Monday, September 26, 2022

Some Socialist points on the Beveridge Report (1942)

From the December 1942 issue of the Socialist Standard

Time does not allow a thorough examination of the Beveridge Report in this issue, but a few preliminary remarks may be made on aspects of particular interest to Socialists.

First we may ask why all this fuss about proposals which even the Times—not remarkable for its generosity towards social reforms—admits are “moderate enough to disarm any charge of indulgence”? (Times, December 2.) The spokesmen of capitalism are already preening themselves on the score that the Report shows what a generous and progressive country this is. They might pause to notice Beveridge’s claim that everything he proposes could and should have been done decades ago. All that time they have been boasting of the numerous reform measures they have introduced, yet the sum total of them all is so niggardly and displeasing in the eyes of its beneficiaries, the workers, that the latter can be impressed by the seemingly important advance the Beveridge scheme represents by contrast with the evil condition of to-day.

Even so the scheme should be viewed in proper perspective. The Times reads into the Report the “confident assurance that the poor need not always be with us,” but this is merely a misuse of terms, and one incidentally for which Beveridge appears not to be responsible. He talks all the time of abolishing “want,” by which he avowedly means something quite different from abolishing poverty. By want he means the condition into which the workers fall when their wages stop, not the condition in which they always are because they are carrying the capitalist class on their backs. Beveridge is quite clear about the distinction and says so. Did he not make a statement on December 1 (reported in the B.B.C. news broadcasts but apparently not in the Press) that it had always been his view that want could be abolished within the ranks of the wage-earners without any inroads into the wealth of the rich? He is saying in effect in his Report want could be abolished without interfering with capitalism, but neither he nor the Times want to abolish poverty. But for the poverty of the poor there could be no riches for the rich—a state which he and they find quite acceptable.

The Report has had a good Press, and already it is claimed that the Liberals and half the Conservative Party view it with favour. A characteristic and intelligible capitalist comment was reported in the Daily Worker (December 3, 1942) from Captain Somerset de Chair, who is a’ Conservative M.P. He is reported as follows : —
“I welcome it as a comprehensive plan to remove insecurity without resorting to the uncertain hazards of social reconstruction, he said.

This plan promises what we young Conservatives have always demanded—a square deal for the working man within the existing social and economic framework, instead of some utopia on the further side of an economic torrent.”
The Report is mistakenly referred to as a measure of insurance for the workers against the evils of capitalism. It would be more accurate to see it as a measure of insurance for the capitalists against the (for them) desperate evil of working class discontent with capitalism. Better far to give something away in time than to risk losing all.

The Report has been criticised by the Insurance Companies whose profits would be affected by the proposal to hand over their industrial assurance work to a Government Board. This was to be expected, but it gives rise to some interesting speculations. The Insurance Companies, with their enormous investments in all kinds of industrial and commercial enterprises, wield great influence, not excluding influence in Parliament and the Press. Fifteen or twenty years ago it was common in so-called Labour papers to see bitter attacks on the Prudential and other companies. What has happened to change all this, so that nowadays the clamour against them has almost disappeared? The Daily Express (November 28) had a curious little reference to this in an article on a book by the late Sir Arnold Wilson in which he attacked the insurance companies. According to the writer of the article. Sir Arnold was struck by the way in which the economists had ignored the problem presented by the “concentration of financial power” in the hands of the companies. “The oracles,” he found, “were strangely dumb.” “He searched libraries. He found little. He consulted the experts. And chief among them was Sir William Beveridge, who explained why the London School of Economics, on grounds of expediency, had ignored the subject.” (Daily Express, November 28. Italics ours.)

Sir William is, of course, no longer with the London School of Economics, and perhaps finds his hands less tied. In one fundamental respect, the scheme is a gamble, and Socialists can be certain that the gamble will be a losing one, for it is based on the expectation that unemployment will be permanently reduced after the war to a level less than it was before. If this optimistic assumption proves wrong, then the whole of the financial provisions are undermined and either the benefits would have to be reduced, or the high contributions raised still more or a large further deficit made up from taxation. This optimism of Sir William Beveridge is too much for the City Editor of the Times He points out (December 3) that Beveridge assumes that unemployment will not exceed an average of 8½ per cent. of the insured workers, but
“Only in one year, 1927, in the 14 years before the war was the average below 10 per cent.; in 1932 it was over 22 per cent. It is right to hope that unemployment can be reduced to below 8½ per cent. . . . But it is clear that a corollary of the social security plan must be a plan for full and efficient employment. Without it the social budget will be thrown out of gear.”
The Labour Party who gaily went into office in 1929 with a pledge to deal with unemployment and a hope that things “were on the up grade” should not need to be reminded that what happened to them (unemployment soon mounting to three millions) may well happen again even in the best of all possible capitalist worlds.

The Labour Party might also reflect on another incident in their experience. When the crisis occurred in 1931 it was a common theme with them that capitalism was for ever bankrupt and never again could there be any question of trying to make capitalism palatable to the workers by offering social reforms. Capitalism, they said, would never again be able to afford reforms. Socialists pointed out the absurdity of this belief that capitalism, choked with its own surplus products, could not afford to surrender some of them to alleviate the workers’ miseries. What have the Labour Party to say now that they are hailing Beveridge and allowing themselves to be manoeuvred into defending his scheme ?

One of the major purposes of the Report has already been served, its use as war propaganda. Both from the point of view of offering the workers at home some more or less concrete hope of benefits to come and from the point of view of offsetting Nazi propaganda for a new European Order the Report can be described as an instant success for the Government.
Edgar Hardcastle

The Reward of Honest Industry (1942)

From the December 1942 issue of the Socialist Standard

No matter how careful the capitalists and their apologists may be, the inconsistencies of the present economic system constantly come to light. Even such an innocent radio programme as “In town to-night” sometimes brings out a point that an observant listener can use to show the inconsistency of what our masters would have us believe is a happy land, providing peace, comfort and security for all those who are willing to work.

On Saturday, September 26th, in this programme, a manager of a pawnbroker’s shop gave the usual tbree-minute talk on the people with whom he deals. To a Socialist, the most important observation was that although some of his customers occasionally tried to swindle him, “Nine out of ten of the customers are honest, hard-working people.”

Well might the Socialist ask what sort of system it is in which “honest, hard-working people” have to pledge their clothes and blankets in order to obtain the necessities of life ?

This statement was made with reference to peacetime, not war-time. In fact, such are the contradictions of capitalism that during a war, when one might expect hardship, many of the workers who were forced to frequent the Labour Exchanges for the measly shillings which the Government granted to those in the “industrial reserve army,” as it has been called, are now in the position of having money to spend and few goods to buy. The Government, knowing the temptation to spend money that arises in those who are all too often denied that pleasure, are fearful of inflation, as occurred in the last war, and are pleading and cajoling the workers to put all “surplus” money into war saving, with the idea of helping to pay for the war. “Helping” is right, for even with the relatively high wages earned during wartime, the money that the workers could save, i.e., the money over and above the cost of living, would not pay for the war in a million years !

There is also the fact that whatever money the workers are able to save now that they are all in work will assist them to live through the slump that most economists predict to follow the post-war boom.

All the capitalist juggling in the world will not be able to create new markets to take the commodities which will result from the change over from war-time to peacetime production, and without a market, i.e., a group of buyers with the purchasing power to acquire the goods which the capitalist has for sale, the production of commodities will soon be curtailed, though the need for the goods may and will be as urgent as ever. If no one can purchase the goods which industry will be turning out by the million, those goods will stay in the warehouses, or be destroyed, as coffee, wheat and fish have been destroyed, among other goods, in the past. Under a capitalist system, goods are produced for sale, not for use. The difference may appear slight, but a worker who has no money, standing outside a boot shop in a broken-down leaky pair of boots, knows the practical difference between a commodity, i.e., an article produced for sale, and an article produced solely for use, as they will be under a sane system of society.

The only way to do away with pawnbrokers, and their immediate cause, poverty, is to do away with the private property system of society and substitute a system in which the means of production are owned by and run for the benefit of society as a whole.

This Means You ! (1942)

Party News from the December 1942 issue of the Socialist Standard

Large sums of money are donated annually, to scores of organisations appealing for funds to alleviate the povertv of this or that particular section of society. Organisations for the Relief of Ladies of Gentle Birth in Reduced Circumstances, Waifs and Strays, and Penniless Parsons.

The S.P.G.B. is not organised for the purpose of relieving the more or less obvious results of poverty. Our object is to abolish the cause of poverty, not to waste our time and energies in futile attempts to mitigate some of the more glaring effects.

You may agree with our object, our principles, and our policy, but for various reasons find it impossible to give us your active support. If this is the case, may we point out one way in which you can help us. Many workers have yet to hear the Socialist case, but our efforts to enlighten them are severely restricted by our meagre financial resources. We need financial support to enable us to carry on propaganda meetings, publish literature, etc.; in other words, to continue the struggle for Socialism. This is where you come in, and, by the way, we mean you, not all the other readers of the Socialist Standard !

You can play a necessary and important part in our struggle by sending along a donation, or, better still, a regular monthly donation. Send your donations to the Treasurer, S.P.G.B., 33. Gloucester Place, W.1. Cheques and Postal Orders should be crossed and made payable to the “Socialist Party of Great Britain.”
A. Price, 
Party Funds Organiser.

Editorial: Anticipating Beveridge (1942)

Editorial from the December 1942 issue of the Socialist Standard

Writing in advance of the issue of the Beveridge Report on Social Insurance, amidst the deafening clamour that has heralded that much boosted publication, we confidently predict that from a working-class standpoint it will be one of the ripest political red-herrings of our generation. It is one of those occasions when the Socialist prophet cannot go wrong.

In justification of this discordant note in the almost universal harmony we can point to the limited scope of the inquiry, and the well-known anti-Socialist views of the author. The outstanding social problem of our age is the poverty of the working-class. It is not the result of unemployment or of illness, or of industrial accident, or of inadequate powers of wealth production. It exists side by side with great wealth and affects the employed as well as the unemployed worker. It is the result of the private ownership by the capitalist class of society’s means of producing and distributing wealth. The facts of this concentration of ownership in the hands of a small minority of the population are well enough known, and Sir William Beveridge is, of course, quite well aware of them. Nor is it a new story. To go back no further than 1904 we have the telling statement of Sir Leo Money: “It is probably true that a group of about 120,000 people who with their families form about one-seventieth part of the population, owns about two-thirds of the entire accumulated wealth of the United Kingdom.” With perhaps some slight modification, that estimate is still true as other, later, investigators have shown. Sir William Beveridge and others like him may answer that they do not believe it necessary or practicable to abolish the system of society which rests on that foundation, but why is that fact about the basis of the capitalist system excluded and deliberately excluded from this and every other official “investigation” into the poverty problem of the working class? And why should the workers allow themselves to be side-tracked by inquiries into poverty which start off by excluding the major factor in the case? In an address to the Fabian Society on November 21st, 1942, Sir William, according to a press report (Sunday Express, November 22) urged the need for “thorough unbiased investigation and discussion,” but he had already stated the scope of the inquiry so as to exclude any investigation into capitalism itself. The problem, he said, “is that of discovering how to combine the proved benefits of private enterprise at private risk . . . with the necessity of national planning in the aftermath of war.” In short he, and those who selected him for the investigation, are only concerned with the problem of alleviating some of the secondary evils of capitalism.

Those who chose him knew what they were doing. They took no chances. Throughout his public career Sir William Beveridge has been a defender of capitalism, confining his diligent inquiries to fields which exclude the question of a frontal attack on the capitalist system. His concern has never been with the problem why are the working class poor, but always with the problem of providing for the periods when the worker’s income from the sale of his labour power ceases. As he wrote in 1924 in his “Insurance for All and Everything” (published by the Daily News, Ltd.) :
“The problem is not that of guaranteeing an income at all times to everybody irrespective of his work and services. That way lies Communism. The problem is the narrower one of giving security against all the main risks of economic life to those who depend on continuous earning, of arranging that part of what such persons earn by their work shall take the form of provision for themselves and their dependants whenever their work is interrupted or stopped by causes beyond their control.” (Page 31.)
In other words, Sir William, accepting the system which gives the privileged class their property-income without the necessity of working, limits his examination to the problem of legislating for the propertyless class. It is all right though for the capitalist to have an “income at all times irrespective of his work and services.”

On occasion Sir William Beveridge has attempted to justify his bias for capitalism and its inequality. He did so in a speech on November 10, 1942 : “To concentrate on absolute equality of incomes for all men is an unpractical and a wrong aim. It attaches excessive importance to material things and treats envy as our master passion” (News-Chronicle, November 11, 1942). Of course nobody ever suggested anything so unpractical as trying to build a social system on private ownership of the means of production and “absolute equality of incomes,” but we need not here go into that caricature of Socialism. What is of interest is the slick defence of our millionaire-pauper system with the ethical argument that to aim at equality attaches excessive importance to material things, and treats envy as our master passion. It was ever the trick of those who have material things monopolised in their control to deprecate the sin of envy in the dispossessed. What, we might ask, of the greed of those whose motto is “What we have, we hold”?

In conclusion, we may quote a passage from Sir Leo Money’s “Riches and Poverty” (1904). Commenting on the way in which reformers of his day ignored the facts about inequality, he used a description which might well be applied to Sir W. Beveridge and othere of his kind : —
“Our most ardent reformers discuss their plans without reference to the economic framework of the society which they propose to reform. As a result we get a vast amount of misdirected effort, a dreary outpouring of vague and empty rhetoric . . . and a succession of timorous proposals for reform ludicrous in relation to the nature and magnitude of the problems with which they seek to deal.”
Something will perhaps result from the Beveridge proposals after they have been discussed elaborately to the exclusion from many workers’ minds of the real poverty problem, and after being scaled down in the customary way. Thus they will serve the main purpose of those who instituted the inquiry, but unless the workers themselves speedily attack the problem of the achievement of Socialism, another ten years will find a new and vain inquiry being started to clear up the mess left behind by Beveridge.

Can Labour govern? (1942)

From the December 1942 issue of the Socialist Standard

“Can Labour Govern?” was the title of an article which appeared in the Sunday Pictorial of October 4, 1942, in which the editor airs his opinion that the Tories are in bad face with the electorate and that the gap between Parliament and the people is wide. He quotes Mr. Vernon Bartlett from the New Statesman to the effect that an attempt to close the gap need not be in vain, and then gets on with the task of weighing the pros and cons of the new leader—Churchill’s successor—dealing with such men as Sir Stafford Cripps, Mr. Ernest Bevin. Dr. Hugh Dalton, and Mr. E. Shinwell, but leaves the gate open for a back-bencher to emerge.

One other point, and probably the most interesting from the Socialist’s point of view, is that, although the writer distinguishes, between the Parliamentary Labour Party and the Labour Party itself, he is able to make this statement: “For the secret is out—the Parliamentary Labour Party does not believe in Socialism.”

The S.P.G.B. has been telling the working class for years, not merely that the Labour Party and the Parliamentary Committee of that party, do not believe in Socialism, but that they are an organisation which hopes and attempts to reform capitalist society, neither understanding the basic structure of capitalism which it wants to modify, nor Socialism which it claims as its objective. The question that forms the title of the article can be answered with a definite affirmative, the Labour Party can govern the working class in its function of wealth production and the Labour Party can administer capitalism—but only in the interests of the capitalist class; coalition, or “truce” and co-operation with avowed capitalist parties during wartime, and two Labour governments in the interval are ample demonstration of this.

The Labour Party has as its programme that which it calls the “Socialisation” or State control of industry, factories, mines, banks, railways, etc. But this pulls no wool over the eyes of the Socialist, to whom it is unimportant whether the natural development of the present system from its early individualist form to the latest phase (monopoly capitalism) demands a Labour or a Conservative government. The concentration of capital produces a working class that is numerically stronger and relatively poorer : the capitalist class discards its smaller fry and these become sellers of labour-power, meanwhile the richest become more powerful and more obscure behind Boards, Trusts, Corporations, etc. Minor illustrations of this trend were obvious before the present war, such as the London Transport Board, the Central Electricity Board, the Post Office, etc., and the greatest scope in the post-war period will exist for those organisations whose mammoth resources and modern equipment enable them to overwhelm the minor competitors who are unable to maintain the mad rush of production.

Yes, the Labour Party can govern; it can and must make promises which induce the electorate to give it support—but can it keep them ? The Labour government of 1929-1931 did not repeal the Trades Disputes Act; it continued the imposition of test and task work; it was responsible for the bombing of natives of Iraq. Yes—but the leaders were wrong? It was due to Ramsay Mac, or J. H. Thomas, or Snowden—they formed the government but were not in power. None of these excuses is correct; the explanation is that capitalism runs its course irrespective of the minor differences of theory of Messrs. Macdonald, Baldwin, Churchill, Bevin, or Cripps—but there will always be impressive leaders as long as workers desire or tolerate them.

The S.P.G.B. calls upon you workers, you who sell for wages the only commodity that you own—your ability to work—to consider its case—the case for Socialism; consider your position as members of a class that is sweated in in dustry and bled in wars; consider the poverty, misery, disease, and slum life of your fellow workers and class-consciousness—not leaders—will enable you to capture the control of the machinery of government and thereby the means of producing and distributing the wealth that will allow us to live like men. The alternative is existing like slaves.

War and Health (1942)

From the December 1942 issue of the Socialist Standard

Since the beginning of the present conflagration we have been assured by numerous authorities that the nation’s good health has been maintained “beyond all expectations.” Wireless and press, doctors and politicians, have all remarked on this rare and peculiar phenomenon. We also wondered. We thought of Sir John Orr’s statement on pre-war conditions, “that one-third of the nation are not receiving enough food to maintain them in a reasonable standard of health and efficiency.” We thought of the health of the unemployed.

There is no doubt that many workers are better off now, despite food rationing, than they were on their labour exchamge diet. Making bombs and shells requires more fodder than merely sitting on a park bench. We reasoned, though, that a slightly higher intake of food into the workers’ stomachs would be more than offset by the strain and slogging of war production. And then we learned all about the newly discovered virtues of carrots and potatoes, of dried eggs and dehydrated meat; and during the “blitz” we were told of the invigorating effect of a two hours’ sleep. . . . But at last it comes out. An increase in diphtheria, whooping cough, measles and chicken-pox is now reported; there are cases of smallpox in the North; a disturbing rise in tuberculosis, particularly among children, and a rapid growth in the case rate of venereal disease.

Nevertheless we still hear that “the stubborn good health of our people is maintained. We have, thus far. avoided serious epidemics.” Of course, much depends on what our medical experts care to define as a “serious epidemic.” We are inclined to think that the scope of infection will have to be high indeed before any disease conditions are thus described. After all, we must not be too faddy in war time!

However, we are afraid that the health of the workers will surely and quickly deteriorate despite frantic appeals to eat carrots and be inoculated. There is no device known to the doctors that can prevail against the effects of overwork and underfeeding, and the anxieties inseparable from total war. One can appreciate that the health situation is not so pleasant if the chief medical officer is obliged to entertain us over the air with a fireside chat on consumption and syphilis.

It may well be that the number of people killed on the battlefields and through air-raids will be surpassed by the millions destroyed by sickness. The great influenza epidemic that followed the last war is stated to have been responsible for more deaths than were sustained in four years of fighting.

The prospect for the workers to-day is not very hopeful. Many of them are working long hours in badly ventilated factories, are not eating enough nourishing food, and have to live in the vitiated atmosphere of blacked-out rooms. In these circumstances, it is hardly possible that they will be in a fit and proper condition to enjoy the pleasures of the new world order faithfully promised to them by President Roosevelt and Mr. Winston Churchill. Freedom from good health is more likely to be the reward of capitalism’s wage-slaves than freedom from want.

When Mr. Churchill recently addressed the miners’ representatives it was said that he laid before them the “true facts,” and fully explained “the gravity of the situation.” We feel, somehow, that a good discourse on the merits of steak and onions would have been much more to the miners’ taste.

We hold the view that whatever the military outcome of the war may be, its various effects will influence the lives and health of our class. It is quite certain that the workers in the defeated countries will suffer as much as the workers in the victorious countries; they will have the same share of consumption and lunacy, ulcerated stomachs and venereal disease.

Socialist Capitalists and Capitalist-Minded Workers (1942)

From the December 1942 issue of the Socialist Standard

A reader of the Socialist Standard is perturbed because he has just learned that Frederick Engels, who spent a lifetime helping Karl Marx in his work for Socialism, was a wealthy man, and left at his death “the grand sum in property or otherwise of £24,839.” “Surely,” says this reader, “this sum could only have been amassed by the exploitation of his fellow men.”

There is, of course, no secret about Engel’s position. He was the son of a wealthy manufacturer, entered his father’s business and derived his income from that source. Does this, as our reader evidently fears, mean that Engels was not truly a Socialist? Are we to dub him a supporter of the capitalist system from which he obtained his livelihood? It is not difficult to answer the question. Engels’ devoted work for the Socialist movement is all the answer necessary. As can easily be discovered from the facts of Engels’ life and work—if our reader does not know it already—Engels consistently and tirelessly pursued the object of destroying capitalism and establishing Socialism. Indeed, one of his reasons for entering his father’s business was that he could thus be in a position to give financial help to Marx so that Marx could continue his work for Socialism freed from the problem of earning his living.

Our reader’s difficulty probably arises from mixing up things that do not belong to each other. A capitalist is one who lives on income derived from the ownership of capital. A Socialist is one who holds that Socialism is a practical alternative to capitalism and who seeks to establish Socialism. Because of the way in which their class interests and their environment influence their ideas most capitalists are supporters of capitalism and opponents of Socialism, but this is not always or necessarily so. Some individual capitalists, owing to greater understanding of the laws of social evolution, can see that Socialism is a practicable next stage in the development of human society, and become in greater or less degree workers for Socialism. Engels was one, William Morris was another. Surrendering their capitalist source of income in order not to be associated with exploitation has nothing to do with the question, and has little to recommend it anyway. Such action does nothing whatever to end the capitalist system except perhaps that it may, as has been argued, serve as a small gesture to remind other capitalists of the evils produced by the system. It does nothing to help the working class.

Having considered the individual capitalist who becomes a Socialist, now consider the fact, a seemingly much more curious one, that not only individual members of the working class but the overwhelming mass are supporters of the system that exploits them. This is due to the fact that the workers’ environment does not consist solely of his wage-relationship to the capitalist but includes also his subjection from infancy to the ceaseleses propaganda for capitalism conducted through schools, churches, newspapers, the wireless, etc. Only the jolts of the hard experiences of exploitation, plus the flow of the thin stream of Socialist propaganda, counteract this capitalist propaganda, but here in the long run is the only way of ending capitalism. It lies in influencing the mass of workers so that they will appreciate the facts about their position in society and will acquire the knowledge and will to achieve Socialism. Viewed in this light, which is more important ? that Engels and other individuals in his position should make a sacrificial but almost useless gesture of renunciation or that they should use their opportunities for the furtherance of the Socialist movement. The question is convincingly answered in the valuable work that Engels performed both through his own activities and through the support and encouragement he gave to Marx.
Editorial Committee

Did you listen to Smuts? (1942)

From the December 1942 issue of the Socialist Standard

“Did you listen in to Smuts?” These were the words on everyone’s lips the morning after the veteran politician’s speech. The answer, due to lack of a radio set, was perforce in the negative. So after working very hard all day for the benefit of a bunch of railway shareholders, we sat up burning the landlady’s electric light till 1 a.m. in order to find out what all the pother was about. To-night, still being worn out after the day’s toil, we will endeavour to convey our impressions to paper. The most striking thing about the speech was the resounding flow of words. One might almost say that he out-Churchilled Churchill in this respect. But words, apart from the meaning they convey, matter very little to the scientist or the Socialist. It is impossible, in the now restricted space of the Socialist Standard to deal with the speech in detail—we can only touch upon one or two points of special interest to the toilers of the world.

Let us quote. Speaking of Britain, he says: “I remember this smiling land, recovered and rebuilt after the last war, where a happy people dwelt securely, busy with the tasks and thoughts of peace.” Is this a true picture? Did any of those who heard these words recall to mind the thrice-weekly queue outside the labour exchange, the miserable dole, the means test? Or, when working, the hard toil under the ever watchful eye of the employer’s deputy, always ready to hand out the order of the sack at the slightest sign of slackness, old age, or insubordination?

He must realise that there must be memories of such things, so he holds out a picture of a new world—but a rather subdued new world—not quite so rosy as the “world fit for heroes” of the 1914-18 Lloyd George epoch.

Quoting with approval the vague “Atlantic Charter,” he adds : “We cannot hope to establish a new heaven and a new earth in the bleak world which, will follow after this most destructive conflict of history. But certain patent social and economic evils could be tackled on modest practical lines on an international scale almost at once.”

The nearest he comes to the concrete is when he says : “Health, housing, education, decent social amenities, provision against avoidable insecurities—all these simple goods and much more can be provided for all, and thus a common higher level of life be achieved for all.” A careful reading of the speech seems to indicate that the provision of all these blessings is intended on an international scale. Thus, although we are not going to have so rosy a world as the Lloyd-Georgian one, we are going to have it on a wider scale. But what are these blessings ? We seem to have heard of them all before—in fact, they are as old as capitalism itself. “Health”—who has not heard of “health”—and health insurance. How many experts have pointed out the sapping of health caused by a poverty diet ? “Housing”—the word almost makes one laugh. It is, of course, the housing of the poor they refer to. For the wealthy, there is no housing problem. But, Smuts or no Smuts, there will always be a housing problem under capitalism, because capitalism breeds poverty, and poor people can never afford decent houses. “Decent social amenities”—does he mean the Carlisle public houses, or municipal parks, or what? Or is it just a string of words, that sounds well, but means nothing? “Provision against avoidable insecurities.” Another fine-sounding phrase—but it looks suspiciously like the “dole,” and the word “avoidable” seems to imply that it will not be distributed too lavishly.

Smuts says that “it is no longer a case of Socialism or Communism or any of the other isms of the market place, but of achieving common justice and fair play for all.” Short of Socialism, we would like to know what other means capitalism’s main defect, poverty, and its subsidiary defects—wars, slums, and unemployment—can be remedied. Smuts clearly has in mind the continuance of capitalism, but while there is competition for jobs and competition for markets, talk of justice and fair play is nothing more than a joke. The past history of capitalism should make this clear.

Numerous politicians have called Hitler’s attack on Russia a mistake. Smuts also calls it a mistake. Yet he says : “Baulked in his air attack on London, he saw that it was unsafe to attempt an invasion of Britain before first clearing his rear in Russia.”

Smuts apparently believes in God and the Devil, for, speaking of Hitler’s failure to attack Britain directly the Channel coast was open, he says : “Providence saved us there, and let us admit that the Devil helped him. Such is always the ultimate function of evil in this world.”

The chief evil is that workers continue to support capitalism and thereby do continue to suffer the evils which capitalism produces.

(The quotations are taken from the Daily Telegraph of October 22, 1942.)

Good News for Shareholders (1942)

From the December 1942 issue of the Socialist Standard

Following the British and American occupation of points in Morocco and Algeria, the Times (November 11, 1942) reports that there was a further accession of strength to the stock markets. “The large bulk of the active trading was in the industrial and kindred markets, but the more spectacular gains were in oil and mining shares, Far Eastern issues, and European bonds. . . . The feature of the foreign bond market was the strong demand for European and Ear Eastern loans; Greek bonds were marked up by a further two or three points, French railway bonds by four or five points, and Chinese bonds by three or four points. . . . Oil shares were strong, particularly the Eastern group.”

The Times does not report any simultaneous spectacular rise in the wages of the workers.
R. M.

Voice From The Back: Cold (2000)

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


The death rate from cold in Britain is higher than in Finland, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Greece . . . Every winter 26,596 elderly people die in London alone—3,129 in every million-compared to 2,457 in Northern Finland. Evening Mail, 19 September.


Britain is not the only country in which the government and charities help to keep wages too low to live on: “According to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, which supplies food to about 420 pantries in the region, roughly 12 percent of the population, or 150,000 people, used a food pantry last year. ‘Half of the adults who get food from us are working,’ said David Sharken, executive director of the food bank. ‘It is a hidden part of this economy. The hidden part is that, while there are jobs and the unemployment rate is fairly low, the kind of jobs that most people have found, for the most part, have no benefits or health care.’ The increased use of food pantries has kept in lockstep with the progress of the Welfare Reform Bill, which went into effect in Massachusetts in 1996 and gave able-bodied welfare recipients two years to find jobs before they were cut off from state cash assistance.” Berkshire Eagle, 15 September.


The suffering, degradation and death that lies behind capitalism’s glitzy exterior of modernisation and progress is exposed when the facts are analysed: “More than 800 million people, 13 percent of the world’s population, suffer from hunger and disease linked to malnutrition, the UN Food and Agriculture said in a report released yesterday.” Herald, 16 September.


The workers of the world are, according to a United Nations report, united in just one thing these days: record levels of stress. What is more, the report warns, anxiety levels are set to dramatically increase in the coming years as globalisation continues its relentless march, and the economic costs for business will be massive. In a landmark survey examining stress in the workplace in five countries, the UN’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) found that levels of anxiety, burnout and depression are spiralling out of control. The problem is costing employers billions of pounds in sick leave and lost working time, and often leaves frayed employees grappling with a series of complex mental disorders for years afterwards. Guardian, 12 October.

The coastal dustbin

The catalogue of disasters revealed by the recent survey carried out on the UK coastal waters by the World Wide Fund for Nature should frighten even the staunchest supporter of capitalism: “All the coastal habitats studied have been extensively damaged, ripped up and reclaimed for development—and two thirds of our fish stocks are over-exploited and heading towards commercial extinction. Many mud flats are so polluted by ‘gender-bender’ man-made chemicals, that male flounder are now displaying female characteristics and even producing eggs. There are serious concerns over plankton, one of the world’s most important sources of oxygen, a vital carbon sink, and the basis of all marine food chains.” (Herald, 20 September.) All of these problems could be solved inside socialism, but in capitalism, a society whose only drive is to make profits, the problems just intensify.


We’ve had Thatcher’s “Land of Opportunity”, Major’s “Classless Society” and Blair’s “Third Way”. But behind the glossy promises what is the reality? “Narrowing the gap between rich and poor could prevent as many as 10,000 premature deaths each year in Britain, according to a report published yesterday. Even a modest redistribution of wealth, restoring inequalities back to their 1983 levels, could save 7,500 under-65s a year, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report says. Many studies have shown that poverty, unemployment and disadvantage lead to poor health and earlier death. These inequalities have been widening in recent years.” Times, 26 September.

Globalising medicine

Just as it is cheaper to produce running shoes in Asia or Africa, so it is proving cheaper and more “efficient” to conduct clinical trials of drugs in the developing world . . . Given this looser environment, some researchers, particularly in America, have been conducting studies they could not get away with at home. Particularly appalling is the fact that such studies are increasingly backed by the very institutions who in their own nations are the watchdogs of public health . . . Debate has been fuelled by Public Citizens 1997 exposure of unethical Aids research in Africa and Asia under the auspices of US National Institutes for Health (NIH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Thousands of pregnant women with HIV were given placebos rather than AZT, known to be an effective medication . . . “Putting it bluntly,” says Dr Lurie, “as elsewhere in the globalising economy, we are witnessing a race to the ethical bottom.” Guardian, 5 October.

Tribalism, colonialism and capitalism (2000)

From the December 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
The festering of tribalist, nationalist and racist sentiment are nurtured and sustained by the capitalist system
Within the context of neo-colonial statehood, tribalism is a colonial derivative based on matriarchal or patriarchal relations forged in the distant past and used by an ethnic group as a defensive and an offensive weapon against other groups. The position of some of those who see tribalism as the main cause of Africa’s present social and economic predicament follows a familiar pattern of thinking. The colonialists, according to them, tried to make a nation-state out of a hotch-potch of antagonistic and uncivilised African peoples but failed in their pious mission. The various tribes had age-long hatred for one another and as soon as the colonial power went the natives descended into barbarism maiming and killing each other.

Nationalists in Africa see the matter differently, painting idyllic pictures of the African past and blaming all the tribal conflicts that have erupted after independence solely on colonialism. This viewpoint is as historically incorrect as it is undialectical. Facts abound on how the internal evolution of some African communities before colonialism and mercantile capitalism had provided groups of people the opportunity to appropriate the labour of others, accumulate economic surplus and consequently subjugate other communities. This is a scenario that must have generated a certain level of tribal animosity and discrimination based on economic exploitation and wealth, even if this was on a minor scale compared with the situation in colonial times and the post-independence era. It was these differences that were deliberately and carefully nurtured by the colonialists, and later exploited by the neo-colonial bourgeoisie after independence to keep the people manacled to the capitalist system.

In colonial times
Colonialism whether it was of the British, Belgian, French or German variety was not meant to be a benign enterprise. The motive behind its establishment was one: the exploitation of labour and the accumulation of economic surplus. Consequently, the driving force behind it, capitalism, did not spare the exploitation of labour in both the metropolis and other lands even if it meant spilling blood to fulfil this sordid agenda.

This mercenary impulse had implied increased production, technological expansion, the growth of the external and domestic market and ultimately the annexation and political control of other territories. Tribal groups which stood in the way were, in colonial parlance, pacified. But if, as suggested in some quarters, the colonial enterprise had meant to pacify and carve out viable nation-states capable of competing with metropolitan capitalism, the monopolistic tendency and vampire essence of the profit system would have been still-born. Far from creating problems for itself, its policy towards the people of the colonies was guided by the trinitarian doctrine—atomisation, exploitation and domination. This unfolded in its pattern of social and economic investment in what came to be known as Ghana and before that as the Gold Coast.

British colonial policy encouraged investments in only those areas of the colony which were endowed with mineral and forest resources. This pattern of investment engendered considerable regional variations in terms of the provision of roads, railway lines and social services. Thus the Southern Sector which by virtue of its location abounded in timber, gold and fertile soil benefited far more in terms of infrastructural development than the Northern territories which did not have any known mineral resources. But even in the Southern part of the colony there was discrimination in the provision of amenities on the basis of the contribution to the exportable surplus. The pattern of investment that characterised British economic policy was not born out of any preference for the Asante over the Dagarti, but based on cold capitalist reasoning. After all, some minimum maintenance of workers’ health and education was a reasonable investment since it ensured the maximisation of the extraction of surplus from the worker; and the greedy capitalists by their calculations knew this too well.

How did this promote tribalism? By annexing the Gold Coast and putting the people in a subordinate status, the British colonial power froze any further evolution and consolidation of a national identity. For example, it destroyed the principal catalyst for achieving the unity of fragmented loyalties. Not only did colonialism deprive states like Benin, Oyo and Asante of all their principal vassals and tributary states, but it followed up the process of fragmentation by smashing the basis of the hegemonic power of these states thus giving full rein to all manner of divisive tendencies.

While pretending to be carrying out a mission of uniting the incorrigibly warring tribes British colonial policy consciously and systematically separated the various people, creating conflict and ill-will among them. The colonial government sometimes saw the value of stimulating tribal jealousies so as to keep the colonised from dealing with their principal opposition—the colonial and the emergent African bourgeoisie who together were milking the people.

By categorising the various linguistic subgroups in the Gold Coast—Frafra, Dagarti, Ninkarsi Kusaasi, Dagomba, Akyim, Asante and Fanti—as tribes the colonial regime began to nurture parochial and exclusivist consciousness among people who previously had regarded themselves as one. All official documents in colonial times, for example, required information on the place of origin and ethnic background of the individual. Names were thus suffixed with one’s tribal background and area of origin. Feeling regarded as a member of an ethnic group by others and that they would behave towards you accordingly, individuals began to feel the need to identify more closely with their “kith and kin” and to promote its interest relative to others.

Racist colonial ideology ignored the fact that the people of the Gold Coast shared a common heritage of colonial oppression and colonially-induced capitalist exploitation with its concomitant ills: poverty, ignorance, disease and malnutrition. As a result, its philosophy of determining the inferiority or superiority of a people in terms of the extent to which they had culturally imbibed all what the colonial establishment represented came to dominate the worldview of some Africans.

Colonial ideology and culture operated on the basis of a hierarchy of cultures in which that of the metropolitan bourgeoisie was supposed to be supreme. The culture of the country of origin of the metropolitan bourgeoisie therefore became the standard by which a people’s level of primitiveness or barbarism was determined. The more your thinking, values and mannerisms were close to the colonialists’ the more human you were; and by implication the further your behaviour and outlook were from the masters’ the less human you were. This explained why the rich and educated elite who were products of the colonial educational system did not answer questions in their African dialect but in English. They talked about the opera which they had never seen except from a distance, referred to winter and Buckingham Palace and, above all, adopted a critical attitude towards other Africans who they derogatively referred to as “bush people”.

But the idea of trying to approximate to the coloniser was not only to be found in the relations between the African and the European coloniser. Sometimes Africans tried to approximate their status to other Africans if they thought those individuals enjoyed a higher status. African ethnic groups which had a high number of educated and rich people within them as a result of their long contact with the coloniser tended to feel superior to others. Even if they were poor and illiterate they identified psychologically with those in their tribal group who were rich and educated. It did not matter to the poor Asante, Frafra or Ewe person if all of them were victims of crude exploitation by colonialism and the African bourgeoisie. In their minds, the identification with the tribal big boss and the fact that they came from the same ethnic background was enough, even if it did not ensure the enjoyment of a spoon of marmalade from the master’s table. These exclusivist and warped thinking explained why a poor Asante for example could feel deeply offended if he was mistaken for a Busanga or any other tribe. This not only lead to more barriers between the ethnic groups but effectively undermined their capacity to confront capitalist exploitation. The inter-ethnic struggle for superiority or at least to avoid the stigma of inferiority dissipated the energies of the people.

Tribalism today
The African bourgeoisie which assumed the mantle of power after colonial rule also did not fail to realise the usefulness of tribalism in the struggle against the African masses. Like racial violence in Europe, tribalism was a means to an end: deflecting the anger of the masses from the neo-colonial bourgeoisie and directing it at other members of the working class. In another sense it was the most convenient cover for the capitalist robbers who stole economic surplus from the working class and poor peasants. The attitude of the African bourgeoisie towards the colonial state that it inherited, therefore, was not that of dismantling and radically transforming the exploitative relations of production. It was guided by the desire to inherit the colonial state-machine and seek accommodation with international capital in the extraction of economic surplus from the working people. Consequently, post-independence politics in Africa has witnessed the arousal and manipulation of tribal passions and petty differences among ethnic groups, for the same sordid reasons that the bourgeoisie in Europe sometimes find convenient it to use racism.

The predatory character of capitalism coupled with the hollowness and hypocrisy of the African bourgeoisie created fertile conditions for the festering of this cancerous disposition. Slogans, values and the moral high ground postured by the bourgeoisie as events unfolded long after independence have been blatantly self-serving. As for their masters abroad, the state machinery has now become an important instrument in their quest for capital accumulation at the expense of the masses, whom they claim in political party campaigns to be liberating from poverty, disease, etc. However, given the peculiar historical and economic circumstances in which it has had to evolve it is not an exact carbon copy of its masters abroad.

The African bourgeoisie is more desirous of imbibing the lifestyles and privileges of its overlords in Europe and America than showing the creative and strong interest in production that marked the genesis of the bourgeoisie in Europe. Its extravagance and neo-colonial conditions have been at the core of the steep declines of production levels in recent times, leading to shocking levels of destitution and poverty. But it is precisely these conditions of want that the bourgeoisie has shamelessly manipulated to scuttle the unity of the dispossessed in the towns using tribalism as a tool.

Cruel economic conditions have forced many residents in poverty-stricken suburbs to seek help and protection by means of a network of social obligations, transferring some of their traditional feudal loyalties and institutions to the urban environment. Most ethnic groups in Accra, Kumasi and Sekondi-Takordi have installed chiefs to whom they pay allegiance and seek protection. Tribal associations have also been formed to advance the cause of particular ethnic groups and used as sources of benefit: help in finding a job, accommodation, money and credit. People also stick together to make common cause against other tribal groups in the struggle for economic survival in the dog-eat-dog environment that has been created by capitalism.

It is these tribal associations that provide arenas for the various factions of the bourgeoisie to launch offensives and counter-offensives against each other in their struggle for political and economic power. Events in the run-up to this month’s presidential election in Ghana provide ample testimony of this, as many of such groups with the backing of the bourgeoisie have sprung up, all seeking to advance the interest of the bourgeoisie in the various ethnic groups. They have organised and whipped up the sentiments of the lower strata of their tribespeople against rivals belonging to different ethnic groups. They have created the impression that it is only when one of your tribesmen is at the helm of affairs that you can have a fair share of national development and individual personal advancement. Consequently, where a presidential or vice-presidential candidate comes from has become extremely important.

But as it has always been the case after every election, and will surely be the case after this month’s elections, that those factions that win the election will easily forget about the ethnic support base they so subtly manipulated to propel themselves to power. They will shun the company of their poor tribespeople who supported them and will fraternise closely with their allies in other ethnic groups. The rancour and bitterness that characterised their relations will soon be forgotten, except on political party platforms. They will play tennis, billiards and golf together and discuss lucrative business contracts in posh hotels. As for their indigent brethren who had worked tirelessly to put them in power, they will have to start thinking seriously about how to pay school fees, feed the family, and get good accommodation.

The festering of tribalist, nationalist and racist sentiment are nurtured and sustained by the capitalist system of production which produces only for profits and not for needs. The abolition of the profit system and its replacement with socialism based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for production and distribution would put an end to discrimination and bigotry. But this cannot happen unless people understand and see the need for this kind of change. More than ever before, the formation of socialist parties in Africa to take up the task of spreading the socialist message has become urgent.
Adongo Aidan Avugma

World View: Letter from Zambia (2000)

From the December 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

The wind of change is blowing across the African continent. This wind of change depicts a phenomenon of political coups which have swept through many African countries which had embraced the multi-party parliamentary system of government.

There is strife and bitter in-fighting between elected governments and opposition parties. The demise of single party totalitarian rĂ©gimes has entailed the growth of neo-colonialism through economic liberalism and globalisation. Before the demise of Soviet “Communism”, some African countries were in the forefront of the state-run economies. The economics of laissez-faire capitalism is proving a bitter pill to swallow to populations reared and groomed under the politics of totalitarian rĂ©gimes and state or command economies. What is alarming is the recourse to communalism and outright tribalism by opposition parties against elected governments.

The defeat of Kenneth Kaunda’s UNIP government by Frederick Chiloba’s MMD party has wrought a permanent change upon Zambia’s political and economic life. The dismantling of a state command economy by the MMD government has let loose social and demographic changes throughout Zambia. Income and job patterns have changed from bad to worse.

Free trade and economic liberalism have appeared as an affront to the nationalistic sentiments of many an African political malcontent. Outright economic dependence on European trade and international commerce is neo-colonialism per se. But can any African country survive without any form of economic aid from the developed capitalist countries? In Zambia the goal of the politics of transparency and free trade has been purchased at a high price. Privatisation of the state economic sector has brought into being unprecedented job losses and industrial dislocation.

Neo-colonialism depicts a situation where the country’s domestic economy is exposed to foreign or overseas multinational companies. Privatisation has created a new class of industrial capitalists whose commercial and employment objectives are at variance with the macroeconomic objectives of governments. Under neo-colonialism a recipient country is held in dire servitude by the donor community which monitors its political and economic performance.

The creation of SADCC (Southern African Development Co-ordination Conference) has led to a relaxation of tariffs and quotas between member countries. In the case of Zambia this has meant that imports from South Africa, where economies of scale abound and production costs are low, have come to over-flood the relatively undeveloped and high-cost domestic industrial sector. As a result most manufacturing industries in Zambia have closed since they cannot compete in quality and price with these imported commodities.

The policy of arresting an imbalance in of payments by clamping down on subsidies and public expenditure has led to unemployment and social misery across the country. It has brought a bout of unprecedented criticism from the opposition back benches. Zambian economic liberalism depends upon massive injections of donor investment and aid to survive.

Persistent political bickering and unsubstantiated criticisms against elected governments are tarnishing the image of African parliamentary democracy as a test case in multi-partism. It portrays and signifies a lack of trust in the concept of democracy and is causing suspicion and anxiety among the Western donor community circles.

Voter apathy and outright arrogance against the ruling parties has become a general feature in every African country under multi-party rule. Ethnic rivals and tribal prejudices are exploited by opposition parties in order to discredit elected governments. It seems that parliamentary democracy under the European political pattern cannot easily survive in Africa and that African countries will have to live exposed to the threat of military coups.
Kephas Mulenga

World View: Trading loopholes at The Hague (2000)

From the December 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

We’ve been here before. On 28 June 1997, the Guardian announced: “EARTH SUMMIT ENDS IN FAILURE”. Six months later, on 12 December, it ran a related story: “KYOTO DEAL LEAVES U.S. FREE TO POLLUTE”. On 16 November this year, after only three days of talks at The Hague, came the headline we well could have anticipated: “CLIMATIC TALKS STALEMATE AS EU REJECTS US FOREST PLAN”.

The current round of talks in are about the reviewing progress since the December 1997 agreement which set targets for industrialised countries for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. The problem now is over the issue of loopholes—well anticipated at Kyoto—which allow countries to avoid cutting back on carbon emissions.

Whilst the EU insists that countries should in the first instance cut back on fossil fuels, there is an umbrella group of countries—the US, Japan, Canada, New Zealand and Australia—which believe in alternative methods of “reducing” carbon dioxide emissions. The latter are taking the “flexibility mechanism”, allowed under the Kyoto Protocol, to new extremes. Instead of cutting their fossil fuel (carbon) emissions they buy carbon credits from countries that are not likely to exceed their carbon emission quota as laid down at Kyoto and thus continue to pollute as before.

As the quotas are based on 1990 levels of emissions, countries, for instance of the former USSR which since 1990 have seen a drastic reduction in heavy industry, are selling their unused entitlements to the US. In this respect even ethical Britain is just as guilty of carbon trading as those countries it criticises, with the UK hoping to sell carbon dioxide it would have produced were the coal mines not closed.

George Monbiot, writing in the Guardian (16 November), pertinently observed that in July this year the UK “laid down £30 million to help private companies start bidding for each others’ reduced emissions. A research institute in the US calculates that the weather market will be worth $13 trillion by 2050.”

Whilst the EU insists the US must make at least half of its reduction from genuine energy cutbacks at home, the US is adamant that the loopholes it exploits must remain in place before it is prepared to sign up to any agreement to curb emissions. As well as the carbon trading loophole, there are indeed other loopholes and dodges the US and others are taking advantage of, such as “carbon sinks”. As forests absorb carbon from the atmosphere, the US and other countries, now plant and indeed buy forests, at home and in other countries, and count the carbon this is estimated to save against their own emissions. This is already proving a lucrative business. One Malaysian logging firm is presently replacing the forests it depletes with new plantations and selling pollution permits to the US. Another loophole is to be found with countries paying for a project in a lesser developed country, with the aim of reducing carbon and counting it against their own emissions.

You name the dodge and the profit-greedy have thought of it. This includes feeding cattle, pigs and sheep new diets that help reduce the amount of methane they emit when they pass wind and pumping carbon dioxide into the ocean to be absorbed by the seas and sprinkling iron filings across the surface of the ocean to stimulate plankton growth (then calculate how much plankton dies and sinks to the bottom of the seam, taking the carbon with them, and claim credit for it).

The perennial problem is that countries are reluctant to promote the investment in more environmentally friendly methods of production and transport because their respective governments, being the executive arm of the capitalist class, prefer to bow with suppliant knee to powerful oil, coal, iron and steel lobbies, rather than openly acknowledge that ecologically we risk approaching the point of no return.

When we consider that at Kyoto, it was announced that a global 60 percent reduction in carbon emissions was necessary to maintain a stable climate, with the US asked to reduce their emissions by 7 percent of 1990 levels (which would mean a 34 percent reduction now), and that the US, with 4 percent of the world’s population is currently responsible for 24 percent of global carbon emissions, we get some idea of the pathos of the whole issue.

In spite of all the evidence that suggests that deforestation and present production and transport methods are primary responsible for climatic warming—the disappearing polar icecaps, global flooding, rising sea levels, vegetation dieback, the loss of thousands of species of life, and that the speed and scale of global warming has no precedent—the world’s governments still insist these wasteful, though profit-generating methods must remain. And this in spite of recent evidence from the hundreds of scientists that inform the Intergovernmental Panel on Climatic Change that suggests the atmosphere will warm at twice the rate predicted ten years ago.

At the Rio Summit in 1992, at the Earth Summit in New York in June 1997 and at the Earth II Summit in Kyoto, Japan, six months later—all at which carbon emissions were the core issue—the delegates fought and bickered over deals that would best suit their respective paymasters, their countries reneging on the agreements they signed up to. If the 16 November Guardian headline above is anything to go by, then we can well expect this current round of talks to be another waste of time whilst providing us with further evidence that capitalism has long outlived its usefulness and that it is time to hand over control of the world to those who could best decide its future—a global socialist majority. That companies can get exited about the profits to be made from trading in pollution credits—whilst the planet we inhabit faces environmental catastrophe from pollution—says much about the insanity of the system we live in and very much raises the question: are you with us or against us?
John Bissett

Greasy Pole: Naming the day (2000)

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

It will not be long now before Downing Street goes onto Red Alert. All leave will be cancelled for the focus groupies, the pollsters and the spin doctors, as it is for the police when some great public disorder is in the offing. Come the First of May next year Labour will have been in power for four of the allotted five years, which means that Blair and his hangers-on must soon give serious attention to the date of the next election.

Whichever day they settle on and whatever anguish they go through in the process it will all be considered to have been worthwhile because there is general agreement that the timing of an election is vital to the eventual outcome. Since the party which is in power chooses the date they seem to have an overwhelming advantage; but if it were that simple no ruling party would ever lose an election. In fact the choice of date is sometimes given such importance that a prime minister who apparently loses power because they chose wrongly can expect that their days as leader are numbered.

This is what happened to Jim Callaghan and John Major. Callaghan was under a lot of pressure to call an election in the Autumn of 1978 (he teased the Labour conference that year by singing a song about not being able to make up your mind) but he chose to wait until the following Spring and these few months turned out to be the Winter of Discontent. This was probably the final nail in Labour’s coffin but it is debatable whether their experience of government at that time was so happy and fulfilling that they should want to prolong it by a crafty choice of election day. They could hardly have claimed to be enjoying themselves, after episodes like the exposure of Wilson as a shoddy manipulator, Denis Healey’s persistent battle to hold down wages, the internal mumblings which eventually threw up the Gang of Four and the Social Democratic Party . . . Callaghan himself, who was a canny political operator, took the view that there had been what he called a “sea change” and there was nothing the Labour could do—including a clever selection of election day—about it. The voters had tried Labour government again, they had seen all too clearly that it could not live up to its promises so they felt like a change. In the usual sclerotic process of political preference, the voters decided that if they didn’t like Labour the only other possible course was to vote for a Conservative government.

It is unlikely that when Callaghan talked about a sea change he expected it to last for almost twenty years. Even worse for the Labour Party—during all that time there was only one election—in 1992—when they might seriously have dared to hope that their day was about to dawn again. In the first election after the defeat of the Callaghan government they presented a manifesto condemned by one of their leaders as “the longest suicide note in history”. And in case anyone thought they were serious about winning the election they chose Michael Foot, who as a vote-loser was in a class of his own, as their leader. In 1987, having elected Neil Kinnock as leader, in the hope that he would appeal to voters as the antithesis of Michael Foot, they lost again because it would have taken more than a clumsy windbag to overcome the entrenched Tory advantage. But in 1992 they seemed to think they had a real chance. They remembered the recent by-election results, they looked at the public opinion polls, they sighed with relief that the public opinion polls, they sighed with relief that the seemingly invincible Thatcher had been replaced by grey, whining John Major. They overlooked the fact that there was still too much ground to make up from the battering they had received in 1983. When he notched up his second successive defeat Kinnock knew it was time to go, to adopt failed the failed politicians’ guise of a wise, benign statesman and look around for one of those lucrative jobs they so easily drop into.

By 1997 Labour had made up all that ground, and quite a but more, with not a little help from the Tories. There was, of course, the rampant sleaze among their MPs (or rather, as sleaze seems a way of life in the Palace of Westminster, the exotic exposure of it by Mohammed Al Fayed, who knows a thing or two about it himself). There was the open war over Europe, driven by the kind of bitterness which had John Major calling some of his most prominent ministers “bastards” and was so unnerving to any Tory who still thought that loyalty was their party’s secret weapon. There was the madness of John Redwood, Michael Portillo and his SAS speech, Ann Widdecombe justifying the shackling of women prisoners when they were in labour . . . Like 1979, it was a time of sea change. It was the Tories who were unelectable and Labour the party trusted to make all the voters’ dreams come true.

The fact that the years since 1997 have had the usual nightmare episodes will be weighing heavily with Blair as he ponders the date when he allows the working class to show how they judge his government. So far the government have not been hit by a recession, which allows them to claim to be controlling the economy through the stringent application of unusually perceptive policies. Blair must also be hoping that Jack Straw’s ambition to go down in history as a more grotesque version of Michael Howard will somehow stop people breaking the law. He will pray that there will be no more media-exciting scandals like Bernie Ecclestone and Formula One tobacco advertising, Lord Irvine and his expensive taste in furniture and wallpaper, Peter Mandelson and his fastidious needs in housing.

In all the excitement and speculation there will be very little attention given to the calculated cynicism implicit in the assumption that the date of an election will significantly affect its outcome. What does it say about how the working class regard their power to bring about the necessary basic, radical change in society, that they may vote Labour in December and Tory in May? That votes are cast, not in the actual experience of what capitalism does to people and how its political parties are unable to change things, but on how and when those parties pitch their appeal? What does it say about the parties who devote so much effort to this whole sordid process? Well, come next May, or whenever, it will be true to answer those questions in the only way the pollsters, spin doctors and focus groupies understand.

Hands up for a recount (2000)

TV Review from the December 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month this column focussed its attention on the coverage of the US Presidential debates by the BBC, thinking that little would need to be said on the subject of American elections for another four years. How wrong this assumption now appears with hindsight. It is therefore with some gusto that we return to the subject after probably the craziest election in the history of Western democracy.

The television news networks, being reflective of the ideological status quo, were keen to present the election as a shining example of American democracy in action, a beacon to the entire world, and an exemplar of sound democratic practice. What they got was an utter farce that could have been scripted by any number of political satirists but rejected on the grounds of its unbelievability.

There was much to be fascinated about in this election, e.g.:
  • the fact that the candidate with the most votes had a better than evens chance of coming second
  • the fact that the political gangs of Belfast clearly have a lesson or two to learn about voter fraud (and primarily from the state which has the brother of one of the Presidential candidates as its Governor)
  • that segments of American society and its state apparatus were shown once again to be endemically racist (let’s just add at this point that it would appear wise for any readers of this journal travelling to Florida on their holidays in the next few months to make a precautionary check for ‘misplaced’ or hidden ballot boxes when they arrive in their hotel rooms, especially if they are staying anywhere near a voting precinct mainly populated by Afro-Caribbean residents)
  • and finally and most appropriately, that the society with more lawyers per head of the population than any other in the world should eventually descend to choosing its head of state via the courts rather than through the ballot box (or the dumped and abandoned voting machines—whichever you prefer).
But in addition to all this (as if it wasn’t enough), the US television networks came up trumps. Not content with just reporting on this entire dreadful farrago of democratic malpractice they had to get in on the act by contributing to it as well. In fact, as the evening unfolded it was the news networks which appeared to set it all off in the first place.

Rather in a lather 
The networks are in competition for advertising—their life-blood—and to attract advertising they need to attract viewers. The news networks, some of whom already have niche markets, try to increase their established audience share by being the most up-to-date with the news, marketing themselves as the channel “where it all happens”. It was the pursuit of this strategy which led them to make colossal mistakes on election night. A similar thing has happened previously in Britain with news networks trying to gazump one another with the earliest projected result and getting it quite wrong (a fact which went largely unmentioned by the television news media here, which has been overcome by an all pervading and totally unjustified bout of smugness).

In the US, where opinion polls—especially exit polls—have a far better reputation than they do in Britain, “calling” results before the votes are actually in has a long history. Rarely, if ever, has it caused problems. This time, though, was different.

The networks “called” the key state of Florida, primarily on the basis of an exit poll before it was wise to do so (in actual fact, one network did this and all the others followed within seconds of hearing of it). This, combined with a couple of other “calls” for bell-weather states, led to commentators claming that the election was pretty much wrapped up for Gore before the polls had even closed on the west coast.

A couple of hours later came the first hiccup: an adjusted pronouncement which put Florida back into the column of being “too close to call”. A couple of hours after this, the networks announced that Bush had actually taken the state and would therefore become President and then a couple of hours later still, the networks revised their prediction yet again and put Florida in the “too-close-to-call” column once more. As Dan Rather, the veteran news anchor man put it, it was one of the darkest days in the history of US network television.

Since then the networks—as anyone who has watched CNN can testify–have been on a political feeding frenzy. To be fair, some of their coverage has been surprisingly good, including their investigative, discussion and talk show programmes. But this has, by and large, been an attempt to make amends for their own rather shabby role in one of electoral history’s shabbiest episodes. If anything good comes out of it at all it will be what is the apparently re-awakened interest of a lot of workers in America in political matters. And it is only to be hoped that this renewed interest will lead to a questioning of the entire political system in operation not just some of its component parts, a political system which has been revered or ignored in almost equal measure in the US but never seriously and actively opposed by anything other than small groups and parties. After all, real meaningful democracy is going to have to mean something a lot more than hand recounts in Palm Beach county and Al Gore with his feet up in the White House.
Dave Perrin

Obituary: Danny Boyle (2000)

Obituary from the December 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Few members outside of Glasgow will have heard of Danny Boyle but his contribution to the party was immeasurable. He was 85 and had been in declining health for some time. Danny joined the party in 1961 but was a long-time supporter who had been arguing the party’s case for many years before this.

Readers who have enjoyed Robert Tressell’s novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists will remember Owen, the artistic house-painter, who used his workplace to expound his socialist ideas to his workmates, well, Danny was Owen in the flesh.

A painter and decorator by trade, Danny was a bit artistic too, and insisted on working to his own standards, something not always appreciated by foremen and employers, and he was liable to talk at length about the correct ways to plaint, varnish, hang wallpaper, etc, as well as deplore any shoddy workmanship he saw. Work for him was something to be enjoyed if it could be done in the way that he thought it should.

Danny also used his various workplaces as forums for his socialist views, especially during tea and lunch breaks when he would deal fearlessly with any nationalist, racist or other anti-socialist sentiments that were expressed, and down the years several of his workmates found his arguments so convincing that they joined the party while many more became sympathisers.

Throughout his life Danny never failed to take the soundest attitude on every issue concerning the international working class. He always rang true, for example, as a young man he refused to be conscripted in the last war and was a life-long trade-unionist, still attending and participating at his branch meetings until shortly before his death.

Although he never spoke on a party platform or wrote an article Danny was one of the best propagandists the party could have wished for—his ability to recruit many subscribers to the Socialist Standard was amazing, and a look through an old branch literature sales book reveals that even after he had retired he was selling fifty and even sixty copies a month. Yet so self-effacing was the man that he was always apologising for, as he saw it, not doing more.

Danny certainly lived a useful life but it was an active one too, and socialism and his trade union were by no means his only interests,. He was a keen swimmer as well as a lover of ballroom and old-time dancing, all of which he continued to enjoy until prevented by failing health. Above all he was devoted to his family and it is to them that we in Glasgow branch convey our deepest condolences.

. . . and of Old Labour economics (2000)

Book Review from the December 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard

Money, Markets and the State: Social Democratic Economic Policies since 1918. By Ton Notermans. Cambridge University Press.

In the camera obscura of capitalist ideology, it seems that ideas make the world, instead of the world making ideas; and that it is the determining will that guides the course of history. The result of applying such a theory to the world can be found in this book. Ostensibly a broadsweep history of the implementation of Social Democratic policies in Sweden, Norway, Netherlands, Germany and the UK since 1918, it is also an attempt to vindicate the premises and potential of those politics. Asserting that unemployment is the main scourge of capitalism, Notermans contends that currency policy combined with the requisite social structures can be used to sustain full employment.

Notermans qualifies his support for economic reforms by placing all policies within a "paradigm" that he claims lies beyond the control of politicians. Essentially he suggests that all economic policies operate within either an inflationary or a deflationary context. He states at the very beginning of the book that he considers inflation is any rise in prices, rather than the classical view—and the Socialist Party's view—that inflation is a decline in the value of money. This means that Notermans regards price rises due to a changing supply/demand ratio during an economic boom as "inflation". Further, his notion of "inflationary paradigms" is based on his subjective approach to economics—if investors have expectations of continuing profits then they will pour more money into production, and thus create "inflation", and if they feel that economic and political conditions are against profitability they will withhold. Notermans frequently contrasts this view with Marxist "fatalism".

He further extends this voluntaristic view of economics by asserting that the Great Depression was a result of government policy, and that recessions are deliberately instituted by governments as a means of combating excess inflation. The problem for Social Democratic parties, he explains, is that if they try to implement their macroeconomic policies in conditions of an expanding inflationary context, then eventually wage-inflation will cause investment to run out of control, and cause a "paradigm change" (he suggests that precisely this happened in 1968 at the end of the post-war boom).

Notermans concentrates on currency policy as having a determining role on investor confidence, consequently government economic priorities must be oriented towards growth, regardless of political hue, the form of the policies being dependant upon the context within which they operate. In times where inflation is the threat, he asserts, the aims of full employment for social democrats are in conflict with the essential economic paradigm, where deflation is the threat then the Social Democrat policies work. Hence, he asserts, after the deflationary spiral of the thirties, the massive state intervention for full employment across Europe was successful.

Claiming that wage increases cause price increases, Notermans identifies "wage moderation" (i.e. workers taking less wages than market conditions would allow them to) as being the key to Social Democrat success in an inflationary context. This is in contrast to the neo-liberals who rely on high unemployment to restrict wages. He notes how Keynes promoted inflation as a way of reducing real wages, so as to get around the downward rigidity of nominal wages. His examination, thus, looks at the differences between the trade union movements in his object countries, and the way in which their degree of centralisation was used to promote "moderation".

The value of this book lies mostly in the insight into the mind of capitalist economists: the dogged determination to show that the market system works, and the unshakeable belief that the consequences within the market economy are the result of mistaken or otherwise conscious decisions of the actors within the economy. Further, it gives an insight into the mindset of the political milieu around New Labour and European Social Democratic parties. If Notermans is to be believed, it is the government tale that wags the capitalist dog.
Pik Smeet

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