Friday, August 11, 2023

Greasy Pole: Goldsmith gives up (2007)

The Greasy Pole column from the August 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Anyone who has been caught robbing a bank, or shoplifting, or fiddling the books, should be aware that we live in a property society where some people own a great deal of that property while others own very little – or even nothing at all. This arrangement has an obvious potential for provoking some kind of enviously rebellious behaviour by the people who don’t own very much trying to grab a bit more. But this is not so easy for them; to prevent this, or at least to hold it in check, there is something called The Law. While it may sound very simple, especially to the owners, essentially The Law has been developed, inflated and cosmeticised over centuries so that it now has to be a huge, unwieldy instrument in which any law is divided in Sections and Subsections and then Subsections of Subsections and so on, so that in the end it can be understood by only a few people. These are, understandably, called lawyers.

There has to be an expectation that lawyers are not only very clever but are also driven by an unwavering morality which ensures that they obey to the letter the Laws which they have either written or have to work with. As an incentive to do this they have arranged themselves into a hierarchy which, in theory at any rate, permits the cleverest and the most honest to earn the right to be called funny names like the Common Sergeant or Master of the Rolls or, at the very top, the Lord Chief Justice. Any lawyer who professionally diverts into politics can, with a proper mixture of flattery, back-stabbing and arm twisting, claw their way up to become Attorney General.

This is a job whose origins are buried somewhere in darkest mediaeval England. Francis Bacon, who knew a thing or two, described it as “the painfullest task in the realm” – which is a bit different from the opinion of Lord Goldsmith, who recently resigned from the job after having : “…an extremely interesting and challenging time” there. Goldsmith was referring, in a lawyer’s typically mannered style, to the problems inherent in the Attorney General being expected to work as both a politician and the minister responsible for the way in which The Law works in protecting property rights. In theory The Law is capable of being applied impartially, insulated from any pressure from the politicians but, as Goldsmith found, reality is rather different. So what happened to him? Why did he resign? Why was he the subject of such media interest?

Well what “happened” was Iraq. The end of the 1991 Gulf War was marked by a Security Council resolution setting out obligations which Iraq had to meet under the terms of the ceasefire. Any breach of those obligations would lead to a resumption of hostilities. When, in 2003, the Bush government were preparing to invade Iraq again the question was whether there had been such a breach and, if there had been, whether a second United Nations resolution would be required before another war could be launched. Although it was clear that the United States was implacably set on another war the Blair government wanted legal justification in order to join in. The problem of finding it landed in Goldsmith’s in tray.

His first opinion, on 7 March 2003, was that it was doubtful a court would agree another war would be legal unless it had been supported by a second Security Council resolution so that the “safest legal course” would be to win such a resolution. This was, of course, not at all the kind of “advice” Blair was looking for. On 13 March 2003, the day after the military had urged Downing Street for a decision on whether they could start another bloodbath in the Middle East, Goldsmith was called to a conference with some of Blair’s closest allies, among them the prime minister’s old lawyer chum Lord Falconer. It is not known whether this meeting had any influence on him but on 20 March 2003 Goldsmith, ignoring his former reservations, revealed that in his opinion the war would be legal; let the slaughter commence. It must have been a great relief to the soldiers and the civilians killed in Iraq to know that they died legally and that world rulers were so meticulous in ensuring it should be so.

And then there has been the affair of BAE, the Al-Yamamah arms deal and Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia. BAE is one of the world’s great arms firms, with an established reputation for ruthlessness in ensuring that nothing, including scruples about bribing prospective buyers, should stand in the way of selling its death-dealing wares. In this they are not alone. As Denis Healey, once a Labour Defence Secretary, notorious for his readiness to trumpet embarrassing truths, put it:
“Bribery has always played a role in the sale of weapons. In the Middle East people wouldn’t buy weapons unless you bribed them to do so- and that was particularly true in Saudi Arabia.” (The Guardian 8 June 2007).
So did bribery play a part when, in 1985, BAE signed up to sell £43 bn. worth of Tornado and Hawk aircraft, with sundry other weapons, to the Saudi government? This deal, labelled Al-Yamamah (which touchingly translates as “dove”) was lubricated on its way partly through an “oil for weapons” arrangement and partly through a payment of £1bn to Prince Bandar.

Growing up from humble beginnings in which his mother was a servant to a Saudi royal, the Prince became a close friend of many world leaders, notably the Bush family in America. He acquired a huge estate in rural Oxfordshire near an RAF base where he could land the personal airbus which BAE had bought him and continues to pay to run. The snag with this cosy arrangement is that such deals have been, in theory at any rate, illegal in both Britain and America for some years. Bandar excused his part on the grounds that it had the “ express approval of both Saudi and United Kingdom governments” but the protests of this “colourful” man noted for his “charm and dash” (opinions held by, unsurprisingly, BAE salespeople) were not weighty enough to prevent investigation of the deal by the Serious Fraud Office.

But Bandar need not have worried, since it was highly unlikely that the British government would allow an investigation which, as Blair said, “…would have involved the most serious allegations and investigation being made of the Saudi royal family”. It would also have killed off the chance of any further arms orders from Saudi Arabia and hampered BAE’s ambitions to move into the market in the USA. The interests of the British arms industry demanded that the SFO investigation be stopped. And whose job was that? Who was likely to do it with the necessary unflinching readiness to employ subterfuge and lies with a cold disregard for the lives of the people who were to be killed by the weapons? Step forward, as the tabloid papers put it, Lord Goldsmith.

There were other questions – who, if anyone, is to be prosecuted in the “cash for honours” scandal, Goldsmith’s refusal to publish his own advice on whether British soldiers in Iraq were entitled to torture detainees – in which his malleable attitude to what might be called his principles and to what is called the inherent morality of The Law caused the government to be uncomfortably exposed. As the day of Blair’s resignation drew closer, Goldsmith looked more and more like a convenient scapegoat for a desperate government. After all, it would not do for it to be revealed to the working class that the confinement and repressions of the law are designed to discipline them into their inferior place in capitalist society. Knowing that he would not outlast a Brown takeover, Goldsmith wisely left before he could be sacked. But he does not need our comfort; as a successful commercial lawyer before joining the government he will effortlessly slip back into the affluent life style merited by one who has served capitalism so devotedly.

Smile, Smile, Smile! But why? (2007)

From the August 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard 

We are under a constant propaganda onslaught to keep smiling – or, in fancier language, to maintain a “positive outlook”. TV gurus and song lyrics drum the demand into our heads, and we echo them, telling ourselves things like “Mustn’t grumble!” and “Look on the bright side!”

The “keep smiling” agitprop goes back a long way – at least a century. In 1914 men were marched to the slaughter like docile lambs to the cheerful strains of “Pack All Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile!” And in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, another hit snarled: “Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!!!”

Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People appeared in 1936. His first two pieces of advice were “don’t criticize, condemn or complain” and “give honest and sincere appreciation.” How can you always be honest and sincere if you have to be appreciative, whatever your true feelings may be? Don’t ask me!

The entertainment industry is celebrated as the pacesetter of nonstop smiling in the Irving Berlin song There’s No Business Like Show Business:
There’s no people like show people.
They smile when they are low.
The second verse elaborates:
You get word before the show has started

That your favorite uncle died at dawn.

Top of that, your ma and pa have parted

You’re broken-hearted, but you go on.
From this I infer that you might be let off smiling duty if a parent rather than just an uncle has died. You might get a few days’ “family leave.” But when you return your smile must be firmly back in place.

Besides show business, smiling is a condition of employment in all service jobs involving contact with the public (and to a lesser extent in many other jobs). A waiter, air steward, hotel receptionist or croupier, for example, is expected to keep smiling, however irritating, rude or unpleasant a customer may be to him or her. “I am just not as good at faking that smile as I used to be,” bemoans one service worker. So why do we have to smile?

The song lyrics don’t really explain. Smiling is simply required by fashion:
Don’t start to frown; it’s never in style…

Just do your best to smile, smile, smile!
We are also told: “Smile and the world smiles with you.” In other words, look unhappy and the world will give you the cold shoulder. I suppose it’s true to some extent: I have enough troubles of my own, thank you, don’t burden me with yours! But what does that say about our way of life?

One curious rationale for smiling is the “urban legend” that more facial muscles are used in frowning than in smiling (exact figures vary). Smiling saves effort. According to Dr. David H. Song, the claim is false: a smile uses 12 muscles, a frown only 11 ( In any case, isn’t exercising as many different muscles as possible supposed to be good for us?

If you take Dale Carnegie’s advice and “don’t criticize, condemn or complain” about anyone or anything, then you will never develop a critique of the social system or an aspiration to change it. Ultimately, I suspect, that is what the smile propaganda is about. It serves the interests of those who do not have much to complain about themselves but who are natural targets of others’ complaints. That means: the most privileged and powerful section of society.

Cooking the Books: Brown means business (2007)

The Cooking the Books column from the August 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

In a bid to show that his administration of capitalism would be different from that of Blair, Gordon Brown handed out some junior ministerial posts to people from outside the Labour Party. One of these was Sir Digby Jones, former president of the Confederation of British Industry and a stalwart defender of the profit system, who is now the Minister for Trade and Investment. Not that he had to renounce any of his previous views to become a minister in a Labour government.

His boss, the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (previously, simply the Department of Trade and Industry), John Hutton, is equally pro-business. At a news briefing shortly after his appointment, Hutton spoke of aiming to make Labour rather than the Tories “the natural party of business”, promising that his department would be “aggressively pro-business”. Echoing the sort of thing Sir Digby used to say when he was president of the CBI, Hutton stated:
“In the whole debate over more employment regulation, you have to be mindful of the costs to British business. You’ve got to be very careful and always take into account the impact and burden on business” (, 3 July).
Meanwhile Brown’s successor as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, was described by the journalists who interviewed him for the Financial Times (3 July) as making clear “his determination not to pander to leftwing Labour prejudices against big business and the City”. According to another journalist, “he hinted as clearly as a Chancellor ever can that foreign financiers living in Britain would continue indefinitely to enjoy their present very favourable treatment under the non-domiciled tax regime” (Anatole Kaletsky, Times, 5 July). Some MPs are not happy with this regime which allows capitalists with overseas interests living in Britain to avoid paying tax on their overseas profits. They want the House of Commons Treasury Committee to investigate the matter, but:
“It is understood, however, that ministers are reluctant to rush into action to try to capture extra revenue from non-domiciled residents, because of the risk of driving them entirely off-shore or to other, lower-tax jurisdictions, as well as potentially damaging the City’s competitiveness” (Times, 13 July).
As Darling himself put it in his FT interview, “I am very well aware that people who do business, and who contribute to business here, can go elsewhere”.

Darling also made it clear that he wasn’t going to do much about venture (sometimes pronounced “vulture”) capitalists or “private equity industry” as they call themselves, who specialise in taking over and asset-stripping companies considered not to be making high enough profits. How could he as Brown had just appointed the most prominent of them, Damon Buffini, to be a member of the new Business Council he set up to advise him of the desires of Big Business?

Labour, both in and out of office, has always upheld capitalism, but at one time they used to champion manufacturing capital as opposed to finance capital. That was the time when Harold Wilson talked of initiating “a white-hot technological revolution” and blamed “the gnomes of Zurich” for his failure. Now the Labour Party has abandoned such “prejudices” against financial capitalists and is embracing them with open arms.

Within capitalism, financiers play an important and essential role, helping to channel capital to where it can make the most profit. But as far as the actual production of real wealth is concerned, despite their ludicrous description of themselves as an “industry”, they contribute absolutely nothing. With the decline of manufacturing in Britain, the financial capitalists, home-grown and non-domiciled, have assumed a more important role in collecting a share of world profits for British capitalism, by sharing in the proceeds of the financial deals and speculations done in London.

Any British government has to take this into account. Being pro-financial capital is what being “pro-business” means these days. Labour has duly acknowledged this and continued its evolution away from the trade-union pressure group it originally was.

It’s the system! (2007)

From the August 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard 
To many the socialist criticism of the capitalist system may seem like a crude act of oversimplification, if not a type of scapegoating.
If social ills are always blamed on the capitalist system, our critics complain, then there is no room for intelligent discussion about the varied reforms, leaders, governments, nations or policies that appear to be meeting people’s needs in quite radically distinct ways around the globe or at different times in the same country.

However, what the socialist is attempting to demonstrate is that the varied threads of social experience are intimately woven together in such a manner that they constitute aspects of a vast system that operates by particular laws and so is incapable of adequate reform. To perceive such a web of interrelationships is not at all a bad case of oversimplification. Rather, it represents an attempt to understand social and economic phenomena, much as natural phenomena are comprehended, as interactive parts of a system, which may be observed wherever the system exists, and predicted given certain defined conditions.

To understand social experience in socialist terms is to notice that all humans have certain requirements for food, shelter or safety, and that the varied ways in which they meet such needs produce different systems of relationships among them. This is often a difficult theory for many, especially for those used to comprehending social phenomena the way they were taught history in school, or the way events are reported in the media – in terms of distinct leaders, competing economic theories or degrees of corruption.

When material needs were met by ownership of people by other people (slavery), it followed necessarily that laws were required to protect that ownership, and that the fruits of the labour of slaves would be enjoyed by their owners. It also follows from this that with control of many slaves came accumulations of wealth that led some to live in abundance in palaces and others to be coerced to build and maintain these palaces at threat of death. Customs evolved in slave or feudal systems that led most humans to accept the legitimacy of this very unequal distribution of wealth and power. The experience of being dispossessed also inevitably led the majority to feelings of resentment, anger, helplessness, apathy, devotion, revolution, or ambivalent combinations of these at the same time or throughout the course of their lives.

To say that we all live in a system, the present one being capitalist, is in a sense to deconstruct the customs that we were all brought up to accept as normal, and by attempting to understand them, to open up the possibility that we may reject them. To comprehend all social appearances in terms of a system is also to remove the temptation to support another initially promising leader who everyone will hate a few years later, and to blame our problems on one who was found to be lacking intellectually, or morally, or found to be emphasising inadequate economic priorities.

When socialists seek to blame the capitalist system, they are promoting an important hypothesis that all social problems derive from the fact that a few individuals or states own the means of producing the things we require to live, which implies that the majority of us do not. It is, in the socialist’s mind, this fact of ownership that leads to war, to world poverty and hunger, to excessive stress, to murderous wastes of planetary resources and animal habitation destruction, or to our feelings of alienation that are often accorded psychiatric diagnoses.

Is it not obvious to most of you? If the metals were owned and controlled by the community, which of us would truly be mad enough to squander them to make tanks and bombs to blow up innocent children on the other side of the planet because of the industrial need for petroleum? If we all owned the farms together, do you think we would decide it reasonable to produce food packed with artificial preservatives and colourings, or to condemn millions of children to starve? I have never seen a parent of right mind consciously decide to let his or her children get sick — have you? Do you see people in your workplace regularly killing each other over a disagreement? Of course not. Wars are very well planned murders by those quite prepared to squander the planet’s population, clean air and topsoil to do the government’s bidding, and able at least during execution of the plan to tolerate gnawing sentiments that their behaviours may be morally reprehensible but extraordinarily rationalised as “in the national interest”.

Even when workers intellectually understand that they are part of a worldwide system, committing themselves to a radical alteration in the means of production guaranteed to provide a more enduring security to their lives has been difficult. This is due to the false perception that the greater possibility of a small change is preferable to the small possibility of a more significant change (even knowing that the small change may not be realised or may not last as long as a structural alteration). This type of cognitive bias has long been known to psychologists under the title of “hyperbolic discounting,” which produces a greater preference for an immediate payoff than a later payoff, even when it is not certain that either may be obtainable. In short, it is understandable for workers to put on hold any commitment to such a desirable end as socialism when the latter presents as likely yielding longer-term results (the achievement of a socialist majority). This is in contrast to working crazy hours now to achieve more tangible but lesser results such as saving up for a holiday or paying off the family home’s mortgage. Apolitical choices toward somehow improving the here and now likely play their part in competing with political ones toward the betterment of the future.

Scientific thinking over the course of the past few centuries has tended to encourage more systemic thinking. Medicine or ecology are examples of disciplines based on understanding phenomena as part of a holistic system. We use the word “system” all the time when we speak of the solar system, a grouping of planetary bodies and their satellites revolving around a sun. The same applies when we talk about our “computer system,” a collection of hardware and software that operate as one unit (and indeed, we become quite indignant when a new program will not be accepted into the system we are expecting it to become a part of).

What socialists are urging people to do seems at times like the impossible. We are asking you to put down preset assumptions about the way the world operates and urging you to do so in order to help create a new global system that will be as vastly preferable to what we have now as modern surgery seems over prayer, or psychology seems over phrenology. But to help realize such a world of freedom and security will require understanding all social phenomena that confront us today as inevitable effects of a capitalist system.

Let us list a handful of social problems that any of you are likely to consider in need of remedy: war, starvation, poverty, excessive stress, ecological destruction, worrying constantly about how we are going to make financial ends meet, the high prevalence of such emotional troubles as depression and anxiety, such medical problems as diabetes and cancer, or such lifestyle problems as addiction or obesity, or subjecting our children to this sickeningly violent and gadgety culture.

Socialists argue that a system of ownership of the means of life by individuals, corporations and states directly causes such problems, and also therefore that your continued political support of such a system will necessarily and inevitably support the continuation of such ills, and the unthinkable suffering that accompanies them. Have you not wondered why your experience of the society you live in, and the news on television about it, tend to repeat with predictable nausea, like a bad dream?

Socialists are not urging you to believe us uncritically, either. We are confident that overwhelming evidence will be found in both the experience of the day-to-day for most working people as well as in a study of history, to support the claim that today’s major problems are the results not of efficient versus inefficient politicians or policies, but rather of a worldwide system based on minority ownership of the productive machinery, and on production for sale.

To understand modern society as a system that operates by certain laws (for example, the laws of exploitation and profit-making) is not an academic pursuit but a way of empowering ourselves as members of the employed class. It is easy to feel helpless in our society, to feel that there is nothing we can do to make a better world for ourselves and for our children. But to understand that we live in a system is to give rise to a different behaviour than we have been accustomed to (voting for parties that support the wages system, voting for more progressive politicians, getting more leftwing, voting with our purse, and so on). It is also to generate an unbridled determination to fight for the better world now, for a different system which works in our favour (production for need and an all-inclusive democratic form of decision-making).

Change the system!
(World Socialist Party of US)

The peril of moralism (2007)

From the August 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard 

The Guardian (5 June) ran a story by George Monbiot about pharmaceutical companies’ promotion of baby formula in the Philippines. The article, together with readers’ responses, is online at,,2095325,00.html.

As in other underdeveloped countries, the majority of the population in the Philippines has access only to polluted water. As formula has to be mixed with water, its widespread use instead of breastfeeding kills thousands of children every year. Nevertheless, the corporations promote it in the most ruthless fashion. For instance, they encourage their saleswomen to dress as nurses to gain the confidence of young mothers. The Philippines government has tried to restrict the promotion of baby formula, but the Pharmaceutical & Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP), representing the manufacturers and backed by the US government and Chamber of Commerce, has led a campaign to thwart the attempt, using lobbying, diplomatic pressure, legal action and (apparently) targeted assassinations.

All this is, indeed, horrifying, and indignation is a natural and healthy reaction. But against who or what should we direct our indignation?

Irrelevance of nationality
Often enough, indignation expresses itself as national hatred, typically as anti-Americanism. America Puts Profit Above Babies’ Lives – runs the headline over the print version of the article. Of course, the American government and American business do put profit above babies’ lives (and above everything else). But the same is true of other countries. Ordinary Americans tend to feel that accusations against “America” are aimed at them too and respond in like manner: “You British are just as bad!”

Nothing could be more irrelevant to the issue than nationality. The first target of activists opposing the promotion of baby formula in underdeveloped countries was Nestlé – a Swiss company. The members that PHAP represents include European, Australian, and Japanese as well as American companies. They are equally ruthless.

Bad guy approach
But blaming “America” – or the Jews or the Japanese, perhaps, or some other nation or ethnic group — is a form of the broader phenomenon called moralism. Alternatively, we might call it “the bad guy approach.” Track down the “baby killers,” the evil people responsible for the evil deeds and do something about them. Do what exactly? Here things generally get fuzzy, but one Guardian reader has an answer: “The world right now needs another Revolution like the Bastille when all these greedy, unprincipled, corrupt and criminal politicians/industrialists are rounded up and are summarily executed.”

That should do the trick! Or would it? The “revolutionary” remedy has already been tried – in France, Russia, China and other countries. And yet there are still plenty of “bad guys” around, in those countries as elsewhere. Why should more shootings help? The more adaptable “bad guys” survive the “revolutions” by switching to the winning side in good time, and any who do get shot are readily replaced. What we have here is obviously an expression of extreme feeling, a fantasy of revenge, rather than a carefully thought-out solution. The moralistic approach stirs up emotions so powerful that thinking is paralysed.

Evil deeds without evil people
Really evil people are few and far between. They are not the crux of the matter. Most of the people involved in making and selling harmful products are not truly or intrinsically evil. The saleswoman dressed as a nurse to sell more baby formula and earn her commission, the Chinese tobacco farmer, the Afghan poppy grower, the armaments worker making land mines that will maim and kill children as they play – they are all doing evil things. Their deeds are evil, but they themselves are not, for they have to make a living somehow. They have to feed and clothe their own children.

Even the corporation executives who organize the evil deeds are not doing evil as a free and deliberate choice. They are required by law to do whatever is necessary to maximize profits for their shareholders. They could, of course, give up their positions and join the working class, but you can understand why so few of them would want to do that! The shareholders, in turn, do not feel obliged to concern themselves with the morality of the businesses that provide their dividends. Everywhere we look we find moral ambiguity. Evil is certainly being done, but no one is clearly to blame – only the social arrangement that we refer to as a system.

Some of us are lucky enough to come by a livelihood that allows us the luxury of a clean conscience (more or less). Some are not so lucky. The appropriate target of our indignation is the system that places people in such excruciating dilemmas, penalises altruistic impulses, rewards ruthless egoism, and inexorably turns “good guys” (or potential “good guys”) into “bad guys.” It is only by understanding the system that we can devise a way of freeing people to heed the voice of their conscience and freely contribute their talents to society, without thereby jeopardising their families’ survival and wellbeing.

Free access to services (2007)

From the August 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Apart from material things, socialism will bring many intangible benefits that capitalism denies us.

In our June issue we discussed some of the ways in which production solely for needs and free access (socialism) will replace production for profit and buying and selling (capitalism). In July we considered some problems of consumption in socialism, such as dangerous products, access to outer space, and when restricted access would be sensible. Here we extend the discussion to matters of services rather than goods: education; health and welfare; leisure, entertainment and sport; arts and culture; and dispute resolution.

At present in schools, colleges and universities, access is available (free or at a price) to a wide range of knowledge. But the emphasis is always on the norms and values of the profit system. Learning how to buy and sell things seems to be more important than making them and getting them to the people who really need them.

In socialism teachers and educational bodies will be geared to the needs of the new form of society. There may be historical lessons about capitalism, but on a similar scale to the teaching about pre-capitalist societies today. The proportion of people who choose teaching as their main contribution to society will be much greater than today. “Jobs” needed only to run capitalism will have disappeared.

With the advent of world socialism a priority will be to offer free access to education to those who have had none or too little because they or their parents could not afford to pay for it. That is not to say that children in Africa, Asia, South America and elsewhere will be given what is today considered a “good” education by European or North American standards. It will take time for world socialist education to develop its own character, and there is no reason to suppose that it will take the same form for everyone everywhere.

Health and welfare
Some health and welfare services are now available to some people free at the point of delivery or consumption. But many are not. In socialism the principle of free access according to reasonable need will be universally applied. Of course there will be some limitations, but far fewer than at present. Health and welfare problems resulting from accidents and natural disasters like floods or earthquakes will continue to require emergency measures. But the problems won’t be as extensive. For one thing, people living in disaster-prone areas will be offered removal to safer environments.

Having to seek paid employment when jobs are scarce, experiencing money problems, just living in a world that places so much emphasis on “must have” personal possessions — all this causes sickness and shortens lives. So in socialism there won’t be such a widespread demand for health and welfare services. You won’t need to take pills to get you through the day or night.

Leisure, entertainment and sport
Today the leisure industries promote and sell you what is profitable for them to supply. You can choose to entertain yourself with pastimes or hobbies, or in social gatherings with little or no resort to the market. But there is heavy pressure on you to be a customer of one or more of the leisure industries. Most people who say they are interested in sport don’t actually play a game or even attend a live event – they mean they watch it on TV.

With socialism there won’t be buyers and sellers of leisure, entertainment and sport experiences. But there will surely be more participants. There won’t be a distinction between amateurs and professionals, though some people will continue to be better at some things than others. So audiences will be bigger or smaller – but never paying anything except attention and respect. Whether or not individuals or teams are champions at some level at whatever, they will have the same free access to what they reasonably need as everyone else.

Arts and culture
Capitalism allows the very rich to possess rare items of art and culture, and even to lock them away from public view. Not so with socialism. It won’t be sensible to let everyone have the freedom to keep original masterpieces in their own homes. But it will be feasible and desirable to store and maintain rare artefacts in supervised public places.

With regard to access to popular events such as concerts, there might have to be restrictions. The relative merits and demerits of advance booking, first come first served, and even rationing would need to be sorted out. However, one way or another, access to artistic and cultural artefacts and events will be available to all, not just to a privileged minority.

Dispute resolution
With the abolition of the killer disease of nationalism, wars and the whole destructive war industry will be a thing of the past. Many other disputes about property – divorce settlements, allegations of mis-selling, for example – will also have gone. Some rules and regulations, emphasising pro-social behaviour not punishment, may still be desirable. But the law as we know it today will have no place in a socialist world.

Reasonable though the vast majority of people will have to be before socialism is introduced, it is unreasonable to expect all of us to be good boys and girls all the time. There will no doubt be a few disputes that will call for some procedure of resolution. This will probably best be done by some form of mediation, by people interested in, and perhaps trained for, this form of public service.
Stan Parker

What’s In Your Shopping Trolley? (2007)

Book Review from the August 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Tescopoly by Andrew Simms Constable £7.99.

This is not just about Tesco but about the ways that supermarkets in general drive other shops out of business, put an end to true community life and exploit their suppliers. Waitrose, for example, are now seen as a big threat by delis and farm shops (Guardian, 3 July).

On the other hand, Tesco is clearly viewed here as the main villain of the piece, being the dominant grocer in 81 of the UK’s 121 postcode areas. In Swansea, for instance, 54p of every pound spent on groceries is spent at Tesco. In the year ending February 2006, it made £2.2 billion in profit. It’s also expanding abroad, e.g. intending to open 47 stores in South Korea in 2006–7. (For more on Tesco see, [Dead link] which is not connected with this book.)

Among the tactics that have made Tesco so (in capitalist terms) successful include: selling some products below cost; selling others at whatever they can get away with; undermining competitors in various ways; paying suppliers less than the industry average. Child labour is common among clothing suppliers, while prices for bananas, for instance, have been constantly driven down (more than halving in real terms over the last forty years). Tesco in effect get loans from suppliers, as they don’t pay for goods till some time after receiving them, while they of course get the money from sales straight away.

Supermarkets restrict our choice of where and to shop and what to buy. They tend to force local shops to go under, and this has a domino effect on other local services, from window-cleaners to accountants. Villages which have no general store of their own ‘quickly lose their identities’, according to the Countryside Agency.

Simms is well aware that Tesco and other supermarkets are simply doing what ‘the system’ allows and what investors expect, i.e. making the biggest profit it can. The global food industry is organised to meet the demands of investors rather than to feed people. He is pleased when people get together to persuade the council to block a planning application from Tesco. But he seems to think that moving to a society of small shops in place of giant superstores is really going to make a big difference. In reality what is needed is further reflection on the idea of food being produced to feed people, and realisation that this means an end not just to superstores but to production for profit, whether of food or anything else.
Paul Bennett

Crying Wolf (2007)

Book Review from the August 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Six Degrees. Our Future on a Hotter Planet. By Mark Lynas. Fourth Estate. 2007. £12.99

Why do some campaigners against climate change have to exaggerate? Lynas argues that, unless the emission of greenhouse gases peaks by 2015 – in only eight years from now – we will be heading for a “runaway global warming and the destruction of most life on Earth” by 2100.

His book traces, on the basis of scientific studies and hypotheses, the effects on climate and the other changes this will bring, of an average global temperature rise of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6º centigrade respectively. A rise of 1º to 2º by 2100 is already, he says, inevitable, given past and likely CO² emissions up to 2015 but this would be tolerable. His contention is that any rise above this level will not only have damaging effects in terms of rising sea levels, more violent storms, more droughts and desertification, but if CO² go on rising will start a runaway warming that will, when the temperature rise reaches 5- 6º, create Hell on Earth

Socialists are not climatologists. So, in the debate over global warming we can only exercise critical thinking while taking into account the views of the majority of scientists working in the field. Their view, as expressed in the Fourth Assessment report of the International Panel on Climate Change in February is that:
“Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations”.
This statement has clearly been carefully worded. “Most”, that is, not all, leaving room for the possibility that some may be due to natural phenomena beyond human control such as increased solar radiation or volcanic activity. “Since the mid-20th century”, that is, not since 1900, nor since the industrial revolution, but since the time averaged global temperature began rising again after falling in the 1950s and 1960s. “Very likely”, that is, we are not fully certain as we don’t yet know the exact relationship between a given increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and an increase in average global temperature.

The Earth is warming and this is causing problems and something needs to be done about it. Our contention is that the only framework within which anything lastingly effective can be done is a world where the Earth’s resources have become the common heritage of all humanity, so eliminating the vested commercial interests and market forces that have caused global warming. Crying “wolf”, as Lynas does, doesn’t help towards understanding this.
Adam Buick

Party News: Fircroft Summer School (2007)

Party News from the August 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

This weekend some 40-plus members, sympathisers and Standard-subscribers from as far a field as Italy, Turkey and USA gathered for a weekend of discussion and debate at the annual summer school organised by Birmingham Branch.

Under the theme “Thinkers of the 20th Century” a range of ideas – from disciplines as diverse as anthropology, information technology, literature and philosophy – were reviewed from a socialist perspective and much heated debate followed.

Its not surprising that a recurring issue throughout such a themed weekend is that of “freedom”. Much abused in everyday currency, “freedom” often translates as little more than lower taxes and fewer regulations, issues of little or no concern to world socialists. In contrast, socialists are intensely interested in freedom, whether its the freedom we have to surpass the gene as a constraint on how we live, the freedom to work co-operatively in software development/use software without restrictions, or the more abstract freedom of the individual under the state.

The dystopian visions of Aldous Huxley (Brave New World) and George Orwell (1984) then, formed a large part of the discussions around the first two talks from Richard Headicar and Mike Foster respectively. What sort of state do we live in now? Which dismal projection has survived the best ? Probably a bit of both is the answer: Orwell’s boot stamping on the face is still prevalent in many parts of the world as the market system emerges to an ungrateful population of new wage-earners. “Late” capitalist states on the other hand have clearly evolved more complex and subtle forms of oppression, including of course the diversions of Big Brother (the TV “reality” show) and the dubious freedom of consumer choice.

To what extent can you separate the thinker from the thoughts ? While Orwell got his hands dirty down mines, in hotel kitchens and most famously on the frontline in Spain, Aldous Huxley in common with most of the other thinkers risked little more than a paper cut in the drawing rooms of Bloomsbury. Does this influence how we read each author ?

As Marx famously noted, “the philosophers have only interpreted the world the point is to change it”. Someone who has done very little interpretation of the world, but by contrast has undeniably changed it is Richard Stallman. A software engineer turned intellectual property activist, Stallman developed GNU software, CopyLeft and the free software movement. This has inverted contract law to ensure that CopyLeft software (such as Linux operating system) gets the fullest expression of its use value (i.e. it is free to copy and use), but has effectively no exchange value as users have to agree to make available and not restrict access to any amendments made to it. Tristan Miller discussed how this little oasis of “socialistic” production has grown unstoppably within the body of capitalism and effectively mirrors – albeit within the software and digital music communities – all the features of “from each according to ability, to each according to need”.

The subject of freedom of the individual phenotype (e.g. human) as opposed to the dubious constraints of biological determinism arose during Adam Buick’s introduction to the cultural anthropologist Ashley Montagu, who is best known for his contributions during the middle part of last century to the nature v nurture debate. It is likely that his writings will stand the test of time better than the more recent fashions of biological determinism – sociobiology and evolutionary psychology – as typified by the “popular” science writers Richard Dawkins, E O Wilson and Steven Pinker. If human nature is slowly becoming less of an ideological “barrier to socialism “than it once was, it will be due to the painstaking work of real scientists such as Montagu.

Simon Wigley got the short straw in having to present the ideas of the Frankfurt School of philosophy shortly after a large Saturday lunch. He stuck to the brief given to him admirably however, particularly given that he had little enthusiasm for these ideas, as he made clear. Whilst some in the audience wanted to shoot the piano player, others were grateful that Simon had done the hard work of reading this stuff and translating it from the English for our benefit.

Personally speaking I gained most from this talk – even if it was only to gain confidence that the Frankfurt emperors were indeed just as stark naked as I had always suspected, and that rather than being extensions to marxist philosophy, the ideas of Adorno, Habermas et al (along with the post-modern ideas they set the scene for) are negations of class-based analysis, of the enlightenment, and even of the scientific method that drove it.

The material conditions of capitalism really haven’t changed that much in the last century – and our philosophies really don’t look like they need to change much either. Anyone who thinks that world socialists are intellectuals, academics or armchair philosophers would have been pleasantly surprised at the disdain with which these ideas – far removed from anything actually to do with working class experience – were discussed. Habermas could have dug coal during the Spanish Civil War for all I know, but – judged on their own merit – his ideas still should not be taken seriously.

In summary, there is of course a perpetual tension between theory and practice that no political organisation, whether liberal, marxist or anarchist, gets right all the time. However, assisted by a plentiful supply (according to need of course) of the local Black Country beer, and the opportunity to catch up with old comrades and new sympathisers, most attendees I spoke with left the weekend feeling stimulated, reinvigorated and better-prepared for the more practical need to spread the socialist case. Surely, the ideal balance between ideas and action.
Brian Gardner

Blogger's Note:
The Socialism or Your Money blog also carries this report from July 2007, where there are some interesting comments arising out of Brian's report of the Summer School.

Watering down socialism (2007)

Pamphlet Review from the August 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

We won’t pay! By Gary Mulcahy. Published by ‘Socialist Party’. £3.

This pamphlet somewhat tediously sets out in detail the arguments offered by those – probably the great majority across the social spectrum in Northern Ireland – who are opposed to the proposed introduction of water charges.

Despite the generality of this opposition, it is the fragmented Left that have made the issue their current hobby-horse. Indeed, given the strength of opposition to water charges, it should prove a unifying element among those who support the notion that the capitalist leopard can have its spots removed one at a time. The pamphlet is aimed at the creation of a united Left front to the charges; however in lengthy and vigorous excoriation of their political kindred, it shows that while there is agreement on purpose within the Left there is acrid diversity regarding the means of achieving that purpose.

These verbal punch-ups are endemic within the Left; inevitable political afterthoughts nourished in the fecund soil of failure and disillusion brought about by the belief that they can control or seriously influence capitalism without the overwhelming authority of a socialist-conscious working class.

These ‘vanguard cadres’ don’t view the democratic process as a means of achieving the revolutionary change from capitalism to socialism. They aim at ‘improvement’, at making capitalism better for its wage slaves which is akin to suggesting that the slaughter house should be made better for the cattle.

Against the Marxian view that the achievement of socialism must be the work of the working class this so-called ‘Socialist Party’ (a reincarnation of Militant) adheres to the absurdly arrogant Leninist thesis that workers are incapable of emancipating themselves and must be led to political salvation by a political elite.

The pioneers of the socialist movement held to the view that since capitalism was based on the exploitation of the working class it could not function in the interests of that class. Understanding this essential truth they urged workers to organise to end capitalism. As Marx put it, workers should abandon the conservative motto ‘A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ and, instead, to inscribe on their banner ‘Abolition of the wages system’.

However well-intentioned Left reformists might be it is a fact that by distorting the essential meaning of the terms socialism and communism (which Marx and Engels used interchangeably) they have seriously set back the growth of socialist consciousness.

A gross example of this distortion appears on page 47 of the pamphlet under the heading ‘The Need For a Socialist Alternative’. The author recites a few of the greater obscenities of recent capitalist plunder and cites the need for a mass socialist party to – no! not to abolish capitalism; not to use our unified power to end its iniquitous wages and money system; not to dump commodity production into the dustbin of history – but to retain what is patently now a harmful social anachronism but under the aegis of the state. Probably they would argue that unlike Lenin and the totalitarian empire he endorsed when his ‘vanguard’ established state capitalism in Russia, their vanguard would be more socially virtuous.
Richard Montague