Sunday, April 2, 2023

Material World: Live to work or work to live? (2023)

The Material World column from the April 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

When the UK raised the age of retirement and heightened the national insurance contribution criteria to be eligible for a state pension, there were complaints from women who were particularly affected by the changes but very little wider protest.

It has not been as easy for the French government plan to raise the retirement age from 62 to 64. Trade unions have held nationwide strikes that have brought France to standstills, hoping that strikes and accompanying demonstrations will bring about a similar outcome as in 1995 when then-president Jacques Chirac abandoned his pension change proposals. Millions of workers have been involved to disrupt industry and transport across France. However, unlike the previous five strikes, trade unions declared the 7th March strike, ‘grèves reconductibles’, meaning workers will vote at the end of each strike day on whether to continue industrial action. With no fixed end date, unions hope to damage the economy so severely that it defeats the government.

Although the country’s current retirement age is one of the lowest in the European Union, the existing rules already require most people to work past the age of 64 in order to qualify for the full pension. By raising the retirement age by two years most workers would need to work 43 years, rather than 42, to be eligible for a full pension.

The government claims postponing the retirement age by two years and extending the pay-in period would yield an additional €17.7 billion in annual pension contributions, allowing the budget to break even by 2027 and safeguarding what they say would be a failing system. But not all economists agree.

In September 2022, a report by the French Pensions Advisory Council found the pensions system actually produced surpluses in 2021 (€900 million) and 2022 (€3.2 billion), although it did predict the system would run a deficit on average over the next quarter of a century. According to its calculations, ‘between 2023 and 2027, the pension system’s finances will deteriorate’, reaching a deficit of between 0.3 and 0.4 percent of GDP, or just over €10 billion a year, until 2032. But the Council predicted an eventual balance beginning in the mid-2030s.

A deficit of €10-12 billion per year is not necessarily excessive for a pension system whose total annual expenditure amounts to around €340 billion. ‘The results of this report do not support the claim that pensions spending is out of control,’ the Council wrote. Pension spending as a proportion of GDP is expected to remain stable, at around 14 percent of GDP, before rising to up to 14.7 percent by 2032.

Pensions expert Michaël Zemmour said, ‘It has become a form of political discourse to exaggerate and dramatise the deficit issue, to claim the system urgently needs to be reformed, when in fact the deficit is rather moderate’.

He explained, ‘It’s not about saving the pension system, it’s about financing tax cuts for businesses,’ highlighting France’s intention to finance tax cuts with structural reforms to bring the national deficit under 3 percent by 2027, a requirement of EU member states (

Government attempts to appeal to younger generations on the grounds that it is they who carry the burden of supporting the elderly have not been successful. Despite retirement being a distant prospect, France’s younger workers have been active in the protests.

One student said, ‘We live in a productivity-obsessed society that is preoccupied with economic growth and which has been destroying our planet for decades. Now we’re being asked to work for two more years so we can produce even more.’ Another explained, ‘We should be able to live longer and in better health without working ourselves to death. Besides, if they’re talking about retiring at 64 now, what will it be when I’m 60? Will I have to work until I’m 70 or 75? ’ (

In the United States, where the retirement age for Social Security is already transitioning to 67, a Republican Party committee has called for the retirement age to increase by three years so that people born on or after 1978 will have to wait until the age of 70 for a full pension (

In Germany, the Federation of German Employers’ Associations in the Metal and Electrical Engineering Industries has also suggested raising its retirement age to 70. However, Johannes Geyer of the German Institute for Economic Research believes ‘Raising the retirement age puts a lot of pressure on the working population. People with low life expectancy, and those with health problems, will suffer more; a relevant part of the population dies before reaching retirement age.’ He seeks an alternative solution. ‘We need migration. It’s essential that we have enough people coming from abroad to work in Germany’ (

Working people must reject this capitalist imposition – ‘live longer, work longer’. We should have a society where we can appreciate the added years of our lives and not be made to work until we drop.

Proper Gander: Exploitation at work (2023)

The Proper Gander TV column from the April 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

When we buy a product, it’s easy not to think about the long journey it has made to reach us, through the combined effort of countless people across the world. A cup of tea often starts out in Kenya’s Great Rift Valley, where its tea leaves are grown and picked before being sent on for processing and packing. The workers who pick the leaves which eventually end up in our morning cuppa tend to be women living close to poverty. Like many in the primary sector, their work on the tea plantations involves lengthy, repetitive shifts for low pay, made even worse for them by a culture where sexual abuse is common.

This was the focus of a disturbing edition of BBC One’s Panorama: Sex For Work: The True Cost Of Our Tea. The documentary investigated plantations in Kenya owned by two British companies – Unilever and James Finlay & Co – which produce half the tea drunk in the UK, sold under brands such as PG Tips, Lipton and Sainsbury’s Red Label. Researchers interviewed a hundred women tea pickers, and as many as 75 said they had suffered sexual harassment by managers at their workplace.

Heading the programme is journalist Tom Odula, but credit should go to the undercover reporter who put herself at risk by applying for work on the plantations. Much of the documentary comprises footage filmed on a hidden camera by ‘Katie’. This shows that women being pushed into having sex with senior staff is rife, despite the problem being recognised at least as far back as 2011. Then, a report was published by the Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations about the extent of sexual abuse in Unilever’s operations, which led to them introducing a new ‘zero tolerance’ policy and reporting system. These are put to the test when Katie applies for a job at a Unilever plantation and gets asked by a Divisional Manager, Jeremiah Koskei, to meet in a bar. There, she records him talking about how they could spend the night at his home, following a pattern described by other women seeking work on the plantation. ‘It felt pretty transactional’ says Katie later. Despite rejecting his advances, she gets employed and is assigned the gruelling task of weeding for up to 10 hours a day, at a rate of the equivalent of £25 for a six-day week. When Katie asks for different duties, supervisor Samuel Yebei sees this as an opportunity to pressure her to sleep with him in return. After she resists, he gives up, and five weeks later she hasn’t been moved to a better role. One of the women Odula interviews says that she was in such a desperate situation that she was coerced into having sex with Yebei to keep her job and then contracted HIV. We’re told that one reason Yebei has got away with his behaviour is that he is close to Koskei, but complaints have been dismissed before they even reach them. When Katie reports them both to the company’s sexual harassment officer, instead of looking into the matter he just advises her to protect herself. While the documentary was being made, Unilever sold its tea brands and fields to a venture capital company, now operating as Lipton Teas and Infusions, which has suspended the two managers pending an investigation.

A similar culture was found in plantations owned by James Finlay & Co, whose tea is sold by Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Starbucks. Odula speaks with a woman (already suffering from an injury from her work) who refused to have sex with a manager in order to get a job, and regrets that her daughters didn’t make the same decision. She reported harassment but hasn’t had a response. Many of the women interviewed name John Chebochok, a recruiter for James Finlay & Co, as a predator. Katie goes to meet him for a job interview, which she is told will be held in a hotel room. There, he says he will give her money and a job if she has sex with him, which escalates to him pinning her against a window before he gives up and goes. After three months of undercover reporting, Katie quits the plantations and receives counselling. Finlays later said it suspended and reported Chebochok to the police, and is now investigating whether its operation has ‘an endemic issue with sexual violence’.

Panorama’s report from Kenya recalls exposés of similar practices in other organisations. Women in Haiti in poorly paid jobs making clothes for American brands were pressurised by their managers to have sex or have their contracts ended, according to an article published by the Guardian (23 June). In Congo, more than 50 women alleged that aid workers, including some from the World Health Organisation, had demanded sex from them to get or keep jobs as cooks, cleaners and community workers during an Ebola crisis (Reuters, 29/09/20). As in Kenya, the poverty the women were living in often meant they had little choice.

The hierarchies which are built into the capitalist structures of organisations put people like Chebochok, Yebei and Koskei in positions of power. And the wider economic system makes people – women who rely on wages from any work they can get, in this instance – vulnerable to being used by this predatory type of man for their own gratification. Because these managers are enforcing the exploitation of the women through their employment, they also feel entitled to exploit them sexually. They see and treat the women as objects because the system creates the conditions in which this can happen. Reforms and a shift in culture may eventually lessen the threat of sexual abuse for women such as those on the plantations, but won’t address the root cause of the problem.
Mike Foster

Party News: The Socialist Party's Summer School (2023)

Party News from the April 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Work, in all its forms, is what keeps society running. At best, our own work can be interesting and creative, if we're not stuck in an unfulfilling role. Capitalism turns work into employment, with our job roles shaped by how profitable or cost-effective they are likely to be, more than by how useful or manageable they are. Even so, countless important tasks rely on volunteers and other unpaid labour.

Poor conditions and pay have pushed an increased number of employees to go on strike. But how effective can industrial action be when workers don't own or control the places we work in? Alongside the impact of the state and the economy on how we work, technology has had a massive influence, from the most basic tools to the latest advances in computing.

In a socialist society, work would be freed from the constraints of money and the exploitation of employment, and would instead be driven directly by people's needs and wants. This would entail workplaces being owned in common and run democratically. But how could this happen in practice?

The Socialist Party's weekend of talks and discussion looks at different aspects of work, and what they tell us about the society we live in. The event also includes an exclusive publication, exhibition and bookstall.

Our venue is Woodbrooke, 1046 Bristol Road, Birmingham, B29 6U. Full residential cost (including accommodation and meals Friday evening to Sunday afternoon) is £200; the concessionary rate is £100. Book online at or send a cheque (payable to the Socialist Party of Great Britain) with your contact details to Summer School, The Socialist Party, 52 Clapham High Street, London, SW4 7UN. Day visitors are welcome, but please e-mail for details in advance. Send enquiries to

Cooking the Books: Budgets for Business as usual (2023)

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

This year 15 March was budget day, the day the government announces its money-raising and spending plans for the financial year that begins in April. Jeremy Hunt went on about ‘growth’; the Labour Shadow Chancellor sounded like she was Liz Truss, accusing Hunt of not being ambitious enough (in effect of not making wilder promises). But no government has the power to bring about growth.

‘Growth’ is an increase in the amount of marketable wealth produced in one year compared with the previous year. The only people who can organise this are those in charge of the profit-seeking businesses that produce such wealth.

But even they don’t have a free hand; they have to take account of market conditions, which are outside of their control, and only increase production if they judge these offer a prospect of making a profit. It is this business investment for profit that drives the economy. The most any government can do is to try to ensure conditions that allow and encourage this. In fact, if they don’t they will provoke an economic downturn.

Capitalist firms and their owners accept that there must be a government, if only to protect private property rights, keep law and order, and maintain armed forces, though these days governments do much more for them than this; they pay, for instance, for the workers’ education and health to create a more productive workforce for business. All this costs money and has to be paid for.

The main direct tax on businesses is corporation tax, a tax on their profits (the main indirect tax is income tax on wages). Rishi Sunak, when Chancellor, announced in the 2021 budget that this would go up from 19 percent to 23 percent from 1 April 2023. Hunt confirmed that this was to go ahead. However, there are generous exemptions. For the next three years businesses will not have to pay corporation tax on any profits that are invested in the full cost of new machinery, plant or IT systems. In other words, not on profits that are directly re-invested in accumulating capital; which in fact is the main aim of capitalist production.

The government’s aim is to encourage business investment, the driver of growth. Whether it will work remains to be seen. Businesses won’t invest just to avoid taxes but only if the investment will be profitable.

At the moment, Britain has a ‘labour supply problem’. Another way of putting this is that there is a shortage of wealth producers since there is no other way that wealth can be produced other than by the application of human labour to materials that originally came from nature. Which is what workers do. No workers, no wealth and no capitalist share of wealth as profits.

This shortage is partly the result of previous government policy, albeit one endorsed by a referendum, to withdraw from the EU and stop the free movement of workers from the rest of Europe. To deal with the shortage, Hunt announced three measures. The first was to allow those with a pension pot of £1 million — not your ordinary worker, then, but someone on the way to becoming a capitalist — to accumulate more without having to pay tax on it. The second was to improve nursery facilities for families with both parents working. The third was to cut the payments to the unemployed, to in effect starve them back to work. The hope is that this will encourage more, especially mothers, to join the wealth (and profit) producing force. Again, a measure aimed at helping profit-seeking business make more profits. But there is no guarantee that it will work either.

Bird’s Eye View: Chris Hedges (2023)

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

Chris Hedges

The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, New York Times best-selling author, former professor at Princeton University, activist and ordained Presbyterian minister, occasionally hits the mark:
‘The militarists, corporatists, oligarchs, politicians, academics and media conglomerates champion identity politics and diversity because it does nothing to address the systemic injustices or the scourge of permanent war that plague the U.S. It is an advertising gimmick, a brand, used to mask mounting social inequality and imperial folly. It busies liberals and the educated with a boutique activism, which is not only ineffectual but exacerbates the divide between the privileged and a working class in deep economic distress. The haves scold the have-nots for their bad manners, racism, linguistic insensitivity and garishness, while ignoring the root causes of their economic distress. The oligarchs could not be happier’ (Scheerpost, 5 February).

Richard Dawkins

We often disagree with this professor too, but cannot fault him here:
‘“The only possible response is contemptuous ridicule,” he told the Daily Telegraph. “I shall continue to use every one of the prohibited words. I am a professional user of the English language. It is my native language. I am not going to be told by some teenage version of Mrs Grundy which words of my native language I may or may not use.”
Other experts also branded the alternatives “absurd” and argued they could cause confusion in scientific fields. They also pointed out that the terms “egg producing” and “sperm producing” were simply synonyms for male and female, and continued to confirm that sex is binary.”… The EEB Language Project, which was launched in this month’s Trends in Ecology and Evolution journal, is compiling a repository of “problematic words” that have been identified by US and Canadian scientists as harmful and it suggests alternatives. For example, participants have flagged the term “citizen science” saying it could be “harmful to people who do not have a nation state”‘ (15 February).

Workers have no country

But some so-called socialists, woke or not, insist otherwise:
‘Instead of seeing the world as being composed solely of geopolitical camps, socialist internationalists must evaluate every conflict based on the interests of working people and their struggle for freedom and equality. The revolutionary Leon Trotsky once wrote that, hypothetically, if fascist Italy pursuing their interests had supported the anti-colonial uprising in Algeria against democratic France, the internationalists should have supported the Italian arming of the rebels. It sounds quite right, and this did not stop him from being an anti-fascist. Vietnam’s struggle did not just benefit Vietnam; the defeat of the United States there had a significant (if temporary) deterrent effect on American imperialism’ (’Freedom Socialist Party’, February ).
More nonsense. this time from the horse’s mouth:
‘Through carrying out the Renewal process, the Party has drawn five great lessons from its experience, which can also be considered five fundamental theoretical issues of the present-day Vietnamese revolution. Among the lessons, the Party emphasises the need to comprehensively, synchronously, and regularly implement the Party building and rectification work, place people at the centre of the Renewal process, and build a synchronous development institution in order to serve the goal of rapid and sustainable development of the country, with a focus on the socialist-oriented market economy institution’ (Voice of Vietnam, 2 February.)
Even in the ‘socialist republic’, some are more equal than others as this headline attests: ‘Vietnamese tourist in Thailand reunited with his lost $194,000 Richard Mille watch’ (Yahoo, 3 February, ).

Dave Allen

The late, great and far from woke comedian may well have regarded that tourist as suitable material for a future sketch. One recent news item would almost certainly have attracted his attention:
‘Some Taliban fighters are sick of the 9 to 5 grind, complaining they’ve been sucked into urban life by working desk jobs to run Afghanistan’ (Business Insider, 10 February ).
Abdul Salam, 26, a farmer who fought for the Taliban several times, is on record as stating:
‘There is a proverb in our area that money is like a shackle. Now, if we complain, or don’t come to work, or disobey the rules, they cut our salary.’
Welcome to wage slavery, sucker! Allen famously observed:
‘You wake to the clock, you go to work to the clock, you clock-in to the clock, you clock out to the clock, you come home to the clock, you eat to the clock, you drink to the clock, you go to bed to the clock, you get up to the clock, you go back to work to the clock… You do that for forty years of your life and you retire — what do they fucking give you? A clock!’
Woke readers who are shocked, quite possibly offended, by our use of the term slavery should study the writings of a former slave:
‘The difference between the white slave, and the black slave, is this: the latter belongs to ONE slave-holder, and the former belongs to ALL the slave-holders, collectively. The white slave has taken from him, by indirection, what the black slave had taken from him, directly, and without ceremony. Both are plundered, and by the same plunderers’ (Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, 1855 ).

Workers of the world, woke or not, wake up!

These plunderers are found throughout the world- yes, in all the aforementioned countries too! ‘The typical CEO of a company listed on the S&P 500—a stock market index with 500 large publicly traded corporations – earned $18.8 million last year. That’s up roughly 21% from 2021, even though the S&P 500 index was down 20%’ (Time, 16 February ). Warren Buffett, whose 100 billion dollar fortune makes him the 6th richest person on Earth, was not joking when he said: ‘there’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning’ (New York Times, 26 November 2006 ). Winning worldwide.

Enter the Twilight Zone (2023)

Book Review from the April 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Twilight of World Trotskyism, By John Kelly. Routledge. 2023.

This is effectively the updated sequel to Kelly’s book Contemporary Trotskyism, which was reviewed in the October 2018 Socialist Standard. It is a lot shorter than the first, more international in outlook, a little repetitive in places and surprisingly polemical.

Kelly argues that after a period of significant decline, the Trotskyist movement worldwide entered a period of relative stability in the early 21st century which has in more recent years been shattered by another period of organisational sclerosis, bloodletting and waning membership. There are now no less than 32 international organisations claiming to be the Fourth International or its successor, and in the UK alone there are currently 21 separate Trotskyist organisations that openly identify as being such.

One of the most significant recent splits concerns the so-called Socialist Party of England and Wales (SPEW) and its international body, the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI). This split has been over the growth of identity politics linked to their Irish affiliate and led to the formation in the UK of the 200-strong Socialist Alternative group. Kelly estimates there are now around 9,000 Trotskyists in total in the UK, the majority of them in the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) and SPEW, the only parties with over a thousand members – though in SPEW’s case only just.

Kelly identifies the main centres of World Trotskyism as being the USA, Britain, France and Argentina (based on parties, memberships, publications, electoral statistics, etc). The organisational issues noticeable in Britain are equally obvious elsewhere – the USA has 23 separate Trotskyist groups, France 15 and Argentina 16. He attempts to look beyond the sect-like nature of these groups to some of the more fundamental underlying issues with Trotskyist politics that we have often identified ourselves in this magazine. These include the dishonest and incredible nature of ‘transitional demands’; Trotskyists’ rigid adherence to Leninist methods while bizarrely expecting a different outcome to those achieved by Leninists previously in Russia, China, etc; their obsessive catastrophising (a massive world crisis and revolution is always just around the corner, yet somehow never materialises); and their conceptions of how members may be recruited and supporters gained that bear little relationship to the underlying reality.

Over the years we ourselves have had some political sport pointing these things out, and have sparred with more Citizen Smith clones occupying a Trotskyist parallel universe than we care to remember. Though it’s also fair to say that at least some of the failures and limitations experienced by the Trotskyists (and others that seek to position themselves more generally as anti-capitalists) could also apply to us. Indeed, Kelly emerges as something of a reformist in this book and takes a sideswipe in our direction, saying ‘Tony Judt’s remark about the British propaganda sect, the SPGB, applies with equal force to [many of the Trotskyists]: “Impervious to change, and too small to be adversely affected by its own irrelevance, it will presumably survive indefinitely”’ (p.98). This didn’t make much sense the first time we read it and it makes little more sense here. Also, it is a bit odd as nowhere does he explain to readers what the SPGB is (we’re not even in the List of Abbreviations included) and because his main argument in this section appears to be that many of the Trotskyist groups are actually ageing out of activity and existence completely: ‘It appears that instead of being carried forward to revolutionary triumph by the laws of history, the forces of Orthodox Trotskyism are being carried into oblivion by the law of biology’ (p.99).

Kelly ends by saying ‘After more than 80 years of Trotskyist activity, with no revolutions, mass parties or election victories to its name… the Trotskyist movement has become a dead end for socialists’ (p.105). We can, of course, agree. But it’s a shame he doesn’t seem to hold the view that the same comment could be applied – equally though for partly different reasons – to the Labour and Social Democratic parties. Their repeated failure to successfully reform the market economy has driven the politically frustrated into the hands of Leninists of all varieties for decades – and we suspect Keir Starmer’s likely pending government will keep them in business for quite a while yet.