Monday, June 30, 2008

Sinned against not sinners

“PAY RISES DON’T CAUSE INFLATION – AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH FOR DARLING” was the headline in the Daily Telegraph last week of an article by the unspeakable Simon Heffer. He was criticising the increasingly strident calls by the Chancellor of the Exchequer for pay restraint so as not to fuel inflation. Heffer’s argument was that as rising prices have been caused by the government allowing too much money to get into circulation they can’t be stopped by holding back wages.

We have to admit that he is basically right. Insofar as rising prices in Britain are not due to other factors such as rising world oil and food prices (since rising prices and inflation are not the same), if the government overissues the currency, i.e. puts more into circulation than enough to make payments, pay taxes, settle debts, etc, then all prices will tend to rise. As wages are a price – the price of a person’s ability to work, or what Marx called their labour power – they too will rise. So to blame inflation on wage increases is wrong.

So, sometimes a nasty person can be right. Heffer reminds us that another obnoxious character, Enoch Powell, was saying this about inflation in the 1960s. He quotes something Powell said about the wage restraint policy of the Wilson Labour government. Powell was even clearer in a speech he made on 20 November 1970 about the similar policy of the Heath Tory government:

“Wage claims, wage awards, strikes, do not cause rising prices, inflation, for one simple but sufficient reason – they cannot. There never was a strike yet which caused inflation, and there never will be. The most powerful unions, or groups of unions, which was ever invented is powerless to cause prices generally to rise ... in the matter of inflation, the unions and their members are sinned against, not sinning. In the matter of inflation, the unions and their members are as innocent as lambs, pure white as the driven snow”.

We couldn’t agree more and said so at the time. There is, however, a point of difference. Heffer (and Powell himself sometimes) suggests that it is government spending as such that causes inflation (Heffer is a mad marketeer who wants to reduce government spending and interference so as to let the market rip). But this is not necessarily the case. If it is financed by overissuing the currency, government spending will have this effect, but inflation is not due to the particular way the excess money is spent (in this case by the government to finance its spending) but to the fact that it has been issued in excess.

Darling may be cleverer than Heffer gives him credit for. The job of all governments is to preside over the operation of the profit system and to try to ensure that profits are protected and maximised. So they are always against pay increases, irrespective of whether or not prices are increasing. Darling may just be using the current spurt in prices as a pretext to reiterate what is a permanent policy of all governments.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Southern discomfort

On this day in 1963 three civil rights activists - James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Swermer - disappeared after investigating the burning of an African American church by the Ku Klux Klan. Twenty five years later a film titled Mississippi Burning based partly on these events was released. A review of the film along with some extra information and opinion appeared in the Socialist Standard of August 1989.

"...The three were arrested on a trumped up speeding charge when in fact their 'offence' was to encourage the blacks to take what was in constitutional theory their right - to register to vote. They were held by the police until the local Ku Klux Klan could organise a lynching party and then they were released for the klan to murder them and bury their bodies in the earthworks of a dam. The FBI came down to investigate (the suspected crime was not murder, which had to be left to the State police, but violation of federal rights), found the bodies and brought a number of people to court among them the town's sheriff and his deputy. The sheriff was acquitted, the others went to prison.

Mississippi Burning - Hollywood's version of that gruesome incident - has been criticised for the way it it embroiders and distorts the facts, introducing elements of heroism into a story that was sordidly drab. For example, in the film the case is cracked - the FBI break open the cocoon of silence woven around the murderers by local people - through some subtle ingratiation by Gene Hackman and some not-so-subtle intimidation by his henchmen, which makes for a watchable film but does not fit the reality that it happened through the unheroic process of bribing witnesses. A lot of the film is concerned with the struggle between Hackman, a rough, tough ex-sheriff turned FBI agent, and his boss played by Willem Dafoe who is a serious, sharp-suited college boy. Dafoe tries to insist that the investigation sticks to 'Bureau procedure' while Hackman itches to behave more like Popeye Doyle in The French Connection. There are no prizes for guessing who comes out on top and whose methods are eventually used. If it didn't turn out that way it would not have been half as gripping a film and there wouldn't have been so many opportunities for the audience to relieve its tension in vengeful laughter, which swamped out any doubts about means and ends.

Case Against Racism

Among the film's bits of fable - like Hackman silencing and humiliating the town's most rampant racist thug by grabbing and squeezing his balls (at which more of that laughter) - it makes out its case against racism. Dafoe reminds us that racism is not a local problem but a social curse, rooted in widespread ignorance. Hackman remembers his father, a poor white farmer who enviously poisoned the mule of a more successful black neighbour. Revealing himself in this way helps him win the confidence of the deputy sheriff's wife, so she feels able to burst out with the frustration of trying to be humane when she was surrounded by a bigoted hatred which she had grown up with, and had married.

Compared to the millions wiped out by capitalism every year, compared to what the Nazi and Stalinist dictatorships did, compared to what was being unleashed in Vietnam at the time, three deaths seem of little numerical account. The horror stems from the fact that they were part of a long history of repression which had conditioned the people of the South into accepting that anyone with a black skin was fair game for anything white people chose to do them. It stems from the tension in the communal condonement of the murders and in the savage intimidation of any possible witnesses. It is a response to the ruthlessly destructive passion in defence of a diseased and doomed limb of prejudice.

Right to Vote Not Enough

And the despair is born of what has happened since then. In the 1960s segregation was crumbling under pressure from the economic, commercial and military needs of American capitalism. It still needed massive courage by the Civil Rights workers (the three in Mississippi knew exactly how terrible were the risks they ran) until now the American blacks are pretty well established as a voting force, which has had its effect on the face of politics there. All over the country, including the South, blacks are elected to public office. But it is not enough, just to win the vote; it must be used with an awareness of why society operates as it does and a will to change it. The case of the American Negro offers plenty of evidence in support of that argument.

Mississippi Burning is a powerful indictment of racist bigotry but it leaves us with the question: if there was indeed some kind of triumph of human qualities in Mississippi in those awful days, is it really represented now by the likes of Jesse Jackson?"


Peace sells but who's buying?

They are Islamic Fundamentalists, not big on democracy, have WMDs and are getting more. Another war on the cards then? No - it's called buisness and the people in question are Britain's staunch allies: the House of Saud.

A controversial deal with Saudi Arabia catapulted Britain to the top of the world arms export league last year, as UK firms won a record £10bn in orders from overseas, official figures show.

The figure amounts to a third of all worldwide export orders for military equipment, ministers and arms companies reported. An essentially political, government-to-government contract - the sale of 72 Eurofighter/Typhoon aircraft, for £4.4bn, to the Saudis - accounted for Britain's number one position, the figures make clear.

The Ministry of Defence says the terms of the contract - called Salam, Arabic for peace - and the total expenditure involved are confidential. But officials make it clear that when upkeep, spares and training were included, the deal could amount to £20bn spread over many years. The figures last year were also boosted by orders placed by Oman and Trinidad and Tobago for patrol boats.

The companies involved - chiefly BAE Systems and the VT Group - were praised by the trade minister, Digby Jones.

"As demonstrated by this outstanding export performance, the UK has a first-class defence industry, with some of the world's most technologically sophisticated companies," he said.


A trade minister praising sophisticated killing machines and a contract called "Peace"...? Orwell, anyone?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The return of bleak times

Last night both the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Governor of the Bank of England announced, as they tucked into a slap-up meal at the Mansion House in the City of London, that austerity was returning.

First off was Mervyn King. He “warned that real take-home pay would stagnate, making life difficult for some families”. He said:

"It will not be an easy time, and I know that some families will find it particularly difficult.”

Alistair Darling made it quite clear that the government was going to help ensure this as he “again called for pay restraint in both the private and public sector”.

It’s the same old story. Profits are being squeezed by rises in the price of oil and raw materials and the government is trying to protect them by squeezing wages. This, at a time when wages are themselves being squeezed by rising food prices and gas and electricity bills.

This was not what Gordon Brown promised when he was Chancellor. “My Budget choice is to lock in stability and never put it at risk“, he said when introducing the 2005 budget, “at all times putting Britain’s hard working families first.”

In that same speech he proudly proclaimed that his policies had conquered the stop-go, boom-slump cycle. “Britain”, he said, “is today experiencing the longest period of sustained economic growth since records began in the year seventeen hundred and one.” He wasn’t worried then about rising oil prices. The British economy could take it:

“In any other period an oil price rise of over 100 per cent and rises in industrial materials and metals of around 50 per cent would have led to a surge of British inflation. But inflation - which went as high as 20 per cent in the 1980s and 10 per cent in the early 90s - has, every year in the last eight years, been 3 per cent or less - the least volatile and most stable of all the major industrialised economies.”

Even in his last budget speech as Chancellor in 2007 he was still proclaiming “that after 10 years of sustained growth, Britain's growth will continue into its 59th quarter – the forecast end of the cycle – and then into its 60th and 61st quarter and beyond”.

He got out just in time. He had been lucky: the mini-boom in the British economy had happened to coincide with his period as Chancellor.

As Socialists who know how capitalism works – how it can’t be controlled by governments and how it can never been made to work in the interest of wage and salary workers – we knew that sooner or later Gordon Brown would have to eat his words. And now he has to.

Now the crunch has come it is not “Britain’s hard working families” that are being put first, but profits. As it has to be, and always will be, under capitalism.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Che and the lie that will not die

Ernesto Guevara de la Serna, better known simply as 'Che', was born eighty years ago today. What also should be indisputable after reading the following articles is that his politics had nothing to do with Socialism or Communism:

Che's nuclear winter or a Socialist summer?

Was Che a Socialist?

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Rockefellers

The current patriarch and grandchild of Robber Baron J.D. Rockefeller is 93 years old today. David with a $2.7 billion fortune to his name can celebrate with style. With such a mind bogglingly huge stash of loot it is little wonder that he follows family tradition and calls himself a philanthropist ($900 million and counting to 'good' causes). Such activity has not passed without socialist comment. For example, The Socialist Standard of July 1960 on the death of David's father after 86 years of parasitical privilege. had the following to say:

On the 11th of May there died in Tuscson, Arizona, John D. Rockefeller, Jnr., son of that notable father, John D. Snr., a man well-known in the early capitalist era as one of the Robber Barons, with a finger in many pies - coal, iron ore, but chiefly remembered for his control of Standard Oil (New Jersey). In fact, according to Victor Perle in his book American Imperialism, in 1949 Standard Oil handled one-fifth of the oil produced in the western hemisphere, and its marketing areas covered countries in which some 72 per cent of the world's population resided. The control of oil throughout the western world is in the hands of seven oil trusts, of which the Rockefellers control three.

But the Rockefellers, according to the obituaries of "Junior," were noted for their "beneficence." It is reputed that between them they gave away some £350 million, and were still able to leave, as reports have shown, £200 millions (senior) and £150 millions (junior). These are staggering sums of money. And "Junior's" will make no mention of any settlement for his six children and their various offspring, so it must be presumed that they have been well provided for. Some readers may say, but at least they gave some away, for the Daily Telegraph, May 12, reports that "He devoted himself to furthering the schemes for human betterment initiated by his father after establishing his fortune." What from our point of view is important, however, is to whom it was given and why. Part of the answer to the first point is contained in the Telegraph of the 12th. "Educational Organisations benefited the most." It seems highly probable that Marxian economics and the Labour Theory of Value plays no part in these "Educational Organisations," for remember, education as taught today is primarily to fit workers into the productive and administrative organisation of capitalism and not to teach them Socialism.

Next comes "Religion," another barrier to working class emancipation. The "Public Parks, Roads, and the restoration and historic structures and antiquities." No doubt the workers of the slum dwellings of all the major cities in the USA will appreciate that they can walk in the parks and pray in a well-restored church. Lastly, "Great sums to youth." How this was distributed was not mentioned, but it is unlikely that these funds were used to propagate Socialist ideas. They were obviously spent to eulogise and bolster the capitalist system.

So, as commendable as some people may think was his "beneficence," it is interesting to note that the people from whom this wealth was expropriated, his own workers, received little or nothing of what was rightfully theirs. Why he gave away these vast sums of money is a matter of some conjecture. One reason surely was to avoid taxation, but possibly also to buy immortality.

Socialists hope that in the not too distant future, people will see these so-called philanthropists in their true light - of leeches who grow fat on the mental and physical energies of the working class. Although "Junior" is dead, the Rockefeller Empire will continue, for neither father, son nor children ever took part in the production of things for use. At least it will continue to flourish until workers decide to own and distribute the fruits of their labour themselves."


Monday, June 09, 2008

Gene patents and food production

The ETC Group calls this "an opportunistic public relations strategy", adding: "Monsanto's business is selling patented seeds for industrial agriculture – not addressing a humanitarian food crisis."

The report of its investigation shows that Monsanto and BASF – which last year announced a $1.5bn "collaboration" to develop new GM crops, including "ones more tolerant to adverse environmental conditions such as drought" – have between them filed patents for 27 of the 55 genes. Others had been filed by companies such as Bayer, Syngenta and Dow.

The reports says some of the applications are sweeping. One would cover more than 30 crops from oats to oil palms, triticale to tea, and potatoes to perennial grass – "in other words, virtually all food crops".

It says the "corporate grab on climate-tolerant genes" means that "a handful of transnational companies are now positioned to determine who gets access to key genetic traits and what price they must pay".

the Independent

The whole patenting of life is utterly obscene. Understanding genetic make ups of eg plants and utilising that knowledge to benefit all is the socialist position. Gene patenting for profits is yet another grubby feature of the commodity based capitalist system.

Is Big Brother necessary?

Last month's Socialist Standard has an essay titled 'Britain: An "Endemic Surveillance Society". Very Orwellian, possibly more so than the author of 1984 or Socialists back then might have imagined. One of many online articles this week concerning the multi-billion pound ID card scheme stated that it "may be used to carry out surveillance on people and that a new children's database may be used to identify likely future criminals." What is beyond doubt however is that a related article from the January 1984 Socialist Standard asks a poignant and provocative question: Was Big Brother Necessary?

"...Such conformity must have been achieved only through an enormous, comprehensive and costly state operation. Somewhere at the apex there must have been also an elite within an elite, a ruling class in whose interests the rest of the population were held in such terror. But there is one question which Orwell did not ask. Why did it all happen? Was there a need for a vast machinery of repression? What would the people have thought anyway, without the telescreens and the Thought Police and the rest?

The answer may be found when we consider how much of 1984 is reality today. Many politicans have represented themselves as, if not actually Big Brother, something very alike to him. During the last war Churchill's face looked out at us from huge posters, his features set in grim protectiveness. Harold Wilson once said that he would like to think of himself as the nation's family doctor. Margaret Thatcher poses as our Big Sister, firm and organising and forcing us to be taken care of by her.

Capitalism communicates through its own Newspeak in which important words take on a meaning almost the opposite of what they should be. Words like "freedom" in the mouth of Reagan; "disarmament" as spoken by Andropov; "economic upturn" as described by Thatcher; "socialism" as alluded to by Mitterrand. English workers have come easily to accept that their "enemies" in the last war are now their "allies" - defenders of "democracy" now. As they attest at elections, millions of workers freely put their living in the hands of a few political leaders on the grounds that these leaders, like Big Brother, know best. The rulers of Oceania could hardly have asked for more.

This conformity, this acquiescence in their own degradation, is given by the workers in conditions of comparative political freedom. In Britain, and many other advanced capitalist countries, workers can openly discuss ideas, form trade unions, political parties, protest campaigns. A socialist party, challenging the very basis of capitalism, can exist without any significant threat. Yet the working class use this freedom, which could be applied to establish socialism, to give their allegiance to capitalism and all its deceit and cynicism. There is no need for a Big Brother to force them; the workers do it all for themselves.

This does not happen through any tendency to cussed self-damage. All social systems erect a moral, legal and intellectual superstructure suited to the interests of the ruling class, like a shrub¨whose foliage and blossom is fashioned by the soil in which it stands. But at the same time a social system develops a conflict between its social relationships which can be resolved only through changing those relationships. Day by day, the experience of capitalism works to convince the world's workers that problems such as war and poverty will be eliminated only through a radical fundamental change in society - by revolution.

When that idea is sufficiently widespread the working class will need a political apparatus to implement their will for a revolution. That apparatus will be the socialist movement which, when socialism is established and its historic function has been fulfilled, will go out of existence. Until that happens, socialists everywhere work to speed the change in ideas, to increase the pressures of persuasion on the workers that a classless, moneyless, propertyless, peaceful society is the only way to eradicate all that is feared and hated and despised in modern - that is capitalist - society.

Socialists are not Big Brothers and do not wish to be, for there is no use in trying to lead or cajole or terrorise the world's people to socialism. We struggle to raise political awareness, to alert the workers to the need to replace capitalism with socialism and to the fact that socialism must come about through our own conscious action. In the socialist revolution, and the society which will follow, the world's workers will be sisters and brothers together together in a co-operative, abundant, peaceful and free human family."

Sunday, June 08, 2008

the ragged trousered philanthropists

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, part 1 of 3

By Robert Tressell, adapted by Andrew Lynch

A celebrated socialist masterpiece which follows a group of builders renovating a house in the early 1900s who are exploited and exist just above the poverty line.

The band of workmen includes socialist visionary Frank Owen. There’s a shock in store as their ruthless boss ‘Old Misery’ singles out one of the group, and Ruth and Easton resort to desperate measures to pay the rent.

We'll bring a review of this adaptation after the last part, naturally enough.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Robert Kennedy

Forty years ago this week Senator Robert Kennedy was fatally shot. This event was subject of a short article in the July 1968 Socialist Standard.

One of the more remarkable things about the assassination of Robert Kennedy was the emotional identification with the dead man on this side of the Atlantic.

This was more than a matter of sorrow at the Kennedy's tragic history; it was more than awe at the family's glamour. Robert Kennedy was mourned as one who stood for the poor and underprivileged, for racial integration and a more humane society. He was venerated as a rich man who cared deeply for the common people.

Was this true or not?

Kennedy was first and foremost a politician - one who drove ruthlessly for the top. It is no new thing, for a man on the march to power to speak up for the underdog; the British Labour government, to give one example, is full of such people.

This is the true perspective on the famous Kennedy crusade. The simple fact is that they have always played for votes; when Martin Luther King was arrested at a critical moment in the the 1960 election, the late President Kennedy did not judge the matter on grounds of Negro interests but on how many coloured votes he could swing by taking King's side, and whether they would be enough to make it worth while.

Similarly, Robert Kennedy provoked much hatred - perhaps also that of his alleged assassin - by championing Israeli interests in the Middle East. This was a direct bid for the Jewish vote, both in the Californian primary election and in the vital state of New York which Kennedy represented in the Senate.

The dead man's record in office is no more sympathetic. In September 1961 he warned that America was prepared to use nuclear weapons. When the Berlin wall went up he favoured a military confrontation with the Russians. As he himself admitted, he was once a hawk over Vietnam.

On these, and many other, issues Robert Kennedy was not on the side of the common man; he was standing strongly for the for the interests of American capitalism, even if the lives of millions were at stake.

The assassination was a horrible and frightening affair but so is the capitalist system Kennedy stood for. His was just a single life; capitalism has killed millions.

Sunday, June 01, 2008


The recent cyclone in Burma is estimated to have killed 130,000 people in a few hours but this being capitalism the long term effect of this natural disaster has become a social disaster for thousands of the survivors. Take the case of Daw Aye as reported in The Times (31 May).

"There was the disaster of her fisherman son, drowned at sea in a storm that was never noticed outside of Burma. There was the disaster of widowhood: her husband died six years ago of an illness to which Daw Aye cannot even put a name. Cyclone Nargis at least spared the rest of her family, although it destroyed her newly built wooden house along with 300 of the 500 dwellings in the village of Thaungche, on the Rangoon River. Having survived bereavement, flood and homelessness, Daw Aye is now facing a potent and more insidious enemy: crippling debt. She has six surviving children, and in the months since the cyclone she has had only two handouts from the Burmese authorities, a total of no more than a few pounds of rice."

Her oldest surviving son works as a farmhand for about £10 a month and her adult daughter earns even less mending fishing nets, so in order to feed her family and build an open-fronted shelter of bamboo and palm leaves in which they now live, she was forced to go to a moneylender. She borrowed about £150 but the village money lending terms are 10 per cent or £15 a month, more than her family can earn. She is faced with the choice of hunger or lifelong debt.

Daw Aye's plight is not unique. The latest figures available put the dead and missing at 134,000 and it is estimated that about 750,000 will need long term food aid. This is understandable when it seems that about 280,000 cattle and water buffalo were killed and one million acres of arable land were flooded in southwest Burma. Fish is hardly likely to be counted as a life saver when it is reckoned that 2,649 fishing boats were lost in the storm along with 18,000 fishermen.

Brother Thu Sita, a monk from Thaungche monastery, said: "It was hard enough to rebuild their houses. Then the problem is finding enough food to eat. People borrow money, they get into debt to feed themselves. And there is so little from outside. All that we can do as monks is to share a little of our food and help them psychologically. But as far as their future goes, they are on their own."

Socialists advocate a completely new society based on production for use not profit, but of course natural disasters like cyclones and earthquake will still occur. The major differences will be that no one will live the hand to mouth existence of Daw Ayre and her fellow villagers. Everyone will work to the best of their ability and take according to their needs. In addition when natural disasters do occur everyone will rush to aid the victims, unlike today where greedy moneylenders exploit their plight and all well-meaning monks can do is offer psychological assistance.