Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Life and Times: My friend Phil (2024)

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

Recent issues of this journal have contained obituaries for several longstanding members of the Socialist Party who dedicated themselves with passion and understanding to the cause of a classless, leaderless society of voluntary cooperation and free access to all goods and services – the society we call socialism. They did this not because they were convinced that socialism would be established in their lifetime (though of course they fervently hoped that would happen), but because of the benefit they themselves gained from being a socialist, from an understanding, an ability to make sense, of what was happening in the world around them.

On a personal level, however, it made me sad that we should lose such dedicated advocates of the society we are looking for and it also took me back to the loss a good many years ago of a member (I’ll call him Phil) who had been one of the founders of my own local branch of the Party well before I came into contact with socialist ideas. He was outgoing, ebullient and energetic and never tired of questioning and challenging – and always with a terrific sense of humour. He understood that life was not just a random set of happenings over which it was impossible to have any control but that, if – and hopefully when – enough workers espoused the socialist idea, we could transcend capitalism and establish a new world of what he called ‘economic equality’. This understanding gave him an inner serenity enabling him to live a better and more balanced life within the confines of the present society – capitalism. Phil used to say that even before he came into contact with the Socialist Party, his own experience of life and work had led him to the moneyless, wageless, frontierless ‘one world’ idea. And nationalism in particular he saw as a monster that set people against one another when what they needed was to be brought together.

Phil’s funeral was conducted by a Humanist celebrant, who, in her farewell speech, described him as ‘a socialist atheist’ and, among other things, outlined his life and activity in the Socialist Party and how, as far as it was possible, he sought to live out and be the embodiment of his political convictions in his own life. Above all she pointed out how he believed in the potential of human beings to do good and to create a better society, one free from the iniquities surrounding money and the nation state. This world-wide outlook, transcending race and nation, reflected his concern – always optimistic – for the whole of humanity and led the celebrant to mention a favourite book of Phil’s, Arthur C. Clarke’s Profiles of the Future, which he was fond of quoting from. This brought to my own mind some of those passages where that author took daring leaps into what humanity might be capable of and, in the words of the celebrant, ‘imagine the unimaginable’.

Finally mention was made of one of Phil’s favourite forms of activity – writing letters to newspapers and magazines to communicate his views on current matters from a socialist perspective. One of these, published in the Western Mail, was read out as being typical of the way he would encapsulate the socialist case in a few short paragraphs. The letter began by pointing out that our social and economic problems are not caused by governments, either national or otherwise, but, as it said, ‘by our present social and economic system which for want of a better word can be called “capitalism”.’ It went on to say that the state capitalism in Eastern Europe which went under the name of socialism or communism ‘was doomed from the start’, yet that the private capitalism of the West had ‘equally failed to solve the problem of poverty amid potential plenty’.

It then moved on to demolish nationalism stating the following: ‘The identity of the British is made up of a mix of descendants of Celts, Saxons, Picts, Scots, Romans, Vikings, as well as more recently Huguenots, Jews, Irish and arrivals from the old British colonies. Before and since the Industrial Revolution, people have moved all over Britain seeking work. It is effectively impossible to accurately differentiate between them on any kind of “national” basis’. Nationalism, Phil insisted, ‘divides people, while socialism means people coming together’. The letter ended with a plea to people everywhere ‘to organise to introduce a new kind of society where there will be no frontiers and where each will produce or service according to ability and take according to need’. It would be, it concluded, ‘a society where there will be free access to everything and there will be no leaders and no led’.

Which takes me back to something else the humanist celebrant said to those gathered to wish goodbye to Phil. She reminded us of something Phil knew which is relevant to us all – that death is as natural as life, that all that has life has its beginning and end, and that only Nature is permanent. But at the same time, she told us, we were right to be concerned with the death of any individual, since we are all members of one human community, and in that sense no one of us is independent or separate. At the same time – and this is my own conclusion – we all have a personal contribution to make to humanity in the way we spend our own lives, a contribution my friend Phil made in spades. He never saw socialism but his influence lives on in so much that flowed from his life and character, as testified to, for example, by his remaining in my own reflections so many years later and my continuing to be inspired by him, as by those other members of the Socialist Party who have died more recently but whose lives have been so well lived.
Howard Moss

Pathfinders: How much does Dark Matter? (2024)

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

Pure science, from a capitalist point of view, is a bit like kissing frogs. You have to kiss a lot of frogs before one turns into a handsome princely profit. Sometimes – rarely – a technical project offers a large and obvious return on investment (ROI), even though the payout might be years or even decades away. With nuclear fusion, for example, the potential ROI is enormous and alluring, but while the boffins swear the idea works in theory, the technical challenges of putting the sun in a box are immense and not always known in advance, which usually means spiralling costs. The €5bn price tag for the experimental Iter fusion plant in southern France has more than quadrupled to €22bn, and now the schedule has been put back a further ten years. This puts European state investors in something of a sunk-cost bind. The risk of fusion never working is not as bad as it working, and China or Russia getting the jump on it. The British state recently managed to Brexit itself out of the Iter project, but Euro-governments generally see no option but to continue shovelling money into it.

Nothing about science is guaranteed. Even if it works, it might never result in any marketable technology. One project that paid off is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN in Switzerland, the rarest kind of all-level success story. As is commonly known, protons and neutrons are not fundamental particles, but are made up of combinations of quarks. Such combinations go by the name of hadrons, and smashing them together at super-high speed to see what pops out seemed like a very good idea, from the boffins’ point of view. From a government funding point of view, the ultimate composition of matter promised no ROI that mattered, but since one can never be sure, and because this was leading-edge research, they rolled the dice anyway.

CERN proved to be a smashing success, discovering more than 50 new hadrons, not to mention the Higgs boson in 2012 (tinyurl.com/yeyn92vk). It also unexpectedly spawned a side-bonanza for capitalism that had nothing to do with hadrons, or even physics. Tim Berners-Lee, a computer scientist working at CERN, came up with the worldwide web, which revolutionised capitalism.

So, CERN has become the poster child for capitalist science in Europe. But the hard questions of physics remain intractable. The ‘standard model’ has gaping holes. Assuming that Einstein’s theory of gravity is correct even at the largest scales, there should be around another 30 percent of ‘stuff’ in the universe to explain why galaxies don’t spin themselves to bits. No current device can detect this ‘dark matter’. Furthermore, nobody can explain why the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate, except with a putative ‘dark energy’ which represents 70 percent of ‘stuff’ but also can’t be detected.

Since smashing stuff together seems to work, experimental physicists have proposed an obvious solution – smash even more stuff together even more violently with a vastly bigger installation. They want to build the Future Circular Collider (FCC), a €20bn monster that would make the LHC look like a desktop pinball game (tinyurl.com/mr2vj67j). But this proposal to find fundamental answers raises fundamental questions about what investors are willing to stump up for.

The problem is, if the FCC enthusiasts are saying €20bn now, and if Iter is anything to go by, the actual cost could end up being multiples of this estimate. Euro ministers are choking on their lattes at the idea, and even some physicists are calling it ‘reckless’ and questioning whether ‘bigger, faster, harder’ is the best way to go. The biggest possible Earth-based collider could anyway never achieve more than a fraction of the colossal energies released in cosmic rays, meaning such exotic conditions will always be out of reach. And what if dark matter turns out not to exist, and is instead, like phlogiston, a supposition based on a wrong theory? Then, obviously, the FCC won’t find it. Would the boffins then demand even bigger and more expensive colliders, one after another, until they’ve got one the size of the solar system? Besides, with the climate crisis, pandemics, AI and other more immediate concerns, aren’t there bigger priorities for science budgets right now?

Government money comes from taxes on profits, which the rich get by exploiting us workers. We don’t get any say in how governments spend this cash, but the rich certainly do have an influence. And it’s a moot question how much the nature of reality actually matters to them, especially when the costs keep going up. Will they get tired of stuffing coins into the fruit machine of physics and watching the lemons whizz by?

Workers, meanwhile, have a more pressing concern, to get rid of capitalism and the rule of the rich. But a socialist society will still have to answer the fundamental question, which is how badly we want to know and how hard we are collectively prepared to work to find out. There’s always the possibility that people in socialism will not be willing to construct mega-colliders, despite what physicists say, and will decide to put their creative efforts into other things like space exploration, or undersea cities, or transhumanism, or rewilding the planet, or creating great art. But there’s no doubt that human beings do value the quest for knowledge for its own sake, in any society that claims to be civilised. The specific problem for science in capitalism is that it has to follow capitalism’s skewed money-agenda, where lofty goals may be celebrated, but the decisive factor is usually the bottom line, the factional advantage, and that all-important ROI.
Paddy Shannon

Cooking the Books: What does ‘capitalism’ mean? (2024)

The Cooking The Books column from the March 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month the BBC released a podcast of Laurie Taylor discussing capitalism with two authors of books on the subject.

The first was Michael Sonenscher, author of Capitalism, The Story Behind the Word (reviewed in the January 2023 Socialist Standard). He told Taylor that the word originated in the 18th century (in France as capitalisme) to refer to the practice of governments borrowing money-capital to finance their activities. Capitalism was the name of this practice and those who lent governments the money were capitalists. He contrasted this with what he called ‘commercial society’ that arose from the division of labour and which made people dependent on each other linked through market transactions.

He pointed out that Marx himself never used the actual word ‘capitalism’ and seemed to suggest that Marx regarded capital as a term of property ownership. In fact, Marx saw capital as the expression of a social relationship rather than as a legal concept. And he did use the adjective ‘capitalist’ to describe a particular ‘mode of production’, one where money was invested in production with the aim of ending up with more money, obtained by the exploitation of wage-labour for surplus value. So ‘capitalism’ would be where money-capital was invested in production rather than lent to governments.

Marx, too, noted the existence of Sonenscher’s ‘commercial society’ which he called ‘civil society’, also translated as ‘bourgeois society’.

Taylor’s second guest was Rainer Zitelmann, author of In Defense of Capitalism: Debunking the Myths in which, according to the blurb on Amazon, he ‘examines the ten most common objections to capitalism: capitalism leads to hunger and poverty, to rising inequality, to unnecessary consumption, to environmental destruction, to climate change and wars. Capitalism, its critics say, prioritizes profits over humanity, creates dominant monopolies, and undermines democracy.’

He is a strident free-marketeer who sees any state interference in the market as ‘socialism’ (so he sees ‘socialism’ everywhere). He defines capitalism as:
‘an economic system based on private ownership and competition, in which companies themselves are free to determine what and how much they produce, aided in their decisions by the prices set by the market’.
This differs from Marx’s definition which sees capitalism as the investment of money-capital in production with a view to increasing its value (making a profit), even if invested by the state. Zitelmann fails to mention profit at all or that it is how much of this that capitalist enterprises expect that determines ‘what and how much [and if] they produce’.

Zitelmann only had time to ‘debunk’ the first two of his ‘myths’ — that capitalism leads to hunger and poverty and that capitalism leads to rising inequality. His refutation of the first was that, as capitalism spread, it vastly reduced ‘absolute poverty’. But the socialist criticism of capitalism on this score is not that it causes world ‘hunger and poverty’ but that, despite the technological means to end it, capitalism can’t solve the problem; hungry and poverty-stricken people, having no money, do not constitute a market and so don’t count as far as capitalism is concerned.

Zitelmann’s response to the charge that capitalism leads to rising inequality was to say that there was inequality in ‘socialist’ countries too, a prelude to a rant against ‘socialism’ (government interference in the market) in general and conditions in Venezuela in particular. Clearly bluster to disguise the fact he couldn’t deny that in a system geared to making and accumulating profit there will be a tendency for the class of those with invested capital to grow richer.

This said, the poll he commissioned about what the word capitalism meant to people in different countries sounded interesting. He mentioned that in Britain only 14 percent thought that capitalism was improving things and that countries with the most positive opinion of capitalism were in order: Poland, the US, South Korea, Japan and Nigeria).

Material World: The problem of plastics (2024)

The Material World column from the March 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Plastic is everywhere. It is difficult to imagine how we could live our modern lives without it. According to UNCTAD, the UN trade and development agency:
‘Global exports of plastics or goods made from plastic has more than doubled in value since 2005, passing the $1 trillion benchmark in 2018 and reaching nearly $1.2 trillion in 2021’ (tinyurl.com/an6945me).
The use of plastic encompasses products made from plastic, products with plastic components and products wrapped in plastic.

Invented in 1907, it is a very versatile and useful product, indeed, but the sheer scale of our dependence on it has created enormous and rapidly proliferating problems. According to the United Nations Environment Program:
‘Around the world, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, while up to five trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed for single-use purposes – used just once then thrown away’ (tinyurl.com/5asrbmnp).
As the article says, we are choking on plastics. It gets everywhere. Its effects are multiple. It can, for example, block up rivers, slow down the flow of water and so encourage mosquitoes to flourish in stagnant pools. It can be devastating for wildlife in many ways. A vast swirling island of floating plastic has been formed in the Pacific Ocean called the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’. It is currently 1.6 million square kilometres in size and growing (by comparison the United Kingdom is a mere 243,610 square kilometres and not growing).

The durability of plastic as a product means it can hang around in the environment for hundreds of years or break down into microplastics that enter the human body via the food chain when we consume fish. Petrochemical plants producing plastic release gases with side effects that range from asthma to cancer to various hormonal disorders. Burning plastic waste can likewise pose serious health risks.

Globally just 15 percent of plastic waste is collected for recycling and only half of that actually gets to be recycled – sorted, baled up and sent to a processing plant to be melted down. Part of the problem is that much of this plastic is not recyclable anyway.

Furthermore, there are many different kinds of plastic each with a different chemical composition – no doubt, much of this diversity being in part a function of market competition. You can´t just lump together these different kinds of plastic in the process of recycling if you want to get a usable product at the end of it. It is constraints such as these that prevent recycling being anything more than just a small part of the solution.

All this plastic comes from fossil fuels like crude oil or natural gas (which is combined with other ingredients to form a resin that is then turned into pellets), fuels that we are supposed to be running out of at some point in the future. Until that happens or until the price becomes excessive there is unlikely to be any really significant move towards embracing sustainable alternatives to plastic. Alternatives are available to some extent but there are powerful commercial interests vested in maintaining a profligately wasteful and polluting way of life heavily dependent on plastic.

These same petrochemical corporations, in order to maintain the market for their products and to deflect public criticism of the environmental effects of these products, have not infrequently resorted to greenwashing tactics – for instance by providing funding for recycling campaigns. What this does is to shift the perception of who is actually responsible for such problems as plastic litter from the producer to the consumer. You can´t blame the producer, goes the argument, when it is obviously doing its best to clean up the environment as evidenced by all that money it spends on recycling campaigns. (Actually, that money is a drop in the ocean compared to the corporation’s revenue and it is good publicity anyway).

This is a tactic not dissimilar to the way Big Pharma blamed the opioid crisis in America on the users. It also overlooks the fact that most of that plastic that does happen to be conscientiously disposed of by consumers into the container for plastic will not actually get to be recycled. The fact that consumers may not be aware of this simultaneously helps to take pressure off tackling the problem at its source while ensuring the demand for more plastic just keeps growing.

While most plastic waste generated within countries tended to remain within the country concerned – buried in landfill sites, burnt, or otherwise disposed of – some of this waste is simply shipped abroad in containers. This doesn’t really solve the problem but merely relocates it and, in so doing, also perpetuates it. It also involves additional transportation costs with all that that entails for the environment. For the exporting countries (mainly in Europe and the US) it relieves some of the pressure of having to deal with the waste problem themselves and for the importing countries – particularly in the case of developing countries, it can be economically (if not environmentally) beneficial.

It is not just the disposal of plastic waste that presents a growing problem. There is also a problem of our growing dependence on plastic itself. Behind this, there are powerful commercial interests intent upon expanding the market for plastic.

Alarmingly, there are projections suggesting a fourfold increase in the global use of plastic over the next three decades. Mostly, this is predicted to occur in the Middle East and Africa, followed by Asia and China but also to a lesser extent in other parts of the world like Europe and America where already, ‘investors from those regions are currently planning to support expanded capacity for plastics-related infrastructure and production, often with government support’ (LINK).

In short, plastic as an invention has been a mixed blessing. One cannot deny the very obvious benefits it has brought when so much of what we possibly take for granted about our material reality is made of plastic – from our toothbrush to the clothes we wear to the laptop we type on. But as we have seen this also has serious drawbacks.

Minimising the latter by significantly reducing our dependence on plastic and by increasing the effectiveness of recycling, requires changing the purpose behind production away from profit-making. Do we really need all those tacky plastic tourist souvenirs that the tourist industry is so intent upon plying us? What about all those plastic toys unceremoniously dumped at the municipal tip after the novelty has all too rapidly worn off? One can multiply these examples many times, but they all point to the need for a significant cultural shift – something that can only really come about by changing the nature of the society we live in – if we are to mitigate the negative aspects of plastics.
Robin Cox

‘Multipolar’ . . . but purely capitalist (2024)

From the March 2024 issue of the 
Socialist Standard

‘We’re the United States of America, for god’s sake! The most powerful nation in the world, not in the world, but in the history of the world’. This was Joe Biden’s response in October to the question of whether the US could aid Ukraine and Israel at the same time. If George Bush Sr. or Bill Clinton had boasted similarly when they occupied the White House, many Americans might have nodded in agreement, but it rings hollow or even comical today. Signs that the ‘indispensable nation’ is in decline – militarily, economically, politically, and ideologically – can be seen everywhere.

The decline of US global power raises the hope among many that a new ‘multipolar world’ is emerging that would be more stable and just. The hope is understandable. No one likes a bully, and no country has acted more like one over the past 30 years than the United States of America (for god’s sake). Now that the US government is fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian and supplying Israel with the weapons to massacre civilians in Gaza, it seems clear to many that the world is a dangerous place when one nation wields too much power.

But even if the US is pushed off centre stage, or graciously decides to allow other actors to play a part, the working-class audience would still be watching the same old tragicomedy – a tale about unending conflict arising from unbounded greed – because multipolarity is premised on capitalism and its competitive logic.

History shows that countries united one day to oppose a hegemon, can be at each other’s throats soon after the bully has been cowed. After all, as William Morris pointed out, capitalism is a social system ‘based on a state of perpetual war’ – whether it be the struggle between classes, the competition between capitalists, or the conflicts between nations.

No friendships, just interests
In talking about a ‘multipolar world’ the adjective ‘new’ is often attached, but there is nothing new about multipolarity. It has been the norm throughout the history of capitalism. After World War II, when it seemed that the world was neatly divided between two great blocs, that ‘bipolar world’ saw conflicts within each camp, whether tensions between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, China, and other ‘Communist’ states, or trade disputes between the United States and its allies. Behind the ideological smokescreen of ‘communism’ or ‘democracy’, each nation-state pursued the interests of its ruling class.

Even during the supposed ‘unipolar moment’ that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States was hardly able to impose its will everywhere (although it tried its hardest).US military power proved incapable of eliminating resistance in Iraq or Afghanistan, and the economic sanctions the US imposed around the world often did more to isolate itself than the targeted country. Much to its consternation, the US saw ‘unfriendly governments’ pop up here and there, including some that had the chutzpah to do so in ‘America’s backyard’ in Central and South America.

The more aggressively the US has wielded its economic and military power, the more it has created enemies and exposed the reality of ‘multipolarity’. However, even though the ‘project for a new American century’ only lasted about as long as Hitler’s ‘thousand-year Reich’ before the wheels started to come off, its neocon architects continue to act as if the whole world envies and fears the United States and is willing to follow its ‘rules-based order’ (Rule 1: Do as we say, not as we do.)

Much of the hope placed in ‘multipolarity’ could be described as a natural and healthy reaction against the aggressive and unpredictable foreign policy of the United States. Other nations cannot help but appear responsible and trustworthy in contrast. It would be naïve, however, to imagine that relations between nation-states can be founded on lasting trust. Nevertheless, cheerleaders for multipolarity do just that in assuming that the BRICs nations are bound by common values or that the ‘friendship without limits’ between China and Russia can be taken at face value.

Here again it helps to look at history, which provides many examples of alliances that were formed from the existence of common enemies or mutually beneficial economic interests, and then dissolved when conditions changed. A case in point was the falling out between the US and USSR after the defeat of Germany. Since no one denies that US foreign policy has pushed China and Russia closer together, it is not unlikely that the two could reconsider their relationship if the US retreats from Europe and East Asia.

The point here is not to predict that China and Russia will fall out of love, but to emphasise that each nation pursues its ‘own interests,’ which means defending the core interests of the capital class. There is no place for lasting friendship among states in this capitalist world.

Under a multipolar world nation-states will continue to pursue their interests and seek alliances with other states accordingly. The motto for the nation-state will remain (to paraphrase Lord Palmerston): ‘No eternal allies, no perpetual enemies: only the duty to follow our own (capitalist) interests.’

The Chinese model?
Another hope placed in multipolarity is that it might be a shift away from ‘neoliberalism’. This is the view that China, Russia, and other BRICs nations have economies centred on the production of material goods for the benefit of its citizens, while the ‘collective West’ has a financialised economy designed to benefit a tiny parasitic elite.

In a 2022 article titled ‘Finance Capitalism Versus Industrial Capitalism’, the influential economist Michael Hudson (a self-described ‘Marxist’), argues that the current rivalry between the United States and China comes down to a ‘clash of economic systems’, with ‘finance capitalism’ on one side and ‘industrial capitalism’ on the other. What is ‘at stake’ in this ‘new Cold War’ is ‘whether the state will support financialization benefiting the rentier class or build up the industrial economy and overall prosperity’.

Hudson describes ‘socialism’ as the ‘natural evolution of industrial capitalism’, attributing this view to Marx. Somewhere in Vol. 1 of Capital (Hudson doesn’t say where), Marx argued that ‘as industrial capitalism evolved toward more enlightened management, and indeed toward socialism, it would replace predatory usurious finance, cutting away the economically and socially unnecessary rentier income, land rent, and financial interest and related fees for unproductive credit’. Apparently, the United States was also on this evolutionary path to socialism until its system of industrial capitalism was undermined by the forces of ‘finance capitalism’ or ‘pro-rentier fascism’.

In Hudson’s interpretation, Marx explained that industrial capitalism makes its profits ‘by investing in means of production to employ wage labor to produce goods and services to sell at a markup over what labor was paid’. This view of profit as an arbitrary ‘markup’ typifies the way Hudson presents capitalism (or ‘industrial capitalism’) as an efficient means of producing material goods, rather than a system founded on the exploitation of labor. The culprit for Hudson is not the pursuit of profit but ‘finance capitalism’, which ‘has eroded [the] core circulation between labor and industrial capitalism’ in which ‘capitalist employers pay wages to their workers and invest profits not paid to employees into factories and equipment’.

A lot more could be said about Hudson’s understanding of terms like ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’, not to mention his freewheeling interpretation of Marx, but the important point is that his view that China and other BRICs nations are following a more progressive or socialistic economic model is shared by many others.

In reality, China looks a lot more like the capitalist past than a socialist future. Its manufacturing-based, export-driven economy is modelled in many ways on Japanese capitalism. Japan had the sort of ‘industrial capitalism’ that would earn high marks from Michael Hudson. Indeed, many observers at the time claimed that Japan had pioneered a superior model of capitalism. But in the 1990s, much as the United States had done a decade earlier, Japan offshored much of its industry and carved up its welfare state, in a bid to restore profitability.

Hudson seems confident that the Chinese system will not fall into the sorts of problems that have ensnared the US and Japan. He writes that ‘socialist China’ has been able to ‘keep down the cost of living and business’ by ‘keeping money and credit creation public instead of privatizing it’ and has ‘been able to avoid a debt crisis by forgiving debts instead of closing down indebted enterprises deemed to be in the public interest’.

So what would Hudson have to say about the recent forced liquidation of the property developer Evergrande? The collapse leaves the company’s creditors owed around $300 billion, not to mention the millions of Chinese homeowners who sank their life savings in properties now worth a fraction of their former value. The situation looks a lot like the ‘debt leveraging’ in the US that Hudson bemoans, which ‘makes investors, speculators, and their bankers wealthy but raises the cost of housing (and commercial property) for new buyers, who are obliged to take on more debt in order to obtain secure housing’.

These recent developments suggest that either ‘finance capitalism’ has already taken root in China, or that the clear distinction Hudson and others draw between that model and ‘industrial capitalism’ is nonsense.

The champions of multipolarity and the BRICs, like Hudson, would have us pin our hopes on capitalism gradually ‘evolving’ into socialism. This might seem plausible to the many who mistake ‘socialism’ for state capitalism, but the real solution lies elsewhere. Instead of the competitive, multipolar world of production to generate profit, we desperately need to move toward a cooperative, borderless world of production to meet human needs.

An ‘anarcho-capitalist’ explains (2024)

From the March 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last November voters in Argentina elected as President, Javier Milei, who must have styled himself at one time an ‘anarcho-capitalist’ since that’s what the media keep calling him. In January he was invited to the gathering of global elites in Davos in Switzerland and gave a speech in which he expounded his views. He had some harsh things to say about the state, seeing it, as individualist anarchists do, as the negation of ‘freedom’:
‘The state is financed through tax and taxes are collected coercively. . . This means that the state is financed through coercion and that the higher the tax burden, the higher the coercion and the lower the freedom’ (tinyurl.com/29vuvjwr).
Strict anarcho-capitalists want to abolish the state completely and transfer all its functions, including the judiciary and the armed forces, to profit-seeking private enterprises. Milei doesn’t go that far as he sees a very limited role for the state (to protect and enforce private property rights and commercial contracts) and so is technically what has been called a ‘minarchist’.

Defining his ‘libertarianism’ he said:
‘Its fundamental institutions are private property, markets free from state intervention, free competition, and the division of labour and social cooperation, in which success is achieved only by serving others with goods of better quality or at a better price. In other words, capitalist successful business people are social benefactors who, far from appropriating the wealth of others, contribute to the general well-being. Ultimately, a successful entrepreneur is a hero.’
Adding ‘and this is the model that we are advocating for the Argentina of the future’. So, it looks as if he is going to try to introduce ‘minarchy’ there. The result could well be some sort of ‘anarchy’.

Capitalist heroes?
It is a measure of the desperation of workers in Argentina that they were prepared to vote into the top office a person who calls capitalists heroes.

Are successful capitalists really heroes? To have a chance to be successful you first have to obtain money to invest in producing some good or providing some service. You can get this in various ways — inherit it, borrow it, even acquire it illegally — but you have to get it. Having identified what you think might be a profitable market you use the money to rent premises, buy machinery and materials, and hire workers. You put the workers to work at producing your product which you hope to sell at a price that covers these expenses plus a mark-up for profit. If your hope is realised you end up with more money than you started with. You have made a profit.

But what is the source of this profit? Since the only way that wealth can be produced is by applying human labour to materials that originally came from nature (usually after having been fashioned and refashioned many times) the source can only be the work of those who produced what capitalists sell. It’s the difference between the value of what workers add to the materials and what they are paid as wages. The source of profits is the unpaid labour of workers. Contrary to Milei’s assertion, capitalists do appropriate wealth produced by others. That’s not very heroic.

It is true that while some capitalists succeed others fail, and that how well you know your market or can identify a new market can affect how much profit you make and whether you succeed or fail. But this doesn’t increase the amount of wealth that has been produced. It is competition between capitalists to get a share of that part of new wealth produced by the working class over and above what it costs to maintain them. ‘Capitalist successful business people’ are those who do best in this competition at the expense of their capitalist rivals.

All on their own?
Milei argued that it is ‘free trade’, ‘free enterprise’ capitalism that has been responsible for the immense increase in both productive capacity and the amount produced since 1800.

It is a bold claim to say that this was achieved by private enterprises acting all on their own in pursuit of profits without any state intervention; in fact in spite of such intervention. We hold no brief for those pro-capitalists who favour state intervention, but we must point out that the state provides a range of key services that help private enterprises to operate and succeed. For instance, by arranging for a supply of literate and educated workers, or a health service to patch up workers so they can go back to work as quickly as possible, or payments to workers who are temporarily unemployed during a slump so that their ability to work doesn’t deteriorate for when they are needed in the next boom.

Milei denounced this state provision of services for capitalist enterprises as a whole as ‘collectivism’ (and also, as might be expected, as ‘socialism’):
‘The problem is that social justice is not just, and it doesn’t contribute to general well-being. Quite on the contrary, it’s an intrinsically unfair idea because it’s violent. It’s unjust because the state is financed through tax and taxes are collected coercively.’
In his view, taxing capitalist enterprises to pay for such collective services amounts to stealing some of their profits by force:
‘[T]he market is a discovery process in which the capitalists will find the right path as they move forward. But if the state punishes capitalists when they’re successful and gets in the way of the discovery process, they will destroy their incentives, and the consequence is that they will produce less.’
There is an element of truth in this in that, if the state goes too far in this direction — as reformist politicians want as a way of trying to improve conditions for workers under capitalism — this will have the consequence both of undermining the quest for profit that drives the capitalist economy and of rendering capitalist enterprises uncompetitive compared with their rivals from other states. It’s why all reformist governments fail and are doomed to fail. But if a state which did not provide these services for its capitalists and left their provision to profit-seeking private enterprises — as ‘anarcho-capitalists’ and ‘minarchists’ want — then this too would undermine the competitiveness of its capitalists.

It’s the job of governments, as the executive committee of their capitalist class, to get the balance right. In any event, no state has ever not provided such services, so it cannot be claimed that capitalist development since 1800 has been due to private capitalist enterprises alone. In fact, capitalism has never existed without the state. The state helped it to come into being and has helped maintain it ever since.

Can the market fail?
Milei also took a pot shot at neo-classical economic theory which, he said, ‘designs a set of instruments that, unwillingly or without meaning to, end up serving intervention by the state, socialism and social degradation’. He had in mind in particular its theory that the state should intervene to correct ‘market failures’.

According to him, market failures are impossible:
‘The market is a mechanism for social cooperation, where you voluntarily exchange ownership rights. Therefore based on this definition, talking about a market failure is an oxymoron. There are no market failures. If transactions are voluntary, the only context in which there can be market failure is if there is coercion and the only one that is able to coerce generally is the state, which holds a monopoly on violence.’
Notable ‘market failures’ that he rejected as such were the emission of too much CO2 into the atmosphere and the emergence of monopolies. He says they are not examples of the market failing. Okay, let’s accept this and see them as the result of ‘free market capitalism’ working normally. That rather weakens his case for ‘free market’ capitalism. These are indeed results of how the capitalist market economy does work and why its operation prevents states from dealing effectively with problems such as climate change. In any event, state intervention to try to correct what are perceived as market failures has nothing to do with socialism.

Milei began his address by saying that he was there to tell his audience, made up of the world’s leading capitalists and political rulers, that ‘the Western world is in danger’. This danger, he told them, came from continuing to practise ‘collectivism’. At the end he remarked: ‘I know, to many it may sound ridiculous to suggest that the West has turned to socialism’. He was right. It does sound ridiculous but that’s because it is ridiculous.
Adam Buick

Proper Gander: Crossing the line (2024)

The Proper Gander TV column from the March 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Recent strikes by teachers, drivers, lawyers, medics and others have been a reminder that this kind of organised action is one of the few ways workers have to defend our position in capitalism. This latest wave of strike action, however effective in the short-term, hasn’t managed to resonate across wider society as much as the mid-80s miners’ strike did for the previous generation. To mark the 40th anniversary of this flashpoint, Channel 4 broadcast the documentary series Miners’ Strike 1984: The Battle For Britain. Without a spoken commentary and with sparse on-screen text to set the scene, the story is told by archive footage and new interviews with miners, police and solicitors, still affected by what happened, particularly at Orgreave.

In March 1984, the National Coal Board announced the closure of 20 collieries with an expected loss of 20,000 jobs. This triggered miners to strike in Yorkshire and Scotland, supported by the National Union of Mineworkers, then led by Arthur Scargill. The NUM called for action in all areas but didn’t hold a nationwide ballot, so regional branches instead voted on whether their members would withhold their labour. The strikes lasted almost a year, in which time communities changed forever, the violent nature of the state was exposed again and the NUM ended up weakened. These three aspects of the strike were covered in each episode of the documentary.

As described in the first part, communities such as Shirebrook in Derbyshire had built up over the decades around their local mines. As well as being the main employer in many towns and villages, a colliery would also run sports clubs and social events for employees’ families. So, when miners went on strike, they did so not just with the aim of defending their jobs, but also their communities. Unfortunately, these were damaged not just by the fight between the miners and the capitalist class’s representatives, but also that between miners who went on strike and those who continued to work. To shouts of ‘scab’, strike-breakers were driven to work on buses with grilles over the windows, guarded by police. The programme is quite sympathetic to the strike-breakers, emphasising the view that they continued to work because they were following the majority decision from ballots of local workers which were overturned by the NUM without a national vote. This, along with Scargill’s often-inflexible leadership style, raises questions about how democracy was managed in the union. Would it have been stronger if it had been more democratic?

The second episode focuses on how the state weaponised the police and courts against the strikers. The battle at Orgreave in South Yorkshire on 18 June 1984 was between strikers and lines of police equipped with truncheons, shields, crash helmets and horses. Footage recorded by the NUM and even the police shows the brutality of those in uniform. An interview with one of the officers saying they ‘never aimed for the head’ cuts to video of a dazed picketer with a bleeding head injury. Biased news reports at the time portrayed the miners as aggressors. Solicitor Gareth Peirce says it was ‘not accidental’ that police drove people away from the field where the confrontation began to the village, as doing this moved events to where others could be affected. This meant that those arrested could be charged under legislation applicable to ‘riots’, one of the criteria for which is that other people are frightened. Being found guilty of rioting could result in life imprisonment, whereas convictions for ‘unlawful assembly’ carried less harsh punishments.

Another method used by the police is described by one of the officers at Orgreave interviewed for the documentary. He says he found it ‘really bizarre’ when a senior detective dictated what he and his colleagues would write in their statements about what happened. Defence barrister Marguerite Russell says that there was ‘mass corruption’ in how the witness statements were recorded. However, all 55 miners at Orgreave charged with offences were found not guilty. One of those, Arthur Critchlow, tells us that how the charges were framed had a longer effect than the beatings. No police have faced disciplinary action for their conduct. Then-Chief Constable Tony Leonard tells us that the police were there to ‘protect’ people’s right to work as well as people’s right to picket. His words echoed those of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who also said she would ‘never negotiate with people who use violence to achieve their objective’ even when the police had used violence to achieve her objective. The battle of Orgreave and its aftermath demonstrate how the capitalist class uses parts of the state to protect its interests and keep workers subdued, although the documentary doesn’t explain it that way.

The third episode turns to other approaches used to oppose the strikers. We’re told that a pivotal character was David Hart, one of Thatcher’s advisers who was a ‘self-promoting Scarlet Pimpernel kind of figure’, according to then-Private Secretary Andrew Turnbull. Hart’s strategy involved the National Working Miners Committee, which had been formed with the aim of ending the strike by taking legal action against the NUM. Hart brought funds to the NWMC, including contributions from capitalists such as John Paul Getty, enabling it to afford renowned lawyers. They won in court when the strike was ruled illegal as it hadn’t been decided by a nationwide ballot. After Scargill refused to halt the strike, the High Court ordered that the NUM’s assets be sequestrated, and he was further knocked when links between the union and dodgy Libyan leader Gaddafi were reported. The strike was called off in March 1985. Thatcher, who Turnbull says didn’t want to risk her reputation being harmed by the unions, had won.

The series doesn’t present a comprehensive account of the strike, as there are only brief mentions of the National Coal Board, and none at all of the Trades Union Congress or the impact of cheaper coal imports from Poland. What the programme reveals about the tactics of the state are useful, but by dwelling on the motives and actions of figures like David Hart, Arthur Scargill and Thatcher, it doesn’t reach far enough to examine the strike’s wider economic context. There’s only a rushed outline at the end about how coal had become less profitable than the emerging financial services symbolised by the up-and-coming yuppies. Another episode to explore the strike’s place in the history of capitalism would have been welcome, but wouldn’t have been commissioned.
Mike Foster

Bloggr's Note:
The SPGB's 1985 pamphlet, The Strike Weapon: Lessons of the Miners’ Strike, is available at the following link.