Saturday, February 25, 2023

The best of times, the worst of times (2023)

From the February 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Perhaps it is the nature of ‘the news’ and its love of drama but most commentators seem to concur that we are living in the worst of times. The ‘obvious’ decline of this country parallels the disasters endured by many others of past and present. The anarchic reality of capitalism lies behind most of our contemporary problems but remains hidden beneath moral outrage and politically sectarian invective. There has never been a time when the NHS has not been in crisis and where a war has not raged somewhere on the planet; there has never been a time when a child is not dying for lack of clean water and an unpolluted environment; there has never been a time when the rich suffered and the poor did not – this is normal for all class-divided cultures. As the memories of an imaginary ‘golden age’ fade and are replaced by a shared sense of doom and despair for the future we might ask if our species has a predilection for self-destruction and somehow relishes the thought of disaster.

The Armageddon zeitgeist of popular culture has spawned numerous variations on how the world might end; from zombies and plagues to meteorite impacts and nuclear holocausts it’s hard to find an optimistic narrative when it comes to imagining humanity’s future. To some degree this reflects the failure of capitalism to deliver its promise of economic progress and security for all – the culture just seems to have run its course with nowhere else to go. After the Second World War there was an optimism that things would change and the baby-boomers of the 1960s were in the forefront of political activism that focused on reforming the economic system to bring some measure of equality and justice, at least in the West. Working-class culture blossomed with innovative forms of music, fashion, film and TV. This was all predicated on the belief that things would change for the better; when this proved to be an illusion and the forces of reaction were brought back to power as the result of reformist failure the road to disaster seemed almost inevitable. Thatcher and Reagan were symbols of this failure – theirs was the politics of atavistic hatred. The neo-con ideology took on the Orwellian role of turning facts into fiction and vice-versa. We still live with this legacy today only it has accelerated and evolved into the monster of ‘fake news’ fuelled by the global internet.

Propaganda has always taken advantage of whatever media are available. The Nazis were one of the first groups to see the potential of the mass media of radio and film – we still look back on Goebbels as the paradigm of propagandists. He would have adored the opportunities afforded by the internet. Unfortunately the online producers of ‘news’ are as in love with dramatic headlines as are the pulp mainstream media – of course many of them are sponsored and produced by the very same people. However if you have the patience you can find authentic voices of dissent who can provide a very different perspective. The world has become a smaller place where the suffering and conflicts everywhere are accessible in your home which only adds to the sense of unease and foreboding created by the tension of events in our everyday lives. Some embrace the cynicism of not believing in anything whilst others are caught up in the shifting sands of the impotent and meaningless debates between Left and Right. All too often these online arguments end up being merely egotistical slanging matches that produce much heat without any light. Is the internet just the latest example of a medium being used as a vehicle for ideological propaganda or has its very quantity of information changed its quality? Instead of relying on your favourite newspaper columnist or TV news show you have to make an effort to research alternative voices if your opinion is to have any value. The cultural zeitgeist has become irrevocably international.

The voice of doom has become universal and resonates in every corner of the globe. Betrayed hopes fuel the never-ending discovery of new reasons and causes of a seemingly inevitable end for our species. Will the children of today look back on their childhood fondly as a ‘golden age’ as many of the older generation do? Socialists have optimism built into their DNA but even we struggle to find an upbeat answer to Rosa Luxemburg’s question: ‘Is it to be socialism or barbarism?’ Of course it hasn’t come to that yet but we fear that time is running out. Many people in the past also felt an impending sense that ‘the end is nigh’ but this was based on the assumption that the battle between good and evil would be resolved one way or another. But instead of the dramatic human finale of Armageddon predicted by so many our species might just fade into oblivion within a sea of political cynicism and apathy leaving the rich to count their ever increasing wealth until one day they find they have nothing to buy with it.

The Dickens quote, part of which heads this article, seems to describe my life and times (born in the mid 1950s) as I suspect it would for many of my generation and is worth repeating in full:
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair’ (A Tale of Two Cities).

The Admiral’s speech (2023)

From the February 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

One of the ways the mass media propaganda system works is through emphasis and de-emphasis of stories. Sometimes a story might be reported, and a piece is put in a small corner of their content (so they can always say later that they did cover it), but if something is emphasised, it becomes screaming headline news. For example, the massacres by the Wagner group in Mali in March this year barely caused a ripple in the UK press (months later, the Guardian would report them, as part of an anti-Russian stance). To take another example, the Susan Hussey scandal, indicative as it was of racial and cultural attitudes among the royal entourage, was blasted to full-bore front-page coverage by the BBC and other outlets, presumably because of the potential Harry and Meghan angle. In some ways, it probably deserved a couple of inches in the gossip columns.

A side effect of this, is when insiders are talking to each other, they can safely say scandalous things that many may find objectionable, but they will never be reported (or, in some instances, will be held onto and reported at a later date, when scandal becomes convenient to one faction or other). To take a recent example: Tony Radakin, the Chief of Defence Staff (the highest ranked officer in the armed forces) gave a speech at the Mansion House of the City of London on 19 October last year. The full text is online here.

The City of London itself is an interesting body of insiders: although it is a local authority of a kind with the usual powers of such, it has corporate electors (nominated employees of firms based in the City). As such, it is intimately bound up with the globe-spanning businesses of the financial centre of London. As the journalist Matt Kannard in the muck-raking website Declassified has noted (without whose output, Radakin’s speech may have gone unnoticed too):
‘The Corporation recently blocked Declassified’s request for the release of information about the foreign schedule of its leader, the Lord Mayor, but we have managed to see his 2019-20 agenda. This saw him planning to visit an average of three different foreign countries every month, considerably more than the foreign secretary typically does’ (
They argued that as the trips were privately funded, freedom of information laws do not apply. Kennard was told: ‘It is the role of the national government to lead on foreign policy. It is the role of City of London Corporation to support the City. As part of this role the City Corporation engages with business partners across the world and throughout the year’. That the Lord Mayor of London also liaises with the Foreign Secretary on a regular basis shows just how influential this business clique is.

So, when addressed by the head of the Armed Forces of the United Kingdom, it is unsurprising that an honest and frank description of the state of the world is to be expected.

As he attests, international order and the rule of law:
‘matter here in the City of London too, because markets thrive on stability, and our prosperity rests on a world that is safe for the passage of trade’.

‘And when the rules are broken, volatility and instability follow. When aggression is left unchecked the costs ricochet through global markets. This affects people everywhere, and especially the world’s poorest.’
This is a voice of the very pinnacle of the defence establishment clearly stating that the purpose of having armed forces is to help benefit the commercial relations of capitalists within the UK. He emphasises:
‘The role of the United Kingdom Armed Forces, even with a war in Europe, is more than just focusing on defending the nation’.

‘It is about a maximalist approach to the military instrument. Using our power and influence in all its guises: both to further our security and prosperity. But especially – when we get it right – to add to the agency and authority of the British Government and the nation.’

‘Agency and authority’ are the very arguments Putin uses to justify his approach to foreign policy too. A lot of voters in the UK might sincerely believe that the military exists to protect their lives and their homes, and might, rightly, be expected to object to a notion that the military exists to help corporations make deals worldwide. That, after all, is pure gangsterism. Indeed, the propaganda in movies and TV is exactly that the military exists to ensure we ‘sleep safe in our beds’, not to make money overseas. But:

‘We spend more than £20 billion with British industry every year. And in 2020 we generated almost £8 billion in defence exports, more than any other European country.’
The defence exports are part of the leverage, creating friendly states bound by military ties, and in turn supporting the existence of governments whose own military is there to protect the leaders from the people. But it is still interesting to see the economic aspects of Britain’s war machine being so clearly laid out.

Radakin also notes: ‘Britain is an expeditionary rather than a continental power’. This might be expected of an Admiral. After all, the rivalry between the services is about funding, and a purely defensive British defence strategy would have less need for the clout of a big navy.

There is an element of hypocrisy too. He notes Putin’s ‘nuclear rhetoric’. As the Peace Campaigner Milan Rai has noted:
‘Daniel Ellsberg, the US military analyst who leaked the Pentagon’s secret internal history of the Vietnam War, the Pentagon Papers, wrote in 1981: “Again and again, generally in secret from the American public, US nuclear weapons have been used, for quite different purposes: in the precise way that a gun is used when you point it at someone’s head in a direct confrontation, whether or not the trigger is pulled.” Britain has used its nuclear weapons in the same way, repeatedly’ ( ).
The armed forces are a gun pointed at the world’s head, for the benefit of the owners of society, and it is refreshing to hear them admit it.
Pik Smeet

Cooking the Books: Taking back what control? (2023)

The Cooking the Books Column from the February 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

In his New Year speech on 5 January, the Labour Leader, Sir Keith Starmer, uttered the following empty promise about what a future Labour government would bring about:
‘A fairer, greener, more dynamic country with an economy that works for everyone, not just those at the top. And a politics which trusts communities with the power to control their destiny’ (
In other words, the same old reformist illusion that a Labour government can change the capitalist economy so that it ‘works for everyone, not just those at the top.’ As if previous Labour governments hadn’t repeatedly tried and failed to do this. They failed because it is a ‘Mission Impossible’ to make capitalism work other than as a profit system for the benefit of the profit-takers and to the detriment of those who work for wages.

Starmer made it quite clear that a future Labour government would accept the profit system, declaring at one point that ‘for national renewal, there is no substitute for a robust private sector, creating wealth in every community’.

He denounced the Tories for practising ‘sticking-plaster politics’ which ‘sometimes delivers relief. But the long-term cure – that always eludes us’. But that is precisely what the Labour Party has always aspired to do. To try to mitigate the effects of capitalism that confront the wage-working class while leaving the cause — the class ownership of productive resources and production for the market with a view to profit — unchanged. In short, to patch up capitalism by sticking plaster over its effects.

But it wasn’t just the Tories that Starmer said were engaged in ‘sticker-plaster politics’ but ‘the whole Westminster system’.

His solution? To carry out yet another re-organisation of local government in Britain: ‘a huge power shift out of Westminster can transform our economy, our politics and our democracy.’ This would change politics to some extent, if only by providing more paid posts for professional politicians, but how will it ‘transform’ the economy?

The economy will remain capitalist, which will mean that those making political and economic decisions, whoever or wherever they are, will still have to take into account that profits must be the priority as the pursuit of profits is what drives the capitalist economy. It doesn’t make any difference who makes these decisions or where.

Starmer is making the same mistake here as the Scottish and Welsh nationalists, who think that the problems of workers in those regions are caused not by capitalism but by the decisions about how capitalism has to be run being taken in London rather than in Edinburgh or Cardiff. He thinks that it will make a difference to the way capitalism works if the decisions are made in Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Bristol, etc. instead of in London. But it won’t. And it certainly won’t give those living there ‘the power to control their destiny.’

In a cynical move to win back Brexit voters, he promised a ‘Take Back Control’ Bill that would even be ‘a centrepiece of our first King’s speech’. A stupid title anyway since people never had any control in the first place to take back. Even national governments can’t control the way capitalism works, local mayors and councils even less. It is the other way around. Capitalism controls what governments can do, by obliging them to abide by its economic law of ‘profits first’ on pain of provoking an economic downturn.

It’s why they all fail and why the promises they make are empty. And why changing governments changes nothing, or, to borrow Starmer’s own words, when this happens ‘nothing has changed, but the circus moves on. Rinse and repeat’.

Bird’s Eye View: Many a true word is spoken in jest (2023)

The Bird’s Eye View Column from the February 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Many a true word is spoken in jest
‘The Islamic religion not only bans pork and booze; Islamic governments are totally anti-LGBTQ. In Muslim countries you are not allowed to eat, drink or be Mary. It was interesting to watch the Qatar team score its first goal. When the players got excited about it and celebrated by hugging each other, it was surprising they were not immediately stoned by authorities. Karl Marx was not right about much, but he hit the nail on the head when he said, “Religion is the opium of the people”’ (Daily Caller, 1 December,
Indonesia today, unlike Qatar, is an example of what passes for democracy under capitalism, yet its recently amended penal code would not look out of place there. Both say there is no room for the proliferation of the LGBT movement. Even worse:
‘Spreading communist, Marxist, or Leninist ideologies, or philosophies deviating from the national ideology of pancasila—five largely secular guidelines for Indonesian life introduced by the country’s first president—will be punishable by up to 10 years in prison. And the country’s rules on blasphemy will be expanded to include apostasy (persuading a believer of one of Indonesia’s six recognized religions—Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism—to become a nonbeliever), punishable by up to four years in prison’ (Time, 6 December,
Verily, the past lies like a nightmare upon the present. Worse still, the growth of socialist knowledge, the mass understanding and conscious change at which we aim, can only be hindered by such legislation. Marx said, 175 years ago in the Communist Manifesto, ‘law, morality, religion are to him [the working class] so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests’. In other words, the ruling class will employ any moralistic ideals at its disposal to tape over the brutal system of exploitation which we run in their interest.

As a dog returns to his vomit, so a fool repeats his folly

China MiƩville, author of A Spectre, Haunting, On the Communist Manifesto (2022) stated recently:
‘I constantly look around at the world and I think this cannot be as good as we can do. This can’t be as good as we can do and there are only so many times we can say if you just let us tinker with that a little bit, it’ll get better. And when that keeps failing, and keeps failing and keeps failing, we have to say to ourselves there is something in this structure that is leading to this. And when the structure itself says our driving energy is profit, not human need, it is not rocket science to think this might be related to the problems of the world’ (MSNBC, 7 December,
This voice of reason makes a welcome change from what passes for informed comment in, for example the American Thinker (sic!):
‘On a personal note, I know these clowns don’t read the book, because I ask every time I meet one; I have yet to find a “communist” who has actually read the Manifesto. (There’s really no excuse given the fact it’s basically a pamphlet, and contains an ideology responsible for the deaths of more than 100 million people, so what could they possibly have going on that’s more important than getting to the bottom of it, especially if they’re actively advocating and voting for communist policies that pave the way for more of the most horrendous tyranny known to man; but what do I know?)’ (American Thinker, 2 December,
Echoing the Manifesto’s ‘Society can no longer live under the bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society,’ MiĆ©ville states in a by far better, earlier interview:
‘Marxism isn’t about saying you’ll get a perfect world: it’s about saying we can get a better world than this one, and it’s hard to imagine, no matter how many mistakes we make, that it could be much worse than the mass starvation, war, oppression, and exploitation we have now. In a world where 30,000 to 40,000 children die of malnutrition daily while grain ships are designed to dump food into the sea if the price dips too low, it’s worth the risk’ (Science Fiction Studies, November 2003,

The pen is mightier than the sword
‘In her 50 years of filmmaking, Reichert won two Primetime Emmy Awards and was nominated for four Oscars, winning one with her partner Steven Bognar for “American Factory” in 2020. She quoted “The Communist Manifesto” in her speech, saying “things will get better when workers of the world unite”‘ (abcnews, 2 December,
Indeed. But what then, you may well ask, will be socialism’s attitude to existing religions?
‘All religions so far have been the expression of historical stages of development of individual peoples or groups of peoples. But communism is the stage of historical development which makes all existing religions superfluous and brings about their disappearance.’
And, to be clear for the old trope-believing American Thinkers out there:
‘Communism is the doctrine of the conditions of the liberation of the proletariat’.
Liberation, not elimination! To be fair, those Thinkers probably have not read The Principles Of Communism in which these passages appear, one of Engels’ two early drafts of what would become the Communist Manifesto ( In fact, setting to one side the capitalist measures at the end of section 2 (which Marx and Engels in their joint preface to the 1872 edition declared obsolete) there is still much that socialists today would incorporate into a Manifesto for this century including:
‘The working men have no country. We cannot take away from them what they have not got.’

‘…every class struggle is a political struggle.’

'The struggle for socialism ‘is the independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.’

‘The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains. They have a world to win.’

‘Workers of the world, unite!’

Enough is enough is not enough (2023)

From the February 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Over the past decades, employers have been fierce and unrelenting. Companies laid off workers, attacked unions and demanded concessions. Governments of all stripes helped by eroding labour standards, de-regulating industries, privatising services and permitting job out-sourcing. Being in a weak position the union leaders recoiled from the prospect of waging an all-out class war to challenge the employers so they accepted the new contracts, no matter how damaging, in the hope that lost ground could be regained. Emboldened by this, employers demanded workers forfeit more established practices, even as the stock market boomed and profits soared. With few notable exceptions, strikes were defeated, union recruitment drives failed and workers became demoralised.

But now trade union militancy and strikes have returned to the forefront of British politics. The Socialist Party does not minimise the necessity and importance of workers keeping up the struggle to maintain the level of wages and protect working conditions. There are now once again some signs that general combativeness is rising. Unions are the single most effective way organised workers can counter the bosses. Workers who risked their lives during the Covid pandemic and are now suffering from a cost of living crisis not of their making say they deserve substantial pay raises, and are prepared to go on strike to try to get it. Employers can no longer expect their workforce to compliantly roll over and be strong-armed into conceding cuts in wages and conditions. Increasing numbers of workers across all sectors are saying enough is enough. The current labour shortage means they have a bit more leverage. It has got the bosses worried.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s government intends to introduce new laws that are aimed at trade union industrial action by insisting key workers must maintain essential services during any strike. The government wants to make it more difficult for ordinary working people, firefighters, nurses and teachers to express their democratic wishes and to take industrial action in defence of their jobs and pay. Make no mistake. The government’s legislative plans are an assault in the class war on workers’ ability to resist the employers’ offensive. Trade unions are workers’ front line of defence against their employers under capitalism.

The legislation will permit employers to sue unions and sack employees if legal minimum service levels are not met. Union members who are instructed by the employers to work and refuse to do so could lose their jobs. The new law will also back employers bringing an injunction to prevent strikes or seeking damages afterwards if they go ahead with unions facing court actions and possible sequestration of funds.

When workers strike or work to rule, the bosses find out who really runs the workplace, who keeps the machines humming, production going, and the money flowing. But that said, it’s important to clarify that the employers have the power of the state behind them and when push comes to shove, they do not hesitate to bring that powerful institution to bear upon the workers. In addition, most workers have practically no savings, so cannot afford to stop working for long.

Hence the strategy of a series of short strike stoppages. Adapting to match the new reality, rather than calling for a general strike, individual unions seek to coordinate their actions for increased effect. Solidarity is one of the greatest weapons we possess. Many workers are realising that it is the worker and the worker alone who has to take care of their economic interests, as they’ll get nothing from the politicians who fill parliamentary seats and cabinet posts or the bureaucrats in their professional union posts.

When the government goes on the offensive against workers on behalf of the capitalist class, this may lead workers’ organisations to more radical actions, to the capitalist society exposing its class nature, to the general public opening up to revolutionary ideas, and consequently, to the class struggle becoming conscious and political rather than just defensive and economic.

To be sure, participation in strikes does not automatically make workers class-conscious. Even when workers acquire revolutionary consciousness they are still compelled to engage in the non-revolutionary struggle. As workers we fight in the here and now, where we are and where we can. We don’t see such day-to-day struggles as a diversion.

Our preferred trade union strategy is to be active in unions where they exist, but not to do it with a parochial perspective but with a class-wide viewpoint that involves all groups in society that have no opportunity to participate in unions and to engage them as much as possible in a conscious class struggle. The strike weapon is not a sure means of victory for workers in disputes with employers. There are many cases of workers being compelled to return to work without gains, even sometimes with losses. Strikes should not be employed recklessly but should be entered into with strategy in mind.

Socialism demands the revolutionising of the workers themselves. This does not mean that workers should sit back and do nothing, the struggle over wages and conditions must go on. Workers are learning the hard lessons and it is becoming clearer that this is a secondary, defensive activity. The real struggle is to take the means of wealth production and distribution – the factories, farms, offices, mines etc. – into common ownership. That is the larger, political struggle.