nature of capitalism as a society where the means of life – the places where the goods and services to keep society going are produced and provided – are owned and controlled by only a section of society, and where the rest of us, as non-owners of such places, are forced by economic necessity to go out onto the labour market and sell our physical and mental energies for a wage or salary. But that is not all. As the only way in which new wealth can be produced is by humans using their efforts to transform materials that originally came from nature, the non-work income of the owners – as profits and other property incomes – can only come from what those workers produce.

Capitalism, in short, is based on the economic exploitation of wage-labour for profit. This is why the interests of the two classes into which it is divided are diametrically opposed. How could they not be when the income of one class comes from the work of the other? The interest of the one class is to defend and increase profits; the interest of the other is to minimise its exploitation. Workers form trade unions to try to do this. The owners have the government to defend their interests.

The Tories, as the traditional party of the ruling class, recognise that this is the government’s role and preach class war against the workers’ unions. The Labour Party have had to learn this the hard way but now accept that in government they too have to give priority to profits and profit-making.

In the current situation, with the rise in the cost of living back in double digits, the unions are not even asking for double-digit wage increases, but only for something more than the 1 or 2 percent that they have been getting. Even non-unionists are changing jobs to get a higher salary so as to try and keep up with the cost of living. It is an almost spontaneous reaction of a class whose standard of living is being reduced. In reflecting this, the unions are doing their job. And in opposing them the government is doing its job.

The class war will only end when workers win political control and make the means of life the common property of society as a whole; when they win the class war and abolish class society.