Wednesday, July 30, 2008
Free Trade or Protection: A non-issue
Some will be happy with this outcome. Not just US cotton producers and fledgling Indian and Chinese capitalists, but the “anti-globalization” movement too who are against “free trade” and, if you examine their “alternative”, for protectionism.
Free trade or protection? That was the irrelevant issue that the working class were invited to take sides over when the Socialist Party was formed over a hundred years ago. As Socialists, we advised the workers not to take sides and to ignore the issue. Neither free trade nor protection would improve their position or solve their problems since these were not caused by trading arrangements but by the capitalist nature of society and production. Workers were just as badly off in free trade countries (such as Britain) as they were in protectionist countries (such as the US and France) and vice versa.
This is still our advice today. Let the capitalist classes of the world and their representatives argue over their trading arrangements. They don’t concern us.
The failure to agree, though not inevitable, was predictable in that the negotiations were always going to involve the representatives of national capitals jockeying for position and advantages for their capitalists. It’s going to be the same with future negotiations over global warming. So the prospects for any meaningful action being agreed here are not that bright either. As the EU trade commissioner, Peter Mandelson, put it when the latest trade talks opened:
“If, after seven years, you cannot complete a trade round, what does that say for your prospects of reaching a deal on climate change?” (Times, 21 July).
What indeed !
Sunday, July 27, 2008
The Pope and the Pill
"The unsurprising Papal edict on birth control brought the deepest anguish only to working class Catholics. The rich ones - like the Kennedys - can raise large families without any economic problems.
One thing the Encyclical has not done is to end the long dispute about Catholicism and contraceptives. Thus we have recently been entertained with some arguments whose sophistry makes the old one about the number of angels dancing on the needle point look positively clumsy.
For example: did not God give man the ability to make artificial contraceptives in the same way as he gave him the rhythm method which the Pope approves?
For example: if it is sinful to destroy life in human spermatozoa is it not also sinful to destroy it with pesticides, or with anti-biotics, or with the weapons of war?
Through all of this the Catholics did not pursue an undeviating course. The Encyclical kept open an escape route by implying an approval of contraception by means of an artificially induced menstrual regularity - which might be taken to include the Pill. And there was Cardinal Heenan's double act of approving the Pope's decision while saying that Catholics who practised birth control could also accept the sacrament.
These sophistries are typical of those needed to bolster religious dogma, especially when it is under pressure from the material facts of life.
Intellectual dishonesty and hair-splitting is an unsettling business, much as the Church must be accustomed to it. For the rest of us, the simple way out of the difficulty is to recognise the overwhelming evidence against religion and to look at life in terms not of human bigotry but of human interest."
Friday, July 25, 2008
The recording is here
The lecture is available on DVD from the party.
We put the party case over the open mic.
There were countless inquiries on the party case. I had a very warm reception for my poem - which later on provided an opportunity for discussions with many individuals.
In the evening there was a social at Comrade Clanchy's were we had several inquiries on the party case and an opportunity to discuss future Branch activity.
In my books a very succesfull weekend of activity.
Report on the Socialist Party Summer School
Report on the Socialist Party Summer School
The first thing I must say is credit for the organising of the summer schools at Fircroft College over the years was rightly accredited to the recently deceased comrade Ron Cook of Birmingham branch, however, he has left the branch members determined to keep their efforts to his high standards, so I can say the social activities were pleasant and relaxing.
Sandy Easton opened up on Friday evening with “The Real Meaning of Religion”. Does religion represent some sinister plot by the ruling class to keep us down, or does it express an earnest attempt by men and women to answer serious and meaningful questions? Will religion uniquely continue to answer a fundamental human need, or is it high time we transcended this psychological baggage of or past? Was all this missing the point anyway, and what is the real meaning of religion?
Mike Foster on the Saturday morning introduced “End Times Beliefs”. Perhaps the most extraordinary book in the Bible is its final one – The Revelation of St. John the Divine. Here, we are given vivid prophecies about the end of life as we know it. And it’s not pleasant. While downplayed by most mainstream Christians in Britain, the events predicted in Revelation have been central to the belief systems of many smaller religious movements. However, this does not mean that End Times beliefs only exist on the fringes of Christianity. The scenario described in Revelation has seeped into our consciousness in many unexpectedly way. And while they may tell us nothing of the future, End Times beliefs tell us plenty about peoples hopes and fears.
Howard Moss, on Saturday afternoon discussed the question of “Is Socialism a Faith?” Is Socialism a replacement religion in the sense that it’s a belief in some kind of absolute? Why is it that people of a religious disposition are not infrequently attracted to socialist ideas, at least until they are told the two are incompatible? Does socialism have a ‘spiritual’ dimension, and will it be able to satisfy spiritual needs?
Gwynn Thomas introduced Saturday’s evening study “Islam, Politics and Revolution”. One in five of the world’s population claim adherence to Islam. What they claim this entails and what this might mean for non-believers. Some politicians and commentators have identified Islamism as one of the most serious challenges facing the world. They point to the threatened and actual use of deadly violence by some Muslim groups. How real is this threat? What motivates the protagonists? Is their dispute with the rest of world theological? Or is it political? A distinction was drawn between Islam as a religion and Islam as an ideology.
The concluding session on Sunday morning introduced by Adam Buick “Evolution and the God Hypothesis” considered the questions, did God create plants on the third day, fishes and birds on the fifth, and land animals and humans on the sixth- more or less in their present forms? Or did all existing (and extinct) life forms evolve through the process of natural selection? The mainstream Christian churches, even including the Catholics, have long accepted evolution through natural selection (for them, God only has the minor role of introducing a ‘soul’ into one species). It is only amongst fundamentalist sects that ‘creation’ survives. In America, to get round the constitutional separation between religion and state, the fundamentalists have invented a pseudo- science they call ‘intelligent design’. But it is only a pseudo-science.
It will never happen
These are the sorts of things that people sometimes say to us. Even worse, many of those who listen to us and accept the validity of our arguments, show by their failure to get involved in the necessary political action we say is needed for solving our problems that they, too, take refuge in the hope that "it" will never happen. Sometimes, even when "it" has already happened to them - when they have lost their job or have been affected by any of the other miseries that are exclusively visited on members of the working class — rather than confront the problem, they take refuge in the pious hope that "something will turn up".
“It” can be unemployment or bad housing; it can be illness or debt or the problem of an elderly and dependant relative; it can be worry about the kids, about their education or the possibility of them getting into bother with the law; it can be insecurity, anxiety about work or, indeed, any of the other myriad problems that most workers experience.
Few workers escape all of these problems but some manage to escape things like unemployment and slum housing. None, however, can escape some concern for the wider problems that affect the society in which we live. Imbued with the personal survival values of capitalism, some of us may be unconcerned at the fact that about eighty thousand human beings die every day because they, or those responsible for them, can not afford to buy food. No more may we be concerned about the millions who die every year of curable illnesses or from the ravages of hypothermia. If one of the wars that go on every single day is not on our doorstep, it may be easy to forget the victims and the refugees. All the distant problems that we hope might never affect us may be put out of mind but, still, outside the personal problems that we might have so far escaped, there are the very real social problems right here where we live. And they concern all of us.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
Them and Us
What do you think you are doing? What do you think they are doing? You are letting the Board of Directors of British Capital PLC set you one against the other.
Do you think the wealthy care about rises in energy prices, rises in he price of food, fuel prices, house price rises or falls? Think again! They are inured against them all.
By getting us, the wealth producers, or possible wealth producers, arguing against each other, they are taking the emphasis away from the real cause of our problems, our problems as a working class. You may think that this is a bit old fashioned. Talking about class.
Well, the wealthy have no reason to talk about it, we do their arguing for them, against each other. While we slag each other off, they live in unalloyed luxury. Not worrying about the prices of food, housing, fuel, their children's futures, all the things that we, who produce everything in society, from a pin to a computer, worry about.
They live in a different world, their world is not ours. Whosoever tries to tell us that our lives are the same as theirs, is talking a load of crap, no punches pulled.
Whosoever tries to tell us that, "we have something in common" is talking rubbish. Whosoever tries to tell you "we are all in it together, as a nation", "that we must stick together", talks from a position of comfort.
Why is it always we who must always accept less, in wages or in comfort for ourselves or our children? You guessed it, the wealthy and their political representatives tell us this.
Whether Labour, Tory or Liberal, this has always been their battle cry.
This is "our world" as much as theirs. We have as much right to the good things in life as they do. What we do not have is ownership and control over the means of ensuring this. Only when we, as a human race, own and control the means of living will we have a sane and rational society, a sane and rational world. Only then will we be able to face the problems facing us and find solutions not based on the base idea of profit before everything else, as is the case today, but on the basis of common humanity.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
SPGB talk on Economic Crises
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
The best laid plans
Under the plan the Labour government hope to throw up to a million people off the welfare rolls and onto the labour market. But to work this requires that a million new jobs become available. This was over ambitious anyway but, unfortunately for them, their plan was announced just as the economy is entering its downturn phase, and perhaps the worst slump for many years, and think-tanks are predicting a steep rise in the number of unemployed over the next few years. For instance,
“The number of people out of work will reach two million by 2010, the highest level since the early days of new Labour, according to a think-tank. The unemployed number will rise from 1.6 million to 2 million for the first time since July 1997, according to the Ernst & Young ITEM club.” (Times, 21 July)
The reason why the unemployed benefit part of post-war Beveridge Plan eventually failed was that it was premised on an unemployment rate of 2-3 percent, whereas by the 1970s and 1980s this was more than twice that. The new plan is likely to fail for the same reason - a higher than anticipated levelof unemployment.
Not that this will really worry the government - or its successor - as, if the people thrown off incapacity benefit cannot find a job, they’ll move to the lower benefit paid to the unemployed. And so save the government money.
In any event, the whole episode is yet more evidence that Labour governments are just as anti-working class as the Tories, basically because all government, however well-intentioned towards workers (not that this one is), cannot make capitalist work in the interest of those forced to depend for a living on working for a wage or a salary.
If you accept responsibility for running the political affairs of the capitalist class, then you have to do their dirty work. Which the present Labour government has shown itself all too willing to do.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
The Durham Miners' Gala
The Gala used to be a big Labour Party event but has now become a bit folkloric with brass bands passing through the streets of Durham in front of the banners of the various lodges of the Durham Miners' Association. Not all these banners are original. They are still being made with new designs. And not all say things we might approve of such as "Production for Use not Profit". One paraded through the city showed Jesus walking on water with a slogan saying something about Ye of little faith. Another had a picture of a miner sitting at the feet of Jesus. He seemed to be washing his feet (anyway, wasn’t it supposed to be the other way round?) This reflects the internal politics of the union, where Catholics and Communists vied for power with the different lodges supporting one side or the other. There are of course no longer any pits in Durham, the last one having closed in 1993 so the work of the union now consists essentially of helping former miners get all the benefits and pensions they are entitled to.
In the past Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition used to speak at the Gala. This year it was a minor Scottish MP called Hamilton (or maybe he was the MP for somewhere in Scotland called Hamilton). The Secretary of the Durham Miners union David Hopper also spoke. Our members couldn’t help scoffing when they heard of him calling on the Labour Party to return to its "socialist roots". What socialist roots? we said. He probably meant that Labour should return to trying to promote and defend the interests of workers (but which they've never done when in office anyway, not that they could once they've taken on responsibility for managing the political affairs of UK capitalism). The present Labour government is unpopular even here in one of its supposed heartlands, with clues as to where this support had gone from comments by people who came to our stall. One said she was never going to vote Labour again but had been voting for independents and the Greens instead. Another said that Britain was not longer Great because there were too many foreigners here (not that there are many in this part of Britain).
The organisers must have a sense of humour as (as last year) they put our stand next to Militant's who were asking passers-by (as a way of getting names and addresses) to sign a petition for a New Workers Party, i.e. to try to repeat in the 21st century the failed experience of Labourism in the 20th. But the maddest people there were the "Revolutionary Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-Leninist)" whose handout advertised a meeting to "Celebrate the Historic Victory of the Korean People". The ordinary Communist Party of Britain, who bring out the Morning Star, probably thinks that state-capitalist North Korea is "socialist" too but prefer to concentrate on more Cuba with its better image.
Tuesday, July 08, 2008
No trees at Norilsk
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Norilsk Metallurgical Combine, like many other former Soviet combines and trusts, was privatised, having been purchased 'for a song' by Vladimir Fotanin and his business partner, George Soros.
The Metallurgical Combine became a mining company, MMC Norilsk Nickel, and the principle employer in the area. In 2004 it was reported that every day soot from the company not only turned the snow black, but also sends 5,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, making the air taste sour. The mining company produced one seventh of all Russian factory pollution; it churned out two million tonnes of waste gas, and 85 million cubic metres of dirty water a year, destroying forests for hundreds of miles and even affecting Canada and Norway. At the time, a spokeswoman for the company admitted that only four percent of the population of Norilsk were healthy.
And what of today, in 2008? A recent entry in Wikipedia, updates information on Norilsk and conditions in the area, and from the company.
According to the Russian State Statistics Service, the estimated population of Norilsk in 2007 was 230,000, Norilsk is the centre of a region where nickel (one of the largest deposits on our planet.), copper, cobalt, platinum and coal are mined. Wikipedia reports that the Norilsk area is largely closed to foreigners, with travel permits also required for Russian citizens, ostensibly because of the sensitive nature of the mining, but also because of the ICBM missile silos located in the nearby Putoran Mountains. The nickel ore is smelted on site at Norilsk. And, continues the Wikipedia report:
“The smelting is directly responsible for severe pollution, generally acid rain and smog. By some estimates, one percent of the entire global emissions of sulphur dioxide comes from this one city. Heavy metal pollution near Norilsk is so severe that it is now economically feasible to mine the soil, which has been polluted so severely that it has economic grades of platinum and palladium”.
The Wikipedia entry confirms that not a single living tree grows within 48 km of the Norilsk nickel smelter, and that the city was listed in 2007 as one of the ten most polluted places in the world. It is now estimated that four million tonnes of cadmium, copper, lead, arsenic, selenium, zinc and nickel are released into the air every year.
Last year, BBC TV news reported ('Toxic truth of secretive Siberian city') that the mining company accepted responsibly for what it had done to the forests, but insisted they were taking action to cut pollution. Between 2015 and 2020, it expects - hopes? — to reduce sulphur emissions by approximately two-thirds, but “admits it is hard to guarantee because they are still developing the technology”. Moreover, the company like all capitalist enterprises, is not likely to try particularly hard to tackle the problem if it would curtail its vast profits. Profits before people — and the planet!
Monday, July 07, 2008
What a prat!
What a prat !
Sunday, July 06, 2008
"..Speaking in the House of Commons in the immediate aftermath of the fire the Energy Secretary, Cecil Parkinson, said, "Safety is the first priority of the Government and the operators." This is not true. Certainly safety is the a very high priority, for accidents cause lost production and in the case of Piper Alpha this was on a massive scale. But safety is not top priority. What stops a company from ceasing trading - a poor health and safety record alone or simply a lack of profit? What the House of Commons should have heard from Parkinson is that safety takes second place - to production.
The unavoidable fact about capitalism is that profit ultimately dictates. This is as true for the very first days of the North sea oil boom as it is for the last days of Piper Alpha.
To relieve pressure on the balance of payments and raise tax revenues as quickly as possible, British governments of the 1960s and 1970s - both Labour and Tory - went out of their way to ensure that offshore oil reserves were exploited at the earliest opportunity, particularly following the oil crisis of 1973. In planning their exploitation and production schedules, the oil companies were therefore presented with few government restrictions. Just as capitalism forced companies to maximise productions and profits, so the state too, is required to put safety to one side when convenient. As the professor of Marine Technology at Strathclyde University put it, "the number one priority after the 1973 oil crisis was to get oil quickly, and you don't get a Rolls-Royce for the price of a Mini".
Like other platforms, the Piper Alpha was built at a fraction of the value that would be created once production started. It cost £530m and was in production for 12 years, during which it pimped approximately 1,000 million barrels of oil ashore. At the current (depressed) price that is the equivalent to some £10,000m. The cost of the platform and wages bill (about £20m per annum) over the period amounts to just a few per cent of the wealth created. In the UK sector of the North Sea some 1,500 million pounds worth of oil is pumped out per month, with the government making £300m in export revenue.
These figures give some indication of the vast fortunes to be made in the North Sea -not, needless to say, from working there but just by owning. It is in the context of the disaster appeal - £1m from both the Government and petty cash box of Occidental Petroleum - should be viewed.
Much is made of how well-paid the average offshore worker is. The average pay is between £200 and £600 a week for a very exhausting, anti-social and stressful lifestyle. If that is high pay, what can be said of Dr Armand Hammer, chairman of Occidental Petroleum and one of the richest men in North America? The present writer was offshore on 6 July, on a platform from which the Piper Alpha was just a faint glow fifty miles to the north. Talking with some of the oil-workers as increasingly alarming reports were coming in, the impression gained was far from the usual macho image of oil-workers. It's not bravery or stupidity that makes them work offshore, but simple necessity. As one man put it to me, "You don't like to think about it. You can't afford to think about it".
Workers have regularly had to die for oil. When "their" countries go to war over ownership of natural resources, workers are required to do the dirty work of killing and dying for companies like Texaco, ELF or Esso. It's much the same in "peacetime": the war to defend profitability, the battle to advance the share of the oil market, is fought on the front line oil platforms by members of the working class.
So we shouldn't be shocked at the latest casualty figures. Within 48 hours of the disaster, grieving Occidental accountants recovered their composure long enough to calculate the cost to the company would be about $25m, reducing the estimated profit for this financial year to $200m. Shareholders would have to bite the bullet and suffer the tragic loss of 5-10 cents a share.
It's not all black armbands in the City though. The fire which devastated the platform and did much the same to 170 families, prompted some ferocious trading in New York and London while still smoldering: "Crude prices jump on news of disaster". (Headline, Guardian 8 July). North sea oil prices, previously depressed by a production "glut" (how many OAP's died of hypothermia last winter?), immediately rose by 25 cents a barrel....
A sane society will not need to rely on governments, companies or authorities to enforce safety. Socialism will rip the price tags from everything and liberate the productive potential of the world...."
Friday, July 04, 2008
They’re still doing it. Calling the FARC rebels in Colombia “Marxist terrorists”, that is. The BBC has just done in the news about the recent freeing of the hostage Ingrid Betancourt. The Guardian has been guilty too.
See this Blog The FARC “Marxist” farce
Last time this happened, a few months ago, a Socialist Party member sent the following letter to the Grauniad:
“Apropos the contention of Mr Phil Gunson in a recent issue of the Guardian (6 March) that FARC nationalist guerrillas in Columbia are ‘Marxist terrorists’, the following may be of interest.
During the recent IRA campaign of terrorism in Northern Ireland it was not uncommon for some journalists to refer to this essentially Catholic-nationalist organisation as ‘Marxist terrorists’ - obviously exposing overt Marxists to considerable danger from loyalist terror gangs.
After many efforts to rebut this dangerous nonsense - most of which, despite the first four articles in the NUJ Code of Conduct, were suppressed - I wrote a long and detailed comparison of the views of Marx, who utterly rejected terrorism, and Lenin whose strategies were frequently pursued by ‘left-wing’ terrorists. The resultant document I mailed to some members of the journalistic fraternity on the assumption that it might prove an antidote for their dangerous political ignorance.
The Head of Programme Planning at Ulster Television responded to the document with the assurance that he had issued instructions to his staff to avoid reference to ‘Marxist terrorists’ in programmes within local control in the future. Dr Steven King, then an adviser to David Trimble and a Belfast Telegraph columnist, responded and accused himself of ‘sloppy writing’ and, generally, we local socialists felt that some improvement had been effected.
However, on 25 November 2006, referring to three alleged IRA men who had been arrested by the Columbian authorities and accused of giving technical help to FARC, the Security Correspondent of the Belfast Telegraph, Brian Rowan, described another Columbian terrorist group thus:
“ELN is a Marxist insurgent group formed in 1965”
We wrote the following personal letter to Mr Rowan:
Dear Mr Rowan,
According to your article in the Belfast Telegraph of the 25th November 2006: “ELN is a Marxist insurgent group formed in 1965”
Readers of that newspaper could reasonably expect someone making such a definite pronouncement to be familiar not only with the political and economic philosophy of Karl Marx but with his attitude to the question of political terrorism.
Certainly your statement shows no evidence whatsoever of a knowledge, much less an understanding, of the writings of Marx and his co-worker, Engels. Marx during his lifetime was implacably opposed to political terrorism and fought a bitter battle with the anarchist, Michael Bakunin, which resulted in the expulsion of the latter from the International Workingmen’s Association.
Equally absurd is the implication in your suggestion that a group of Leninist nationalists fighting for land reform in a backward country are using terror tactics to bring about the objectives of Marx and the pioneers of scientific socialism.
Some years ago I prepared the document I enclose herewith to counter absurd statements like yours made by irresponsible commentators and I offered the sum of £1,000 pounds to any of its recipients who could show support for political terrorism or state capitalism in the writings of Marx. Only two - one a Belfast Telegraph contributor - were courageous enough to reply and both expressed apologies.
I look forward to your early advice and, incidentally, the £1,000 still stands.
Yours for a sane world
Tuesday, July 01, 2008
The world could produce more food
World food prices are rising, and this does reflect the fact that paying demand is currently exceeding supplies. But this does not mean that enough food cannot be produced. It means simply that enough food has not been produced.
Various explanations have been offered for this imbalance between demand and supply. Extra demand resulting from the migration of millions of people from the countryside to the towns in places like China and India. Diversion of land to growing biofuels instead of food. Such explanations concentrate on why demand has increased. An article in the Times (26 June) by Ross Clark offers an explanation why not enough food has been produced.
Clark is a supporter of the market (who thinks that any opponent of the “free” market is a “Marxist”) and so expects that sooner or later food supplies will increase to satisfy the paying demand. No doubt it will (but this will still leave those who can’t pay either to starve or to have to rely on minimal hand-outs from charities and from the UN and other agencies). He argues that food production has fallen because in previous decades it had been overproduced. It is of course obscene to talk of “too much” food being produced when there are millions in the world who are starving, but he means “too much” in relation to paying demand. Even so, his explanation is still interesting in showing the irrational way in which the capitalist system works.
According to him:
“The reason for the fall in cereal production over 15 years has not been soil degradation or climate change: while crops yields are not increasing as fast as they were doing in the 1960s, they have still risen by 1-2 per cent per annum over the past 15 years. Rather, the decrease in production has been a straightforward response to overproduction. Remember the grain mountains of the 1980s? They resulted in a collapse in prices that in turn persuaded grain producers to contract their operation. Now that prices are rising again the opposite has happened: the FAO estimates that this year's wheat harvest will rise by 13 per cent as a result of extra planting, putting downward pressure on prices next year.”
He points out that today:
“the background to rising food prices is the shrinkage of global agriculture over the past decade and a half. Globally, less food is being produced on even less land than was the case in the early 1990s. Take the US, which according to the FAO was producing 1,210kg of cereals per person per year between 1990 and 1992 and 1,104 kg between 2001 and 2003. Or Canada, at one time the “world's bread basket”, where cereal production fell from 1,905 kg per person per year in 1990-92 to 1,384 kg in 2001-03.”
Given the current strong paying demand for food, the 1990s levels may well be reached again but, as we just said, this will satisfy only paying demand. What about those who can’t pay?
Though it is far from his intention, Clark provides information which shows that enough food could be produced to satisfy their food needs too. Of course it won’t be, and never will be, under the capitalist market system which he supports. But it could be in a socialist world where production would no longer be limited to what can be sold.
“the total landmass cultivated for arable crops in 2006, according Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), was 1.402 billion hectares - or 14 million sq km. In other words, all the world's cereals and vegetables are grown on an area equivalent to the USA and half of Canada. A further 34 million sq km - equivalent to the rest of North America, South America and two thirds of Australia - is given over to grazing, much of it extensive, unimproved grassland. The rest of the world - equivalent to the whole of Europe, Asia, Africa, Indonesia plus a third of Australia - is not used for food production in any way. Some of this land, of course, is desert, mountain or rainforest, which either cannot be used for agriculture at all or would require irrigation, engineering or clearance. But a vast amount of it could quite easily be converted into agriculture, but has until now not been needed.”
What does he mean “has not been needed”? Of course it’s been needed! What Clark means again is that it has not been needed to meet paying demand. We say that it is needed to end world hunger but will only be able to be used for this when once the resources of the Earth have become the common heritage of all humanity. That’s the only basis on which these currently unused resources can be used to meet the food needs of everyone, not just of those who can afford to pay.