Thursday, October 12, 2023

Hairtrigger society (1983)

From the October 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

The shattered South Korean jet had hardly touched the bottom of the Sea of Japan before Ronald Reagan was at a microphone. his relentlessly supportive wife at his side, spouting the pious indignation which he typically offers as a public display of anger at his counterparts in villainy in the Kremlin:
This murder of innocent civilians is a serious international issue between the Soviet Union and civilised people everywhere who cherish individual rights and human life.
On successive days there was more of these unctuous outrages, which must have been puzzling for all those people in the central American states who have reason to think that Reagan is anything but one who cherishes their individual rights and lives. Except that there was no clapper board, it might have been a re-run of a poorer B movie from the president’s unforgettable past.

In Moscow too the cameras and the microphones were busy: "a rude and deliberate provocation” said the Novosti news agency; “. . . a worldwide, rabid anti- Soviet campaign" was how Tass described the American protests. Russian propaganda of course laid the blame onto American policies; the jet was an “intruder" flying into the “Soviet Union’s airspace" (a matter which we shall have more to say about) and the reaction was prudently defensive. According to British newspapers, this was supported by Russian workers, who reacted in a way typical of workers everywhere who are receptive of the nationalist propaganda of their masters:
What would be your reaction if somebody were to break into your house? (Woman in Moscow, Observer, 4 September 1983.)

I consider the reaction of the authorities quite sound. It’s impossible to violate the borders of states and that is why the border guards conducted themselves correctly. (Engineer. Moscow, Sunday Times. 4 September 1983.)
So it is really alright, then. Neither side is to blame because both acted reasonably and with a proper concern for human lives and safety — except that as a result a lot of people got killed, some of them perhaps not too interested in the conflict between the Russian and American power blocs nor in the niceties of scoring a propaganda advantage from human suffering. There is in fact a great deal more to it — more than the loss of the plane and the deaths, more than the official evasions and protests.

First, there is the issue of Russian — or American, or any other — airspace. It is generally assumed (ask those people in the Moscow' street, or in London or New York) that each state has some sort of ownership in the airspace above it and that other states can use it only by permission. But the borders of this airspace are arbitrary and imaginary, perhaps even more so than are those on land which are drawn by conferring politicians at what are known as peace conferences. Some years ago, when the first observation satellites began to orbit, the delicate question was asked, about how far upwards a state’s airspace extended. Was it limited to the earth’s atmosphere or did it go beyond — into interplanetary space, or inter-galactic, or out into the unknown blackness?

These were not idle questions for the "ownership" of airspace is really a matter of denying it to, and defending it against, other states, sometimes for commercial reasons but also for military purposes. The possible conflict over the division of outer space, in the times of spy satellites and orbiting nuclear weapons, is frighteningly active and relevant. The Russian government is quite sure that “their” airspace sits solid and inviolable above the concentrations of naval and military bases and the missile complexes around the Sea of Okhotsk which the South Korean jet flew over. This is one of the most heavily armed, one of the most sensitive, places in the world — and therefore one of the most dangerous. Apart from the airfields and the submarine bases the area includes inter-continental missile sites, aimed at America. According to the Guardian (6 September 1983), about 30 per cent of Russia’s entire strategic missile force is in that Far East region.

Neither Reagan nor the Russians paid any heed to the fact that the whole tragic incident came about because it concerned a segment of the world — there are many others, owned by various states — which is loaded with this equipment for instant, devastating warfare. Perhaps the airliner flew over the place by mistake; perhaps the Russians shot it down by mistake, but the reasons and the motivation behind it all were deliberate and conscious and completely sensible to anyone who accepts the priorities and the moralities of capitalism. This society is split into rival power blocs which are armed to the teeth — or should it be to the brains — with complex and horrifying weapons. Once armies were marched, or shunted about in trains, for days to do battle. Capitalism does it better now; modern war can be practically instantaneous and concluded, leaving the world in devastation, within days. The essence of this style of war is that fingers must be quick to the button and there is little time to recover from mistakes. This is the society which, claim Reagan and the Russian leaders, stands for human rights and safety.

It is likely that the reason for the airliner straying from its prescribed route — and for the American and Japanese tracking stations allowing it to do so — will not be publicly known, at least for some time. One theory is based on a report that South Korean aircraft on that route often took the short cut across the Russian bases to save fuel, rather than use the longer, safer, dog-leg route to the south. This theory has a familiar sound; it would not be the first time human lives have been put at risk, and lost, in the drive to produce cheaper goods and services. If the theory fits the facts, then the bodies in the sea can rest easy for they died in capitalism’s most cherished cause — making the highest profit in the shortest time with the least concern for human interests.

That is the authentic background to this sordid, brutal affair. Capitalism is a collection of massively armed camps because it has to be a society of conflict; it cannot work co-operatively because to do so would contradict its basic feature of producing wealth for profit. Under capitalism production — whether it is of material things like aeroplanes or services like a seat on a flight from Alaska to Seoul — is not carried on to satisfy human needs. It is carried on so that the class who own the airlines and the aircraft and the means of production and distribution at large may fulfil their role of the appropriation of profit. Wheat is grown, cars roll off the assembly line, aircraft fly, the working class are exploited, so that the owning class can realise a profit and accumulate further capital. This provides that class with an urgent interest in a number of things. First, the market where the commodities are sold — in the case of some areas of air travel, a highly competitive market. Second, sources of raw material like metal ore, rubber and oil. Third, the trade routes which connect these to each other and with the points of production.

Internationally the capitalist class dispute over these things and to protect their interests they have built up. through their state machines and with the support of the workers they exploit, a series of armed forces with a destructive power which, in the recent times of piston-engined aircraft and explosive missiles aimed by the human eye, would have seemed fantastic. The places where these weapons are held have to be extremely sensitive; foreign powers cannot be allowed to send their equipment and their military personnel into them without control. So they are defended by sophisticated and horrifyingly final destructive systems, one of which met the South Korean jet. The Russian government. like any other capitalist state, are unlikely to take chances with the safety of their bases; for their ruling class a lot more is at stake than a few hundred lives.

There is, then, nothing unique or even unusual about the shooting down of the airliner. Capitalism is a society of conflict and tension. The dead passengers in the jet were a sacrifice to capitalism’s inability to exist in peace. The remedies offered by both sides — a ban on the operations of Aeroflot, a cooling off in provocation from America — did not even pretend to approach the reality of the matter. All over the world, human beings are at work scanning screens, priming weapons, fingering buttons, checking, servicing, training — for the time when it will all be let loose so that one section of the master class can triumph over another. This is a hairtrigger society which can turn a mistake into a catastrophe.

50 Years Ago: Are We Progressing? (1983)

The 50 Years Ago column from the October 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

The two theories found most frequently among those who will not listen to the Socialist case are not confined to any one political party, but are common among Liberals and Tories, Labourites and Communists. The first is the theory that conscious organised action to achieve Socialism is not necessary because, in spite of appearances, “things are getting constantly better and better.”

The second is the theory that conscious organised action need not be taken, because everything will go on getting worse and worse until there is a really terrifying crash “which will simply force people to do something”.

Yet both theories are unsound — neither the gradual accumulation of social reforms, nor the periodical outbursts of violence solves the problems which face us. To see that this is so it is only necessary to glance over the events of the past 30 years. In spite of wars and upheavals, Labour governments and dictatorships, capitalism persists without any essential change for better or worse. It makes a little adjustment here and another there, it replaces one set of rulers by another set, it calls things by different names, but the same essential capitalism is here with us yet.

(From an editorial: “Are we Progressing? Hopes and hears for Socialism”, Socialist Standard, October 1933)

Economical death (1983)

From the October 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

From The Guardian, 28 July, 1983:
“The most economical method of disposing of the dead in nuclear war, would be by mass burial", Mr. Alan Bullett, Kent’s deputy surveyor, told the Cremation Society conference at Harrogate yesterday. We should be planning them now. A mass grave of “manageable proportions" would be up to 50 metres long, 4 metres wide, and 2.5 metres deep, to accommodate five layers of 200 bodies — 1000 bodies in all . . . Mr. Bullett drew' some guidance from Ministry of Agriculture advice on the burning of animal carcasses after an outbreak of foot and mouth disease . . . Crematoriums could be used as radiation sickness took its toll. A member of the audience said that bodies needed a hard base for loading into a crematorium. If coffins were not available, a sheet of corrugated iron would do . . . Deaths occurring up to 3.3 miles from the burst would leave 200,000 bodies for disposal, with more to come from radiation sickness. The Government has given local authorities the task of disposal.

What went wrong? (1983)

From the October 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

When the Labour Party won the 1945 general election they declared their confidence in their ability to solve the problems of British capitalism, the main plank in their programme being the nationalisation of coal, steel, the railways, the Bank of England and other industries. They promised full employment, stable prices, expanding production and a rising standard of living but soon came into difficulties and adopted the first of the post-war incomes policies. Prices rose sharply, the export of British manufactures lost ground and in 1949 they sought another remedy in devaluing the pound from $4.00 to $2.80. It did not save them and in 1951 the Tories came to power and remained in office until 1964, declared by the Labour Party to be Thirteen Wasted Years.

At the 1963 Labour Party conference, Harold Wilson announced a new cure-all — the technological revolution — spelled out in the Party's 1964 election programme, Let's Go With Labour For The New Britain:
The world wants it and would welcome it. The British people want it, deserve it, and urgently need it.

A new Britain — mobilising the resources of technology under a national plan; harnessing our national wealth in brains, our genius for scientific invention and medical discovery; reversing the decline of thirteen years; affording a new opportunity to equal, and if possible, surpass, the roaring progress of other western powers, while Tory Britain has moved sideways, backwards but seldom forwards.

The country needs fresh and virile leadership. Labour is ready. Poised to bring its plans into instant operation. Impatient to apply the New Thinking that will end the chaos and sterility.
After much consultation with industry and the unions, and collection of information, this heady stuff was embodied in a government publication, the National Plan, running to nearly 500 pages, all of it summarised in a Labour Party pamphlet Target 1970. The trade union leader Prank Cousins was appointed Minister of Technology. According to Target 1970 there was to be a 25 per cent growth in the national income, wages were to rise by 20 per cent, houses would be built at the rate of 500,000 a year, the output of manufactured goods was to go up by about 25 per cent and 800,000 new jobs were to be created. Steel output was to go up from 25,820,000 tons in 1964 to 30,750,000 tons in 1970 (National Plan p. 142).

In 1965, after a year in office, George Brown spoke optimistically at the Party Conference about the National Plan for which he had been responsible:
Even though we are not yet on sound ground, it has been an incredible change in the situation. The prospects now compared with what they were last October, the situation now compared with what it was last October. are almost unbelievably different. (Conference Report, p. 222.)
His excuse for difficulties that had arisen or might arise was that though the Labour government knew the previous Tory government had left a mess behind them, it was much more than they had thought. The Tories had not only left a mess but had concealed from their successors how great it was: “We did not know the full capacity of our predecessors for deception." In 1968, after four years in office, the Labour Party published A Dictionary of Achievement, prefaced with the claim: “Since Labour came to power in 1964, the whole country has been experiencing a quiet revolution. In almost every aspect of government, a ferment of new ideas has been at work". It gave details about aspects of the Plan that had been put into operation but almost nothing about the results.

As it turned out, when 1970 arrived (and the Labour government lost the election) most of the planned targets had not been reached, growth in national production was only 17 per cent against the planned 25 per cent. Wages had indeed gone up but prices had risen not by 35 per cent. The rise in real wages was under 10 per cent. (There was of course nothing in the Plan about putting up prices.) Instead of the 500,000 new houses a year the average number completed in the period 1965-1970 was under 400,000 a year. In 1970 it was 364,000, actually below the number in 1964. The growth in national production under the Plan was less than in preceding years under the Tories and it has continued to grow more slowly under later Labour and Tory governments.

Exports of manufactured goods continued to lose ground in world markets and to remedy it there was another devaluation of the pound from $2.80 to $2.40. (Nothing about this, either, in the Plan). When Labour lost office in June 1970 unemployment was nearly 200,000 higher than when they took power in October 1964.

So why did it all go wrong? Basically it is because the Labour planners do not understand how capitalism operates. They fail to realise that the quantity of goods that a company or industry can go on producing is not determined simply by its productive capacity but by the quantity that can be sold at a profit — that is by market conditions generally. And market conditions cannot be controlled, or even forecast, with any certainty. The quantity that can be sold at a profit not only depends on the completely uncontrolled and unpredictable state of world markets but also the sales of one industry are dependent on what is happening in other industries. It only needs a few industries — steel, motor cars, shipbuilding, textiles — to overproduce for their particular markets and consequently to cut back their investment and output, for other industries to be adversely affected.

In drafting the Plan the Labour government approached companies and organisations asking them to estimate future demand and their capacity to increase production up to the expected level. But how could they know? There are dozens of governmental and private organisations engaged in forecasting. Did any of them in say 1979 forecast that by 1983 there would be over three million unemployed? Or did any of them foresee that in the early 1970s the oil exporting countries would band together to use their monopoly to double and treble oil prices? In anticipation of a growing demand for steel Labour (and Tory) governments doubled the output of the British Steel Corporation, only to find that the world market for steel had slumped and they had to cut production down again.

Because the Labour Government’s National Plan was “national”, it had to be constructed by combining the separate plans of each industry and company and trying to adjust these to the comprehensive whole. This assumes that the companies themselves know what is going to happen. What success did the steel, motor car and shipbuilding industries have at peering into the future? None at all. The fallacies of planning were exposed by Frank S. McFadzean, a managing director of the Royal Dutch Shell group. The group was asked among other things to tell the Labour government in 1964 what would be its future investment in oil tankers, how much it would be and where it would be. It was impossible to answer the question:
Its investment decisions are influenced by the investment decisions of others — British, Norwegian. Swedish, Dutch and Chinese shipowners for example. If these latter decide to charter at low rates Shell may build no tankers at all. (Article on a volume of McFadzean’s lectures. Financial Times 6 April 1969.)
McFadzean was in an exceptionally good poisition to expose the futility of the National Plan because Shell has for years spent millions of pounds on its own attempts to foretell the future of the market for oil and other products of the group. This was his verdict:
Except in the very short period ahead, we are not really very impressed by the detailed results shown by our plans. It will be the sheerest fluke if ever we achieve them. Looking back to 1962 and what we then prognosticated . . .  we were wrong on many counts.

We were wrong on volumes, we were wrong on prices, we were particularly wide of the mark on our estimates of the demand for and price of naptha, we were wrong on our cost projections, we were wrong on the level of investment which we would need to make. We did not fully foresee the increase in the size of tankers, we did not foresee the extent of Libya’s crude oil production; we did not foresee the dominant role that natural gas would play in Holland. . . we did not foresee the closure of the Suez Canal.
If Shell with all their experience could not plan ahead with confidence for one industry what hope was there or is there that a government could do it for a combination of all the industries?

Capitalism is inherently unstable and its periodic descent into depressions is inevitable, as shown by the experience of a couple of centuries. From 1945 to the mid-1970s the Labour and Tory leaders all believed that they had found a way to maintain boom conditions and full employment indefinitely by the use of the fallacious doctrines of J. M. Keynes. With the leadership of Thatcher most of the Tories have now abandoned Keynes and adopted the equally spurious doctrine of monetarism and the “free market”, which are just as incapable as the Keynesian doctrines of maintaining boom conditions and full employment.

Capitalism goes its own way, in accordance with its structure and its own economic laws, with its inevitable cycle of expansion and contraction. Capitalists expand investment and production when it is profitable to do so. and contract both when it is not profitable. Neither National Plans nor free market forces alter the essential conditions under which capitalism operates.
Edgar Hardcastle

Troubled waters (1983)

From the October 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

After ten years of intermittent discussion the Law of the Sea Conference finally came to a close last December when a Convention was signed by 117 states at an official ceremony at Montego Bay, Jamaica. Several key states, however — most notably the United States, Britain. West Germany and Japan — have refused to sign on the grounds that the proposed International Seabed Authority limits the freedom of their mining companies to exploit the resources of the seabed. The creation of an international organisation to manage seabed mining threatened the existence of the Conference throughout the last ten years and even now poses a threat to the workings of the new Law of the Sea. In fact the central issues which predominated during the conference were the thorny ones of ownership and control of resources. It could be said, however, that the aim of the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference was to establish the rules of the game for the use and abuse of the oceans. This proved necessary since there was an increase in the recoverable economic value of the seabed combined with a polarisation of interests between the industrialised states of the north and the developing states of the south — a factor promoted by the increase in the number of new sovereign states since the post-1945 de-colonisation. The interests of the south are articulated by the Group of 77, which in 1980 comprised 117 states. This coalition is determined to ensure that there will be no new colonialism in relation to the wealth of the seabed.

The Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) started in 1973. UNCLOS was divided into three main committees — for deep sea mining; traditional law of the sea problems such as navigation, continental shelf and fisheries; and marine research and pollution. These issues were not without controversy since disputes exist over national boundaries, rights within national boundaries, those over rights in the ocean beyond national jurisdiction and those arising from non-ocean sources. Around the world there are numerous contested zones, islands, archipelagos, not to mention rights over navigation. There are more than 100 strategically important straits such as the Malacca strait between Malaysia and Indonesia, through which the bulk of Japan’s oil supplies pass. There are disputes over fishing where the interests of the maritime states — the Soviet Union and Japan for example — with large distant water fishing fleets collide with those of the coastal states with large fishing grounds off their shores.

The establishment of an Exclusive Economic Zone — EEZ — would allow states to claim exclusive rights to the seabed out to 200 miles from the shore. There are, however, numerous islands whose ownership is hotly contested, the Falklands for instance. Although islands are defined as naturally formed areas of land surrounded by water at high tide and therefore entitled to an EEZ, this does not prevent states from demanding EEZ rights for rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life on their own. The reason for this is simple: states commanding rocks in resource-rich areas can use them to claim the contiguous resources. In this respect the dispute between Britain. Ireland and Denmark over Rockall, a tiny rock about 400km west of the Hebrides, came into focus since it commands an area of 201,250kms of the continental shelf with potential oil reserves. It is not surprising then that Britain has consistently argued that existing international law makes no distinction between different types of island and that to do so is likely to result in ambiguities. The resolution of this particular squabble — ownership and whether such rocks are entitled to an EEZ — will set an important precedent as there are similar disputed “rocks" in the Pacific and Caribbean.

The Falklands war was not unrelated to the question of EEZs since the continental shelf contains oil reserves and the seas are rich in fish stocks. It is for this reason that seemingly insignificant islands as the Falklands Dependencies, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, assume strategic significance as they can be used to stake claims to the resources in the surrounding seas and on the seabed. Furthermore such islands are useful as a staging post to the Antarctic, another area potentially rich in untapped resources. Shortly after the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands Lord Shakleton was moved to remark:
What is at stake and what undoubtedly is in the minds of the Argentinians is not just the Falkland Islands but their claim to Antarctic territory. (3 April 1982 Hansard (Lords) vol. 448 col. 1585.)
Two supposedly allied NATO states, Greece and Turkey, were at one time more likely to go to war with one another than with the Soviet Union over the resources of the Aegean Sea. According to Barry Buzan, “The conflict of interest between Greece and Turkey arose, like many others, after discovery of oil by an American exploration company” (Adelphi Papers No. 143, A Sea of Troubles? Sources of Dispute in the New Ocean REGIME).

In the Far East. Japan, in addition to the long-running dispute with the Soviet Union over the Kurile Islands, contests the ownership of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea with both China and Taiwan. The significance of potentially large off-shore oil is not lost on states dependent on oil imports such as South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. Moreover, the continental shelf and economic zone boundaries cannot be drawn until this dispute is resolved.

The Barents Sea and the conflict of interests between the Soviet Union and Norway is. perhaps, typical of many of the problems associated with delimitation. The contested area constitutes roughly 153,000 square kilometres of the continental shelf between Novaya Zemlaya and Spitsbergen. For the Norewegians substantial fish and seabed resources, principally oil, depend on how the boundary is drawn. This is particularly important for the Norwegians since oil is vital for their economy. The existence of indigenous oil reserves, as in the North Sea and possibly in the Barents Sea, allows Norway to avoid the vulnerabilities associated with dependence on Middle Eastern oil. It is for this reason that Norway is concerned about the activities of a Russian oil drilling ship, the Valentin Shashin (Guardian, 2 May 1983). Energy supplies, even for resource-rich Russia, may become critical in the next decade since Soviet oil and gas supplies may be insufficient to meet both domestic and growing Eastern European demands. Despite the disputed zone the Norwegians have recently signed a deal with the Russians which will, according to the Guardian (27 April 1983) permit the Norwegian Petroleum Consultants to evaluate exploration costs to decide where to drill and to frame the timetable of the operation. Offshore oil exploration is an area in which the Russians lack the technological expertise of Western states and are, therefore, heavily dependent on Western assistance. In fact, “the Norwegian offshore industry is keen to get in on the act, and the yards have been pressing the Government to be allowed to sell to the Soviets” (Guardian, 17 June 1983). Furthermore, the British and the French are keen to sell the Russians oil-exploration-related technology even though the American government would rather they did not. However, “this is not in the interests of West European industry and commerce” (Guardian, 27 April 1983).

In addition to the availability of oil and gas the Russians have a keen military interest in the Barents Sea and the Norwegian Sea. The Russian Northern Fleet has bases at Pechanga, Murmansk and Severomorsk, all of which are situated on the Kola Peninsula in the Leningrad Military District. Moreover, one of the two Soviet ballistic missile submarine bases is at Polyarny at the Eastern end of the peninsula. However, as the British and Norwegians discovered, increased commercial traffic and oil exploration do not mix — as they had to transfer their joint manoeuvres from the North Sea to the Shetlands. UNCLOS allows for the concept of “innocent passage” whereby ships are entitled to passage provided it is not prejudicial to the “peace", "good order" or “security" of the coastal states. Warships and submarines, however, pose problems but all attempts to restrain their passage have been opposed by the major maritime states.

Perhaps the greatest controversy facing the Conference relates to deep sea mining. The resources at stake are large deposits of potato-shaped polymetallic nodules — “manganese nodules". They contain traces of vital “strategic metals" such as cobalt, nickel, copper and manganese. On average each nodule contains 30 per cent manganese, 1 per cent nickel and ¼ per cent cobalt. Cobalt, for instance, is an indispensable element in the manufacture of small high-powered magnets necessary for weapons guidance systems. In a uranium enrichment plant employing the gaseous diffusion method nickel plated steel is used since it is able to withstand the highly corrosive uranium hexathoride gas. However,
The nodules themselves have lost glamour to deposits of polymetallic sulphides containing copper and other metals in much higher concentrations, first encountered at volcanic vents in the Pacific rift near the Galapagos Islands and off the coasts of Oregon and Washington. Similar deposits are certain to be found elsewhere along the 40,000 mile world-gridling submarine rifted ridge. (“The Law of the Sea. Elisabeth M. Borgese, Scientific American, March 1983, Vol. 248. No. 3. p. 33.)
Hitherto such metals were only available from relatively few states which were either politically unstable or unfriendly to the West. Since the EEC’s import dependence for materials such as manganese is 99 per cent and copper 91 per cent, “The European Community's industrialised countries are keen to see that seabed mining for cobalt, copper, manganese and nickel begins as soon as possible and with as little restraint as possible” (Guardian, 23 November 1982). Japan is 95 per cent dependent on imports of manganese and 98 per cent on nickel. It is, therefore, not too difficult to appreciate the interests of Western states in the possibility of achieving independence in relation to the supply of industrial materials. This chiefly explains their opposition to the deep sea mining provisions of the Law of the Sea Convention. Britain and the US vigorously oppose the insistence of the developing states that an International Seabed Authority should regulate the market, transfer technology and ensure that the benefits accrue to the developing states. In short, the key problem is who will be permitted to exploit seabed nodules?

The Group of 77 argued that since the new resources of minerals threatened the economics of those states in the developing world dependent on the export of one or two minerals such states should be compensated for the loss of export earnings. Moreover, it urged that an ISA should have stronger powers; for example, to regulate production and to carry out mining operations and related activity in the name of the Authority. The United States however, largely at the behest of its multinational mining companies, opposed the treaty on the grounds that such an Authority would limit their commercial freedom, specifically by obliging them to pay taxes on earnings from mining to such an authority as well as to supply it with technology. Although the Group of 77 insisted that the establishment of an ISA is an integral component of a New International Economic Order and sees the ISA as very much a test case for future resource redistribution, the Group has been unable to maintain its unity. It has been dominated by coastal states, especially those with large coastlines and significant offshore resources. This has been achieved at the expense of the “geographically disadvantaged states” — landlocked states and those without large coastlines or significant offshore resources. Even though the industrialised states oppose the content of the ISA proposals, not all are in favour of unhindered access and exploitation since this would work to the unilateral advantage of American mining companies. Britain, West Germany and Italy share the American view, but Ireland, Denmark and Greece “recognise the advantages the treaty could provide for countries lacking the industrial base for seabed mining” (Guardian. 23 November 1982).

At the signing ceremony of the Convention the US representative, Thomas Clingan, stated unequivocally that:
The US has an extreme national interest in having access to strategic metals from the oceans . . . the Treaty just doesn’t meet our interests in terms of deep sea-bed mining provisions. (International Herald Tribune, 8 December 1982.)
And that, in the end, is what the Law of the Sea Conference is concerned with: the pursuit of the “national interest" — the owning minority. The resources of the seabed beyond the 200-mile EEZs are designated “the common heritage of mankind”; nothing could be further from the truth.
John Walker

Old scores (1983)

From the October 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

Old scores
Recently a documentary entitled Old Scores was shown on Northern Ireland television. Made in Belfast and intended mainly for local viewing, it was about a group of Protestant and Catholic teenagers who lived in the Rathcoole housing estate in the northern suburbs of Belfast, and who played together as a football team for the last time in the summer of 1969. The province at that time was about to erupt into sectarian violence, and the mixed housing estate of Rathcoole was shortly to become staunchly Protestant. The Catholic residents were persuaded, by threats and intimidation, to leave the Catholic ghettos.

Some of the players in this team ended up in the Protestant Ulster Volunteer Force, others in the Provisional IRA. One served three years in the Maze prison, another is at present serving 18 years for shooting three Catholics, a third — Bobby Sands — grew up to become a Westminster MP, and later died on hunger strike. The Belfast Telegraph called the documentary “a very worthwhile human story which looks at an aspect of the troubles from a different angle”. But in fact the theme of the documentary was to show both sides of the sectarian divide with no attempt to trace the real cause of the Ulster tragedy.

Those players of the football team who were still alive and available were interviewed and asked for their opinions of their former teammates. The Catholics still living in the ghettos spoke guardedly but none seemed even faintly aware of the cause of their predicament. All measured the problem in terms of Catholics and Protestants without even knowing why. None could see any inconsistency in being a teammate one minute and a deadly enemy the next. One Catholic, on being asked “Would you play football with a Protestant again?” replied “No”. Asked "Why did Bobby Sands get mixed up with the paramilitaries?” he said “He was unlucky”. Most saw the only way out of their dilemma as emigration. To date three had settled in the Channel Islands, one had gone to Australia, and another was attempting to emigrate to America. The documentary typifies the media approach to the troubles in Northern Ireland which attempts to explain everything in sectarian terms.

Sectarian Roots
What are the origins of this sectarianism? Sectarianism has a long and complicated history in Ireland, but basically the present upsurge dates from the early years of the 20th century.

Protestant and Catholic workers have been used as pawns in the economic rivalry between the industrial capitalists of the North, and the emerging capitalist class of the South. The North is predominantly Protestant, and the South predominantly Catholic. With the threat of Home Rule for Ireland the Northern capitalists, seeing that Home Rule could exclude them from the lucrative markets of Britain and its empire, enlisted the aid of the Protestant working class to fight for the Partition of the North from the rest of Ireland. They did this by implying that Home Rule would mean that the Protestant religion would become submerged in a Catholic Ireland. So successful was this ploy that the Catholics in the North have become the whipping boys for many of Ulster’s problems. Over the years the bitterness has grown and the Catholics have reacted accordingly.

Bigotry . . . 
Many Protestant workers will tell you that Catholics are devious, clannish, and that their entire outlook is determined by their church. For example if they marry Protestants the children of the marriage must be raised as Catholics. Another sore point is that Catholics get everything that is going in the way of social security and, because they generally have large families, this usually amounts to something more than the minimum wage. In addition in the Catholic ghettos very few pay rent or gas and electricity bills. Hence the saying "they neither work nor want”. Those few Catholics who find favour in the Protestants' eyes are given the accolade: “He is not a bad fellow for a Catholic”. To discuss the class struggle with the Protestant worker is likely to cause the assumption that you are in some way connected with the Catholic orientated Provisional IRA. or Sinn Fein.

Catholic workers are equally explicit about their Protestant counterparts, saying that Catholics are treated like second class citizens, discriminated against and kept out of the best jobs; or that the RUC is a mainly Protestant police force which has a bias against Catholics. Only in a United Ireland, they say, where we will no longer be in a minority, can Catholics expect to get justice.

The Real Issue
There will be no justice in Ireland or anywhere else until workers realise that it is not their religion but their class position in society which is the cause of their poverty, poor housing, and insecurity. The real problem is exploitation by those who own the means and instruments of wealth production and distribution. These owners can be Catholic or Protestant.

It is true that the capitalist class would be glad to see the end of sectarian violence. As we say in our pamphlet Ireland, Past, Present and Future:
By the 1960s the factors which divided the capitalist class had changed. Capitalism in the South had developed to a point where trade protection was being counterproductive, and the new economic strategy was concerned with attracting foreign investment. In the North the traditional industries were in decline and the Unionist government too was fighting vigorously to attract foreign capital. A new economic pattern was developing in both states involving multi-national firms which, as often as not, operated on both sides of the border. There was a growing interchange of capital and personnel, and both states stood on the threshold of the profitable markets of the European Economic Community. The old bigotries were no longer required, the capitalist priorities which had dictated their use had changed. There was to be a new era of “bridge building" and "reconciliation”. Unfortunately however the poison had been injected deep into the veins of the working class. The warnings, the fears, the naked hatred nurtured over decades by businessmen, politicians, churchmen, and even judges could not be easily wafted away!
It is sectarian divisions which cloud the real issue — the class struggle between the working class on one hand, and the capitalist class on the other. Old Scores might be a human story but it did not tell us anything new about the troubles in Ulster. There are no old scores to settle between workers no matter of what persuasion they happen to be. Their common and overriding interest is to understand the nature of capitalism, and then to organise on a class basis to end it. With the introduction of a society where production will be for use and not for sale, the hatred and bigotry conjured up by the use of the words Catholic and Protestant will be as extinct as the dinosaur.

 . . . or reason?

Ireland—Past, Present and Future — The Socialist Party of Great Britain and the World Socialist Party of Ireland. 30p 

SPGB Meetings (1983)

Party News from the October 1983 issue of the Socialist Standard

Blogger's Notes:
There is an audio recording of Edgar Hardcastle's debate with Arthur Johnston of the Conservative Party at the following link.

There is also a write up of Howard Moss debate with Roger Scruton in the May 1984 issue of the Socialist Standard.

Voice From The Back: Capitalism in action (2010)

The Voice From The Back Column from the October 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Capitalism in action

Capitalism is a very wasteful society. When fruit growers have a more than bumper crop it is common to let some of it rot unpicked. When charities ask for the surplus they are told that to give it away would lower the price. These charities at present pay for the crop that is picked. Here is a recent example of this madness in the retail clothing trade. “High Street retailer Primark has been criticised by charities for its policy of shredding damaged and unwanted clothes. Aid organisations have described the practice as “worrying” and “a shame” – saying items could be used to raise vital funds. Primark said the practice was common and was to protect consumers.” (BBC News, 13 September) Overlooking the hypocrisy of Primark’s “to protect consumers” remark, the purpose of all production inside capitalism is to sell goods in order to realise a profit. Capitalism isn’t interested in protecting consumers or aiding charities. Fruit can rot while people go hungry and clothing can be destroyed while people go about ill-clad. That is how the capitalist system operates.

Modernity, but at an awful cost

The advance of capitalism has led to many improvements in technology. None of us would like to imagine a world without mobile phones, computers or digital cameras, but this being capitalism such advances have led to social disaster for some. A major source of the essential ingredients for such technology is the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is from here that gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum originate. It is also from here that we have had the deadliest conflict since the Second World War with an estimated death rate of 5.4 million people. “International agencies have described how paramilitary groups in the region control many of the mine producing gold and the “3Ts” where locals including children are forced to work for as little as $1 a day. The same groups then help to smuggle the minerals out of the country, where they eventually end up in laptops, mobile phones and video game consoles.” (Times,18 August) When The Times investigators queried the supply of such materials with industrial giants such as Apple, Sony, Noika, Dell, HP and Nintendo they were very evasive, best summed up by Microsoft’s reply “It’s very hard to reliably trace metals to mine of origin.” It is of course even harder for them to let their rivals have exclusive access to these cheap sources.

Business is booming

It is common nowadays to read of growing unemployment, businesses folding and widespread bankruptcy ,but there is one trade that is booming . “Pawnbrokers will soon be as common on the high street as coffee shops and banks, according to the chief executive of Britain’s biggest operator. John Nichols, of H&T, said eventually there would be pawnbrokers in every town centre.” (Times, 25 August) His forecast was made as his firm announced a 71 per cent leap in its profits over the last six months. It is worthwhile noting what the source of this high street boom is put down to. “Slightly more than half of pawnshop customers use the cash to pay for daily essentials, such as food and groceries, while about six out of ten are not in work, according to Bristol University research released yesterday.” (Times, 25 August) Some of us are forced to pawn our sweetheart’s engagement ring in order to get some groceries. Isn’t capitalism wonderful?

The Price of Oil

We are often told by social commentators that capitalism with its wonderful technology and scientific endeavours has made the modern world a vast improvement on the past, but the human cost in injury and death is always soft-pedalled by capitalism’s supporters. Almost unnoticed in the paeans of praise for the profit system is this short news item. “Employers in the offshore oil and gas industry were urged yesterday to improve their safety record after a big increase in the number of workers killed or seriously injured. The Health and Safety Executive said that 17 workers died in off-shore-related incidents and there were 50 severe injuries in the past year, a “stark reminder” of the hazards. The combined fatal and severe injury rate almost doubled, coupled with a “marked rise” in the number of hydrocarbon releases – regarded as potential precursors to a major incident.” (Times, 25 August) When it comes to profit making human life is not a major factor.

A Nice Little Run-around

From time to time that old banger that you called the family car needs renewal. Here is an idea. “Lotus has unveiled the ultimate track-day car – a Formula One-inspired racer called the Type 125. The British sports car company will show its consumer-focused F1 clone at this weekend’s annual Pebble Beach Concourse d’Elegance in the United States, with plans to build only 25 examples from next April. The 125 will cost much less than a real Formula One car but the price tag is still expected to be about $1.1 million.” (Drive, 11 August) C’mon what is holding you back?

The New GDP: Gilts, Debts and ‘PIIGS’ (2010)

From the October 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
During 2010 the most talked-about consequence of the housing and banking crisis has been its knock-on effect for governments – those charged with masterminding the bailout. We examine the state of what is euphemistically known as the ‘public finances’.
There are ultimately only three sources of revenue for any government – taxes, borrowing and printing money. The economic crisis has led to a media preoccupation with all three. Because of the bailout of the banks and massive financial stimulus programmes initiated by governments the world over in an attempt to avoid another Great Depression, there is quite some interest in how all this is going to be paid for.

One aspect of this, which the Cameron government is now grappling with, is to try to compensate for the bailout and the costs of the recession by reducing other government expenditure (e.g. on state-provided services like education, on defence, and on staffing in the civil service, etc). However, if printing money causes inflation, and there are limits to the amount that can be raised through taxes, why not just borrow more to avoid the need for big public spending cuts?

The borrowing option is very often there, but government borrowing is not always as straight forward and risk-free an exercise within capitalism as it may appear at first sight.

Good as gilts
Governments borrow money through the issuance of bonds, which are sold to investors with the promise to pay a rate of interest and – usually – to return the original capital advanced by the investor at a pre-determined time (when the bond ‘matures’). The issuance of debt in the UK is overseen by an agency of HM Treasury called the Debt Management Office. Bonds issued with maturities of less than a year in the UK are called Treasury Bills and are traded on the money markets, typically by big financial institutions who only want to tie-up some of their money for short periods. However, the vast bulk of the bonds issued in the UK to finance government debt are for maturities over a year and are called ‘gilt-edged securities’ because the original bond certificates had a gilt-edge to the paper.

Gilts are usually issued for £100 each but come in various types and maturities – which means that the issuing and paying back of government debt is a far from straightforward business. The defining features of a conventional gilt are its ‘coupon’ (the interest payment) and its maturity, both reflected in the name of the gilt e.g. 8% Treasury 2013, a gilt which pays 8 per cent a year – in other words £8 – and for which the government will pay back the initial £100 in 2013.

Other gilts are ‘index-linked’ in that the coupon and final repayment amount are linked to movements in the Retail Price Index, while another category are undated or ‘irredeemable’ gilts such as 4% Consols, gilts often originally issued in the nineteenth century and which pay a regular coupon but for which the government is not bound to pay back the original sum advanced at any set date. The vast majority – nearly three-quarters – of UK gilts in issuance today are of the conventional variety and these are clustered into ‘shorts’ of under seven years maturity, ‘mediums’ of seven to 15 years and ‘longs’ of over 15 years.

The issuance of gilts, as they are commonly called, is a regular activity because government revenue from taxation does not neatly match patterns of government expenditure, either because spending is running ahead of government revenues, as at present, or because tax-collection typically has greater seasonal variations than government spending. And even when governments might be paying back some gilts as they mature (‘redeeming’ them) they will usually still be issuing others.

Other countries have similar mechanisms for issuing debt (in the US the bonds are called ‘Treasuries’) and all have similar issues at root. In particular, the laws of supply and demand will affect the level of the interest payments demanded by investors as will the general level of confidence in a country’s ability to pay both the coupons and the original capital advanced when the bonds mature. In the UK there are usually weekly gilt auctions and the government will have to respond to a lack of demand for gilts by increasing the coupon on new issues thereby making them more attractive – but at the same time making them more expensive from the government’s own point of view.

A big influencing factor on this is the ‘secondary market’ for already existing gilts – the billions of pounds of gilts in circulation until they mature do not usually trade at their face value after they have been issued, but at rates determined by the market. For instance, the return investors want on long-dated gilts may rise to 5% (the interest payment in relation to the price paid is called the ‘running yield’). If so, this means that a long-dated gilt with a 4% coupon is not going to trade at the original £100 face value it was sold at but only at £80 instead, as this is what would give a 5% running yield (a gilt costing £80 which pays £4 on the coupon). This type of shift in price and yield opens up the possibility for investors of capital gains and losses, and also leads to the concept known as the ‘redemption yield’, the running yield investors achieve adjusted for such capital gains and losses. In its simplest form, buying above the initial £100 face value will give a redemption yield lower than the gilt’s coupon rate as there will eventually be a capital loss to be taken into account, buying below face value will increase the redemption yield above the coupon rate as there will be a capital gain when the government repays the face value of the gilt.

Such market gyrations in gilt prices and yields as determined by capitalist investors daily will influence the way and cost at which a government can borrow by issuing new gilts, with shifts in yields being crucial. Because investors may be tying their money up for long periods it is normal for the yield on long-term bonds to be generally higher than for short-term bonds too. However, periods of financial uncertainty and likely recession usually lead to interest rates being temporarily higher for shorts than for longs as investors do not want to tie their money up for extended periods. This leads to what is called an ‘inverted yield curve’, with higher short-term interest rates in the economy than long-term rates, as happened for a time at the start of the credit crunch  (the yield curve is the relation between interest rates, i.e. the cost of borrowing, and the time maturity of debt).

These ever-changing market interest rates at which governments have to issue gilts in order to finance their borrowings is of obvious concern to them. But the maturity of the bonds is a significant issue too.

‘PIIGS’ at the trough
In the last few months a new acronym has arisen in the financial press reflecting the times. Instead of the talk being of the fast-growing emerging market ‘BRIC’ countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, we have the ‘PIIGS’ instead. These are countries that have been deemed by the international bond markets to have issues regarding the amount and/or nature of the government debt they have outstanding, the unfortunate acronym standing for Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain. The most serious situation, now accompanied by massive government spending cuts and riots on the streets, has been that encountered by Greece, which has implemented austerity measures of around 30 billion euros in return for a 110 billion euro rescue package from the EU.

Interestingly, Greece’s annual budget deficit – its annual expenditure over its annual revenue – is projected to amount to about 8 per cent of GDP this year, actually less than the US’s 11 per cent (Financial Times, 23 June). And its total accumulated national debt built up over time is, at around 110 per cent of one year’s GDP, a lot less than Japan’s at 190 per cent of GDP. The problem, however, with Greece has been that much of its debt was due to be retired in the next couple of years (i.e. a large proportion of the bonds it had issued were due to mature) and there was no guarantee it had the money to be able to do this. This prospect sent the bond markets into fright to the extent that long-dated Greek debt was yielding over 10 per cent at one stage, more than double that typical for other western economies. This was because investors dumped their bonds, in the belief they may not get their original investment back, sending the prices of the bonds plummeting and their yields soaring.

This has been a clear example of the way in which the bond markets are able to determine which countries are able to carry on issuing debt investors are willing to buy, and which countries investors have lost confidence in. This is precisely what has happened to a number of Latin American states such as Argentina during the last 30 years too – and the retribution has usually been severe. When a country shows signs that it cannot pay back its debts or may default on coupon payments on its bonds, a restructuring programme initiated by the International Monetary Fund is not far away, typically leading to cuts in state spending coupled with tax rises and the inevitable social unrest.

Once a government defaults on its debts, the bond markets tend to have long memories, and the fear of future default will push up interest rates (yields) for years to come, making the cost of government borrowing high. In such situations, international investors retreat to ‘safe havens’ like the US and UK, countries that have never had any significant default on their debts during their history.

Just like BP?
In this respect, the markets treat countries and their governments rather like they treat individual companies. Just as credit rating agencies like Moody’s or Fitch  give credit ratings to companies (the highest being ‘Triple A’) so they rate nations too and this influences market perceptions. Credit rating agencies and other financial firms view companies likely to default on their debt (whether to banks, or to investors such as the owners of corporate bonds) with the utmost suspicion. Defaulting on debt or inability to pay coupon payments on bonds or on promised dividends is one of the greatest corporate sins and companies deemed at risk of default have their bonds rated as ‘junk’ and are punished by markets.

Recent examples of those falling foul of financial markets because of a perceived inability to service their debts would not only include the banks but also major companies like William Hill and Premier Foods which have had to go back to their shareholders cap-in-hand asking for money to reduce their debt and shore up their balance sheets. Yet, a company like BP can have a temporary dip in its share price but otherwise largely escape the type of battering from the markets meted out to others despite its involvement in one of the biggest and costliest environmental disasters of all time. And the reason . . . ? BP’s net debt is little over one year’s typical profits (last year being $20 billion) and it has a flexible debt structure.  In other words, it is highly cash generative, has headroom on its debt and so investors have more confidence it can meet its financial obligations.

Little headroom
Like companies, some countries have more headroom to tackle their financial situation than others. Where confidence in government finances are high and where debt servicing is manageable, governments will be able to issue bonds at rates that are not exorbitant and thereby finance their expenditure. This also applies to governments that have more headroom to increase taxes because state spending in the economy is lower (another reason why the US and UK have been seen as safer havens for bond investors than countries like Greece).

But in truth there is an historical element to this as well. The story of the last 20 years or so isn’t that there has been a massive explosion in government debt – the explosion in debt has been in personal debt. In the US this rose from 80 per cent of average disposable income in 1990 to over 140 per cent, and in the UK a similar measure of personal debt rose from 100 per cent to 170 per cent of household income under New Labour (Financial Times, 9 August 2008). By contrast, while government deficits in a given year are now significant (a record £159 billion or 11.4 per cent of GDP last year in the UK) and have caused some market wobbles, the accumulated national debts of most countries have not been particularly high by historic standards.

Because of inflation over time, the big number headline figures of billions and trillions are misleading, and percentages give the best picture. By way of example, total accumulated national debt as a percentage of one year’s GDP is currently around 70 per cent in the UK. According to figures from the Bank of England this compares with over 250 per cent in 1946 at the end of the Second World War. Indeed, for all the period from the start of the First World War in 1914 until the early 1960s it was far higher than it is now, and the situation in the US has been very similar in percentage terms. Indeed, only as recently as 10-15 years ago governments in the US and UK were running big budget surpluses when the economy was booming and were paying back the national debt as quickly as they could, reducing national debt to GDP ratios to well below 50 per cent in both countries for a while.

What this means practically is that it usually tends to be sudden upward changes in the rate and nature of government debt that tends to really spook markets, drain them of confidence and lead to the type of government austerity measures we are now seeing, rather than particular total levels of debt as such. Indeed, a comparatively healthy economy like Singapore’s has a national debt equivalent to 113 per cent of GDP, while – perhaps counter-intuitively – Uganda, Iran and Mozambique have national debt of less than 20 per cent of GDP. After myriad failed government stimulus programmes over the last two decades Japan has accumulated the second highest national debt to GDP ratio in the entire world (after Zimbabwe) but despite its ongoing problems has comparatively little difficulty borrowing funds via the bond markets.

You can’t buck the market
What is certain from all this is that governments are far more like companies than they would ever generally like to admit, and certainly cannot ‘buck the markets’ and market perceptions, which are always crucial. But then again, who are ‘the markets’ anyway?

The market for UK gilts is typical and is dominated (at around 40 per cent) by insurance companies and domestic pension funds, followed by overseas investors and financial institutions, hedge funds, etc (at 35 per cent). The rest is made up of recognised collective investment vehicles like unit trusts, by banks and lastly by households (households being less than 3 per cent of the total). In other words, the bond markets – like the equity, commodity and currency markets – are dominated by the big capitalists and institutional investors. Their flows of investment capital are substantial and cross national boundaries at the press of a button. These are the people always on the look out for gilt-edged opportunities in life. The laws of the market economy dictate that no government will – or can – argue with them for long.

Material World: USA: Supporting The “Lesser Evil” (2010)

The Material World Column from the October 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Many “anti-capitalist” personalities urge people to support one of the two main capitalist parties, the Democrats, on the grounds that they are a “lesser evil” compared with the Republicans. One example is film maker Michael Moore (see March issue, p. 10). Another is Paul Street, who has written two useful expos├ęs of Obama – Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (2009) and The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (2010) (both from Paradigm Publishers). Although Street calls himself a libertarian socialist, he campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.

What they say versus what they do
How much less evil, then, are the Democrats?

A mistake that voters often make, especially during election campaigns, is to compare what the Republicans say and do with what the Democrats say. The relevant comparison is with what the Democrats do. The trouble is that when the Democrats have been out of office for a few years most voters no longer remember what they do. But those familiar with the record of the Clinton administration in the 1990s, for instance, or with Obama’s record as a congressman, might have noticed that between what the Democrats say and what they do yawns a chasm wider than the Grand Canyon.
In stump speeches in the mid-West, candidate Obama thundered against regional companies such as Maytag and Exelon. And yet these same companies, justifiably confident that he would do nothing to harm their interests, made large financial contributions to his campaign. Speaking before audiences of workers, Obama would denounce Maytag’s decision in 2004 to close the refrigerator plant in Galesburg, Illinois, entailing the loss of 1,600 jobs to Mexico. But he never raised the issue with Maytag directors Henry and Lester Crown, even though he enjoyed a “special relationship” with them.

Differences that make no difference
Many of the “differences” between Bush and Obama (or between McCain and Obama) make no difference. Or very little.

Obama initially opposed Bush’s military intervention in Iraq – hastening to add that he was not against all wars, God forbid, but only against “dumb” ones. Before leaving office, Bush initiated a gradual and partial withdrawal of troops from Iraq. Obama is pursuing the same course, breaking an earlier promise of rapid and complete withdrawal.

Bush was heading toward war with Iran. Obama is not. Probably. Hopefully. True, he did back off from his promise to meet with Iranian leaders. Commentator Steve Clemons informs us that “while there are individuals in the Obama administration who are flirting with the possibility of military action against Iran, they are fewer in number than existed in the Bush administration” (The Huffington Post, July 23, 2010). How’s that for reassurance?

At least there seemed, before the election, to be a clear-cut difference on the issue of offshore oil. How many people must have voted for Obama in horrified response to the exultant cry of John McCain and Sarah Palin: “Drill, baby, drill!” But in March 2010 Obama broke his campaign pledge and gave the go-ahead to offshore operations. The next month an oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico. Another rig caught fire in September.

Obama won trade union support by promising a new law to facilitate union organizing – the Employee Free Choice Act. He also said he would renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement to include stronger labour and environmental protections. We have heard nothing more of these things. Obama, we are told, does not want to look “pro-labour.”

And so the sad litany continues.

A political cycle
I do not mean to deny that in some ways or in some situations it may be better to have a Democrat rather than a Republican in the White House. For instance, isn’t it worthwhile just to reduce, even if not eliminate, the probability of an attack on Iran?

For the sake of argument, let us suppose that the Democrats are a significantly lesser evil. In that case, helping them into office does ward off a greater evil. But only in the short term. For once in office, Democrats come under irresistible pressure from their capitalist masters to break their “populist” promises, to disappoint, disillusion and betray the working people who placed their trust and hope in them. Some sink back into apathy and despair, while others fall prey to a racist or fascist backlash. These reactions give the Republicans their chance to return.
This is a recognizable political cycle. We have been through it before. Over and over again. Not only in the United States but (with variations of detail) in many other countries. Those who support the lesser evil play an essential role in constantly reproducing the cycle. They share the responsibility for its persistence. Support for the lesser evil also entails support – indirect and delayed, but support nonetheless – for the greater evil.

The difference that matters
For us as earthlings, the difference that matters is that between socialism and capitalism. Will we continue on our present course to the irreversible destruction of our home world? Or will we make the fundamental change needed to give us a decent chance of survival?

From this perspective, the differences between “greater” and “lesser” evils do not matter. Some capitalist politicians are totally subservient to the oil, gas, and coal corporations and recklessly oblivious to the looming danger. In their hands we are doomed. Other capitalist politicians are a little less subservient, show a limited awareness of the situation, and try to do something to mitigate it. Something, but much less than is absolutely essential. In their hands we are still doomed.
Pass or fail. The “lesser evil” is simply not good enough.

Aliens (2010)

A Short Story from the October 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Millions of Americans believe that aliens have landed from outer space. Thousands of Americans claim to have been abducted by aliens, and to have seen into their flying saucers. The descriptions they give of their abductors usually tally closely with the “creatures from outer space ” which have appeared in science-fiction dramas on American television. (Interestingly, America also has the most religious believers in the Western world.) These aliens must have come vast distances before they land in Wyoming or wherever. The nearest star to Earth (apart from our own sun) is Alpha Centauri, more than four light-years away. If the aliens came from any planet around Alpha Centauri, they would have to have a space-ship travelling at the unimaginable speed of one hundred million miles per hour – and even so it would take them twenty-five years to get here. (If they dawdled along at only a million miles per hour, the journey would take two thousand five hundred years.) So it is strange that having come so far they don’t hang around a bit and let us all see them. A flying saucer landing in Trafalgar Square during the rush-hour would settle the question once and for all. So why do they apparently scurry back home so quickly? Here is a document that may throw some light on the matter. But whether this is a genuine account, or merely a bit of fiction, readers must decide for themselves. If it is genuine, it may indicate why any aliens would not want to delay their return trip.

I was in the middle of the Cairngorm Mountains in the Scottish Highlands, miles from any human habitation, when I saw a group of men approaching me. I knew they were from outer space, because they all had pointy ears like Mr. Spock in Star Trek. When they got near enough, one of them said “Greetings, Earthling!” another clue: not many ordinary humans talk like that. “We bring salutations from outer space!” I understood every word, and that was a stroke of luck, because out of all the six thousand languages spoken on Earth, they had happened to learn the only language I knew.

“We have been reading the news on your internet,” the alien spokesman continued, “and we wish to condole with you on your recession. Hundreds of your schools were going to be rebuilt or refurbished, and now very few of them are. A sad business!” He shook his head. “So there are no people available to do all this rebuilding.”

“Oh yes”” I assured him. “There are two and a half million unemployed in this country, including lots of builders, plasterers, plumbers, electricians, and so on – and lots more of the jobless could quickly learn these skills. The country is full of people who could teach all these useful trades.”

“I see!” said the alien. “So it’s bricks, and cement, and pipework, and paint, electric wiring and so on you are short of.”

“Not a bit of it! Since the recession, builders’ merchants’ yards up and down the country are full of all this stuff.”

“But perhaps the authorities are keeping all these materials in reserve for other important building jobs, in case you run short of raw materials?”

“No, no, nothing like that. All the raw materials – clay for bricks, metal for pipes and wires, colour for paints – there’s more than enough, up and down the country.”

The alien – and his friends – appeared puzzled. Then he brightened up.

“Ah, I see what it must be. Transport! You’ve got all these things, but you can’t get them to where they are so desperately wanted.”

“Not a bit of it,” I insisted. I didn’t want him to think we were that backward. “We have fleets of great trucks, under-used because of the recession. The country is crossed with excellent roads, well surfaced with tarmac. All these materials could be delivered anywhere in Britain within hours.”

The aliens went into a huddle, and jabbered away in their own language. Then the spokesman piped up again.

“Let’s get this straight. You people here in Britain all want these schools to be built or repaired. You have plenty of people standing around idle who would love to do all the work, if only because their children are being educated in inadequate and ill-equipped schools. You have all the materials, and all the transport you need to get them where they are wanted. So – excuse me if I seem a bit obtuse – why don’t you just do it?”

“We haven’t got the money, of course!”

A longer pause this time.

“Er – what is this ‘money?”

I smiled. How could anyone not know that?

“You know – money, dibs, spondulicks, the ready! Coins – little round bits of metal, though most of it is paper, nowadays. High grade paper, of course, with nice designs on it – in colour, too.”

“This paper,” said the alien, with a baffled expression. “What does it do? Can you use it instead of bricks? Or instead of slates on the roof?”

“No, of course not!” Privately I thought that surely space voyagers who have been able to journey billions of miles could get hold of such a simple idea. I tried to explain. “People hand it to each other. Well-off people have to hand some of these bits of paper to the government, then someone hands some of it to the people who make bricks or carry them along the motorway. The actual builders and pipe-layers and so on get some bits of paper each Friday.”

More bewildered conversation among the aliens.

“This paper – high-grade paper as you say, with coloured designs – can’t keep the rain out, or hold the roof up, or carry water or electricity round the new buildings?”

“No, of course not”, I said, laughing. “It would just collapse if you put any strain on it, and any water in a paper pipe would just run away. And if you tried to make electric cables out of paper they would probably catch fire!”

“But if you don’t have these pieces of coloured paper, even though they are only feeble, useless stuff,” said the alien, “you can’t have these schools rebuilt and so on?”

“Exactly,” I said. “Now you’ve got it. Without these pieces of paper, no food is grown or eaten, no clothes are made, no buildings go up – nothing happens. We all have to pass these pieces of paper around to each other, or everything comes to a halt. In fact most of us here on Earth spend a large part of our time handing these pieces of paper on to other people. Every organisation has many people who spend their lives writing down figures about all these pieces of paper: doing sums, all day. In fact some great concerns don’t do anything else – banks, credit card companies, insurance companies, people concerned with revenue and taxation – all of them spend their lives fiddling with these bits of paper.”

The aliens all looked at each other. I saw several of them pointing a finger to their own foreheads, and making a kind of circular motion with the finger, while pulling a face. I wonder what that means in alien language?

After some more unintelligible conversation, the spokesman said that they had decided to get back in their flying saucer and get away as soon as possible. I thought I heard him say something like, “I thought we were told there was intelligent life on this planet!” but perhaps I mis-heard.
Alwyn Edgar

Tiny (URL) Tips (2010)

The Tiny Tips column from the October 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Some women who were raped at the US’s Abu Ghraib prison facility in Iraq were later “honor killed” by their families, says a Jordanian reporter who writes on women’s issues. “In Abu Ghraib, women were tortured by the Americans much more than the men,” Lima Nabil told The Independent. “One woman said she witnessed five girls being raped. Most of the women in the prison were raped – some of them left prison pregnant. Families killed some of these women – because of the shame.” Nabil, who has reported extensively on the status of women in the Arab world and runs a home for runaway girls, made the comments to renowned foreign correspondent Robert Fisk in an article on honor killings in Jordan. Nabil did not expand on her comments in the article. Fisk reported that a “very accurate source in Washington” in close contact with military personnel has confirmed “terrible stories of gang rape” by US forces at the now-notorious prison:
[Dead Link]

Former CIA agents have confirmed for the first time that the agency tortured prisoners at a “black site” detention center in north-eastern Poland at the height of the war on terror. According to the Associated Press, a former CIA agent identified only as “Albert” tortured the terror suspect Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri multiple times with an electric drill at the converted Stare Kiejkuty military base near Szymany in the Masuria region of Poland:

The new “saddle” seat, to be unveiled at a conference this week, increases the number of seats an airline can have in its economy class. Shaped similar to a horse saddle, passengers sit at an angle, with their weight taken on by their legs. It allows seats to be overlapped. The seats would also offer storage space including a shelf for carry-on bags and hooks to hang a jacket or a handbag…The makers say the seat would allow budget airlines, such as Ryanair, to cram more passengers into their tight cabins:

Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary has for years endured complaints from passengers about his famously no-frills Irish airline. Now a senior Ryanair pilot has taken the rare step of publicly challenging his boss after the outspoken chief executive said he was trying to convince authorities to let his aircraft fly with only one pilot. A flight attendant could do the job of a co-pilot if needed, Mr O’Leary said last week, because “the computer does most of the flying now”. Captain Morgan Fischer, who trains other pilots at Ryanair’s Marseilles base, says he knows the airline is dedicated to keeping its costs as low as possible, so why not go one better – and replace Mr O’Leary with a junior flight attendant? “I would propose that Ryanair replace the CEO with a probationary cabin crew member currently earning approximately €13,200 net per annum,” Capt Fischer has written in a letter to the Financial Times, which reported Mr O’Leary’s comments last week. “Ryanair would benefit by saving millions of euros in salary, benefits and stock options,” the captain said, and there would be no need for approval from the authorities.

African Narodnik (2010)

Book Review from the October 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Africa’s Liberation. The Legacy of Nyerere. Edited by Chambi Chachage and Annar Cassam. Pambazuka Press. 2010.

If Julius Nyerere, President of Tanzania from independence in 1961 till 1985, had been a late 19th century Russian he would have been labelled a “Narodnik”, i.e. someone who thought that a basically agricultural country could move straight to socialism, on the basis of local communal villages, without having to pass through capitalism. The Russian Marxists denied this, but the Narodniks never got a chance to implement their ideas.

Nyerere did, with the Arusha declaration which adopted “Ujamma” (“socialism and self-reliance”) as the official state policy of Tanzania. As predicted by Marxists it failed. In fact one of the contributors to this tribute to Nyerere on the 10th anniversary of his death in 2009, Issa Shivji, once described the result as the development of a “bureaucratic bourgeoisie” in Tanzania. Today the present Tanzanian government openly embraces (is forced to) capitalist development.

This said, Nyerere comes across as sincere and principled, as genuinely wanting a society of social equality, democracy and without exploitation, and unlike nearly all the other historic African independence leaders power did not go to his head. However, the fact that he was sincere and incorruptible shows that the problem in Africa (and elsewhere) is not bad leaders but capitalism. Not even a saint can make capitalism – which African countries are currently obliged to accept – work in the interest of all.

It only remains to add that Tanzania in 1967 could have passed directly to socialism but only with the rest of the world following a world socialist revolution. Given that this did not happen, capitalism developed in Tanzania, as in Russia.
Adam Buick