Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Greasy Pole: High Noon In Southall (2001)

The Greasy Pole column from the July 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

Ealing was once known, by those who were adept at ignoring the large chunks of serious impoverishment there, as the Queen of the Suburbs. As might be expected of a place with so impressive a name, it regularly returned Conservative MPs to the Commons. It’s all changed now though; other bits of west London have been tacked on to the original area and all three of the recast constituencies elect Labour MPs. The safest of them is Ealing Southall, at the western end of the area, where the sitting MP is Piara Khabra.

Southall was a railway town and there is very little left from how it was before Brunel pushed through the line to the west. The railway brought immigrants from Wales and Ireland, to work in the factories which sprang up along the line. It was not the railways which brought the Asians, in the 1950s; the first of them were recruited by a rubber factory which had difficulty in persuading the locals to work in its sulphurous confines. Few of the Asians who came then thought they were making a lifetime commitment; they imagined making enough quick money to set themselves up to go back to the place they called home. It didn’t happen like that and the population of Southall is now about 50 per cent of Asian origin – the second largest in the country.

Piara Khabra has been the local MP since 1992. Before that it was Sydney Bidwell, who had emigrated from the Revolutionary Communist Party when they disbanded and advised their members to infiltrate the Labour Party. Towards the end of his time in the Commons Bidwell seemed to be not entirely in touch with reality, although that was not what caused him to be de-selected. Khabra had long been prominent and influential locally, through being chair of the Indian Workers’ Association (Southall is teeming with community support organisations), a local councillor and so on. There was a flood of new members into the local Labour Party, which simply washed Bidwell away. Miserably, hopelessly, he stood against Khabra as “True Labour” – there were rumours that he did this only to qualify for his ex-MP’s pension – but got only 4,665 votes against Khabra’s 23,476.

In 1997, in tune with the rest of the country, Khabra tightened his grip on the seat. By then there was no Bidwell, who had retired with his revolutionary delusions and his pension and Khabra benefitted from a 15.1 per cent swing against the Tories, racking up an astonishing 32,791votes and, at 21,423, the country’s second largest Labour majority. In some ways this was surprising because the constituency boundaries had been extended eastwards to include older, posher parts of Ealing more accustomed to voting Conservative. But of course that was an exceptional time, with widespread anger against the sleaze and complacency of the Tories, their in-fighting and arrogance. A lot of voters really thought that things could only get better. But in Southall that was not the whole story for there was disquiet, not about Khabra holding the seat but about him being the Labour candidate in the first place.

For some time Southall has claimed to be the largest constituency Labour Party in the country. Of course this could mean that it is populated by people who have carefully examined the party’s policies and decided that these are in tune with their own principles. If that were true the place would surely be unique. Before Khabra ousted Bidwell there was some restlessness in the party – and outside it – about all those new members and about how genuine many of them were – or even whether some of them actually existed. At one stage Khabra faced a legal challenge from Valerie Vaz, sister of the embattled ex-minister Keith Vaz (who was rumoured to have tried to help rig the selection procedure against Khabra) but this came to nothing. Perhaps it is merely a coincidence that Valerie Vaz – who, as a forceful, articulate lawyer and media presenter could be expected to be picked out for a plum Labour seat – has only ever been nominated for more hopeless prospects such as Twickenham. Recently, for example, she was considered to be the front runner for the by-election in Betty Boothroyd’s old constituency of West Bromwich West but Labour headquarters had other ideas.

So far Khabra has shrugged off all the opposition to him; “I have been misrepresented in the press,” he said just before the election “but that doesn’t bother me, nothing does”. But with the approach of this year’s election the opposition against him has gathered strength as an electable rival came on the scene with the resources to air popular criticisms about him. Khabra has an established reputation as one of the most inactive and ineffective MPs, who is reliably evident only when he sits behind Tony Blair at Prime Minister’s Questions, which gives him some valuable TV coverage. Occasionally he stirs into action, as he did in 1993 when he tabled a Ten Minute Bill to legalise voluntary euthenasia only to withdraw it at the last minute. In February this year he asked a question which conveniently enabled Paul Boateng, who was then a minister in the Home Office, to give some detail about the planned enquiry into the coroner system. In December 2000 he wrote to Foreign Secretary Robin Cook in support of the Hinduja brothers’ resistance to being extradited for investigation in India over an arms-sale scandal. In the light of recent events, this was not entirely wise of him. (Cook promised “full consular support” for the Hindujas).

Meanwhile there has been a burgeoning discontent in the constituency about local problems – traffic congestion, crime, decay and a massive heroin problem among young people. In face of this Khhabra has been hard put to detail any intervention on his part which has been to any degree effective. The local Socialist Labour Party (of course, hardly an objective observer) calls him “congenitally demented” and rages at his “self-seeking careerism…his inability to be even an effective bourgeoise politician…” One constituent old the AsianXpress newspaper : I’ve never seen Mr. Khabra but I know of him and all the scams he’s done over the years”. And on 15 February this year the Daily Telegraph put the boot in:
“Piara Khabra…confirmed himself as surely this Parliament’s weakest performer…His question was near inaudible and his delivery laughably weak. Perhaps because he is Indian, or perhaps because he is old, the House listened to him with a straight face. How patronising. Mr Khabra deserved a loud and long raspberry. If he cannot lift his game he should make way for someone better.”
And when it came to the elecetion there was someone who claimed to be better. Avtar Lit is a Labour supporter, the multi-millionnaire owner of Sunrise Radio whose personal fortune is put at £60 million. “Money,” he said recently, “to me isn’t everything “. . . and then again “I am known as a man of the people”. Lit complained about Khabra’s “strangelehold” on the local selection process and the MP’s “dismal record . . . an insult to the people who elected him”. On the basis of a rather dubious opinion poll, which may not have been any more valid that all those Khabra recruits, Lit claimed that he was about to be elected, after which he would join the Labour Party.

But on the day he managed only a little less than 6,000 votes, to Khabra’s 22,239 which gave a comfortable majority of 13,683. As the evening wore on the bundles of votes for each candidate were in lines on the central table, with Khabra’s stretching far beyond all the others. There was little perceptible difference between Lit’s votes and those for the Tory, whose startlingly young face settled into a bewildered despondency as he contemplated the humiliation facing him. Towards the end a group of Khabra supporters filtered into the room. They were large, groomed men wearing immaculate turbans, exuding influence and privilege and the expectation of always getting their own way. They cheered dutifully – but restrainedly – when Khabra was announced as the winner but it was a fair bet that at the same time they were calculating how best they could do to him what he did to Bidwell – and what advantage they would get from it. These are probably the men Lit will have to best if he is to get the seat.

So Piara Khabra, who says he is 76 years old but who may be 80 or more, is back in the Commons for another spell – four years or maybe five – to hang on to his position and to “represent” the people of Ealing Southall. This is the very essence of capitalism’s politics—the politicians denying the truth of their impotence while they cynically manoeuvre to keep themselves in power and so the system in being.

50 Years Ago: War and Socialism (2001)

The 50 Years Ago column from the July 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Sunday Express on May 20th. 1951, reported that a “United Nations curtain of guns, armour and planes today battered massed Chinese assaults and thwarted attempts to make major breaches in the Allied line.”

Did you read that? If you did, we expect you have forgotten it already. But we do not forget. Later the report says that, “the United Nations forces were still killing scores of Chinese for every Allied casualty.” How glibly do our newspapers speak of the loss of working-class life. They are glad that large numbers of Chinese should be slaughtered. We are not. We are sorrowful. These Chinese are our class brothers. True, they speak a different language, wear different clothes, eat different food, but underneath it all they are members of our class, the working-class. The struggle being fought out in Korea is not their struggle. Whoever wins, their conditions will remain the same — poverty and struggle.

In Korea the scene is being set for the next major world conflict. Who controls Korea will control a large part of Asia. Korea belongs neither to us nor to the Chinese who are dying there. Brothers of the working-class, isn’t it time we stopped this insane slaughter? Korea is but a picture in miniature of what is to come. Then millions and millions will die. The last war cost probably 40,000,000 lives. The next one may cost more.

There is only one way to stop wars and that is to establish socialism. Don’t tell us that that will take a longtime. How long it takes depends on you. You can hasten it or delay it. There can be no doubt that it will come. We need it, the working-class of the world needs it. Join with us and help bring it about.

(An article by Groves from the Socialist Standard, July 1951)

Naturally greedy? (2001)

Book Review from the July 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

A Socialists’ Guide for the 21st Century. By Jack Grassby. TUPS books, 2001.

In this 150-page book which sets out to “attempt to clarify what socialism means at the beginning of the 21st century” Jack Grassby shows himself well-disposed towards the Socialist Party. He devotes a whole page to reproducing our object and declaration of principles, and another page to a factual summary of our history and policy. Unfortunately he also devotes lesser space but similar tacit approval to nine other “socialist” parties and groups.

Grassby understands that “the SPGB…are totally opposed to the idea of a revolutionary vanguard and hold to the necessity of the working class capturing control of national and local government by democratic means leading to the overthrow of the capitalist system”. Yet he deplores the fact that “the SPGB and the SWP exemplify current divisions in the revolutionary socialist parties”. He faces both ways on which “division” to support: “It will be necessary for a political vanguard to break through the conditioning of the working class. However, experience of political vanguards has shown the dangers of elitism, authoritarianism and exploitation”.

Grassby shows himself to be rather gullible on the question of “human nature”. After quoting Peter Jay’s assertion that “after sex, wealth is the second great passion”, he declares that “it is clear that greed and selfishness are part of our genetic inheritance, and that capitalism meets that predisposition”. In a chapter that approves rather than critically examines the views of “sociobiology”, he questions whether human nature (he means human behaviour) “can be changed to become uniformly selfless, generous and just”. He also believes that “it is necessary to accept that rebellion and dissent belong to our genetic inheritance and will be difficult to eradicate or change”.

In a concluding chapter Grassby paints human nature as both a good guy and a bad guy: “We are genetically predisposed to fairness and altruism and co-operation – as well as to greed and selfishness and competition”. Obviously, he is over-influenced by recent questionable claims of status-quo supporting geneticists. In fact humans have a far greater capacity for acquired behaviour than any other animal. There is nothing in our biological make-up to prevent us living in a socialist world.
Stan Parker

Life and Times: Behind the crime (2023)

The Life and Times column from the July 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

We all make bad decisions. Sometimes the consequences aren’t that bad, but sometimes they are. That may depend on the circumstances at the time, but it may also depend on the long-term build-up to the decision. This came out clearly in a recent BBC radio programme which looked at the life of a woman whose bad decision – in fact whose series of bad decisions – caused her to end up in prison.

Marriage, abuse and incarceration
Sinem was the daughter of a Turkish family who had fled from persecution in their own country to settle and start a new life in the UK. She told us that, as a young girl, she did well at school but found it hard to fit in with others of her age largely due to the strictures of her home background. This sent her somewhat off the rails. As a teenager she was found in bed with the son of another Turkish family and, given the culture, that meant only one thing – marriage. She quickly had children, which, though it somehow made her feel more secure, did not satisfy her and she managed to enrol on a university course and get a degree. But employment was hard to find and she eventually took a job as a prison officer – in a men’s prison.

This is when things really started to go downhill. Her abusive husband was violent to her and she decided she had to leave him. But in doing that she lost the extended family support she had previously had to help look after her children. This meant she had to reduce her hours of work, and this caused her acute financial difficulty. To be able to pay her rent and other expenses she fell into debt. And this triggered another bad decision. She started smuggling drugs into the prison she was working in to raise money. Inevitably perhaps she was found out and arrested.

But it’s what happened then that, as a listener to this programme, I found particularly interesting and noteworthy. When her smuggling activity was discovered, she was not shunned or blamed by her fellow workers in the prison but treated with great understanding and compassion. Though she had, in a sense, betrayed them, during her arrest they carried on supporting her and treating her like the human being fallen on hard times they knew she was. And when she herself was prosecuted and sent to prison, they carried on keeping in touch with her.

Understanding and compassion
This behaviour by her co-workers seems to accord well with the view now widely expressed by writers and commentators that the age-old idea of an inevitably ‘nasty’ human nature is no more than a myth and that, given half the chance, human beings will be kind to, cooperative with, and supportive of one another – including, and perhaps especially, when someone is ‘in trouble’. Rutger Bregman’s recent massively influential work, Human Kind, for example, argues that the innate, fundamental default of human beings is to be friendly, communal, kind-hearted and cooperative, something that seems to be confirmed by what happened in Sinem’s case. And Sinem’s incarceration also then turned out positive for her. In the open prison she was sent to, again she found enormous support, especially from the ‘mentor’ assigned to her. This helped her to recover from being the ‘broken person’ she said she was and to be then granted a day release arrangement to begin studying for a further degree and afterwards, when released completely, to end up as a university lecturer in criminology.

So a sort of happy ending. But a lucky one too, since, as the programme pointed out, we are all profoundly marked by the string of experiences that constitute our life. And of course in many cases this does not have a happy ending. In Sinem’s case the earlier experience of a repressive culture, an oppressive partner, and then the pressure of poverty led to an act which could have seen her life spiral entirely out of control. The fact that it didn’t was, to a large extent, due to the kindness of others. This made her realise that, regardless of the ‘crime’ she’d committed, some people were on her side. And this made it possible for her to gain sufficient strength to make a relatively stable life for herself and her children, and also to help educate others.

Autonomy and cooperation
If we look more widely, how many times, in the society we live in – a society that is so advanced in technology and productive capacity but oh so backward in the way it makes use of these things – does lack of money and/or lack of the power and autonomy over their own lives (the two ‘lacks’ often going together) limit or remove an individual’s control over their own life, their freedom of choice, their ability to interact cooperatively and, above all, to make the ‘right’ decision? And how much more likely is it that, in the society organised on the basis of ‘from each according to ability to each according to need’ that socialists argue for, the cooperative ‘nature’ of humans will prevail. And how true too is the writer Tine De Moor’s statement that ‘human beings claim togetherness and interaction’ and ‘our spirits yearn for connection just as our bodies hunger for food’.
Howard Moss

Pathfinders: Patent nonsense (2023)

The Pathfinders Column from the July 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

Suppose that, under capitalism’s property laws, you could patent the human genome. Then, in theory, you would own the ‘rights’ to 8 billion people and their descendants, in perpetuity.

You can’t, of course, but not because people haven’t tried. Almost as soon as the DNA double helix was discovered, its co-discoverer James Watson was asked if he intended to patent it.

He thought the idea ridiculous, but was largely alone in that opinion, as every half-baked geneticist that followed saw it as a gold rush and filed patents left, right and centre. Watson, for all his dodgy views on other matters, was convinced this technology ought to be available for the common welfare, and fought the claim-stakers, including through the courts. He couldn’t stop the rush though, and about 20 percent of the human genome, around 6,000 genes, were indeed patented. But then, in 2013 the US Supreme Court made a landmark ruling that human DNA could not be patented as it is a ‘product of nature’, which is to say, a thing which human labour has not appreciably changed or modified. This is, by the way, in line with what socialists say about human labour being the only real source of value. If it’s had no human labour usefully expended on it, you can’t patent it.

Fast forward to the MRSA antibiotic crisis, which caused over a million deaths worldwide in 2019, more than malaria or AIDS (tinyurl.com/yuasm6zw ), and could even lead to a resurgence of plague (tinyurl.com/2ucn7etk).

Antibiotics were such a wonder drug when they were first used in the 1940s that they came to be gobbled up like smarties for just about everything, including as a disease prophylactic in meat, bird and fish farming, and with scant regard for the tendency of bacteria to fight back in a ceaseless evolutionary arms race. Common interest, in a socialist society of democratic common ownership, would very likely have raised the alarm early on, but for the atomised actors of capitalism, this was another tragedy of the commons scenario. But the folly doesn’t end there – capitalism’s patent system, which defenders say drives innovation, actually prevented crucial innovation, in not one but two ways.

Firstly, the flip side of patents is that when they expire, anyone can use the technology, or copy it, for free, making the patent worthless to the holder. Since most antibiotic patents were taken out in the 1940s, they have now expired, so the big pharma companies – the ones with all the R&D cash – see no prospect of further profit and have abandoned antibiotic research, just when we need them to step up the gears.

At the risk of labouring the obvious, drug companies are not in business to cure people, but to make profits, exactly like the arms industry, the car industry, in fact any industry. If they can make more money out of hair restorer and slimming drugs, that’s what they’ll invest in. Capitalist logic is what it is, even if it kills us all, which is why we advocate a socialist system of production for needs instead.

Secondly, antibiotics aren’t the only way to treat bacterial infections. You could use bacteriophages – viruses that ‘eat’ bacteria – to target and destroy the offending bacterium. Phages are very specific so you’d need the right one, culled from a huge database. This makes them harder to use than broad-spectrum antibiotics, but the advantage of phages is that they evolve, right along with the bacterium they target, meaning the bacterium can never develop permanent resistance.

Phages are proven and effective, and have been used for a century at the Eliava Institute in Tbilisi, Georgia. The Institute has been treating patients with phage therapies since the 1920s, and is so successful that people fly in from all around the world to get treatment for bacterial illnesses their own doctors have pronounced incurable (tinyurl.com/m28sfm6e ).

So, given this, have phages been enthusiastically seized upon in the West, as the technology that can rescue us from the MRSA crisis? Er, no. But surely the west is planning to use them, and scale up mass phage production? Again, no. Well, there must at least be a million phage studies currently underway by western universities and drug companies? Actually, there are almost none.


You see, here’s the rub. Phages are a ‘product of nature’, which means… you guessed it. They can’t be patented, and therefore, there is no potential profit.

Currently, some western biotech companies are working on ways to get round this restriction, using CRISPR gene-editing to tweak phages just enough to be able to claim that they are a human artefact and therefore patentable. If the tweak does something useful that’s lovely, but beside the point. The problem with this workaround is that you can’t be sure what effect the tweak is going to have, so there will be all kinds of clinical trials and regulatory hurdles to negotiate. But not to worry, capitalist regulators are not as independent as they pretend. Bodies such as the UK’s NICE and America’s FDA are subject to a degree of ‘regulatory capture’ by drug companies, who finance the bodies via required registration fees, and also promise cushy industry jobs tomorrow on the understanding that regulators play ball today (tinyurl.com/537m35am). So tweaked phages might end up being approved by fair means or foul.

Meanwhile it’s not entirely game over for antibiotics. A new class of synthetic antibiotics is able to combat drug-resistant bacteria by targeting several key proteins at once, meaning that the bacterium would have to evolve a defence against all points of attack simultaneously, a highly unlikely feat (tinyurl.com/4evjaryr). Good news, for those who can afford it.

The take-home from all this is that, in the ongoing war on MRSA, insofar as capitalism gets it right, it’s doing exactly what socialism would do. But, unlike socialism, it is critically hampered by its own profit-chasing logic, first in solving problems, and second, in not preventing them from arising in the first place.
Paddy Shannon

Material World: Why biodiversity matters (2023)

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

Biodiversity is vitally important to human society and human survival – not just the biodiversity of the wilderness but also the agrobiodiversity of domesticated plants and animals. One has to be constantly wary of the risk to such biodiversity posed by genetic erosion and species loss. These work to shrink the genetic pool – the natural variability of organisms – that breeders rely upon to select the kind of varieties they want to develop. That then reduces their room for manoeuvre. It makes agricultural output increasingly vulnerable to the effects of climate change and the emergence of new diseases or pests.

As José Esquinas-Alcázar notes:
‘The conservation and sustainable use of genetic resources goes far beyond avoiding the extinction of species. The objective must be to conserve and use as much diversity as possible within each species. Plant genetic resources can be conserved ex situ, for example in gene banks (facilities that store samples (accessions) of crop genetic diversity, usually as seed and vegetative material) or in situ, either on-farm for farmers’ varieties, or in natural reserves or protected areas for wild plants’. (‘Protecting crop genetic diversity for food security: political, ethical and technical challenges’, Nature Reviews/Genetics, Vol 6, December 2005).
‘In situ’ conservation is being threatened by the spread of a homogenising commercial agriculture both in the form of habitat destruction impacting on native species and varieties as the amount of land farmed expands and, also, via the aforementioned marginalisation of traditional farming practices that maintain diversity. But what of ‘ex situ’ conservation in the guise of gene banks?

This is a relatively cheap method of conservation but it has drawbacks:
‘The main drawback, however, is that a genetic resource ceases to evolve as the natural processes of selection and adaptation are halted. In addition, only a small amount of the genetic diversity present in a given population is usually represented in the collected sample. This is further reduced every time the resource is regenerated, owing to genetic drift and natural selective pressures under different environmental conditions. Furthermore, many gene banks do not meet appropriate standards of storage and regeneration, resulting in poor seed viability’.
Genetically modified seeds are not currently allowed (at the time of writing) to be stored in seed banks. One reason why this is so is because seed banks are subject to legislation contained in the International Plant Treaty whereby they are obliged to agree to multilateral access to their collections. This, in effect, means treating those collections as the common heritage of humanity. However, that is clearly at odds with the status of GM seeds as patented inventions deemed to be the private property of corporations that undertook the initial research. It is yet one more illustration of the way in which private property relations work to impede the effective use (and conservation) of resources at our disposal.

In their article entitled ‘Seed banks: the last line of defence against a threatening global food crisis’, Salome Gomez-Upegui and Rita Liu point out that there are about 1,700 seed banks around the world ‘housing collections of plant species that are invaluable for scientific research, education, species preservation and Indigenous cultures’. They cite Stefan Schmitz, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust, an organization dedicated to preserving crop diversity for food security:
‘At a first glance, seeds may not look like much, but within them lies the foundation of our future food and nutrition security, and the possibility for a world without hunger… Well-funded, well-maintained seed banks are critical to reducing the negative impact of the climate crisis on our agriculture globally’ (Guardian, 15 April 2022).
Without decrying the importance of seed banks for the future of farming it is surely overstating the case to suggest that the ‘possibility for a world without hunger’ depends on them. To reiterate – hunger is an economic and political problem; it does not arise from the lack of some kind of technical solution to growing more food.

This fixation with ‘technological fixes’ (at the expense of social fixes) fails to see that technology is not developed in a vacuum; it is shaped by powerful economic forces. A particularly perverse example of this is so-called ‘terminator technology’ – the development of seeds (dubbed ‘suicide seeds’) that are specifically designed to ‘genetically switch off a plant’s ability to germinate for a second time’ – thus compelling the farmer to buy in a fresh supply of seed each season (Link).

There is no rational technical reason for the development of such a technology; it seems to be solely designed for the purpose of securing increased profits for agribusiness. More to the point, it undermines the ability of traditional farmers to develop a range of local seeds adapted to local conditions as they have done in the past in time-honoured fashion.
Robin Cox

Obituary: Stephen Shenfield (2023)

Obituary from the July 2023 issue of the Socialist Standard

We were shocked to learn of the sudden death at the end of April of our American comrade Stephen Shenfield. He was born in England in 1950 and joined the old Haringey branch as a teenager and became an active member, writing for the Socialist Standard and serving for a while on the executive committee. However in 1974 he was one of a group of members who were expelled for breaking the then rule about publishing unauthorised material. He didn’t rejoin the movement till 2006 when he became a member of the World Socialist Party of the US to where he had emigrated in 1989. In the meantime, as a Russian speaker (he had relatives in Kiev), he had become an academic and expert in ‘Soviet studies’, publishing many articles and books on the subject. After rejoining he kept in touch with individuals and groups in Russia that were critical of capitalism. He resumed contributing to this journal (as ‘Stefan’). At the time of his death he was the general secretary of the American party (an administrative not a leadership post in our parties). The movement has lost an active member. Our condolences go to his wife and family.

Blogger's Note:
A longer obituary by his family can be viewed here.