Friday, November 10, 2023

Voice From The Back: Land of the Free? (2006)

The Voice From The Back Column from the November 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Land of the Free?

The following report from Washington paints a dreadful picture of modern capitalism. “In the world’s biggest economy, one in eight Americans and almost one in four blacks lived in poverty last year, the US Census Bureau said on Tuesday, releasing a figure almost unchanged from 2004” (Reuters, 29 August), The report went on to say: “In all, some 37 million Americans lived below the poverty line, defined as having an annual income around $10,000 (£5,300)) for an individual or $20,000 (£10,600) for a family of four.” 200 quid a week for a family of four, and they wonder why they have a crime problem?

Homeless in Britain?

The Department for Communities and Local Government announced that the number of homeless families in England had dropped to 19,430 between June and April this year, down 29 percent on the same period in 2005, but charities have queried these figures. “There are as many as 380,000 hidden homeless people, predominately single, in Britain living out of sight,” says Duncan Scrubsole, head of policy and strategy at Crisis” (Inside Housing, 15 September). Adam Sampson, the chief executive of Shelter, also queries the government’s figures. “Any drop in new cases is to be welcomed, provided this is brought about by genuine work to prevent people from losing their homes in the first place, rather than preventing them from registering to get the help they need” (Times, 19 September). Anyone taking the government figures at face value, should remember the old saying “figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.”

Fat Cat Britain

When the Labour Party came to power we were told “things can only get better” and so they have – for the super rich. “A global survey of the lists of the wealthiest people in 27 leading countries shows that Britain and Switzerland have by far the biggest communities of foreign-born super-rich in the world. Switzerland, with its reputation for banking secrecy and strict regulations, has long been regarded as a magnet for multi-millionaires. But Britain, with the special attraction of tax incentives for billionaires from overseas, is fast catching up as a new refuge for the rich” (Sunday Times, 24 September). Britain now has more billionaires per head of its population than America. Was this what members of the working class envisaged on election day when they sang “things can only get better”?

Interested in Interest?

The Koran prohibits something called riba, loosely translated as interest and this has hindered the development of capitalism. Something similar happened in medieval times when the christians banned usury, but the theologist soon found a way around that and now we have thriving banks in the Vatican. Islam theology may have taken a little longer but now they have joined the capitalist bandwagon. “Islamic banking scholars have found ways of accommodating their philosophical abhorrence of money as a commodity with the need to create financing tools. Typically, this involves converting interest into a rent or a profit share” (Times, 30 September). The Koran may hold sway in the mosque, but outside in the real world capitalism dictates.

A Fistful Of Dollars

Being homeless in Britain may be awful, but think how much worse to be sleeping rough in a Russian winter. That is a problem that does not confront the Russian billionaire Roustam Tariko to judge by this item. “At a palace in St Petersburg, which has been converted into a disco for the night by Moscow’s most fashionable party organisers, the vodka flows and a New York disco diva sings Thank You for the Music, while ballet dancers pirouette around her. … Roustam Tariko, the man picking up the $3 million (£1.6 million) tab for the party, turns to me: ‘People like you are already tired of $100,000 parties. They are nothing special for you’” (Times, 7 October). If a Moscow winter proves too severe he can always flee to his house in New York or Sardina, an escape that is impossible for the Russian homeless.

A Handful Of Pennies

It is reckoned that 1.9 million children under the age of five die every year from diarrhoeal diseases and that the means of saving their lives only cost a couple of pence. “The result, according to the World Health Organization (WHO): 3 million people a year still die from diarrhoeal complications, including 1.9 million children under the age of five, or 17% of the estimated deaths in that age group” (Time, 16 October). All that is required is a large pinch of salt and a fistful of sugar dissolved in a jug of clean water, but in the crowded cities and remote areas of the world’s poorest this has proved impossible. Capitalism breeds poverty and ignorance and makes this madness possible. The establishment of world socialism will almost immediately save these 3 million people from premature death.

Editorial: Testing times (2006)

Editorial from the November 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

North Korea is trying to blast its way into becoming a de facto member of the “nuclear club”. The club’s five officially recognized members are up in arms, so to speak, by the nuclear test this state-capitalist regime conducted. “A provocative act!” says the head of the club’s senior member-nation, while another leader, not to be outdone, denounces the nuclear test as “a flagrant and brazen violation of international opinion”. Like “old-money” members of an exclusive golf club, the nuclear powers have hurled abuse on the tacky upstart who dares to seek membership, overlooking how much the two sides have in common.

The “responsible” nations, so appalled by the militarism of Kim Jong-il, have stockpiles of nuclear weapons that the pot-bellied dictator can only dream of obtaining. Lest we think these weapons are in safe hands, consider how US leaders have talked openly in recent years of employing nuclear “bunker busters”. And the widespread use of depleted uranium weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan means, in a sense, that the line between “conventional” and nuclear war has already been crossed. Now the US and its nuke-wielding brethren, posing as the “international community”, have taken a break from their armed conflicts to warn us of a grave threat to civilization. Are we supposed to laugh or cry?

But don’t imagine that we should back the nuclear upstart. Just as we have no reason to prefer a first-generation capitalist to a third-generation one, as both exploit us, backing North Korea is simply a different path to the same disaster. Apparently we are meant to choose between leaving nuclear weapons in the hands of a few powerful nations, hoping they will not abuse this privilege, or allowing more nations to have access to such weapons, at the risk of letting a thousand mushroom clouds bloom.

This is madness but there is method to it. Under capitalism, accumulating deadly weapons, and occasionally using them, is perfectly rational behavior. Each nation-state, representing the collective interests of its capitalists (who still keep on fighting each other tooth and nail), is in a state of perpetual conflict, at some level or another, with other nation-states, especially those on its borders. These disagreements tend to revolve around access to resources, trade routes, national boundaries, and the like. In such disputes, obtaining an abundance of military hardware tends to bolster a nation’s powers of persuasion, although draining its wealth and resources.

Being aware of the logic behind the arms race is hardly reassuring, however, Once armed to the teeth, there is always a temptation to take the next step and use military force to “resolve” an issue. Trigger fingers get itchy. In the words of Madeleine Albright, “What’s the point of having this superb military if we can’t use it?”. In addition to such hubristic curiosity, wars are sparked for any number of reasons. A weak country might launch a war out of desperation or a leader with a tenuous hold on power might gamble on a military adventure. Or in many cases, each side will show off its military hardware in the hope of intimidating the other, but neither will back down. Boom!

Our fate is in the hands of people who have no real concern for our lives. And the horrors resulting from their calculations and miscalculations are magnified by megatons if nuclear weapons are involved. We need to free ourselves from this death spiral. The problem we face is not simply this or that “dangerous” country, or an “irresponsible” leader, but a lethal capitalist system that has long outlived its usefulness.

Patriotism – a politician’s refuge (2006)

From the November 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard
Gordon Brown wants us to “embrace” the Union Jack and to ape the sillier patriots in America by displaying it in our front gardens. But why do they want us to be patriotistic?
It was not so long ago – certainly within the tormented, frustrated memories of masses of under-educated children – that we were taught British history began with the arrival in these isles of the Romans. Well at least that made it easier for the people who needed to be known as teachers; rather than work at any seismographic-type research or presentation they need only instruct their famished pupils to open the allocated history book and begin to recite from Page One. A corollary of this careless policy was the assumption that history began in Britain because it was a special place, where special people were bred. Telling those kids they should be grateful to be British elevated them from their hopeless, infested poverty through a belief that to be British was best and that all other peoples of the world should be treated with sympathy – respect could be allowed to intrude only if the others kept to their place in the anthropological order of things. It worked alright – as witnessed by the pupils’ daily salute of the classroom portrait of the king and queen.

One whose portrait did not hang in the classroom, but whom the kids were often reminded of as an icon of British superiority, was Captain Scott the naval officer who led the 1910 expedition to Antarctica. Scott’s previous experience there taught him a lot about the perils in setting foot in the place and about the need for detailed, meticulous planning. He was ready to go back and this time, apart from certain scientific operations, there was no doubt about the intention of the expedition. The brochure aimed at potential sponsors put it: “The main object of this expedition is to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of that achievement”. Scott himself saw it as “. . . an empire expedition . . . by a set of men who will represent the hardihood and energy of our race”. Implicit in these declarations was that Scott’s men would be the first to get to the Pole but when he stopped off at Melbourne on the way to Antarctica he learned that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen would be in competition with him.

After landing and setting up camp at Cape Evans Scott’s men experienced a succession of emergencies which, while no lives were lost, were a grim foretaste of what was to come. The Pole party – Scott and four others – set out on 1 November 1911. They arrived at the Pole on 16 January 1912, after a journey which had all but drained them of all their resources, to find that Amundsen had got there a month before them; a black flag was there, fixed to a sledge. “Well we have turned our back now on the goal of our ambition with some feelings, and must face our 800 miles of solid dragging – and goodbye to most of the day dreams” wrote Scott. But it turned out to be worse than that. Battered by savage weather and malnourished, the five men were simply unable to get back to Cape Evans. The first to die was Taffy Evans, whose reputation was as one of the strongest in the expedition. He collapsed on 17 February and died quietly in the tent that night. The rest of them pressed on; Titus Oates could hardly walk and Scott’s feet were so damaged that he thought amputation was the best he could hope for. They had no choice but to shelter, as best they could, in the tent until the blizzard blew itself out but there was no let up in the weather.

It was then that Oates went out into the storm to die and the three others – Scott, Wilson and Bowers – stayed to die together, on or about 23 March 1912, eleven miles from the depot where they had left the food which should have saved their lives. “We shall stick it out to the end, but we are weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far” wrote Scott in his diary. Their bodies were found by a search party eight months later.

That was not the time for any useful appraisal of Scott and his expedition – of the mistakes, the miscalculations, the flawed equipment. That would come later. Meanwhile, on 14 February 1913 there was a short memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral in which, according to the Daily Sketch, the keynote was “ . . .  a song of thankfulness for that these sons of our common country had died as they had lived, in the spirit which is the noblest heritage of Englishmen”. During the service thousands of captive schoolchildren throughout the country were subjected to “. . . the true story of five of the bravest and best men who have ever lived on the earth since the world began. You are English boys and girls, and you must often have heard England spoken of as the greatest country in the world, or perhaps you have been told that the British Empire . . . is the greatest Empire that the world has ever seen . . .” How many of those schoolchildren, or readers of the Daily Sketch, thought back to a year before, to another service at that same cathedral centred on the victims of the Titanic disaster, when the destruction of the unsinkable liner had said something about the decline in British power, as had the humiliation of the British army by the Boers. In the near future was the 1914/18 war, the traumas of the naval battle of Jutland (when a British admiral wondered out loud whether there was “something wrong with our bloody ships”) and the slaughter on the first day of the Somme offensive, which re-aligned British military history. Scott’s tragedy was cynically used to blanket the reality of what was happening to British capitalism and to its people.

On the way southwards to Antarctica lie the Falkland Islands, which hardly anyone apart from stamp collectors had heard of before 1982 when they were briefly occupied by Argentine forces until they were ejected by a British Task Force. This victory in a far away place was remarkable for its effect on the British political scene. Since the end of the war British armed forces had not enjoyed a string of unqualified successes; among their most stressful experiences was the Suez campaign in 1956, which was little short of humiliation for British interests in the Middle East. At home the 1970s were notable as a time of economic decline, with unemployment reaching three million. In this situation the effects of a British military victory reached far beyond the battle zone, encouraging workers to believe that although they were on the dole there was still something to be said for being able to call themselves British. In 1982 this particular delusion was called the “Falklands Factor”. According to Thatcher, “it is no exaggeration to say that the outcome of the Falklands War transformed the British political scene . . . but the so-called Falklands Factor was real enough. I could feel the impact of the victory wherever I went”. One of the places she went to was Cheltenham Racecourse, to address a Tory party rally, where she exulted that after the Falklands victory “. . . we rejoice that Britain has re-kindled that spirit which has fired her for generations past and which today has begun to burn as brightly as before”. To encourage the mood and flavour it with a bit of Battle of Britain memories, Vera Lynn was recruited to sing The White Cliffs of Dover at the victory parade.

But in the same speech Thatcher stated what she meant by the impact of the Falklands factor and the re-kindled spirit. As the troopships returning from the Falklands sailed into Portsmouth harbour a banner hung from the sides of one of them, with advice for striking railway workers: “Call Off The Rail Strike Or We’ll Call Down An Air Strike”. This referred to a strike called by the National Union of Railwaymen (as it then was) which, Thatcher said, “. . . just didn’t fit – didn’t match the spirit of these times . . .” The strike leaders were “ . . . misunderstanding the new mood of the nation”. Another dispute involved the ancillary workers in the NHS; it had been rumbling on for some time but Thatcher was not impressed: “There is a limit to what every employer can afford to pay out in wages”; clearly, the new spirit did not involve any appreciation of the value of low paid workers doing jobs which were vital to the welfare of patients. Partly through the Falklands Factor, the Tories swept to a massive victory in the 1983 election, which gave Thatcher all the encouragement she needed to take on the trade unions – in particular the miners. It was an example of how patriotic hysteria is used directly against the working class.

One who has obviously absorbed the necessary lesson in this is Gordon Brown. Addressing the Fabian Society last January, in what was heralded as his first major speech of 2006 – which did not leave us breathless about what else was to come from him before the year was out – he declared that it was time for the “modern” Labour Party and its supporters to be “unashamedly patriotic as, for too long, such feelings have been caricatured as being tied up with right wing beliefs, when in fact they encompass progressive ideas of liberty, fairness and responsibility”. He also raved about what he saw as the need to “embrace” the Union Flag and to ape the sillier patriots in America by displaying it in our front gardens. Brown was “absolutely right” about this, said ex-Tory Prime Minister John Major, whose concept of an ideal Britain encompassed warm beer and elderly ladies cycling through country lanes to get to evensong at some ancient village church. It was not known whether Brown was comfortable to receive support from such a quarter; in any case he is probably accustomed by now to dealing with the fact that his party is indistinguishable from the Tories, especially in the matter of showing up as flag-waving, mindless patriots.

Patriotism has run through politics like a malignant fault. It did not represent progressive ideas when, in the case of Scott, it was applied to persuade millions of workers that they should endure the terror of the trenches and all the other miseries of that war. The same was true when it was used by the Thatcher government, in the wake of the Falklands victory, to push through measures which damaged the trade unions and so increased the vulnerability of the working class in relation to their employers. It is not a progressive idea now, when the Blair government wields it to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with all they mean in terms of destruction and murder. Enormous damage has been done, throughout the world, by the notion that one country and its people are superior to the others. A truly progressive policy – socialism – recognises the essential unity of the human race and the urgent need to celebrate it by building society on that basis.

Thought for food (2006)

From the November 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard
The food industry under capitalism is part of the problem of starvation and malnutrition, not its solution.
Of all the ways in which capitalism means extremes of poverty and privilege, deprivation and excess, none is greater than in the production, distribution and consumption of food. According to Oxfam, 800 million of the world’s 6.5 billion population are malnourished, while two billion have a diet which is lacking in essential vitamins and minerals. At the same time obesity in the industrialised countries is on the increase. Obesity is not usually the result of eating too much good food – it is a working-class condition stemming from cheap food that adds bulk but not nutrition.

Capitalism seeks the nourishment of profits, not persons. There is more than enough food in the world to feed all of its population. But food is bought and sold, only exceptionally given and taken. Unless people are the recipients of charity that only nibbles at the problem, those who have to live on a dollar a day or less struggle to survive and often die prematurely.

The capitalist food industry has a number of features that make it part of the problem of starvation and malnutrition, not its solution. The market for food means that only enough is offered for sale that will cover costs and yield an expected profit. Anything more will not be brought to market because it will either remain unsold or push prices down. Hence the butter mountains and wine lakes that were the subject of so much adverse publicity in the 1980s. Small reductions were made, but the excesses are still there. Something similar applies to “set aside” — the logic (only to capitalism) of paying farmers not to grow food that cannot be sold.

Agribusiness is concerned with getting the best price it can for crops and cattle with the least possible expense. Scientists are agreed that artificial hormones injected into animals to fatten them up can be harmful to humans. Laws have been passed to limit but not abolish what amounts to poisoning food for profit. A reasonably healthy workforce is in the interests of employers generally, so we have consumer protection laws. The consumer who is mainly being protected is the consumer of labour power – the employing class.

When ill people are taken to hospital they expect the food they get there will help them recover. Often not so. Hospitals are among the worst sources of food poisoning. Hygiene standards are lowered by cuts in staff costs. Children are also the victims of a business approach to school meals. According to the Economist (20 May) plans to improve school meals are causing havoc. Jamie Oliver’s well-intentioned campaign against junk food has made some contracts between schools and the catering industry unsustainable. The schedule of lowly-paid dinner ladies assumes they just open packets and heat up the contents. They don’t have time for the labour-intensive preparation of fresh food.
Stan Parker

Letters: Conspiracy? (2006)

Letters to the Editors from the November 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard


Dear Editors,

I was astonished that the article “Reflections on a somewhat unusual act of war” (Socialist Standard, September) accepted hook, line and sinker, the official version of events to explain the attacks which took place on the 11th September, 2001. The contributor rightly draws attention to the document “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” where the authors observe that a programme of increased military spending to preserve US global pre-eminence will be politically impossible unless there is “a catastrophic and catalyzing event, like a new Pearl Harbor” but does not make the rather obvious link when this event actually occurs just a year after this document was issued, particularly when there is a mountain of evidence to support the view that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated by dark and shadowy forces very close to the Bush administration. Just another conspiracy theory? I don’t think so.

Space does not permit me to outline many of the seemingly incontrovertible facts which compel one to consider an alternative scenario to that which has been peddled by the capitalist media for so long and now apparently in the Socialist Standard. There are many web-sites dealing with this and related subjects, one worthy of a visit being…..

Allow me to refer briefly to the attacks on the twin towers. That flights 11 and 175 crashed into the towers is beyond dispute; whoever or whatever was responsible is another matter. The official version that the planes were piloted by ‘terrorists’ simply does not hold water. It is true that two of the supposed hijackers, Mohammed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, received basic flight training at a private avaiation school in Florida but neither men could fly a 2 seater Cessna 150 without an instructor let alone a Boeing 757 or 767. Even an experienced 727 pilot has to take over 70 hours of simulator time just to be able to navigate a 757 or 7671

The twin towers were very strongly constructed and designed to withstand temperatures of up to 2000 degrees Celsius. The core column of each tower comprised 47 huge steel box columns embedded in solid concrete. Each floor was separated from the other floors by thick steel plates to avoid the propagation of any type of fire. Before 9/11, not one steel framed building in the world ever collapsed as the result of any type of fire.

The heat generated by kerosene-based aviation fuel cannot exceed 825 degrees Celsius even in an oxygen-rich environment, so why did the towers collapse? In the basement of the fallen towers, where the support columns were anchored to the bedrock, ponds of molten steel were found several weeks after the attack. What could be responsible for such persistent and residual heat, 70 feet below the surface, in an oxygen-deprived environment? One school of thought is that an exothermic explosive, such as Thermite or Ametol, was placed at the base of each tower. With these substances temperatures above 2500 degrees celsius are often reached so melting of the steel box columns is perfectly feasible. This would explain the many eye-witness reports of explosions heard just before the collapse of each tower. Unexplained tremors were also recorded on a seismograph 21 miles away 14 seconds before the collapse of each building.

Judging by another article which appeared in the same issue of the Socialist Standard, the views of Michel Chossudovsky are well respected. His opinion on this subject is unequivocal: “September 11th (was) a hoax. It’s the biggest lie in US history”.
Steve Prince, 
London N7

On balance the hypothesis that the attacks of September 11, 2001 were organized by Osama Bin Laden’s network is more plausible than any other hypothesis that has been put forward. This is not to deny that the exact role played by Bush is open to debate. He may have connived at the attacks by refusing to act on intelligence warnings that he believed, although his inaction could also be attributed to an unwillingness to accept unpleasant news.

Without examining in detail the discrepancies that you see in the Bin Laden hypothesis, it should be noted that many engineers do not share your high opinion of the design of the Twin Towers. See, for instance, the report of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, summarized in New Scientist of 6 April, 2005. Thus the steel sheets were strong but very thin; they did not have to reach melting point before starting to give way.

Just what is the alternative explanation that you find more convincing? You refer to orchestration by “dark and shadowy forces very close to the Bush administration”. What on earth does this mean? This is the kind of mystical language beloved of those who believe that the world’s problems have their origin not in visible institutions but in occult conspiracies ultimately controlled by the Prince of Darkness himself. Exploring the site that you recommend (, we learn that figures ranging from Bush and Kissinger to the Pope as well as the CIA, Mossad, and MI-6 are all in the service of “Illuminati bankers” (Jews, of course), working to undermine society by means that include homosexuality and feminism. (The Illuminati were an 18th century revolutionary secret society and are long defunct).

The question of conspiracy theories, and their current popularity, was dealt with in an article in the July 2002 Socialist Standard to which we would refer you. It pointed out that “the conspiratorial worldview is certainly not helpful in promoting an understanding of modern society and is itself, in large part, a product of the times we live in. The organisation of society as it currently exists – capitalism – is certainly not a conspiracy, even if its structure means that conspiracies exist from time to time within it. And for those interested in overthrowing the system which now seemingly leads to secrecy and paranoia almost like night leads to day, a more fundamental approach is needed than that exhibited by the conspiracy theorists” – Editors.


Dear Editors

Haven’t we got enough of a problem with capitalism, without adding Zionism to the list of “things sent to try us”? Surely you know that Israel is a much more complex problem than is shown by your simplistic and extremely misleading article (October Socialist Standard). Stick to the class war!
H. G. A. Hughes, 
Corwen, Wales

Dear Editors,

I read Pat Deutz’s article, ‘Zionism: myth and reality’ in the October 2006 Socialist Standard and wondered what was the point of it. The article tells of the reactions of a British Jew, Susan Nathan, who emigrated to Israel only to be repelled at the treatment of the Arabs living within its boundaries. This she recounted in a book, The Other Side of Israel.

My problem is not the veracity of what Nathan writes (though the emotive use of the term ‘apartheid’ as in ‘apartheid state’ is obviously misleading) but your failure to cast a socialist perspective on the whole situation. While it’s true that ‘the price of creating a homeland was to inflict the Jewish story of disposessions and wandering on another people – the Palestinians’, this kind of event was not unique in the Middle East in the 20th century. Indeed during that century the whole map of that region was redrawn, the whole geopolitics transformed, causing dispossession, population shifts and suffering on a massive scale.

The nearest you come to mentioning this is to say that ‘Socialists never supported Zionism but opposed it as yet another nationalist delusion’, but you never actually refer to the other nationalisms in the region, many of which, as you must know, are just as virulent and often far more savage and racist than what is practised in Israel. Finally you fail even to draw from your analysis the point fundamental to the socialist view of capitalism that the ‘democracy’ the system has to offer is inevitably superficial and that, when put under pressure, even the most apparently ‘democratic’ of states will, if it knows it can rely on widespread support, resort to repression of minorities and opponents.
Howard Moss, 

We certainly don’t single out Zionism for special criticism (and our first correspondent does not say in what way the article was supposed to be “misleading”). We are opposed to all nationalism and just happened to use the example of Israel, and the treatment meted out to its “non-national” minority, to show just what a danger it is to working class unity.

We accept that other capitalist states and factions in the Middle East have pursued policies that are nationalist and anti-socialist and the article should not be construed otherwise. It was basically a review of a book about Zionism and could not reasonably be expected to comment more widely on the intricate policies of the Middle East in any developed way. – Editors

'Terror in our schools' (2006)

From the November 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard
For the media, reports of bad behaviour, assaults, stabbings, teenage drinking, attacks on the elderly and the like are daily fare.
This was the headline covering the front page story in the Belfast Telegraph on 12 August. The story was under the by-line of Linda McKee but the editor obviously thought it deserved greater exposure because the same story in almost the same words and sensational statistics appeared again on page 7 under the name of Dan McGinn.

We learnt from a screaming sub-heading that 1,000 pupils in Northern Ireland had been suspended from school for attacking staff. The body of the news item reduced the stridency of the headline by telling us that the figure of 1,000 was for a period of three years and that only 14 of the cases concerned merited expulsion. Statistically the article could have said that less than 0.047 per cent of pupils in Northern Ireland were accused of abusive behaviour towards teachers every year and between four and five of the complaints on each of the three years were serious enough to merit expulsion. The truth, however, has less impact than the sensational and it is the sensational that sells newspapers and makes profits for the self-interested moguls whose papers have such an important input into the formation of our opinions.

In this case the front page author was not only skilled in sensationalising but she was able to tell her readers how to resolve the problem. She tells us that the dreadful happenings she depicts happened ‘without proper punishments’ leading us to the assumption that punishment – by definition an act of violence – is the answer to the problem of violence.

Influenced youth culture
For the media, reports of bad behaviour, assaults, stabbings, teenage drinking, attacks on the elderly and the like are daily fare. Good behaviour is rarely news, perhaps because it is much more common than the stuff the press reports and, indeed, is what the public regard as normal despite frenetic media persuasion to the contrary.

That said, it is true that violence against the aged, alcohol- and drug-induced violence and muggings have become unsavoury aspects of social concern. Now there are burglar alarms where often people were careless about locking their doors at night and a night-time fear of errant behaviour often imposes a curfew on the elderly and the timid in many town and city centres.

We have to examine the causes of these patterns of behaviour against the background of the present way of life and to show that they are part of the myriad problems for which capitalism has no answer and another reason for considering the rational socialist alternative to the way we live.

Capitalism created a need for those employed in the production and distribution of its goods and services to posses a basic knowledge of what became known as the Three R’s: reading, writing and arithmetic. Accordingly the capitalist state institutionalised basic education as a legal requirement. But at that stage education beyond the basic was all the system required of working class children. ‘Their betters’, the scions of the rich, could have their educational horizons widened at universities to enrich their lives and prepare them as ‘leaders’ of society. Giving the working class the ability to read, however, opened the floodgates of knowledge and speeded the debunking of many of the myths on which religious morality is based.

Demand of the labour market
It is probably true to say that the capitalist political administration in its urgency to provide a more technically efficient labour force now robs the young of an important segment of childhood. Children are forced into the educational process at a younger age and within a few years their educational apprenticeship into the competitive demands of the labour market means that they are working at school and at home for a greater part of each day than those actually at work.

Now the schools have become educational factories, with harassed teachers themselves under compulsion to justify capitalism’s investment in what is still quaintly referred to as education and pupils induced to sacrifice their vital formative years in the hope that it will make them more competitive – by definition more aggressive and with fewer social concerns – in the hard world of capitalism.

Because education in capitalism is about creating the most efficient varieties of wage slaves those deemed by early audit to be a poor educational investment are rejected and stigmatised as failures. Further attendance at school in these cases often becomes a form of punishment and it is easy to see how young people, rejected and labelled failures, can build antagonisms towards teachers, schools and towards the society that has branded them.

The effect of New Labour’s charges on third-level education – the mountains of debt now facing working class students who earned the right to compete for the more specialised jobs – has not yet worked its way through the system. It is not hard, however to appreciate the disillusion and alienation of a qualified teacher, for example, with a debt of £20,000 who can’t get a job and finds him- or herself filling supermarket shelves.

In the wider field, news true and false is now an intensive, heavily-capitalised, industry pumping out all sorts of information twenty-four hours of every day while concealing anything that might reveal the real cause of most of the news that is reported. Without exception, all the major news media, print and electronic, promote the patriotic fervour that is so utterly meaningless and shallow; even commercialised sport, art, culture or any other human activity is used as a conduit to an aggressive xenophobic competitiveness that blights understanding between peoples. Hence, we get things like football hooliganism, so roundly condemned by those who do most to promote it.

Political clout
The search for the news commodity is borderless and inexorable: media lies and hype make politicians celebrities just as media lies and truth can strip them and castigate them when there’s kudos in a story or when they threaten some interest of the parasites who own a section of the news media. We hear how the results of a general election can be determined by the owner of a rag like the Sun and how governmental consideration is given to policies that might not find sympathy with some media mogul with more political clout than a million voters.

We are well, if not accurately informed; however disinterested we might be we cannot escape the knowledge that social democracy does not exist and our political democracy is at the level where political parties do not win elections; their opponents simply lose them while millions do not vote because they have abandoned the idea that their votes are of any real value.

Meanwhile, the wars go on somewhere every day; so does the competitive brutality of the marketplace, its money shuffling, and corporate swindling and corruption. The disgusting self-interest of leading politicians and public figures the swingeing poverty of social services and the application of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders to the problem of errant youth, visionless, disillusioned, often intellectually deprived and now, under New Labour, left to the tender mercies of the police.
Richard Montague

Darwin’s Origin of Species (2006)

Book Review from the November 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Darwin’s Origin of Species by Janet Browne. (Atlantic Books, 2006)

In a New York Times poll in November 2004, 55 percent of respondents agreed that God had created human beings in their present form. Clearly the Darwinian revolution has some way to go. Darwin’s revolutionary work was first published in November 1859 with the full title: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. And yet the theory of evolution could have been known under a different name. In the previous year the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace had sent Darwin an essay in which he set out the theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin’s friends hurriedly arranged for both works to be published at the same time, so the theory should really be known as the Wallace-Darwin theory, if not the Wallace theory of evolution. In any event, Wallace and Darwin became good friends and Wallace collaborated with Darwin in his research and helped in the revised editions of Origin of Species.

Origin of Species went through six editions during Darwin’s lifetime and he made many corrections and alterations. In the fifth edition (1869), at Wallace’s suggestion, Darwin first introduced the notorious phrase “survival of the fittest.” Wallace had taken this phrase from the writings of Herbert Spencer, a well known atheist and supporter of capitalism in late nineteenth century Britain. Spencer’s ideas would became known as “Social Darwinism” and he maintained that society was an organism exactly the same as a biological organism. From his perspective he argued against the building of lighthouses around the British coastline because, so he claimed, shipwrecks were “nature’s” (i.e. capitalism’s) way of sorting out the fit from the unfit. Darwin had never taken any of Spencer’s ideas on social evolution seriously and the phrase “survival of the fittest” is at odds with Darwin’s own ideas about natural selection by adaptation.

Browne ends her account of Wallace by saying that he went on to become a “utopian socialist.” In fact he became a supporter of utopian capitalism. He advocated land nationalisation and was an enthusiast for Edward Bellamy’s state capitalist vision of the future in his novel Looking Backward (1888). When Darwin died in April 1882 aged seventy-three, Origin of Species had truly become one of the “Books That Shook The World,” the publisher’s title for this series of biographies which includes Marx’s Das Kapital (see the review in the October Socialist Standard). There is a slight link between the two books. Marx thought very highly of Origin of Species and sent Darwin a presentation copy of Das Kapital. But he did not, as sometimes claimed, offer to dedicate Das Kapital to Darwin. Rather it was Marx’s son-in-law, Edward Aveling, who offered to dedicate one of his books to Darwin. Darwin never read Das Kapital and he rejected Aveling’s offer.
Lew Higgins

Fidel Castro (2006)

Book Review from the November 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Fidel Castro, A biography by Volker Skierka. (Polity. ISBN 0-7456-4081-8)

This is the second English edition brought out on the occasion of Castro’s 80th birthday in August. Written in German, it originally appeared in 2000 and contains some fascinating material from the East German archives as to what its diplomats in Havana thought of Castro and his policies (not always favourable).

Castro was the leader of a guerrilla war and popular uprising that led to the overthrow, on 1 January 1959, of the corrupt Batista dictatorship. The revolution was originally carried out under the banner of Cuban nationalism, but within a few years proclaimed itself to have been a “socialist” revolution, with Castro famously declaring in December 1961: “I am a Marxist-Leninist and will remain so until the end of my days”.

By which he meant that he was committed to the idea of arriving at a society in which there would be no classes, no state, no money and no wages (which he called “communism” and which we more usually call “socialism”) via a period of national state capitalism (which he, but not us, called “socialism”). The theory (which is still held by Castro) is that a revolutionary vanguard committed ultimately to socialism/communism can seize power without a conscious majority desire for socialism and then, afterwards, create such a socialist desire through education.

The argument against this is that it doesn’t and can’t work. The revolutionary minority can seize power but, without a socialist majority, can’t establish socialism and so has no alternative but to oversee the operation and development of capitalism, even if in a statised form. Although they can take some measures to protect workers (and Cuba has by all accounts done this in the fields of education and health care) economically they are forced to pump surplus value out of them so as to accumulate capital and develop industry. Cuba, as a small island with limited resources, can only survive in the surrounding capitalist world through importing a whole range of essential supplies but these have to be paid for by income from exports, an income which must exceed the cost of producing them. Cuba’s main export has been sugar but, to compete with other sugar-producing countries, it has to keep its production costs, including labour costs, down.

On top of that, there has been the vicious and relentless US blockade. When the Russian state-capitalist bloc and then the USSR collapsed at the beginning of the nineties, Cuba suffered dire economic consequences. The revolutionary vanguard under Castro has seen its role as to protect the people of Cuba from the worst effects of the operation of world capitalism. But it has not been easy, with the vanguard finding itself at times forced to impose drastic cuts in living standards. The most it can claim is to have done this in a more equal way than in other “Third World” countries, though at the same time it has sought to protect the people not just from capitalist propaganda but also from any criticism of its own regime.

Will the state capitalist regime in Cuba survive the death of Castro? Skierka thinks that the regime is more solid than the Cuban exiles in Miami (and the CIA) imagine. But already the vanguard has been forced to develop tourism – which has taken over from sugar as the main generator of foreign currencies – but, with this, have come some of the very things that the revolution wanted to remove such as servility and money-seeking.

Unfortunately, there literally is no hope for the people of the “Third World” within the world market system that is capitalism. It must go before anything constructive can be achieved.
Adam Buick

Cooking the Books: Statistical errors (2006)

The Cooking the Books column from the November 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

There is a silly argument going on at the moment between the government and an organisation called Migrationwatch which favours tougher controls on immigration. The government claims that people born abroad working in the UK have caused "a small but positive increase to gross domestic product per capita". Migrationwatch claims the opposite and argues that in future only immigrants whose work contribution raises GDP per head should be allowed in.

GDP per head, i.e., total annual production of goods and services divided by total population, is simply a statistic; it doesn't cause anything but is a measure or reflection of a situation caused by real facts. If GDP per head falls because GDP has fallen or has remained unchanged while population has gone up this might indicate a deterioration in general living standards (though even then most people could be unaffected since a fall in GDP per head does not mean that everybody is worse off any more than a rise means everybody is better off). But GDP per head is not falling but rising. So, what the government and Migrationwatch are arguing about is the hypothetical question of whether it would have risen faster if there had been fewer immigrants.

But how do you measure what a worker contributes to GDP, i.e., to total annual production? Migrationwatch explicitly, and the government implicitly, assume that a worker contributes only the equivalent of their wages. As Migrationwatch argue in a recent "research paper":
"In the calendar year 2003 the UK's GDP was 1.099 billion pounds. 613 billion pounds of this amount was 'compensation of employees'. So, apportioning this amount of GDP generated by employment earnings amongst the working population of 27.6 million people this gives average earnings per worker of 22,200 pounds a year" ('Selection criteria for immigrant workers', from the migrantwatch website).
But if workers produced only 613 billion pounds of a total production of 1,099 billion pounds who produced the rest? The same statistics show that the rest is made up of profits (25 percent), "mixed income", i.e., the profits and the labour contribution of the self-employed, (6 percent), and the difference between taxes and subsidies.

Since work is the only possible source of new wealth, a more accurate calculation would be to divide 1,099 billion pounds by the working population; which gives a contribution of 39,800 pounds per worker. This would reflect the fact that all productive workers, whether native-born or born abroad, contribute to GDP considerably more than their earnings but what they produce above this goes as profits to their employers.

This rather demolishes Migrationwatch's convoluted calculations to reach the conclusion that "a worker must earn about 27,000 pounds a year to make, on average, a positive contribution to GDP per head" and that only migrants earning this or more should be allowed in.

Migrationwatch's stigmatising of any worker, native-born ones too, earning less than 27,000 pounds as a burden since they contribute less to GDP than average so dragging GDP per head down is just plain ridiculous. As GDP per head is an average there will always be some above and some below it. Migrationwatch's proposal to raise the average by eliminating some of those below it would achieve this but it would reduce GDP (since even Migrationwatch admits that any immigrant who works contributes something to GDP). A bit like cutting off your nose to spite your face. But then, Migrationwatch is only deploying apparently sophisticated statistical arguments to back up its already-decided policy of "keep the riff-raff out".

Greasy Pole: Postman’s knock? (2006)

The Greasy Pole column from the November 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard
“Devotees of conspiracy theories could be excused for descrying some determined backroom manoeuvring to ensure so swift a climb up the Greasy Pole”
The next time a flood of junk mail and red-printed bills comes through the front door do not, as it were, wish you could kill the messenger. Be aware that the friendly local postie may one day be Prime Minister of Great Britain or, even more distressingly, Leader of the Labour Party. Such an event may be heartening to anyone who is sustained by a conviction that this is a great land of opportunity and that capitalism is the finest arrangement of affairs as it allows anyone, no matter how humble their origins, to rise by their own abilities up to the highest  points in society where they can look down on those whose mail they once delivered.

For example there is Alan Johnson, whose mother died when he was 12, four years after his father had abandoned the family. It looked as if he would be placed in a children’s home but his sister, although only 15, persuaded their social worker that she could care for both of them. Living where the Westway flyover now belches noise and fumes, Johnson went to a local grammar school where he did not get his name onto the varnished honours board; in fact he says the school were “glad to see the back” of him. He took a job as a shelf-filler at Tescos but a problem about his lunch break put an end to that; he already had a child so he moved to Slough, to work as a postman. That led to him being elected as a local trade union official.

A long time after life in a council house under the Westway and then in John Betjeman’s favourite Buckinghamshire town he won a seat in the House of Commons. A few minor ministerial jobs developed into a place in the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Education. At this year’s Labour Party conference, among the pushing and shoving, the arm twisting and back stabbing, Johnson was spoken of as a challenger for the Leadership but he seemed to lose his appetite for the job – in spite of setting up websites with names like

Devotees of conspiracy theories could be excused for descrying some determined backroom manoeuvring to ensure so swift a climb up the Greasy Pole. Johnson’s constituency – Hull East and Hessle – was previously held by Stuart Randall, who had started out as an apprentice electrician before blossoming into a computer expert – which did not prevent a parliamentary journalist describing him as “nondescript”. Randall resigned from the Commons in 1997, allowing Johnson to take over a rock solid  Labour majority and Randall to be shuffled off to the House of Lords.

Then there was the matter of Johnson’s promotion in September 2004 to his first Cabinet job, as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (where he could start work on harassing Incapacity Benefit claimants back to work). The previous occupant of this job was Andrew Smith, who obligingly decided that he needed to spend more time with his family and with his constituency of Oxford East.

Perhaps he was alarmed by the slashing of his 2001 majority of over 10,000 votes down to 963 in 2005. And perhaps Johnson’s promotion in Smith’s place was not unconnected with the fact that, before he got into Parliament, he had been the only member of Labour’s NEC to support the new Leader Blair in his determination to get rid of Clause Four.

Tuition Fees
Like many New Labour leaders, Johnson shows some embarrassment about his past, about those carefree days in opposition when a budding politician could say almost anything, join almost any organisation, provided it seemed radical and exciting. Interviewed in the Observer Magazine (17 September), he insisted that “the first thing about me is I was never a Trot, or a semi-Trot. I was never, ever a Trot.” But he did not then go on to admit that he was once a branch official in the Communist Party.

Of course he has put all that nonsense behind him now that he is in the serious business of  government. His record of support for Blair is unblemished – so pure that when he was the Minister of State for Further and Higher Education under Charles Clarke he played what Tony Blair later described as “a vital role in the successful introduction of variable tuition fees during the last parliament”.

This mannered praise refers to the fierce battle the government had to endure before they were able to bludgeon the measure through Parliament. In that conflict Johnson’s smooth negotiating talents were crucial alongside Clarke’s belligerence. It was, Johnson said, “. . . a charm offensive. I was the charm and Clarke was offensive”.

This joke may not have gone down well with students and their families who struggle through the time at university and then emerge with the right to wear an academic gown and to pay off a substantial debt. Johnson offers this as justification for his attitude: “If I thought it was going to damage working-class kids, I wouldn’t have backed it”.

Another way of putting this feebly circular case would be to argue that the very fact he had backed the tuition fees must mean that they did not damage anyone; it is a style often used by Tony Blair to justify indefensible actions such as the war in Iraq. In any case Johnson’s attitude is rather at variance with his account of how his daughter was treated by the education system. In an area which still had grammar schools she failed her 11 Plus and was placed in a comprehensive school: “She was very bright but, well, probably life chances were lost then…So am I bitter about selection? Yes. I’ve seen what it does to kids”. But he does not seem to be “bitter” about his support for the proposals to set up “trust” schools which, however words are twisted and whatever promises are made, are intended to operate selection policies which can cost the pupils “life chances”.

On other issues Johnson has solidly supported the government – on ID cards, the war in Iraq, foundation hospitals, the “anti-terrorism” laws. And there will be many more examples, as he strives to promote his career through expressed loyalty to the government.

When he was appointed Secretary of State for Education, the postie who delivers the mail to his office brought a long letter from Blair which set out the tasks ahead of him: “…build on our unprecedented record of economic achievement…ensure the long term security and prosperity of our country and its people…deliver real improvements for ordinary hard working families and to underline our Government’s commitment to social justice through policies to expand opportunity and tackle the most deep seated causes of social exclusion”. At the very end of the letter Blair slips a bit of reality into the clap trap: “Your plans will, of course, need to be set against the background of lower growth in funding than in recent  years”.

One symptom of that reality is that there are 60,000 children in care in this country who are, according to Johnson, treated “appallingly”. This is after nine years of a Labour government presiding over the crises and failures of capitalism.

How does the ex-postie, with all his talents for smoothing over uncomfortable facts, explain that away?

50 Years Ago: Education and the Southern Negro (2006)

The 50 Years Ago column from the November 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Some parts of the Southern States of America have recently been the scenes of intense anti-negro mob violence. This violence was part of resistance to the attempts by the American Government to integrate negro and white school children within the American system of education. One of the reasons given why the negro should be rejected is that he is “biologically inferior” to the white, and that integration of negro and white will ultimately create a general lowering of human standards, both biologically and socially. We of the Socialist Party do not accept these vicious assumptions. The question important to us is this: What is it about the biological make-up of the various branches of the human family that prevent it from living together in a universal harmony of mutual co-operation? The answer is nothing, and this is the principle that is a guide to Socialists on this issue ( . . .)

One thing surely will frustrate the southern integrationist’s hopes, and that is a slump or a margin of unemployed. With little point in taking up the negro labour slack, surely the fervour of the Government’s bent on educational integration will be cooled, and events have taught us that in such a case we should expect an intensification of race hatred. Such events should teach the white worker that he is a victim not of any “black menace,” but a victim of the indiscriminate vicissitudes of a system which is not concerned with his true human needs. The “black menace” problem for the white worker is a myth, just as the hope that educational integration under capitalism will bring the negro worker happiness is also a myth. In fact, with each other‘s help, they have a new world to win – Socialism.

(From an article by P. K. L., Socialist Standard, November 1956)

October's "Done & Dusted"

A bit late this month. Apologies. Life intervened  . . . I hate it when it does that.

Cue cut and paste . . . 

What is now a regular feature on the blog . . . and like all regular features on the blog, one that I should have put in place about 10 years ago. (It's the same with the Pages that I'm slowly introducing to the top of the blog's homepage).

It's perfectly simple. Here's a list of the Socialist Standards that were completed on the blog in the month of October 2023. Slowly but surely the digitization of the Standard is *cough* nearing completion. If I'd hazard a guess, I'd say it will be finished by the end of 2024  2029. Famous last words, and all that. 

They are broken up into separate decades for the hard of hearing.

October's "Done & Dusted"

Will I reach 2000 posts in 2023? I don't have a scooby. I can only try.