Monday, July 17, 2023

Burned out and six feet under (1992)

From issue 8 of the World Socialist Review

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) discovered a while back that homicide tops the list of occupational hazards causing job-related deaths among women in the U.S. “Violence is a contagious disease,” as H.G. Wells once said. On average, 158 female wage-slaves in the U.S. lose their lives each year serving the capitalist class. The CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health division chalks up this phenomenon to women working in retail sector jobs and to a lack of safety precautions like better lighting, safer cash handling, bulletproof barricades and the like. Despite their medical expertise, they are being most unscientific in distinguishing symptoms from causes in this morbidity. Even Mahatma Gandhi had a better grasp of cause and effect, as we can see from his diagnosis: “Poverty is the worst form of violence.”

So long as we live in a society where one must buy life’s necessities, there will always be a desperate compulsion to acquire money by any means possible. Why are women in this dangerous position of confronting desperate robbers to begin with? The same reason. Like their killers, they too must make the acquisition of money a top priority to live in this capitalist set-up. For the ruling (capitalist) class will have it no other way. No reform or precaution will change this objective fact of competitive society. It can’t help but breed violence and death.

Dr. Catherine Bell, an epidemiologist with the CDC, alluded to the trends in the sexual division of labor as a contributing factor. She inadvertently indicted the conditions of labor in general as a systematic killer of the working class. “Part of it may be that women tend to be employed in places where the risk of homicide is elevated instead of places where they are likely to be electrocuted or crushed or killed in traffic accidents.”

Right to self-obliteration
Life’s little career trade-offs! You can risk being murdered at the cash register, or you can utilize your “right” to equal employment and increase your chances of being electrocuted, crushed or wiped out in a traffic accident! Only in a free (to exploit) society can such challenging choices of self-obliteration be put before us. The CDC report finds that most on-the-job fatalities involve male workers dying from the above-mentioned non-homicidal causes. Whether from a robber’s gun or a boss’s job requirement, the end result is the same.

Violence at the workplace is clearly a problem symptomatic of the class oppression of both sexes in general. It is the quest for profits that makes production (and work generally) a life-threatening activity. It is the artificially imposed poverty that compels the working class to run the gauntlet daily. Each day many are struck down. The hazardous conditions in which this takes place are only symptomatic of the disease, not the cause of it. The disease is capitalism.

Capitalism, with its parasitic ruling class that owns and controls the means and instruments of production: subjecting the overwhelming majority to inhuman conditions like violent competition, pay-as-you-go insecure housing, second-rate food, dangerous daily amounts of stress. The list of these symptoms could go on and on; capitalism creates countless avenues of misery for the human condition.

The cure for this ailment is socialism, and it begins with socialist consciousness. The administration of this cure includes you. Your clinic is the World Socialist movement. With enough house calls and mass innoculations, we can witness the eradication of this morbid scourge in our lifetimes!
W. J. Lawrimore

They're all Utopians now (1991)

Editorial from issue 7 of the World Socialist Review

The “failure of communism” has come to be peddled as the latest version of the usual ideological hamburger on the mass media’s instant menu. What has happened, however, is not that communism has failed but only that Leninism has collapsed. Right from the very beginning, in What is to be Done? Lenin had expressed the view that the working class was “exclusively by its own effort . . . able to develop only trade-union consciousness, i.e., the conviction that it is necessary to combine in unions, fight the employers and strive to compel the government to pass necessary labor legislation, etc.” [1] This was the view adopted by the Bolshevik majority within the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (“the theoretical doctrine of Social Democracy”). Buttressing that, Lenin’s thesis on the origins of the theory of socialism was accepted as a good replacement for the Gospel: it “grew out of the philosophic, historical and economic theories elaborated by educated representatives of the propertied classes, by intellectuals.” [2]

For a very long time, this belief that revolutionary theory could arise “altogether independently of the spontaneous growth of the working-class movement” jammed the only channel by which workers could in fact formulate their protests against the ravages of capitalism. It made Bolshevism, as a chrysalis stage of Social Democracy, reinforced by the authority of the Soviet state, the dominant vehicle of working-class aspirations around the world. Any attempts at directly conceptualizing an alternative to capitalism out of the experience of the class struggle were thereby sentenced to exile. A smothering blanket of pseudo-communist legitimacy helped to choke off a burgeoning trend toward “raising hell” in the workplace.

Capitalist butterfly
With the opening movement of a Solidarity government in Poland, followed by a chain reaction of similar upsets throughout the Leninist countries, the Bolshevik chrysalis has at long last given way to a dazzling (capitalist) butterfly. The market system has made an ideological comeback in the state-capitalist countries in a big way—although, as socialists have been pointing out assiduously ever since the November Revolution, there never ceased to be a market system operating in those countries; it had simply transformed itself into a “central plan”. Thanks to the nomenklatura system (a system of patronage which assured the respective “Communist” parties a vice grip on the strategic economic and political positions), the well-protected capitalists who spent decades consolidating their vulnerable position behind the “iron curtain” now feel confident enough to “rise to full stature in all their giant strength,” to use Lenin’s phrase.

And now that the spectre of communism has finally melted away, some space has again opened up for the real thing to resume its interrupted trajectory. But it can always be interrupted again if we let our thoughts remain centered on the main institutions of class division—profits and wages—rather than on its replacement. For purely business reasons alone, a capitalist will always tend to be incapable of understanding socialism as a concept (as a system of society based on common ownership and democratic control of the means of wealth production); doing so would require stepping outside the market frame of reference and looking at the world from the vantage point of a human being. This is not impossible; but it can obviously happen only rarely. Then there are, of course, the numerous supporting ideological arguments generated by the world of business as a secondary form of self-defense.

Alternatives to the system
Less obvious is the case of the worker/ professional who fails to grasp even the basics of socialism. What we fill our minds with forms a pattern of energy use which precludes the development of other patterns of thought, and filling our minds with thoughts of struggling to get by in the market leaves little room for choosing alternatives to the market system. Without being steeped in any direct form of pro-capitalist ideology—even being against capitalism in general but not specifically against the market system—millions of people can go on, year in and year out, remaining indifferent to the real possibilities life could hold for them in a system of wealth production which didn’t require them to be poor so it could function.

The “spark” of consciousness is always present, because the poverty enforced by capital is endlessly generating new discontents (and leaving old ones to fester). Capitalists have a built-in incentive to deny the very possibility of eliminating capital; wage-earners (including salaried professional workers), on the other hand, have a devil by the tail and are constantly compelled to find new ways to rationalize their exploitation. The mass media are there to help them in this—but even these are only a band-aid solution, and other machineries of repression either have already been deployed or are being researched. (The idea that wealth is something to be enjoyed simply as the outcome of human labor and that a whole system of society could operate worldwide without the use of money is in any case airily dismissed by the information commandos.)

Utopia now
Capitalists see no need for any system beyond capitalism because their utopia is already an historical fact. The abundance promised (eventually) by capitalism is everywhere; its delivery is nowhere in sight. Life in this utopia is so beautiful and so perfect that the happy workers could not rationally entertain thoughts of doing wealth production differently than on a profit basis—and now, even that paragon of communism, the international group of Leninist parties, has “failed” in its historic mission to take over the world and impoverish everyone. Yet people are starving on a scale as never before in world history while food surpluses are stockpiled or destroyed because their existence threatens profits; poverty is the lot of more human beings now than in any previous period; and even the environmental basis for conducting exploitation is in the process of breaking down under the pressure of continuing systematic abuse.

The time has never been better for junking a system that only works in the eyes of its advocates. Now that it has been shown that Leninism could be scrapped with impunity, why not take a much more productive step and move on to replacing capitalism itself? 

[1] What is to be Done?, "The Beginning of the Spontaneous Upsurge".
[2] What is to be Done?, "Primitiveness and Economism".

Oscar Wilde on “Living for Others” (1988)

From issue 5 of the World Socialist Review
The following article is taken with permission from The Nation (2/20/88), where It appears as "Minority Report" (a feature column) . The writer— Christopher Hitchens— not only expresses an insight into the underlying realities of exploitation and social class but also reminds us of a few things about Oscar Wilde that the capitalist class would presumably prefer to play down as quaint or awkward.


That said, we do take exception to what seems to be the author's implied existence of a "middle class," since the liberal middle class of Wilde's time has itself become today's conservative "upper class", having changed only its ideological diapers in the process. Developed capitalism knows only two classes: those who own the means of production and those who work for them to produce and distribute wealth, either to the former's profit or to their minimum cost. A worker is anyone whose only source of income is the sale of their mental and physical abilities.


—The Editor
. . .  The salient point about (Oscar) Wilde was the economy and address of his wit. He did not froth with bons mots like some second-rate charmer. He was a tough and determined Irishman who more than once flattened bullies with his fist, and most of the time—if we exempt pardonable and tempting sallies about blue china and decorative screens—his drawling remarks were not snobbish or mannered. I suppose that people need to see him as a species of languid dandy, which is why The Soul of Man Under Socialism is almost never discussed when dear Oscar's name comes up.

Try to find that essay in any of the current anthologies of Wilde. First published in 1891, it was geldingly retitled The Soul of Man while Wilde was in prison. It expressed the sensibility that had impelled him to take the side of the Irish rebels and, in particular, to oppose the British government's attempted frame up of Charles Stewart Parnell, who, like Wilde, was destroyed on a charge of immorality when all else had failed. It gave Wilde the same distinction as that which he acquired by being the only writer in London to sign George Bernard Shaw's petition for the Haymarket martyrs. And it contains the following imperishable sentence:
The chief advantage that would result from the establishment of Socialism is, undoubtedly, the fact that Socialism would relieve us from that sordid necessity of living for others which, in the present condition of things, presses so hardly upon almost everybody.
This is not the flippant remark that philistlnes might take it to be. It is in fact what is truly meant by "compassion," a word now made to sound sickening in the mouths of Democratic hypocrites.

What those hypocrites mean when they intone the hack word "compassion" is that we should not forget the needy and the desperate as we pursue our glorious path of self-advancement. This is the rough equivalent of the older injunction that we should remember the wretched in our prayers. Wilde was proposing something infinitely more daring and intelligent—that we regard poverty, ugliness and the exploitation of others as something repulsive to ourselves. If we see a slum, a ghetto, a beggar, or an old person eating pet food, we should not waste pity on the victim. We should want the abolition of such conditions for our own sakes. The burden of enduring them is too much.

This is why early socialists were quite proud to be accused of spitting in the face of charity. The principle that an injury to one is an injury to all is not just talk; it is the expression of a solidarity that recognizes mutual interest. As Wilde also wrote, in his review of Edward Carpenter's Chants of Labour, "For to make men Socialists is nothing, but to make Socialism human is a great thing." His appreciation of paradox here makes an excellent match with his rejection of sentimentality.

There is another sense in which it would be nice to think that Wilde intended his insight about "living for others." In the great working class novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists the laborer Robert Tressell describes the feelings of charity and gratitude that, overwhelm the credulous, patriotic men who worked alongside him. They were content to spend their entire lives living for others—their betters—each of them confident of his own sturdy independence. This type did not disappear with the waning of the Industrial Revolution. You can meet him today, the despair of "progressive" intellectuals, as he bellies up to the bar with his "can't fool me" talk and proceeds to speak, sometimes using the very same phrases, in the tones of the President's last lying paean to native virtues. Praise for these philanthropists, especially at times when they are needed to be expended in war, is the only official rhetoric you hear that mentions the word "class." Almost the only place that class distinctions are stressed these days is at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Class Factor Downplayed
They deserve to be stressed more often. Society labors on, supporting both an enormously wealthy upper class, whose corporate holdings are frequently tax free or even tax subsidized, and a growing underclass, which is sporadically and pathetically cited as a spur to conscience. Never is it asked, What are these classes for?

A sort of moral blackmail is exerted from both poles. The underclass, one gathers, should be dulled with charity and welfare provision lest it turn nasty. The upper class must likewise be conciliated by vast handouts, lest it lose the "incentive" to go on generating wealth. A rising tide, as we have recently learned, does not lift all boats, nor does a falling tide sink them all. If people were to recognize that they are all in the same boat, they would take better care of its furnishings, its comfort and its general decor. This is what Wilde meant by the importance of the aesthetic. 

Radicals have been taught to distrust any too great display of individualism, and where they forget this lesson there are always conservatives to remind them (a madly sweet but slightly lugubrious example of this style appears In the current New Criterion, reprobating my good self). Wilde himself was haunted by a Podhoretz-like chaplain in prison, who reported that the cell reeked of semen. (How could he tell?) We are in the debt of the brave man who taught us to ask, of their majesties, whether they deserve us, or our continued amiable subservience.
Christopher Hitchens

Editorial: Of Contras, Pros . . . and Socialists (1987)

Editorial from issue 3 of the World Socialist Review

From the inordinate amount of attention being given to the Reagan Administration's double-dealing in the two affairs of arms to Iran and the diversion of funds to the contras, yon would think something really big was happening in US capitalism these days. For Irangate/contragate has become a major media event.

Despite the apparent ferocity of the clashes currently taking place between rival political factions within the capitalist class, from one angle they are actually beneficial to the capitalist class as a whole: they obscure from view the more basic scandal of the division of the world into political entities or nation-states; they deflect attention from the more insidious ongoing misappropriation constituted by the monopoly of the capitalist class of the means and instruments of wealth production.

Media-generated concern over the poor little Reagan Administration's predicament masks (or perpetuates) the working majority's confused identification of its interests with those of the "top ten" per cent of the population making up the owning class. And—every bit as much as the more flamboyant histrionics of Dallas or of Dynasty— this fondling of the rich and the powerful belies a pernicious cult of personality on the part of the media around the world (and one by no means limited to Russia and China).

The World Socialist Movement, for its part, does not find much of an issue in all of the hoopla. Its one and only reason for existence is to disseminate information relating to the functioning and foundations of capitalist society as well as to sow the seeds of socialism. The crises that shake our planet and even threaten the viability of life on it do not spring from the actions of conniving, dishonest politicians—though these latter certainly may help to trigger catastrophes.

The real problem is rather the continuation of the system of producing goods and services for sale on the market (ie, commodities) with a view to profit. The real solution is a socialist organiza­tion of society, the introduction of a worldwide society based on production for use.

So while we as socialists may derive some enjoyment from watching the capitalist class being forced to do its dirty laundry on TV (there is after all no reason why its own propaganda can't occasionally degenerate into farce), we ought not to imitate the reformists and ignore the real issue that we never find presented in the media: the urgency of common ownership.

Short of that, all that is really possible is the replacement of one governing party or regime by another. Socialism, or common ownership of the means of production, will on the contrary only come about through the conscious action of the working class around the world, aimed at replacing the entire system of exploitation, and it is only in helping to bring this about that socialists can ever hope to distinguish themselves from both the witting and the unwitting supporters of capitalism.
—Editorial Committee, WSP (US)

Editorial: Is there work after capitalism? (1987)

Editorial from issue 3 of the World Socialist Review

Under capitalism work is necessarily drudgery; and, though the production of commodities (on which capitalism is based) is not drudgery in itself, even the most gratifyingly direct forms of commodity production—that done by artisans, for example—rest on what is at the very least an emotionally repressive basis. A commodity is made to be exchanged: that is its purpose. Work as a human phenomenon, on the other hand, is carried out solely to satisfy human needs, and because people must work together to accomplish this, work is an inherently collective phenomenon as well.

A human community works to satisfy its needs, and that is what the genes and instincts of human beings are programmed to render gratifying about work. Consequently, we can consider only those labor processes which satisfy this condition as "gratifying." And obviously, the labor required to produce commodities does not satisfy it, since it is labor done not directly for purposes of satisfaction but indirectly, for purposes of exchange. Just because work is organized into complex production processes does not therefore make it "toil." And just because it is simple and psychologically stimulating is not enough to make it gratifying.

When capitalism, late in the period of commodity production, arrives on the scene and revolutionizes the production process from top to bottom, "socializing" it, pushing artisan labor to scattered points on its periphery, work has already been steeping in the brine of drudgery for several millennia. The universalization of wage labor (including its refinement, the professional salary) enforced by capital means the locking of the prison door for the "free laborers", the "working poor," who have been literally whipped, beaten and badgered into the condition of having no longer any commodities to exchange on the market (long since taken over by the capitalist class). All they have left is their ability to do work: and all the work they can find to do centers on profit.

Work done under such unnatural conditions cannot but be unpleasant. The worker has no control over any aspect of it, and industrial production in particular is a brutalizing torture. Not only that, but labor performed for the sake of profit itself becomes capital accumulated out of profit, causing the capital to grow in magnitude relative to the workers whose labor generates it.

The accumulation of capital, for its part, becomes a source of ever greater complexity in the production process, pushing workers further and further away from any ability to control the "world of work" in which they are trapped. To human beings it has every aspect of a process operating independently of human intelligence and defying society's best efforts to control it.

But (as the song goes), is that all there is? Supposing no one works for anyone else anymore and no one is forced to find a job to get the money to obtain the things they need: will society still be stuck with the kind of inhuman labor processes it has inherited from commodity production? The answer is quite simply, no.

The commodity, implying as it does the setting aside of wealth from the consumption needs of the community, contains the germ of discontent in its very being. Abandoning wage labor means eliminating commodity production: regaining control over wealth production. It also means deciding what kind of organized, coordinated efforts people will be prepared to make for the sake of obtaining satisfaction, and on what scale they will be willing to carry this out. But having done that, they will have created a society that runs on labor processes which are voluntary in nature and in which labor is no longer a chore—a socialist society.
—Editorial Committee, WSP (US)