Monday, July 3, 2023

The times they need a-changin’ (2023)

From the July 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

At the recent first public meeting of the newly formed Yorkshire Branch, a Socialist Party speaker presented a well-informed and powerful case against capitalism and for socialism as the only viable alternative for the meeting of all people’s needs.

As a social element the folk trio of which I’m one third played a selection of ‘Celtic’ tunes. As the other two thirds of our group are members of other political parties, Labour and Green, they gave me some insight on the drive home, into the effectiveness of the talk. The Green Party member is from what might be termed the Old Labour tradition. He feels the Labour Party has betrayed its socialist past which is why he joined the Greens. Interestingly, his expressed political views are in many ways similar to those espoused by us.

He is vehement about capitalism being the root of the world’s ills, be that poverty, climate change and related issues. For him it’s not just love of money that’s the root of all evil, but money itself. Unsurprisingly he found himself in virtually complete agreement with all the speaker had to say. However, despite referring to himself, even before the meeting, as a socialist he continues to support the Green Party. While disavowing money he continues to advocate a basic income scheme as a palliative to the difficulties the money system causes. Similarly, he supports environmentalist actions as a response to the climate crisis even though he accepts that capitalism cannot be changed from pursuit of profit with all that entails, to meeting needs.

The reforms enacted by the post-Second World War Labour government remain for him socialist markers that have been, and are still being, undone to some extent by recent Labour policies, and all the more so by pernicious Conservative administrations. This is someone who, despite residual illusions about previous Labour governments, has grasped the socialist case, but cannot take the next step, away from the lure of immediate reforms, the need to feel he is taking action now that might garner electoral support.

The disconnect is a deep-seated disbelief that it is actually possible to motivate people on a world-wide scale to act in concert to profoundly change the way the world is for the common good. For him the principles of the Socialist Party are correct, but in theory only. To stand by them may be principled, but unlikely to be acted on in the foreseeable future. In the meanwhile, and who knows how long that meanwhile may be, what could be done to make life a little better in the present, rather than some unspecified future?

My Labour Party colleague again had no disagreement with the spokesman’s critique of capitalism. Yet, for all its flaws, which he accepts are real, he continues to see Labour as a more benign alternative to the iniquitous Tories, for all the failings of the Starmer leadership. Labour, for him, is the only alternative, in the practical sense, of removing the Tories from office, his primary political objective. It is irrelevant how correct the Socialist Party may be because the party is in no position to actually change anything.

If, very hypothetically, the Socialist Party were to win an overwhelming majority of MPs in a general election, his point is that unless this was repeated simultaneously throughout the world, those MPs would have to compromise to deal with the immediate situation, or stand aside. As that hypothesis is unlikely to be realised, there is no prospect of any realistic change in the foreseeable. There is a disconnect between the analysis of society’s present structure and any impending practical solution.

He felt as if he was being asked, by implication, to not participate come the next election. This, for him, would be tantamount, if it became widespread amongst Labour supporters, to leaving the door to 10 Downing Street wide open for the Tories to stroll through again.

While none of this is novel, it does illustrate an abiding conundrum for socialists. That is, while the case for socialism may well be more widely acceptable than it presently appears, the personal may be a huge block against it becoming a mass movement. A casual conversation is not scientific evidence, but still it seems to me that they expressed views that are commonly articulated. The apparent size of the task overwhelms sustained engagement.

After all, no matter how large or widespread a mass movement becomes, its component parts are individuals, and their personal perspectives, whether profound, petty or both, are significant. The influence of capitalist ideology through mass and social media weighs heavily on personal concerns. There is also the not inconsiderable conservatism of preferring to stick with what is known, however disagreeable some of it is.

Socialists are going to have to find ways of dealing with this. Making the case for socialism is difficult enough as large numbers of people do not come into meaningful contact with socialists or their sources of information. It may well be some factor beyond just the general case for socialism, such as the increasing climate crisis, that begins to focus general thinking to consider and act to bring about profound change. This may especially be so if the main political parties are perceived to be powerless in increasingly urgent circumstances.

While socialism may seem a better alternative to what presently exists, it remains in the view of all too many merely an idea that’s attractive but uncertain, lacking in anything other than the broadest of outlines. For socialists there remains the painstaking prospect of continuing to make the case, the steady erosion of the ideological wall built by capitalism. Because of the public meeting in a South Yorkshire pub, a few more, including my two band mates, have looked over that wall.

They have seen beyond and like the look of the prospect. Now the challenge is to get them to start demolishing that wall so they can take steps beyond it towards a truly democratic society that meets need not greed.
Dave Alton

Karma and the Bible (2023)

The Halo Halo! column from the July 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Karma is a bummer. Karma is a Buddhist concept allied to reincarnation. Be nice this time and your next life will be good. Be an illegitimate so-and-so in this life and look out buddy because who knows what you might come back as.

This column eschews karma and all religious fairy tales but seeing someone get bitten on the bum for previous unkindness is gratifying to the atheistic too. For future reference, we do not endorse schadenfreude. Well maybe just this once. American censors, it’s you we mean.

At the mention of Galileo, Freddie Mercury and Queen fans, and others, will start singing to themselves, ‘Thunderbolts and lightning, very, very frightening me, Galileo, Galileo, Figaro – magnificoo,’ from Bohemian Rhapsody. Galileo Galilei was a sixteenth/seventeenth century Italian astronomer who came into conflict with the Catholic Church. His support of Copernican heliocentrism, ie, the planets revolve around the Sun, and not the prevailing religious view that the Earth was the centre of the universe put Galileo on a collision course with the Catholic hierarchy. He was fortunate to get out of it without serious bodily injury.

Nobody expects the Roman Inquisition! Whether Galileo did or not expect it, when science contradicted theological mumbo-jumbo, a heap of trouble was the result. Founded in 1542 the Roman Inquisition is still going strong. It’s now known as the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith. Among other things, Galileo found himself on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, which is a list of books catholics were forbidden to read. The index was discontinued in 1966. History is littered with examples of censorship of all kinds. It never bodes well for someone or other. Which brings us to the present day.

An American writers’ organisation, Pen America (Guardian, 20 April) has been monitoring the incidence of book banning and, over a period of six months, has seen a 28 percent increase in such activities within American public schools.

Shades of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Sounds like the USA is determined to carry on the fine traditions of the Soviets and the NSDAP to name but a few.

Won’t somebody think of the children! Helen Lovejoy, wife of the Reverend Lovejoy, was forever crying out in The Simpsons. She sounds like the sort of person who would use that as emotional blackmail to impose their own views upon others.

Pen America says that bans are more common in states that are Republican-run.

A Utah school district – home of the Mormon church and a place that Joe Hill didn’t want to be seen dead in after Utah executed him – has banned the Bible (for vulgarity and violence) from school libraries and is considering banning the Book of Mormon too. (Guardian, 3 June). That’ll teach the proselytising equivalent of the Jehovah’s Witnesses! Your fairy story got banned! How’d you like that evangelists? Guess you reap what you sow. Last word to the Simpsons’ Nelson Munz: ‘Ha Ha!’

Cooking the Books: Another extinction rebellion? (2023)

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

This time a pre-emptive strike against intelligent robots before they become too intelligent? This, at least, was the impression given by the front page headline ‘AI PIONEERS FEAR EXTINCTION’ (Times, 30 May). It said:
‘More than 350 of the world’s experts in artificial intelligence […] have warned of the possibility that the technology could lead to the extinction of humanity’.
The 22-word statement itself doesn’t actually say this. It merely said:
‘Mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war’ (
As this doesn’t say what ‘the risk of extinction’ is we are left guessing. The Times speculated:
‘Some computer scientists fear that a super-intelligent AI with interests misaligned to those of humans could supplant, or unwittingly destroy us’.
That’s a ‘possibility’ — a lot of things are — but a rather remote one, if only because no such ‘super-intelligent AI’ exists (if it ever does).

Earlier a number of tech company bosses had called for research on AI to be suspended while regulations were drawn up. That’s not going to happen, even if it was desirable. It’s too late. As with nuclear physics, the genie is out of the bottle. The knowledge is there and is already being applied.

Dan Hendrycks, the director of the Centre for AI Safety (CAIS) in San Francisco, who organised the signatures, was himself quoted as saying:
‘We are currently in an AI arms race in industry, where companies have concerns about safety but they are forced to prioritise making them more powerful more quickly […] We’re going to be rapidly automating more and more, giving more and more decision-making control to systems. If corporations don’t do that, they get outcompeted’.
If that is really the case, as it will be if the use of AI means lower production costs, then it will spread. That’s what happens under capitalism. One company finds a way of reducing costs and makes super-profits till its competitors follow suit and the new method becomes the norm.

Actually, there literally is an arms race over AI going on. Another article in the Times (1 June), by Iain Martin, was headlined ‘To defend the West we must win this AI race’. Arguing against pausing AI research, Martin deployed the same arguments for developing ever more intelligent AI weapons as for developing the H Bomb — if we don’t, they will and then where will we be? If, he wrote, the West fails to win the AI arms race:
‘we will be at the mercy of dictators who can swarm us with 20,000 drones, communicating with each other rather than humans, and picking their own targets. Vast computer power can relentlessly seek for weaknesses through which to launch cyber attacks and shut down our financial system or turn out the lights’.
Meanwhile, the West’s rivals over raw material resources, markets, investment outlets, trade routes and strategic points and areas to protect these will be making similar calculations. The world has not yet reached Martin’s nightmare stage but the line of march is towards it. If capitalism continues that point will be reached, probably sooner rather than later.

All this is not a result of AI as such, but of its misuse under capitalism. In a socialist society, further-developed AI could be of immense help in taking decisions about allocating resources, what, how and where to produce wealth. What threatens humanity is not AI but capitalism, with its competitive struggle for profits and ‘might is right’ in relations between capitalist states. If only the 350 experts had used their intelligence to make that point.

Proper Gander: Splashing out on drip (2023)

The Proper Gander column from the July 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Wearing designer clothing and flashy accessories to show off wealth is nothing new; it’s the particular styles and favoured brands which come and go, along with the terminology used. The word ‘bling’ became as unfashionable as neon legwarmers once it picked up connotations of tackiness. Since around 2018, ‘drip’ has steadily come into vogue, meaning blatantly fashionable, proven only by owning eye-wateringly expensive clothes, shoes, jewellery or watches of the right brands. The term comes from ‘dripping’ with money, enough to fork out £5,500 on a Chanel bag, for example.

Presenter and comedian David Whitely, also known as Sideman, explores the ‘drip’ lifestyle in a documentary shown as part of Channel 4’s Untold strand. Addicted to Drip is aimed at viewers aged 16 to 34, those most likely to be attracted to the trend. The research liberally quoted throughout the show is from a study of 2,000 people in that age range carried out by financial coaching company Claro Wellbeing.

Addicted To Drip follows a usual template for documentaries, starting with a rapid round of clips from the show ahead, patronisingly expecting people not to stay tuned in unless they already know what they’ll be watching. The rest of the programme keeps to the familiar pattern of the presenter meeting people affected, serious points made by experts and occasional bouts of worrying stats. The presenter is expected to go on a personal journey while making a documentary like this, which is just Whitely finding out whether he becomes inclined towards a drip-fed lifestyle and deciding ‘no’.

One of the people Whitely talks with is Samantha, who says she tried ‘to fill some kind of void’ after bereavements with spending sprees on clothes and accessories using her inheritance money. When she reached the point of having thousands of pounds worth of designer gear but not enough funds to buy a train ticket, she came to believe she was wasting money and her life. Others have got into debt in order to buy into drip: one in ten young people are taking out credit at least monthly to fuel their spending on designer brands. Not all of the under-35s surveyed would have heard of the term ‘drip’, but regardless, almost half are in debt from purchasing luxury goods, and almost a third have less than £100 in savings. The kind of pressure this can involve causes problems beyond the fiscal. Although being in debt has been normalised, especially since prices shot up, 58 percent feel stressed about their financial situation. For some, the effects are worse: Whitely meets fashion influencer Michelle, whose mental health declined from trying to live up to the lifestyle to the extent of ending up in hospital.

Whitely also speaks with some of those who have done well for themselves financially through drip. Drew dropped out of studying medicine, realising he could make more money building up his business as an influencer with his own clothing brand. ‘Godfather of Drip’ Chiefer has a well-established and lucrative business selling jewellery to celebs. He says that most people who are into drip weren’t born into wealth, and wear designer clothes now because they weren’t able to have them when they were growing up. Being motivated to have an affluent lifestyle by wanting to escape from past hardship seems to be one of the characteristics of drip.

Drip-friendly brands tend to be pitched at younger people, especially those still living with their parents and who don’t have the financial commitments which come with having children. Once a drip product is launched, much of its promotion is put together and spread by its own customers, which is a capitalist’s dream come true. Those living the drip life market themselves and what they’re wearing through social media, aiming for an image which will be popular enough to bring in enough of an income.

The up-front role of omnipresent smartphones is what makes the drip lifestyle different to previous niche wealth-based groups, such as ‘sloanes’. As Stacey Lowman of Claro Wellbeing tells us, there’s a ‘perfect storm’ of social media, advertising strategies and online banking these days. Technology has been shaped to pair up products with customers, so that their money can easily move, largely upwards, with just a few taps on a screen. Some people have become rich and happy through this, others have suffered both financially and emotionally, as shown on Addicted To Drip.

Wanting to have nice things isn’t the issue in itself; problems lie with what drives this. In capitalism, ‘nice things’ get reduced to a series of wealth-related values. The people interviewed by Whitely may be bashful about how much they’ve spent on togs and trinkets, but the exorbitant prices are themselves a selling point, weirdly. Everything else in the process can also be boiled down to a monetary amount, from whatever wages those who make the commodities receive, to the spending power of customers following a social media influencer, to, ultimately, the amount of profit made by those at the top of the food chain. For them, the money’s coming in more like a flood than a drip.
Mike Foster

Badged and Kebabbed (2023)

Book Review from the July 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Badgeland. By Steve Rayson. Bavant Press. 2023.

This is an engaging and well-written account of a life spent in left-wing politics during the 1980s, mainly in the Labour Party and also in Militant for a time, referencing a variety of Trotskyist and leftist groups from the era, together with their preoccupations and campaigns. Hence the Badgeland title – from ‘Rock Against Racism’ to ‘Coal Not Dole’.

Rayson starts as a schoolkid with an interest in politics in his home town of Swindon before moving on to be a student radical at Bath University and then after graduation to various management positions, initially at the former Greater London Council (GLC) before its abolition by Thatcher.

He charts an emerging disjunction in his life between the metropolitan sophistication of London and its progressive social liberalism and the visits he makes back to his working class roots in Swindon to visit family. There, the working men’s club frequented by his father and his friends has little time or interest in the radical left. Much to Rayson’s dismay they instead developed much more of an interest in buying their council houses and making a quick buck by joining in the various share-offerings of the privatized utilities. It is a tale that reflects a fundamental and wider shift at the time, when former working class trade unionists became seduced by the alleged benefits of the ‘property-owning democracy’ promoted by Thatcher’s Tories.

The book is funny by turn and sad at others, and in essence charts his frustrations at the failure of most of the campaigns he got involved in, from CND and the Miners’ Strike to the fight to save the GLC. He also traces the parallel tendencies within the left that were to emerge as New Labour, making an accommodation with Thatcherism that Rayson was uncomfortable with.

Eventually, after his time as a manager in local government, Rayson became an entrepreneur himself and in the ultimate irony claims that his life in and around Trotskyist groups prepared him well for the task, incongruous though that may sound. Part of a recalled conversation with a left-wing friend at the time is worth repeating:
‘I think all start-up founders should join a Trotskyist group as a teenager. It is far more valuable than studying for an MBA. They run weekly education sessions, they give you homework and individual mentors. They make you do presentations and coach you in the art of public speaking.

Okay, you have to moderate the hand movements and stop referring to everyone as comrade… But seriously it was Trotskyists who helped me achieve my ‘A’ Level grades to get to university…

Trotskyists teach you sales skills the hard way. They put you outside M & S with newspapers saying ‘Smash the Capitalist System’ and challenge you to sell as many copies as you can. It is the sink or swim school of sales training and better than any selling course…

They demonstrate how to build organisational capacity and communicate a consistent vision to their members. They generate revenues that are out of all proportion to their small size and are incredibly resilient. They create and publish national newspapers. They are also experts at guerrilla marketing which is a required skill for entrepreneurs.’ (pp.352-3).
In this he’s not entirely wrong of course, and others have made successful careers in public sector management for themselves based on some of these skills. Rayson has also worked in that sector and as a consultant too, and clearly still has an interest in radical politics.

These days, despite his various campaigning disappointments, he says he tends to vote for the most radical candidate on offer. Perhaps he’s even voted for the SPGB. Strangely enough, there is an argument that our commitment to a society of abundance and free access to wealth without a coercive state means that socialism as we see it could be the most creative and ‘entrepreneurial’ society of all. But then again, he would never have learnt any of that from Militant or the RCP.

50 Years Ago: What Socialism Means (2023)

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

The object of socialism is to unite humanity and to solve social problems by building a society which can satisfy the universal need for co-operation and material security.

Socialism involves a creative outlook concerned with the quality of life. In association with others, the individual will develop himself as a social being. With enlightenment and knowledge, man will replace the ignorance, false illusions and prejudice from which he suffers in our own day. Socialism is the form of society most compatible with the needs of man. Its necessity springs from the enduring problems, the economic contradictions and social conflicts of present-day society. Socialist society must be based upon the common ownership and democratic control by the whole community of the means of life.

Life will be based on human relationships of equality and co-operation. Through these relationships, man will produce useful things, construct amenities and establish desirable institutions. Socialism will resolve the conflicts which at present divide man from man. Regardless of ethnic or cultural differences, the whole world community will share a common interest.

Under capitalism the whole apparatus of production are either privately owned, as in America, or state controlled by a privileged minority, as in Russia. The economies of some countries combine both private and state control. Both forms are alien to the interests of the majority, since the priorities of trade and commerce, exploitation and profit-making, dominate life. Under both forms, production for sale on the market is organized primarily for the benefit of a privileged minority.

The building of Socialism requires a social reorganization where the earth’s resources and the apparatus of production are held in common by the whole community. Instead of serving sectional interests, they are made freely accessible to society as a whole. Production will be organized at world level with co-ordination of its differing parts down to local levels.

In Socialism there will be no market, trade or barter. In the absence of a system of exchange, money will have no function to perform. Individuals will participate freely in production and take what they need from what is produced . . . 

(Socialist Standard, Special issue on Socialism, July 1973)

Obituary: Trevor Lovatt (2023)

Obituary from the July 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Trevor Lovatt, a member of the World Socialist Party (NZ) for many years, passed away last October at the age of 85. He was a hard working socialist who would not under any circumstances compromise his knowledge of the Party’s case. Trevor was initially a Social Credit Party supporter. Upon meeting and discussing politics with Peter Furey (a member of the WSPNZ) in the 1980’s Trevor’s views were forever changed and he joined the WSPNZ. His contribution to promoting and expanding the idea of a ‘World of Free Access’ was relentless. Trevor would continually question, and supply his views on why the socialist alternative was not being taken onboard by society as a whole. As well as being a regular voice of the WSPNZ’s talkback programme on Access Community Radio Auckland (1990s) , he was also involved with the WSPNZ’s Radio Imagine, which operated for many years from the Party’s HQ in Auckland. Trevor was a keen weightlifter and loved country music.
World Socialist Party (NZ)

Editorial: Politicians all serve the one percent (2023)

Editorial from the July 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the world today, the richest 1 percent now own almost half the world’s wealth, whilst the poorest half of the world’s population own between them less than 1 percent of the wealth: just 81 billionaires hold between them more wealth than 4 billion of the world’s population combined.. In Britain, the four richest individuals have more wealth than the poorest 20 million people combined. Perhaps most significantly, in recent years the richest 1 percent of people have accumulated nearly two thirds of all new wealth created around the world. A total of $42 trillion in new wealth was created since 2020, with $26 trillion, or 63 percent, of that being amassed by the top 1 percent, the ultra-rich. The remaining 99 percent of the global population collected just $16 trillion of all of that new wealth.

This goes to the heart of the social system we live within. You can be sure that the 99 percent making do with only a third of the produce we create includes all of the most productive and useful people in society: the nurses, builders, teachers, doctors, engineers, programmers, IT architects, transport workers, factory workers, miners, and so on. So we have an all-encompassing global social system in which there are two classes. One class, the vast majority, works to actually create wealth, but then is forced to survive on a fraction of what we have created. The majority of what we create, we are forced (by the current laws of society which we have collectively endorsed and accepted, implicitly) to hand over to a miniscule minority. They then use that wealth to increase their stranglehold over the whole process.

Returning to British politics in 2023, what are Sunak, Starmer or any other of the political leaders or parties on offer proposing to do about this? The core social system stands utterly unquestioned, unthreatened by them all. Jeremy Corbyn was seen by many as standing for a ‘socialist alternative’, but if you actually look at all of the policies he has ever endorsed, what they really consisted of was a reform, a modification of this capitalist system, in which more sectors would be state-controlled, and a more generous or comprehensive slate of social benefits might be attempted. But like all ‘left-wing’ regimes which have come to power in various parts of the world, that would also be doomed to fail in chaos. Furthermore, Corbyn never stood for real socialism, which means not state ownership but genuine and democratic community control of all resources. It would also entail the end of the market system and the beginning of production for need, for use, not for profit or sale.

Until we have a majority ready to implement that, by doing it themselves instead of trusting politicians, we are stuck with this rotten system where ninety-nine people do all the hard graft… and one person gets all the pleasure and benefit, week after week, without end.