Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Cooking the Books: Greedflation? (2023)

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

‘Lone voice on inflation grows louder’ was the headline in the Times (8 May), ‘A star economist says the key is not to raise interest rates but to target corporate greed’. The star in question is Isabella Weber who, according to the article, has made an ‘important contribution to the study of how companies’ pricing power is forcing up inflation, a phenomenon that has been dubbed “greedflation”’.

The article continues :
‘Weber prefers to use the term “sellers’ inflation” to describe how the shock of a global energy crisis and supply shortages during the pandemic led companies to pass on costs to consumers and make inflation a “generalised” feature of the economy. This in turn led to workers asking for more pay, she says’.
In other words, she is neatly turning the tables on those who blame workers for setting off a ‘wages-prices spiral’ and saying that, on the contrary, it is companies that set off a ‘prices-wages’ spiral by putting up prices to make more profit.

But this is not a new theory. It’s been the standard left-wing theory of inflation since the 1950s, including by some Marxist economists – Paul Mattick Jnr, for instance. This is how he explained the rise in the general price level in the late 1970s:
‘Businesses defended their bottom lines by raising prices; workers fought for higher wages to defend their standard of living, usually more slowly than the price increases to which they were reacting. Prices increased throughout the economy as different business sectors struggled to make others pay the costs of the debt: the dread stimulus-induced inflation’ (tinyurl.com/2a927sd5).
Tempting as it is to blame capitalist businesses for causing a ‘generalised’ rise in prices, businesses are no more able to do this than workers are. Inflation, properly understood as a rise in the general price level, can only be caused by a depreciation of the currency due to too much money being issued. Individual prices can rise for other reasons (as recently due to the global energy price shock and supply chain shortages) but this is not the same as a rise in prices generally. Once monetary inflation has started, the price of what both businesses and workers sell will go up, creating the illusion that one (take your pick) caused the other whereas they are both caused by a third factor.

It is not clear from the article whether Weber is arguing that ‘greedflation’ was the cause of past rising prices or just of what’s happening currently, but the Socialist Standard dealt in October 1972 with the theory that inflation is due to greed. Referring to the abnormal rise in prices since 1939 we said:
‘Most of the so-called explanations take the form of blaming some group or other for being “greedy”; bankers, or manufacturers, or retailers or trade unionists. It is an explanation that a glance at certain facts will show to be nonsense. Did the copper companies reduce their prices by 40 per cent in 1971 because they had suddenly become less greedy? Between 1948 and 1968 prices rose by 100 per cent in Britain, but only by half that amount in America and Switzerland: are the British twice as greedy?’ 
Business can’t increase prices at will to increase profits. Sellers fix their price according to what they judge the market will bear. That’s the limit of their ‘pricing power’. Sometimes they are able to increase their price but they can’t control the conditions that enable them to. Causing ‘inflation’ is a charge to which capitalist corporations can justifiably plead not guilty.

Swearing (2023)

From the June 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

7-ish am on 6 May. I awoke to a cascade of royal drivel gushing from my radio. At that moment one of the most beneficial technological innovations was the ‘OFF’ button (preceded by an appropriate invective).

Before my censorship of the impartial BBC there was a report that Canterbury had recanted. The Archbishop was no longer going to invite the goggling masses to do verbal homage to their newly anointed king by swearing allegiance before God and the TV.

The previous day, in an interview, a friend, confidant and biographer insisted the monarch had no wish for anyone to pay such formalised respects except, perhaps, as a joke. Not much of a stand-up routine in my opinion.

However, the nation need not be struck dumb when the moment in the coronation ceremony came as there would be an invitation by the Anglican head prelate for viewers to join in with the declaration, ‘God save King Charles’. Who then would be dumb?

To voice such a sentiment is at least a tacit acceptance of inferiority, of subjection, of being a subject of the crown. The Lords will still be called upon to pay homage, binding them closer to the monarch than the vassals excluded from direct attendance.

This recognition of divine right to rule does not, of course, confer arbitrary powers upon the King. While he may well still consider himself answerable to a divinity, the engines of the state through which crown power is actually exercised are answerable, ultimately to capital.

The notion of inviting the nation to express its loyalty through swearing an oath of allegiance is an indication that a liberal bourgeois democracy is by no means a society of equals. Perhaps it would have been a too blatant expression of inequality which led to it being substantially toned down.

Whether Charles lll was in favour of it or not is beside the point. It is a demonstration of the careful and meticulous management of public perception by which capitalism ultimately maintains its ideological hold.

There may well be further demonstrations by republicans, vexed at having an unelected head of state foisted upon the nation. While there is no pretence of democracy by having a monarch chosen by birth not the ballot box, election does not substantially change the role of a head of state.

A president may be able to serve only a fixed term, but that merely means that the person in office changes regularly, not the office. Nor is there any compelling evidence that suffrage guarantees meritocratic excellence. The example of the USA shows financial clout not ability is the determining factor in selecting an incumbent for the White House.

Nor does America demonstrate any significant social egalitarianism for all its rejection of monarchy and formal aristocracy. Can there be any doubt that the nation is in thrall to the lords of capital even if they don’t grant them such formal titles.

The swearing of allegiance, right hand earnestly pressed to the heart, is certainly a feature of American pomp and circumstance. The form of address may be Mr. President rather than your majesty, but the effect is the same.

The swearing of oaths has an honourable working class pedigree. In the early days of British industrial capitalism workers responded to their harsh conditions through trade union organisation. This was duly criminalised by the Combination Acts of 1799/1800.

Workers continued to organise, but as a response to illegality and a need for secrecy an oath of allegiance to the union and its fellow members was often required, a condition known as being twisted in.

Following the repeal, in the 1820s, of those pernicious acts workers began to further develop their organisations. However, the use of oaths of allegiance did not immediately disappear. Worker solidarity and the seriousness of their unions were on occasion emphasised through formal ceremony.

An initiation into membership could involve an individual being blindfolded and required to swear an oath of loyalty before a skeleton painting, a reminder of mortality and the seriousness of the undertaking.

It was for such a procedure the Tolpuddle Martyrs were convicted under the Unlawful Oaths Act, 1797, originally passed in reaction to naval mutinies at Spithead and Nore. The use of oaths obviously depends on who is swearing them and for what purpose.

The crown and its agents are not so enamoured of oaths taken for the purpose of reinforcing working class solidarity. Such, it seems, trespasses upon the royal prerogative designed to ensure everyone accepts society as it is organised and each person’s relationship with the status quo.

Reflecting on the coronation there was a brief radio interview with a woman who’d been honoured for her charity work and was an invited guest at the Westminster service. Her reaction was along the lines that it was marvellous that someone like her, a commoner (her word), had been able to attend.

Actually being there might well have required her to join in repeating the oath of allegiance which essentially confirms her status. Indeed, all who did verbal homage affirmed the notion that one person is elevated over all others.

For socialists, attitudes such as this represent a serious obstacle to the pursuit of socialism. Those who were not fascinated by the carefully stage-managed spectacle are still influenced by it. Thankful for another bank holiday, as if there should be gratitude for the grace and favour of being granted a day off from work.

Even the ones who consciously opposed the coronation such as members of ‘Republic’ are focusing attention on the monarch or the possibility of an alternative essentially fulfilling the same role. Whereas pledging allegiance to a monarch or president doesn’t address the basic issue.

That is, the achievement of a society free of social hierarchy and based instead on everyone contributing to society according to ability, thereby creating the conditions in which everybody’s self-determined needs can be met.

This will only happen if and when the vast majority get up, actually or metaphorically, off their knees and stride towards their consciously created future – socialism.
Dave Alton

Radical Enough? (2023)

Book Review from the June 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Extinction. A Radical History. By Ashley Dawson. OR Books. 2022. 171pp.

In this expanded edition of a book first published in 2016, Ashley Dawson provides an excellent and accessible analysis of how human beings have tended to use and abuse the biosphere over the whole of their history and how in particular this has accelerated and come to a critical head in the last 200 years. He compellingly outlines to us how, in this most recent period, the capitalist system with its relentless drive for economic growth and profit has swiftly taken over the planet and increasingly devastated both its flora and fauna without thought of balanced development or survival of the natural world. The result, the author argues, is that the process of extinction has been speeded up to the point that it may be impossible to stop it happening. A prime example he cites is the catastrophic insect population crash in the economically advanced world over the last few decades which is having dire knock-on effects for animal survival as a whole and for the entire natural environment. Another is the halving of the number of wild animals in the world over the last 40 years, elimination of them now running at the rate of a hundred species a day. ‘Viewed in terms of sheer quantity’, as he puts it, ‘life on this planet is being liquidated at unprecedented rates’. He leaves us in no doubt about how capitalism’s quest for continuous growth is stripping ‘the world of its diversity and fecundity …thereby threatening the planetary environment as a whole’.

The stark choice we face, according to the author, is what he calls ‘radical political transformation or deepening mass extinction’. But what does this transformation consist of? Not, he tells us, so-called ‘green capitalism’, whereby the current system seeks to reform itself via ‘conservation’ measures of one kind or another. Such measures, we are told ‘can never be more than a paltry bandage over a gaping wound’. In this he aligns with the trenchant argument against ‘deep green’ reforms to be found in the recently published Bright Green Lies which states: ‘Instead of a movement to save the planet, we have a movement to continue its destruction’ (reviewed in our January issue). And since, he goes on, nothing in human nature prevents people cooperating to bring in a society based on ‘genuine social connection and engagement’, we can transform society so as to remove capitalism’s pressure on people (both workers and capitalists) to compete with one another, thereby exerting impossible pressure on the environment. He delves too into how the ceaseless race for accumulation and expansion as capitalists and their countries are set against one another in the drive to produce endless commodities not only leads to ruination of the environment but also brings never-ending military conflict and physical destruction and displacement of people (‘capital’s death-dealing reign’, as the author calls it).

All fine and incontrovertible so far. But what must be called into question is the actual content of the ‘radical political transformation’ that is proposed. Having kicked out the idea of a conservation programme within capitalism to rescue the environment, the author calls for ‘a program of degrowth for the Global North’ with the aim of somehow benefitting workers in the poorer countries of the capitalist world (‘the Global South). The unfortunate implication here is that workers in the advanced capitalist countries are already doing well enough. And there is also a prescription that ‘the rich in Global South countries must rein in their consumption’. But how all this is going to happen we are not told. Not, presumably, by a majority of the world’s workers taking democratic political action to transform the system of buying and selling, money and wages into a different system of voluntary cooperation for production and distribution and free access to all goods and services on a global level, something that is never mentioned. Instead the author recommends a ‘financial transactions tax of the type proposed by James Tobin’ (a ‘Robin Hood tax’), which we are told, would ‘generate billions of dollars to help people conserve hotspots of global diversity’. And, of course, there is that old chestnut of those advocating reform of capitalism – universal basic income (here called ‘universal guaranteed income’). These are all of course fine thoughts, but, coming after an all-out, fully justified and admirably argued attack on capitalism and its workings, what we have in effect is not a proposal to dispense with the system of buying and selling (which is what capitalism is), but ways of trying to make it work in a different, more benign way. And this after being assured that capitalism can’t be reformed, since its very nature is antithetical to human and environmental wellbeing and must be got rid of.

Right at the end of this book, in musing on what kind of end we wish capitalism to have, the author states: ‘Capitalism is not eternal; it is a specific economic system grounded in a set of historically particular economic arrangements and social values’. This, as much else in this book, is undeniable, but if there is to be an end to capitalism, as we fervently hope there will be, it cannot be via reforms or rearrangements – no matter how well intended – of its details or its organisation. It really does need to be made extinct – 100 percent.
Howard Moss

Material World: Food, another banking failure (2023)

The Material World Column from the June 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Figures from the British Retail Consortium show an increase in the cost of food which is impacting the standard of living on many; especially the low paid and those on fixed incomes. Aren’t the majority of the British working class low paid these day?

‘Food inflation accelerated to 15.7% in April, up from 15.0% in March. This is above the 3-month average rate of 15.1%, and is the highest inflation rate in the food category on record.

Fresh Food inflation accelerated in April, to 17.8%, up from 17.0% in March. This is above the 3-month average rate of 17.0% and is the highest inflation rate in the fresh food category on record.

Ambient Food inflation accelerated to 12.9% in April, up from 12.4% in March. This is above the 3-month average rate of 12.5% and is the fastest rate of increase in the ambient food category on record’ (tinyurl.com/26n52k26).

Sticking plaster
How many food banks are there in the UK? How many people use food banks? How many food parcels are distributed? Do the statistics quoted below surprise you? Have you of necessity been, or are presently, a food bank user? Should those residing in a country with the wealth of the UK be forced to live with food poverty? What is the solution to permanently eradicating food poverty and poverty and inequality completely?

‘In 2022, the Trussell Trust operated 1,400 food banks in the UK. It has been estimated that there are a further 1,172 independent food banks in the UK. This takes the number of food banks operating in the UK to around 2,500.

In March 2023, data from the Food Standard Agency’s ‘Consumer Insight Tracker’ suggested that 13% of participants had used a food bank or food charity at least once in the last month. This was down slightly from the 15% figure of March 2022’ (tinyurl.com/4su6t7ft).

In its end of year report the Trussell Trust reports the following:
‘Close to 3 million emergency food parcels were distributed by food banks in the Trussell Trust network in the past 12 months — the most parcels ever distributed by the network in a year. Food banks in the Trussell Trust network saw the highest ever levels of need, even more than during the peak of the pandemic, as more people found their incomes did not cover the cost of essentials like heating and food. Between April 2022 and March 2023, the number of people that used a food bank for the first time was 760,000’ (tinyurl.com/3ervwv9h).
December 2022 was the busiest month on record for food banks in the Trussell Trust network, with a food parcel being distributed every 8 seconds.

The Trussell Trust mission statement says: ‘We know it takes more than food to end hunger. That’s why we launched our five-year strategic plan. We know our goal to end the need for food banks is ambitious, but by working Together for Change, we believe it is achievable. We’re calling on the UK government to ensure Universal Credit covers essential costs such as food, travel and household bills. By acting together with one voice, we are incredibly powerful. We are a movement of thousands of people who believe that no one should have to use a food bank. We need a long-term commitment that the social security system will always protect people from needing a food bank, which means ensuring people can afford the essentials we all need. Together we can call for a more just society where everyone has enough for the essentials.’

Whilst casting no aspersions on those involved with charities, formally or informally, it must be obvious that five year plans, good intentions and a desire to make things better are insufficient. Treating a major trauma injury with a sticking plaster doesn’t work.

Charities, a growth industry

‘There is one industry that continues to grow in Britain today – the Charity Industry. In 1991 there were 98,000 charities registered in Britain, today there are 153,000. The number of paid charity workers is now 569,000. Figures from the National Council of Voluntary Organisations, quoted in the Observer Magazine (4 April [2004]). When one considers the legion of unpaid charity workers that pursue you from door-to-door to shopping centres it can be seen that this is truly a major industry. But if workers are supposed to be getting better off, why does capitalism need more charities?’ (Socialist Standard, May 2004).

‘There were approximately 168,850 registered charities in England and Wales as of 2023. Between 2000 and 2007 the number of charities increased by around 10,000, before the 2008 global recession culled the number of charities by the same number in just two years. Since 2011, the number of charities in England and Wales has recovered to levels seen just prior to the financial crash’ (tinyurl.com/mr93dxpc).

Gov.UK statistics for 2020/2021 (Community Life Survey) provide the following information:

‘62% of respondents (approximately 28 million people in England) have volunteered in any way in the last 12 months, and 41% (approximately 19 million people in England) at least once a month.

63% (approximately 29 million people in England) of respondents said they had given to charitable causes in the last 4 weeks. This is a decrease from 2019/20 where it was measured at 75% and the lowest proportion recorded in the CLS.

Formal volunteering at least once a month in the past 12 months decreased in 2020/21 (17%) from 2019/20 (23%), the lowest that it has been recorded in the CLS.

Informal volunteering at least once a month in the past 12 months increased in 2020/21 (33%) from 2019/20 (28%), the highest that it has been recorded in the CLS’ (tinyurl.com/yavn8ury).

It is a long given argument against real socialism that removing the cash incentive from people would mean that nothing would get done. This has been disproved time and time again. Within capitalism, people not only do unpaid volunteer work, but also all other kinds of things, for no monetary reward, for all kinds of reasons. The human nature is inherently selfish argument is an erroneous one.

To return to the question posed at the beginning: should those residing in a country with the wealth of the UK be forced to live with food poverty? A resounding ‘No’ and it would, or should, be hard to find anyone who would argue with that.

What is the solution to permanently eradicating food poverty and poverty and inequality completely? It’s what we in the Socialist Party have been putting forward for over a hundred years – the replacement of capitalism with a money-free, wage-free, class-free society where goods are produced for use, not profit. Abolish charity. Abolish capitalism. You owe it to yourselves.
Dave Coggan

Cooking the Books: Are nurses exploited? (2023)

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

Most of the recent and ongoing strikes are in the so-called ‘public sector’, by those working for the government at national or local level or for semi-state bodies such as the health service or schools and universities. The work they do is not sold but is a service provided by the state. They are not producing for profit; how then can they be said to be exploited?

If you work for a private (or state) enterprise producing something concrete that is sold, it is fairly easy to see that you are being exploited in the sense of being legally deprived of a part of what you produce.

But what about those employed by the state to do work that is not sold?

The first thing to note is that such employees are in the same basic position as any other worker. The means of production being monopolised by a tiny section only of the population, everybody else is driven by economic necessity to find an employer to get money to buy what they need to live. Workers get a living by working for wages, irrespective of who that employer is.

Wages are a price, the price of something that is being bought and sold. The textbooks say that this is ‘labour’, or the work done for the employer. In fact, however, it is the employee’s capacity to work, what Marx’s translators called ‘labour-power’. What it describes is the capacity a human has to use their physical and mental energy to perform a particular type of work.

Some people who work do sell their ‘labour’ in the sense of the product of their work — the self-employed; what their clients are paying for is the price of their work. But this is not the case with employees. They are selling their capacity to work and their employer is paying the price of this, not that of their work. This price — wages — depends on what it costs to produce it: the cost of the food, clothes, housing, travel, entertainment and training needed to keep them fit to work at their particular trade or profession; in short, on what is called ‘the cost of living’. Wages reflect this cost and are not the same as the work done for an employer. In fact, the work done to produce what workers consume is less than the work they perform while working for an employer.

A part, therefore, of their ‘labour’ is not paid for. In the case of those producing something for sale this is profits, realised when the product is sold. In the case of those working for the state or semi-state bodies this unpaid labour means that the service is being provided cheaper than otherwise. The state or semi-state employer seeks to provide its particular service as cheaply as possible; in other words, to maximise the amount of unpaid labour extracted from their employees. After all, the money they spend comes from taxes that ultimately fall on the profits of capitalist businesses and doing this reduces that.

If employees were being paid for their work — what they do in the course of their time at work — there would be nothing left for the employer’s profit. In the case of state and semi-state employees they would have to be paid much more than they are, much more than they need to create their labour-power.

Workers in the ‘public sector’, like that of their fellow workers in the profit-seeking ‘private sector’, also perform unpaid labour for their employer even if it is not monetised as profit.

So, yes, nurses too are economically exploited as they perform unpaid as well as paid work for their employer.

Obituary: Malcolm MacKay (2023)

Obituary from the June 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Glasgow branch regret to have to communicate that comrade Malcolm MacKay has died at the age of 56. He had been ill recently. As a teenager in the 1980s he got involved with the youth section of the Trotskyist Workers Revolutionary Party and for a time was editor of their youth paper in Scotland. It didn’t take him long to see through the idea of a vanguard party leading the workers though, sometime later joining the Socialist Party. He was active in the branch locally as well as contributing the occasional article for publication.

Exhibition Review: Fitton for Purpose (2023)

Dinner Carrier’s Parade
From the June 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Most readers will never have heard of Sam Fitton, but if you had lived in Oldham a century ago, or perhaps more recently than that, he would have been a well-known name. He was a cartoonist, poet and humorist, among other things, having originally been a mill worker. This year is the centenary of his death at the age of just 54, and he is remembered in an exhibition ‘Finding the Funny’ at Gallery Oldham, on till 17 June (for a review dealing with Oldham in the same period and mentioning him, see the January 2014 Socialist Standard).

Fitton’s poetry was written in the local dialect, part of a revival of interest in non-standard varieties of English, evidenced by the founding of the Lancashire Authors’ Association in Rochdale in 1909. His friend Ammon Wrigley is even commemorated by a statue in the Uppermill district of Saddleworth, now in the Borough of Oldham, but part of Yorkshire in Wrigley’s day. Fitton’s poem ‘My Owd Case Clock’ – about a grandfather clock – gives an idea of his wit, his use of language and his attention to social issues (available at allpoetry.com). Here are some lines:
When little Bill were born, th’ owd clock
Seemed fain to have one moor to th’ flock,
But while it smiled it little knew
His mother wouldna’ live it through;
It watched ‘em lay her in her shroud
An’ somehow didna’ tick so loud
His cartoons (for which see lancashirecottoncartoons.com) were often accompanied by poems. They covered a range of topics, from the tyranny of having to get up at five o’clock in the morning in order to be at work by six, to the custom of family members (often schoolchildren) bringing a hot meal to the workers at lunchtime. One dealt with how those who did not join any of the various unions could be cold-shouldered, whether in the crowd at a football match or in the pub. He depicted shuttle-kissing, whereby weavers (mostly women) used their mouths to pull thread through the eye of a shuttle. It was unpopular and was eventually shown to be responsible for the transmission of diseases such as tuberculosis, but it was not banned in Lancashire until 1952. Yet he seems not to have taken it too seriously, as one cartoon features a weaver called Matilda who turns down an advance from a fellow-worker by saying, ‘I’d rather kiss a shuttle than a face like thine!’

One cartoon from 1911 asks what would happen ‘If the peers had to work’. But, in an example with contemporary relevance, another from the same year unfortunately states ‘God save the king’, with reference to the coronation of George V.

The cotton industry in Oldham and more widely is long gone, with China and India between them now responsible for forty percent of the global production of cotton yarn and cloth. In 2015, though, a renovated mill in Dukinfield was used for spinning cotton, for the first time in the UK in over thirty years.
Paul Bennett

Proper Gander: send in the crowns (2023)

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

Both of May’s big events were marked by corny rituals, ridiculous costumes and celebrating a country’s figurehead, with the hype cranked up high. While the Eurovision Song Contest comes around every year, there’s a longer gap between coronations. Over the seven decades since the last one, the reach of the media has grown in ways which those who huddled round a small black-and-white screen in 1953 could scarcely have imagined. Then, as now, the TV coverage of the coronation shows us that its pomp and pageantry is a world away from the difficulties endured by the vast majority. Whether the coronation is seen as an affront or a temporary escape from rising prices and struggling public services depends on our individual point of view.

The point of view pushed by the mainstream media was that Charles’ crowning should bolster a sense of pride not just in the monarchy but in the country’s ability to ‘put on a do’ when so much else isn’t running well. The latter also applies to Eurovision, and another similarity between the two events was the central role of the BBC. The corporation had the monopoly over footage filmed in Westminster Abbey during the coronation ceremony, with an agreement that they would be paid royalties (as it were) by other broadcasters using it. As reported by the Guardian on 5 May, this arrangement was made murkier by the coverage being produced by BBC Studios, a for-profit arm of the corporation, with ultimate say over what could be shown decreed by the royal household. On the day, this was communicated to broadcasters every five minutes, with some parts of the ritual vetoed beforehand, such as Charles being greased up with ‘holy oil’. The National Union of Journalists, in particular, was concerned ‘that a public event, paid for by the people and televised for them to be able to pay their respects should be censored in even a small way’. The BBC’s coverage wouldn’t have been much different without these restrictions, though, as it was overseen by Clare Popplewell, whose favour with The Firm was shown by her being appointed as a commander of the Royal Victorian Order following her work on televising 2022’s platinum jubilee.

This explains why the BBC gave only the briefest mentions of the anti-royalist protests, whereas Sky News, for example, gave them more airtime in its own reports. Otherwise, Sky News’ commentary aimed for the stateliness of the BBC’s, throwing in predictably bland phrases such as that Charles is ‘fulfilling his destiny’ and that the ceremony is ‘both ancient and modern’. Anyone tuning in to GB News would have had Nigel Farage and David Starkey for company, lapping up all the tradition. Later, on his Tonight programme, Mark Dolan hosted a ‘coronation party’ for a panel of pundits wide-eyed with enthusiasm for the royals. He talked about the spectacle in sycophantic superlatives, while against protester ‘numpties’ he said that ‘our day’ was an advert for ‘modern Britain’, adding that if the republicans win we would only get a faceless public servant as a figurehead, such as ‘president Gary Lineker’. GB News’ coverage had levels of tackiness you at least wouldn’t get on the BBC.

Channel 4’s coverage was less reverent, with a package of programmes on its website including documentaries reminding us about Diana’s death and Prince Andrew’s incriminating interview with Emily Maitlis, the latter to be the subject of an upcoming drama from Netflix. Sitcom The Windsors’ coronation special saw the event relocated on the cheap to Slough’s Holiday Lodge Express and Charles abdicating. For all its cheekiness, The Windsors ended up with the family reconciled on the Buckingham Palace balcony and the crowd below rejecting a ‘fiscally responsible, slimmed down monarchy to suit these straitened times’ for one that’s ‘full on’. Like all Channel 4’s output, it wasn’t as radical as it would have us believe.

ITV’s coverage has the honour of the most complained about programme of the year so far, following actor Adjoa Andoh saying ‘there is a bit of me that has gone from the rich diversity of the Abbey to the terribly white balcony’. She was perhaps forgetting that in the real world, the nobility isn’t going to be as diverse as that imagined in her show Bridgerton.

A short piece broadcast on Al Jazeera pointed out that jewels used in the ceremonial trinkets brought out for the coronation are a product of the state’s colonial background, including the slave trade. ‘Their king is a symbol of our bitter past which unfortunately translates into our very difficult present’, according to Everisto Benyera of the University of South Africa. Otherwise, the commentary on Al Jazeera was drier and less involved, with historian Linda Porter saying that while the pageantry is something people ‘can be pleased with’, it may not have a wide impact on ‘national pride’. There’s a contradiction in trying to make people feel part of an institution which is outside them. This applies not just to the British monarchy, but to any monarchy, including that of Qatar, whose state funds Al Jazeera.

The various broadcasters’ coronation coverage differed in tone according to their niche in the market, although they still relied on the ‘money shot’ footage from inside Westminster Abbey controlled and sold by the royals and the BBC. For all the mainstream media’s efforts to present the coronation as something for everyone to rally around, within a day there were calls from leaders of commonwealth countries in the Caribbean to ditch the monarchy, and complaints that the police were too keen to use their new powers to arrest protesters. The coronation has exposed tensions in society as much as its glossy spectacle has been a distraction.
Mike Foster

50 Years Ago – Eysenck at the LSE (2023)

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

On Tuesday 8 May Professor Eysenck, who holds certain controversial views about the intellectual abilities of American negroes, was forcibly prevented from expressing his views at the London School of Economics. Responsibility for this political censorship was claimed by a Maoist group. Our comrade Dom Zucconi, an LSE student expressed Socialist opposition to this suppression of free speech, as the following report from the Daily Telegraph of 11 May shows:
“Tuesday’s incident was last night described as a ‘disgrace and discredit to socialism and a brief for fascism’ by Mr. D. Zucconi, a student who described himself as a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain when he proposed the motion to apologise to Professor Eysenck.

‘How does one best deal with fascism? With the butt-end of a rifle or with ideas? The political process is a battle of ideas and, unless you can rebut these concepts, you are lost’, he said.

‘In preventing him from speaking, you are resorting to the same tactics you accused fascists of using’, he told the meeting to loud cheers.”
For the record, the precise wording of the motion proposed by Comrade Zucconi and carried by a large majority at the LSE Union meeting was:
“This Union strongly deprecates the conduct of those present at Professor Eysenck’s meeting on Tuesday who appointed themselves to decide that nobody should be allowed to hear a point of view with which they disagreed. We place on record that only in the healthy atmosphere of free expression can ideas be debated, false ideas debunked and sound ideas developed. We therefore apologise to Professor Eysenck for the action of a minority in preventing him from being heard.”
The Socialist Party of course has always practised the principles expressed in this resolution. We have always been prepared to give opponents of Socialism a chance to express their views from our platform. This is because we are convinced that our views are right and that this will emerge from full and free debate—and if we are wrong we want to know, so that we can stop wasting our time.

Censorship, whether through the legalized violence of the capitalist State as enforced by the Courts or by the violence of self-appointed political guardians as displayed at the LSE, is anti-socialist and anti-working class and must be exposed whenever it rears its ugly head.

[Socialist Standard, June 1973]

Editorial: Labour, Tory, same old story (2023)

Editorial from the June 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

The British regime which came to power on the back of Brexit is arguably one of the most corrupt, incompetent and invidious in recent British history. Since 2019 they, and the scam that was Brexit, have both failed abysmally to do anything except increase poverty and class division even more acutely. Brexit’s purpose was simply to remove certain limits on rapacious exploitation. Increasingly reflecting the Victorian capitalist fantasy of the Tufton Street ‘think tanks’ and of the ERG, this government has also proved repeatedly incompetent, stirring vast discontent and fury amongst much of the population.

But what is ‘His Majesty’s Opposition’ doing about this electoral own-goal scored by the Tories? The Labour Party also pursues nationalist populism, lowest common denominator politics, and is seeking power purely for the sake of power, regardless of which policies they have to adopt in order to attract ignorant and bigoted voters. They have long given up on engaging with what politics was about throughout most of modern history: persuading people to change their views, winning hearts and minds, engaging in genuine public debate about real ideas on how to run society.

This degeneration of the Labour Party from Keir Hardie’s radical, grass roots, pro-worker party of 1906 to Keir Starmer’s slick band of hypocrites and liars, desperately aping the Tories to garner votes, without a vestige of vision or principle, was always an inevitable process, in which these major parties would become increasingly indistinguishable. The reason it was always highly predictable is that, at their core, they stand for the same thing, and always have done – including the Corbynite version of the Labour Party, the Lib-Dems and the Green Party too. What they all stand for is running the capitalist system of society (even if they have different hopes for how they would like to try to make it run).

What all of these parties fail to fully grasp is that the social system of capitalism, which exists throughout the world today, is unmanageable in any way other than by maximising the profits which are its life-blood. That profit is extracted from working people of all kinds, and makes its way to those who own and control the productive resources. Power and wealth is concentrated in fewer and fewer hands.

It is unfashionable to talk in terms of a ‘social system’ operating hermetically throughout the world, but it is very clearly a fact. From the Arctic to the Antarctic, human society functions in broadly the same (now outdated) way. All the key productive resources are owned and controlled by a tiny minority, who allow the production of useful products and services only on their terms: that to do so would add to their already vast wealth and power, through those products being sold on the market to realise a profit, a surplus beyond the actual costs. And the British Labour Party supports the retention of this irrational, exploitative and dangerous system whole-heartedly. So when Sir Keir Starmer recently publicly stated that Labour ‘are the real conservatives’ and promised to protect ‘our way of life’ it came as no surprise.

How contemptible it is for a so-called Opposition to watch this vicious and criminal regime spout the rhetoric of racism, crush the freedom to protest, and seek to reverse centuries of progress on democracy and trade unionism, but then to ask us to give them power instead…for them to do likewise! Labour, in effect, insists it will be at least as brutal in enforcing the warped priorities of capitalism as the Conservatives have been. Starmer fails signally to speak out properly against any of the miseries caused by the capitalist social system. A plague on both their houses!

Story time: mystery and meaning (2023)

From the May 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

We all love a good story with its elements of drama, suspense, comedy and confrontation etc. – indeed it could be said that the telling of, and listening to, stories is one of the defining characteristics of our species. From the tales of Homer and Shakespeare together with the eponymous adventures of King Arthur, Robin Hood Boewulf and El Cid to the modern-day myths of Batman and Superman, we indulge ourselves in this vicarious catharsis of courage and adventure. There seems to be a deep need in us to understand ourselves and our world in terms of a narrative containing elements of motive, origin, action and resolution. Typically, these events take place within a chronology which may last a day, a year, a lifetime, a century or even the entire span of our species together with the very universe itself! But can this need for stories give us a distorted view of our society and the natural environment within which it resides? May the projection of a narrative onto events sometimes actually prevent an understanding of them? Let us look at two of the most influential stories that have defined and informed human existence to explore their impact in terms of either harmful delusion or insightful truth.

For Europe, and then subsequently the rest of the world courtesy of imperialism, trade and cultural contact, two of the most enduring and powerful stories have been that of the ‘Jesus Myth’ and its antithesis: the evolution of reason and science. One emphasises a continual battle between the forces of good and evil where human nature remains constant while the other insists on a progression of our species in terms of moral, technological and rational characteristics. They both share unimaginably exotic origin stories where either a capricious supernatural deity decides to create the universe or, as science has it, everything spontaneously exploded into existence courtesy of a ‘big bang’. An equally dramatic resolution is also imagined in terms of a final conflict (Armageddon) for the Christians and a ‘big Crunch’ or an equally depressing slow death for the universe, if it were to keep expanding, for the cosmologists of science. Most of us attempt to understand our lives and our world in terms of either one or other (and sometimes in an uneasy combination) of these narratives. Of course, it may turn out that both of these stories are equally erroneous but it cannot be denied that they are incredibly imaginative and exciting. This isn’t the place to go into the deep mystery of time itself but it is possible that a story or chronology of events might be purely an anthropological phenomenon which tells us little about reality. What does the story of socialism have to say about the two meta-narratives described above? It is undeniable that it shares some elements of both with its insistence on reason and the belief in progression which it shares with science but there is also an element of a final conflict with private property where the socialist revolution is somewhat reminiscent of the Armageddon of Christianity. The redemption of our species has obvious religious attributes although a socialist would argue that religion has obvious purely human roots.

The story of socialism (so far) begins with the ‘communism’ of prehistoric societies that lasted for many millennia until the invention of agricultural technology that produced a surplus of food which enabled, through its control and ownership, the rise of warrior elites with the power to enslave the producers. The subsequent history of our species is concerned with the different elites that have relinquished and gained this power. Capitalism is the most recent of these incarnations of economic systems that enslave the majority producers and it is to overthrow this inequality and return humanity to its default communism that socialists have dedicated themselves. Formally the idealists considered the struggle to be primarily based on morality whilst today, after the discoveries of Marx, it is now considered as a class struggle. The narrative of history is at the very heart of socialist consciousness where the changing modes of production formulate our understanding of who we are and what is to be done. It is an overwhelmingly optimistic ‘ideology’ which, with the help of a Marxian perspective, transforms itself from being merely an idealistic hope into a coherent scientific and non-ideological narrative. It shares with both religion and science the need for a storyline.

Humanity has a deep-seated horror of chaos for many reasons: if everything is arbitrary then there is no possibility of control; that we live and die for no reason is intolerable and only stories seem to give existence any meaning; that all our knowledge is based on narrative illusions. But the danger is that in our need for meaning we have clung to destructive ideologies that have turned our beautiful world into a hell for many – clearly there are different types of narrative, some of which depend on evidence and others solely dependent on faith. Will our stories die when our species does or, for instance, do the laws of nature pre-exist us? Do at least some of our stories provide an insight into reality? Was Marx merely just another example of an Old Testament prophet and is science a kind of secular religion with its white-coated operatives being a new priesthood? Are stories examples of our yearning for a truth that will always evade us? Religion, science and socialism are stories we tell ourselves to help make some sense of it all – only you can choose which the relevant narrative for your life is. To socialists the suffering in life mainly stems from the capitalist mode of production and it therefore must be replaced by socialism. We have nothing to lose but our chains, so let’s give it a try – whether or not the revolution will reveal the utility of grand narratives we cannot say. Until then we’ll just have to embrace the mystery.

Communism as a practical alternative (2023)

From the May 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Unlike Marx, Engels produced texts much more directly discussing communism. The first were two speeches in his home town Elberfeld in 1845, where he was trying to persuade good German burghers that communism (as socialism was then more generally known) was a good idea. While in them he describes how resources could be rationalised by everyone living in collective homes (showing that, while later protesting against utopianism, in his younger days he wasn’t above a little bit of speculation). But they do show part of the practical bent of thinking about how things owned in common could encourage rationalisation and improvement of living conditions. As in this passage:
‘if you think about this, you will find that human society has an abundance of productive forces at its disposal which only await a rational organisation, regulated distribution, in order to go into operation to the greatest benefit for all. After this you will be able to judge how totally unfounded is the fear that, given a just distribution of social activity, individuals would have to bear such a load of labour as would make it impossible for them to engage in anything else. On the contrary, we can assume that given this kind of organisation, the present customary labour time of the individual will be reduced by half simply by making use of the labour which is either not used at all or used disadvantageously.’
The context here is Engels noting that the institution of communism would see the abolition of many occupations and jobs created by the capitalist mode of production, which would mean that people could be freed up to do more directly productive work, and unemployment as such could be abolished.

As he noted:
‘In communist society it will be easy to be informed about both production and consumption. Since we know how much, on the average, a person needs, it is easy to calculate how much is needed by a given number of individuals, and since production is no longer in the hands of private producers but in those of the community and its administrative bodies, it is a trifling matter to regulate production according to needs.’
This sounds very optimistic, but, as we shall see, he had some basis for this analysis. But note, here information is the key, and the information is knowing what the supply and the demand are, in advance, rather than discovering through the market place. In the first instance, he gives an extended example of getting a bale of cotton from the USA to Germany:
‘Such a complicated way of transport is out of the question in a rationally organised society. To keep to our example, just as one can easily know how much cotton or manufactured cotton goods an individual colony needs, it will be equally easy for the central authority to determine how much all the villages and townships in the country need. Once such statistics have been worked out — which can easily be done in a year or two — average annual consumption will only change in proportion to the increasing population; it is therefore easy at the appropriate time to determine in advance what amount of each particular article the people will need — the entire great amount will be ordered direct from the source of supply; it will then be possible to procure it directly, without middlemen, without more delay and unloading than is really required by the nature of the journey, that is, with a great saving of labour power; it will not be necessary to pay the speculators, the dealers large and small, their rake-off.’
Indeed, he noted the middlemen would then be available for productive work. This text does talk of a central authority, but in terms of seeing statistics and book keeping as the basis for organisation, it seems of a piece with Marx’s discussions. Note, also, the assumption of no economic growth separate from population growth.

If Engels seems a bit hand-wavy with his ‘this will be easy’ approach, it should be borne in mind that he wasn’t just talking from abstract ideas, but with practical examples before his eye. In 1845 he published an article with the title Description of Recently Founded Communist Colonies Still in Existence in which he affirmed ‘communism, social existence and activity based on community of goods, is not only possible but has actually already been realised in many communities in America and in one place in England, with the greatest success’ and that ‘all communist colonies so far have become so enormously rich after ten or fifteen years that they have everything they can desire in greater abundance than they can consume.’ The accuracy or otherwise of these descriptions is not the point here but that they show how Engels saw the actual practical structure of a communist society.

He began with a description of the Shaker communities of America, noting their religious character is not essential to their communal organisation:
‘Each of these communities is a fine, well laid-out town, with dwelling houses, factories, workshops, assembly buildings and barns; they have flower and vegetable gardens, fruit trees, woods, vineyards, meadows and arable land in abundance; then, livestock of all kinds, horses and beef-cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry, in excess of their needs, and of the very best breeds. Their granaries are always full of corn, their store-rooms full of clothing materials, so that an English traveller who visited them said he could not understand why these people still worked, when after all they possessed an abundance of everything; unless it was that they worked simply as a pastime, having nothing else to do. Amongst these people no one is obliged to work against his will, and no one seeks work in vain. They have no poor-houses and infirmaries, having not a single person poor and destitute, nor any abandoned widows and orphans; all their needs are met and they need fear no want.’
Note, again, the emphasis on abundance. This also relates to his observation that:
‘In their ten towns there is not a single gendarme or police officer, no judge, lawyer or soldier, no prison or penitentiary; and yet there is proper order in all their affairs. The laws of the land are not for them and as far as they are concerned could just as well be abolished and nobody would notice any difference for they are the most peaceable citizens and have never yielded a single criminal for the prisons.’
The laws hadn’t been abolished, but the conditions for their operation had been obviated. In terms of their practical organisation, Engels noted: ‘They enjoy (…) the most absolute community of goods and have no trade and no money among themselves.’ He quoted a traveller describing their society:
‘The board of trustees keeps all the books and accounts in a public office, and the books are open for all members to see, as often as they choose. […] each family has a separate domestic establishment and lives together in a large, handsome mansion; and all get every article required, and as much as they want from the common stores of the Society, and without any payment. A deacon is appointed to each family, whose business is to see that all are provided with every thing they want, and to anticipate their wants as far as possible.’
‘The property of the Society is vested in the board of trustees, which consists of three persons, oversees the whole establishment, directs labour and carries on transactions with neighbours. They have no power to buy or sell any land without the consent of the Society. There are of course also foremen and managers in each department of labour; however they have made it a rule that no commands are ever given by any one, but all are to be persuaded by kindness.’
(It should be added that the ‘families’ of the shakers were arbitrary divisions, as their beliefs forbade marriage).

Engels also discussed the Owenite colony of Harmony in Hampshire. The description is similar to the American colonies, but he notes:
‘…the members of the community were not the sole owners of the establishment, but were governed by the Directors of the Society of Socialists, to whom the establishment belongs, misunderstandings and dissatisfaction arose at intervals from this too. […] these directors are chosen annually by the congress, to which each local Society sends a member, and they have full, unrestricted powers within the Statutes of the Society, and are responsible to the congress. The community is thus governed by people who live outside it, and in these circumstances there cannot fail to be misunderstandings and irritations; but even if the experiment at Harmony were to fail in consequence of this and of financial problems, which however is not in the slightest degree in prospect, this would only be one further argument for community of goods, as these two difficulties have their cause only in the fact that the community has not yet been fully realised.’
This is an instructive observation when it comes to understanding Engels’ notions of communism: the community of goods must be self-organised.

Hence, in his speeches at Elberfeld, he suggested that the community of goods would come about in different ways in different countries, even proposing that colonies such as Harmony might be the way to communism in England, and that different routes might be applied in France and Germany; it would be a conscious and fundamentally democratic decision. Although these colonies came in for a serious kicking in the Communist Manifesto, the point remains that they did serve as focal examples for Engels’ understanding of how socialism could or would be run.
Pik Smeet

Past Imperfect (2023)

Book Review from the May 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Utopians: Six Attempts to Build the Perfect Society. By Anna Neima. Picador £10.99.

The bloodshed of the First World War led many people to think anew about how society should be structured. One particular example of this was the development of ‘utopian’ communities, designed to show that people could live differently, in a more communal and contented way. Two kinds of such a community are surveyed here. One is spiritual or religious (a commune run by Gurdjieff near Paris, the Bruderhof in Germany, and Trabuco College in California, which in fact did not start until the Second World War). The other is characterised rather vaguely as encouraging ‘complete self-actualization’ (Dartington Hall in Devon, a community set up by Tagore in India, and one in Japan). They inspired and influenced each other. In many cases, there was no real blueprint as to how the community would function.

Some were set up by wealthy people, such as Tagore and the founder of Dartington Hall. Others struggled financially: Gurdjieff’s, for instance, could never feed itself and had to raise money in the US. Another problem was that many were notionally democratic but in practice not. Tagore, for instance ‘often behaved in an aristocratic, even dictatorial fashion’. At Dartington Hall, the founders lived in luxury, while the farm labourers lived more frugally. Unsurprisingly perhaps, most of the communities failed to survive for more than a couple of decades. Tagore’s was taken over by the Indian state, Dartington Hall is mainly a wedding and conference centre, and the location of Trabuco College is now a Hindu monastery.

It is the Bruderhof where the original vision has endured best. Founded in 1920, its residents had no private property, with possessions owned by the community as a whole. The daily routine involved long hours of work, whether in the fields or in the printing shop that brought in much-needed funds. However, it was certainly not ‘a lived example of radical socialism’, as Neima suggests. From 1930 onwards, it was influenced by the Hutterite religious community in the US, which among other points meant a new dress code, including ankle-length dresses for women and a kerchief over their hair. The Hutterite link no longer holds, but more generally, there was a pretty reactionary attitude to women, who basically cooked, cleaned and raised the children. The original Bruderhof was shut down by the Nazis in 1937. A settlement still exists in Sussex: when Neima visited, she spoke to a teenage girl who missed her family in the US, but ‘you go where the community sends you’, which sounds considerably less than perfect.

William Morris is mentioned a few times as an influence on some of those who propounded these communities. In fact he criticised attempts along such lines (made by Robert Owen, for instance) as ‘withdrawals from the Society of the day, really implying hopelessness of a general change’ (see a review in the August 2019 Socialist Standard). In 1844, Friedrich Engels examined various ‘communist colonies’ then in existence and concluded interestingly that ‘the people who are living communally live better with less work, have more leisure for the development of their minds, and that they are better, more moral people than their neighbours who have retained private property’.

Anna Neima provides an informative study of these utopian communities, with some interesting observations. They are not socialism in miniature, but they do show that accepting the rat race of capitalism is not the only way to live.
Paul Bennett

Town and country (2023)

From the May 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard
The third and final part of our series on farming under capitalism and in a post-capitalist society of common ownership.

Link to Part 2. 

The cessation of capitalism will signify, amongst other things, the elimination of the enormous structural waste associated with this system. In other words, the elimination of all those numerous, often explicitly money-based, occupations that, whilst being required by (indeed, indispensable to) capitalism, do not in themselves perform any socially useful function whatsoever. They do not contribute in any meaningful way to the enhancement of human well-being. Minimally, we are talking about at least half (though some estimates are significantly higher) of the current workforce today no longer being required to do the work they currently do. In short, the replacement of capitalism by a post-capitalist society will liberate vast amounts of labour (and material resources) for socially useful production.

The implications of this for the future of farming are obvious. There can be little doubt that some of this labour will find its way into the agricultural sector of our future-post capitalist society. With the very idea of private ownership of the means of production (in this case, of agricultural land) becoming redundant, the break-up of large farms into more manageable and human-scale farming units will become possible. Along with this, the opportunities for farm work will be greatly expanded. Farms will then be able to more flexibly adapt their methods of farming to the new circumstances they find themselves in, unencumbered by the need to realise a profit through the sale of their produce.

In particular, the influx of more labour into this sector will enable it to transition to a more organically based and environmentally friendly, but also a more knowledge-based and productive, mode of farming. That, in turn, will transform the very nature of agricultural work into something more mentally stimulating and emotionally rewarding. The point being that all of these different facets of this farming model would be closely interconnected and mutually reinforcing.

It is quite true that, to an extent, organic farming, for instance is already being practised today. Nevertheless, it will always struggle to make inroads in an industry driven and dominated by the ruthless pursuit of profit at all costs. The tendency today is for agricultural land to become increasingly concentrated in fewer hands and this is what fundamentally militates against the large-scale application of organic methods even if it does not rule it out completely.

Organic farming, on a small scale, is arguably feasible as a way of supplying some niche market by charging premium prices to mainly better-off consumers who can afford to buy quality food – unlike, for instance, the growing numbers of people now dependent on food banks. This is not to dismiss organic farming as such – if we are able to consume authentically organic food (or, better still, grow our own) then so much the better. However, we need to be aware how the concept itself has all too often been cynically harnessed to the cause of ‘greenwashing’ capitalism.

The illusion is insidiously fostered that a gentler, kinder and more environmentally benign version of capitalism is entirely within our grasp. As consumers we are encouraged to believe that we are quite capable of bringing it into existence simply by dint of exercising our will and opening up our wallets. No need to politically or collectively organise to overthrow a fundamentally rotten system; it can be induced to reform itself through the informed decisions of individual consumers.

Here, yet again, we see how the individualistic ideology that capitalism nurtures in us surreptitiously shapes the political agenda in ways that shore up the very system itself. In the meantime, the marketing of our food continues unabated and, with it, the studied manipulation of images that all too often, belie the ugly reality of food production today: foodstuffs laced with chemicals or pumped with hormones, battery hens suffering under a cruel regime of factory farming and caged Scottish salmon being consumed alive by sea lice in what are euphemistically called ‘fish farms’.

As the saying goes, we are what we eat. Changing society must involve, amongst other things, changing how we go about producing the food that we eat. This is something most of us have little or no control over at the present time. For more and more of us our links with the land have long been severed in a world of exploding megacities. Huge, powerful corporations absolutely dominate each and every stage in the food supply chain – from the field to the supermarket shelf. But, apart from this, you cannot hope to change society – the way things are done today – without having some larger vision of what you would want to put it in its place. This unfortunately is what is conspicuously lacking today.

Utopian though such a vision might seem from the vantage point today of our (apparent) collective helplessness and political impotence, it is indispensable to reaching some kind of coherent understanding of this world we live in — not to mention, deriving some sense of direction about the way forward. For the direction in which society is currently heading is clearly not one that is conducive to human happiness and well-being.

Part of that vision of an alternative future has to do with the kind of spatial reorganisation of human society that will be required to ensure the sustainable production of food at a level adequate to meet the nutritional needs of humanity in general. Concretely speaking, this hinges to some extent on overcoming or breaking down the distinction between the town and the countryside and addressing the vexed question of how to achieve some kind of suitable or healthy balance between them.

The built environment that is our towns and cities represents the embodied labour of many generations long gone – an enormous monument to human ingenuity. It is a legacy we should embrace, not abandon. Abandoning it would be as preposterous as it would be scandalously wasteful.

Healing the rift between the town and countryside has long been an aspirational goal of utopian thought. However, to be truly realisable and effective, it has to entail a two-way movement – not just some one-way ‘back to the land’ exodus from the towns precipitated by the break-up of large agricultural estates in the countryside itself or the implementation of measures to make farming more attractive and stimulating. We also need to be thinking in terms of ‘bringing the countryside into the towns’ themselves, so to speak, – through the reinvigoration and greening of urban land blighted by dereliction at the hands or urban speculators or by inappropriate and uninspiring urban ‘development’.
Robin Cox

What do you think? (2023)

From the May 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

As you wake in the morning, and go to sleep at night, and whatever dreams may come – so you are. The sum total of your experience. Likewise, we as a species are the sum total of our experience. There is a world beyond the senses, but we are only ever speaking of our experience of it.

We organise that experience in various ways, corresponding to (1) brain structure (2) the geometry of sharing ideas between ourselves, as well as (3) integrating it with past experiences that we already have.

There is no reason to make things more complicated than that. While we look at our life in this way and that way, from different aspects, it is all manipulating this whole. You can look at your world with the eyes of a child, of an old man or woman, or suppress your self-consciousness as the Eastern philosophers try to do and see yourself as an uncarved block, but it’s all the same mind. We can create categories to better structure and further our experience, but they are just that – our categories, things that we made rather than things that we found, ways to organise our experience, and things that we may often have to re-evaluate and even overthrow. ‘Reality’ is not something that we find, but something that we manufacture.

So while there are socialist theories – you can make as many theories as you like, all scientifically testing the data available – there isn’t a philosophy, at least not in the conventional sense. There is only pulling apart and better reforming our experience, in cogitation and conversation, no more magically than one might knead and pull apart dough while making bread.

It would be folly of course, as we said, to think that there was no world beyond the senses. But it is simply not what we are talking about. Everything we think to say about the world, we say about ourselves. We are not gods, looking down upon our own creation. Instead, we come after the fact, back-seat drivers in an organism we will never truly know. We are dragged through the world as if through a thorn bush at midnight, and all we know of it is by examining our scratches and scars. Similarly, we interact with the world according to our own plan, like children on their backs making snow angels in the snow.

Animals evolve: they mutate, and then these mutations are tested against the world beyond the genome, with some prospering and some dying. In a similar way we simply value what we value, with modifications, and act accordingly. These values are then tested for fitness – do we prosper or suffer? – and modified, without ever being true except in their own terms, from the earliest human and probably far further back, up to today. It’s like playing that old game Mastermind, where you guess what pattern of colours are behind the screen, except here when you lift the screen at the end of the game there is nothing to see.

Dialectical thinking
You may by now be firmly grabbing the arms of your chair, testing for your thoughts to be real. You may even, as Samuel Johnson did, kick a stone to show how real your experience is. But these themselves are just more experiences, if in a certain category of experiences that we use to judge the whole. Not just touch: we have many. ‘Seeing is believing’. I feel it in my gut’. ‘It’s beautiful’. ‘It’s mathematically pure’. ‘It feels logical’. ‘I experience the Divine’. All of these are so many ways of assuring ourselves that this concept rather than that is the right one, is somehow true. But they are no more or less substantial than the rest of our experience, except in that this is how we organise our experiences. Certainty is key to action: but wisdom lies always in doubt.

This is all that is meant by dialectical thinking. Instead of the commonplace model, of a world of objects viewed by an abstract Self with dreams and desires, for us all the parts of our experience are of the same kind. So for example, a factory is a brick building, a place where things are made, where profit is made, where misery and boredom is experienced, and all are just looking at the same matter from different aspects. You cannot separate the things that a factory makes from the experience of being in it.

There is a world beyond the senses, but we are never talking about it. Rather when we talk about iron, or a factory, or railways, we have the sense of them being heavy, immovable and, in capitalism, not ours, but we should always remember that it is our experience that we are talking about, and that experience of mass is commensurate with the experience of boredom, of misery, of lost love, of a daytime life from schoolroom to factory to office spent trapped inside out of the sunlight. In capitalism we treat commodities as substantial, and the horror of their production as ephemeral. This commonsensical attitude is the capitalist attitude, the attitude of objectification, that makes us credit what seems heavy and dismiss what seems light. It is the alienation that makes us dismiss our feelings in production, our whole, real lives, and only pursue them in the time granted us to wallow in sentimentality in our soap operas, our fictional lives, before bed.

The socialist revolution lies in the healing of this wound.

It is our current, capitalist – or rather, private property – society, that demands that we think in this more complex manner. As the means of life are denied us, we are not only deprived, we are alienated from those aspects of our lives. Any organic relationship between our society, our labour, and the things of life and of enjoyment, is now ruptured – part of our world is made violently inaccessible to us, by a group of people alien to us. As that loss becomes timeworn, and children are born to the alienated world, that situation ceases to be a wrong and becomes a social fact – alienation becomes objectification. And the organic world of both social relations and the means of life, that had been violated, becomes divided into things without persons and persons without things. The Self is established and reinforced, as an isolated person devoid of means and of relations, as the afterimage of a world of commodities.

Because this is the most fiendish aspect of capitalism. What is objectified from us is not a thing, distant in space. It is a portion of our own self. Our minds, objectified, are sliced into a myriad pieces, all with owner’s marks and price tags on them, all but the bleeding remnant of the Self, which is defined by its dismemberment much as a torso is defined by amputation, and then hyper-sentimentalised by the very lack of its real object. We live as starveling lodgers in our own skulls. Capitalism’s daily violations leave constant fresh scars on the psyche, while the world we inherited from our parents is endured as a dull wound. And cruelty on cruelty, we are offered a way back, on an offering of servitude and pain, to reunite with our lost world, but not as a living thing, only a possession, the commodity – much as some eunuchs would keep their testicles, mournfully, in a separate box.

Companionship is replaced by the television and the internet. Security is replaced by rent paid – this month. And feelings turn in on themselves, finding outlets wherever they may. In the end, the old die alone. And whereas we started by producing existing values, such as bread and clothes, by valuing them in part according to the misery involved in their production, now that misery is much of what we produce, and what the rich consume. Our feudal lords at least had taste, and took the best of what we all desired: but the value of a capitalist’s goods lies mainly in the lost lives of those who produced it, with its practical value as a distant echo.

So while the Self is the starting point for capitalist philosophy, it is not a real start, it is the end point of the capitalist process, of the immiseration process of history to date. It is the internalisation of the class struggle, at the point that it has already been lost, accepting this butchering of the human soul as a precondition for thought itself. Rejecting this start point, demanding the end of a condition where one’s own experience is infinitely fragmented and one must go to war with all others in order to regain those objects, even those relations, with force or with money – this is the start point for any revolutionary position. And this is why we are dialectical, because we merely wish to think like human beings and not these one-sided and broken creatures. As Marx put it, the revolutionary cry is ‘I am nothing and should be everything!’.

The revolutionary emotion is shame.

Graphic Novel (2023)

Book Review from the May 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Their Blood Got Mixed. Revolutionary Rojava and the War on ISIS. By Janet Biehl. PM Press. 2022. 246pp.

‘Rojava’ (the Kurdish for ‘West’) is the name given by Kurdish nationalists to an area of Northeast Syria largely inhabited by Kurds but also home to Arabs and Assyrian Christians. It is the western part of their aimed-at state of Kurdistan, incorporating areas from Iran in the east, through Iraq and Turkey to Syria in the west, where the majority population is Kurdish-speaking. It is a de facto independent region of Syria, always threatened but not controlled by Turkey and the Syrian government. Currently it is controlled by the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party), a vanguard party led by Abdullah Ocalan.

In prison in Turkey (where he still is) Ocalan read and was impressed by the ‘communitarian’ ideas of American social theorist, Murray Bookchin. Bookchin, who was also the long-term partner of Janet Biehl, the author of this book, developed the idea that the basic unit of society should be a decentralised, face-to-face participatory democracy, which he called ‘municipalism’, practising ‘community support and solidarity’ as opposed to the way ‘capitalism has organised society for competition and manipulation’. The PKK adopted this policy for local decision-making while keeping a firm hand on major political decisions and its militia.

Biehl explains, in a chapter entitled ‘Why I’m Here’, how she first visited the region in 2014 and was attracted to it by its claim to be putting into practice Bookchin’s ‘communitarian’ vision. She carried on visiting the region, most recently in 2019, and it is on her personal experiences and knowledge of the region that she gained over her visits that much of this book is based.

The system of district and local councils there is often held up as a model of democratic co-operative organisation by those seeking an alternative both to authoritarian centralised rule and capitalist democracies of one kind or another. The region has since been subject to aggression, sometimes savage, as by Islamic State forces, and by the Turkish military, who have effectively taken over part of the region spreading death and destruction. Despite this, it survives as a kind of communitarian experiment, but constantly teetering on the edge and, as someone has put it, ‘trapped within a spider web of competing Great Powers and local powers’.

Biehl has made a brave effort to make sense of this by producing what is termed a graphic novel (though it is not a novel in the normal sense of fiction or imagined reality) which seeks to represent, in art work, commentary and ‘word bubbles’, the history, social organisation and way of living of the multi-ethnic groups that co-exist and intermingle (hence the sub-title ‘Their Blood Got Mixed’) in this small border area. She does this in a way that displays her admiration for these people while at the same time not being afraid to show the downsides, often bloody, of the path they have taken. A selection of the titles of the 15 chapters into which the book is divided gives an idea of the areas she covers: Islamic State, A Place of Refugees, Women and Men, Economics, Security, Social Ecology, Democracy, Self-Administration.

Her book illustrates both some of the most disturbing things that have happened to the people of the region, part of which she refers to as ‘the long tortured history of Kurds in the Middle East’. But she also describes, with obvious enthusiasm, some of the most positive and optimistic sides of what she considers they have established. So while, for example, on the one hand a piece of her graphic art pictures an ISIS soldier saying ‘The Koran says it’s permitted to take non-Muslim women and girls captive and rape them’, on the other she vividly brings out the joy experienced by the city of Raqqa at being liberated from the terror of the IS caliphate. She also details the suffering of the region’s people when the Turkish army invaded parts of it in 2018 but at the same time waxes rather lyrical about its system of citizens’ assemblies, committees and regional councils and extols Ocalan’s call for ‘gender equality, a cooperative economy, and ethnic and religious inclusiveness’. Yet even the positive side is complex and she is at pains not to portray it without flaws. She expresses a certain degree of doubt about the claim she hears that ‘our revolution is ecological, stateless and of women’, and it is not hard for the reader to join with her in questioning this given that without exception the women we see in her pictures are wearing hijabs, refer to those who’ve died in the fighting there as ‘martyrs’ and seem steeped in religious belief. She also wonders about the reality of the claims that ‘leadership here gets no special treatment … everyone is a link in the chain’, and recognises that the Bookchin model of a decentralised ‘face-to-face democracy’ and ‘an ecological society based on non-hierarchical relations’ may not be being followed as closely as she would like it to be.

A socialist would add that society in the region continues to use a money economy, markets (even though called ‘cooperative markets’) and buying and selling, which are the very essence of the wider capitalist system, and so does not merit the title ‘revolutionary’. So even if the author sees it as a kind of haven attempting to practice ‘communitarian’ principles, it is nevertheless trapped within the capitalist system and forced to rely on ‘protection’ from outside by coercive state regimes at war with one another. Like all other attempts to ‘go it alone’ in the capitalist world, its survival is perilous to say the least.

Small-scale attempts at establishing anything even slightly different (eg, the abolition of money and trade and ‘free consumption’ in some Republican communities during the Spanish Civil War and the ‘horizontal’ social and economic organisation of the Zapatistas in 20th century Mexico) are ultimately likely to fail. For socialists, in fact, as long as the capitalist world system exists, there can be no ‘islands of socialism’. No matter what the wishes or intentions or, no matter how sincere the participants are, eventually the logic and demands of the capitalist state system will prevail.
Howard Moss