Sunday, February 4, 2024

January's "Done & Dusted"

A relatively quiet month. Only 10 Socialist Standards 'done and dusted' in January. I'm not sure if I was just being lazy or it's a further indication that I'm running out of Standards to complete. I need to try and work out how many are still do. Okay, that's enough thinking out loud for one post.

Cue cut and paste . . . 

What is now a regular feature on the blog . . . okay, you've already read this bit before so I'll scrub the rest of this paragraph. (Note to self: come up with some new schtick for next month's "Done & Dusted".)

Here's a list of the Socialist Standards that were completed on the blog in the month of December 2023. Slowly but surely the digitization of the Standard is *cough* nearing completion. If I was to 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.


January's "Done & Dusted"

Voice From The Back: Is This The Way In Amarillo? (2007)

The Voice From The Back Column from the February 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Is This The Way In Amarillo?

“In March, 2005 a nuclear warhead almost exploded in Texas. The near miss accident occurred in Amarillo, when workers at the Pantex nuclear weapons plant bungled the dismantling of a W-56 warhead, a weapon 100 times stronger than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War 2. Details of the averted catastrophe have been kept under wraps until last month, when the Department of Energy (DOE) fined the company that operates the plant, BWX Technologies, $110,000 for safety violations. In a letter obtained by the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), technicians at the plant blamed the accident on severe working conditions, including mandatory 72 to 84 hour work weeks. One nuclear scientist told POGO that he “would not work on his car engine if he were fatigued from a 72- hour work week, and sure as hell would not work on a nuclear weapon.” (The Nation, 18 December) $110,000 fine is hardly reassuring but what is worse is the news that the plant has set its 2007 production aims for a 50 percent increase.


Viva Las Vegas?

The city of Las Vegas likes to promote itself as a tourist paradise of fun and entertainment, but there is another side to it. “This is a boomtown, but it is also scattered with signs of bust – namely homeless people. And the city is taking a hard line against them. With mixed success in the courts and on the streets, Las Vegas has tried sweeping away their encampments, closing a park where they hang out, making it a crime to feed them, even passing a ban on sleeping within 500 feet of faeces.” (Associated Press, 18 December) The mayor has even proposed moving the homeless to an abandoned prison 30 miles outside the city. The area has a population of 1.8 million but has 14,500 homeless. The mayor may seem heartless, but capitalism is a heartless society.


Post Xmas Blues

At a time when many workers are reeling from credit card demands and other reminders of our debts it is heartening to know that this is not the fate of everyone. “Sales of high priced items such as designer shoes and celebrity jewellery are breaking records, while John Lewis’s director of retail operations, Gareth Thomas confirmed that the department store group is poised to record its best ever performance. … Sales have been buoyed up by shoppers buying flat-screen televisions for second and third rooms… Mark Henderson, chief executive of tailor Gieves and Hawkes, said: `There is a definite return to formality and a flurry of sales of traditional dinner jackets starting at £1,200`” (Observer, 24 December) Fellow workers, as you sit watching your third flat-screen television in your traditional £1,200 dinner jacket you must often reflect that capitalism isn’t such a bad system after all.


New York, New York

“Food or rent? That is the daily choice faced by about 1.2 million of New York’s 8.2 million people. Faced with that choice, mostly they pay rent and rely on emergency or charity food to survive, poverty activists say. … Hunger is not unique to New York. More than 12 million households – or 35 million Americans – struggled with hunger in 2005, according to the US government. … About 3,800 people were living on the streets in 2006, according to New York City statistics.” (Reuters, 26 December) When Sinatra sang about “The City that never sleeps”, he was telling the truth – it must be hard to sleep on the street with all that traffic.


The Insecure Society

In Dundee after the Second World War the NCR company in Dundee employed over 7,000 workers, but over the years this has fallen to less than 1,500. So when Bill Nuti, the company’s chief executive announced 14 months ago that he was “one million per cent committed to the Dundee operation” the remaining workers felt relieved, but capitalism doesn’t work that way. “A total of 650 factory workers in Dundee were dismissed via transatlantic videolink by their American employer yesterday after being told that production was to be switched to cheaper plants overseas. Employees at NCR, which makes  automatic teller machines, were summoned to a meeting at midday yesterday where amidst angry scenes, the job loses were announced by videolink by Bill Nuti, the company’s chief executive.” (Times, 12 January)


Priorities

Two items appearing in the same newspaper on the same day illustrate the priorities of British capitalism. “Patients face much tougher rationing of treatments and restricted access to breakthrough drugs if the Government does not rethink its plans for health spending, the NHS’s treatment regulator has told the Times. Professor Sir Michael Rawlins, the head of the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), cited treatments ranging from new life-saving drugs to free food for the elderly in nursing homes as examples of care that could suffer if ministers slowed the rate of spending, as expected.” And … “Tony Blair defended his policy of intervention and said that more money would have to be spent on the Armed Forces to improve conditions and equipment, enable Britain to stay a warfighting power and face the threat of terrorism.” (Times, 13 January)




Letter: Naked bonobos? (2007)

Letter to the Editors from the February 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Naked bonobos?

Dear Editors

I agree with much of “Bonobo Fides” (Pathfinders, January), but I would like to take issue on a few significant points.The author follows the sources on which he relies in placing too much emphasis on the power of the “combined females” as a deterrent to male violence. Bonobos of both genders keep the peace mainly by using friendly activities – grooming, play and sharing food as well as frequent sex – to soothe the tensions that might lead to violence. (They don’t “run off into the bushes,” by the way, but have sex in plain view of others. Here the author is mixing up bonobos with humans.) It also helps that with bonobos, unlike chimps, the males can’t tell which females are ovulating, so they are unable to compete to sire offspring.

Bonobos may “live largely as vegetarians,” but they do have a taste for meat. “Like chimpanzees, they are ready to grab and eat small antelope infants. They eat flying squirrels and sometimes earthworms” (Demonic Males, p. 216).

Unlike chimps, however, they never eat monkeys. Instead, bonobos play with monkeys as though they were pets. Monkeys are terrified of chimps but show no fear of bonobos. Apparently, this reflects a cultural taboo against killing and eating fellow primates, and such a taboo may be one reason why bonobos rarely attack and never kill one another. (Local humans have a similar taboo against hunting bonobos.)

Would chimps adopt bonobo behaviour in a bonobo environment and vice versa, “given long enough”? I think this is an exaggeration. Bonobos are a distinct species, not a kind of chimpanzee. (“Pygmy chimp” is a misleading term that dates from the time when this  was not yet recognized.) To the extent that bonobo sociality is a product of genetically  determined characteristics like large sexual organs and always being on heat, environmental change can affect it only to a limited degree. Over a period long enough  for evolution to occur the bonobo might lose these characteristics, but then it would no longer be a bonobo!

Especially for socialists, the good news about the bonobo is how close it is to man. We have 98.7 percent of our genes in common with the bonobo. That’s the same figure as for the chimpanzee, but in numerous respects we – and also, according to physical anthropologist Adrienne Zihlman, our proto-human ancestors living in Africa 3 to 5 million years ago – are closer to bonobos than to chimps. This applies, for example, to bodily proportions, facial appearance (look at the photos in Frans de Waal and Frans Lanting, Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape), posture (bonobos walk upright much of the time, along trails that they make themselves), and of course sexual functioning. In 1967 Desmond Morris gave ammunition to the “human nature” objectors to socialism by “exposing” man as The Naked Ape. It’s not quite so bad if we change that to “the naked bonobo”!

Only a few thousand bonobos are left, all of them in the war-torn Congo. Their extinction would be a tragedy for man too, not least because they are living proof of the positive side of our evolutionary heritage.
Stephen Shenfield (by e-mail)

Letter: But What Can I Do? (2007)

Letter to the Editors from the February 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

But What Can I Do?

“But what can I do?” How many times do you hear that or similar phrases from people too overwhelmed by the enormity of the task that they can’t see the wood for the trees?

Socialism isn’t going to be born overnight, that has long been agreed. It’s going to be a long uphill struggle by those with enough conviction against the million and one forces stacked against it, and I’m not talking about the forces of the imperial armies or the might of the transnational corporations, I’m talking about the likes of your brother-in-law who can only see as far as the next pay day and a six-pack in front of the TV, or the woman at work who can’t understand that you won’t buy a lottery ticket because winning the jackpot won’t exactly mean you beat the system. Life can get tedious explaining the same old obvious thing to yet one more sceptical punter, however, if we don’t………?

This is about one of my bêtes-noires, which is, why do so many people drink Coca  Cola? (insert your own pet-hate here.) Not only does this company have a terrible track record for union busting around the world even going so far as to be involved in killings by private militia, for depriving some Indian villages of water and poisoning wells through over-extraction in others, but it’s so full of sugar and junk that it tastes horrible and it’s harmful to health to boot.

All the restaurants, cafes and bars in the tourist areas close to here offer Coke or Pepsi whichever concession is dominant in the particular vicinity and it follows that their other soft drinks and bottled water are purchased through the same concession. In towns and villages outside the tourist areas it is unusual to be offered bottled water at restaurants, coffee houses, bus station cafeterias and the like.

Water comes in a jug from the tap. Village water here is clean, unadulterated and abundant. Many townfolk can be observed stopping at their favourite spring by the roadside to stock up with several days’ supply of what is considered the best drinking water. In the towns where chlorine etc is used in the public supply local shops deliver large containers of natural spring water (the preferred option) to homes and businesses.

In our very local favourite restaurant which served water bottled by the Coca Cola Co. here in Turkey (acknowledged in letters so small as to require both good light and good eyesight to see it and which has been guilty of union-busting here too), we would ask for a jug of village water from the tap, – no Coca Cola bottled water for us thankyou!

Over time and with a few more Turkish lessons under our belt we painstakingly explained our position to a number of employees and to the owners. One tack they understood and warmed to was that there are a number of small local water bottling plants, soft drink manufacturers and fruit juice companies (for the environment generally speaking local is better than national and national better than international). Very soon we noticed the presence of a local company’s bottled water on the tables in place of the  earlier offence to the eye and the conscience. And my water from the tap now tastes  even sweeter.

We’ve had similar results with another restaurant we patronise, up in the mountains by a fast-flowing river. All the food served here comes from within just a few miles and now that includes the bottled water too.

So, 2 down, 999,998 to go. A drop in the ocean? Yes. A message in a bottle? Maybe.
Janet Surman, 
Turkey.

Racism (and race) is bunkum (2007)

From the February 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialists stand for a system of society based upon the principle of providing each individual with what they need, as a pre-condition of social activity. That is, securing for each human being the clothes, food and housing they need, as well as the cultural and social goods of life, should be the first priority of any sane society. Of course, providing each with what they need means that different people will get different things. People are, of course, born with different needs, and people from related communities and extended families may well have a higher chance of having certain needs than others. That is, some people share genetically inherited features, such as susceptibility to particular diseases, which are passed on through human reproduction.

Genetic features, though, can be mixed and changed by the same process – there is no essential correlation between, say, skin colour and disease. Merely, there is a chance that the genes for these two separate features will be passed on from parent to child. Just as there is no specific correlation between skin colour and facial features, or eye colour and hair colour. That these features seem to belong together is an effect of the fact that each parent passes on half their genetic characteristics to their off-spring, and that historically people of similar appearance (and roughly common descent) have tended to breed with one another in similar climates.

The fact of the matter is that any human being from one of these groups could breed just as well with a member of the opposite sex from another group as they could with one from their own. We are all members of the same republic of genes, all related very closely to one another no matter what side of the globe we hail from. We are the surviving descendants of some less than 20,000 early humanoids. We share a common genetic trait, traceable back through the ages to just one female, many thousands of years ago.

It’s also a fact that we developed as a species to be dependent upon one another for our needs; but also able to communicate and co-operate with one another to meet those needs. Yet, today, we live in a society in which the needs of a great many people go unmet. It’s clear to Socialists that the ideas surrounding race and racialism are bunkum, un-supported by the scientific facts. We can point to the history of the development of capitalism, to show how the misapprehensions surrounding race developed along with the needs of capital to expand and control the globe, and to build loyal armies in pursuit of such conquest. Yet, they continue to do harm and deny our common humanity in the modern world. Socialists, as materialists, need to account for how such mistaken ideas can continue to exist in the world today, in the face of the evidence of the facts.

On the one hand there is the continued existence of poverty fed by ignorance, which nurtures the desire for people to cling on to what little they have, instilling in them a fear of a threat from apparent strangers. On the other, capital’s drives for efficiency, the need to cut out anything that interferes with or reduces the profit-making capacity of the industrial machine, which means that worker’s whose needs cause costs (such as dealing with language and cultural differences) are squeezed out in a ‘one size fits all’ approach.

What socialists propose is a different world, wherein everyone has more than enough of the things they need, so they need no longer fear to lose it; where meeting and exploring our different needs becomes a past-time and an end in itself; where without conflicts of power and dominance – because we co-operate voluntarily and democratically – there is no limitation set on, nor distortion of, our endeavour to understand what it means to be a part of the human race. In short, socialism will allow us to be treated as unique individuals, rather than as a bureaucratically allocated race on an equal opportunities monitoring form.

Beyond sectarianism (2007)

From the February 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

David Ervine, Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly for a loyalist area of east Belfast, who died in January, saw that working class Protestants and Catholics had both been conned. Ervine recounted how in July 1972 as a young man on what came to be known as Bloody Friday he watched as the IRA carried out 22 bomb attacks in Belfast killing innocent people and ripping the commercial heart out of the city. For him it was the final straw; he decided to join the protestant UVF then engaged in a sectarian war against innocent Catholics who it regarded as the soft underbelly of the IRA. Ironically, Ervine was reacting to the other side of the same politico-religious stimuli that had created the material basis for the emergence and recruitment of the Provisional IRA in 1970. His ‘war’ ended when he was caught ferrying a bomb and was sentenced to 6 years’ imprisonment.

David Ervine was a Belfast man from the east of the city, an area which in the sectarian demography of Belfast is mainly ‘Protestant’. Though the area was heavily industrialised and the workforce was overwhelmingly Protestant and Unionist, the acres of mean back-to-back houses demonstrated the poverty of those who were fed the fiction that they were the special concern of the Unionist government.

Some on the political Left tried to emphasise this point but the active political Left painfully avoided a class analysis of the local political situation – a failure which ultimately, in 1948, caused a split in the Northern Ireland Labour Party on sectarian lines. After that split, four Labour candidates in three overwhelmingly Protestant constituencies in east Belfast won seats in the Stormont parliament. Labour was by no means socialist but it represented the political philosophy of many on the Catholic side who thought it was, thus exposing the nonsense that working class Protestants would always support Unionism because they were ‘a labour aristocracy’.

Capitalism had sundered any little sense of unity within the working class. Catholics and Irish nationalists, including Sinn Fein, reflecting the ignorance and bigotry of the Orange Order, and the Left utterly failed to offer any real alternative to what was, and remains, a conflict of opposing capitalist nationalisms.

This was the world David Ervine was brought up in. In his early youth he might well have imbibed the dregs of bigotry and hatred and looked with deep suspicion on workers who were Catholics equally bigoted, equally embittered. He would have learnt from the demagoguery of Ian Paisley, then forging a rich fiefdom in bigotry, that the removal of the property qualification in the local government franchise, the establishment of a fair system of social housing distribution and the abolition of gerrymandered electoral constituencies would have been a defeat for his religion and his national culture.

Maybe he was caught up in the vibrant youth culture of the period; maybe he didn’t give a damn but the combustibles of conflict were gathering and like many other working class young men and women on both ‘sides’ of the artificially-devised sectarian barrier he would become a victim of that conflict, condemned and criminalised by holy men and politicians and those who combined these functions and greatly enhanced their mean earning power.

To his credit, despite his experiences, Ervine rose superior to the politics of bigotry and hatred. In his wry way he was to show the extent of his learning when a few years ago he said publicly that he looked forward to the day when he and Gerry Adams could have a pint together. Those who know the territory will appreciate just how far David Ervine had come and the courage it took to voice such a sentiment.

On the evening of his death a camera crew visited a working class club Ervine frequented in east Belfast. The drinkers, Protestants to a man, praised Ervine, the loquacious peace monger, the man who told them that working class Protestants and Catholics had been conned. Specifically, he was praised as ‘a socialist’. That he was not, but he was motivated by the same political honesty and concern for his class that motivates socialists; he had learnt to detest the political and economic realities of capitalism. The  next step would have been an appreciation of the fact that the problems of his class, including the generation of division, were inevitable aspects of that system.
Richard Montague

Voice From The Back: Patents and Profits (2007)

The Voice From The Back Column from the January 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Patents and Profits

“Poor people are needlessly dying because drug companies and the governments of rich countries are blocking the developing world from obtaining affordable medicines, a report says today. Five years to the day after the Doha declaration – a groundbreaking deal to give poor countries access to cheap drugs – was signed at the World Trade Organisation, Oxfam says things are worse. … The US has pursued its own free trade agreements with developing countries, tying them into much tighter observance of patent rights than anticipated at Doha ‘The USA has also pressured countries for greater patent protection through threats of trade sanctions’, the report says.” (Guardian, 14 November) The message is clear – patents and profits mean more than people inside capitalism.


Housing Madness

The journalist Nick Cohen recently quoted a couple of property experts about house prices in London. “Lulu Egerton of the Lane Fox agency tells about putting a house in Chelsea on the market last week for £4.5m. She assures me it wasn’t a mansion, just a roomy town house …. Within hours, she had an offer of £5.25 m. … I ask Mira Bar-Hillel, the property editor of London’s Evening Standard, if she has a favourite example of irrational exuberance; an anecdote or statistic people will recall if a crash comes … She sighs and says : ‘Take your pick. I’m coming up with them every week. Russian oligarchs who don’t even ask the price of the homes they view, the average price of a flat in central London reaching £1m, garages selling for £150,000 and parking spaces selling for £100,000.’” (Observer, 19 November) The prospects of a bus driver, clerk or railway worker getting their feet on the so-called housing ladder at these prices is extremely remote, but perhaps if they saved up they might be able to unroll their sleeping bag in a highly desirable parking space.


Hollywood and Reality

We are all aware of the Hollywood fantasy where happy families sit round the dining table at Thanksgiving or Christmas time. It is all part of the Hollywood “feel good” factor, but unfortunately it is a complete fiction for many US families. “As America gets ready for Thanksgiving dinner, a new report says hunger is on the rise in New York City. One in six New Yorkers – roughly 1.256 million people – could not afford to buy enough food, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger reported yesterday, citing US Department of Agriculture data from 2003 to 2005. The hungry population jumped 112,000 people in that period compared to 2000 – 2003.” (New York Metro, 22 November) If any Hollywood mogul is thinking of a new treatment for the “feel good” element, how about Honey, I Starved the Kids!


Land of the Free?

Home of the brave and land of the free sing the proud American patriots, but the reality is somewhat different. “A record 7 million people – one in every 32 American adults – were in jail, on probation or on parole by the end of last year, according to figures released by US Justice Department yesterday. US prisons held 2.2 million inmates, an increase of 2.6 per cent over the previous year. More than 4.9 million adult men and women were on parole or probation, an increase of 27,000 over the previous year.” (Times, 1 December) Home of the brave we can understand but land of the free? Difficult concept.


Growing Old Disgracefully

In pre-property societies the old were valued as experienced hunters and food gatherers. In such societies to be old was considered honourable and they were respected and indeed venerated. The opposite applies in modern capitalism. “The Help the Aged survey conducted by GfK NOP, showed that 5 per cent, or 500,000 of those over 65 said that they had to cut back on basic food to pay council tax bills. Eight per cent, or 800,000, turned down their heating. More than a third of people over 65 living on the lowest household incomes spent 10 per cent on meeting the payments, the study showed.” (Times, 2 December) Our grannies and granddads are suffering, what are you going to do about it?


Another Aspect of Globalisation

A great deal of prominence has been given by the media to the amazing development of capitalism in India and much publicity to the growth of industry and commerce within that country. There is one aspect of this development that has received little attention and that is the strains and problems that this development has meant to members of the working class. “An estimated 4,000 students commit suicide in India each year because of exam failure or fear of failure in a society where there is intense pressure to succeed academically.” (Times, 2 December) Kids are killing themselves for capitalism, it makes us feel sick, how about you?


And Another

A global study by the World Institute for Development Economic Research of the United Nations has recently revealed how unequal a society capitalism is today. “The richest 1% of adults in the world own 40% of the planet’s wealth. … The report found the richest 10% of adults accounted for 85% of the world total of global assets. Half the world’s adult population, however, owned barely 10% of global wealth.” (Guardian, 6 December)



Editorial: Think globally, act globally (2007)

Editorial from the January 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

The threat of global warming is clearly a global problem that can only be dealt with by co-ordinated action at world level. But this is not going to happen under capitalism. As a system involving competition between profit-seeking corporations backed up by their protecting states, it is inherently incapable of world-wide cooperation. There never has been such cooperation. Just the opposite, in fact. The inevitable clashing interests between different states, each seeking to pursue the interests of its profit-seeking corporations, breeds war rather than cooperation. Look what happened last century. Look at the invasion of Iraq this century.

So it’s not going to happen. There is not going to be any coordinated world action to deal with global warming as long as capitalism is allowed to continue. Something will be done but it is bound to be too little, too late.

It’s certainly going to be too little. These days, when private corporations have governments under their thumb much more than in the recent past, what is being proposed is not even state intervention to force carbon-polluting corporations to limit their emissions in the overall capitalist interest. It’s to try to use the mechanisms of the market to solve the problem: fiddling about with the tax system to make investment in anti-pollution measures more profitable; establishing an artificial world market and price for carbon. Anybody can see that this is not going to work.

Governments are also proposing that individuals play their part, as if individuals rather than the system were to blame. They want us to drive smaller cars, even cycle to work, turn off the lights when we leave a room, not leave our TV on standby, not fly to our holiday destination. That’s all very well but unless they want us to reduce our standard of living that will just mean we would have money to spend on something else. As the capitalist class are always wanting us to reduce our standard of living since this means more for them as profits –  and provoke strikes and impose austerity to try to do so – socialists are naturally suspicious of the motives behind the government propaganda here.

In any event since the great bulk of carbon emissions come from energy generated for industry, offices and commercial transport, as well as from deforestation, even if we did all the things they want – and we’re not saying people shouldn’t, that’s an individual life-style choice – it wouldn’t make much difference. Changing life-styles is no more a solution to global warming than letting the invisible hand of the market have a go.

Having said this, individuals do have some responsibility in the matter. Capitalism  – the cause of the problem – only continues in the end because people put up with it. Most people don’t see any alternative to working for wages, producing for profit, using money, the world divided into states, the existence of armies. These attitudes both reflect and sustain capitalism. And every time people get a chance to vote, a majority back politicians committed to maintaining the capitalist system as the way of organising the production and distribution of wealth. So capitalism continues. As do its problems, including the threat of global over-warming. Maybe as this gets nearer people will be driven to consider an alternative.

Global warming can only be tackled by global action. And effective global action will only be possible within the framework of a united world. A united world is only possible on the basis of the Earth’s natural and industrial resources being the  common heritage of all humanity.

Might is Right (2007)

From the January 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard
Everybody is talking about “human rights” these days but what are they and will they always need protecting?
Socialists have a problem with “human rights”. Not of course that we don’t think individuals shouldn’t have free speech or shouldn’t be free from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment. It is the concept of “rights” in general that is the problem.

We are materialists and so don’t like to deal in vague abstract ideas such as Justice, Freedom – or Rights. For us, these are reflections of material circumstances. We take the view that “might is right”, not in the sense that this is how things should be but in the sense of how things are. Without the power to enforce it (“might”) a “right” is just an ineffective, abstract concept.

Take the “right to strike”, for instance. What this means is that it is not illegal to go on strike. But the state only made strikes legal after the workers had demonstrated that the law wasn’t going to stop them striking. In other words, the state’s recognition of the “right” to strike was the state accepting that the workers had already acquired the “might” to strike.

This is not the case with individual “human rights” in countries which don’t recognise them. When Amnesty criticises the lack of human rights in China or Burma or Iran or wherever, they are merely appealing to an abstract idea since there is no might to back them up. No wonder the governments concerned don’t take much notice of these appeals (unless they want to make some gesture in order to obtain some diplomatic advantage).

The most that we as materialists can accept regarding the concept of rights is as a description of what is in the legal code of some state, i.e. as a description of what the law actually says rather than as an abstract idea existing independently of the law. So, we can say that the “right to free speech” or “the right to a fair trial”, etc exist in some country when this is provided for in the legislation of that country. On the other hand, if the law or the practise in China or Burma does not allow for free speech then this means that, as a matter of objective fact, no “right” to free speech exists there.

Any other definition of “rights” than what is set out in the law creates all sorts of problems, not least as to what exactly they are. Most people would associate human rights with free speech and freedom from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment but why are they restricted just to things like these? Why, for instance, isn’t it a human right to have enough food or to be housed decently? On what basis, in fact, is something considered to be a human right? In the end, it can only come down to a question of political preference – it’s what the people making the claim consider desirable, not something objective that can be discovered. It’s an expression of what they think is right. Nothing more.

Origins
All the same, “human rights” – or “The Rights of Man” as Tom Paine entitled his famous 1791 polemic in defence of the French Revolution – do have a history. What, then, were human rights originally, when the concept was first introduced?

For this we need to go back to the end of the 18th century when two key documents were adopted within two years of each other: the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizens by the National Assembly of France in 1789 and the first 10 amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America, known as the Bill of Rights, ratified in 1791.

The “rights” in the two documents are basically the same (which was no accident of course since there was a cross-fertilisation of ideas between both sides of the Atlantic): the individual has the right to free speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom for arbitrary arrest and imprisonment, and a fair trial before an impartial jury.

Talk of the government emanating from the “nation” and governing with the consent of the governed might lead to the conclusion that the right to vote, i.e. to say who makes up the government, would also be regarded as a “human right”. But in both documents such a “right” is conspicuous by its absence – and this is very revealing.

What it reveals is that both the American and the French Revolutions were revolutions carried out largely by, but in any event, in the interest of property-owners, large and small, who wanted to remove the obstacles to their accumulating more property. But there were conflicts between the larger and the smaller property-owners, between what in France were called the “bourgeoisie” and the “petty bourgeoisie”. One of the disputes between them was precisely over the right to vote.

The richer property owners were afraid that, as they were not themselves in the majority, the less well-off would vote to take away their property. In both America and France, they got their way and arrangements (restricted franchise and/or indirect election) were made to keep power out of the hands of the majority. Which is one of the reasons why we call these revolutions “bourgeois” revolutions. The “rights of man”, now known as “human rights” were first proclaimed by these bourgeois revolutions.

Economics
Marxists who have analysed these bourgeois revolutions have explained the “rights of man” as an ideology accompanying the development of the market economy which these revolutions both reflected and encouraged (see, for instance, The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism by C.B. Macpherson). On the market, especially the ideal free competitive market, all commodity-producers are equal in the sense of the market not according special privileges to any of them (hence the call for the abolition of all titles of nobility); they are also free agents in the sense of making their own decisions independently of each other about what and how much to produce and sell; the market, the outcome of these decisions of the free and equal commodity-producers, operates independently of the government (hence it is the duty of the government to accept that all men are free and equal).

It is not only Marxists who associate “human rights” with the market economy. So do advocates of the so-called “free” market. Here’s what the Cato Institute, a free-market think-tank in America, had to say in a document put out in 1996 (opposing trade sanctions against China for its bad “human rights” record):
Free trade is itself a human right and rests on an individual’s rights to life, liberty, and property – rights the U.S. Founding Fathers regarded as inalienable and self-evident ( . . .). The proper function of government is to cultivate a framework for freedom by protecting liberty and property, including freedom of contract (which includes free international trade) – not to use the power of government to undermine one freedom in an attempt to secure others. The right to trade is an inherent part of our property rights and a civil right that should be protected as a fundamental human right. The supposed dichotomy between the right to trade and human rights is a false one. Market exchange rests on private property, which is a natural right. As moral agents, individuals necessarily claim the right to liberty and property in order to live fully and to pursue their interests in a responsible manner. The freedom to act without interference, provided one respect the equal rights of others, is the core principle of a market economy and the essence of human rights.” (http://www.cato.org/pubs/journal/cj16n1-5.html)
This association of human rights and political democracy generally with the market economy and private property is the official policy of the US government. When it criticises the human rights record of Syria or Iran or North Korea (or, less stridently these days, China), what it is criticising is not so much the imprisonment of dissidents as the fact that these countries have state-run economies which don’t allow US corporations free access to invest and buy and sell.

That the US government uses “human rights” to try to impose its form of capitalism on other countries must be an embarrassment to organisations such as Amnesty who are interested in these rights for their own sake. It allows the governments they criticise to dismiss them as tools of US and Western foreign policy. Which objectively – even if quite unintentionally of course – they are.

Lowered sights
This wouldn’t be the criticism we would make of them. We would criticise them for having set their sights too low. In confining themselves to only taking up individual cases, they are missing the big picture. There’s nothing wrong with writing to prisoners (any prisoners, not just political ones) and taking up their case with the authorities. This will ease a little the lot of the prisoners chosen, but can’t really be called political action.

We would of course like Amnesty and the others involved in this sort of humanitarian work to work for socialism. Or even, to work for the coming of political democracy to those countries without it, as the best political condition under capitalism for the development of the socialist movement. But the various human rights organisations have deliberately chosen not to do this. This is not just because it would close all channels of communication with the political authorities they have to deal with to have any chance of achieving something in the individual cases they take up. It is also because they, either implicitly or explicitly, regard working for something bigger such as political democracy (let alone socialism) as to set too unrealistic a goal in the sense of something not likely to be achieved in the near future.

Human rights organisations are not the only ones to take up this position. In the last thirty or so years it has become the general position of people concerned about some problem or other thrown up by capitalism. In the past such people would have joined the Labour Party or the Communist Party to try to solve the problem by national political action. Now they have given up on this and dispersed into hundreds of single issue organisations (Amnesty, Shelter, Greenpeace, Child Poverty Action, etc, etc.). It is as if they have accepted that capitalism is here to stay and have adopted the tactic of merely trying to make things a little less bad in the field of their particular concern. It’s a reflection of the pessimism that has resulted from the failure of reformism, in which so many people had previously placed such high hopes.

No doubt such people gain some satisfaction when they make progress in a particular individual case, but can they really be satisfied with the prospect of endlessly having to fight such cases again and again? Can they really be happy seeing the future as capitalism continuing for ever with them trying to stop it stamping so hard on people?

Hopefully not. Hopefully they will eventually come round to realising that it makes more sense to work for a world in which there will be no violation of human rights since there will be no governments representing the interest of minority ruling classes with an interest in violating them to protect their privileges and rule. In other words, a classless, stateless world based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of life by and in the interest of all the people, in which there would be no market as there’d be production directly for use.

In such a world the whole concept of “human rights” would be part of the in-built democratic nature of a classless society (whether as procedural rules or as spontaneous behaviour patterns). There would be no minority ruling class or armed political centre against which people would need protection – no institutionalised might against which a counter-might would need to be exercised.
Adam Buick

Iraq in Chaos (2007)

From the January 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard
According to reports in the papers and on the television, Iraq is now falling apart. Why?
After the September 11 2001 attacks on several American targets, it was obvious that someone was going to suffer. America had been involved, victoriously, in two world wars, virtually without enduring any damage at home. The US is now easily the world’s most powerful country, and it had been openly attacked. It is all reminiscent of what happens in the school playground. The biggest bully is hit, accidentally or on purpose, by a stray football, and therefore loses face; so he has to get back his status as a tough guy by beating up the first shivering youngster he can catch.

From an American point of view, the obvious targets were Afghanistan and Iraq. Afghanistan was run by sympathizers with the extreme brand of Islam which had just produced the attacks on America, so an invasion could be justified by those who support American capitalism. The argument about Iraq was much harder. Saddam Hussein was an appalling tyrant, but he was what is called a secular Muslim. He hated fundamentalists. Anyone suspected of al-Qaeda leanings Saddam simply butchered, along with any other opponents he could get his hands on. But America had been much criticized for calling off its last invasion: it feared that to overthrow the Saddam regime would make Iran too powerful in the Middle East, and so it stood twiddling its thumbs while Kurdish and Shia opponents of Saddam, believing that at last help was coming, rose in force, and were brutally slaughtered.

If Bush seriously wanted allies, friends, and helpers, against al-Qaeda, Saddam was a leading candidate. But Bush had lost face, someone had to suffer, and Saddam was so revolting that no one could feel sorry for him. And, of course, Iraq has tremendous reserves of oil, second only to those of Saudi Arabia. So Iraq became the target. The awkward fact that many Iraqis would be slain could be ignored as irrelevant. (According to various estimates the dead are “only” 30,000, or perhaps 150,000, or 650,000 – but who’s counting? Certainly there are very many more than the 3000 killed in the September 11 attacks on the US) The fact remained that America had been openly assailed, so someone had to pay.

When it became clear that Bush and Blair were determined to invade Iraq, anybody who wondered what on earth was happening could have found out by getting a book out of the library. The country called “Iraq” had been invented by Britain at the Versailles Conference after the 1914-18 War, to put together the bits of the Turkish Empire which (since the Turks had been on the losing side) had fallen to Britain’s share. (It was called a “mandate”, but in effect the new country was incorporated into the British Empire; and it had the long-term effect that as Saddam’s thugs tortured, maimed, and killed, at home, or crashed into foreign countries, the required military wear was reminiscent of impeccable British uniforms.)

Britain had earlier promised to create “Kurdistan”, a homeland for the Kurds, since after all it was claimed that the 1914-18 War had been fought to protect the rights of small nations, such as Serbia and Belgium; but finally Britain decided that it wanted some of this Kurdistan for itself, so forgot the promise. At Versailles Britain’s bit of Kurdistan (with its oil wells) was put together with a Shia area further south (with more oil wells) along with a Sunni area in the middle which joined them together, and the resulting dog’s dinner was called Iraq.

This new creation ignored nearly 1400 years of Muslim history. In the new faith of Islam, religious leaders were so powerful that they controlled, or owned, everything of importance, and were therefore the ruling class. When Muhammad died in 632 A.D. a conflict broke out between his companions and his relatives for the future leadership of the movement, and thus the supreme power in the area now subject to Islam: one party favoured Muhammad’s best friend, Abu Bakr, the other party favoured his cousin and son-in-law, Ali. The rewards of leading the new movement were so great that much fighting and bloodshed followed. The Sunni faction won, beating the Shia faction, but the contest had created much bitterness. Since then the two sides have hated each other with a venom in comparison with which Ian Paisley and the Pope are old chums.

In the Muslim countries, either there is a large Sunni majority and a small Shia minority, or a large Shia majority (as in Iran) and a small Sunni minority. In both cases the minority keeps its head well down and makes sure it presents no threat to the power of the dominant belief. That is how those countries have survived without civil war. But in Iraq, which was only cobbled together to suit British interests, there is a large Sunni minority – 20 percent, while the Shias are only 60 percent, since another 20 percent are Kurds (and other small minorities such as the Assyrians and Turkmen). Figures like those are a recipe for disaster. Not only is there the Sunni-Shia chasm, but since both parties are Arabs, the Kurds (consisting of often-persecuted minorities in several countries) hate them both almost as much as they hate each other.

Iraq was kept in order, and could only be kept in order, by a non-democratic regime. For the first part of its existence the British Empire provided the necessary autocracy: a rebellious movement in the early 1920s was settled by dropping bombs on dissident villages (which was where the young airman called Arthur Harris, later Bomber Harris, was converted to the virtues of area bombardment from the air – though of course the rebel Iraqis had no fighter aircraft or anti-aircraft weapons, so it was really a Sunday school outing, so to speak, for the bombers).

Britain then established a line of client kings, who were given a spurious “independence”. The last of the these client monarchs, Feisal II, was murdered with his whole household in July 1958, while his Prime Minister, attempting to escape from Baghdad dressed as a woman, was also captured and executed. Abdul Qassim, who led the rebellion, was similarly executed at the next coup in 1963. Then came a succession of dictators (sometimes supported by Britain, sometimes overturned if they got out of line), produced by vicious gang warfare among the strong-arm boys. The last one was perhaps the worst of them, Saddam Hussein, who like Stalin established himself firmly in power by murdering thousands of opponents in his own party and outside it.

None of this, though all of it is easily discoverable at the nearest public library, was apparently known to Bush or Blair. After the first excuse, that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction, was found to be false, the next claim was that the invaders were going to establish a united democratic Iraq. It was clear from the beginning to anybody who had a library ticket that the invaders could have a united Iraq if they wanted it, or they could bring democracy to the Iraqis if they wanted to, but what they could not have was a united democratic Iraq. The beginning of Iraqi democracy would also be the end of Iraqi unity. The hatred felt since Muhammad’s death between Sunnis and Shias had been exacerbated (if that were possible) by the fact that Saddam was a Sunni, and favoured Sunnis in his rule; so the detestation felt by Shias for Sunnis was redoubled. Clearly removing the iron grip of the tyrant Saddam would let loose all this desperate acrimony – and, of course, it has done. It is strange that none of the many high-powered advisers who surround Bush and Blair could work this out.

The net result of all the soldiers’ blood, Treasury billions, and hatred throughout the Muslim world, which the invasion has brought America and Britain, is that the Islamic fundamentalists (who lasted in Iraq only until Saddam could drag them to the gallows) are now triumphant. Men not wearing beards and women not wearing veils both risk being attacked. The education of women is now taboo. The Sunni and Shia “militias” – armed gangs – routinely slaughter victims from the opposite community. Arabs and Kurds raid each other. The Christian minority is under threat. (Paradoxically they apparently think they were much better off under Saddam than they are now.) The handful of Jews left in Baghdad (137,000 Iraqi Jews left or were driven out after the establishment of Israel) were able to worship in their one remaining mosque under Saddam; since the invasion, they do not dare to do so.

The allegation of Bush and Blair that they were driving Islamic fundamentalism out of Iraq is now shown to be exactly mistaken; they have succeeded only in bringing it into Iraq. Capitalism cannot even succeed in bringing about all the results that the capitalists want – even the strongest capitalist state in the world cannot achieve all its aims; so what chance has capitalism of bringing about the results that the rest of us want?
Alwyn Edgar

Not so glorious food

Book Review from the January 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Joanna Blythman: Bad Food Britain. (Fourth Estate £7.99.)

Essentially this is an extended rant about the eating habits of the British, especially in contrast to countries with a proper food culture such as France and Italy. Recipe books and TV cookery programmes abound, yet fewer and fewer people actually cook food from scratch or sit down to eat with their family.

Instead more and more ready meals are consumed, mostly in front of the television rather than at a table. Less time is spent on food shopping and less money spent on food. Children are astonishingly ignorant about food, often being unable to identify common fruit and veg. The population are subject to food scare after food scare and gradually become desensitised to them. Junk food and snacks combine to make people fat, in what is apparently called an obesogenic environment.

The reaction at this point may be that Blythman doesn’t think much of the food consumed by people in Britain, but that people are after all free to eat what they want. Nothing forces people to eat a ready-made shepherds’ pie rather than peel and mash the potatoes, cook the mince, and so on. But of course this freedom is found in a particular context, and people often say they are too tired to do much in the evenings, especially cook. The pressures of capitalism are such that workers really do have insufficient energy (though maybe enough time) to cook properly.

We also have to look at the pressure exerted by the food industry. Snacks mean big profits (‘mini bites for maxi profits’, according to Proctor and Gamble), and fast food and ready meals are big profit-earners too, much more so than fresh fruit and vegetables. The food manufacturers also resist any government efforts to to rein them in a little, and are becoming increasingly involved with sports sponsorship in order to foster a healthy image.

Mind you, if living under capitalism is what makes the British diet so bad, one wonders how workers in other capitalist countries manage to fare rather better. Blythman’s final message is, ‘Eat as little processed food as possible and base your diet on home-cooked meals, made from scratch from raw ingredients.’ Advice to be borne in mind in Socialism, perhaps, when people really will be free to eat as they wish.
Paul Bennett

Trick or cheat (2007)

Book Review from the January 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Derren Brown: Tricks of the Mind. (4 books. £18.99.)

There are not many popular entertainers and TV celebrities who declare themselves atheists and sceptical about happenings said to be paranormal. The magician and “mentalist” Derren Brown is an exception. His book opens with the words “The Bible is not history” and ends with a passage from The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. As a teenager he was an evangelical Christian, but is at pains to explain that his book is not meant as a rant against religion and claims for the paranormal and alternative medicine. And it isn’t.

He sets out to explain some of the tricks that he and others in his trade employ, even if some of the others claim rather to be exercising special powers. It’s not the magicians who make this claim but the mind-readers, hypnotists and self-styled “psychics”. Magicians do not claim to be practising magic in the literal sense; they are and see themselves as entertainers who entertain the public by what they themselves call “tricks”. Brown explains the sleights of hand by which some of these tricks are done and how to memorise things and invites his readers to learn them as their party piece. It is the self-styled “psychics” who are the problem. In his TV and stage (and private) shows Brown performs the same tricks as them, but doesn’t claim any special powers; which is why he calls himself a “mentalist” rather than a psychic.

In explaining how he – and they – do it he effectively shows that, in so far as they claim special psychic powers, they are frauds. That does not mean that they are not skilled practitioners. It is not easy to master the techniques involved: getting people to be relaxed and responsive to suggestions as in hypnosis (Brown argues that this is not a special state of mind); detecting what people are really thinking from their facial and other bodily movements (he thinks there’s a bit, but not much, in neuro-linguistic programming); and cold reading (you need to think and react quickly to be any good at it).

People who have mastered these skills can be good entertainers, though Brown has – surely rightly – no time at all for those who take advantage of the bereaved to make a show of pretending to contact the spirits of the dead (let alone those who con such people out of their money in private consultations).

In the final chapter (on “Anti-Science, Pseudo-science and Bad Thinking”) Brown comes out as an eloquent and witty defender of the scientific method and critic of the post-modernists, New Agers, alternative therapists and pill pushers, and paranormalists who challenge it.
Adam Buick

Obituary: Paula Winters (2007)

Obituary from the January 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Glasgow Branch regrets to report the passing of Paula Winters. Paula joined the party in March 1984 and entered into party activity with great enthusiasm. Her honest and outgoing personality together with her empathy for people made her a valuable addition to the branch. Unfortunately Paula’s health declined and this prevented her from participating in branch activities. Before her illness she had performed cop-watching duties on fly-posting excursions and was the branch’s undisputed top literature seller too. Vic Vanni had heard stories about her success at selling the Socialist Standard around the pubs and went with her to find out for himself. “Sure enough,” he said “it was all true and her sales technique really was something to behold!” Despite her many illnesses and misfortunes, Paula never lost her empathy and sympathy for her fellow workers. In fact it sometimes seemed as though she took the problems of the world upon her own shoulders and her compassion seemed to know no bounds. To know her truly was to love her and to Paula everyone in the world was her friend. We shall all miss her. Our deepest condolences go to her sister Josephine; my sister Flora, who was a close friend; and other relatives together with all of her many friends. I, who had the privilege of being her partner for twenty-six years, will find the world a much bleaker place without her. She was a magnificent woman and a true revolutionary.
John Cumming

50 Years Ago: Day-to-Day Runners of Capitalism (2007)

The 50 Years Ago column from the January 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

The complete lack of grasp of the general situation from a Socialist point of view, screams from every line of Driberg’s reports. Kruschev, having taken the Labour Party to task for being “reformist” and failing to educate the masses in the “revolutionary spirit,” Driberg enters the defence by saying “though Britain had certainly not been transformed into a Socialist State, the Labour Government had taken substantial steps towards Socialism—taking basic industries into public ownership, introducing comprehensive social security measures, and so on”

The only “revolutionary spirit” in which workers need educating will come from a knowledge of their class position under the wages system and a realisation on their part of the need to use that knowledge to vote for the abolition of this system. Far from drawing attention to the real nature of Capitalism, at every election the so-called Communist Party uses exactly the same stunts as the rest of them, promising houses, jobs and peace, etc.

As we stated earlier, to the Labour Party nationalisation means Socialism, but  perhaps workers are beginning to see that the so-called “public ownership” is two steps forward, three steps back and does not mean that they own any more of the means of living than they ever have.

The term “social security” has a nice sound but only insecure people need it. No reform can give workers security because their insecurity does not arise from lack of reforms but is basic to their wage slave position under Capitalism.

[From an article by ‘H.B.’, Socialist Standard, January 1957.]

Life and Times: Poverty amid plenty (2024)

The Life and Times column from the February 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Some time ago, while visiting my son and his family in the London area, we called in to see Ollie, one of my son’s friends who he’s known since his schooldays. Ollie has done incredibly well in conventional terms, in fact he’s become a multi-millionaire, living in a penthouse overlooking Park Lane. I hadn’t been there before and it sort of took my breath away – the sumptuous décor, the maid, the children’s nanny, the original Bob Dylan sketches on the wall. It was my first brush with this kind of wealth. Ollie’s background had been pretty humble, but after his education he’d got into trading in oil pipes, the ones that send oil from the Middle East flowing in all directions to fuel cars, heating appliances and much else. He was immensely wealthy, but to me he was the same young lad I’d known as my son’s school friend. He didn’t behave any differently either and I couldn’t envy him or begrudge him his wealth.

But, when after a couple of hours we said our goodbyes and went down in the lift to the street below, the first thing I saw hit me like a sledgehammer. At distances of around 100 yards apart, there were three dishevelled young men sitting on the pavement with signs in front of them asking passers-by for money. One, I remember clearly, said ‘Lost job, lost home, need money for food’. Of course I already knew the absurdity of a society that was actually wealthy enough in terms of resources and productive capacity to feed, clothe and house everyone on the planet to a perfectly comfortable level, yet still divided its wealth up in an insanely unequal way. But that was sort of in the abstract. Here was the absolute concrete reality, immense wealth and absolute destitution in virtual plain sight of each other.

Trickle-down, my foot
Given that this happened a few years ago and the ‘growth’ imperative of the society we live in means that the amount of wealth and goods and services available has actually increased since then, one might have expected that at least a small part of that wealth might have ‘trickled down’ to the lower end. But far from that happening, it seems, from various recent sources, that the very opposite has taken place.

To start ‘from the bottom’, so to speak, that is with homelessness and ‘rough sleeping’, a BBC news website report entitled ‘Cardiff’s homeless community grieving death of friend’, revealed that Richard O’Brien, ‘nicknamed Paddy’, had been the third rough sleeper to die on the streets of Cardiff in 2023 and that the city’s hostels were full and housing waiting lists were ‘absolutely unprecedented’ – the latter caused mainly by people being subjected to so-called ‘no fault’ evictions by landlords wishing to sell their properties or to bring in new tenants with higher rents.

Then, as we climb up the chain to what might be called ‘lesser deprivation’, the numbers get much bigger. A report by the Barnardo’s charity stated that ‘more than a million children in the UK either sleep on the floor or share a bed with parents or siblings because their family cannot afford the “luxury” of replacing broken frames and mouldy linen’ and that ‘the rise in “bed poverty” reflects growing levels of destitution in which low-income families already struggling with soaring food or gas bills often find they are also unable to afford a comfortable night’s sleep’.

Slightly higher up the chain, a report by Ian Aikman of Which? Magazine, conducted at the end of 2023, showed a sharp increase in the number of households defaulting on ‘essential payments’ (eg, loans, credit cards, energy bills) and eight in ten being worried about energy prices, food prices and fuel costs. One in six had skipped meals due to high food costs and a quarter went without at least some food. And the 2023 Autumn statement from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that two million households in Britain had in recent months turned off their fridge or freezer in order to save energy and money.

Can governments help?
Why is all this happening and why aren’t governments, who most people think should serve their populations, doing anything about it? Well, the simple fact is that, even if they wanted to, they couldn’t, since the economic system we live in, capitalism, distributes the means of living based on who owns the means of production and who has the most market power, rather than according to any principle of rationality, fairness or human need. The job of governments is just to oversee that system. So the recent suggestion by John Bird, founder and editor-in-chief of the Big Issue, that the government should tackle the issue by setting up a Ministry of Poverty, is just as doomed to failure as the pledge by the Shelter charity, when it was first set up in 1966, to end homelessness in Britain within 10 years. Shelter is of course still ‘going strong’ and, in 2023, it stated that ‘the number of people living in temporary accommodation has risen by an alarming 74% in the last 10 years’. The centre-right think-tank, the Centre for Social Justice, confirmed something similar when it found that ‘the most disadvantaged people in Britain were no better off than they were 15 years ago’, with around 13.4 million people living lives ‘marred by family fragility, stagnant wages, poor housing, chronic ill health and crime’. Of course millions of workers do manage to keep their heads above water, some living reasonably comfortable lives, but even this is usually at the cost of working hard for an entire lifetime, never being truly free of financial insecurity and often at great cost to the quality of their lives.

Decent lives?
The complaint is not that the very rich, whose wealth comes from ownership or control of resources, have so much more than everyone else but that it comes at the expense of everyone and everything else. Without any personal condemnation of people such as Ollie, or even of those wealthy tourists who the Guardian recently reported as queuing up to book into ‘London’s £1,000-plus a night super-luxe hotels’ (some of them actually costing £10,000 or £20,000 a night), what the scenarios we have described above show is that we cannot trust the anarchic, irrational, market system we live under to fulfil even the most basic human needs such as clean, dry, warm, decent housing for everyone. That system, dedicated as it is to producing profit for the tiny minority of the population, is simply not designed to cater for the needs of the majority, let alone for the most deprived members of that majority.
Howard Moss

Pathfinders: Capitalism unplugged (2024)

The Pathfinders Column from the February 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month Norway announced a huge ocean-floor mining project, doubtless the first of many such endeavours and probably not a huge surprise to Standard readers (Pathfinders, February 2023) or anyone following the halting progress of the green energy transition (GET). Capitalism is not about meeting real needs but about making profits, so when it comes to personal mobility, free mass public transport is not on the table. Instead, the market has fixated on electric vehicle (EV) production, and the bigger the EV the bigger the profit, with what’s been called the ‘EV obesity epidemic’ largely cancelling out the environmental gains of having an EV in the first place. And big cars need big batteries – the battery in a GMC Hummer EV weighs the same as a Honda Civic. Meanwhile, since the cheapest battery materials are in China, by which no manufacturer wants to be held hostage, or Congo with its child-labour practices, it makes good economic sense to dredge up the ocean floor and devastate an unknown virgin ecosystem instead.

The difficulties of obtaining lithium are well known, however there are many competing designs of EV battery which don’t necessarily rely on sensitive and volatile liquid lithium, or on nickel or cobalt. But there are pros and cons with each. Solid-state batteries won’t explode, but production is hard to scale up. Sodium-metal is readily available, but heavy, and subject to electrode corrosion. Hydrogel operates at -20C and is robust enough to be run over by a car, but offers lower performance. Even quantum batteries are being proposed, though theoretical for now. How all this pans out will be instructive. In socialism it would be a matter of picking the overall best. In capitalism it’s the market that will decide, based on a variety of fluctuating economic and political factors that often have little to do with the technology. ‘The GET doesn’t just depend on the right tech, or metal availability, but is also about supply chains, government incentives and business plans – these will determine the market for which batteries can be implemented at scale’ (Economist, 25 October). Currently China is poised to sweep the world with cheap EVs, but major regional markets may respond with tariff-barrier protectionism, as the US is already doing.

In any case there’s a bigger problem. Where is all the clean electricity to come from? There is a paradox here in that decarbonising transport means decarbonising electricity, but rapidly increasing electricity demand will make that decarbonisation more difficult. In countries like Norway, where hydropower is a major part of the energy mix, the break-even point for EVs over combustion vehicles is around 8,400 miles, whereas in coal-dependent Poland and China, it’s around 78,000 miles. Even when the electricity is supposed to be green it sometimes isn’t. The Drax power station in Yorkshire supplies 12 percent of the UK’s supposedly clean energy by chopping down and burning trees.

Globally, electricity generation will have to triple or quadruple if COP28 fossil phase-out pledges are to be honoured. Thus far, the capitalist world is not coping very well. New renewable power stations are not keeping pace with the retirement of old fossil plants. Already the regulatory body overseeing the North American power grid is predicting power outages in most regions of the US and Canada, starting as early as this year. If the world’s richest country is coming unplugged, it doesn’t bode well for the rest of us.

As an aside, one thing driving the recent and unsustainable surge in electricity demand – and this will infuriate socialists if nobody else – is Bitcoin mining, which requires vast amounts of electricity to generate useless virtual currency for greedy investors to speculate over. Bitcoin mining also sends 30,000 tonnes of used hardware to landfill every year, and wastes precious water too, for cooling the server farms, with just one Bitcoin transaction using a swimming pool’s worth.

Apart from such capitalist silliness, there is a massive grid bottleneck, where extra renewable sources can’t come on line because the current grids aren’t designed to support them (December Pathfinders). Existing transformers get hot and need to cool at night, but overnight EV charging, domestic electric heating or A/C on hot nights mean they won’t get the chance, so they will blow, causing outages. Heavier transformers are needed but the poles aren’t designed to carry them, and power lines also need upgrading to allow EVs to feed back into the grid. To meet 2050 climate targets, the US would need a million miles of new lines, but only installed 18,000 miles in the decade 2010-2020, meaning they would have to increase installation rates by a factor of 20. Overall, upgrading all this is estimated to cost tens of billions for the US, and globally around $20 trillion (tinyurl.com/4kbn8s5d). And that’s without considering the slow roll-out of charging infrastructure by governments under intense pressure from other priorities, like health provision, domestic subsidies or arms for Ukraine. And then there’s the fact that many roads, multi-storey car parks and bridges aren’t designed for much heavier EVs.

The word ‘omnishambles’ comes to mind, but for capitalism that’s really just normal business practice. A cooperative socialist society of democratic common ownership would still have to undertake a green energy transition, but it would only have to deal with the technical problems. With no markets, no trade and no money, it wouldn’t have to put up with the GET staggering, pausing or going into reverse every time the oil price went up or down, some country started a war, or looming elections motivated careerist politicians to pander to their pet NIMBY supporters. And with no salaried employment, the highways wouldn’t be crammed with miserable wage slaves forced to commute every day in order to pay for food, housing, and the electric vehicle they’ve had to buy just to get to work. Once we get rid of the obsolete market system, things will become so much simpler.
Paddy Shannon