Saturday, August 19, 2023

Voice From The Back: House hunting (2001)

The Voice From The Back Column from the August 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

House hunting

As young working class couples contemplate marriage and start looking for a house or flat that they can afford to buy or rent, it might be worth them considering how members of the capitalist class deal with their “housing problem”:
“This mansion in Surrey cost £70m. It has 30 bedrooms, five swimming pools and its own cinema . . . By American standards, of course, the Surrey mansion is at the mean end of the scale. This is a country where Larry Ellison takes on Bill Gates for the title of top cheese by building a bigger house than him. (Gates recently announced that he was extending his lavish $100m home near Seattle, to which Ellison replied with a $150m Japanese style mansion in California, twice the size of the White House and complete with artificial lakes, waterfalls and 3,750 tons of hand-chiselled Chinese granite for the retaining walls.) The world’s largest private house is believed to be the New York industrialist R.A.Rennert’s mansion Fair Field, which is 100 miles east of Manhattan and boasts 29 bedrooms, 42 bathrooms, a 164 seat theatre, two bowling alleys and an English-style pub.” (Guardian, 15 June.)

A cancerous system

Commenting on an article in a previous issue two letters to the editor in Time magazine (25 June) show that workers as far apart as Istanbul and Massachusetts have a pretty good idea about how capitalism operates :
“If there really is a war against cancer, as you contend then why not attack this disease on the battlefield? Why not go after its supply lines of tobacco, food additives and pollution? The drive for corporate profits generates many of the products that can cause this illness, and even more profits are made in treating it. Meanwhile, cancer victims fall by the wayside as collateral damage. Chris Glover (Istanbul)”. “Finally, the breakthrough in cancer drugs that we have long been searching for! Too bad that few of us will be able to afford them. David Chesterton (Massachusetts)”.

Touchy, feely socialists

We are often accused of class bias, of being nasty individuals who are only concerned about the working class, with never a thought for the plight of the capitalist class. Not so, we were almost moved to tears when we read the following :
“Ronit Lami, a London psychologist who treats people suffering from affluenza or ‘sudden wealth syndrome’, says her patients are highly motivated perfectionists who will do anything to achieve their ends. She says: ‘It doesn’t matter how much money there is in the bank, there is never enough. There is a huge fear of failure. If they suddenly lose their money, they suffer deep depression. Many identify themselves through their possessions, so their whole identity collapses’“ (Sunday Times, 24 June).
This “affluenza” is an awful disorder, one that we fortunate members of the working class will never suffer; so we think it only right to comfort these sufferers with the news that there will be no money or banks inside socialism. Another good reason to organise for socialism, you can relieve these poor souls from their insecurity fears and leave Ronit Lami free to get a real job.

Mao’s afterthought

Chinese state capitalism is desperate for foreign investment; so much so, that at its 80th anniversary celebrations the Communist Party revealed its long held admiration of capitalism :
“Liu Jingfeng, a history professor at the party school, told an on-line forum run by the official People’s Daily newspaper: ‘Mao Zedong did not oppose capitalism all the time. At the Seventh Party Congress, Mao Zedong fully endorsed the idea that China should develop capitalism.’” (Times, 5 July)

Science in fetters

Capitalism was once a progressive force in the field of science. The discoveries of chemistry and physics were essential for the advance of the new society. But now capitalism has entered its restrictive phase, where, because of copyright and information ownership, scientific investigation is being restricted. Immense publishing firms like Reed Elsevier zealously guard the copyrights that earned them profits of £231 million last year :
“More than 800 British researchers have joined 22,000 others from 161 countries in a campaign to boycott publishers of scientific journals who refuse to make research papers freely available on the internet after six months. ‘Science depends on knowledge and technology being in the public domain’, said Michael Ashburner, professor of Biology at Cambridge University and one of the leading signatories of the campaign, the Public Library of Sciences. ‘In that sense, science belongs to the people, and the fruits of science shouldn’t be owned or even transferred by publishers for huge profits’“ (Guardian, 26 May).
It seems that science is now being restricted by the ownership relationships of capitalism. Karl Marx wrote in January 1859 in his introduction to The Critique of Political Economy something that foresaw such a development:
“At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come into conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression of the same thing – with the property relations within which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters.”

Editorial: Life’s a riot (2001)

Editorial from the August 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the summers of 1981 and 1985 inner-city areas across Britain erupted in an orgy of violence and destruction as mass rioting returned for the first time in decades. In St Paul’s in Bristol, in Brixton, Toxteth, Moss Side and Handsworth, dispossessed and frustrated black and white youths looted shops, attacked the police and burnt down buildings in a sequence of events that shook the Thatcher government. Home Secretary William Whitelaw toured the battle-strewn streets like the Queen Mother during the blitz, only even less popular than she’d been. Michael Heseltine was despatched by Thatcher to Liverpool (when the two of them were still on speaking terms) to sort out a regeneration package for the city and for the riot-torn Upper Parliament Street area. It was a mini-renunciation of her free-market idealism – and was brought about by the sort of pragmatic attempt to buy off social discontent more typically associated with reformers of the centre-left.

The far left at the time – somewhat stronger in those days and certainly taken more seriously than now – liked to call the riots ‘uprisings’. It was wishful thinking of the type they are specialists in, as the disturbances in question did not have quite that sort of focussed, political dimension to them. They were in fact the directionless expression of frustration and bewilderment at rising mass unemployment, inner-city poverty and the type of crushing boredom associated with social decay rather than the stirrings of a potential revolutionary vanguard.

Fifteen, twenty years later, and the riots are back. In truth, of course, they never entirely went away. As violent crime has risen so has serious disorder in towns and cities across Britain. What is most noticeable about the most recent spate of riots though is the numbers of youths involved and the magnitude of the destruction caused. It is the sheer scale of events in Oldham, Burnley, Bradford and elsewhere that immediately leads to direct comparisons with the riots of the eighties.

There is another obvious comparison with the riots of the past too: “race”. In 1981 and 1985 the majority of those taking part in the disturbances were black youths from inner-city areas with large black populations. The rioters were not first generation blacks, but second and third generation, born and brought up in the UK but even more powerless and disenfranchised from mainstream social, economic and political life than the bulk of the rest of the working class. Theirs was a rebellion against the police who harassed and intimidated them and implicitly against a culture that still insisted on seeing them as outsiders.

This time around the rioters have been second and third generation UK Asians feeling the same sort of social exclusion and powerlessness felt by black youths in Britain before them and typically residing in some of the most deprived council wards in the country. Their rebelliousness has been given an added dimension by the intimidating presence of fascist and racist organisations – particularly the British National Party – in towns and cities where they are most heavily concentrated. If there was relatively little involvement by far-right groups in the riots of twenty years ago, the same could certainly not be said this time, with the provocative and violent activities of fascist gangs being the catalyst for some of the most serious events, most notably in Burnley and Bradford.

In Burnley it was alleged by elements of the white working class that Asian areas in the town had received preferential treatment from the local council and other agencies responsible for handing out regeneration monies. In Bradford local white youths complained that Asians were treated with “kid gloves” by the police, for fear the police be labelled as racists.

Viewpoints such as these are rarely the product of genuinely held grievances. Asians in Burnley live in the same type of slums by and large as many white workers do in the town; and in Bradford claims of harassment by the police are far more likely to be made by Asian youths than white youths. Instead, these ideas are in essence the product of a situation where the existing poor fear being made even poorer through the close presence of even more of their number. If the ‘new poor’ in question have a different colour, different religion and different culture from the majority, the suspicion and distrust is all the easier to justify.

One thing is certain: whatever the precise causes, the rioting that has been taking place is unlikely to get either the Asian or white youths involved very far (unless a police cell for the night is the extent of their ambitions). If New Labour do what Thatcher did and throw a little money in the direction of the affected areas as a token gesture, that will be something (as it was in Liverpool); but the laws of the market dictate that just as one hand gives so the other takes away – probably in the form of lost investment and business shut downs (again as happened in Liverpool).

Tony Benn has said that rioting is the oldest form of social protest and in that he may well be right. But there is no point in white and Asian youths protesting about the other’s allegedly preferential treatment and conducting running battles in front of the TV crews each evening. Any meaningful action has to be democratic and organised and based on the recognition that white and Asian youths have far more in common than they have that divides them. They would both do well to recognise that as the poor and excluded they are kept poor because the rich are rich. For it is only then that they can formulate actions based on where there interests truthfully lie – and in fundamental opposition to those who have really gained from keeping them in their subject, inferior position all along.

The politics of madness (2001)

From the August 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Provisional IRA’s guns have been almost silent now for some seven years. The spin doctors of republican terrorism have now got their snouts in the political trough – two of them government ministers mouthing the same sort of nostrums and excuses as their erstwhile unionist opponents. The power of Sinn Fein over their paramilitary first cousins in the IRA has been demonstrated by the fact that, despite the opportunist manoeuvrings of their political wing, their cease-fire has held largely intact.

It would have been a bold political prophet who would have predicted in 1970, when a few die-hards of the pure faith of Pearse and Connolly established the Provisional IRA – in contradistinction to the more quiescent policies of the Leninist “Official” IRA – that the new movement would achieve such lofty peaks in the small range of Northern Irish politics.

Today, the mouthpieces of the Provos have become the epitome of political respectability. People like Adams are welcome guests of the Irish government. They can speak man-to-man with Blair and they are been in the White House. Now, internationally recognised political celebrities, they can be heard arguing the case for what they contend is the road to a permanent peace.

Slaughter of the innocents
Of course, there was a price to pay. Thousands of people have died, most killed by the Provos. The lives of many young men and women have been marred by years of imprisonment. Still others have been tortured and murdered on the authority of kangaroo courts. Additionally, the quite fearsome atmosphere of hatred and division that stalks Northern Ireland at present is in no small way the product of the IRA’s violence – the alleged purpose of which was to establish unity between the people of Ireland irrespective of religion.

In the recent elections that division was emphasised: Most of the Catholics who voted did so for Sinn Fein, allowing the republicans to claim that they were now the larger of the two nationalist parties. Sinn Fein celebrated with an orgy of flag-waving triumphalism remarkably reminiscent of the behaviour of their traditional enemies. Adams and his political cohorts are astute enough to know that a resumption of IRA violence would dramatically reduce their electoral fortunes and scupper their strategy for becoming an effective all-Ireland political force. There was another vital point that might have made some thoughtful republicans see their electoral victories as somewhat Pyrrhic. What they had done to the moderate nationalists of the SDLP, the virulent forces of Paisley’s miscalled “Democratic” Unionist Party had done to the more accommodating representatives of Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party.

The leader of the traditional Unionist Party, David Trimble, is an Orangeman with a past. In the early seventies he was associated with the neo-fascist Vanguard Unionist Party. A few years ago he danced a victory jig with Paisley on the Garvaghy Road while the police forcefully cleared a path for the Orangemen to march. But Trimble is a lawyer with strong political aspirations and, as the leadership of Sinn Fein were becoming aware that there was no real future in violence, Trimble was coming to the view that there was political kudos in the politics of accommodation.

John Hume, the leader of the SDLP, and Gerry Adams of Sinn Fein were already working on the detail of that accommodation. At the same time, while declaring in the House of Commons that talks with republicans would upset his digestive system, John Major’s emissaries were in secret talks with the Provos – without Adams advising Hume or the British telling their “peace partners” in the Irish government.

Eventually, the various strands of a possible agreement was arrived at and presented jointly by the British and Irish governments as a framework for peace. Weeks of frenetic discussions ensued in which the real social problems of the majority of the people were never mentioned. The discussions were about flags, about the religion of the members of the police force that enforces capitalism’s laws, and about reflecting the close co-operation at governmental level already existing between capitalist enterprises north and south of the border.

There was much talk by the republican side about “equality of esteem” but it was pure political vapour, the same absolute rubbish that Sinn Fein’s military wing thought justified the slaughter of the innocent for nearly thirty years. It was wholly unrelated to the lives of working class people irrespective of religion or whether they lived north or south of the Irish border. Inequality is a vital part of the mechanics of capitalism; Sinn Fein’s perception of equality of esteem simply means that they want workers who are Catholics or nationalists to share equally in the inequalities of capitalism as it exists in Ireland.

Hotchpotch of ambiguities
The so-called Good Friday Agreement was a hotchpotch of ambiguities written in convoluted language calculated to deliberately obfuscate disagreements and placate the more threatening opponents of compromise. Worse, it was a sectarian charter, institutionalising the very bigotries that has traditionally helped to feed conflict and division in the province. Both sides would give a little and take a little and life would go on with the majority of the population still enduring the slings and arrows of outrageous capitalism. There were to be rewarding political positions for yesterday’s hard men and women with all the trappings of low-grade power and a generous modicum of economic affluence. For some, the struggle was paying off.

But there were those who felt aggrieved either because they had been left out, or wanted more or were so poisoned with hatred of their opponents that they disdained the idea of any compromise even if it contained the possibility of ending the killing. Paisley, the bellowing fundamentalist firebrand, and his “Democratic” Unionist Party were outraged. Theirs is a peculiar conception of democracy in which the majority, always providing it is a Protestant majority, has the right of absolute political domination over the those who are not Protestant and Unionist. The calibre of the DUP can be gauged by their silence when, during the recent election campaign, Paisley put his sanction on line dancing, making us aware that God didn’t like it and that it was the road to eternal damnation.

Still, the DUP went to the Assembly, sat in the Chamber with members of Sinn Fein, took the generous salaries, in some cases substantially incremented by local Ministerial salaries and in others by the generous salaries of Westminster MP’s. Being a party of principle, however, they refused to sit at the cabinet table with Sinn Feiners but did sit with them on Assembly committees and, of course, in many local government chambers.

Paisley, as always, was demanding the political head of anybody who would countenance the remotest idea of co-operation with republicans. Together with the Orange Order and the majority of Trimble’s own Westminster MP’s, they were frantically engaged in promoting the idea that Protestants were being increasingly denied their traditional “rights”. The “rights” referred to are mainly areas of largely cosmetic privilege or blatantly sectarian discrimination designed to kid working class Protestants that they were a privileged section of the community. The main stumbling block, however, was the failure of the IRA to decommission its weapons.

The weapons issue was, and is, a vital ploy in the power struggle between the Paisley Unionist and the Trimble unionists for the hearts and minds of the Protestant community. IRA guns are, in the main, silent; some of their arms dumps have been inspected and sealed by the body of international commissioners established to oversee paramilitary arms decommissioning and there can be little doubt that most of the rest of their arsenal in the Republic has been compromised.

On the threshold of the last election, in the hope that his action would forestall advances by the Paisleyites, Trimble announced that if the IRA did not show some evidence of actual decommissioning by the end of June he would resign his position as First Minister of the Assembly. Obviously Trimble was not really concerned at the trickle of arms the IRA might have conceded in order to allow him to retain his post. The gesture was intended to save him from his erstwhile supporters and, since he is the most accommodating Unionist leader, it might have seemed reasonable for the IRA to throw him a political lifeline in the shape of a few kilograms of Semtex or some ageing guns.

But just as Trimble is the prisoner of his backwoods supporters, so are Adams and the Sinn Fein leadership hostage to those wilder elements in the IRA who see any act of decommissioning as an act of surrender. Trimble must know that the IRA guns are a threat now only insofar as they might get into the hands of the political nutters of the Real IRA who want to continue killing and dying “for Ireland’”. He must be aware that Sinn Fein’s ambition is to win sufficient seats in the Republic’s Dail to enable the Party to become a participant in a future coalition government in the Republic. Ensconced thus, in government in the South and remaining a major player in the North, would extend Sinn Fein’s influence and power to a point previously undreamed of.

If the Northern Ireland Assembly is killed by the decommissioning issue, it will be a major impediment to the plans of the Sinn Fein leadership and a death knell to the political ambitions of the Trimble Unionists. Ironically, both parties need each other in the further pursuit of their disparate objectives. It is a need that underwrites the madness of what passes for politics in Northern Ireland.

Paisley has won a resounding victory, another one! The difficulty with Paisley’s victories is that each one seems to reverse the fortunes of his cause. It is more than thirty years since he and his bigoted cohorts started the battle to “save Ulster”. Over the years his party has gathered strength and now boasts that it is the true representative of the Unionist. But as the party progressed, the cause regressed because it is a throwback both in religious and political terms to the grosser lunacies of the sixteenth century.
Richard Montague

Anti-capitalism or just anti-capitalists? (2001)

Book Review from the August 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

Naomi Klein’s book No Logo has been widely proclaimed as a manifesto for the anti-capitalist movement. Klein herself disclaims any notion that she has written a manifesto, but the book is still well worth examining. It deals with the development of enormous global corporations and some of the resistance to this; the title reflects a general anti-corporate attitude.

It is common to observe that all high streets look very much the same nowadays, with Next, Virgin, Pizza Hut and McDonalds being found more or less everywhere, and not just in the UK. This illustrates the rise of the brand or superbrand, which is constituted by an image or a logo much more than just a range of products. Marketing gurus see the brand as crucial – companies should create a brand, not just sell a product. For instance, John Grant’s The New Marketing Manifesto argues that a brand is “a popular idea or set of ideas that people live by”. Brands “add value to people’s lives”, and are the new traditions (now that older traditions such as a sense of community have decayed). This kind of celebration of brands shows an uncritical acceptance of capitalism’s values.

In contrast, Klein looks behind the logo and the label to expose the darker side of branding. The logo has expanded in size and importance with items of clothing just being empty carriers for the brand. She quotes the boss of Nike:
“For years we thought of ourselves as a production-oriented company, meaning we put all our emphasis on designing and manufacturing the product. But now we understand that the most important thing we do is market the product. We’ve come around to saying that Nike is a marketing-oriented company, and the product is our most important marketing tool.”
Companies such as Nike, Gap, McDonalds, Disney and Starbucks are not simply multinational corporations (which would mean they have different brands and products in different countries), but are truly global corporations (with the same brands and marketing wherever they operate). Nike in particular has emerged as a real superbrand: its swoosh logo is an immensely popular tattoo in the US, among both customers and workers. Imagine flaunting your status as a wage slave by having your employer’s logo tattooed on your leg. Some American teenagers are quoted as saying that Nike is more important to them than their girlfriend is.

One theme of No Logo is the way in which advertising, sponsorship and the market have expanded into areas of life which were previously free of them, thus resulting in the loss of what Klein calls “unmarketed space”. A blatant instance of this is in schools, where companies sponsor lessons and TV programmes and all manner of equipment. Sponsorship of sporting and cultural events is now far wider than it has ever been.

But perhaps the biggest effect of the growth of the top brands is on employment. Increasingly, such companies are moving production to developing countries, especially in East and South-East Asia, in pursuit of cheap labour. Countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, China and the Phillipines have been happy to provide so-called free-trade zones or export-processing zones, with tax breaks for companies and no right to union organization for workers, as a means ot attracting the global corporations. Sub-contractors are used, so that, when questioned about wages and working conditions, Nike, Reebok and so on can reply that they do not actually employ anyone in Indonesia or wherever. Their production becomes far more flexible, as they don’t need to own land or factories, and can respond more easily to fluctuations in demand. They will also happily move prodution ftom one developing country to another in pursuit of a cheaper and more docile workforce. Young workers are often drawn into these zones with promises of good pay, only to find appalling wages, long hours, dangerous conditions, and tyrannical bosses, who may lock workers up if they refuse to do overtime. Some of the descriptions are reminiscent of nothing so much as Engels’ accounts in Condition o/ the Working Class in England in 1844—sweatshop conditions have just been exported to the “Third World”.

Companies such as British Airways and Debenhams have relocated much of their call centre work to India, where wages are a fifth of the UK level. The workers are given crash courses in British culture, everything from soaps to football, so they can chat knowledgeably with the callers, who don’t suspect that they are speaking to someone in Delhi or Bombay

However, while workers in Indonesia or Vietnam can make clothes, shoes or whatever, they cannot sell them in North America or Western Europe. Here, the global corporations have led the way in the notorious Mcjobs – part-time or temporary work often on near-minimum wages. In coffee bars such as Starbucks, workers may have to work two or three shifts a day, to coincide with the busy periods. This gives the company the flexibility to cope with fluctuations in business without having to pay people to just stand around, but for staff it is, to say the least, extremely disruptive. In other companies, Microsoft for instance, jobs are contracted out to agencies who (surprise!) pay far lower wages. Again, this boosts flexibility and the ability to respond to booms and slumps in demand, avoiding such problems as redundancy pay. Many “permatemps” have been employed in this way for years, without gaining proper employee rights.

This, then, is the picture that Klein presents, of a world increasingly dominated by global corporations and their cultural and economic impact, where wotkers slave away in sweat shops for a pittance with little ability to fight back, and where temporary jobs hold sway. Profits soar, while the workers suffer.

The final section of No Logo deals with various kinds of opposition and resistance to the superbrands and the kind of society they represent. This can range from the fun but ineffectual – such as parodying advertisements or throwing custard pies at Bill Gates – to to the more substantive responses of Reclaim The Streets and the wider ‘anti-capitalist’ movement. Such activity Klein describes as “laying the foundations for the first truly international people’s movement”. Here are some examples:
  • Exposing sweatshop and child labour, including school pupils discovering who made their uniforms
  • Local councils entering into selective purchasing agreements, and refusing to buy from companies that (for instance) trade with Burma
  • Secondary boycotts against cornpanics that supply other companies rather than the public directly
  • Campaigns such as that against Shell in Nigeria
  • Klein is well aware of the limitations of brand-based politics, e.g. that boycotts can be counter-productive and that such campaigns tend to miss the broader economic context. Her argument, though, is that “you’ve got to start somewhere”, so you might as well start with aiming your attacks at one big corporation, normally Nike.
However, the idea of “starting somewhere” naturally implies going on to address other issues in the fullness of time, and it’s here that Klein’s ideas become mundane and just plain disappointing For instance, she advocates enforcement of existing ILO treaties, and that employment codes of practice be drafted by the workers themselves rather than by the corporations. All this of course assumes the continued existence of employers and employed, and offers no vision of the ending of class division.

Global capitalism is not a new creature, it is just capitalism writ large and even nastier. A return to pre-global capitalism would be no altetnative, even if it were practical. But it should now be clear beyond dispute that national-based solutions to humanity’s problems are pointless, and that a world movement, leading to world socialism is urgently needed.
Paul Bennett

Blogger's Notes:
Though not listed in the contents of the August 2001 Socialist Standard as a book review let's be honest, to all intents and purposes, this is a book review. No Logo was also reviewed in the December 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard by Cyril Evans.