Thursday, May 11, 2023

Material World: Pacific but not peaceful (2014)

The Material World Column from the May 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last year the California-based Oakland Institute revealed the escalation of land grabs in Papua New Guinea (PNG) over the past decade, amounting to 5.5 million hectares, or 12 percent of the country, due to fraudulent manipulation of Special Agriculture and Business Leases (SABLs), government administered schemes whereby customary owners lease their land to the state for a title which can be used for leasing to a third party. SABLs have been exploited by international logging companies, aided by corrupt state offi cials, resulting in rising deforestation, and many customary owners losing control of their traditional lands. Offi cial catch-phrases of ‘freeing up land for development’, have masked ‘daylight robbery, the betrayal of people’s constitutional protections and the loss of heritage and land for millions of Papua New Guineans’ says the institute’s report, On Our Land.

Customary tenure applies to 80-90 percent of land in Pacific Island states. Unwritten customary law determines land and inheritance rights for members of clans or extended families. Traditional tenure plays a vital role in the Southwest Pacific countries where the formal sector provides as little as 15 percent of employment, and most people are reliant on subsistence and small-holder agriculture for livelihoods and income. Evidence suggests that, in PNG, small-holder fresh food producers can earn more substantial incomes than people in formal employment. A 2008 study of women roadside sellers in Madang province concluded that 50 percent earned more than three times the minimum wage.

Joel Simo of the Melanesian Indigenous Land Defence Alliance (MILDA) in Vanuatu claims that customary tenure is a ‘system of sharing’ that ‘caters for everyone’s needs.’ he said. ‘Land in most Pacific countries is for public access for survival and not fenced off by the legal system.’ MILDA’s commitment to protect Melanesian values, which promote long-term sustainable land use, includes opposition to customary land registration or leasing, perceived as serving the interests of foreign and local elite. ‘People can register their land and still remain poor,’ Simo said.

However, in the 21st Century land is subject to increasing global economic pressures, the greater dependence of islanders on the cash economy, rapid population growth and urbanisation. Many Pacific Island states are grappling with identifying effective land dispute resolution mechanisms. Reconciling tenure security under informal customary law and modern judicial legal systems presents ongoing challenges. Proliferating disputes between customary groups, and with external parties, over rightful land ownership, development benefits and environmental damage remain a factor in continued rural impoverishment.

Maria Linibi, president of the PNG Women in Agriculture Development Foundation, agrees that better land administration is required, but rejects easier options for foreign investors or the state to acquire customary land. ‘Customary land ownership to our livelihoods, income and food security is very important because without it we would not survive,’ Linibi declared.

Factors in landowner distrust of state land reform include state corruption and failure of large export oriented projects to raise human development or living standards for the majority of Pacific Islanders.

‘The prevalence of fraud and corruption within the land administration system [of PNG] means that titles can be easily issued, tampered with or destroyed,’ Aidwatch reported in 2010. Their report added that formal land titles were ‘a recipe for failure’ in countries where local landowners are not empowered with education and legal knowledge. Thus, in PNG, where rural illiteracy is as high as 85 percent, ‘top-down’ land leasing programmes have the potential to exacerbate inequality.

This problem of land-grabbing, of course, is not unique to the Pacific but is taking place in many parts of the world: in Africa, Asia and South America. It is a process that Marxists call primitive capital accumulation (the economist David Harvey opts to use the term ‘accumulation by dispossession’ because he finds it odd to call an ongoing process ‘primitive’) and which in English history is known as the Enclosures – common land being either privatised or nationalised. Primitive accumulation is a historical process whereby a separation is created between producers and their means of production or subsistence, i.e. their land. Subsequently, the producers without means of production are left with little choice but to join the industrial army working in urban factories while, freeing up the land and resources for commodity production and capital accumulation.

Land acquisition is increasingly occurring across the globe over the last few years as capitalism further integrates the peasant economy more fully into its world-system. Development banks have identified large sections of sub-Saharan African countries as unused and ‘reserved’ for investment. Yet, as investors acquired the land they met resistance from peasants that were already using such land for their livelihoods. Communal land is being turned into capital and indigenous peoples transformed into wage labour: 
‘In actual history, it is a notorious fact that conquest, enslavement, robbery, murder, in short force, play the greatest part … As a matter of fact, the methods of primitive accumulation are anything but idyllic’ (Marx, Capital Vol 1)

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News in Review: Business as usual (1966)

The News in Review column from the May 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

Business as usual

The first job of a new Labour government, after the victory champagne has been drunk and the rosettes put away with all the other mementoes of an election campaign which was full of hasty promises, is to assure everybody that nothing will be done to disturb the capitalist social system which the millions who voted Labour—not to mention the other millions who voted Conservative, Liberal, etc—so ardently support.

So it was that on the first Sunday after the election Mr. Harold Lever, who is. Labour MP for Manchester Cheetham, rushed into print in The Observer.

He opened his article like this:
Labour’s decisive victory has aroused anxiety in the City and large areas of the business world. In my view all these fears are unjustified and need to be promptly dispelled . . .
Mr. Lever then commenced to tick off, one by one, the fears which these business men who have not taken the trouble to observe a Labour government in action might unreasonably have thought about what Mr. Wilson will do to capitalism.

Nationalisation? Clause Four? Economic planning? Taxation? Investment incentives? The Labour Member dealt with them all, and ended on a justifiably hopeful note:
It is to be hoped that we will enter this difficult period without damaging and needless misunderstandings between Labour and the world of business.
Now this must have been very bracing to any capitalist who troubled to read it. And his satisfaction must have been even higher if he also read an article on the following day by William Davis, the Financial Editor of The Guardian, which reviewed the prospects for profits under a Labour government, and ended with the conclusion:
Looking ahead two or three years . . . there is good reason to believe that the upward trend in dividends will be resumed.
There should be no need to point out that trade unionists, whose unions often do so much to help Labour get power, cannot look to the immediate future with the same optimism as businessmen. And no Labour MP has yet tried to assure them on this point.

Hypocrisy over Rhodesia

As the world knows, Mr. Harold Wilson is having quite a fight with the Smith government in Rhodesia.

Mr. Wilson takes his stand (in public, at any rate) on moral grounds. The Smith government, he says, offends against all accepted standards of conduct by its racialist policies. He also complains for the benefit of those who are not impressed by an attack on racialism, that Mr. Smith is a rebel against the Queen.

The world also knows that the British government has tried to impose a blockade on Rhodesia and that there have been attempts, of varying success, to break the blockade.

There need be no surprise that these attempts are justified also by moral arguments, although of a different kind from those of Mr. Wilson.

The blockade runners talk about the freedom of the seas, and about the sanctity of commerce. This is just as Rhodesia's situation is a grand opening for a free-lance oil company and shipping magnate to make some money. This is the basic reason for the attempts at breaking the embargo; the justification comes after.

What of the future? Speculation has its dangers, but the chances are that Mr. Smith will find plenty of other companies willing to cash in on the situation and run the risks of defying the embargo.

Probably, too, there will be undercover outlets for Rhodesia’s tobacco duce, to replace those closed by the sanctions programme.

International trade is a matter of profit and loss and while it can be influenced for a time by political considerations the basic conditions of capitalism will in the end dominate.

Mr. Wilson has publicly said that he would win an easy victory in Rhodesia. He would not be the first leader of capitalism to fail lo understand the basic realities of a situation he is trying to control.

Prison reform

One of the problems which capitalism faces over sending people to prison for offending against the system’s property laws is that while they are inside they may forget what it means lo be docile, industrious members of the working class.

To discourage this, there is a veritable army of probation officers, welfare societies, clergymen and other soul-savers who are only too willing to help the released prisoner back into capitalist society.

They remind him that he is after all a worker; they talk about his making a constructive contribution to society; they spare no effort to find him a job and so help him from one form of imprisonment into another.

Now the reformers are going even further.

An electrical component firm in the Midlands, is collaborating with the authorities of a new prison there to get the convicts working on the assembly of their products.

The firm is not, of course, doing this purely as a money making venture; they claim that it is a social experiment.

The prisoners will be able to earn at most 11s. a week at this work—for a full time, forty hour week on piecework.

This is the first time a closed prison in Britain has undertaken work of this kind. The governor has made it clear that the assembly line in the prison will be just like one in a factory outside:
We shall encourage prisoners to produce as much as possible as efficiently as possible.
Thus the prisoners will have no excuse for feeling unsettled when they are let out at the end of their sentence. The disciplines, the exploitation — and the life will have continued while they were inside.

Presumably this is intended to make the men more amenable to their lot under capitalism. Has any reformer considered whether it may have the opposite effect?

How do you like your leaders? (1966)

From the May 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

If there was one thing the General Election was supposed to be about it was leadership. Not just any leadership, but leadership of the tough, courageous, forthright variety which any politician worth his salt always exudes as he looks the television camera straight in the lens.

The Labour Party won the election to some extent on this issue. Their message, repeated again and again, was simple. In thirteen years the Conservatives had not provided leadership. In seventeen months Labour had given us firm government. Perhaps we didn’t agree with everything they had done but at least they had done it. We had had a taste of government with guts—and this had taught us that Labour Government Worked.(Did any Labour voter remember that this was the party which once claimed to stand for Socialism?) It was all summed up in the manifesto Time For Decision:
This is a Government that governs: it does not flop along from crisis to crisis as the Tories did, for so much of their thirteen years.
In face of this propaganda, what choice had Mr. Heath but to try to appear even firmer, even more pugnacious, than Mr. Wilson? He chose to make a frontal attack. Labour, he said, had talked about our problems but this was not enough. We needed to deal with the balance of payments, the Common Market, the burden of poverty among the old and the sick. What was needed was Action not Words. The theme was taken up eagerly by many a Tory candidate who later found that a preoccupation with Action can have some disastrous results at the polls.

It was taken up, too, in the press, which was also looking for determined leadership. In one of the unlikeliest partnerships of the election, the Daily Mirror dressed down its readers by reprinting an editorial from The Times which gave a number of reasons for the weakness of the £, among them “. . . because no government has the courage to face the British people with the truth.”

From all sides, then, there was a demand for leaders with courage, determination, vigour. It would have been surprising if this had not been reflected in the votes; when they were counted it turned out that over 13 million people had voted for firm government from the Labour Party; almost 11⅜ million had plumped for action from the Conservatives.

What is the reason for this general acceptance that firm government is essential and beneficial? The vast majority of the voters believe that we shall always need leaders who are supposed to be cleverer than the rest of us to take control of our affairs, to tell us how much we should earn, how hard we should work, when we should go to war, who we should love and who we should hate—and of course for whom we should vote.

Having accepted this notion, it follows dial the workers should want their leaders to be cast in a certain mould. Toughness is not always essential; Stanley Baldwin once won a famous election victory on the promise of Tranquility. The tough image becomes a vote catcher when the conditions of British capitalism require a special effort from the working class; in wartime or when a government is appealing, as it is now, for restraint in wage claims and for harder work.

It does not follow from this that tough, courageous leaders are always approved of. Let us go back for a moment to The Times, complaining that
. . . the world sees Mr. George Brown’s union—the largest in the country—defying the system on which the Government’s economic policy rests;
Now it is clearly an act of some courage, and considerable resolution for the Transport and General Workers’ Union to defy the government over the Incomes Policy. But The Times and the Daily Mirror are not applauding. We are accustomed to the attacks which are made upon unions firm enough to press home a wage claim. And the greater the determination which is applied in the claim—if a strike is called and is carried out with what the Labour Party calls, in another context, guts—the more furious are the attacks and the greater the impatience which many other workers express against the strikers.

A political leader who does his job with what the press judges to be resolution is headlined as a public hero. A trade union official who does his job in the same way is lampooned as a national enemy.

Clearly there is more to this leadership business than The Times is eager to reveal. The British press, and the British working class, like to see their leaders throwing their weight around in the world and consider that it is part of a natural order of things that they should do so. But what is their attitude to foreign leaders who do the same?

What, for example, did they think about Stalin when he was showing them all what ruthlessness and determination really meant? Was Castro a universal hero, when he displayed courage and single-mindedness in Cuba’s dispute with the United States? At another time and place the leader of a small country standing up to a large one can be good for a load of congratulation from the British press. Then what about de Gaulle who, although he is a politician of proven physical bravery and obvious determination, is popularly regarded in Britain as a stubborn, power-silly old man?

The truth of the matter is that it all depends on the interests of a country’s ruling class. This is what determines the propaganda which is pumped out, day after day, at the working class all over the world and which contributes to their delusions about leaders and many other issues. The British working class like their leaders to appear strong. So do the Cubans. And the French. And the rest of the working class in other countries.

This can be extended beyond the working class. Sir Paul Chambers, the Chairman of ICI. complained bitterly at his company’s Annual General Meeting last month about the competition which they are meeting from rival firms abroad. First he referred to what he called the “running sore" of competition from American-produced polymers which, he said, are “dumped” on the British market with the assistance of a relaxed tariff policy. Then he expanded his field to cover all the ‘science based ’ industries.
The danger is that the vigorous export policies adopted by American companies, with the full support of their Government. together with the very great advantages of their large internal market, will result, in a progressive transfer of manufacture in such industries to the United Stales. There is clear evidence of this already in industries such as aircraft manufacture and computers . . .
Sir Paul is the man who once claimed that ICI’s salesmen fought “like tigers” all over the world. Yet he complains when a foreign industry shows its claws. His words contribute to the idea that all strength, all commercial enterprise, can be confined to one country and that if rivals abroad show the same tendencies they must be resisted by adjusting import duties, or by ganging up with other countries. (Later in his speech Sir Paul was advocating making . . . the whole of EEC and EFTA a single market free of internal barriers for these industries.”)

ICI’s chairman knows perhaps better than most people that capitalism is not a gentle business. It is a system in which savage tigers survive more than sensitive fawns. Every capitalist nation wants its leaders to be firm and strong and clever, but if they were in fact all like that there would be a massive international stalemate in which they all outfoxed each other and so revealed their mutual futility. And that is something which ICI, for one, would not like.

In any case, what is a strong leader worth? First of all, how strong is he? Sir Paul Chambers is one of industry’s tough guys but he can do little more than complain about the jungle which he sends his tigers out to fight in. American chemical firms, he says, have a large enough home market to give them an incentive to invest in a massive plant. To get at a comparable market, the British industry must have access to Europe. But standing in the way are what he called “. . . all the other issues of the enlargement of the Common Market to include Britain . . ." Sir Paul did not think that these issues were insurmountable, yet up to now they have beaten the strongest of British industrialists.

Let us return now to the politicians. Mr. Wilson has promised firm action to defeat one of his government's biggest problems—inflation. Yet despite all the assurances inflation continues: according to the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury (House of Commons, 23/2/66) the £ of October 1964, when Labour came into power, was worth about 18s. 11d. in January 1966. What can strong government do about this? The Labour Party finds itself running British capitalism with a substantial problem of labour shortage, particularly in certain key industries. (In the election campaign Mr. Wilson actually claimed the credit for this!) In this situation Labour are acting in exactly the same way as (he Tories—they are appealing to the working class not to exploit their strength, they are threateningly brandishing legal penalties, they are promising firm and decisive action but in the end they are puffing up an already inflated currency. This is not necessarily weak government but neither is it strong government. It is simply running capitalism as the system says it must be run.

This leaves us with the final question. What benefits do leaders bring to the people who put them there? The workers vote for leadership in millions yet after centuries of it the problems of capitalism remain. Indeed, every election is an opportunity for leaders to claim that they are the men we have been waiting for; they can solve our problems—which in itself shows that the problems are still there, and that the previous “solutions” to them have failed.

It is not enough to discard one set of leaders for another; we must prepare ourselves with the knowledge that leaders are irrelevant to the advance of society. At the moment thirteen million people in this country have said that they know Labour Government Works. Which is nothing less than thirteen million people saying that they are not yet prepared to think for themselves.

The Passing Show: May Day, May Day (1966)

The Passing Show Column from the May 1966 issue of the Socialist Standard

May Day, May Day

Definitions: (1) A radio distress signal, repeated at rapid intervals, for ships at sea. (2) A working class distress signal, repeated at yearly intervals. It's the second definition which concerns us. You want me to justify it? Of course it’s not the way that Labourites and other left wingers will look at it when they assemble once again this year for their processions. To them it will be a fine opportunity to make the usual protestations of “solidarity’’, “peace”, “progress" and so on, with workers abroad which, for all the fire and eloquence with which they may be delivered, will be vague, empty, and not worth the ink that's used to print them in the next day’s newspapers.

May Day demonstrations began with the passing of a resolution by the Second International Working Men’s Association in 1889 to set aside the First of May as a workers holiday, so that mass demonstrations could be made to affirm the international solidarity of labour. But solidarity for what? Workers may have avowed such solidarity in 1889, but there was precious little of it in 1914, except perhaps in the only place where nationality didn’t count—in the grave. It has been the same story many times since then to some extent or another, yet down the years the farce of the May Day ritual has been observed.

But a “distress signal” I called it. Well, take a look at some of the things they will be talking about this time. Vietnam? Wages? The Bomb? Pensions? Housing? A superficial conclusion might be that the scope of May Day has broadened since the early days, yet really all these issues can be put under the headings of War and The Poverty of Labour, both inseparable from capitalism and very distressing indeed. Taken collectively they represent a massive S.O.S., a cry for help from a working class floundering in a sea of bewilderment. But the orators who thump the tubs in Hyde Park and elsewhere are just as ignorant as the listening crowds of the way to answer the cry. There is a lifeline which is there for the grasping, but it cannot be thrown by such as the Labour and Communist Parties; it is the lifeline of Socialist knowledge. When the working class have reached out for that, in no time at all they can haul themselves high, dry and safe, to a new world.

Sing, Bing

The wheel has turned a full cycle and Mr. Geoffrey Bing, Q.C. is back in Britain again. This is the man who was once Labour MP for Hornchurch and who climbed aboard the Ghanaian bandwagon when it began to roll some years ago, becoming Dr. Nkrumah’s principal legal adviser. He wasn't the only one to support that vicious and repressive regime of course, but although the two press interviews he gave at the end of March were noteworthy for the evasiveness of his replies to questions, at least he did say something. The other individuals and organisations in this country who hailed the new state, and incidentally sneered at us for refusing it our blessing, have all been conspicuously silent.

Now, what did our ex-Labour hero have lo say when he got back home? If we accept his version at its face value, whoever was to blame for the disturbing things that went on during Nkrumah's reign, it was certainly not Mr. Bing. He was “not there” when the notorious Preventive Detention Bill was announced in the Ghana Parliament. He was “ill” at the time of Nkrumah’s removal of the Chief Justice, and so on . . . He didn’t say what he was doing in November 1963, when the Preventive Detention Act was amended to increase considerably the government’s already harsh powers. He does seem to have learned, though, how unpleasant prison can be (“the actual physical conditions of prisons in Ghana are deplorable”), and how nasty it is to be “manhandled by soldiers” (his wife had that experience). Perhaps some of the five-year detainees could have told him all about those sorts of things if they’d been let out in time. However, that’s the snag with supporting dictatorships; the boomerang sometimes hits you before you have time to get out of the way.

“I have supported ideas and not individuals,” said Mr. Bing on March 28 in a final disclaimer. Ah, yes. Thats the crux of the whole matter, and if Mr. Bing had not said it, we would have had to say it for him. indeed he has supported ideas, and always the wrong ones just like every other Labour MP. True, not every member of his former party would be a deliberate supporter of dictatorships just like that, but so long as capitalism lasts, there is always the threat of it sometime, somewhere. And no capitalist politician can ever be entirely above suspicion in that respect. Even the best of intentions are derided and destroyed in the capitalist jungle, so that the democrat of today (perhaps without realising it at the time) is often a trainee for the dictatorship of tomorrow.

This is where we came in

Take heart, Lord Robens and others Who supported nationalisation of the mines in 1947. You think you have problems with falling coal demand and competition from oil? Well, so have others: this time it’s the West German coal owners who are running into trouble and are actually being paid by their government to take pits out of production. On March 17th, The Guardian described the Bonn government’s actions as “. . . measures . . . designed to help the coal industry to adjust itself to the realities of industrial life.” Which is a nice way of saying “no profit—no production”, no matter if some people do go short of warmth this winter. Incidentally, it does illustrate one point contrary to Tory claims; and that is that the profitability of an industry is not realty affected by whether it’s nationalised. It’s the current market conditions that count.

But don’t get too shocked or surprised at the news from Germany, will you. Governments often act in this way. A few years back, the British textile industry got the treatment, and before that American agriculture. Yet there are plenty of ill clothed and ill fed people around, aren’t there? Profit is the raison d'etre as far as capitalism is concerned, not human need.


“Just because you caught me polishing my Rolls-Royce doesn’t mean I’m a Tory. I'll vote Labour.” (Man at Morden Hill. Guardian report 16.3.66.)

‘‘While we act to suppress the ugly activities, if anyone dies we shall not be bothered." (Indian Premier Mrs. Gandhi. 16.3.66.)

"He (the Tory) must persuade a substantial mass of the voters . . . to identify the defence of their own interests and values with the defence of privileges which are—and are likely to remain—beyond their reach." (Why I am voting Tory, by Henry Fairlie. Observer 20.3.66.)

"A Conservative speculative builder in Cambourne this weekend described Mr. Wilson as "the nearest thing we’ve had to Churchill." (Peter Jenkins, Guardian 21.3.66.)

"I have a feeling that . . . voters are getting much more shrewd.' (Leonard Beaton. Guardian 30.3.66.)