Wednesday, November 22, 2023

If This Be Treason (2005)

From the November 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

As soon as he could after the bombs went off in London on 7 July Tony Blair came on the TV to address the nation, as is expected of all great national leaders at times of crisis and danger. His message, in the sense that it had already been largely worked out for him by the media, was unexceptional. “This is” he said, “a very sad day for the British people but we will hold true to our way of life”. Whether that “way of life” was represented by waging war on a country on the basis of lies about it being an immediate threat to world safety with its massively powerful weapons he did not say. But in case there were any lingering misapprehensions about it he plunged on: “When they [the bombers] try to intimidate us, we will not be intimidated”.

This use of the words “us” and “we” was designed to create the impression that Blair was facing the same dangers, of being blown to pieces on the London Tube or buses, as the rest of us. In fact he made his defiant speech on a brief break from the G8 at Gleneagles, where the participants were protected by a high, impenetrable metal screen backed up by a few thousand police officers. When, back in London, he travels the quarter mile or so between his home in Downing Street and his workplace in the Houses of Parliament he does not face the same risks as working Londoners because he is whisked on his journey in a bullet-proof car, among a swarm of police on motor bikes, through streets which have been swept clear of other people. By most reasonable standards anyone who behaves in that way can be described as “intimidated”. Not that Blair lives by the same standards as the rest us, who are merely expendable members of the working class.

But after his intimidated bravado Blair had to give some attention to tracking down the bombers’ organisation and being seen to be actively working against another such incident. During this it leaked out that in future our “way of life” may be subject to the decisions of secret “anti-terror” courts, ruled over by “security cleared” judges with the accused being represented by “special advocates” who had also been vetted for “security”. Other news revealed that some of the defendants before such courts, if British subjects, may find themselves charged with the offence of treason. It seemed fairly obvious that these proposed changes, in the panic after 7 July, were designed to induce a retributive thrill among those whose enjoyment of our way of life made them grateful for the protection of such a stoutly unintimidated government.

Treason is defined as a violation or betrayal of allegiance which is owed to a sovereign or a country, usually through joining, or giving support to, enemy in a war or attempting to overthrow the government. This definition is more comprehensive and more complex than it may at first seem to be. There have been cases when the person accused of treason has argued that they were not of the alleged nationality and so did not owe allegiance to that country or its sovereign. Anyone who regards the world’s population as a mass of human beings may marvel at capitalism’s need to disastrously complicate what are essentially simple matters – for which many a lawyer is grateful. It may be taken as an example of this that of the four categories of treason remaining from the Treason Act of 1351 there is still the offence of “violating” the wife of the king’s eldest son, which may have caused some lost sleep among the men who consorted with Princess Diana while she was still married to the Prince of Wales.

For a long time treason was a capital offence and to satisfy the thirst of the population to witness that traitors had got their just deserts the sentence was often to be hung, drawn and quartered in public. (In fact this sentence was not formally abolished until 1947 – one of the reforms for which the Atttlee government did not, for some reason, claim any credit.) After capital punishment was abolished in 1965 treason remained as one of the few offences which could still “attract” (as lawyers are fond of putting it) the death penalty. Wandsworth prison in London, just in case anyone was in need of being hanged, kept a scaffold in good working order.

One of the more famous examples of treason trials, which came to its appointed grisly end on the scaffold in 1916, was that of Roger Casement. He was an Irish man who at the turn of the century had been employed as a consul of the British government in what was then the Belgian Congo. There he was appalled by the slave conditions and the butchery imposed on the Congolese people by the Belgian rubber companies, under the authority of King Leopold II. Casement’s character was summed up by his manager, who complained that “He is very good to the natives, too good, too generous, too ready to give away. He would never make money as a trader”. He retired in 1911, with a knighthood and a British government pension and two years later he returned to live in Ireland where, not entirely justifiably, he drew parallels between what he had seen in the Congo and Irish problems. In the cause of Irish nationalism he helped to form the Irish Volunteers, an armed militia.

When the First World War began he advised Irish men against joining the British Army, on the grounds that the war with Germany was no concern of theirs. On a false passport he went to Germany with the intention of persuading Irish prisoners of war to fight against Britain. This was not as welcome as he might have hoped; the Germans found him an embarrassment and hastily shipped him, in a submarine, back to Ireland where he was quickly captured. At his trial he tried to argue that he was an Irishman, a case which was fatally weakened in law by his accepting employment as a British consul, a knighthood and a pension. He was quickly convicted and executed at Pentonville on 3 August 1916. After his death his diaries came to light, providing evidence that he was not only a traitor but also a homosexual, which was enough to provoke popular satisfaction that it was entirely appropriate to do away with him. It was not a time notable for rational assessment of such issues.

There were similarities between that case and of William Joyce, whose broadcasts from Germany during the Second World War eventually earned him the name of Lord Haw Haw and a death sentence at the Old Bailey. Joyce was accustomed to dazzling people with his somewhat undisciplined knowledge and his oratory. Organisations found it difficult to cope with him and he had to leave the Army, the Conservative Party and then the British Union of Fascists. All of this was expressed in his virulent anti-semitism; typical of his descriptions of Jews was as “submen with prehensile toes”. But for this he might have done well in the Tory Party (he was once close to being their parliamentary candidate in Chelsea) and in the BUF he held a position only a little below that of Oswald Mosley. Joyce was ejected from the BUF in what Mosley described as an economy drive; he went on to form the National Socialist League, which was closer to the Nazis (their meetings ended with shouts of “Sieg Heil”) but the NSL never made any headway and was about to be wound up when Joyce went to Germany just before the start of the war.

Although there is little evidence that Joyce’s broadcasts had any significant effect on the war morale in Britain, he did provoke a kind of bemused fascination and became the stuff of myths and rumours. At all events his pro-German activities were enough to ensure that when the war ended he would be arrested and brought to England to be tried for treason. Anticipating by some 60 years the Blair government’s manipulation of the legal system, Parliament rushed through the Treason Act of 1945, which replaced the elaborate and prolonged trial procedure which had been in force in cases of treason with a simpler and brisker style, similar to that of a murder trial.

It soon emerged that Joyce had a serious defence against the charge. He had been born in the USA of Irish parents who had become naturalised Americans in 1894. But as a young man he had come to England and had applied for a British passport by lying about his place of birth. His defence argued that, however he had described himself, he was in fact not British but the prosecutor – handsome, brilliant Hartley Shawcross, Attorney General in the 1945 Labour government – persuaded the jury, with a little help from the judge, that “common sense” should override procedure. The long queues which had formed overnight to witness Joyce’s trial were hungry for a guilty verdict and it took the jury only 23 minutes to agree. A little over three months later Joyce, having exhausted all the avenues of appeal, was executed at Wandsworth prison. Popular revenge had been satisfied.

Class and Patriotism
Among his admirers Joyce had a reputation as a relentlessly logical thinker. It was a strange kind of logic which accommodated his support of Germany’s war effort against Britain with his rabid British nationalism. (“The white cliffs of Dover! God bless old England on the lea” he exclaimed to his guard when he was being flown across the Channel to his trial). At the end he tried to escape the hangman by claiming to be an “alien”, which was the kind of accusation he was accustomed to make, in suitably contemptuous invective, about Jewish people. There was – and still is – nothing exceptional about such inconsistencies, which expose the fallacy of patriotism, with its essential creed of “my country right or wrong”. Workers, who make up the majority of capitalism’s people, have no country; however the system arbitrarily divides them according to ruling class rivalries, the workers are united in their poverty. For example it was not a coincidence that the number of victims of recent disasters such as the Asian tsunami and the Katrina hurricane was clearly related to the degree of their poverty. If you could afford it you got out in time; if you could not afford it.

That its workers should be patriotic is vital to each national ruling class and this, fertilised by official lies, is exploited by all governments. Following the 7 July bombs in London one politician after another rushed to denounce the bombers for killing innocent people, as if the British and American forces in Iraq were not also doing that, on a much larger scale. The response of the Blair government was very much as we have come to expect – distortions of facts, the creation of new offences and the revival of the treason charge, designed to stimulate a panic under cover of which the politicians could feel free to do what they would. The strategy in all this was to cement the workers’ patriotism, their loyalty to British capitalism. But as the smoke of the bombs cleared and the dead were counted the central fact remained that for workers to accept such a weary, discredited case is treason against their class.

Letters: Animal testing (2005)

Letters to the Editors from the November 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Animal testing

Dear Editors,

I am pleased to see you state [October issue] that the abolition of the savagery of capitalism will undoubtedly do its part to abolish all unnecessary suffering by non-human sentient creatures. Yet you say that the socialist approach to animal testing is pragmatic. What suffering is necessary? On what grounds? How many animal deaths equal one human life?

Animal testing is anything but scientific. Thalidomide tested safe on animals but when given to humans was a disaster. Drugs for arthritis were harmless to animals but proved to greatly increase heart attacks in people. Blue sky testing where animals are harmed and killed in the vague hope that something useful, and profitable, to humans is both daft and cruel.

I hope a socialist world would be more compassionate with people trying to live in harmony with the environment and animals rather than seeing them as assets to be exploited and plundered for the financial gain of vivisectionists and drug monopolies. Socialism should abolish these as well as the many other horrors of capitalism.

I am sure there are many people suffering from ailments capitalism can’t cure right now (I would be one) who would volunteer to try new drugs and thereby save animal lives while perhaps improving the quality of their own.
Terry Liddle, 
London, SE9

‘Health’ system

 Dear Editors,

I become annoyed when I hear of the increasing numbers of retired workers (hence unexploitable) who are being reminded by their GPs that their ailments are age-related and are told “what do you expect at your age?” instead of being offered proper care. Precious ‘health care’ is then devoted to those that capitalism is able to continue to exploit.

But can multi-million profiteers in drug companies be trusted to be more interested in population health than the profit to be made? Who is able to double-check their laboratory tests and results and how can study statistics be guaranteed not to have been exaggerated or distorted? With such vast wealth at stake would even a capitalist government really care about working-class health under such rewarding (for them) conditions? It has to be faced that no capitalist government assists the really needy – that task is left for charities to do and prop up a system that benefits only the wealthy ruling class.

If the health system is unable or unwilling to properly test and cure working-class patients then I personally believe being ignored and left to suffer or being officially kept alive to suffer is not good enough. The obvious third option of being allowed access and advice on how to quickly and efficiently terminate life should be made available.

The utter independence and freedom to choose the time and place of my own demise certainly appeals to me and is a right I am keen on exercising. If you can help out with attractive suggestions on how this can be accomplished it would be appreciated and I can depart – when the time comes – thumbing my nose at officialdom who have dictated in life what I can and cannot do. It would be a great way to go!
Ron Stone, 
Gelorup, Australia

Blinkered Nationalist

Why on earth are you standing in a Scottish seat? Smacks a little of imperialism to people up here. “Great Britain” is a state founded for empire — the centre colonising the island — it is outdated so anyone with the slightest knowledge of politics now sees “Great Britain” as outdated, hence supporting independence. You are the only party with “Britain” in the title apart from the BNP!
Livingston, Scotland

As far as we are concerned, “Great Britain” is merely a geographical name. And we were the only party standing in the Livingston by-election without “Scottish” on the ballot paper — that’s because we don’t stand for an independent Scotland any more than we stand for an independent “Great Britain” or even “Little England”. We stand for world socialism, a world community, without frontiers, where the resources of the Earth, industrial and natural, will have become the common heritage of all humanity.

Cooking the Books: Things can only get worse (2005)

The Cooking the Books column from the November 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Although Labour was elected to office in 1997 to the sounds of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’,  Blair is now singing a different tune. In the past the Labour Party used to argue that the state could, and should, be used to protect people from the worst effects of world market forces, through such measures as import controls, tariffs and subsidies to protect home industries and the employment they provided, and bans on the export of capital so that it was invested at home. Such views are still held by trade unionists, Leftwing reformists and the Green Party (which has taken over the Labour Party’s discarded policies in this area).

Blair now derides this as “the European social model of the past” and is actively campaigning to get other EU governments to abandon it too. In his Leader’s speech to the annual Labour Party Show in Brighton he told the audience (they can hardly be called delegates since the resolutions they pass count for nothing):
“In the era of rapid globalisation, there is no mystery about what works: an open, liberal economy, prepared constantly to change to remain competitive. The new world rewards those who are open to it. … The temptation is to use government to try to protect ourselves against the onslaught of globalisation by shutting it out – to think we protect a workforce by regulation, a company by government subsidy, an industry by tariffs. It doesn’t work today. Because the dam holding back the global economy burst years ago. The competition can’t be shut out; it can only be beaten” (Guardian, 28 September).
In other words, as the other member of the Thatcher-Blair Mutual Admiration Society used to put in: TINA. And, given capitalism, they are right; there is no alternative. What Marx called the “coercive laws of competition” can’t be overcome; they have to be applied, not just by capitalist enterprises but by governments too.

But at what cost to workers and society in general? It means running fast – in fact, running faster and faster – just to stand still, continually introducing new methods of organisation and production so as to be able to keep down costs and ward off or beat the competition. It’s a race to the bottom, involving, for those who actually produce and distribute the wealth of society, speed-ups, stress, precarious contracts, deregulations, redundancies, retraining, changing jobs – and the scrap heap for those who can’t keep up.

And, despite Blair’s optimism, there is no guarantee that, even with these changes, British capitalism will come out on top – who says competition, says losers as well as winners. Capitalism really is a rat race, or rather a treadmill, from which there’s no relief.

There Are Words for It (2005)

From the November 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Around five thousand languages are spoken at the moment, a number likely to be halved by the end of the twenty-first century. This is partly due to the impact of the world’s ‘major’ languages, such as Spanish, Russian and (above all, of course) English. As English becomes a truly global language, the main language of films, popular music and the internet, not only do its words find their way even into languages like German, but it completely displaces many local or minority languages. The decline in numbers is also caused by the growing role of ‘national languages’, those taught in schools and recognised as a country’s main language of communication. TupÆ, for instance, once widely spoken in Brazil, is now down to a few hundred speakers, pushed out by the expansion of Portuguese (though it will live on in words it has given to English, such as jaguar).

Endangered languages like this have existed throughout history, but are now far commoner than previously. The reasons for this are usually seen as straightforwardly political:
“large centralized political units (both the old-fashioned empire and the all-modern nation state) cause the total number of languages in their territory to decline. In so far as the world goes on being apportioned in such units, the total number of languages in the world will go on falling.” (Andrew Dalby: Language in Danger)
This statement is correct as far as it goes, but it plays down the economic factors behind language death. Languages decline and die when the communities of their speakers are disrupted (by conquest, exile, disease, and so on) or when children grow up speaking in daily life a language other than that of their parents. This can happen for various reasons, one being that the ‘new’ language is seen as a means of economic advancement, perhaps just because it has more speakers and can offer better employment prospects or a bigger market. Languages with a few thousand, or even a few million speakers, can hardly ‘compete’ with English, the language of international business.

Even the way a language is written can be affected by political and economic considerations. After the collapse of the Russian Empire in 1991, the governments of the new countries of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan decided to switch from the Cyrillic to the Roman alphabet to write their respective national languages, which are all related to Turkish. This was partly due to anti-Russian nationalism — the Cyrillic alphabet, which is used to write Russian, having been imposed by Stalin in the 1940s. But it is also clearly motivated by a desire to attract tourists and business visitors and to make it easier for people there to learn English. Returning to the Arabic alphabet (which was used in these countries before the Cyrillic) would have been possible, but would not have served the new rulers’ westernising aims.

Besides undermining the status of languages, economic factors can lead to the creation of new languages. In The Power of Babel, John McWhorter traces the origins of Russenorsk, a kind of mixture of Russian and Norwegian, which came into being in the nineteenth century when Russian traders brought timber to Norway every summer to sell. Russenorsk was a very basic kind of language, useful for bartering and various other kinds of social interaction, but not usable for political debate or discussion of any abstract ideas. Languages like this are termed pidgins, and they usually arise when two groups of speakers come together in specific circumstances. Many Native Americans at first spoke Pidgin English when speaking to white people, while maintaining their own languages too. Unlike Russenorsk, which was a genuine mixture, this Pidgin English consisted almost entirely of words from the language of the dominant group — English — since English-speakers rarely had any desire or motivation to learn a local language. This is the usual situation: the language of the conquerors or colonists provides the vocabulary of the pidgin, which the conquered people have to use to talk with their new masters.

Pidgins often die out after a while: the subordinate group may well adopt the language of their conquerors, as happened in North America. Russenorsk ceased to be needed when the Russian Revolution put an end to the timber-trading. But sometimes a pidgin is expanded to become a full-fledged language, not one just used for a few special purposes, but one with its own individual structure and a vocabulary as large as that of any ‘normal’ language. A pidgin which has become a full language like this is called a creole; formation of a creole usually happens when people speaking different native languages and only sharing a pidgin are brought together. McWhorter mentions the case of Sranan, a creole spoken in Surinam, on the northern coast of South America. This was a British-owned slave colony, and slaves from various parts of Africa who were brought there had only Pidgin English in common at first. This eventually expanded to become Sranan, which is widely spoken in Surinam nowadays, alongside Dutch.

In fact the slave trade is the commonest causal factor in the origins of creoles. This appallingly cruel and immensely profitable system of trading in human beings resulted, among other things, in millions of people being uprooted from their homes and families, transported across the world, and set to work in desperate and scarcely-believable conditions. It should come as little surprise to learn that many languages of the West Indies are creoles (Jamaican creole, for instance), as is Tok Pisin, one of the official languages of Papua New Guinea. As creolised forms of pidgin Englishes, these still have vocabularies that are partly derived from English, but they are absolutely not debased forms of English. The languages of other colonising nations have also given rise to creoles, such as a Portuguese-based creole in the Cape Verde Islands in the North Atlantic, and the French-based creole spoken in Haiti. As McWhorter says, “most creoles have arisen amid conditions of unthinkably stark and ineradicable social injustice.”

One, rather controversial, claim is that the development of agriculture about ten thousand years ago led to the wiping out of many languages, as cultivators expanded their territories and settled down, thus overrunning existing groups of hunter-gatherers, who may well each have spoken their own language. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that capitalism, with its globalisation and its tendency to make everything homogeneous, is now killing off languages like nobody’s business. An examination of the current state and historical development of the world’s languages shows how capitalism leaves its ugly footprints everywhere, even in the way we speak.
Paul Bennett

Bushmen and the progress of capitalism (2005)

From the November 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

It has been estimated that the so-called Bushmen of the Kalahari have lived in southern Africa for at least 20,000 years, but that cuts no ice with the zealots hell-bent on the development of capitalism in that part of the world.

“The Bushmen of the Kalahari – among Africa’s last indigenous peoples – are on the verge of losing their ancestral homeland after the Government of Botswana stepped up a campaign to force them into squalid resettlement camps” (Times, 12 September). The government has sent heavily armed wildlife guards into the Central Kalahari Game reserve – an area that had been promised to the Bushmen “in perpetuity”. Their aim is to remove some 200 to 250 Gana and Gwi who have returned there from the resettlement camps. The Times report continues: “Stephen Corry, director of Survival International, which has been highlighting the Bushmen’s plight, said: ‘The Government seems hell-bent on finishing them off this time. The situation is very urgent. Unless circumstances change through outside intervention, this could very well be the end of these particular people’”.

The plight of the Gana and Gwi people is by no means unique. The development of capitalism crushes all the tribal societies it comes into contact with. In the past we have had the slaughter of the native Americans in the USA, the butchery of the Australian aborigines and more recently of the Yanomami in Northern Brazil. The concept of a tribal society that lives by gathering and hunting with no recourse to capitalism’s markets is anathema to a property-based social system.

The Botswana government has destroyed the tribal wells and banned hunting in its efforts to restrict tribal groups. The growth of farming and diamond mining probably lie behind the government’s recent actions. Some government ministers have hinted that the evictions are needed because deposits of diamonds have been found in the area, although the state diamond company, which is an offshoot of De Beers claim they are uneconomic to mine. “However, De Beers does not rule out mining them at a later date.”

The development of capitalism in Africa must crush tribal communities just as it did in Europe and America . The only hope for a communal life-style is not a return to primitive tribal society, but the transformation of present day private property, profit-producing society into the new social system of world socialism.

Is Marxism dead? (2005)

From the November 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Surely before we cheer or weep over the bier of Marxism we should clearly identify the corpse. What exactly do we mean by Marxism?

Marxism is a materialist method of interpreting history; an explanation of social class and a labour theory of value. However, rather than getting involved in Marx's rather complicated theories, it is simpler to look at his vision of a proposed alternative to capitalism, which he called socialism (following Robert Owen) or communism — he and the pioneers of the socialist movement used the terms 'communism' and 'socialism' interchangeably.

Marx saw wage labour and capital as two sides of the same relation and affirmed that one could not exist without the other. He advised workers to remove from their banners the conservative slogan of a fair day's pay for a fair day's work and instead inscribe 'Abolition of the wages!' He saw the state — by its nature — as an executive committee of a ruling class and held that in socialism government of people would give way to a simple, democratic administration of things.

In other words, Marx's vision of socialism was of a social system of common ownership of the means of production, the resources of nature and the means of distribution essentially achieved by a conscious democratic process and administered necessarily by the widest possible forms of participative democracy.

It is important to emphasise — however obvious it should be — that the wageless, classless, moneyless and stateless world he envisaged could not be established by other than the conscious democratic action of a majority.

Today Left and Right are meaningless terms; each is one side of the spectrum of capitalism; and, because both accept to take on the political stewardship of capitalism, economic and political necessity frequently means they adopt each other's positions. Always when the Left gains power it creates dissidence within its own outer ranks when its aspirations clash with the requirements of the system and the capitalist ruling class.

In Britain today, 'Old Labour' — with a very short memory of old Labour governments! — bemoan the activities of Blair, Brown, Straw, Blunkett and Clarke. We should remember that most of these men were Lefties and CNDers and that none of them invented 'Blairism'. Blairism and its outcrops are simply the logical application of the illogical reformist thesis that capitalism can be made to function in the interests of the working class; a bit like saying that the slaughterhouses can function for the benefit of the cattle.

Socialism/communism has never existed anywhere, nor could it exist in just part of the world, because it is the global alternative to a decadent global system. Socialists in open debate with upholders of capitalism will shatter their arguments and throw its philosophers to the wind. But the political agents of capitalism have learnt never to attack socialism as Karl Marx envisaged ; instead they attack a perversion of Marxism which they call Marxist- Leninism — a contradiction in terms — or the limping incompetence of Left reformism in government,
Those who want to see socialism must first unequivocally delineate what they mean by the term, as all scientific practice calls for. Once this is done, it can be seen that socialism as advocated by Marx is still very much alive.

Doubtful Benefits (2005)

From the November 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

It’s another day with a ‘Y’ in its name, so the government must be attacking benefits scroungers again. The routine pieties of the modern political age are to talk about ‘helping people’ out of ‘the benefits trap’ and ‘back into work’ – joining the perennial political duties like cutting red tape and reducing government spending. The reason why these problems never go away is because they are problems caused by the very system which puts the politicians in power, and which they cannot resolve without destroying themselves and their own elevated statuses.

David Blunkett – now returned to the cabinet after resigning last year for abusing his office for personal gain in helping his lover’s nanny get a visa quicker – has been making loud noises about the ‘crackers’ Incapacity Benefit system. It is Blunkett’s role to sound like a bruiser, to talk tough and act tough, seen by many as appealing to Labour’s core constituency – former Tory voters on council estates. He bemoaned the continuing rise of people on incapacity benefits (many driven there by previous efforts to try and cut benefits claimants, helped by staff driven by targets to reduce certain types of benefits).

There are currently 2.7 million people on incapacity benefit in the UK, with something like 29 million people in employment (possibly the highest UK figure ever). According to the BBC, that is four times the number of IB recipients compared to 30 years ago. Of course, many things have changed since then, not least the structure of the benefits system as a whole.

Blunkett, however, still wants to drastically reduce the numbers on incapacity. Revealing his new status as a medical doctor, Blunkett pronounced that getting out to work is a better cure for depression than staying at home watching daytime telly.  This startling revelation must have shocked his fellow healthcare professionals who had been labouring under the impression that depression is a medical ailment of the brain as much as a break is a medical condition of the leg. Perhaps

Blunkett will now advise a brisk walk as a cure for that. Behind the tough rhetoric, though, as ever with the modern Machiavellian Labour Party, is some old-fashioned Old Labour style reforms: plans to make the benefits system ‘a ladder to self-reliance’ and to give assistance with training and finding jobs to people who are on IB. Simplification of the system may actually help people who are supposed to be too ill to work but have to be well enough to run from pillar to post to fill in their 2,000 page benefits claim form signed in triplicate in blood. Or something like that.

This is cut from the same cloth as the New Deal and all their previous schemes to ‘help’ the unemployed back to work by badgering them and managing them into being full-time professional job seekers. Of course, this runs counter to any notion that they can quickly cut costs. This month also saw the National Audit Office reveal that only 5% of people on IB were able to access back to work schemes. To assist more people through such structures will actually increase the cost of managing the benefits, not decrease it, as massive expansion would be required.

This is the central conundrum for governments: caught between a real problem beyond their control, trapped by their own eternal propaganda of cost cutting, they cannot pursue their eternal propaganda of getting people off benefits. Instead, all we have is a Groundhog Day of pronouncements and denouncements as the Ministers try to be seen doing something, usually by trying to portray the people who are dependent on benefits as somehow culpable and at fault for the whole of the costs of the benefits system.

Politicians are struggling to define the typical benefits recipient, to legitimise the idea of welfare so they can attack it and reduce costs and also increase downwards pressures on wages and the labour market. Most people in the UK are probably only two pay cheques away from needing to call on benefits, but rather than portray it as a system to help people and prevent catastrophe it is universally presented as a location of cheats, frauds and scroungers, riddled with layabouts and other undeserving poor types. Benefits and being on benefits is to be despised and feared.

Despite this, though, people are compelled to claim them because of the wages system, because they are too ill to work or because work is not available. The benefits system actually benefits employers who otherwise would face the costs and disruption of having to keep on people whose illness makes them turn up to work irregularly, who would lie in desperation to gets jobs about their illnesses, and push much of the cost currently borne generally through taxes directly onto capitalists who employ many workers.

Herein is the rub of the £3 billion lost from the system by fraud and ‘error’ – much of it will have been small sums given to people which will have made their lives easier. Some of it will have contributed to the real living needs of claimants. The real tragedy is not the fraud or the overspend, but that much of the £109 billion budget is wasted assessing people, categorising people and cheeseparing their entitlements.

There is enough food, clothing and housing to go round. The world today is not short of wealth. In order, though, to maintain labour discipline, to keep the labour market in existence, a massive welfare budget must be expended to deny access to the things people need.

The simple fact is that we live in a society overripe for socialism. The material possibility has been around the corner for years. When we remove the barriers to the access of wealth, we also remove the barriers that make some people unemployable, that make socialising and community a cost that has to be scraped out of local authority and social services budgets. We would remove the binds, the need to support a restrictive welfare system but simultaneously to attack it and try to reduce its budget, by the principle of producing freely together.

Socialists, unlike leftists, do not support the welfare state, do not see it as a way to socialism, but as an inevitable part of capitalism, of administering poverty. The abolition of poverty – not in far-flung imagined foreign fields where poverty is vividly drawn by the masters of propaganda, but on the very streets where we walk and it is painted out by those same illusionists – will mean an end to the welfare ideology. With luck, it will also mean seeing less of David Blunkett’s face revelling in his own ‘stern compassion’.
Pik Smeet

The Measure of All Things (2005)

Book Review from the November 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

Postmodern Humanism. By Jack Grassby. TUPS books. 2005. £9.95

Until the 1960s Secularists, Rationalists and Free Thinkers as they were variously called had a reputation, rightly or wrongly, of being negative god-killers, bible-debunkers and priest-baiters. Then, in 1963, a group which felt the need to appear more positive set up the British Humanist Association. They still seem to be working out what their positive case is beyond promoting a non-religious but still ethical approach to life. Recently they set up a working group to examine their core values. Jack Grassby is a member of the North East Humanists and his book is intended as a contribution to this debate.

It is not certain that it will appeal to his fellow Humanists as he embraces two approaches most of them would not normally like any more than we do: sociobiology (with its biological determinism) and postmodernism (with its rejection of any universal human values). Also, it contains a number of embarrassing howlers, such as stating that homo sapiens emerged from the Neanderthals and that Socrates preached that "man is the measure of all things" whereas this was the view of the Sophists that Socrates set out to rubbish. Come to think of it, "man is the measure of all things" could well be the core-value that the Humanists are searching for.
Adam Buick

Dreadful Catalogue (2005)

Book Review from the November 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

50 Facts that Should Change the World by Jessica Williams (Icon £6.99.)
The obvious reaction to the title is to say that it’s people that change the world, not facts. But Jessica Williams begins by claiming that the facts she has assembled can change the way people think. The information gathered here does indeed provide many reasons why the world needs to be changed. Much of what is said will probably be familiar to readers of the Socialist Standard. One in five of the earth’s population go hungry each day, for instance, while one British child in three lives below the poverty line, and life expectancy is strikingly low in many countries, especially in Africa. Others are perhaps not so appalling: is it really so bad that Brazil has more Avon ladies than members of its armed forces?
But many will find much that is new and enlightening here. For example, far from slavery having been abolished, there are more slaves in the world today (27 million) than at any time previously. More people die from suicide than from armed conflicts: in 2000 around one million people killed themselves and at least ten times that number tried to do so. What sort of world is it in which so many find their lives insupportable to this extent?

Or where over two hundred million child labourers exist? In nine countries, same-sex relationships are punishable by death, while over 150 states make use of torture. One third of the world’s population live in countries involved in armed conflict, and black American men stand a one-in three chance of going to prison at some time in their lives. Two million women are subjected to female genital mutilation each year, while over one million people are killed in road traffic accidents.

The book presents a dreadful catalogue of poverty, violence, degradation and waste, a vivid picture of 21st-century capitalism, all backed up with useful references. Williams adds commentary of her own, together with ideas for solving the problems. Some of this is OK – she recognises that famine and malnutrition are not caused by food shortages. But far too much of it is concerned with what governments should do and how ‘we’ should influence them. The real lesson to draw, though, is that we truly do need to change the world, not just get the rulers to behave in a more enlightened way.
Paul Bennett

Greasy Pole: The Respect That Makes Calamity (2005)

The Greasy Pole column from the November 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

When was it that Tony Blair decided that Respect would be an attractive, vote-catching election theme? Was it a long time ago, before he had felt the first stirrings of political ambition and was merely a rebellious, disrespectful schoolboy? Or later, when he was safely ensconced in Downing Street and his son was collected from a West End gutter after disrespectfully celebrating the end of his exams? Whatever the truth of this, the theme now looks about to become another New Labour obsession. Here is Blair, speaking on the steps of Number Ten after his victory in the 2005 election, vowing to bring back “A proper sense of respect in our schools, in our communities, in our towns and villages”. And here is Charles Clarke, a Labour Home Secretary doing his best to forget his past as a stroppy left winger: “Tackling disrespect in our society is an absolute priority for the government”.

Blair has made it clear where he thinks the blame lies for any shortcomings in this matter: “it is in the family that we have to come to terms with the idea of give and take and respect for other people”. And what if the family does not come up to these expectations? Well, “People need to understand that if their kids are out of control and they are causing a nuisance to the local community, there is something that is going to happen”. And that “something” is to apply Parenting Orders, now to be extended and strengthened, which force parents to be instructed in how to bring up their children – teaching them to respect others, give up their bus seat to an old lady, stand up when the national anthem is played, always wear their full school uniform and obey the general laws and orders of capitalist society. If the parents succeed in this and their kids behave in an orderly, respectful way, Blair will be a happier man and, the argument runs, New Labour will win yet another election.

This is all very well, but as a spokesperson for the children’s charity Barnado’s pointed out, it is not only children who are the cause of nuisance behaviour and it is not only in family homes and schools that the problem reveals itself. There was the recent example of Labour Party member Walter Wolfgang, who was so lacking in respect for figures of power and authority that he recklessly called out, slumped in his seat at Labour’s conference, that Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was a liar. At the time Straw was only doing his job, giving the conference (which was very sparsely attended at the time) the Labour Party line, perhaps flavoured by a Foreign Office brief, that Iraq was attacked in order to get rid of Saddam Hussein and establish a modern democracy there, whatever the Iraqi people thought about it. Now, the Foreign Secretary holds one of the great offices of state, is a person of considerable influence and standing in society (although in the unusual case of Jack Straw his standing, for reasons connected with the ruthless game of politics, is rather lower than is the custom) who should command respectful silence when he is telling lies. It is no excuse for Wolfgang to argue that he was carried away by the contrast between Straw’s original doubts about the invasion of Iraq and his passionate support of it now. It is an essential of being respectful to keep extremes of emotion – like outrage at a blatant, cynical betrayal – strictly under control.

It was especially unwise of Wolfgang to interrupt Jack Straw who, when he was Home Secretary, was liable to become excited in discussing the symptoms of social disturbance. It was Straw who first publicly condemned the “squeegee bandits” – people who, without the driver asking, cleaned the windscreens of cars which were halted at traffic lights. We never did hear what happened to all those dangerous criminals who went about their nefarious business with wet sponges in their hands – and Straw forgot about them as well. Then he complained about his evening drive home from the office being marred by the spectacle of young people out on the streets later than a respectable Home Secretary thought they should be. That particular neurosis lingers on, in the ASBOs and the campaign about respect. And it was Straw who had to take his son to a police station after he had been exposed by a tabloid newspaper for offering controlled drugs for sale. Not, in other words, someone for Wolfgang to tangle with. It is just as well that Straw was so effectively protected from him.

Unfortunately, when Wolfgang embarked on his one-man campaign to wreck Labour’s conference there was not enough time to refer him to his local branch of the new anti-social behaviour units (of which more later), with a view to cracking down on his parents who, as Blair has told us, must be held responsible for raising so disruptive a character. This was clearly considered an unrealistic option when Labour’s spin doctors were told about Wolfgang’s age. So it was entirely appropriate – indeed there was no other way – for a couple of impressively beefy, enthusiastically respectful, Labour Party members who had volunteered to police the conference, to eject him from the hall. Along with another member who was disrespectful enough to protest at an 82-year-old man having his collar felt in that way. Perhaps now Wolfgang, like other offenders against the law, will be taught to keep his place by being deprived of his state benefits under the rules dreamed up by David Blunkett, who used to be Home Secretary but is now in charge of the Department of Work and Pensions.

Meanwhile the new task force with the job of teaching respect to people who heckle government ministers is getting down to its vital work. At its head is Louise Casey, who was already in charge of the Anti-Social Behaviour Unit. Her new job requires her to “focus” (a word much loved by New Labour hopefuls) on “working together on the neighbourhood renewal and anti-social behaviour agendas, highlighting respect for others and respect for the community.” Whatever talents Casey can bring to this task, sensitive public relations is not among them. A few weeks before her new appointment, when she was merely the ASBO tsarina, she informed an audience of Home Office staff and senior police officers that
“Doing things sober is no way to get things done…I suppose you can’t binge drink any more. I don’t know who bloody made that up. It’s nonsense…There is an obsession with evidence-based policy. If Number Ten says bloody evidence-based policy to me one more time I’ll deck them and probably get unemployed.”
All over the country breath will be bated while we learn what kind of “respect” Casey will introduce us to. Wolfgang will probably be particularly apprehensive. Meanwhile Labour has been most generous in its response to his deplorable lack of respect for one of their senior politicians. One minister after another queued up to offer their humblest apology to him. Party chairman Ian McCartney went so far as to promise to take him out for a meal – a traditionally pacifying treat for stroppy pensioners – although whether eating in company with the myopically loyal Labourite McCartney would be nutritious and mollifying, or further punishment, was not clear. As the dust settled it had to be asked whether the apologies and the threatened dinner with McCartney were motivated by the fact that the Labour stewards had so clumsily committed their assault on Wolfgang in full view of the TV cameras. For some viewers it was reminiscent of Mosley’s infamous fascist rally at Olympia in 1934. If there had not been the same damning TV exposure, would all those ministers have been so eager to grovel?

There are other questions which need to be asked in the whole matter of “respect”. What kind of “respect” was shown by Jack Straw when he changed his mind over something as important as the war in Iraq? What sort of “respect” is shown by the Blair government’s drive to undermine the established legal rights of people who are arrested by the police? And on the other side, what degree of “respect” do we find in the attitude of someone like the heckling Wolfgang, who undisturbedly keeps his membership of both CND and the Labour Party, although he must know that there is no prospect of this government, or any future Labour government, agreeing to throw away their nuclear weapons? Let it be clear. Having respect for people and our environment – acknowledging and caring for each other’s strengths, needs, weaknesses, ambitions – is not compatible with capitalism’s essentially competitive, repressive nature. Capitalism makes heroes of those who rise to the top, no matter how ruthlessly they achieve that. Tony Blair, for example, did not get where he is by allowing himself to be diverted through any respect for truth and human interests. And then what about the people – the working class – who in their millions support capitalism’s political parties through thick and thin, disaster and triumph, contempt and respect? They need to understand that in the mouth of a politician “respect” is a fine but meaningless word. Unhappy and disillusioned people like Wolfgang should know this because they have experienced “respect” at the sharp end.