Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Cooking the Books: The Moral Mess (2023)

The Cooking The Books column from the March 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

The subject of the Moral Maze on BBC Radio 4 on 8 February was billed as ‘Would the World be Better off Without Money?’ It turned out to be mostly about whether it was moral for the rich to have lots of money. Charlie Mullins, the proletarian founder of Pimlico Plumbers, said it was, because most of them reinvested it and so provided people with jobs and the government with taxes. Ash Sarkar said it wasn’t, because all wealth was produced by workers who were robbed of most of it by the rich. Darren McGarvey, the Scottish rapper, said there was nothing wrong with money as such; it was just that it wasn’t distributed fairly. He favoured Universal Basic Income. Sarkar seemed to favour cooperatives in which workers all got the same pay, missing the chance to argue for the ‘fully automated luxury communism’ she is supposed to be in favour of.

Up to this point, the assumption was that money was part of ‘the world as it is’ and the best that could be done was to distribute it differently.

A Czech economist, Tomas Sedlacek, finally addressed the question, arguing that the world would not be better off without money: the failure of past attempts to live without it showed that there was no practicable alternative to using money.

He and the Rev Giles Fraser got into an argument about the difference between price and value. But this was not about value in the economic sense of exchange-value but about use-value. What is useful is a matter of opinion or moral judgement. Sedlacek, who was an out-and-out defender of capitalism, made the point that price and use-value can never be the same — the buyer always places a higher (use) value on what they were buying than the seller does; otherwise there would be no sale.

This is a valid point which Marx made in chapter 3 of Capital on ‘Exchange’ where he wrote of the owner of an item for sale:
‘His commodity possesses for himself no immediate use-value. Otherwise, he would not bring it to the market. It has use-value for others; but for himself its only direct use-value is that of being a depository of exchange-value’.
An argument between an economist concerned with exchange-value (price) and a priest more concerned with use-value was never going to get very far. It did, however, bring out the contradiction between exchange-value and use-value that is a feature of the money system where goods are produced to be sold and not directly to be used.

The case for a world without money was put by Anitra Nelson, author of Beyond Money. She pointed out that ‘production for trade’ led both to people’s needs being neglected and to ecological upsets. She envisaged a world of relatively small-scale and more or less self-sufficient, democratically-organised moneyless communities, where households would be asked what their needs were going to be over a given period and then the community would organise itself to produce or acquire what was required, with people being able to access them without having to pay.

The right-wing journalist Melanie Phillips came up with the original objection that this was against human nature: it wouldn’t work because humans were naturally greedy and aggressive. Spiked editor Ella Whelan meanwhile denounced Nelson’s proposal rather unfairly as ‘austerity’ and ‘middle class miserabilism’ which the working class would never accept.

That was the problem. All those taking part seemed only to envisage a moneyless society as existing in small-scale communities, not even at national let alone world level. In some ways though, Nelson was on the right track. Organising production and distribution without money is essentially a question of assessing needs and then organising to produce to meet them. Given the level of development attained by the forces of production, this is only possible today on the basis of the common ownership and democratic control of the Earth’s natural and industrial resources.

Being Lazy (2023)

Book Review from the March 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Right to be Lazy and Other Writings. By Paul Lafargue. Selected and translated by Alex Andriesse. New York Review of Books. 2023.

Paul Lafargue’s classic satire on the obsession with work and the working class’s demand that they should be given work as a ‘right’ was first translated into English by the left-wing publisher Charles Kerr in 1907, so a modern translation is not out of place. This one, by Alex Andriesse, reads better in general than Kerr’s, if only because today is 2023 and language changes.

Not all the changes are improvements. Why, for instance, ‘preachings’ into ‘preachments’, ‘idleness’ into ‘otium’? Other changes reflect a lack of understanding of socialist terminology as when ‘wages’ is changed to ‘salaries’ and, on two occasions ‘working class’ to ‘working classes’ (Lafargue wrote ‘classe ouvrière’). While Andriesse’s ‘peacefully if possible, violently if not’ is the more literal, Kerr’s ‘peacefully if we may, forcibly if we must’ reflects how this view was expressed in the English-speaking working-class movement.

The Right to be Lazy is a pamphlet and only takes up 39 pages of this 120-page book. The rest is made up of A Capitalist Catechism, a skit based on the Catholic church’s catechism, The Legend of Victor Hugo, a demolition job on the author of Les Misérables who at the time seems to have been known just as much for his poetry as for his prose writing, and Memoires of Karl Marx (Lafargue was married to one of Marx’s daughters and so knew Marx well).

As this edition is published by the prestigious New York Review of Books it should reach a new audience and have a wider circulation than versions and selections (such as ours) published by small radical or socialist groups. Which can’t be bad.
Adam Buick

Just Stop Capitalism (2023)

From the March 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

At the ‘Just Stop Oil’ public meeting advertised at my local University, the speakers argued for ‘direct action’ to halt the use of fossil fuels. To a rapt, mainly student audience they listed a series of direct action campaigns, for example Civil Rights, Anti-Apartheid, Occupy, Extinction Rebellion, Insulate Britain, which Just Stop Oil was following in the wake of. Supporting their campaign was, they insisted, the only way to deal with climate change, to save the environment and to save the world.

The first thing to say is that single-issue actions like this are nothing if not commendable for their concern for human welfare and their sincere intentions. They really are trying to make the world a better place. But can a campaign like Just Stop Oil hope to succeed in its objectives? And, if it does, how much will actually be changed? It may be said that some of the previous protest activities mentioned by the speakers have had some impact on society and on social attitudes and it is possible that the changes advocated by Just Stop Oil, if adopted, might help to alleviate climate change. However, sad as it may be, that will not happen with the aim of saving the world but only if the system of production for profit which rules the world sees it as necessary for its own survival and entrenchment.

This same rule applies to all the ‘single issues’ that groups of people get together to try and resolve within the system we live in. This is a system which exists to make profits for the small minority who own and control the bulk of the wealth with the vast majority owning nothing but their energies and skills which they need to sell to survive. So all the time, effort and energy expended by the speakers at the Just Stop Oil meeting will have one of two inevitable outcomes. Either they will be unsuccessful because, whatever the rationality of their arguments or the sincerity of their cause, the system continues to privilege the use of fossil fuels rather than other forms of energy as a way of making profit. Or they will be successful in the sense that the use of oil may be moderated or even halted because the capitalist system itself dictates the necessity of doing this for its own survival. But whichever of these outcomes prevails, the system which has produced this problem and produces the manifold other problems which beset humanity will continue and the end of fossil fuels will just be the latest in a list of never-ending reforms that capitalism has always needed to implement to facilitate its operation.

A wider view of how society works than adopted by single-issue campaigners is needed. One that focuses not on individual social or economic change but on a complete change from a society of production for profit to one of production for need based on common ownership of the world’s resources and free access to all goods and services. So don’t just stop oil, stop capitalism.
South Wales Branch

50 Years Ago: Crisis and revolution (2023)

The 50 Years Ago column from the March 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard 

The Left is saying the crisis is coming; and from that crisis the workers will rise to overthrow, cast off the yoke, destroy the juggernaut of capital, et cetera. There comes to mind, irresistibly, the futile drama of all the times before. The Communist speaker of the ’thirties, proclaiming that civilisation now stood at the brink, imparting to his hearers that the capitalist system was tottering and all that was needed was a good push. Syndicalist doomster in the post-war years, impressively pointing to the approaching crisis as one of capitalism itself: the phrase conveying certainty that the machine would now grind to a halt, its cogs gummed-up with (probably) an excess of the seeds of its own decay.

This continual resurrection of old beliefs is one of the many chronic diseases of the Left. Each generation rediscovers the theories which proved sterile for its predecessors. The failure is never attributed to the error of the theory itself. Those who followed it were “betrayed”, or the time was unforeseeably not ripe; but now it will be written on banners to make the revolution. Yet this theory of the climacteric crisis—“the death agony of capitalism”—and its revolutionary consequence is perhaps the most hopeless of all. What is involved is dual misunderstanding: of the nature of economic crises and the nature of the socialist revolution.

The form of the argument today is as follows. Capitalism is now acutely pressed between a falling rate of profit and workers’ wage demands (…)

The easy assumption is that extreme poverty will make workers rebel against capitalism and flock to “revolutionary” leaders. All the evidence is against it. If it were true the Gorbals, Liverpool, Falls Road and the tied farm cottages of England would be full of revolutionaries. (…) Unpalatable as it may be, what the unemployed worker seeks is work and relief from his acute immediate problem, not to be assaulted further in an ideological battle. (…)

That does not mean conditions are irrelevant. Socialist consciousness starts from indignation at the consequences of capitalism; but until feeling has given way to understanding, consciousness does not exist. The aim of the crisis-struck Left is to foster blind revolt, from which not Socialism but only defeat and disillusionment can result. The real need is for working men and women to comprehend that, in or out of crisis, the capitalist system must always frustrate hopes of a satisfactory life.

[Socialist Standard, March 1973]

Editorial: The alternative pro-profit government in waiting (2023)

Editorial from the March 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Labour Party leaders regard themselves as a government in waiting in the expectation that, after the next general election, they will be the ones driven around in ministerial cars on ministerial salaries.

If they do win that election it won’t be on the basis of their election promises. People know these are worthless, whichever party makes them. It will be because they agree without illusions with ageing pop-star (and Tory millionaire) Sir Rod Stewart that it is time to ‘give the Labour Party a go at it’ (Link.).

This is a view shared by business people too, fed up with the corruption and incompetence of recent Tory prime ministers and convinced that Labour is sincerely pro-capitalist. The Independent (14 February, carried an article by ex-CBI chief Paul Dreschler in which he praised Labour for having ‘set about convincing business that they are encouraging entrepreneurs and enterprise (and, whisper it quietly: profit)’ (which the paper interpreted as him saying that Labour was ‘the party of profit’), adding ‘I know a lot of influential people in business who feel the same as I do.’

All previous Labour governments have ended up encouraging profit-making but, until Blair, only after failing to impose some other priority on capitalism. In any event, since the Labour Party intends to leave the commanding heights of the economy in private hands this will continue to be driven by private capitalist enterprises seeking to maximise their profits. In this circumstance any government has to be pro-business and give priority to profit-making and maintaining the conditions for this or risk provoking an economic downturn.

This wasn’t always what the Labour Party thought. At one time they believed that a Labour government would be able to control the way the economy worked by having an important nationalised (state capitalist) sector. Nationalisation proved to be a failure both from this point of view and for the workers in them. Under Tony Blair, even a paper commitment to this was abandoned; which left the Labour Party as firmly committed to the existing capitalist status quo as the Tory party, as in fact the alternative management team for UK plc. Business now considers it time for the Outs to become the Ins for a while. Alternating governments has the advantage for them of preventing entrenched cronyism at their expense.

Who is in and who is out doesn’t make any difference to the wage-working class. There is no lesser evil. They are both as useless as each other. Come the general election, we shan’t be saying Vote Labour but ‘A plague on both your houses’. Capitalism can’t be humanised or made to serve the interest of the majority. It can’t be mended. It has to be ended.

Socialism, the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources, with production and distribution directly to meet people’s needs and not for sale or profit, remains the only way out and the only goal worth voting for.