Saturday, June 8, 2024

Life & Times: Work in China and the UK (2024)

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

The other day I had a conversation with someone who told me he’d recently visited China and, having worked there in the past, now found things significantly changed. The context of this was a university academic, a social scientist, coming to speak with his trade union’s volunteer personal case officer (myself). He (I’ll call him Simon) was dissatisfied with his work situation largely owing to the volume of work he was being given, consisting of teaching, administration and research. In particular he was concerned that the teaching and administration had become so overwhelming that he was being left with little time to get on with and publish his research, which is what would dictate the progress of his career. What could be done? I made a few suggestions, among which was an approach by the union to his head of department protesting at his treatment and its apparent unfairness. He seemed happy with this – as a first step anyway.

But in mentioning China at the start of our conversation, he’d also told me that, on his recent visit there with his wife, also a social scientist and herself Chinese, both of them had been offered jobs at a Chinese university. They’d thought about it but decided not to take up the offer because the current situation in China was ‘dire’ (his word). This made me curious, so after talking about Simon’s current employment issues, I asked him what he meant by ‘dire’ in relation to China. He was only too ready to explain.

He said there were three main reasons. The first one had been of particular concern to his wife – a noticeable increase in what he called misogyny. He explained that China’s ‘one-child’ policy having been abandoned quite some time ago, the government was concerned that the population now wasn’t replacing itself and so was putting considerable pressure on women to have more children and stay at home to bring them up. Women insisting on being employed were being portrayed almost as betrayers of the nation. The second thing was that they had noticed, since they last spent time there, that the climate had become noticeably more repressive. This manifested itself, for example, in university academics having to seek special permission simply if they wanted to spend a weekend away in another city or another part of the country and in it having become more difficult to get colleagues they knew to speak openly about any subject that might be considered sensitive or political. The third thing was that it was being made increasingly difficult for foreigners to obtain visas to stay in the country or to continue residence there, one consequence of which was that it was not unusual for western media correspondents not to have their visas renewed. Simon also told me they noticed a definite deterioration in economic conditions with signs that the government seemed nervous about possible unrest or protest and was seeking ways (eg, the furore about Taiwan) of distracting attention from deteriorating prospects and living conditions for its citizens. He ended by wondering, tongue in cheek of course, whether, given the increasingly repressive atmosphere, a comparison with the Ming dynasty might not be appropriate.

Xi Jinping: a ruler for ever?
All of this is anecdotal of course, but there does seem a lot of backing for Simon’s take on China from a good many other sources. For example, recent newspaper coverage has reported on the shrinking of China’s population and government concern about the low birth rate leading potentially to a loss of young workers. China’s apparently permanent leader Xi Jinping has been quoted as referring to women playing ‘a unique role in promoting traditional virtues’ and to the ‘need to cultivate a new marriage and childbearing culture to tackle the ageing population’. There is also evidence that, after decades of relatively high economic growth under a mixture of state and private capitalism, China’s economy is losing momentum, with significant downturns in various sectors (eg, building and construction, property, private tutoring, data management and transfer), unrest and unemployment leading to strikes and demonstrations among workers and also concern within the small Chinese private capitalist class, some of them fabulously rich, about government crackdowns, as the one-party regime seeks to tighten its control over both state and private economic activity.

As long ago as the 1980s, many people thought that China was moving towards less authoritarian, more democratic political institutions. Such hopes were dashed by the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, but there are again some commentators who consider that the current regime will find it difficult in the longer term to contain social unrest and this may lead to more enlightened government policies or at least a relaxation of repression – as happened for example in Eastern Europe where, against most people’s expectations, seemingly stable regimes crumbled almost overnight. This is obviously to be hoped for, since not only is the current anti-democratic, repressive regime an obstacle to the needs of continuing capitalist development, bumping up against the free circulation and exchange of ideas that need to go with that development, but it is also an obstacle to the subsequent development of socialist consciousness that we are looking for.

Socialism (with Chinese characteristics?)
To return to Simon and his wife, their perception of the way the Chinese regime currently operates (which it laughably called ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’) and their rationale for not staying there seem fully corroborated. There seems little doubt that their work situation and their freedoms, academic and otherwise, would have been far more restricted in China than in the UK. Of course, Simon had complaints about the way he was being treated by his employer here. But at least he was able to seek to address this via his trade union, a body independent of government or other ‘higher’ authority. How much more difficult would he have found the same kind of thing in China, where unions do exist but are closely government monitored and controlled? Would the outcome be a cancelled visa? Anyway, hasten the day when all such autocracies give way to at least the limited democracy that capitalism can offer and provide the ground for workers to decide collectively that they want to move on the road to that genuine alternative system of society beyond the system of wages, money and profit, which we call socialism.
Howard Moss

Pathfinders: A walk in the woods (2024)

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

One of the few free pleasures workers in more rural parts of the UK can get is a walk through ancient woodland. There are three springtime features which you can normally expect to see in ancient woodland: bluebells, Lords and Ladies (a type of arum), and wild garlic.

What you wouldn’t expect to see is 30,000 tonnes of illegally dumped and sulphurous waste, tens of feet deep, full of rubble, plastics and sanitary products. But such is the case at Hoads Wood in Kent, a protected Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and an area of outstanding natural beauty. Or at least it was until the dumpers started showing up in their wagons.

Much understandable local outrage, and politicians falling over themselves to look tough on illegal dumping and ‘bring the perpetrators to justice’. The local police declared that the pollution was ‘shocking and totally irresponsible’, which suggested that the dumpers somehow failed to understand what they were doing when they trucked up to the site, thirty times a day.

Of course they knew exactly what they were doing. They’d been paid – as many dodgy skip-hire firms are – to dispose of other people’s waste, and didn’t fancy paying commercial rates to dump it at municipal tips. It was simply cheaper to dump it where they thought nobody was looking.

TV naturalist Chris Packham took a stern line, calling it ‘a mafia operation’, perhaps something of an overstatement in the UK, though such mafia practices are notorious in the US. It’s not so much mafia as market forces, where profit is what counts, and externalities are somebody else’s problem. The UK Environment Agency provides a handy spreadsheet of all illegal dumping incidents between 2015 and 2023, ranging from private cars to tipper trucks, for construction waste, white goods, tyres, toxic chemicals, asbestos, animal carcasses and domestic black bag waste, dumped on agricultural land, footpaths and bridleways, highways, riverbanks and watercourses. There are well over 2,000 entries and for almost all of them, nothing is entered in the ‘Final Action Taken’ field. No doubt the Environment Agency is underfunded, understaffed and unable to pursue illegal tippers, despite concerns over the health implications of illegal dumping, as described for example in a 2015 paper on the so-called ‘Triangle of death’ region of Campania, near Naples in Italy.

But it’s not just cowboy contractors. UK water companies are currently under fire for massive and repeated polluting of rivers. In one example last month, according to the BBC, United Utilities pumped raw sewage into Windermere, in the UK’s Lake District, at the rate of 500 litres a second for 6 hours, and didn’t report it for thirteen hours. Water companies are only allowed to do this if excessive rainfall overwhelms their pumping stations. But on very many occasions this is not the case, and the dumps are illegal. The company in this case protested that it was ‘an unexpected fault in the telecommunications network in the area, which United Utilities was not notified about’, however an identical incident occurred in November 2022. Nor were local activists impressed, saying ‘Time and time again the same thing keeps happening here in Windermere: United Utilities pollutes the lake and the Environment Agency turns a blind eye to it’.

Then more outrage in Devon when locals were told they’d have to boil drinking water because the local water company had failed to prevent the cryptosporidium parasite getting into the water supply and causing vomiting and diarrhoea.

Even so, this is minor stuff compared to air pollution. Globally, this causes around 6 million premature deaths each year. According to the World Health Organization, just 0.001 percent of the world’s population are breathing safe, non-toxic air. And then there are ‘forever chemicals’, synthetic polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) which never break down, and are found in everything from tea bags to non-stick pans, bottled water to butter. These are now known to cause multiple types of cancer, and class-action lawsuits have already forced giant payouts by DuPont, 3M and other manufacturers, but international efforts to ban PFAS production are grindingly slow.

A PFAS ban might be achievable. Capitalism is not incapable of reacting to obvious environmental dangers, as long as legislation is across the board, meaning that individual manufacturers and states don’t suffer comparative disadvantage. It did this with ozone-destroying CFCs starting in the 1970s, though a global ban did not come into effect until 2010. Even then it couldn’t be globally enforced, with China being pinpointed as the source of a 50 percent increase in CFC output in 2019.

The capitalist system of production is today’s ideological sacred cow. It is supposed to be the best and only way to improve the standard of living for all humanity, yet because its prime imperative is only to make money by any means necessary, the reality never lives up to the hype. With the cow come the cowboys. If we abolish money and markets, along with the political and wealthy elites who protect them, we could then develop a transparent production and recycled waste system that actually worked in humanity’s interest, where no palms would be greased and no blind eyes turned. We need to dump capitalism instead of letting capitalism dump on us. Then people could enjoy an unspoilt walk in the woods and a wild swim in the local lake, without worrying what they might catch in the process.
Paddy Shannon

The problem is not the Tories . . . . (2024)

From the June 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘GENERAL ELECTION NOW. TORIES ROBBERS MUST GO’ screamed a recent headline in a Trotskyist paper. It could have been one of many but this one was from the March issue of Counterfire, an SWP fragment.

The article denounced ‘fourteen years of Tory rule’ as ‘fourteen years of austerity, of cuts in our standard of living, cuts to public services, cuts in wages and conditions, cuts in benefits and cuts to the NHS.’

This is a more or less accurate description of what has happened since 2010 when the Tories came into office (with the LibDems as their junior partners for the first five of these years). But correlation is not causation. That the Tories were responsible for all these things is the standard Labour Party line, the suggestion being that they would not have happened had there been a Labour government. But wouldn’t they? These sorts of things have been known to happen when there’s been a Labour government in office; in fact under every Labour government that there’s been.

The cuts to public services, benefits and the NHS since 2010 were imposed by the government as decisions on these are a government responsibility but, in the economic circumstances of the slump that followed the financial crash of 2008, the government had no real choice. The capitalist economy is driven by the quest for profits and any government has to give priority to helping this.

In a slump this means reducing taxes on profits and cutting back on government spending. In theory a government could choose to refuse to do this but that would only make things worse by prolonging the slump. The cuts, then, were forced on the government that happened to be in office at the time by the operation of the coercive economic laws of capitalism. If Labour had been in office for these fourteen years they would have had to have done much the same. In any event, the fall in the standard of living and worsening wages and working conditions are a direct result of capitalism having been in a slump. That’s what happens in a slump and no government can stop this.

Counterfire is of a different opinion. They suggest governments do have a free choice in the matter. The budget, their article stated:
‘is an attempt to con us into believing that there is not enough money to fund the basic services we need, and a decent income for everyone. This is a lie. The truth is that there is plenty of money to go round; the truth is that austerity, the impoverishment of the British people and the devastating cuts to the NHS and public services are a political choice’.
This is left-wing populism as its stupidest — the money is there but the government refuses to spend it to provide ‘a decent income for everyone;’ they are robbers; kick them out. The money — or at least some of it — is there but no government is going to prioritise using taxes to improve public services, even less to provide a ‘decent’ income for everyone. That’s not its remit. Capitalism’s economic laws force governments to give priority to profit-making and conditions for profit-making. As government spending comes from taxes which ultimately fall on profits, governments cannot simply increase taxes to improve living conditions for the population. Under capitalism production is for profit, and must be, not to meet people’s needs. No government can change or even challenge that.

There is reason to be believe that Counterfire know this — some of them have written books which indicate some knowledge of how capitalism works (one by Chris Nineham is reviewed in this issue) — and so are just being populist in a bid to gather a following. This is in the Leninist tradition of contempt for the intellectual ability of the working class. They think that workers are capable only of reaching a trade-union consciousness and so there’s no point in putting before them anything that goes beyond this. Hence the populist rabble-rousing.

The politics of the headline is equally incoherent. They want the ‘Tory robbers’ out and are calling for an immediate general election to bring this about. So they want the Tories to be voted out. In other words, for workers to vote for some other party. But they don’t say which. Their call could be interpreted as saying vote for any party whose candidate has a chance of beating the Tory one; which in practice would mean voting Labour in most constituencies but voting LibDem in ‘blue wall’ seats. It certainly rules out voting for the Greens or any fringe left-wing candidate such as those of Galloway’s Workers Party (which he says hopes to contest every constituency in Britain).

But supposing this happens and the Tories are voted out. That means that there will either be a Labour government or, less likely, some sort of Lib-Lab arrangement. Nothing else changes. The means of life continue to be owned and controlled by private capitalist businesses. The economy remains driven by business investment for profit. Profit, not satisfying people’s needs, is still the aim of production.

In these circumstances the new government won’t be able to behave much differently from how the Tories have been. It too will have to abide by the economic laws of capitalism and give priority to profit-making. It is certainly not going to allocate any of ‘the plenty of money to go round’ to reverse previous cuts. The likely future prime minister has said so in so many words. He told last year’s Labour Conference that a Labour government would not be ‘a cheque-book state’ and declared in December that ‘anyone who expects an incoming Labour government to quickly turn on the spending taps is going to be disappointed’. He at least understands the limitations capitalism places on what governments can do in this respect, even if Counterfire doesn’t (or feigns not to).

So what’s the point of kicking the Tories out (objectionable as they are and happy, as many will be, to see the back of them) just to replace them with others who will have to pursue the same basic policy of prioritising profit?

The problem is not the Tories, it’s capitalism. It’s capitalism that must go.
Adam Buick

Voting: is it worth it? (2024)

From the June 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Thursday 2 May 2024 saw another round of elections for local councils and regional mayors. They were followed by a media glut of psephological analysis and speculation as to the significance of results.

Claims and counter claims as to the reasons behind outcomes vied with each other. Those who had increased their numbers of elected councillors, such as Labour, the LibDems and the Greens, claimed vindication for their opposition to the present government and called for a general election now. Unsurprisingly this call went unheeded by the Prime Minister and his colleagues, who instead highlighted the odd anomalous result as indicating an underlying trend of support in their favour.

By the following Tuesday there were only occasional references to the election in news broadcasts as Parliament reassembled following the May Day bank holiday. Then it was back to the knockabout pantomime politics in the Commons. It turns out the elections and their reporting were largely, to quote Shakespeare, ‘…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing’ (Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5).

Should there be doubt expressed over this sentiment, it is worth considering the extent to which the significance of the ballot was generally considered. A measure of this is the turnout, a factor briefly mentioned in the subsequent reporting. In one Metropolitan Borough Council area the rounded-up turnout figures ranged from 35 percent in the highest ward down to 16 percent in the lowest, with a borough average of 25 percent. Abstention was clearly the winner.

Was this feature due to apathy or antipathy, or perhaps an amalgam of them both? If apathy was the demotivating factor it maybe reflects negative attitudes cultivated by experience of previous voting making little or no practical difference. Antipathy is likely the expression of a cynicism grown from the same circumstances. One is a passive acceptance, the other can manifest as what might be described as bar-room anger, often expressed as vitriolic denunciation of politicians of all stripes and politics in general.

There are those who would denounce both attitudes for not making use of a most valuable asset, the vote. The argument runs along the lines that workers fought, and in some cases died, to secure the vote for working people in general, or women in particular.

Cannot deliver
Democracy, however flawed, is certainly always preferable to tyranny, so the vote is indeed a precious thing. However, accepting this raises a question. If the vote is valuable, why give it to someone you know will not, cannot, deliver on promises made?

Politicians are often fundamentally dishonest, but they can never be in a position to make the really radical changes that would benefit all society. Their problem is that everything people might aspire to costs.

The NHS is a case in point. It has grown from a quite basic level of medical provision at its foundation in 1948, to the hi-tech service it is today, dealing with a vast range of illnesses and conditions quite beyond its scope in the early days. The technology involved now would have seemed almost sci-fi in 1948. But those machines are expensive to develop, buy, maintain and operate. So when a government claims to be spending so many billion pounds more on the NHS than its predecessors, that is accurate.

It does not, though, come close to meeting the continually rising cost of realising actual need, or paying the staff adequately (in capitalist terms). With the result that voters have negative experiences from not being able to get GP appointments to not receiving vital treatment. The only source from which those costs can be met is the wealth owned and controlled by capitalism. Every pound raised rather than borrowed by government, national or local, ultimately comes from capitalism’s wealth, either directly as business taxes, or indirectly via income tax.

People see the problems and seek solutions, and replacing the party in power with another one promising change appears to be an option. Indeed, palliative measures may well be enacted, only for them to be frustrated by the economic demands and realities of capitalism. While voting is indisputably integral to a democratic political process, it is by no means a guarantee. Indeed, ‘democratic’ is often the word of choice in the titles of authoritarian regimes seemingly untroubled by the notion of irony.

The German Democratic Republic (GDR) of the Cold War period made use of institutions apparently modelled on those of its National Socialist predecessor. While the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) serves as a present-day example of the word erroneously used. A country claiming to be both socialist and democratic shamelessly promotes dynastic rule that so far has consisted of grandfather, father and grandson with, it seems, the great granddaughter being prepared for her turn. No doubt to unanimous popular acclaim.

The promotion of democracy is fundamental to the socialist cause, actual socialism that is, not just in name. A worldwide society in which capitalism has been replaced by the conscious action of the international working class, not some self-selected vanguard acting supposedly on its behalf. A society without rulers, dynastic, presidential or otherwise with truly democratic institutions organising the meeting of self-determined needs, rather than the production for profit.

Important but limited
Unless and until capitalism, driven to accumulate capital, has been replaced by socialism, there cannot be a fully democratic society. The present political expressions of democracy – free speech (more or less), universal suffrage (more or less), secret ballots and regular elections for local and national assemblies – are important.

Socialists can and do contest elections, being very much in favour of electors being able to engage with and show support for socialist ideas. Indeed, socialist candidates being able to garner increasing numbers of votes will be an indication that the working class is moving towards making the break with capitalism. However, this will only be realised when the working class develops democratic institutions whereby the ultimate component of democracy, presently excluded from the process, economic possession and control can be achieved.

Unfortunately, at the moment there seems to be no short-term prospect of that happening. So, while the knockabout nature of party politics remains, and the merry-go-round of office swapping continues, socialists must make whatever use they can to put their ideas. Democracy even in its limited form must not be demeaned, but challenged to become a more profound agent of change. Present limitations have been highlighted by the ease with which two Conservative MPs, Dan Poulter and Natalie Elphicke, crossed the floor to the Labour benches. Natalie Elphicke is particularly interesting as she was regarded as being on the right wing of the Tory Party, stepping easily into the centre-left opposition and welcomed by its leader. The promotion of democratic choice between left, right and centre proves to be little or no choice at all.

It is illuminating, however, that even authoritarian regimes often do hold elections, be it well-managed and controlled ones. Voting, it would appear, confers some, if spurious, legitimacy, even when the outcome is so predetermined it would make a political pollster blush.

Passive role
While what are sometimes termed liberal democracies, such as the UK, hold regular open elections with secret ballots, this does not mean democracy has been achieved. The vast majority, the electorate, are subordinated to a very passive role. They play no active part in formulating polices or selecting likely candidates to become their representatives. Rather they are consumers who choose, from a limited range of political products, those they consider best able to administer and manage the state for capitalism.

As for capitalism itself, the electorate have no role in its decision making, no vote as to its operation. It has but one imperative, the ceaseless pursuit of profit, unhindered, as far as possible, by political or social considerations.

The electoral system also serves the prevailing ideological focus on national concerns. Voters are restricted to their limited participation in politics that stop at the borders. Devolution, often mooted as a more localised politics, narrows this focus even more, as do independence movements, such as the SNP. There is no sense of galvanising an international electorate to look beyond borders towards a worldwide politics. And certainly no prospect offered of transcending capitalism by organising a truly democratic movement to socialism.

This does not deprive the vote of its value. However unlikely or distant such a transformation might presently seem, voting must ultimately play a significant, perhaps determining, role in its peaceful and democratic achievement. The vote, therefore, is valuable no matter how cheaply it is presently spent. Refusing to give it away to parties who will not, and cannot, deliver promised benefits in return, is to recognise its worth and honour those men and women who struggled and fought for it. As a resource, spoil your vote until it can be put to good use, but don’t waste it or ignore it.
Dave Alton

Material World: Nation or class? (2024)

The Material World Column from the June 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Nationalist sentiment was the form of collective consciousness that emerged as the one best adapted or suited to the needs of capitalism. The nation-state, after all, constitutes the most fundamental unit of spatial organisation from the standpoint of the accumulation of capital and the coalescence of capitalist interests into separate and competing groupings – namely national groupings whose interests the state broadly serves as the primary source of state income in the form of taxation.

Furthermore, as capitalism's collectivist expression par excellence, nationalism neatly complemented individualist ideology. Indeed, nation-states were themselves thought of as quasi-individuals, and so it became possible to think of something so abstract and amorphous as a ‘nation’ as possessing a particular character and evincing certain ‘traits’. In short, the nation came to be ‘naturalised’ and rendered timeless in nationalist mythology.

The 18th century Swiss jurist, Emerich Vattel, author of The Law of Nations (1758), defined nation-states as ‘bodies politic, societies of men united together for the purpose of promoting their mutual safety and advantage by the joint efforts of their combined strength’. In legal terms, the nation-state amounted to a ‘moral person’. As Vattel put it: ‘Such a society has her affairs and her interests; she deliberates and takes resolutions in common; thus becoming a moral person who possesses an understanding and a will peculiar to herself and is susceptible of obligations and rights’.

In short, the ‘nation’ has pre-existing moral claims on the citizens who comprise it, claims which also work to ensure the compliance of those citizens to the capitalist mode of production that gave birth to this very concept of nationhood,

It was in the 19th century that nationalism became particularly significant and influential although, of course, it had been gradually building up to this point in preceding centuries. Benedict Anderson in his seminal work, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983), describes the origins of the nation-state as lying in capitalism itself and particularly ‘print capitalism’ – a reference to the spread of literacy in the modern world that allowed people to ‘imagine’ themselves to be part of a much wider community in the guise of the ‘nation’. Greater mobility and improved transport links would also have contributed to this development.

No doubt there were many other factors besides these implicated in the rise of 19th century nationalism, but what is relevant here is the impact of nationalist ideology on popular consciousness – the point being that nationalism served as a kind of glue that bound people together in a modern capitalist society in the way that religion had in traditional society. Being a secular religion its devotees paid homage to, and worshipped at the feet of, this abstraction called the ‘nation’. Indeed, religion itself was pressed into the service of nations, the latter’s armies being blessed by the priests as they embarked on some holy war against some other nation. Confusingly, God always appeared to be on every side engaged in the bloody business of warmongering

Any functioning society, even the most ruggedly individualist of them, needs some kind of collectivist substratum to hold it together. However, while nationalism was pre-eminent in performing this particular role in a capitalist society it was far from being the only conceivable form of collectivist sentiment that might arise in this society; ‘class consciousness’ was another.

Marx wrote much about the changing circumstances of early capitalism and how the rise of the factory system, along with the concentration of large numbers of workers this brought about in the rapidly expanding urban centres, fostered a growing sense of class identity. This identity came to be forged out of the realisation of a common class interest in opposition to the interests of the owners of capital, and expressed itself in various ways – most notably in the rise of an organised trade union movement.

However, with hindsight it seems clear that Marx gravely underestimated the strength and potency of nationalist ideology and its ability to constitute itself as a kind of overarching value framework that can encompass, co-opt and subsume all other forms of collectivist expression, including ‘class consciousness’. Belief in nationalism of any kind and the existence of some supposed overriding ‘national interest’ (including, it should be noted, the Left´s endorsement of ‘national liberation’ and a programme of ‘nationalisation’) has the obvious effect of blunting the class struggle of the working class against the capitalist class and blurring the distinction between the classes and their diametrically opposed interests in this struggle.

We can see how this, in turn, is likely to have had a seriously retarding influence on the goal of establishing a post-capitalist society. Such a society must necessarily entail the complete removal of class monopoly ownership and control of the productive forces of society. Needless to say, this is something that will naturally be resisted by the class that exercises that monopoly – the tiny capitalist or ruling class. Consequently, the very objective of getting rid of capitalism inescapably has to oppose nation and nationalism and promote class and class consciousness – a post-capitalist society being, by definition, a classless society.
Robin Cox

Not so democratic (2024)

Book Review from the June 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism. By Martin Wolf. Penguin £12.99.

The basic argument here is that market capitalism and liberal democracy belong together, albeit in a difficult relationship. Both supposedly involve equality of status: the right of people to a voice in public affairs and to buy and sell what they own. Market capitalism drove economic growth, we are told, and led to pressures for ‘universal suffrage democracy’. But in recent decades increasing inequality and personal insecurity mean that democracy has become fragile and been partly replaced by ‘demagogic autocracy’, as populism becomes more influential. Yet both democracy and capitalism can be renewed, resulting in a bright future again.

There is a great deal of useful information here, and Wolf sometimes reveals the true nature of capitalism. For instance, between 1980 and 2016, ‘the real incomes of the global top thousandth rose by 235 percent’, while real incomes have been stagnant for large parts of the population. Most people are just ‘one disaster away from ruin’, with very little by way of savings. Companies ‘possess enormous economic and political power’, and there is a ‘huge imbalance of power between footloose corporations and local workers’: this last refers specifically to multinational companies moving jobs abroad, but in fact applies far more widely.

The rise of the market economy is said to have led to pressures for election-based democracy. But there is nothing about ruling-class resistance, with no reference to Peterloo, Chartism or the suffragettes, for instance. Universal suffrage arrived fairly late, first in New Zealand in 1893, in the UK in 1928 and the US only in 1965. The valid point is made that democracy is a continuum, not an either–or matter, but it implies more than just the ability to vote, and capitalism has an inherent imbalance of power between the owning class and the working class. And has market capitalism (with competition and private economic initiative) really been the predominant version of capitalism over the long term? Wars were fought to open markets in other countries to Western trade, and slavery played a crucial role, as did protectionism. There was supposedly an era of ‘mixed economy’ from the 1950s to 1970s, which changed to free markets from the 1980s (with a concomitant increase in inequality, as noted above), but in reality the state always interferes in some way, in defence of the interests of the ruling class.

Unfortunately, Wolf has no idea about alternative systems. He thinks that socialism means state control over the economy, and the idea of degrowth is dismissed with little argument, since it could only be implemented by a global dictatorship and would supposedly mean reversing centuries of human history. His solution is to use ‘piecemeal social engineering’ to achieve aims such as a rising and sustainable standard of living, equality of opportunity, and the ending of special privileges for the few. But of course the last of these would not mean an end to the wealth, power and influence of the one percent, as the power of the capitalist class is built into all varieties of capitalism, a system that can never be truly democratic.
Paul Bennett

Cooking the Books: More pro-business than thou (2024)

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

Chancellor-in-waiting Rachel Reeves’s commitment to private capitalist business knows no bounds. ‘We will be the most pro-business government ever, vows Reeves’ was the headline of an interview with her in the Times (25 April). For the record — to remember when someone asks you to vote Labour in the coming general election — her exact words were:
‘If I become chancellor, the next Labour government is going to be most pro-business the country has ever seen’.
That’s quite an ambition. To be more pro-capitalist than Gladstone’s Liberals in the 19th century, the Tory governments of the 1920s, and the Thatcher government of the 1980s!

But why is she saying this? It can’t be to catch votes since big business hasn’t a particularly good reputation amongst the general public. It can’t really be, either, to convince business that Labour is fit to govern in their interest as business has been convinced of that since the first Labour government a hundred year ago. It is more likely to assure ‘the markets’ so they don’t do to her what they did to Truss.

After all, like Truss, she has a plan to try to artificially stimulate ‘growth’. She put it this way:
‘I genuinely believe the way to improve living standards and to achieve our potential is by unlocking private business investment’.
Truss wouldn’t disagree. The difference is that Truss planned to do this by reducing direct taxes on profits while Reeves plans to do so by bribing capitalist firms with contracts and subsidies. Both hoping that the resulting growth would avoid the government having to cut spending (too much).

Reeves explained that under her plan:
‘the government would provide state support to give business the confidence to invest in expensive and risky technologies … To get people to invest to produce green hydrogen they need to know that at the end they can sell it … So the role of government in the sector might be to say, “You produce it and we will guarantee that it is purchased. We will be the backstop to that”’.
The government is going to do this by offering to put up a quarter of the cost (of in this case providing places where motor vehicles can fill up with hydrogen), by borrowing it from ‘the markets’, as long as private capitalist business invests the remaining three-quarters. There are two uncertainties here. First, private capitalist business won’t put up the money unless they expect to get the going ‘rate of return’ on their investment and, second, will the rate of interest that the speculators who lend the government money charge for their loan be less than the rate of return the government expects to get from investing in the project?

Neither is guaranteed. Nor can be. In other words, whether or not Reeves’s plan works depends entirely on decisions taken by profit-seeking private enterprises and international speculators. No wonder she is insisting the next Labour government will be so pro-business. Mind you, there is a certain perverse logic to her position. If you accept capitalism more or less as it is (as she and Labour do) you accept that the economy is driven by business investment for profit, therefore you must encourage this and kowtow to business. But she doesn’t need to be quite so obsequious.

Does socialism exist in Venezuela? (2024)

From the June 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Commentators on both the right and left of capitalist politics claim that socialism exists in Venezuela. The right gratefully accepts the Maduro regime’s claim to be socialist, pointing to its crackdown on opponents, its increasingly poor economic position and the large numbers of people fleeing to other countries to try and escape poverty and violence. These critics attribute this to the way in which ‘socialist’ countries are run and see the material hardship and lack of democracy as an inevitable consequence of this. Many on the left also see Venezuela as ‘socialist’ but regard this as a reason to rejoice, attributing its troubles not to the way it’s governed but to the fact that the capitalist world outside, in particular the United States, has used all means possible to bring it down, starving it of resources and fomenting discontent among its population.

Where does the truth lie? Well, it’s common for the political right to use ‘socialist’ as a swear word for governments that exercise direct state control over the economy, especially if those governments are intolerant of opposition or call themselves ‘socialist’ or ‘Marxist’. Obvious examples of this are China and Cuba and, in former times, the Soviet Union. As for the left, they are frequently favourable to such regimes on the grounds that their ownership of wealth is not monopolised by a very small number of individuals or companies, as in the openly capitalist West. This is the case even though a small number of powerful people – the political leaders – control the economy and often everything else, and most people remain relatively poor in a kind of ‘equality of poverty’.

From Chavez to Maduro
But what about Venezuela? In 1999 Hugo Chavez, the predecessor to the current president Nicolas Maduro, initiated a policy, which he called the Bolivarian Revolution, of controlling the key elements of the economy, in particular the country’s vast oil resources, and bringing in social reforms, all of which had the effect of making the average worker in the country better off and more content with their lot – very much like the nationalising Labour government in Britain after the Second World War and Allende in Chile before he was deposed in 1973. The measures Chavez brought in, which also included state expropriation of a number of private corporations and trade agreements with various countries such as China and Cuba, were considered by his supporters to be socialism taking over from capitalism, so-called Socialism of the XXI Century, even if what they were in the real world was private capitalism (or at least some of it) being replaced by state capitalism.

But even before Chavez died in 2013 the Venezuelan economy had begun to take a downturn, owing to a drop in the world oil price and US embargos and sanctions and to the fact that, whatever name was given to the system in Venezuela, production there still remained geared to the market, as it is in state capitalism as well as private capitalism. Things then only got worse when Maduro, who had been Chavez’s vice-president, took over, and since then the economy has contracted by around 70 percent. As the crisis escalated, the US sought to re-establish the strong influence it had had in pre-Chavez Venezuela by strengthening economic sanctions, blocking Venezuela’s oil exports, and encouraging opposition forces in the country. But Maduro’s real problem was the same one faced by all governments that attempt to keep the buying and selling system of capitalism on an even keel – the fact that the system has a mind of its own. Governments cannot control the crises that periodically and naturally accompany it. Maduro’s attempts to deal with this consisted of practices like increasing the money supply (thereby causing inflation) and cracking down, often severely, on those who opposed his way of running things. Many of those who have criticised or opposed him have been killed, tortured or abducted, with around 300 currently detained, according to Amnesty International, for supposed political crimes.

Fair elections?
All this has brought both fear and severe economic hardship to many of those who had previously supported Chavez. The acute shortages of basic goods in particular have caused Maduro’s support to plummet and as many as 7 million workers (in a population of around 30 million) to leave the country in the simple hope of finding a living – or just food and drink – elsewhere, mainly Columbia and Peru, or if they can get in, the United States. This constitutes the largest migrant crisis in the world at this moment with the number of refugees greater than from Syria or Ukraine.

Venezuelans who have remained and have dared to protest are treated harshly as a matter of routine and there are even signs that Maduro no longer has the full support of his military and has turned to mafia-type groups to shore up his position. Unsurprisingly in the circumstances, despite the country still having the political trappings of democracy, its upcoming election, scheduled to take place next month (28 July), is unlikely to be ‘free and fair’. Already the previous 2018 election was a manifestly rigged affair with two of the most popular candidates prevented from running. And things are certainly no more ‘democratic’ now. In January of this year, the leader of the opposition and a clear favourite in the polls, MarĂ­a Corina Machada, was banned from holding office for 15 years. In February, a prominent lawyer known for exposing corruption in the army, Rocio San Miguel, was arrested and charged with ‘treason, conspiracy and terrorism’ for her alleged role in a supposed plot to assassinate Maduro. The following month, Ronald Ojeda, a former lieutenant in Venezuela’s military who had protested against the Maduro government on social media was found dead in Chile ten days after he had gone missing. He had previously been seen on social media wearing a t-shirt with ‘freedom’ written on the collar and prison bars drawn on the map of Venezuela.

Not socialism
So, given the desperate measures Maduro is taking, he will probably be the ‘winner’ in next month’s election. But, given the piteous state of the country, the question will be how long he can hold on after that. As one commentator has pointed out, the sort of ‘elected dictator’ Maduro is can, even if highly unpopular, be difficult to dislodge. But whether Maduro hangs on or not, what happens in Venezuela will not be socialism or anything to do with the real meaning or content of the word. That is clearly the case, since socialism is a moneyless, stateless system of society with free access to all goods and services based on voluntary cooperation and economic equality. And it will come through an immense majority of workers in all the industrialised countries developing socialist understanding and organising to win and control political power.

In the modern world, anything other than that is a form of capitalism, whether presided over by an all-powerful state or with the market having free rein. In the case of Venezuela, if Maduro continues to prevail there, it will continue to have the repressive state capitalist regime of the kind that often poses as socialism but does so fraudulently and has as its hallmark the poverty and inequality that make it easy for the political right to say that socialism is an abject failure and for left-wing supporters of Venezuela to blame the US for stifling a valiant socialist experiment.

If Maduro finally goes, what we will have, though it could be something less repressive, is by no means certain to be a lot better in terms of improving the lot of the majority of the Venezuelan people. The country may become what other neighbouring states already are, so-called ‘mixed’ economies with part-state ownership and control and part-private ownership. But, as elsewhere in Latin America and the rest of the world at present, it will be a population divided into two classes, a small minority who own and control the vast majority of the wealth and do not need to work for their comfortable and often luxurious existence, and a vast majority who have to work for a wage or salary to survive, have limited freedom of choice and lack of control over their lives, continuing to be at the mercy of the regular crises and ups and downs of the system – war, recession and constant reorganisation. This is an inevitable consequence of capitalism’s never-ending quest to produce more and to produce more cheaply and more profitably. Whether this takes place in Venezuela, or any other part of the world, it has nothing to do with socialism. None of it will change either until Venezuelans and working people everywhere have ceased to put their faith in governments and charismatic politicians, whatever claims and promises they make.
Howard Moss

Playing by the rules of war (2024)

From the June 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Millions of people are horrified by the Israeli war on Gaza. Protests have hit the streets in countries around the world, to the point where armed police battled students on university campuses across the US for occupying in protest against the war and America’s role in backing it.

Many protestors shout that the war is ‘illegal’ and that Israel is committing genocide, pinning hopes on international authority putting an end to malefaction. It should be noted that genocide is a crime of intent, and is not synonymous with mass homicide. That narrow legal definition, though, does trigger international and domestic legal requirements to act against it: hence why America and allied governments are determined to deny that it is genocide, and will continue to do so until the International Court of Justice makes a determinative ruling, which could be years away.

People should not put their faith in the split hairs of legality, but instead on sound analysis of the causes of conflict and action built on that analysis. The faith in the power of legality is misplaced against the tremendous value of the interests at stake in being able to secure and control the supply of oil. It is worth noting, as Tony Blair pointed out in his speech at the George Bush library in 2002, that it is not about monopolising oil, but ensuring that no one state can monopolise and thus threaten the supply of oil:
‘The western world is import dependent. We base our policy on diversity of supply. You in the US import from 50 different countries, no one of which supplies more than 15 per cent of total imports. The EU pursues roughly the same policy.’
Beyond that, it is important to note that international law is not set up to prevent war, but in fact to structure and enable wars to take place. It seeks to limit war and codify its conduct, but the powers that drafted those wars would simply not allow themselves to put aside the tool of war. As Michael Walzer, the theorist of just war writes, alongside Jo-Ann Mort: ‘It is a maxim of just war theory that the rules of war cannot make it impossible to fight a just war. There has to be a way to fight’. Walzer has also said in a recent interview ‘I think the IDF has been trying to adhere to the rules in an environment that probably requires some loosening of the rules.’

As we reported in our May issue part of this ‘loosening’ has been to deploy the Lavender AI targeting system to co-ordinate targeting of Hamas operatives and officials based on mass intelligence gathering. The military doctrine that civilian casualties are permissible in pursuit of a legitimate military objective has been broadly applied (more broadly than in the past). Israel undoubtedly has enough military lawyers to build a broad permissive case for its actions (or to construct one retrospectively where necessary).

It is abundantly clear that Israel is not acting out of absolute necessity: Hamas will never have the capacity to destroy Israel. If the intelligence failures that meant that Israel knew that Hamas was drilling for a 7 October-style operation were fixed Hamas could be securely locked back up. For a fraction of the cost spent on the war, Israel could have bought a bucket load of informants to finger high-level Hamas commanders for reprisal.

Everyone agrees with the concept of the right to self-defence to protect your own and your loved ones’ lives, but most would agree that going after the friends and family of someone who attacked you would be taking it too far; and every human society has mechanisms to stop violent disputes escalating in a spiral of tit for tat. And, of course, it is possible to engineer a situation where a claim of self-defence allows an actor to pursue the use of violence to achieve other ends.

‘It has been said that when two armies face each other across a battle front and engage in mutual slaughter, they may be considered as a single army engaged in suicide. Now it seems to me that when countries, each one severally doing its best to arrest its private economic ruin, do their utmost to accelerate the economic ruin of each other, we are witnessing something very like the suicide of civilization itself.’
Israel is not unique in this. Indeed, their propagandists have been pointing out that there are mass refugee and humanitarian crises being created by savage wars in Sudan, Congo and Ukraine, but that Israel and its actions are being singled out. Possibly this is so, at least in part because of the focus of the western media (spurred on in part by the interest of their states and their capitalists in the Middle East region).

Indeed, in terms of Israel’s tactics, they seem to be following exactly the same military doctrines as were used by the Sri Lankan government when they crushed the Tamil Tigers in 2009:
‘The Sri Lanka Army (SLA) advanced its military campaign in the Vanni, using large-scale and widespread shelling, at times with heavy weapons, such as Multi-Barrel Rocket Launchers (MBRLs) and other large artillery, causing large numbers of civilian casualties. It shelled in three consecutive No Fire Zones, where it had encouraged the civilian population to concentrate, and after it had indicated that it would stop using heavy weapons.’
Likewise, the Tamil Tigers violated human rights by using human shields and forced labour. Sri Lanka was protected from human rights allegations at the UN by allied states.

War is not some inherent feature of humanity. Billions of us live lives without waging war upon one another. War emerges from a social and technological architecture that enables it, and if the marchers who rightly hate war want to put a stop to it, they need to look to action that will make war impossible, not illegal.
Pik Smeet

Fascism as ideology (2024)

From the June 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Most of us, sooner or later, want the chaos, suffering and euphoria of existence to have some meaning. Many find meaning in relationships, family and, if they are very lucky, in their work. Others look to political/religious ideologies for answers. There is no shortage of choice in the modern world. Unlike former generations we are not only conditioned by our local experiences but we can turn to a cornucopia of ideologies courtesy of the media and internet.

It would seem that we have an almost infinite variety to choose from but, as with all forms of consumerism, this can prove to be an illusion. With the decline of religious ideologies in the technologically advanced West we see the dominance of a single political perspective that places all ideologies within a spectrum of left and right forms of capitalism. Because of historical developments we see that bourgeois representative democracies place themselves in the ‘centre’ of this spectrum. They look out upon the spread from this ‘core’ as deviations and the further away from this imagined centre the more the convenient and, in this context, descriptive word of ‘extremist’ is used. Even the Greens and environmentalist groups, after some resistance, have been placed on the left of this spectrum since they have no answers other than the tired impotent call for the reform of capitalism. Only socialists stand outside of this rigid ideologically prescriptive domination and refuse to acknowledge its political relevance.

We won’t go into the historical reasons why this universal ideology of left and right evolved but its continued dominance is plainly due to those who own the means of production, in this context primarily the media, who cannot or will not conceive of an alternative to capitalism; as Marx has said the dominant ideology is always that of the dominant class.

In the last century two ideologies came to dominate the political landscape of Europe – ‘Fascism’ and Soviet-style ‘Communism’. They were both conceived of as alternatives to ‘normal’ or ‘bourgeois’ capitalism. Any meaningful analysis of either of these types of regime reveals that they had a lot more in common with each other and with the conventional capitalism within which they evolved than they would care to admit. Both were militaristic, authoritarian, xenophobic and, most importantly, both condemned the majority to the same meaningless wage slavery and the relentless creation of surplus value to finance the lifestyles of their elites. We have explained the reasons for the failed experiment by the Bolsheviks to turn Marxian analysis into an ideology on these pages many times and it may be appropriate to label their state capitalism, among many other criticisms, as anachronistic – especially in a European context. Can we say the same of fascism?

In some respects, ideologies are impervious to the accusation of being anachronistic; all religions tend to have their roots in the distant past but this does not affect their popularity and cultural durability. We might point optimistically to the demise of religion in the western cultures but millions across the globe still adhere to values and laws prescribed by imaginary deities and their priests. Given the undoubted crimes committed by those calling themselves fascist their ideology has been elevated to the highest ranks of historical infamy. That it is merely a form of capitalism that developed in a specific cultural context does not affect its continual attraction for the dispossessed, fearful, uneducated and those desperate to believe that they and their cultural identity are superior to that of all others. The weak are always tempted to identify with the strong so that their own frailty and fear is diluted.

Is it possible to conceive of the world without the use of an ideological lens? Socialists believe that we can at least negate some of the conditioning that we are all subjected to through a study of history. It would seem that all ideologies are generated by and serve certain groups (classes) and that the actual content of them is of little importance compared with the political control that they enable.

It would be impossible to seriously maintain that the conflicts in England during the revolution of the 1640s had anything remotely to do with the preachings of an obscure rabbi 1600 years earlier in Judea. What promoted Puritanism were the political needs of the rising class of capitalists. This historical ‘class struggle’, so socialists believe, underlies all ideological belief.

We embrace this struggle for what it is and have no interest in lecturing people about the moral strengths and weaknesses of comparing left and right or the possibility of repairing capitalism through the application of one ideology or another. The inhuman outrages committed in the name of Zionism and Palestinian nationalism are the results of ideological detritus used by the oligarchs of Israel and Palestine to justify their greed, fear and hatred. This visceral hatred of the working class for their counterparts in another culture is the lifeblood of ‘fascism’. One of the excuses used for the Russian oligarchs’ invasion of Ukraine was that it was a hotbed of Nazi fascists – forgetting the vicious brand of rabid nationalism in their own homeland.

Fascism and its left-wing counterpart will always find fertile ground to grow within the corrupt and rotting capitalist culture. No amount of wishful thinking that we have ‘moved on’ and that such ideologies are anachronistic will put these genies back in their respective bottles. They cannot be countered by mere moral or rational argument but only by class consciousness that understands their historical origins and the political elites that they served.

There are some who believe that this too constitutes just another ideological perspective but even if this were true then at least it serves the needs of a class composed of the vast majority of the human species. Socialism can never be imposed by any elite and so the resolution of the class struggle can only be achieved through the understanding by the majority of what they have to do to counter the need for ideologies and the political ignorance and historical anachronisms that they all represent.

Breaking Apart (2024)

Book Review from the June 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Shattered Nation: Inequality and the Geography of a Failing State. By Danny Dorling. Verso £14.99.

It was recently reported (BBC online 21 March) that the UK now has twelve million people living in absolute poverty, after the biggest rise in thirty years. And in December the Centre for Social Justice ( published Two Nations, a report which concluded that for those who are not getting by, ‘their lives are marked by generations of family breakdown, their communities are torn apart by addictions and crime, they live in poor quality, expensive, and insecure housing, and they are sick.’ Here Danny Dorling, who has written on similar issues in the past, surveys many of the ways in which the lives of British workers are indeed being shattered.

One theme is that in most of the world, human lives are improving, but not so much in the UK. For instance, infant mortality is falling faster elsewhere than in the UK, and economic inequality is falling. The UK is probably the most unequal country in Europe in terms of income inequality. In the late 1960s and early 70s, Britain was more equal than it is now, and where you grew up was less important than it is today.

The second part of the book echoes the Five Giants identified in the 1942 Beveridge Report. They are presented as hunger, precarity (insecurity related to housing as well as employment), waste (with far more people now working in finance and accounting), exploitation (such as high university fees), and fear (physical and mental health having declined since the 70s). Research in 2022 showed that one UK household in six was in serious financial difficulty. Austerity has led to a slowdown in growth in life expectancy in Britain, and people in the poorest fifth of households saw their earnings fall between February and May 2020. Death rates from Covid were higher in the poorest areas, and long Covid is most commonly found there too. Many facts and statistics such as these make much of the book an informative but rather depressing read. There is one refreshing observation, though: ‘We should measure the value of a job by the amount of happiness it brings to others, not by the profit that can be made by the person employing the worker.’

And what is the author’s proposed solution? This is not a book where the last chapter offers a raft of reformist measures intended to do away with the problems discussed earlier. Rather, the proposals are spread throughout its pages, including minimising VAT, raising wages faster than food price increases, making school lunches universally available, making tenancy agreements more secure, and restricting second-home ownership. It is ironic that the Labour Party is criticised for proposing ‘only more tinkering’, when the ideas set out here are little more than that.

What we said in the April 2015 Socialist Standard is just as valid as it was then: Danny Dorling should be a socialist and not simply fight for reforms.
Paul Bennett