Friday, February 9, 2024

Voice From The Back: Weakest Link—for real (2001)

The Voice From The Back Column from the February 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

Weakest Link—for real

Employees at one of Britain’s fastest-growing and most respected companies, FI Group, are being offered a £1,000 bounty to name colleagues who could be replaced by cheaper workers from India. . .
Financial Mail on Sunday, 24 December.

How it’s done

Former BMW boss, Bernt Pischetsrieder today admitted that he had deliberately provoked Rover’s crisis two years ago to weaken union bargaining power. Mr Pischetsrieder, now a top executive with Volkswagen and running its Seat subsidiary, admitted he had undermined the launch of the Rover 75 as the “last chance saloon” in front of the world’s press at the Birmingham Motor Show in 1998. He said BMW had been deep in negotiations at the time over company demands to boost productivity and the ploy was needed to win concessions from workers as the strong pound started to hurt the business.
Evening Mail, 13 December.

Only joking (?)

“This Christmas, indulge in a little blackmail, extortion and torture.” Advertisement for an Olympus camera.

How the wealth is spent

Forget Monte Carlo and Belgravia, for the very rich in 2001 the ideal home has no postcode. Instead they are trying to secure one of the few remaining apartments aboard the world’s first residential cruise ship . . . With no fixed abode, residents are not liable to pay tax and one Monaco-based oil trader is already arranging the transfer of his entire business to his new floating home . . . apartments on the 12 decks cost between $2 million (£1.4 million) and $5 million . . . one Saudi businessman signed for his £3.5 million pad, with its £250,000 annual service charge, within 15 minutes of reading the brochure.
Times, 27 December.

How the wealth is made

The [European] Parliament will be told that clothes for Adidas were made in two factories using child labour, forced overtime and sexual harassment. Representatives of workers in two Indonesian factories supplying the German company will tell Euro MPs that in the Nikomax Gemilang and Tuntex factories, in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, children as young as 15 were: made to work 15-hour days; expected to do at least 70 hours a week and punished for refusing to do overtime; paid less than $60 a month, rates below the International Labour Organisation’s demand for a living wage; penalised for taking leave during medical difficulties and had illegal deductions taken from wages as punishments for minor misdemeanours . . . Pay at the Nikomas plant was increased to more than 9,000Rs (75p per day) following the campaigners complaints, Adidas said. 
Observer, 19 November.

How the wealth is lost (1)

More pensioners died from cold last winter than during any winter since 1976. If latest wealthier predictions are correct, the death toll this winter will be even worse. Almost 55,000 people died from cold-related illnesses between last December and March, new figures from the Office of National Statistics reveal. The figures will acutely embarrass Ministers who had pledged to end pensioner poverty. “It’s a tragedy that people in Britain are still literally freezing to death and a main reason is poverty,” said Ben Harding of Help the Aged. “We deal with thousands of cases where older people can’t meet the costs of heating their home. They need heat all day and sometimes at night are particularly vulnerable.” 
Observer, 26 November.

How the wealth is lost (2)

The number of people in Britain classified as very poor has increased by half a million since 1997 when Labour came to power, according to an independent report. The number of people living in households with less than the 40 percent of the average income is now 8,750,000. The study, published today by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, also reveals an increase in the number of people living below the poverty line—defined as less than half the national average income—to 14,250,000 over the past two years. That is one million more than in the early 1990s and more than double the number of the early 1980s. Older people are suffering more according to the survey. Since 1993 the proportion of elderly households helped to live at home by their local authority has fallen by 30 percent. 
Times, 11 December.

The Battle for Your Mind (2001)

From the February 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
Does happiness reside in a bottle of perfume? Is your only concern the sweat under your arms? We take a look at the world of advertising
In 1969 the American Association of Advertising Agencies estimated that approximately 1,600 advertisements were aimed at each individual every day. That may seem a ridiculous number at first but the individual is not aware of most of them. The average person is likely to take momentarily notice of about 60 to 80 commercials a day with only 10 to 13 making a conscious impression. The number of advertisements hitting each individual today is certainly higher. You can now find advertisements regularly covering taxis, buses, toilets, envelopes, phone boxes and golf balls. In order to maintain sanity amongst this constant bombardment each individual has to erect a sort of sensory screen that can detect the oncoming signal and reject it.

On rare occasions advertisements are clever, entertaining and creative. Advertisements of this variety are few and far between, but they do exist and it would be incorrect to say that all advertising is “bad”. However, success in advertising is dependent upon the ability to manipulate the emotions, thoughts, and intelligence of the target audience to achieve the desired reaction—to get them to buy your product or service over that of your competitors. Typically, ads concern themselves with fantasy; a constructed world usually beyond the reach of our everyday experiences. They offer a vision of a world where happiness resides in a bottle of perfume, where your only concern is the sweat under your arms, and where a a low calorie drink could change your life (as part of a well-balanced diet of course).

Advertising has conditioned generations to accept it as an inescapable part of the landscape, as ubiquitous as night and day. There was a time, however, when advertising was widely considered an unwanted distraction. For example, editors initially thought ads were an intrusion upon the reader and would segregate all the adverts to the back of their magazine where they were out of the way.

The roots of mass advertising lie in magazines and took off over 100 years ago when industries began producing vast amounts of consumer goods. Since broadcasting didn’t exist and newspapers were largely local, magazines were the only national advertising medium. The fact that you could produce high quality colour graphics on heavy paper, unlike newspapers, meant that magazines were much favoured by advertisers.

As soon as advertising revenue became important, at around 1890, ad agencies insisted that ads be moved from the back of magazines to the front. Inevitably, it wasn’t long before major advertisers were demanding that their ads appear opposite the opening pages of major articles. But it didn’t end there. Editors were soon selecting articles based not only on the basis of their expected interest to its readers but for their influence of advertisements.

As mass advertising grew, “liberal” and “radical” ideas in editorials became a problem. So did serious articles. A reader in an analytical frame of mind was unlikely to be enthusiastic about an advertisement for a trivial product. An article about genuine social suffering would certainly interrupt the “buying mood”. What was the solution? Easy, change the content. Better still, just fill the publication with material that will attract the readership the advertisers want. Before television emerged in the 1950’s, successful magazines were 65 percent ads. By that time, most magazines were fundamentally designed for advertising rather than editorial matter (see Vogue, Talk, Here’s Health, etc). Pick any random magazine off the newsagent’s shelf today and you’ll have a tough time trying to spot the difference between an article and an advertisement. Compare the differences between the styles, content and ideas. Most of the material claiming to be an “article” is in fact product promotion. Some writers call this “fluff”, a term used to describe material which is not news in any real sense but is non-advertising material supporting advertisers (see promotion sections in Vogue, Marie Claire, Woman’s Own, Muscle and Fitness, etc). Advertsiers want “fluff”, to create a buying mood.

One of the best examples to demonstrate the level of influence major advertisers now have over the contents of magazines is Vogue magazine. The January 2001 issue totalled 186 pages. Of those 186 pages, 87 were full-page ads. (In the first 66 pages there are 50 full-page ads.) Another 21 pages could be described as “fluff”, product promotion. The first “article” comes in at page 33. 17 pages consist of travel, food and horoscope sections. That leaves 61 pages out of 186 for article space. Of those 61 pages, 43 are full-page photographs. The main article entitled “Stars In Their Own Eyes” totals 28 pages, 27 of which are full-page photographs with 1 page of text. Richard Shortway, editor of Vogue, has said, “The cold, hard, facts of magazine publishing mean that those who advertise get editorial coverage”.

Another good example is Talk magazine. In the first 48 pages of the premier issue there were 46 full-page adverts! Unlike a few decades ago where editors would segregate ads to the back of the magazine on the grounds that it was an infringement upon the reader, the of bulk of adverting now appears in the opening pages—just where the advertisers want them.

Advertising’s greatest effect on the mind is not so much its detail, but the mass conditioning attempted by the same basic themes occurring over and over as we slouch in a chair and uncritically listen to the garbage emitting from the box everyday.

Advertising likes to tell us how to think and how not to think. Some of the criteria we are told to use include how one should judge what is credible and incredible, what is success and failure, and how we should judge ourselves against others. Even though the advertisers are at war with each other for viewers’ and readers’ attention, the same themes keep cropping up again and again. That is because all advertising is born out of the same system, capitalism. Advertising does not exist in a vacuum; it is part of a system. Forget the three R’s taught in the education system; it is the 3 C’s in advertising that count—consumerism, conformity and competition.

Some advertisers aren’t shy to declare their support for capitalist ideas:
  • “Business is the engine of society. Without it there would be no jobs. No products. No competition. No advancements.” (A 1996 Microsoft ad)
  • “Of all human powers operating on the affairs of mankind, none is greater than that of competition.” (Mead Coated Papers)
  • “You don’t win silver, you lose gold”. (Nike)
  • “Identify yourself”. (Mitsubishi)
There are many researchers who believe subliminal advertising is being employed by a number of major advertisers to influence the subconscious mind of its viewers and readers. (Subliminal advertising is defined as images and messages that are below the threshold of conscious perception, but which will nevertheless affect the viewer on a subconscious level). The use of subliminal advertising may or may not be a reality. That is not the important thing. What we have to look at the reason for the existence of advertising in the first place, not necessarily the techniques advertiser’s employ.

The Vice President of Proctor and Gamble made a statement over 20 years ago which is truer today than ever. He said, “We’re in programming first to assume a good environment for advertising“.

In 1965 the Federal Communications Commission held hearings to determine how much influence advertisers had on non-commercial content of television and radio. Albert N. Halverstadt, then general advertising manager of Procter and Gamble, was particularly interested in the image of business and business people. He gave the FCC formal requirements for television programs:
“There will be no material on any of our programs which could in any way further the concept of business as cold, ruthless, and lacking all sentiment or spiritual motivation. If a businessman is cast in the role of a villain, it must be made clear that he is not typical but is as much despised by his fellow businessmen as he is by other members of society”.
The manager of corporate communications for General Electric has said, “We insist on a program environment that reinforces our corporate image”.

Far from being content with dominating the pages of popular magazines, major advertisers—BP, Pepsi, Levi’s, Cadburys, Ford, Nike and the rest—have set to conquer the almighty task of controlling the messages that emit from the black box in the corner of our rooms. Without doubt TV is the most effective advertising medium. Viewers don’t have time to examine or judge the messages. You sit and listen as the TV talks at you. Far from taking a passing interest, advertisers want to know exactly what time of day and in-between what programmes their ads will be shown because that will define the audience population they are buying. And there is no shortage of time. A double episode of the highly popular American sitcom “Friends” airs about 18 minutes of ads in one hour, which is nearly a third of the programming time. But don’t be mistaken in thinking the scripts of programmes are devoid of advertising influence. The ad agencies aren’t going to let them off that easily. TV executives (like editors) have surrendered to the altar of profit and are forced into the competition for viewer’s attention. Michael L. Buchenbeth has said: “The scripts are written to build tension before the commercials to hold the viewers attention during the commercials“. The basic strategy in programming is not merely geared towards satisfying the audience’s tastes but what is perceived as the most likely to attract advertisers. Like magazines, the difference between ads and programming becomes blurred. Flick the TV on . . . is it soap, a documentary, the news, an ad . . . who knows?

The motion picture has obvious advantages in immediacy, sound, colour over the still image. There is no end to the image and sound creation and manipulation possibilities; the ads with Steve McQueen in are a good example. However, the problem as far as the admen are concerned is the fact that you can only broadcast one message on one programme at a time. If an audience finds an ad boring, too long or too offensive they’re likely to commit the ultimate sin that haunts every ad agency and TV executive—they’ll switch the TV off.

The correct atmosphere is essential for advertising; which is a buying atmosphere. Short, half-hour programmes that are trivial, non-political and humorous are much favoured by advertisers. Coronation St, Star’s in their eyes, GMTV, Neighbours, She’s got to have it, Friends, TOTP, Blind Date (etc, etc) fit the bill well. Richard Lesser, then Vice President of the Grey Advertising Agency, in an article in Advertising Age (12 December 1957) wrote, “Advertisers for years have been studying the integration of the show and the commercials to see how the two can be married to each other“. It is no coincidence, for example, that Rachael and Monica from the American sitcom “Friends” have never appeared on air with anything less than perfect and immaculate hair since they have advertised L’Oreal hair products. Which ads most frequently appear in-between each episode? That’s right, L’Oreal shampoo ads that feature both Rachael and Monica.

What about the News? The fact that the Newsreaders’ scripts are interwoven with the advertisers’ interests is deliberately ignored. We are supposed to think that the ideas are the independent work of professional journalists detached from commercial bias. If the audiences were told that the ideas represented explicit demands of advertisers, the message would lose its impact. Sure, they can say what they want; as long they don’t conflict with the advertisers’ interests. The major advertisers can actually demand they report along certain lines by threatening to pull out their advertising.

Politics too
Advertising has also been used as a tool in the struggle for political ideas. Politicians, leaders and political parties alike have for some time exploited this effective medium. Political campaigns are increasingly looking and sounding more like advertising campaigns with each successive election. Sound-bites, slogans and style are very important considerations in any campaign now. The fact that a political party needs to spend thousands and thousands on advertising campaigns to improve its image just shows how shallow their message is, or the lack of one. Capitalist parties have long since ran out of anything intelligent to say and their only hope is to either re-hash old ideas or change the packaging they sell them in (see “New” Labour). Of course, the problem does not lie in the fact that they promote their political agenda but rather that they have nothing useful to say. Take away all the style and sloganeering and all you are left with is a bunch people who say very average things about very average politics; not worth voting for (see New Labour, again).

Would advertising still exist in with a society based upon common ownership? No. The inhabitants of a socialist society may well decide to have images and messages in the cities and outer environment but instead of being under the control of a profit seeking minority, they would be under the democratic control of the society, and will therefore benefit society instead of retarding it. When everyone has an equal say in what is produced and free access to it, there is no need to seduce people to choose one product or service over other. Of course, there may be a range of products which serve the same function but people will make choices free from the distortion and manipulation of advertising. The need for advertising only exists when different companies are competing over the same market for a bigger cut of the profit. A socialist society won’t require cities, towns, magazines and newspapers to be plastered with images and messages that serve no useful social function but contribute only to pollute the mental environment. There will be no profit to accumulate, no companies to exploit the workforce and no leaders to follow. Creativity, free from the constraints of profit making, can flourish and can be used to benefit society, and not be wasted on the anti-social aims of advertising agencies. Ideas, concepts and solutions will not be judged by their ability to realise a profit but by their value to its people.
T. M. Jones

Letter: Food and sex, then and now (2001)

Letter to the Editors from the February 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

Food and sex, then and now

Dear Editors,

I welcome your discussion of neo-Darwinism/evolutionary psychology. Your Paul Bennett is fairer than Adam Buick who slightly misrepresents the idea by implying that it says only competition is natural. Nature is not “red in tooth and claw”. It is both competitive and co-operative.

As male individuals we compete to form the peck order which reduces fighting, and gives the winner access to the most desirable females. We then co-operate as a group to defend our food-producing territory. We then compete with neighbouring groups to enlarge our territories making food collection easier. (In our anonymous society we agree to decide the peck order by how much money we have-conspicuous consumption. The bigger the car, the better the girl. And the bigger the population, the harder we have to compete. Your Andrew Westley showed a good understanding of the significance of status, i. e., peck order).

Competition is as necessary as co-operation. We share within the group and compete with outsiders. By over-emphasizing co-operation the SPGB is less persuasive when everyone can see the competitive reality, as well as the co-operation.
Richard Hunt, 

If we were birds, then what you write might make some sense, but we’re not. We’re humans, and one of the distinguishing features of humans, compared with all other animals, is the virtual absence of the sort of innate behaviour patterns that have been observed in birds. As humans, our behaviour is not innate but acquired from the society in which we are brought up in and live, and from its culture. We have no innate “territorial imperative”, to take up a term coined by Robert Ardrey in his notorious 1966 book of that title. We can be competitive or co-operative or, at different times, both; that depends on the social conditions.

If you want to argue that what is valid for birds is therefore automatically valid for humans, you’ll have to do a lot more than merely assert it. You’ll have to show why, and how, this is so, but no serious student of anthropology shares your views. Ardrey was a Hollywood scriptwriter; Konrad Lorenz an expert in animal not human behaviour; Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, was also an expert on bird behaviour; while EO Wilson, founder of “sociobiology”, specialised in ants. Their views on human behaviour are worth no more than the man (or woman) propping up the bar next to us. But here’s what the anthropologist, MF Ashley Montagu, wrote in reply to Ardrey and Lorenz:
“The notable thing about human behaviour is that it is learned. Everything a human being does as such he has had to learn from other human beings. From any dominance of biologically or inherited predetermined reactions that may prevail in the behaviour of other animals, man has moved into a zone of adaptation in which his behaviour is dominated by learned responses. It is within the dimension of culture, the learned, the man-made part of the environment that man grows, develops, and has his being as a behaving organism” (in Man and Aggression, edited by MF Ashley Montagu, OUP, 1968, p. xii, his emphasis).
Even on your own terms, your argument is absurd. Where do you produce your food? Where is your food-producing territory? Today, under modern technical conditions of production, all production is social; all the things we consume, including food, is produced as the collective effort of producers all over the world. Just think, next time you have a meal, where the food you’re eating is likely to have come from, and where the machinery, fertilisers and means of storage and transport to grow it and get it to your table would have come from. Today, for humanity, “our food-producing territory” is virtually the whole world. It’s certainly not the areas where we live, or even the national-state we live under. And most people do their “food collection” at the local supermarket, hardly a place, we would have thought, for you to play out your fantasies of being an alpha male.

Maybe, at one time, our remote hominid ancestors did live like you suggest (though we doubt that the relations between the sexes would have been as crude as you make out, and from what we know from the Stone Age societies that survived into historical times marriages were arranged between reciprocal clans). But that would have been then, not now. Today, even under capitalism, things are vastly different, and are changing. Now, many more women go out to work than ever before and so don’t need to be as dependent on men for a meal ticket. In fact, in Britain, more than half the employed working class are women. All this is already affecting relations between the sexes.

Things will change even more in a socialist society, when every single man, woman and child will have free access as of right to the things they need to live and enjoy life. In other words, no woman will be dependent on any man. We say it is perfectly possible for such a state of affairs to exist because how we humans behave depends on the social conditions we are brought up in, not on our genetic make-up. Humans can live like you say they did, and presumably think they should, but they can-and have-lived in other ways, and could adapt to the conditions of socialist society. Biologically-inherited brains capable of versatile and flexible behaviour and so being able to adapt to different environments, that’s “human nature”, and it’s no barrier to socialism.

The “evolutionary psychologists” you admire have a slogan “our modern skulls house a stone age mind”. You seem to be in the same position, but don’t worry, it’s not innate but something you acquired, probably from too much uncritical reading of Ardrey, Lorenz and Desmond Morris. 

World View: Australia - in defence of profits (2001)

From the February 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Australian government is to boost its “defence” spending by an estimated $500 to $600 million. Prime Minister, John Howard told a Liberal Party dinner in Sydney on 4 November last year that Australia “needed more resources to fulfil its role at home and in the Asia-Pacific region”, as well as in East Timor (West Australian, 6 November).

Continued Howard: 
“The Government does set a very high priority on maintaining a strong defence capability. We do need as a nation to spend more money on defence.”
Howard said he wanted to make the Collins-class submarine project work, despite “its litany of cost blowouts and delays”. The reasons for Howard’s concerns are not difficult to find.

Brian Toohey says (West Australian, 6 November) that “Indonesia is playing an ugly and dangerous game”. It has apparently upset both Australia and the United States recently, its patrol boats challenged a US destroyer delivering aid to East Timor, claiming that it believed that the American destroyer was, in fact, delivering arms to separatists on the trouble-torn Indonesian island of Ambon.

Toohey claims that the Indonesian government has failed to disarm the militia in West Timor. It, he says, harassed not only East Timor, but also Papua New Guinea, and even Australia. It cancelled the visit of a top-level ministerial delegation to Canberra at the last minute; at the same time, it expected Australia to stop a South Pacific Forum meeting in Kiribati from mentioning the Indonesian army’s brutal activities in West Papua. Tourist and investment dollars are at risk. And, horror of horrors, the governor of Bali has made it plain that Australian tourists are no longer welcome. Brian Toohey, echoing the views of others in Australia, argues that “Australia has little to gain from trying to curry favour in Djakarta by insisting that the Javanese empire should last for ever.” An Indonesia, even more weakened by the loss of former Dutch colonies, and various islands such as Ambon and Bali, could be welcome news in Canberra.

Christmas Island, an Australian possession 250 miles south of the Indonesian capital of Djakarta, is also in the news. Australia bought it from Britain in 1958, because it feared that the newly-independent state of Singapore, the island’s former administrators on Britain’s behalf, would nationalise the phosphate reserves run by the Australian and New Zealand governments, who needed its cheap fertiliser for their farmers.

Because it is so close to Indonesia, Christmas Island serves as a useful base for Australia’s northernmost radar over-the-horizon beacon, which is linked to the United States/Australian Joint Defense Research facility at Pine Gap, south-west of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory.

Moreover, Australia’s “Asia Pacific Centre” plan to build a satellite launching facility, with roll-on-roll-off port facilities to deliver large rocket components, as well as hazardous materials, such as satellite and rocket fuels. Says Vanessa Gould (West Australian, 17 June): “At 10 degrees south of the equator, Christmas Island was ideal to place satellites into geostationary or polar orbits.” As well as being yet another small, but important, part of Australia’s “defence” of its capitalist class and their increasing investments in the area.
Peter E. Newell

Depleted Uranium? Depleted Minds! (2001)

From the February 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard
The question of whether or not dropping radioactive bombs on people is dangerous is exercising the top minds in the bourgeois media
The recent and still ongoing debate about the effects of depleted uranium adds a whole new dimension to the time-honoured quote that truth is the first casualty of war. Recent evidence would suggest that dishonesty is not only a midwife to war, but very much its bastard offspring.

Depleted uranium (or U238) is what is left of natural or pure uranium after the isotope U235 has been removed for use in the manufacture of nuclear weapons and in nuclear power plants. It contains up to 60 percent of the radioactivity found in its pure form and, because it is more concentrated, it is potentially more lethal.

A heavy and dense silvery metal, U238 is also highly incendiary which makes it an ideal core material in anti-tank projectiles and bunker-busting Tomahawk missiles (each one of these contains 3kg of DU). Upon impact, the core of the DU projectile ignites and oxidises at such high temperatures that it becomes glass or ceramic micro and nano particles, containing lethal alpha, beta and gamma rays. The ensuing conflagration other than burning to a cinder the inhabitants, smothers the target tank or bunker with a fine radioactive dust, contaminating a surrounding area for up to 50 metres of the impact sight with lesser contamination detectable many kilometres away. The extent to which British, European and American soldier’s health has been effected as a result of such contamination forms the basis of the debate.

The British and US governments, NATO and the medical experts they have hired to fight their corner insist there are no medical side-effects to the inhalation of DU dust particles. Just as John Spellar the Armed Forces Minister, could claim in December of last year that “we are unaware of anything that shows depleted uranium has caused any ill health or death of people who served in Kosovo or Bosnia,” so too could NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson, in a 10th January damage limitation press conference nonchalantly argue there was “no link of any kind” between depleted uranium and leukaemia, that there was “nothing to fear from this particular type of munitions”, and that “we act with the interests of our troops and civilians in mind” (Independent, 11 January).

So convinced were NATO of the rightness of its cause and its preparedness to continue using DU munitions, that their staff distributed dossiers of scientific evidence stifling claims that DU was harmful and even called upon the services of two Pentagon medical experts to refute the claim that DU was harmful.

The broadsheet press, however, wasted no time in revealing an army report entitled The Use and Hazards of DU Munitions, dated 8 March 1997 which stated that “All personnel . . . should be aware that uranium dust inhalation carries a long term risk to health.” This same MOD report warned that exposure to depleted uranium, as used in British and US tank shells, increased eight-fold the risk of lung, lymph and brain cancers.

At the same time it was revealed that the government’s own nuclear safety advisers at the Atomic Energy Agency had warned 10 years ago that depleted uranium shells fired during the Gulf War would pose a health risk. The 1991 AEA report says:
“Handling heavy metal munitions does pose some potential hazards as does the spread of radioactivity and toxic contamination as a result of firing in battle . . . and can become a long-term problem . . . and pose a risk to both the military and civilian population” (Times, 15 January).
All of which cuts no ice with Defence Secretary Geoffrey Hoon who still maintained days after the revelation of the MoD report that “there is no scientific evidence to support that the use of radioactive material caused illness, including leukaemia . . . here are no risks associated with depleted uranium and certainly no proven link between its use and illness ” (Times, 15 January). If this was the case then why the MoD warning? What scientific evidence were they working from?

One wonders whether those defending the government and manufacturers of DU munitions are aware of the related facts. That of the 53,000 servicemen/women who were stationed in the Gulf, 5,000 are recorded as suffering illnesses including leukaemia and that there have since been 521 deaths.

Are they aware that British and US tank ammunition alone during the Gulf War contained 55,000 lbs of depleted uranium? That 300,000 rounds of depleted uranium rounds were fired during the Gulf War, or that levels of irradiated particles in the air above Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are 20 times higher than over Baghdad?

Researcher Dr Chris Busby found that urine samples taken from Gulf War vets showed that mass spectrometry tests revealed soldiers inhaling dust received doses of up to 778 millisieverts, not the 20-30 claimed by the MoD and suggested as being “of no cause for concern”.

Malcolm Hooper, emeritus professor of medicinal chemistry at the University of Sunderland, revealed that DU particles stayed in the lungs for 10-20 years and that 10,500 of Britain’s Gulf War personnel could develop fatal cancers. He further warned that thousands of people living near the firing ranges in Britain and the factories producing the DU munitions were likewise at risk of contamination.

The present government position is that there is no case for an enquiry because they refuse to acknowledge any evidence of a significant risk to personnel. The Health and Safety Executive are supposedly monitoring of ranges in Britain, but as their findings are of ringing no alarm bells their level of monitoring can be seriously questioned.

The most the 19 NATO ambassadors will agree to is a working party to coordinate information on DU shells. Reluctant to conduct their own enquiry, they have passed the task over to the UN who they believe are better equipped to deal with the matter, not least because the UN is largely controlled by the US. However, better late than never, they have since demanded that 11 of the 112 sites NATO have pointed them at be cordoned off.

The underlying factor of course is costs. A clean-up operation in Bosnia and the Gulf would, it is estimated, run into $trillions, not to mention the cost in compensation to the military and civilian population involved.

Moreover, the DU shells are a relatively cheap and highly effective method of murder, bearing in mind the core material is a waste product, and indeed manufactured by an industry that governments do not wish to take contracts from; they exist as powerful lobbies. And which government would ever come clean and admit to error? That so much of the evidence emerging pertains to the Gulf War, when the Conservative Party were in power, helps explain why they, the Tories, have not sought to make political capital out of the issue, and hasn’t Tony Blair an election on the horizon?

So we can expect the issue to be no nearer a propitious outcome in the coming months than we can expect the causes of war itself to be abolished. The lies and disinformation will counter every new revelation proving the detrimental effects of DU. For the defenders of capitalism, there is too much at stake for them to concede just one inch that maybe, just maybe, their critics are right. When it comes to counting the casualties of war, we must still be prepared to list truth right up there with them.
John Bissett

News: Do the bosses still need the “race card”? (2001)

From the February 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

Do the bosses still need the “race card”?

According to a Home Office report released last month, Britain is facing its biggest rise in immigration for a generation. A combination of asylum seekers and people moving to join relatives are among the obvious reasons cited for this new trend, but, as the Times points out, “Britain’s need for workers has also fuelled the trend. The IT industry will need to recruit a further 540,000 people up to 2009, and the report suggests that the custom of employing migrants for seasonal work on farms could be extended to other areas”.

The message should be unequivocally clear. The needs of capitalism are always paramount, so, since a skills/labour shortage and an ageing society has emerged, we can perhaps expect to hear less perjorative language in the media about being “flooded” or “swamped” by “foreigners”. Indeed, Home Office minister Barbara Roche greeted the report by extolling the virtues of immigration.

This European-wide phenomena was picked up by the Economist last year, which ran a cover story telling non-EU workers to “go for it!”. Quite pragmatic, it would seem, for a right-leaning journal.

However, this will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the history of capitalism. Immigrant workers have always been used to correct a disequilibrium in the labour market. The mass immigration of the 1950s, which underpinned the post-war boom, is a case in point. All things being equal, a labour shortage causes wages to rise and thus puts workers in a comparatively stronger bargaining position vis à vis overall working conditions. Naturally, our masters will always seek to counteract such a situation by importing (often cheaper, more compliant) workers, which in turn intensifies competition among workers, potentially fermenting xenophobia and racism. Needless to say, when demand for labour and/or skills slackens off, the capitalists play the infamous ‘race card’ in order to keep the working class divided.

Historically, this does not depend upon which party is in government. Both the Conservatives and Labour have promoted immigration and denounced it according to the dictates of the markets. Ideology alone does not pay capitalism’s bills!

The working class needs to remember that despite the nationalist and patriotic poison which is rammed down our throats from an early age, our bosses are actually quite open-minded. They will invest anywhere in the world, blazing a trail in their blood thirst quest for profit. Our class enemies may indeed be international,, we, however, are global

The Peter Principle

The resignation of Peter Mandelson from the Cabinet for a second time—an act unprecedented in British political history—has brought allegations of sleaze back to dog the government. Mandelson proved to be a Mr Fix-it in more ways than one but he was caught out and has now paid the price quite publicly. The danger for Labour is that the Party is now tainted in the eyes of the electorate by allegations of financial sleaze and collusion, haunted for the foreseeable future by ghosts like Mandelson and Geoffrey Robinson. Luckily for them, of course, the Tories still have political ghouls of their own to exorcise in Jonathan Aitken, Jeffrey Archer and Neil Hamilton, and so do not present any coherent or principled threat.

In truth, every government since the war has been beset by scandals at some point. Even the Liberals can’t afford to sound pious as it was Lloyd George who made a habit of selling peerages at a time before the phrase “cash for questions” was ever heard of.

When people delve under the surface of these scandals only one thing of real importance emerges. It is that there was nothing uniquely corruptible about any of these people, any more so than there is about Mandelson today, even if so many people love to demonise him. All scandals like this really go to prove is that it is the system we live within—the system of ruthless competition, greed and the power of money—that corrupts individuals, not individuals who corrupt an otherwise irreproachable system.

No more yogic flying

The Natural Law Party has announced that it is giving up contesting elections in Britain. So we are no longer to be amused by Party Political Broadcasts which promise to reduce violent crime and international tensions by the mass practice of “yogic flying”. Laughable, but in the end no less incredible than the claims of other parties to be able to solve capitalism’s problems by less outlandish, reformist measures.

The NLP never got many votes but that was never the aim. Contesting elections—and getting nation-wide television broadcasts and the free distribudon of millions of rnanifestos— was a marketing ploy by an international business empire headed by an Indian fakir calling himself the “Maharish Mahesh Yogi”. The aim was to get people to buy its transcendental mediation courses, herbal remedies, oils, aromas, “healing” gems, Hindu horoscopes, books, tapes, etc.

The NLP’s reason for giving up was that “the election system is stacked against new parties”. Maybe, but the real reason will have been the coming into force of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act which requires registered parties to disclose their accounts. This would have exposed the accounts of the “transcendental” business empire that financed the NLP to public gaze.

The NLP never was as amusing as it seemed, but was a flagrant example of how, under capitalism, Big Money can undermine the proclaimed principle of political democracy according to which everybody is supposed to have an equal say. In fact, the more money you have the louder you can proclaim your views.

Transport workers on strike in London and Belgium

As London Transport workers ballot on whether or not to go on strike, and the employers and the media prepare to whip up a campaign against them for “inconveniencing the public”, they could consider copying what their counterparts in Brussels did recently. From 22 December to 1 January, the buses, trams and metro in Brussels were free, as workers continued working but prevented the ticket machines from functioning as they pursued a claim for better wages and conditions. The public were not all inconvenienced. Just the reverse. And it showed that it is workers, not money, that make the world go round. What would the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail be able to say if this happened in London? No doubt they would accuse both the public and the workers of cheating the employers. Technically, this would be true and the courts might enforce it.

Ironically, less than a month previously, a court in Brussels had done just that. Three members of a group advocating free transport were fined £300 each for deliberately travelling without a ticket, using instead a “right to transport card”. In court they pleaded that the Declaration of the Rights of Man proclaimed a “right to free movement” which charging for using buses and trains infringed. A good point. The judge replied that “this right can be exercised by going by foot”. Which about sums up the value of grandiloquent “rights” under capitalism.

SPGB Meetings (2001)

Party News from the February 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

Think Globally, Act Globally

Why local actions are no match for International capitalism

Socialist Party Day School

London, Saturday 24 February

10.30: Welcome. Tea and coffee

11.00: Are you feeling sick? Medicine under capitalism. 
Why it's normal to feel ill in capitalism. by Stuart Watkins.

12.30—1.30: Lunch.

1.30—3.00: No Logo—a new anti-capitalist manifesto?
Paul Bennett looks at Naomi Klein's book which sets out the ideas of the new wave of "anti-capitalist" protestors.

3—4.30: Greens ain't got no class.
Bill Martin explains how those who work for green reforms, even by direct action, fail to realise that they are up against an entrenched class system where the profits of the few must always come first.

Manchester public meeting:
Human Rights

Monday 26th February at 8.00pm
Speaker: Gary Jay
Venue: The Hare and Hounds, Shudehill, Manchester

TV Review: What’s in a Load of Rubbish? (2001)

Benjamin "the Binman" Pell
TV Review from the February 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

What’s in a Load of Rubbish?

Last month Channel Four screened a documentary called Scandal in the Bins that was the remarkable story of a remarkable man—Benjamin Pell. Until recently very few people had heard of Pell and today, the majority still haven’t. But Pell has been popping up in the pages of Private Eye for quite some time and has recently had some exposure in the national press. Many who have heard of him know him by one of his other names—”Benji the Binman”.

“Benji the Binman” is what some might call “a great British eccentric”. Others might call him a simple thief. But essentially he is a collector. A collector of rubbish—indeed, a freelance collector of rubbish. For the last few years Pell has earned a living of sorts through scrabbling round amongst the refuse of the rich and famous, their agents and solicitors. A staunch Zionist, he began by raiding the bins of pro-Palestinian organisations in London and then moved on from there. The story which really made him—and which turned him into a household name among Fleet Street editors if nobody else—concerned Elton John’s financial difficulties and how they had been brought about through his mammoth and conspicuous consumption.

From that time on Benji has hardly looked back. He claimed in the programme that he is so obsessed with newspapers he used go down to Euston station every Sunday and collect them off the trains but in the last couple of years he has become a key contact for editors and newsroom managers and has had stories that he has ultimately been responsible for printed in almost every national newspaper in Britain. A man with an “anti-establishment” air about him, it is alleged that he has been heavily involved in everything from the Fayed/Hamilton case to the recent leaking of the Philip Gould memos about Blair.

Although his recent successes are reputed to have netted him £100,000 in the last year or so he lives a frugal life at his parents’ modest north London semi, spending a fair proportion of his time in the garden shed where he stores his dozens and dozens of bin bags. Frail and unkempt, his immediate ambition in life is to get a second shed.

Pell’s doctor describes him as an obsessive compulsive and this evidence was used in his favour during some of his many court appearances (whether as a witness, like in the Elton John case, or as a defendant). His interviews for this programme showed that he is certainly eccentric and probably what social workers, years ago, would have called “maladjusted” too. But what the programme also showed— and was at pains to point out—is that whatever he is, he is clearly not mad.

Aware of his eccentricity, Pell will accentuate his unusual behaviour even further to achieve a desired end (such as if and when he gets arrested). In the Elton John case he appeared in court dressed from head to toe in bizarre Elton John memorabilia and took little time convincing the court that he was a harmless nutter who was incapable of being part of any conspiracy of any description. On his late night scavenging forays he will make sure he smells as badly as possible lest he get arrested, as was demonstrated when one of the programme’s hidden cameras showed him being stopped by a police officer who, after a few seconds of questioning, started to search Pell and then hesitated, pulled a face, stopped and then left him to fester in peace.

Rat trap
Scandal in the Bins did a good job showing the human side of Pell—his eccentricity, his very real fear of going to prison and his sheer craftiness. Although Neil and Christine Hamilton were featured saying that Pell had been one of the people who had helped to ruin their lives (as if they hadn’t had a hand in it themselves) Pell showed himself to be at least as hostile to the press as they now find themselves to be. Rightly or wrongly, he sees himself as someone getting as much out of the press as he can by putting his compulsive disorder to use making a living. In the process he causes trouble to the powerful and—more often than not—as a lonely one-man band is the victim of the news corporations’ manipulations, not their primary cause.

Pell claimed that British newspapers are just as corrupt as the people they are allegedly exposing and, naturally enough, he has a ready audience for that view as few outside the British media would disagree with it. Scandal in the Bins had plenty of evidence for it as well. In the most revealing section of the programme two of the most powerful men in the British media—PR guru Max Clifford and Sun political editor Trevor Kavanagh were shown up, with help from Pell, for being the hypocrites they really are.

Clifford’s own PR façade slipped when he walked out of an interview with the programme’s makers shouting and screaming at the film crew for asking him questions about his business methods (even though he didn’t bat an eyelid at their seemingly irrefutable evidence that he had perjured himself in a court case) while Trevor Kavanagh was heard telling an interviewer that the Sun had never paid Pell for a story or for any of his illegal activities. As the tape played, the screen showed copies of News International’s invoices regarding payments to Pell for services rendered. Brilliant television, achieving what few—if any—have previously managed to do.

This is not to give the impression that Pell is an entirely blameless character either—he certainly isn’t. He has done his fair share to upset the lives of those he had otherwise no reason interfering with and has readily accepted payment for doing so. The point is that despite his own clear shortcomings his (partial) co-operation with this documentary did as much to expose the systematic hypocrisy and double-dealing of the British press as anything yet shown. If Channel Four repeat it soon (and no doubt they will) try and catch it if you didn’t see it first time around.

In the meantime, it is worth asking yourself when you next see an eye-catching article in the press—whether it be a “serious” investigation by Insight in the Sunday Times or an expose of some pop star’s business dealings in the tabloids—about where the information for the piece came from and of the unbridled skulduggery that took place to get it into print so more newspapers could be sold and more advertising attracted. And when you’re doing that remember to spare a small thought, at least, for a poor Jewish boy from north London with an obsessive compulsive disorder and a shed full of bin bags.
Dave Perrin

50 Years ago: Food adulteration (2001)

The 50 Years Ago column from the February 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

As food is produced for profit, it follows that where the incentive for profit exists, there is always a possibility of the capitalist taking full advantage of it, and in a way that is directly detrimental to those who are dependent on food supplied from factories, restaurants, shops, etc., in fact from all sources except the very small amount which is grown in our gardens or allotments.

To-day, whether we like it or not, nearly all our foods are adulterated, for the simple and very good reason (from the capitalist standpoint) that it is profitable to adulterate food. Coffee is frequently mixed with chicory because coffee costs about 5s a lb., while chicory about 6d. per lb. Sausages are adulterated with bread, and fish cakes with potatoes. If either were found to be adulterated with caviar the capitalist responsible would need his brains tested. So great is the quantity of bread in some sausages that we scarcely know whether to spread mustard or jam on them.

Nearly all our jams are coloured with aniline dyes (a coal tar product) to give “eye appeal.” so important in selling. Tinned peas and other green vegetables have copper sulphite mixed with them to enhance their colour, because all tinned green vegetables soon lose their colour, and therefore don’t look fresh. Most of our kippers are put through a bath of creosote to give them a golden yellow colour.

For us socialists who don’t want to enter into food reform arguments, we say that so long as food is produced under Capitalism, so long will it be adulterated, refined, processed, dyed and artificially faked. Only when food is produced solely for consumption and nourishment—in a word for use—will food be free from harmful adulteration and supply the human body with the right kind of nourishment. There will then be neither need for food reform nor possibility or incentive for adulterating food.

(From article by H. Jarvis, Socialist Standard, February 1951)

Real life poet (2001)

Book Review from the February 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

Carnegie Hall With Tin Walls. By Fred Voss. Bloodaxe Books.

In the volume are 159 free verses depicting various facets of the daily work routine as experienced by machinists at an American aircraft components-producing factory. This is shop-floor life in the raw, as seen by a fellow machinist who prefers to remain just that, having passed up the chance to study for a PhD in English Literature.

For Voss this is real life, on the shop floor, and the men he works among are more real than those upstairs in the offices. He observes some of these men, messing with equipment, playing pranks on each other, sometimes to the point of being dangerous and near-maniacal. Voss does not excuse this outrageous behaviour or attitudes, nor does he patronise them; he is one of them. He knows that they are in a class war, and that waiting for them all, sooner or later, is being laid off, most of them without a pension.

These men could be the cream of shop-floor workers, operating, drilling, milling and capstan-type machines, which although computer-programmed, still need skill and expertise of the human touch to correct any deviance. Sometimes their raw material is a torn piece of steel which has to be honed and fashioned to within a thousandth of an inch. Voss shows that in the main they take pride in their work, although for the employed they are only there to be exploited, in the pursuit of profit.

Among the verses there are some real gems. Each one in its way is a kind of minute vignette specially when Voss adds to some of the verses a short one or two-line rider, as a wry comment on what he has just written, mostly humorous.

The verses are a denunciation of capitalism, and by satire and irony they work. Voss does not mention any union membership, or what they do to maintain any standards they have achieved. Perhaps more disappointing is the omission of any qualms that most of his employment is spent on producing parts for the military. Even so socialists can get something out of these verses.

Typical trot (2001)

First-edition cover
Pamphlet Review from the February 2001 issue of the Socialist Standard

I Know How, But I Don’t Know Why’: George Orwell’s Conception of Totalitarianism. By Paul Flewers.

Flewers’s pamphlet is an attempt to outline and criticise George Orwell’s political views on totalitarianism as revealed especially through 1984 and Animal Farm. As an explanation of why Orwell came to write his masterworks this is a good account. Flewers indicates the way Orwell’s experiences during the Spanish Civil War transformed his thinking, leading to a near-obsession with totalitarianism (particularly vis-à-vis Russia), and picks out his underlying motivation—the quest for “decency”.

As criticism however the work is deficient. In a nutshell, Flewers says that Orwell lacked a clear idea of how Russia became a totalitarian state because he could only observe without analysing. Since Orwell despised grand theories this is hardly surprising. But the deficiency lies not with Orwell but with Flewers. “Why was there no Lenin figure in Animal Farm?” he asks. Why overlook “the democratic features of Bolshevism?” (hack, cough) or view Lenin’s opportunism in 1917 as a “disingenuous and dishonest ruse to win support” (yessiree!). Besides the fact that Animal Farm is satire (I might just as pedantically ask “where’s Martov got to?” or “why doesn’t Makhno make a cameo?”), Orwell makes clear what his intentions were in Animal Farm: “You can’t have a revolution unless you make it for yourself.” Flewers of course denies that “any leadership will inevitably become a ruling elite once it seizes power”. As a Trot he would, wouldn’t he?