Saturday, December 30, 2023

Russia’s Rich Men (1972)

Book Review from the December 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

The End of Inequality? by David Lane.

This is an interesting discussion of “social stratification” in Russia even though Lane dismisses the various theories which say Russia is a class society in the Marxian sense — which for some reason he calls theories of state capitalism even though only one of those he mentions used this term. This does not mean that Lane thinks Russia is a classless society. Far from it. He just thinks Marxian definitions do not apply.

Even so, the first two chapters where Lane points out that Socialism in Marx’s sense could not have been established in Russia after 1917 because of the low level of productivity then prevailing rely heavily on Marxist ideas. Indeed Lane seems to recognise that Socialism is not possible till the means of production can produce abundance, but he does persist in using the misleading phrase “state socialism” to describe Russian society.

The other three chapters are based on the evidence of social research carried out in Russia, Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia which reveals that the pattern of status and style-of-life groups (which some sociologists use to define class) in these countries is much the same as in the West.

The one difference, claims Lane, “is the absence of a private propertied class possessing great concentrations of wealth”. Later he speaks of “the elimination of inheritance of substantial wealth”. Now, while it is true that the predominant form of class monopoly in Russia is the ruling class’s collective control over the means of production, it is not true that there are no individually wealthy persons there. Members of the Russian ruling class do have the chance to accumulate — out of high salaries, bonuses, prizes and even fiddles — considerable private fortunes. Lane himself says that the salary of a government Minister is nine times the average wage, and this is not counting various fringe benefits like cars, big houses, holidays and special shops. In Britain this would be an income of about £250 a week (which would be worth more in Russia because of the low rates of income tax there). Some of this is bound to be saved and over the years a large sum, which can be inherited, built up.

In fact this whole field of individual wealth in countries like Russia — its sources, its distribution, where it is invested — is wide open for original research. It is even fair to speculate whether, with the spread of enterprise freedom and the possible success of the Russian civil rights movement, private ownership of wealth rather than political power may not become the predominant form of class privilege in Russia.
Adam Buick

Black History (1972)

Book Review from the December 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

In Red and Black, Marxian Explorations in Southern and Afro-American History, by Eugene D. Genovese, Allen Lane. The Penguin Press 5.00

This book is a compilation of some eighteen previously published essays by Professor Genovese and, like books of this nature, suffers a bit from disjointedness, even from an occasional contradiction. But it is not this in the book that really bothers us. It is, rather, the Genovese approach to the Marxian method of interpreting history. His opening chapter: On Being a Socialist and a Historian and his concluding essay: On Antonio Gramsci (head of the Communist Party in Italy in the early 1920s; arrested and imprisoned for the last eleven years of his life by Mussolini) should be read carefully as one sees, in starkness, the utter contempt or, at best, condescension of the self-appointed intellectual “Marxist” for the mental potentialities of ordinary working people. To Genovese, leadership—presumably of intellectuals — is certainly the most important factor in educating the working class to the urgencies of Socialism. He approves of Gramsci’s vision of the ideal party:
“A party justifies its historical existence when it develops three strata: (1) a rank-and-file of ordinary men whose participation is characterised by discipline and faith; (2) a leadership, which provides cohesion; and (3) cadres, which mediate morally, physically, and intellectually between the other two.”
Of these strata he stressed leadership:
“We speak of captains without an army, but in reality it is easier to form an army than to find captains. It is surely true that an already existing army will be destroyed if it lacks captains, whereas a group of captains, co-operative and in agreement on common ends, will not be slow in forming an army where none exists.”
But this is not Marxism nor was it really new with either Gramsci or Lenin. It is the sort of theory which Marx and Engels consistently fought against throughout their careers. As far back as 1848, in their Communist Manifesto, they made clear that: “The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interests of the immense majority.” (Our emphasis). The Marxian case rests, indeed, on the theory that the ideas of man (not merely of leaders) are basically determined by the mode of production and that it is the business of working for wages for an owning class (not the preachments or captaincies of great men) that will cause workers to organise for Socialism.

The foregoing should not discourage the student of Socialism from obtaining the book (if he can afford it). There is much of interest to be gotten from the essays on the blacks in America notwithstanding the incredible misunderstanding of the Marxian method. Genovese, for example, sees American blacks as embracing “genuine ingredients of a separate nationality, even as they form part of a general American nationality … (and that) it is no longer possible to believe that a class can be understood apart from its culture, or that most modern classes can be understood apart from their nationality.” But what, after all, is a nationality? In the final analysis it is a group split into people with rival and conflicting interests. Even in the case of American blacks, where the percentage of capitalists is undoubtedly smaller than usual, the struggle between and within the classes is apparent. Black bourgeois pit themselves against one another as well as against the white bourgeoisie, and against the black (or white) workers they hire. Black workers, on the other hand, must also compete among themselves—as well as with white workers—for jobs.

It should also be pointed out that Genovese does a creditable job in showing the limitations of the economic determinists both of the non-Marxist and professed Marxist varieties. Creditable, that is, to the extent that he does not go overboard himself in an opposite direction. Certainly historians such as Charles and Mary Beard (who were not professedly Marxist) could be categorised as economic determinists and yet their analysis of the factors motivating the South to secede in 1860 was not as “narrowly defined” as he would have it. For the tariff did play a major role in antagonising the cotton planters who had an enormous stake in trade with England, Genovese and even Marx to the contrary notwithstanding. And the Homestead Law was certainly not in the interests of a ruling class that was based largely on latifundia-type labour, a wasteful sort of labour which, together with a one-crop economy, burned up land quickly and helped generate competition between North and South for frontier areas. The spread of homesteading certainly did offer a threat to the South.

Part of the problem of Professor Genovese seems to be his obvious lack of understanding of the basics of a capitalist system. Even his attempt to label the southern slave economy bears this out although he does correctly show that it was certainly not feudal, as so many professed Marxists maintain. Unfortunately, despite his grasp of the form feudalism, he declares that economy to be as different from capitalism as it was from feudalism. In fact the ante-bellum South had a system of plantation capitalism. True, the relationships were not [wage-labour and capital] but, rather, chattel-slave labour and capital (although there were many wage-slaves too). Nevertheless, unlike the classical systems of slavery and of serfdom, production was organised for sale on the market with view to profit. The production of cotton, tobacco, and (following the government’s ban on slave-importation) slaves themselves, was not carried on primarily for the use of the ruling class. A backward and inefficient type of capitalism, yes. But nevertheless capitalism.
Harry Morrison
(World Socialist Party of the United States)

Blogger's Note:
Not sure what happened but this review was a bit garbled in places and there were no corrections in a later issue of the Socialist Standard. It happens.

50 Years Ago: Christmas Shopping (1972)

The 50 Years Ago column from the December 1972 issue of the Socialist Standard

When November was scarcely half spent, the shops began to make their special displays. Now, as I write, the wares of the world are heaped behind the shining windows. Like so many Aladdin’s caves they will yield their store to him who has the golden key; to all other the frail glass pane is a barrier impassable.

And who are they that can command the best and largest share? Those who took no part in producing it … Alaskan furs, Chinese silks, ivories of Japan, Sheffield cutlery, Spanish, Arabian and Tasmanian fruits, do not create and convey themselves, even at Christmas time. That which shaped, transported and arranged them was your work, and that of your fellows in all corners of the earth.

These goods, and the posters that advertise them, the factories where they were made and the machines within the factories, the engines and ships that carried them here—you made them all. Yet your part in the season’s celebrations is to watch more fortunate folks enjoy them, and feel your own needs more bitterly. You who have distant friends and families—why cannot you visit them? You fathers and mothers of children, do not even their small delights mean the sacrifice of something necessary to yourselves?

There are young men and girls among you who dreamed homes of your own; and this winter finds you further off than ever from your desires.

* * *

If a crowning absurdity was lacking, it is supplied by the presence of multitudes who are not even allowed to work.

(From an article in the Socialist Standard, December 1922, signed “A”)

Voice From The Back: End of a dream (2009)

The Voice From The Back Column from the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

End of a dream 

Ever since the publication of his Unsafe at Any Speed in 1965 Ralph Nader has been the darling of radical circles in the USA. Here was a man who dared to question the power of such capitalist concerns as General Motors. He went on to found scores of progressive non-profit organisations. He even ran as a Green Party and later an Independent candidate for the President of the USA. On one occasion he even polled almost 3 million votes. Capitalism however is a resilient social system and his attempt at reforming capitalism has ended up with him looking to the capitalists to solve the problems. He is on tour at present to promote his first fictional book entitled Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us. This has led some of his former supporters to doubt his reasoning. “There is a poignance in listening to Ralph Nader these days. Here is a man who, for the last 45 years, has hurled his body at the engine of corporate power. He’s dented it more than anyone else in America. But he knows it’s still chugging, even more strongly than ever. Nader understands that he’s losing. He understands that we’re losing—we who believe in democracy, we who care about justice. But if our only hope is with a handful of billionaires, we’re in a lot worse shape than I thought.” (The Progressive, 28 September)

How about socialism? 

As the social problems of capitalism mount up its administrators have to be seen to be doing something. The usual drill in the past has been for world leaders to meet together usually in some splendid hotel or other, make pious noises about “something has to be done”, pat each other on the back and fly home first class in a glow of self-satisfaction. The most recent crisis of world hunger has occasioned another useless backscratching summit. “With food prices remaining high in developing countries, the United Nations estimates that the number of hungry people around the world could increase by 100 million in 2009 and pass the one billion mark. A summit of world leaders in Rome scheduled for November will set an agenda for ways to reduce hunger and increase investment in agriculture development in poor countries. What will drive the next Green Revolution? Is genetically modified food an answer to world hunger? Are there other factors that will make a difference in food production?” (New York Times, 26 October) The one factor that they have not taken in to consideration is not yet another summit at a higher and higher level, but a sump level meeting of the world’s working class. Only by such a movement as the World Socialist Movement can men and women abolish for ever the madness of millions starving to keep a system of robbery and exploitation intact. The journalist asks the question “Are there other factors that will make a difference in food production?” Yes there is – world socialism and production solely for use! That is one issue that wont be discussed in Rome.

Capitalism is gangsterism 

Politicians and clergymen and even well-paid TV personalities will claim that the Middle East conflict has something to do with morality and justice and that it has nothing to do with crass consideration such as “making a couple of bucks” as Al Capone once famously said. “The British oil giant BP will today take control of Iraq’s biggest oilfield in the first important energy deal since the 2003 invasion. The move has created uproar among local politicians invoking resentful memories of their nation’s colonial past. The agreement to develop the Rumaila field, near the southern city of Basra, will potentially put Iraq on the path to rivalling the riches of Saudi Arabia within a decade — if the Government can fend off corrupt officials, continuing terrorist attacks on pipelines and political uncertainty.” (Times, 3 November) Hey, Iraq workers may continue to live in poverty, so what, we can make a couple of bucks. That is how capitalism works, isn’t it Al Capone?

The new gangsters 

It used to be popular for supporters of the so-called Communist Party to decry Imperialism. They would point out how Britain had exploited Africa and India during their colonial conquests. Later on they would concentrate on the role of the USA in Central and South America. Changed days now with China investing heavily in all sorts of corrupt regimes throughout Asia and Africa. “Barely a fortnight after soldiers loyal to Guinea’s military junta butchered at least 150 demonstrators calling for civilian rule, a deal for oil and mineral rights worth about $7 billion has been struck between China and Guinea. … It seems that China’s commercial march across Africa will continue unabated, however vile the human-rights record of the government it seeks to befriend.” (Economist, 17 October)

Pathfinders: Calorie counts and pet scans (2009)

The Pathfinders Column from the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Calorie counts and pet scans

Hail the season of good capitalist cheer which will soon be upon you, while you’re on holiday from your lack of job and looking forward to the Christmas repossession and credit collection letters. Since you’re not likely to be merry and you can’t afford to buy presents or drink, let Pathfinders at least assure you that you can eat crap food because the scientists have got all their calorie intake levels wrong by about 16 per cent (‘Rethink for calorie eating levels’, BBC Online, 14 November).

But please stop feeding the leftovers to the damn dog, who’s probably clinically obese. One in three household pets in the UK, about 7m animals, is overweight (Vetpulse Blog ) while in USA it’s 50 per cent (Pet obesity facts)

The fact that pooch has got a paunch in a dog-eat-dog world where 750m people eat nearly nothing is no surprise to socialists, however Fido and Tiddles-lovers in the top 10 cat and dog-owning countries might be surprised to learn that it takes six and a half times the land area of New Zealand to provide the petfood. And in a delicious knife-twist to any self-righteous organic dog-owning vegan climate-protestors at Copenhagen this month, it turns out that for the eco-pawprint of an average sized dog you could instead drive not one but two SUVs 10,000 kilometres over a year (New Scientist, 24 October and Guardian, 13 November). In fact, for the price of an overweight small Scottie dog you could even run an Ethiopian or a Vietnamese human.

Once you’ve eaten the dogfood and the dog you can always resort to drugs, now that the debate has been satisfactorily resolved and we can reliably tell how to assess the relative safety of any drug. Oh, you didn’t know? Well it’s simple. If the government says nothing at all about it, it will most probably kill you, whereas if they swear blind it’s dangerous and what’s more do their Nutt and sack any scientific advisor who dares to disagree with them, you know you can party!

Crystal balls-ups

No doubt many readers have come to regard Pathfinders as their infallible technical and scientific guru, and one is of course reluctant to disabuse them of such notions, however in positively the last anniversary item of 2009 it might be fun to reflect on the fate of pundit predictions from 20 years ago. The following comes from the book Towards 2001 – A consumer’s guide to the 21st century, by Malcolm Abrams and Harriet Bernstein (Angus, London, 1989). Quite what qualified these two journalists to write this book is unclear, however they probably did about as well as Pathfinders would have done.
  • Correct (if late): Flat screens, pocket computer, CDRs, digital cameras and hearing aids, impotence pills, sat-nav, supermarket self-checkout.
  • Wrong (or not heard of): walking TV, self-weeding gardens, bark-stopper dog collar, flying car, potato ice-cream.
  • Not predicted (stand by for a shock): pen-drives, DVDs, small mobile phones, text messaging, World Wide Web, PDAs, lithium-ion batteries (making small portable electronics possible).
What do we learn from this? Not much, apart from never believe what gurus tell you. The list of things they signally failed to predict accords eerily with the most revolutionary changes in our culture, which is a kind of reverse trick-shot. Hope for socialists, perhaps, since people are always telling us socialism will never happen. But Pathfinders can hardly stand by and laugh without entering the fray, so here are a few modest offerings for the next ten years:

They won’t find a graviton or a Higgs boson; they won’t understand what they do get; the LHC will break down anyway because somebody sneezed; somebody will announce the overthrow of Einstein (again); most of the heat from the Caderache nuclear fusion plant will be generated by rows over money; Dawkins will get baptised a Catholic.

Things that go Plod in the night

Modern detective work is a serious and scientific business, apparently. Only not in Wales, whose police force embarked on a £20,000 investigation into a suicide after being told that the man’s ghost had visited psychics and told them he had been poisoned (Guardian, 7 November). Learning that the words ‘lion’, ‘horse’ and ‘fox’ were significant, the police set off to visit every pub with one of those names in its title, and one with a statue of a horse outside. The case was closed only after a second post-mortem revealed no trace of any poison. “We are a laughing stock,” complained one police source. Perhaps, but spirits were doubtless apprehended in several of those pubs.

Competition results

If you interrogate your 140 character memory you will recall that Pathfinders attempted, back in September, to raise the level of debate on Twitter by holding a competition to find the best SMS-length rendition of the socialist case. To say that there was a tsunami of enthusiastic responses might be a slight exaggeration (ask a socialist whatever you like, but don’t ask them to be brief!) however some notable entries deserve honourable mention (the prize is that we keep your name out of it).
Most rallying: Society marches on its belly; give us the land, farms and the bakery not the crumbs! 4 1 world socialist community! (FA)

Most exact: From each according to ability, to each according to need. Free labour, free access. That’s Socialism. (SJW)

Most poetic: The essence of capitalism is the stench of cordite and blood. The essence of communism is the flavour of fulfilment. (JN)

Most McGonagall: The essence of capitalism is wages and profit. The essence of socialism is how to get off it. (ALB)

Most conversational: Think outside the box of capitalism and make the world a pleasurable place to inhabit. Work for the benefit of society, not your masters. (JV)

Most economical: I vote to end capitalism X (PM)

Most toddler-friendly: world socialism – for a world without war, want, wages and the fat controller. (DON)

Most street-hip: Banish the gods from the sky, the capitalists from the earth and the chuggers from the high street. (DON)
Thanks to all those who contributed. Due to postal difficulties the prize Seychelles tickets regrettably cannot be mailed out. Pathfinders will return in January. With a tan.
Paddy Shannon

Cooking the Books: This year’s Nobel Prize for Economics (2009)

The Cooking the Books column from the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Every year the Bank of Sweden awards a prize to some economist, often called the Nobel Prize for Economics even though it wasn’t established by the old merchant of death himself. It has in fact only been going since 1968. Usually the prize goes to some obscure economist for work on some obscure aspect of the market economy. Sometimes it goes to a big name such as the Keynesian Paul Samuelson (1970) or the Monetarist Milton Friedman (1976). Even the mad marketeer Baron von Hayek got one, in 1974.

Very occasionally it goes to someone who has done some interesting work, as when in 1998 it went to Amartya Sen who had shown that famines were caused by a collapse in legal access to food (via money or direct production) and not by any actual shortage of food or overpopulation. This year, too, it has gone to someone whose work sounds interesting – Elinor Ostrom whose 1990 book Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action refuted the so-called “Tragedy of the Commons” parable that is often used to try to show that socialism wouldn’t work.

In 1968 an American biologist Garrett Hardin conceived of a parable to explain why, in his view, common ownership was no solution to the environmental crisis and why in fact it would only make matters worse. Called “The Tragedy of the Commons”, his parable went like this: assume a pasture to which all herdsmen have free access to graze their cattle; in these circumstances each herdsman would try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons and, in the end, its carrying capacity would be exceeded, resulting in environmental degradation.

Hardin’s parable was completely unhistorical. Wherever commons have existed there also existed rules governing their use, sometimes in the form of traditions, sometimes in the form of arrangements for decision-making in common, which precluded such overgrazing and other threats to the long-term sustainability of the system.

One of the conclusions that governments drew from Hardin’s armchair theorising was that in existing cases where producers had rights of access to a “common-pool resource” the solution was either to privatise the resource or to subject the producers to outside control via quotas, fines and other restrictions. Ostrom took the trouble to study various common property arrangements some of which had lasted for centuries, including grazing pastures in Switzerland, forests in Japan, and irrigation systems in Spain and the Philippines.

According to The Times (13 October),
“Based on numerous studies of user-managed fish stocks, pastures, woods, lakes and groundwater basins, she asserts that resource users frequently develop sophisticated mechanisms for decision-making and rule enforcement to handle conflicts of interest”.
In other words, common ownership did not necessarily have to lead to resource depletion as predicted by Hardin and trumpeted by opponents of socialism. The cases Ostrom examined were not socialism as the common owners were private producers. In socialism the producers, the immediate users of the common resources, would not be trying to make an independent living for themselves but would be carrying out a particular function on behalf of the community in a social context where the aim of production would be to satisfy needs on a sustainable basis. But the rules they would draw up for the use of the grazing land, forests, fishing grounds and the like would be similar to those in the cases she studied.

The Ire Of The Irate Itinerant (2009)

From the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Too good to be true (2009)

From the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard
We are conditioned to accept the absurdities and contradictions that capitalism throws up.
It is possible now to build a world where every single human being is adequately provided with the material means of a full and happy life in a truly meaningful democratic society; where there is no such thing as world hunger; where wars and armaments no longer exist; where all have access to the knowledge and information they desire and where the system of rich and poor, the brutal class system that alienates human beings from one another, is a historical memory.

Actually that statement is not correct. It is not possible to create such a world now because one feature essential in its creation does not exist. In order to discern the missing element in a world of such promise it would be useful to examine the components that would be required to make a reality of what, from our present perspective, must seem like a dream world.

First we might look at the physical requirements of the world we are considering; is there the means, real or potential, to create the enormous quantities of food and other materials to provide sufficiency for all? To answer that question we must look at how wealth is produced now and how it would be produced in the world we are considering.

One thing is common to the production of wealth in whatever form of society we live in: it is produced from the resources of nature by human labour power whether, as in the past, by a human hand or, as now or in the future, by the most advanced technological means. However, the factors that currently determine what is produced and how it is distributed would differ fundamentally in the society we are considering from those that obtain today.

Current economic crisis
We could not make this point more graphically than by referring to the current chapter in the cyclic crisis which our present mode of production has thrown up.

These crises, which cause an intensification of poverty through unemployment and most often the restricting or slashing of vital public services, are an inevitable result of the normal capitalist way of organising the production and distribution of wealth. The terrible effects of these breakdowns in the productive and distributive process of what is increasingly a globally integrated system are usually, as now, world-wide and, given that the countries affected are governed by parties right across the political spectrum, from Right to Left clearly shows that neither national identity or political labelling offers protection from global capitalism’s trade cycles.

By looking briefly at ‘the Credit Crunch’ – the media’s sobriquet for the latest in slumps – we can discern why millions of people have lost their jobs, why political parties are making policies out of which set of politicians will be least savage in cutting social welfare ‘benefits’ including health care and education. The wealth-producing equation (the providence of nature plus human labour power) is the same now as it was three or four years ago when, in capitalist terms, the economy was flourishing. As then, both the human factor and the material potential of nature remain available; there is no physical bar to full production not only to its previous levels but to the levels required to provide adequately for every human being on the planet within the system we are contemplating Why then is there such a dramatic slowdown in the production of human needs which, in turn is expressed in massive increases of unemployment and poverty within the working class?

Legal right
The answer clearly is the motive currently underpinning the production of goods and services and that motive arises from the fact of ownership. Legally the great majority of the world’s population have no right to the food, clothing and shelter they need in order to continue to exist as human beings. That sounds an utterly outrageous statement to make but it is quite clearly demonstrated by the fact that the means of life, the resources of nature, and the tools of production and distribution are legally owned by a relatively small minority class of people who generally enjoy rich lives of wealth and privilege based on the profits they extract from their ownership.

If you lived in an area of the world where death frequently occurs from malnutrition of lack of necessary medication you would know that what is said in the foregoing is true. You would know that the victims of hunger and preventable disease are people who are unable to get the food or medicine they desperately need to sustain their lives not because the means to satisfy these needs are not available but because they do not have the money to buy them.

In more politically and economically sophisticated countries such evidence is less evident. Nevertheless, the things that people need are directly or indirectly the property of the capitalist class and are released by way of sale with a view to profit. In other words, goods and services are produced in the form of commodities for the market and, generally, will not be produced if a viable market does not exist.

Obviously minority ownership of our means of life, either directly or through the state, could not form the basis of the politically and economically free society mooted at the beginning of this article. To achieve that it is necessary to abolish the legal framework on which minority ownership of our means of life is based; which means we need to bring about a democratic social revolution to get control of the law-making process vested in government.

Achieving control of government throughout the world for the purpose of establishing a system of common ownership in which everyone has the freedom to contribute their physical and mental skills to the production of the needs of their society and all have the right to freely avail of their individual needs will be a monumental task of political and social organisation. Its achievement will require a vast and willing effort in social co-operation on the part of humanity and yet looked at against our collective skills and wisdom it is a relatively simply job – always provided that we have the collective will to bring it about.

That collective will is the single factor we referred to at the commencement of this article; the single prevailing condition that stands between us and a world where civilised history will begin. A world without the greed and savage competition that breeds conflict, alienation and war; a world where our collective energies are directed to the nurture of ourselves and our planet. That collective will is the political consciousness that will bring about what we clearly define as Socialism.

The really hard bit
Most people today do not question the organisation and value systems behind the way we live. From an early age we learn that when we need something we have to pay for it either directly or indirectly or else, however essential it is to our health or happiness, we have to do without it. At an early age we commence our ‘education’, a process orientated towards inculcating the beliefs and values of the world we live in; its morality, its inflexible system of social organisation and how to compete for a place in the pecking order.

Effectively we are conditioned to accept the absurdities and contradictions that capitalism throws up. In our daily relations with one another we can identify and condemn those contradictions but when, as we are now doing, it is suggested that we should consider another way of organising the affairs of humanity the armour of rejection too often comes into play; the belief that we who run the world for the capitalists cannot run a considerably less complicated and rational alternative world society for ourselves.

The really hard bit is the beginning: simply considering that it might not be too good to be true.
Richard Montague

Cooking the Books: Free is good (2009)

The Cooking the Books column from the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard

Journalist, broadcaster and author Libby Purves chose the day that the London Evening Standard became a free, give-away paper to launch an attack on the whole idea of people having free access to things. Under the headline “If the future’s worth having, it won’t be free”, she laid into the “internet generation” which “has grown up believing it can enjoy other people’s hard work for nothing. This has got to stop” (Times, 12 October).

We socialists would say that, on the contrary, “if we’re going to have to pay for everything, the future is not worth having”. The resources exist today to produce enough food, clothes, housing, transport and health care so that no one on the planet needs to starve or be malnourished, or go without clean water, or live in slums, or not have access to the medicines and treatment they need. Society could go over to the principle of “from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”, with everybody having access to what they need without having to pay in return for contributing what they can to the work of producing what is needed.

This, surely, is a better future than the continued application of the opposite principle of “can’t pay, can’t have” ? Which means that in some parts of the world people die from starvation or easily preventable disease, or exist in shanty towns on the outskirts of big cities. And that, all over the world, most people are deprived of something which would improve their lives and which could easily be provided. Where we can’t build adequate public infrastructures or install anti-pollution technologies because it would “cost too much”.

And what is wrong with the “internet generation” taking for granted that “music, films, news, photographs, cartoons and carefully researched or creative prose” should be available for free? Isn’t this a sign that the money-wages-profit system that is capitalism has outlived its usefulness and perhaps also a sign of the beginning of a consciousness that it needs to be replaced by a system in which people have free access to what they need?

Purves is defending her vested interest as a royalty-reaping author. That’s understandable as, under capitalism, people need money to live and that’s how she gets hers. It might be thought, though, that as a public intellectual she’d be more broad-minded than to judge an economic system by whether or not it ensures her her chosen source of income.

In pleading her cause she goes back to the labour theory of property first put forward by John Locke in the 17th century:
“Content is not cost free. Writing is work. Musicianship involves cost and labour, art is not innately free, nor the infrastructure of news reporting. Until food, clothes, housing and transport are doled out free, content-makers need to be paid”.
And, according to her, the way to ensure this is through “intellectual property rights”, even if these are difficult, not to say impossible, to enforce in some cases.

But she does at least concede that if “food, clothes, housing and transport” were free – which will be the case in socialism – so should watching films or listening to music or reading a book, on the internet. As these will be too in socialism. The future is free.

Tiny (URL) Tips (2009)

The Tiny Tips column from the December 2009 issue of the Socialist Standard 

In the wake of the horrific events of the day, his captain is cool. He walks up to Massey and asks; “Are you doing all right, Staff Sergeant?” Massey responds: “No, sir. I am not doing O.K. Today was a bad day. We killed a lot of innocent civilians.”

Fully aware of the civilian carnage, his captain asserts: “No, today was a good day.” Relatives wailing, cars destroyed, blood all over the ground, Marines celebrating, civilians dead, and “it was good day”!:

Even as the financial system collapsed last year, and millions of investors lost billions of dollars, one unlikely investor was racking up historic profits: John Paulson, a hedge-fund manager in New York. His firm made $20 billion between 2007 and early 2009 by betting against the housing market and big financial companies. Mr. Paulson’s personal cut would amount to nearly $4 billion, or more than $10 million a day. That was more than the 2007 earnings of J.K. Rowling, Oprah Winfrey and Tiger Woods combined:

Sixteen workers are killed a day in the United States because of reckless negligence on the part of their employers. Under existing laws, these employers get a slap on the wrist, or walk away scot-free. Meanwhile, workers who blow the whistle face threats and retaliation at the workplace:
[Dead Link.]

Its ruler re-named the days of the week after himself and his mother. Opera, ballet and the circus are banned. To get a driving licence, citizens must sit an exam on the dead leader’s autobiography. Welcome to Turkmenistan:

When veterans die — from lack of health insurance More than 1.5 million vets don’t have it, and 2,200 vets die every year because of it :

“. . . We suggest that it will be pretty much like this in socialist society. Although it will be global as opposed to tribal, people will still live in small localised communities..” But some people I imagine will choose a clean, green high-rise city lifestyle instead:

Why are so many Americans now toying with socialism, in a country that created the most successful free market economic system in history and spent half of the last century fighting the heresy of Marx’s socialism?
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“Americans are saying that with their planes they can see an egg 18 kilometers away, so why can’t they see the Taliban?” ABDULLAH WASAY, an Afghan pharmacist: