Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Jack London’s The Iron Heel

From the January 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
London's widely read book of this title was published a hundred years ago. But how realistic was it and how much of a socialist was Jack London?
By the time he had published The Call of the Wild in 1903 and White Fang in 1905, Jack London had established a reputation as the author of highly profitable popular fiction and adventure stories. He had risen to become the highest-paid American author of his era and with his income secure he set about writing a novel expressing his individualistic brand of militant politics. Aroused by the failure of the 1905 Russian Revolution, the inability of the Socialist Party of America to build on earlier electoral successes and the popularity of the serialisation of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's novel about working conditions in the meat-packing industry, London quickly completed a new novel, The Iron Heel, which was published one hundred years ago in 1908. After his death the work became an influential classic of anti-capitalist literature with prophecies and warnings that, according to the introduction to the most recent Penguin edition, 'Aryan nationalists and communists alike have championed' ever since.
The novel combines two narrative themes: an inner autobiographical narrative set mainly in the period 1912-1918 and a secondary narrative providing an historical commentary on the fictional 'Everhard Manuscripts' from centuries in the future. The work is essentially the autobiography of Avis Everhard, a woman steeped in social prejudice who falls in love with and later marries a 'socialist leader' and then discovers the realities of capitalism. Under the guidance of her husband Ernest she becomes a revolutionist seeking to overthrow the 'Oligarchy' – the combination of the large monopoly trusts that had bankrupted smaller capitalists and reduced farmers to serfdom and the majority of workers to slaves.
This elite has created a military caste – the 'Mercenaries' – as a private army and undermines working class solidarity by establishing a privileged 'labour caste' from skilled workers in essential industries. The 'Oligarchy' has absolute authority over civil law and political institutions, exercising power through force and intimidation, bolstered by the prejudices propagated through the press, church and education system. The novel ends after the unsuccessful 'First Revolt' against this elite.
The Iron Heel was not an entirely original work, heavily influenced by the work of other authors. London took inspiration from H.G. Wells' apocalyptic fantasy When the Sleeper Walks (1899) and from the idea of a 'double-view' achieved by opening a second narrative in the future, in Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888). To this he adds images of summary executions and unrestrained violence from the 1871 Paris Commune, using this as a historical model for his 'Chicago Commune' that stirred memories of the infamous Chicago Haymarket Massacre of 1886.
The novel was also closely modelled on Ignatious Donnelly's Caesar's Column (1890), a melodrama set in the New York of the future which, like London's later work, revolved around political intrigue, secret agents, disguises and spies. Both novels are interwoven with love stories and end in cataclysm. London relocates the scene of this cataclysm from the New York to Chicago. His central theme was drawn from W. J. Ghent, the author of Our Benevolent Feudalism, a work 'which foresaw the "complete integration of capital" into an iron fisted dictatorship'(Richard O'Connor, Jack London – A Biography). Even London's title, The Iron Heel, which is the condemnatory phase dramatically used by London's hero Ernest to describe the 'Oligarchy,' turns up in many other contemporary political and literary works as a symbol of oppression.
Much of what is related in the narrative of Avis Everhard London gleaned from newspaper articles and the printed views of 'muckrakers' such as Lincoln Steffens and regular contributors to the Oakland newspaper Socialist Voice, including William McDevitt and Austin Lewis. London's opportunistic reliance on this newspaper was demonstrated in 1906 when at a time when it was publishing articles denouncing organised religion, London – for the only time in his literary career – denounced the church, and he devotes several chapters in his novel to the theme.
'Borrowing' ideas and phrases was second nature to London and he was repeatedly accused of plagiarism. Moreover his habit of appropriating the work of others was not just confined to newspaper articles. Chapter seven of his novel, The Bishop's Vision, is almost identical to Frank Harris's essay 'The Bishop of London and Public Morality', published years earlier. London tried to explain his tendency to plagiarise to Elwyn Hoffman, by saying: 'expression with me is far easier than invention. It is with the latter I have the greatest trouble, and work the hardest' (Andrew Sinclair, A Biography of Jack London).
London was not widely read in the works of socialist literature and he never really understood socialism. His politics were a blend of conflicting theories: a mixture of emotional demands for 'social justice' acquired during his early life, interwoven with ideas of racial superiority and social Darwinism. He had joined the Socialist Labor Party (SLP) in 1896, a period in which the SLP supported a programme of 'immediate demands'. When these were dropped in 1900, London was one of those who left the Party and after standing as the Social Democratic Party's candidate for the mayor of Oakland in 1901 he joined the reformist Socialist Party of America (SPA). London's 'socialism' was always overshadowed by the conviction that the strongest must inevitably triumph over the weak and by a resolve to drag himself out of the 'social pit' by becoming a prosperous writer even when this meant being criticised for compromising his principles and political convictions.
After completing People of the Abyss, an account of working class life in the East End of London and arguably the only truly 'sincere work' that he ever wrote, London became increasingly disillusioned with the 'underfed parodies of humanity' who refused to 'fight' for a new society. By 1903 his frustration with the working class and his views on social Darwinism were widely acknowledged and drew criticism from the membership of his own political party. He responded with accusations that the SPA leadership was weak and doomed to fail and though he stood as its candidate for the mayor of Oakland in 1905, it was clear, even before he began his novel, that his sporadic flirtation with 'socialism' was over.
Although he remained a Party member, believing his 'socialist credentials' enhanced his reputation, it is certain that by 1906 that London had already 'parted ways with the idea of a mass working-class movement to overthrow capitalism and establish a new society' (Robert Barltrop, Jack London, the Man, the Writer, the Rebel). The Iron Heel's reputation as a 'socialist' classic, deriving from London's scathing attack on capitalism in the first half of the novel, does not conceal the fact that it was 'also his statement why socialism was not achievable in the foreseeable future' (Barltrop). The novel is London's pessimistic declaration that the working class is incapable of self-emancipating and in it he does not even credit the 'socialist' movement with the eventual downfall of the fictional 'Oligarchy,' which instead implodes under its own internal weaknesses and divisions.
London unquestionably believed that capitalism should be replaced, but never explains 'socialism' or how it can be achieved. His main indictment of the capitalist system in The Iron Heel is that it is managerially incompetent, 'blind and greedy', and wasteful. As well as this, London is convinced that an alternative society cannot be achieved without leaders. He creates the character Ernest as his alter ego, a 'socialist leader' (a contradiction in terms) who stands above the working class as an embodiment of London's image of 'socialist' man, a 'blond beast such as Nietzsche has described', the personification of self-sacrifice and martyrdom.
Ernest is the leader that London always wanted to be. But Ernest is betrayed – in the same way that London felt he had been - by comrades who refuse to listen to him and by an irresponsible working class, 'the refuse and scrum of life', incapable of helping itself and unworthy of his leadership. London's fictional 'socialists' view the working class with dread and refuse to build class solidarity with what they see as an abject and uncontrollable mass. The novel concludes on a note of disgust aimed less at the detested 'Oligarchy' than at the working class, whose mindless behaviour is said to have contributed to the defeat of the 'First Revolt.' The remnants of the 'socialist' movement are driven away to continue a terrorist war for centuries into the future until the weakened 'Oligarchy' finally yields.
The vision articulated in The Iron Heel is the social Darwinian struggle in which the strongest must always be supreme. It is developed within the framework of a quasi-religious fable. The setting is summed up by one critic in the following way: 'For the individual capable of it, a transforming moment of inspired vision; for those in society incapable of such a vision, a providential catastrophe and ultimately the regeneration of society through martyrdom' (Charles N. Watson, The Novels of Jack London). The work is peppered with biblical phraseology and religious symbolism as Avis experiences 'a new and awful revelation of life'. The story builds towards an apocalyptic conclusion reminiscent of religious deliverance when the 'evils' of capitalism will be purged from the world and, through sacrifice and martyrdom, society will be reborn as 'The Brotherhood of Man.'
The dramatic idealisation of the main protagonists, the heightened romanticism of the action, and the virtual absence of the working class for much of the novel all accentuate an infatuation with leadership. Some have justified the novel's lack of realism in various ways. Trotsky, for example, explained the work as a didactic tale where the author was interested 'not so much in the individual fate of its heroes as in the fate of mankind' (Joan London, Jack London and His Times). But is this an adequate defence for a tale whose core message is one that consigns the working class to an essentially passive and insignificant role in the social revolution?
So The Iron Heel is a decidedly anti-socialist work by an author who wrote more from his heart than his head. When it was first published the novel received unfavourable reviews even from so-called 'socialist' journals and the International Socialist Review described it as 'well calculated to repel many whose addition to our forces is sorely needed'. It is difficult to disagree with Robert Barltrop's judgement that London's 'socialism' was always a self-deception where 'the pleasures of intellectual company, of being lionised, of always having a platform waiting, caused him to set aside or rationalise the differences which were plainly there'. It is perhaps not surprising that London's egotism, overblown self-esteem and overriding preoccupation with his personal finances led Mark Twain's to remark: 'It would serve this man London right to have the working class to get control of things. He would have to call out the militia to collect his royalties.'
Jack London died in 1916 at the age of 40. In 1945, George Orwell said that had he lived 'in our day, instead of dying in 1916, it is hard to be sure where his political allegiance would have lain', and went on: 'One can imagine him in the Communist Party, one can imagine him falling victim to the Nazi racial theory, and one can imagine him the quixotic champion of some Trotskyist or Anarchist sect.' The Iron Heel, still open to all kinds of unsettling interpretations, will undoubtedly continue to be considered a classic of its time, although worryingly perhaps for all the wrong reasons.

-Steve Trott

The Trouble With Gods

Gods do exist, in a certain sense (I use the word "gods" as a gender-neutral term that includes goddesses). Humans create them in their own image, though without being aware of doing so. The fact that gods are male or female in itself strongly suggests that they are creatures of the human imagination. But they infest the mind as powerful, capricious and mysterious beings who demand endless worship and praise, reverence and obedience, devotion and propitiatory sacrifice. The gods in the head of the believer thwart the development of confidence, self-respect, rational enquiry and independent judgment.
In this way the idea of domination and submission is imprinted in the psyche as a model for relationships between beings. That model is then readily applied to social relationships – to the relationship between man and woman, master and slave, and so on. The Moroccan scholar Fatna A. Sabbah has shown how this works in the case of Islam in her brilliant (pseudonymous) study Woman in the Muslim Unconscious (Pergamon Press, 1984), but her analysis applies equally well to the psychology of "God-fearing" Jews and Christians.
The imaginary world of the divine, in turn, draws its inspiration from the real world of human power structures. God is "king of the universe", the archangels and angels are his ministers and officials, and the devil has the job of running the Gulag.

My argument is that it is above all these psychological effects, and not specific religious dogmas and practices, which make god worship a bulwark of class society. That, surely, from the socialist point of view is the main trouble with gods.Objections
It may be objected that some religious beliefs do not seem compatible with the division of society into classes. An obvious example is the idea that "we are all equal in the eyes of God." Beliefs of this kind have, indeed, inspired peasant uprisings. "When Adam dwelled and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?" asked John Ball in the 14th century.
This objection is not completely groundless. Submission to gods does not always and automatically translate into submission to human masters. But surveying the broad sweep of history, I still think that accepting divine authority tends to predispose people to accept human authority as well.
Another possible objection is that belief in gods predates class society. Primitive people already feared gods who embodied the uncontrollable forces of nature. People were in thrall to gods before they were in thrall to other people. And yet this made them especially vulnerable to oppression and exploitation when other conditions were in place for the transition from primitive communism to class society.

God-kings and priestly castes
Many of the earliest rulers made the most direct use of their subjects' belief in gods by demanding that they themselves be worshipped as gods (the Roman emperors, for instance) or – more often – as descendants or earthly manifestations of gods. Egyptian pharaohs claimed descent from the creator sun-god Atum or Re. The Inca was descended from the sun god Inti, while the Aztec king represented the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli (Bruce Trigger, Understanding Early Civilizations). The Shinto belief that the Japanese emperor was descended from the sun goddess Amaterasu held sway right up to 1946, when Hirohito renounced divine status.
Some religions directly support the class structure by sanctifying the entire ruling class. The best-known case is the sanctification of the priestly Brahmin caste in Hinduism, although the Indian caste system no longer corresponds precisely to the class structure. Judaism also has its "pure" priestly caste – the cohanim, who trace descent from Moses' brother Aaron.

Still mighty foes
By and large, however, the mechanisms through which religion supports class society (capitalism) are nowadays indirect. It is still risky to challenge the powers that be, but — except in a few countries like Iran — it no longer counts as sacrilege. The image of God has even started to mutate from that of the irate patriarch to that of the "sympathetic" social worker.And yet in large parts of the world religion still occupies a very important place in people's hearts and minds. Those fortunate enough to live in relatively secularized societies should not underestimate its global power. The gods remain mighty foes of their deluded human creators.


Sunday, January 20, 2008

They Do, Indeed, Differ

From the Western Socialist, 1960

Why does the World Socialist Party belittle the nationalization of wealth, when it really means the same thing as Socialism? If the government, on behalf of the people, decides to take over the wealth of the nation, what sense is there in wasting our time doing the same thing? Would it not be better for us to get in and help them do it?

-W.S. Reader

We gather from W.S. Reader the wording of the query that our correspondent is a little mixed up in his differentiation, or lack of it, between the two terms – Nationalization and Socialism.

Nationalization is a move on the part of the capitalist class to organize industry on a higher level so as to assure greater returns on capital invested. Socialism is a movement of the working class to abolish capitalism, and replace it with social ownership and control of the means of wealth production. From this, it will be seen that instead of being the same thing, they are two very different things. In fact the two objectives of Nationalization and Socialism could not be socially farther apart. They are the antithesis of each other.

Then, too, the assumption that the government can take over the works, on behalf of the people, shows that the questioner does not comprehend the meaning of either "government" or "people."

Governments are not social organizations that represent all people. They are class institutions. They do the work of the class that owns and rules.

When they take over the administration of wealth, they do so for the purpose of exercising collective control of industry rather than retaining the individual or company form of ownership that hitherto prevailed. The capitalists are the "people" they work for. No government is interested in a change that would elevate the position of its producers. They must be kept in their places.

The capitalist incentive in nationalizing industry is to economize in producing wealth or services. There is much duplication of effort in small concerns. They utilize too much labor in covering the same ground. By centralizing the form of ownership the useless extra labor can be done away with. This means laying workers off the job. It means increased national unemployment.

Surely this outstanding effect of Nationalization would not be an attractive feature for working class support. Under capitalism the workers want more jobs, not less.

They are taught from the time they leave the rigid obstetrician until they reach the friendly undertaker that their role in society is to work. The seeds of work have been planted in their receptive carcasses ages ago. They may have gotten infused in the genes and chromosomes to such an extent that they defy deletion. Even when they are not working they are thinking about it, talking about it, and looking for it.

In small industry there is much more work in proportion to the capital invested. When a number of the little outfits get together to install machines, as well as other economies incidental to bug business, then less labor is naturally employed.

Why such a condition is favorable to ownership is easy to understand, but why those who depend on selling labor power in order to exist should display enthusiasm for a system that dispenses a large percentage of labor power is not an easy problem to figure out.

The reality of the matter is that there is no adequate reason for the workers to be concerned with the issue of nationalization one way or the other. It is obvious that they cannot benefit by its introduction. It is likewise a logical conclusion that there would be nothing gained by organizing a movement against it. Any urge they may feel to exert themselves can lead into more important and profitable channels.
In brief, nationalization is no business of the working class at all. Our questioner implies that the workers should walk the floor at night formulating ways and means for the capitalists to expedite the change. We would suggest that we just leave this walking the floor to the rulers themselves. It is more apropos.

The natural trend of capitalism is in the direction of more national participation. When one group of capitalists makes an attempt to steal a march on the other section, the state is consulted as the determining factor.

When the big utilities, for instance, make application for rate increases and approaches the government officials with a string of semantic jawbreakers about "liberalized depreciation, "accelerated amortization," and "normalized taxation," the other groups must make an appeal for state aid to the end that utilities cannot unduly benefit at the expense of general capitalism.

A material increase in the role of the state in the economic and social life of the U.S. is seen in the ten years depression of 1929-2939. Something had to be done and done quickly to insure the smooth existence of the system, and the state alone could and did furnish the decisive aid required.

Again in the period following World War II the state exerted itself in economic life to an even greater extent.

The state became the big factor in the field of investment. In some cases it became the direct investor and in others it gave control and direction to private capital. This was accomplished through taxation, the credit apparatus, and other measures that enabled the state to get control of capital accumulation, and to implement the distribution of an ever increasing part of the national income.

The state now has become interested and powerful enough to regulate all economic problems that require attention. It fixes exchange rates, grants or refuses company increases, and attends to all trade relations with other nations.

The nationalizing of industry is strictly a capitalist venture and we can well afford to leave them stuck with it. The workers can promote better outlets for their time and energy. While the capitalist class has been generous enough to allow us to do all the work that has ever been done, we scarcely think it advisable to overdo our appreciation.

In every country where the experiment of government control of industry has been tried the results are much the same. The working forces have been lessened, the working conditions have not been bettered.

Another obnoxious feature of the move, from a worker's standpoint, is the fact that state control means that there is only one boss to deal with. If he gives you your walking papers, your only outlet is to keep on walking.

If one of the little bosses throws you in the discard, there is always a chance that another little one might restore you to parity, or place you in orbit, being unaware of the nature of the labor power you offered for sale.

On the capitalist side of the ledger the outcome is much brighter. State control has been more efficient and economical than the individual form. The property is in no way destroyed. They continue indefinitely to draw dividends on the investment, even though such may be disguised as interest on bonds or loans.

Here in the United States the one outstanding example in the state control bracket is the Post Office. This one is often accused of reflecting an extravagant waste of public funds. Officials with high salaries eating up the appropriations while its ordered functions are being neglected or retarded.

The Post Office is not a means of producing wealth. It specializes in national service. Everyone uses it. The politicians who frank their mail, the manufacturers who flood the chutes with "occupant" advertising, the workers who send and receive Christmas cards, valentines, and old age pensions, all participate in the services rendered.

The P.O. resembles, on a national scale, the escalators in department stores, that take the customers to the various floors where the goods are displayed. There is no direct charge for the ride, the expenses of the service being absorbed by the entire sales organization.

The big man – the Postmaster General – is a political camp-follower of the party in power, being considered qualified because of past performance in campaigning, organizing, or securing funds for party purposes.

He may not be able to distinguish between a letter wicket an a teller's cage but, like a race horse who becomes a favorite on account of what he did the last time out, he is entitled to the special honors.

While the top officials are well paid the overall salaries are below average. If private industry operated the P.O. salaries would be increased and postal charges materially boosted.

In cases of national emergency – in times of war for instance – the state encroaches on the control of property, probably displaying an indication of things to come. It takes over the operation of railways, transforms auto plants into guns and ammunition depots, establishes basic prices for material and products, and otherwise reveals to the public gaze who is the new boss of the entire functional apparatus.

The executive power finds it imperative to cut down the number of men, the amount of material and transport, so that plenty of recruits are available for the armed forces.

Just why all these involved alterations should entice the working class participation we cannot see.

After carefully examining the effects of nationalization, as well as the philosophy that underlies the movement, the World Socialist Party correctly concludes that it is something the workers should leave completely alone. Anything that enhances the wealth and position of the capitalists could scarcely be regarded as a happy and effective medium of working class emancipation.

-J.A. McDonald

Nationalization or Socialism?

What is to be done?, Chapter X, of the SPGB pamphlet Nationalisation or Socialism? (1945.)

Throughout this pamphlet the point has been repeatedly stressed that the problem facing the capitalist class is that of the form under which their industry shall be controlled ; while for the working class the vital problem is that of ownership. Capitalism has evolved from small scale private, competitive, industry under the personal control of the proprietor, through the form of joint stock companies, to the present stage in which great combines, cartels and so on, with the elimination of competition within the group, more and more dominate the scene ; though rivalry between the combines and internationally between the different capitalist powers and groups of powers is as fierce as ever.

What is to be the next step? For the capitalists it is a problem of finding a method, either by nationalisation or more probably by public utility corporations or State regulated private-monopolies, by which capitalism itself shall be able to control those monstrous growths of its own creation - always of course with the idea of preserving capitalism and their own property and privileged position as an exploiting class.

This evolution of capitalism has revealed for all to see the fundamental error of the reformist parties which turned aside from the working class problem of ownership to busy themselves with the problem of control, only to find that capitalism had moved on and made their schemes obsolete. In earlier days the reformist parties thought that there was in progress a natural evolution towards the capitalist State completely taking over and operating one industry after another until it covered the whole field. The late J. Keir Hardie had this belief in an inevitable evolution to Socialism.

In his From Serfdom to Socialism (1907) he argued on these lines : -

'If the State can build battleships and make swords, why not also trading ships and ploughshares? Since the State conveys letters and parcels and telegrams, why not also coal and wool and grain? And if the State insists upon owning telegraph lines, why not also railway lines? And if the railways, why not the coal mines from whence the power is drawn which sets the engines in motion? . . . When the State enters upon business in any department there is no logical halting place short of complete State Socialism, and the further extension of its trading activities is purely a question of utility.' (p. 89).

Keir Hardie was wrong in using the term 'State Socialism' and in believing that there was an inevitability about this progress towards complete State industry, yet at least he did recognise that even if it happened it was not an end in itself, but could only be useful because it would, he thought, 'prepare the way for free Communism in which the rule, not merely the law of the State, but the rule of life will be : From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.'

When, later on, it was discovered that capitalism was not following the lines Keir Hardie and his fellow members of the Labour Party anticipated, and they realised that State industries like the Post Office were not even particularly acceptable to working class voters who were influenced by capitalist propaganda against alleged red tape, bureaucracy, and inefficiency, the Labour Party quietly dropped its old propaganda for outright State acquisition of industry. In its place that Party began to advocate public utility corporations, and, as has been mentioned before, Mr. Herbert Morrison, who in 1923 denounced that form of organisation (as exemplified in the Port of London Authority) as a 'capitalistic soviet' was himself responsible for initiating the London Passenger Transport Board when he was Minister of Transport in the Labour Government, 1929-1931; and Labour Party spokesmen began to put forward the idea that these public utility corporations were the 'latest development in Socialist theory' (Mr. Lees Smith, Spectator, 26 December, 1931), and some of them were even prepared with Mr. Lees Smith to contemplate denationalising the telephones and telegraphs to the extent of handing them over to a public utility corporation.

Far from calling the L.P.T.B. a 'capitalist soviet', as he had called the model from which it was copied, Mr. Morrison declared in an article in the Evening Standard (15 November, 1933), that it was 'socialisation'. 'Socialism has come', he wrote.

Thus the Labour Party has changed its line and is walking in step with capitalist interests such as those whose spokesman is the Times. 'It is a sound principle that, whenever competition is ousted by monopoly, the monopoly must come under Government control - though certainly not under Government management - either through a public utility corporation or by other means appropriate to the differing circumstances of different businesses' (Times Editorial, 19 September, 1942).

Now the Labour Party's rejection of its own earlier views has gone a stage further and Mr. Morrison has, during the past year or two, elaborated the idea that there is not one solution but several solutions, which he described at Leeds on 3 April, 1943, as 'a practical mixture of genuine Socialism and genuine free enterprise' (Manchester Guardian, 5 April, 1943).

One group of monopolies', he said, 'are the so-called "natural" monopolies like gas, electricity and (in effect) transport, which are also, like coal, common service industries and, like it, are ripe - or over-ripe - for public ownership and management. Another group consists of fully fledged trusts, of most of which the same thing might be said.'

Then he referred to the 'great assortment of cartels, price rings, federations, price-fixing combines, and so forth.' These, he said, are not necessarily 'in an appropriate state for full public ownership in the early post-war period' ; and for them Mr. Morrison proposed that they be subjected to 'stimulating public control'.

Under the guidance of State officers these monopolies 'can be made true servants of the public need, true factors in an expanding prosperity.'

The keynote of the speech was Mr. Morrison's statement that 'neither the slogan of all-round nationalisation nor the slogan of all-round decontrol . . . are, as such, the slightest use to the country'; and he mentioned in the course of his remarks that 'a case can be made for private enterprise in appropriate fields.'

A later speech by Mr. Morrison was summarised as follows in a Times Editorial: - 'It is Mr. Morrison's contention that the great combinations controlling key economic positions must be controlled by the State, if only because they will otherwise themselves be in a position to control the whole life of the community. But he recognises that there are wide areas of enterprise which will fall outside this control - notably the small manufacturer and still more the small retail distributor' (Times, 1 November, 1943).

Again, on 4 March, 1944, Mr. Morrison, in a speech at Mexborough, said : -

'For some time to come we shall in Britain be working out a form of partnership between the State and large-scale industry. We shall be experimenting with the different types and degrees of State power over industry, varying all the way from full public ownership and operation to a limited degree of control of prices and practices exercised from outside. How this experiment will work out, how far the factor of private initiative may prove itself able to survive and may justify itself in terms of the public interest, I would not like to say' (Times, 6 March, 1944).

How far some of the Labour leaders have departed from their earlier attitude may be seen by comparing Mr. Morrisons' present acceptance of monopoly with the Labour Party's vociferous opposition to monopoly after the last world war. A typical declaration was made by Mr. J.R. Clynes, then a prominent Trade Union and Labour Party leader, that it was better to have a large number of small capitalists than a small number of large ones. (Preface to a pamphlet, The Failure of Karl Marx.)

On the other hand, while the Labour Party in 1918 feared that the 'Monopolist Trusts . . . may presently become as ruthless in their extortion as the worst American examples' (Labour and the New Social Order, 1918, p. 18), and in 1922 criticised the National Government for having done nothing 'to prevent the harmful results of the accumulation of capital and control of prices and production by groups of private capitalists' (Labour Speakers' Handbook, 1922, p. 36), the minority members of the Committee on Trusts, 1919, including Mr. R. Bevin and Sidney Webb, stated that they did not wish to prevent the formation of combinations and associations because of the greater efficiency they ensure. Instead they urged that dangerous monopolies should be handed over by the Government to the Co-operative Movement or Local authorities, or placed under State control but not necessarily State management.

Yet another straw in the wind is a speech by Mr. Shinwell, Labour M.P., in the House of Commons on 5 May, 1944. He said :-

If anybody expects me to make a plea for the nationalisation of shipping at the end of the war they will be disappointed. Not even to satisfy ideologists on my own side am I going to do that. You can nationalise the railways and do much to co-ordinate rail and road transport, but when it comes to shipping I want to see a scheme properly worked out and practicable before I attach my signature to it . . . you could take over liner services and makes them into a publicly-owned system through a public utility corporation . . . I do not want anything in the nature of a bureaucracy in the shipping industry or even the beneficial assistance of civil servants, admirable as they are in their own sphere. Nor should the large capitalists have it all their own way' (House of Commons Report, 5 May, 1944, col. 1645).

He also remarked that the Ministry of War Transport 'are the last people in the world who should be allowed to operate the shipping industry.'

In contrast to this the Labour Party 25 years ago used to hold up the Post Office administered by a Government Department and by civil servants as a model to be followed elsewhere. The Labour Party's programme of Reconstruction after the war 1914-1918, called Labour and the New Social Order, was not only demanding 'immediate nationalisation' of Railways, Mines, the Insurance Companies, and the production of Electricity, and nationalisation 'as suitable opportunities occur' of 'the great lines of steamers', but also specifically sought 'national administration', and said nothing then of not wanting industries to be administered by Government departments. In the case of Insurance the programme asked that the companies be expropriated and demanded 'the assumption by a State department of the whole business of Industrial Life Assurance'. As regards the nationalisation of the liner companies the only
qualification was that they should perhaps not be 'immediately
directly managed in detail by the Government.' (Our italics).

What has the Socialist to say of all this? It is to warn the working class that 'the more capitalism changes the more it is the same thing.' All of these never-ending experiments in the control of capitalism leave untouched the working class problem of effecting a change of ownership, from private ownership to real ownership by the community and democratic control by the community. From a working class point of view we deny Mr. Morrison's statement that 'the increasing domination of British industry and business by a system of private regulation on monopoly lines was the most important of all subjects that faced us in the field of economic policy after the war' (Times, 6 March, 1944).

The problem facing the working class now, as it was 20 or 50 years ago, is the fact that the capitalist class are the private owners of the means of production and distribution. No amount of State capitalist enterprise or State regulation of monopolies will alter this. What the working class need to concern themselves with is the problem of ownership, the fact (to quote the Economist, 25 December, 1943), that 'as a rough estimate . . . it can be said that 1,800,000 persons, who are 7 per cent of the adult persons in this country, own 85 per cent of the private property and draw 28 per cent of the individual incomes of the country.'

The Socialist solution is to abolish capitalism and establish a system of society in which the means of production and distribution are owned and democratically controlled by the community, in which there will be no exploitation, no property incomes in the form of rent, profit or interest ; and no wages system.

The problem of society organised on a Socialist basis will be the straightforward economic problem of securing the co-operation of all in the production of the articles and the operation of the services needed by all the members of society. Goods will not be produced for sale and profit-making, or to provide incomes for investors in company shares or in Government securities, etc., but solely for use. Men and women will no longer work under the goad of starvation but because they will realise that at last the interest of the individual is the interest of the whole community and the interest of the whole community also that of the individual.

To those who have imbibed capitalist teaching that men and women only work when driven to it by starvation and under the threat of losing their job and their livelihood, this is indeed a revolutionary idea; but it is time the working class realised their own capacity, intelligence and potentialities. There is nothing fantastic in holding that the world has now attained the capacity easily to provide an abundant and varied life for all. It is for the working class to realise the mission history has allotted to them, that of ending class-divided society for ever, and to strive for the achievement of Socialism under which the principle shall be 'From each according to his ability : to each according to his need.'

The Socialist Party of Great Britain and its companion parties in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and U.S.A. show the road to the achievement of Socialism by international working class action, through the democratic conquest of political power.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Work as it is (and could be)

"That would never work!"

A typical response, I imagine, to the description of a socialist society, where people work because they want to, on a voluntary basis. Such a society would not work, we are told, because no one in it would do any work.

However, that view of work as, well, work – rather than something enjoyable — tells us more about today's society, where our motivation to work is primarily the need to pay rent and put food on the table. Immersed as we are in this reality, it is not surprising that it shapes our view of labor in general (past, present and future), so the idea of a society based on labor performed willingly, without any form of coercion, seems ludicrous to most people.

Given that typical outlook, it is not easy to convince someone of the necessity and feasibility of a fundamentally new mode of labor by simply elaborating the description of work in the future (which can never be an exact blueprint). No matter how appealing that future society might appear, compared to present-day reality, it will probably still seem to be a figment of the imagination.

A better approach, I think, is to start with the present, looking at the work-related problems we face and considering their root cause. On that basis it should become clearer that socialism is not an idle dream but the real solution to undeniably real problems, and that the workplace problems we experience today can also be solved by, or will cease to exist in, that new form of society.

Work problems

Most of us have first-hand experience of bad jobs, so there is no need to present concrete examples here. But if we consider why a particular job is unpleasant it generally comes down to one or a combination of the following factors: long hours, low pay, high intensity, monotony, and (for lack of a more precise category) the boss. We know all of this — perhaps too well — but here I want to consider the reason why these problems occur.

That answer is not hard to find if we reflect, just for a moment, on the essential nature of capitalism as a society where production is a means of generating profit for a minority ruling class that owns and controls the means of production. It is no exaggeration to say that those two closely intertwined facts (i.e., the profit motive and private ownership) are at the root of most of the problems we face at the workplace.

The hunger for profit is insatiable; no capitalist will settle for a five percent profit if there is a chance to get six. This is not merely a question of individual greed, but the systematic pressures of competition that capitalists ignore at the risk of ceasing to be capitalists. This drives them — not unwillingly — to squeeze as much surplus value out of workers as possible, whether by prolonging the working day, lowering wages, or increasing the intensity of labor. All of this goes without saying, I think, and the direct connection to workplace problems is equally clear.

But even setting aside the impact of profit chasing on the labor process, we are still left with the fundamentally undemocratic workplace. Those who own or control the means of production call the shots (and pocket the profits), whether we are dealing with a small company, a corporation, or a state-owned enterprise. The workers, meanwhile, have no choice but to work in the manner assigned to them. No matter how enjoyable the work itself might be, this lack of control over the labor process (not to mention over hiring and firing decisions) contributes to the dissatisfaction we experience at our jobs.

Idle hands?

Considering the fact that the labor process is a means of generating profit for a minority class that directs that process, it is no wonder that a certain gloom hangs over workers on their morning commute. Those looking down on them from the comfort of the executive boardroom might take it as proof of the inherent laziness of people — or at least other people. This idea of a slovenly human nature is ironically (or perhaps naturally) most prevalent among the "leisure class," who look to the pressure of competition to whip the lazy workers into shape.

It should be obvious, though, that people are far from being lazy by nature. Nearly everyone, except the most demoralized or pampered, are eager to find worthwhile work. And if we cannot find enjoyment or self-fulfillment in the jobs we do to earn a living, we will try to find those qualities in the activities we pursue in our "free" time.

One reason we may underestimate the desire to work is that those leisure time activities come under the category of "hobbies," even though they do not always differ in substance from types of labor performed for wages. What tends to make a hobby enjoyable and fulfilling is precisely the qualities so often lacking in the jobs done to earn a living. Instead of being a way to benefit others, performed under their direction, a hobby is an activity pursued for its own sake that can be a means of self-development and self-fulfillment.

The same thirst for and enjoyment of meaningful labor can also be seen in our attitude towards the jobs we must do to earn a living. Despite all of the drawbacks that stem from the profit motive, as sketched above, our jobs can still be a source of satisfaction and self-development and we can find ourselves engrossed in the work itself without always thinking about the end of the working day or the upcoming paycheck. Indeed, unless we had this capacity to enjoy work — and to seize on those worthwhile aspects of our jobs — the bosses (who complain about "lazy workers") would be very hard-pressed to obtain any work, and hence profits, from their employees.

A social change

The aversion to work that is not uncommon today is certainly not due to inherent human laziness or the general nature of labor itself; it stems rather from the problems arising from its function as a means of profit making for a minority capitalist class. So as long as the current social system remains in place, we will be stuck with the problem of long working hours, tedium, and high intensity.

The solution to those workplace problems, along with a whole string of other problems, is thus a fundamental social change that establishes a new form of society, where production is no longer subjected to the logic and tyranny of capital. That is an unprecedented change, certainly, which still seems impossible to most people today, but socialists are convinced that it is both possible and urgently necessary.

I should note, though, that the creation of a fundamentally new society will not take us into the realm of science fiction, as human beings will still be obliged to carry out labor in order to produce the material wealth that makes our continued existence possible. Socialism will not free us from the need for productive activity, but rather alter the form and purpose of that activity. Simply put, production in a socialist society will become a means of satisfying the various needs of the members of society as decided democratically by those members themselves

Work transformed

That fundamental change in the orientation of society, following a socialist revolution, will obviously have an enormous effect on the labor process and the personal experience of work.

The first change that seems likely, for a number of reasons, is a major reduction in the length of the working day. This will be possible, first of all, because production will only be intended to satisfy the needs of society's members, as determined by them, so there would be little incentive to continue working beyond that point, thereby piling up unwanted goods and squandering natural resources. Unlike today, any increase in the productivity of labor, so that more goods can be produced using less labor-time, could immediately shorten the length of work for individuals. And there not be the terrible waste of labor we see today under a system where goods are produced for a fickle market, rather than to directly satisfy needs, and may thus rot on store shelves or in warehouses if not purchased (particularly at the outset of an economic downturn).

Another reason that the working day may become the working morning or afternoon is that the relative size of those adults willing and able to perform the productive labor, which produces the wealth of society, will increase with the addition of the unemployed and those engaged under the current system in unproductive labor (e.g., bankers, lawyers, salesmen, etc.). The entire financial sector, for instance, will no longer have a reason for existence in a society where products are not bought and sold on the market. Other unproductive individuals include gamblers, prostitutes and criminals, as well as the entire capitalist class. In a socialist society, all of these people can contribute to the production of the material wealth that is the fundamental basis of human life.

The shorter working day is only a quantitative change, of course, but it would bring about an immediate improvement in the quality of our lives, as we can easily imagine. Even if we consider our jobs today, a significant reduction in the working day (provided the intensity of labor remains unchanged) would make most jobs, at the very least, far more bearable, and allow us to engage in other activities we find more agreeable.

More significant, however, is the qualitative change in the labor process and in our attitude towards work once labor has solely become a means of improving our lives and production decisions are made democratically by the members of society themselves, who collectively control the means of production and have free access to the goods that are produced. Marx describes this new society as an "association of free individuals, working with the means of production held in common, and expending their many different forms of labor-power in full self-awareness as one single labor force" (Capital, vol. 1). In this socialist society, the production process would become transparent; individuals could easily grasp the connection between the labor they and others perform and improvements in their own and other people's lives. This is a qualitative change not only from the perspective of the labor process of society as a whole, but also in terms of the attitude that each individual would likely have towards work.

Another important qualitative change in the labor process and our view of it stems from the fact that each individual within the "association" or community will be actively involved in making the important decisions regarding production. Those decisions would be made by them democratically, according to the simple criterion of improving the quality of their own lives. That tangible democracy contrasts sharply with the utter lack of influence workers today have on the decisions regarding production and the labor process, which are nominally made by capitalists and politicians but in fact dictated by the impulses of capital. In socialism, the members of the society will be able to decide on the plans for production (and other aspects of life) and then work together to realize them, without sacrificing their own needs for the sake of profitability.

In the process of collectively making those decisions one can imagine all sorts of issues that might be debated. Certainly there is the question of what to produce and in what quantity. But in addition to such matters, close attention will also be paid to what might be called the qualitative or even aesthetic aspects of the labor process, reflecting the fact the entire society is oriented towards improving the level of human life. This means that there would be an effort to make the experience of work itself is as enjoyable and fulfilling as possible. All of the decisions would also have to take into consideration the resources available, both in the present and future, so that a short-term gain in the quality of life does not lead to disaster for latter generations. These are some examples of the big questions that might be considered, but there would be countless others, covering every imaginable aspect and consequence of the labor process.

So, to finally return to the initial question about voluntary work, will people actually work on a voluntary basis in a socialist society? Or would they only take advantage of the free access to goods and not participate in the work to produce those goods?

My answer, of course, is that the vast majority of people would be willing, and perhaps eager, to work in a society where the benefits of their own labor, both to themselves and the community at large, are clear and where they themselves make all of the decisions regarding productions. There may be a few individuals who choose to do nothing, or at least nothing that adds to the wealth of society, but I imagine they will be looked on with pity, rather than any sort of anger, just as we might view a person today who has no vital interest in life. It seems safe to say that most will voluntarily work as a way to both develop themselves and improve their own lives through the fruits of that labor.


Idle Idols: Paul Lafargue

From the issue 7 1994 of the Idler Magazine:

The French labour activist dreamed of a three hour day for everyone, was thrown in prison for subversion and in 1883 wrote a searing attack on the work ethic called The Right to be Lazy.
If you think you work too hard now, spare a thought for the French factory workers of the late 19th century. Despite the prevalence of new machines that the Industrial Revolution had produced, the workers - including women and children - slaved away for as long as 16 hours in hideous conditions for subsistence wages.

Onto this scene came the brilliant thinker and labour activist Paul Lafargue. The son of a Bordeaux landowner, he was born in Cuba in 1842 but grew up in a swiftly industrialising France. He became politically active in 1865 when a medical student in Paris. Following his involvement in the first ever International Congress of Students, he was banned from his studies for two years for "individual and collective insults to Church and Government". Trouble with the authorities would be a fact of life for Lafargue for many years.

In 1868, after completing his studies in England, Lafargue married Laura Marx, son of Karl, a man who, along with the French anarchist thinker Proudhon, was a great influence on Lafargue and his gang. Around this time Lafargue also became involved with the newly formed International Working Men's Association which campaigned tirelessly for a shorter working day.
In common with many who try to follow their own path, Lafargue was poor for years. His writings at this time were for underground periodicals and didn't bring in the cash. In 1872, he and Laura opened a photographic shop in London to try and earn some money. But for the next ten years it was only the financial support of their friend the wealthy Engels that kept them alive. When they returned to Paris in 1882, things got so bad that Lafargue had to take a McJob with an insurance firm. Luckily the firm folded after a few months and Lafargue was released from wage drudgery.

In 1883, his subversive activities landed him with a six - month jail stretch. But far from being an intolerable burden, Lafargue's months inside were relatively luxurious; he and his friend Guesde, a magazine editor, were given the best rooms and sent brimming hampers of food and wine by friends. Crucially, the sentence also gave him the time to finish a pamphlet he had been working on. It was called The Right to be Lazy (the title was a parody of the socialist plea for the "right to work") and argued passionately against the evils of work. Lafargue rallied against the capitalist system of production and consumption, which led people to believe that harder work led to greater prosperity. "Work, work, proletarians, to increase social wealth and your individual poverty," he wrote. "Work, work in order that by becoming poorer, you may have more reason to work and become miserable. Such is the inexorable law of capitalist production."
Lafargue noted that in England, the recent, shortening of the working day had not led to economic disaster. On the contrary, England was leading the way in production. "But if the miserable reduction of two hours has increased English productivity by almost one third in ten years, what breathless speed would be given to French production by a legal limitation of the working day to three hours?"

Lafargue even went so far as to recommend that we "forge a brazen law forbidding any man to work more than three hours a day".

What really troubled Lafargue was the lust for work which people seemed gripped by:
"Let a chance for work to present itself, thither they (the proletariat) will rush; then they demand 12 or 14 hours to glut their appetite for work, and the next day they are thrown out on the pavement with no more food for their vice." It was this masochistic drive, Lafargue believed, that robbed machines of their liberating potential. "The blind, perverse and murderous passion for work transforms the liberating machine into an instrument for the enslavement of free men. Its productiveness enslaves them."

As well as exposing the tyranny of work, Lafargue wrote eloquently on the nobility of idleness, calling on the ancient Greeks to bear witness. "The philosophers of antiquity taught contempt for work, that degradation of the free man, the poets sang of idleness, that gift from the Gods." He gleefully quoted from the poet Antiparos; "Let us live the life of our fathers, and let us rejoice in idleness over the gifts that the Goddess grants us."

Lafargue also used the Bible to add weight to his thesis: "Jesus, in his sermon on the mount, preached idleness; 'Consider the lillies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.'" God, said Lafargue, was the ultimate Idler: "After six days of work, he rests for all eternity."

The next ten years were a continuous round of trials, fines demonstrations, leaflets and jail stretches for Lafargue and his revolutionary friends. It was only in 1895, when Engels left Laura some money and Lafargue came into a little inheritance that life became a little easier for them.
Lafargue continued writing and campaigning into the early1900's. But he and Laura began to feel that they were too old to be of use to the campaign, and in 1912 each injected themselves with a lethal dose of potassium of cyanide.
There may be those on the left who feel that because the ideas of Lafargue and others like him contributed to the installation of the 40 hour week in this country - an unthinkable luxury in the 19th century when a 60 or 70 hour week was the norm - we can therefore forget his polemic. He has done his job. But today Major's government is bringing in yet tougher regulations to force people to take any crap job when they are on the dole or risk losing allowances. Currently, you are not allowed to claim the dole if you leave your job voluntarily. This is slavery by the back door, and it is inhuman and unjust. The ideas of people like Lafargue, therefore, are as relelvant as ever and deserve a rereading by as wide a public as possible.

Today we have inestimably more machines than in Lafargue's time: surely then we should share his rage that the capitalists "do not understand that the machine is the saviour of humanity, the God who shall redeem man from the sordidae artes and from working for hire, the god who shall give him leisure and liberty"

Further Reading:
Introduction to The Right To Be Lazy

Monday, January 14, 2008

The Mass Debaters

From the WSPUS website:

Who has seen whiter, glossier, teeth and lies whiter and glossier still than those that were bared on television during the recent debates between Democrats and Republicans? The race culminating in the presidential trophy in late 2008 is solidly on, with these wealthy members of the capitalist class vying for leadership of the world's most prosperous land, brought to them by the generous contributions of our dear readers' unpaid surplus value.

These sellers of capitalist reforms are so impeccably dressed and groomed, so charming and witty, so passionate in their determination to give a structurally exploitative society a new lease on ideological life, that it might well take an Odyssean resistance to temptation on your part to keep from falling for their well-oiled sell, written and rehearsed with a large team of marketing professionals from behind the curtains.

Senator Obama, for all his oozing liberal rhetoric and strong likeability factor, while an Illinois Democratic senator has always supported a free market system. Isn't that the one in which most of us must work so hard to produce free surplus value for our employers that we don't even have enough free time to ourselves? One of the most popular bills that he signed in 2007, the Shareholder Vote on Executive Compensation Act, also known as "Say On Pay," allowed shareholders to limit the inflated salaries of corporate CEOs but while this was easily and incorrectly perceived as a Robin Hood move, the reality was that studies in the Wall Street Journal had previously demonstrated that poorer CEO performance was correlated with more inflated salaries, and also that in economically troubled companies, worker morale suffered the most when CEOs were receiving pay of exceptionally bloated dimensions. In short, fiscal policies and laws must attempt to look after the interests of the capitalist class as a whole, even at the minor expense of individual capitalists. Behind each liberal dream sits a wallet somewhere waiting to bulge.

Mr. Obama was further criticized and praised last year for spending $18 billion on promoting merit pay of the nation's teachers by cutting costs from the NASA Constellation Program, delayed now by 5 years. On the surface, noble and caring, no? Well, in capitalism the only nobility are the ones who still own parts of the land, and even the most caring sentiment finds a way out of the heart and into the coffers of the rich. His plan to improve merit pay for teachers was harshly criticized by the National Education Association (the largest labor union in the U.S.), the Urban Institute and the Cato Institute, on the grounds that merit pay could actually end up favoring schools in better neighborhoods whose track records were stronger as a result of the inflow of local resources, could lower the morale of teachers owing to the resulting competition between them, and could create a new expensive bureaucratic superstructure overseeing the program itself. Isn't it sickening that in capitalism resources cannot be directly accorded to those who deserve it the most, our children's teachers, without producing such negative consequences upon the institutions and atmosphere in which our children are learning?

Mr. Obama is also on record for stating that he is not opposed "to all wars, only dumb wars" (famous Fall 2002 speech at the anti-war rally at Chicago's Federal Plaza). While urging for a date by which de-escalation of the militarization of Iraq should begin, Obama has also consistently refused to actually cut funding for the Iraq War. Capitalism makes it hard for seemingly honest, intelligent and good-intentioned politicians such as Obama to take a solid stance against the murder of the innocent (who are always the ones in war to die in greater numbers than the intended targets), even for those politicians who would likely come across as largely anti-war in a private conversation (if they too openly challenge the status quo, they may be attacked for undermining the war on terrorism – and as a result of their careful public maneuvering, their platform always seems unpredictable and inconsistent).

Ron Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, actually came out in the recent debates the strongest opponent of the Iraq War. His opposition seemed partially fiscal in nature, as he deplored the 300 billion dollars spent on it thus far. But it was also ideological, as he felt the arming of groups who later turn against the United States (e.g., the Kosovars who aided Islamic terrorists, or the Afghan jihadists themselves, and their friend Osama bin Laden) had acted to fuel increased national insecurity rather than security, and increased terrorism rather than less. And of course, Ron Paul is probably right on this score, surprisingly coming from a member of the Republican Party, the party that always advocates small government but seems in each office hell-bent on creating a bureaucratic gigantean proto-fascistic war economy state.

However, Ron Paul, like the rest of the Republicans or Democrats, feels that capitalism can somehow behave more rationally than it does – or at least they want us to believe that with our vote they can transform its foul waters to fine wine. The reality is quite the opposite, as history shows again and again. Tensions between nations are always present over shifts in political allegiances between countries that may benefit some better than others. Global politics is a macrocosm of the local economy, with each company vying to get as much of the business as it can, such as trade, material resources and opportunities for future economic growth. From the perspective of a capitalist enterprise or a nation, the planet is a great big hamburger to chow on, with the unneeded parts thrown away on the landfill – children, nature, women, the elderly, education, health, and common sense. It is bottom-line a violent and wasteful way for humans to treat both each other and their world. It benefits only those in control of the resources and keeps the rest of us in a state of emotional tension about the relative lack of security that exists around the planet, at any time potentially plunging us all into another world war or terrorist attack. It is a world gone mad.

At the moment, Hillary Clinton has lost the Iowa caucus but won the Democratic Party primary in New Hampshire. She is thus very much in the race to become her party's presidential candidate at this time, with the biggest next date that may tip the scales in favor of Clinton or Obama what is dubbed by the press Big Tuesday on February 5th (something to get so excited about when we get home from work that day, not). Clinton is garnering a lot of support for her life-long struggle to medically insure all Americans, however she no longer advocates a single-payer insurance system as she once did and as all other capitalist nations around the world presently provide. Another example of the compromise she had to make to remain a viable leader of the Democratic Party, and a perfect example of how the needs of capitalism so taint the original ideals of those running for big offices that by the time they arrive there, they look, smell and sound like anyone else in the White Lie House. Indeed, the only Democratic Party candidate who does presently advocate a single-payer insurance plan is Kerry Edwards, who is presently tailing significantly behind the other two in the race.

Hillary Clinton is assuredly not going to be making the world any safer from war, either. It is true that she has worked to improve the medical and psychiatric treatment benefits available to veterans, thus leading one to assume that she is more willing to improve in the patching up of those who fought abroad than in preventing their being massacred physically and emotionally there in the first place. However, as the potential leader of one of the world's great powers, her job will be to make sure that she protects the economic interests of this country's industries and their standing in the marketplace as a whole. Rather than attempting to make the world safer from war, her own website recites the same sort of patriotic dribble one finds frothing out of the mouths of every other leader running for president, in her case: "every member of our armed forces will receive a fair shot at the American dream when their service is over." We all know, of course, how "fair" the American dream is, especially the millions of American presently failing to pay off their mortgages at a landslide rate, and the volunteers at the 51,000 food pantries across our "fair" land that are presently providing food assistance to the millions of extra customers turning up at food banks in recent years (according to America's Second Harvest "2006 Hunger Study").

Why should we believe these leaders, anyway? After the colorful streamers from the election victories have been swept away from the convention centers, life seems to return to its previously conventional grey pallor. Most of us (those of us with nothing to sell but our ability to work) continue our 9 to 5 existence for the employer class as though the election had never happened. Back to budgets. Back to traffic. Back to balancing medical benefits and food for the kids. Back to two to four weeks off a year for every forty-eight or fifty of work. Back to international tensions. Back to the continued slide into ecological devastation. Back to the feeling that no one was listening and no one cared the whole time.

Though they won't hold their breath waiting for it to happen, socialists are nonetheless hoping that 2008 will be the year that citizens of this country appreciate that it is a fact as real as gravity that capitalism cannot be reformed in the interest of the working class. Read my lips. Only about half of the eligible electorate has even voted at all during the presidential elections for the past few decades. You cannot deny that there is a certain sliminess to the electoral pledges for the future, and a certain disbelief that you know is well justified when looking at the past. Whatever laws get passed, whatever economic priorities of governments of different political shades, our basic day-to-day lives remain constant. And the worries we have about "the world" remain as before. At what point are you going to admit that the leaders, whether or not they believe their own rhetoric, are simply not capable of making the changes they promised you as a condition for your handing over your power to them?

Socialists take a very different position. They try to understand the world more as social scientists than as members of a flock of faithful. They notice, for instance, that humans are already producing enough food for everybody and hence that starvation cannot be a technical problem, but rather a problem of how the economic system hinders the production and distribution of social wealth. They see millions of buildings standing around that could easily be used for homeless people to live in, but which have no purpose at this time but to act as headquarters for banks and insurance companies devoted to the acquisition of monies that cannot be eaten, worn, or lived in (though they can certainly provide access to food, clothing and shelter in supply directly proportionate to your ownership of them). They notice that humans are very clever at solving problems that seemed insurmountable just years ago – in fact, our scientific know-how continues to explode at an exponential rate, while the economic reality of our world seems to plod on at the same slug's pace. Why is that? Why is it that complex knowledge, exciting and revolutionary, should continue to be spun from the brains of humans around the planet, while relatively simple things like permanently solving the problem of our getting fed, clothed, housed, cared for medically, or stressed, hardly budge?

The answer should be as plain as the end of your nose. What holds back our economic progress as a species is the type of economic relations we have – our maintenance of the institution of ownership of the production of social wealth. That is it. Pure and simple. We have been screaming this from rooftops for the past 105 years (and others from similar movements for 105 years before that) and history again and again would suggest that we are right. What we are proposing is a change in ownership of all socially produced wealth from private or state ownership to common ownership, which means ownership by the community at large. This can only be organized in a democratic way, utilizing democratic principles, to make sure that decisions remain in the hands of the community, and not of leaders, hierarchies or centralized authorities.

What we are saying is that once ownership of the production and distribution of socially produced wealth has transferred with your own political will from private and state hands to the community, we will be able to enjoy the fruits of this production directly. There will no longer be a need for money. Just like you see them do in Star Trek – do you ever see Captain Picard scrambling in his pocket for a $5 bill before he asks his replicator for a cup of Earl's Grey? We will contribute to the store of wealth, and take from it what we need. Having solved the problem of getting what we need on a material level, we will spend the rest of our lives doing what we love best – raising our children, renovating buildings and furniture, improving technological systems, teaching, researching, expressing ourselves creatively and artistically, making love, taking a nap, whatever we want!

The point is that we will have brought the production and distribution of wealth to the same level of sophistication as we presently spend on other technical projects. We will no longer as a species be bogged down in the daily grind merely in order to feed, clothe or house ourselves, which only enslaves us because those of us who work now do not enjoy the same status as those we work for, those who own the factories and other work sites and technological processes required for production and distribution. Unlike the hugely wasteful and cumbersome system of commodity production, this is a solution likely to work very well too. It is very feasible, it is very realistic, it liberates our economics from the hindrances and wastes that are intrinsic to commodity production, and allows us to really move ahead, both individually and as a species.

The solution is very obvious. Very simple. So are a lot of other facts that you accept every day without question – friction, planetary motion, the chemistry of sexual attraction, the behavioral laws that govern human attachment, and so on and so forth. Here is another law – a system based on production for sale will always cause poverty, wars and stress. Will ALWAYS cause poverty, wars, and stress. Think about it for a bit, think about how it makes sense and what problems you anticipate with it and then, as you assume your right as a citizen to take part in the body politic, help build this future for yourself, your family, your friends, and the human family.

What socialists are urging you to do during this 2008 presidential election race is to start thinking outside of the box. We want you to suspend your disbelief in socialism until the November election, and during the next 10 months to try going on the assumption instead that the reason the world does not change much from one election to another is probably because the leaders are leaving out some significantly important piece of information. Think further about this. Ask yourself what kind of world you would like to see. Ask yourself what kind of life you would like to have. Ask yourself if there is any relationship between the difficulty achieving these dreams and the rules that govern the present economic system. Ask yourself how long this system has existed and whether the idea that we cannot have a better one stems only from your social conditioning and not from actual evidence of any kind you can think of. Try stepping outside of your usual political assumptions, and ask yourself what you can personally do to make the world a better place for us all. Look into alternative models of social and economic organization. Read many books about these ideas. Chat with others with similar revolutionary theories via email. Ask yourself if these people only seem "radical" because their ideas are simply less prevalent at the moment, and if their ideas make any sense?

In short, socialists urge you to put the entire spectacle of the Presidential race on the shelf for now (until the socialist population is a majority and can nonviolently vote to introduce a new society based on common ownership). We propose that you not prolong the economic status quo, an outmoded social organization based on haves and have-nots that reached its pinnacle in Dickensian England and that has long outlived its usefulness in light of the promise of modern science. Instead, we recommend that you help to create a future more consistent with our advanced technology and the democratic ideals of a global world. This future will be based on democratic principles, the prioritization of needs, built-in concern for sustaining our ecosystem for ourselves and other species indefinitely, economic as well as psychological security, lasting peace, a profound sense of brotherhood and sisterhood among world citizens, and human life in the poise of balance between the twin existential forces of responsibility and freedom.

Socialists urge you from the bottom of their heart to not throw away your hard-won vote on perpetuating capitalism for four more years. A vote is a terrible thing to waste.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Smile, Smile, Smile! But Why?

The demand to keep smiling – or, in fancier language, to maintain a "positive outlook" – is pervasive in American culture. Song lyrics and gurus drum the demand into our heads, and we echo them, telling ourselves things like "Mustn't complain!" and "Must look on the bright side!"

The philosophy of the compulsory smile goes back at least to 1936, when Dale Carnegie's classic How to Win Friends and Influence People appeared. His first two pieces of advice are "don't criticize, condemn or complain" and "give honest and sincere appreciation." How you can always be honest and sincere if you have to be appreciative, whatever your true feelings may be? Don't ask me!

The entertainment industry is celebrated as the pacesetter of nonstop smiling in the Irving Berlin song There's No Business Like Show Business:

There's no people like show people.
They smile when they are low.

The second verse elaborates:

You get word before the show has started
That your favorite uncle died at dawn.
Top of that, your ma and pa have parted
You're broken-hearted, but you go on.

From this I infer that you might be let off smiling duty if a parent rather than just an uncle has died. You might get a few days' "family leave." But when you return your smile must be firmly back in place.

Besides show business, smiling is a condition of employment in all service jobs involving contact with the public (and to a lesser extent in many other jobs). A waitress, air stewardess, hotel receptionist or croupier, for example, is expected to keep smiling, however rude and unpleasant a customer may be to her.

So why do we have to smile?

The song lyrics don't really explain. Smiling is simply required by fashion:

Don't start to frown; it's never in style…
Just do your best to smile, smile, smile!

We are also told: "Smile and the world smiles with you." In other words, look unhappy and the world will give you the cold shoulder. I suppose it's true to some extent: I have enough troubles of my own, thank you, don't burden me with yours! But what does that say about our way of life?
One curious rationale for smiling is the "urban legend" that more facial muscles are used in frowning than in smiling (exact figures vary). Smiling saves effort. According to Dr. David H. Song, the claim is false: a smile uses 12 muscles, a frown only 11. In any case, isn't exercising as many different muscles as possible supposed to be good for us?

In figuring out the likely origin of the insistent demand to smile, smile, smile, it helps to consider whose interests it serves. Above all, I think, the interests of those who do not have much to complain about themselves but who are natural targets of others' complaints. That means: the most privileged and powerful section of society.

If you take Dale Carnegie's advice and "don't criticize, condemn or complain" about anyone or anything, then you will never develop a critique of the social system or an aspiration to change it. Ultimately, I suspect, that is the smile propaganda is about.


Capitalist Education

From the Western Socialist, March-April, 1942

"The mode of production in material life determines the general character of the social, political, and spiritual process of life."

When Karl Marx presented this analysis to a confused world, back in 1859, he provided an explanation of cause and effect in the social world that still serves the needs of our more inquisitive minds today. The slovenly and the superficial will miss its meaning, the sycophantic drudge will seek to sabotage its lesson but, to the serious student of social affairs, it affords a meaning of untangling the snarls that disconcert his approach to the subject.

In our material life the system of producing wealth is known as capitalism. Every article of value in this society is made and exchanged by a class of workers theoretically free but practically enslaved. While the legend is that they are the possessors of inalienable rights and irrevocable privileges, yet the fact proclaims that they have very little to say and are hesitant to say even that. Their function is to work.

This work racket implies that they are kept busy changing energy from one form to another. They absorb such items as pork chops, pot roast, and sardines which, when duly assimilated, liberate a store of energy that can be connected, in a scientific way, with various natural substances and machines, with the result that wealth emanates from the process.

The owners of the whole shebang are human beings not entirely unlike the ones who do the work. They probably have a little more polish and poise, and are gifted with a gentler ennui, but basically they are similar animals. How these particular bipeds got control of the outfit originally is a long and interesting story, but is not exactly germane to this article. Enough to know, for the present, that the small group owns all that is worth while, and the large group produces everything.

It is this relationship, then, in the field of our material life that shapes the educational, artistic, political, religious, and all other institutions associated with our particular race. It will be noted that Marx, in this extract from the introduction to the Critique of Political Economy, tells us that it is the general character of those processes of life that is molded by our manner of producing and exchanging values. It is not unusual to find new students, mechanically minded enough to consider the formula as applicable to each particular case. They feel as happy as an owl in a blackout to find a yardstick to measure the precise distance between cause and effect. Analogies are invariably dangerous, but this one between the realms of mechanics and sociology is definitely so. It may well require a long and devious procession to trace the cause to its terminal in effect, so lengthy and intricate a course, in fact, that the one may never be successfully pegged as the responsible precursor to the other.

In a material world, where the few control the wealth and the many are divorced from ownership, it is valid to contend that the few will do their best to train the many to the end that property relationships, as they exist today, shall not be challenged. The comfort and security aligned with the strangle hold on the good things of life is surely sufficient inducement to cause the fortunate possessors to awaken in the minds of the dispossessed a reverence and respect for property and authority. This training is called, for lack of a more suitable title, education.

The educated man - the scholar - of today is a curious conglomeration of fiction and fact, with the scales toppling over in favor of the former. He must have a regular hash head full of all the things that are not so, and some of the things that are. There are certain subjects that can be taught and learned in capitalism as well as in any other form of society, and even the educated man is not allergic to those.

Mathematics, for instance, is a branch of science that does not have to be expurgated and bowdlerized in the interest of a class. Simple arithmetic is a requisite for every boy and girl intending to participate in the production or exchange of wealth. Without some knowledge of the subject they would be practically useless in the social apparatus of today. The figures, tables, and formulas must be correct.

Still, even here there is a catch in the thing in the mode of presentation. The psychology of business success must be driven home. The inevitable partners A and B seem to have acquired a mortal antipathy for red ink. The ledger is invariably balanced on the right side, profits accrue, and the victim is supposed to declare the percentage of gain, and the share of the profits due each of the owners. The query is never posed in this manner - A and B are partners in the rubber business. The Priorities Board curtailed their supply. They lost $10,000 the first year, how long will they remain partners?

Higher mathematics is essential to workers engaged in special activities. The engineer, draughtsman, machinist, and toolmakers must be acquainted with trigonometry, calculus, and algebra in order to function properly on the job. The surveyor, architect and builder cannot get by without the aid of geometry. There are properties of points, lines, surfaces, and solids in their relation to each other that must be known. No good purpose could be served by having a textbook to twist the axioms, theorems, triangles, and trapezoids and to confuse the artisan who requires their help.

Even in the natural sciences the curriculum is not too bad. A knowledge of these is needed more and more as capitalism advances. Back in the haunts of the bile belt, where evolution runs counter to religion, it is evolution that suffers but, in highly developed capitalistic circles, where a head on collision between science and superstition threatens, steps are taken to effect a compromise that gives science a right of way without forcing religion entirely to the ditch.

Where capitalism functions at its worst, educationally speaking, is in teaching those branches of science that have their roots in the social scene. The caricature and distortion of history, economics and sociology displayed in our schools, colleges, and universities is sufficiently glaring to move even an educated man to scratch his head and wonder what its all about. But this is exactly where he falls down. Being a well trained animal he absorbs and accepts the ritual in the manner in which it is inflicted upon him. Why should he take pains to utilize the same technical skill in his social studies that he found imperative in his manipulation of geometry and algebra? He does not require its assistance in making a living.

The ruling class is in another position. They find it necessary to make the dismal science remain a dismal science. Teach the fact of economics in our schools and social hari-kari would be encouraged. This would be unpatriotic and uncomfortable. The ownership of property and control of the social system is too precious a thing to jeopardize by exposing its mechanism to a bunch of dopes that keep on working without thinking, while and semblance of social thought on their part would seriously interfere with their work.

Political economy as a branch of science devoted to the production and exchange of wealth must be, like the little man on the stair, just not there. The labor law of value, and theory of surplus value if correctly stated to the youth of the world would spell disaster to capitalism, and give that dreaded socialism the excuse it wants to grow. A phony study must be substituted that does not conflict with the right of one class to exploit another. It works, that is, it works as well as anything else under capitalism.

The history studied and understood by our educated people is about as fantastic as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, minus the entertainment value of the latter. A series of names and dates, wars and murders, ruthless royalists and dumb democrats, expanding frontiers and clashing dynasties supply the human sweep across the ages.

The simple story of man, as he evolved from primordial slime, through the savage and barbarous periods, up to his civilized status, the inventions and discoveries that gave an added impetus to his upward journey; the various forms of slavery that afflicted him in his climb to the heights of his wage slave pedestal; these things are left in a nebulous mess. Some writers, emanating from the ruling class, have told them, and told them well, but those writers were not the rulers pets, they were free lance incorrigibles who could not be harnessed in the rulers yoke.

- J.A. McDonald

Friday, January 11, 2008

Iran in the crosshairs

From the January 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Preparations for a US attack on Iran are well advanced. American planes probe the country's air defences. Commandos infiltrate Iran on sabotage and reconnaissance missions. A new military base is built close to the Iraq/Iran border at Badrah. The Fifth Fleet patrols in the Gulf and along Iran's southern coast.

Political preparations also continue. Accusations against Iran are elaborated and repeated ad nauseam. Pressure is exerted (with variable success) on other countries to assist in the war plans. Aid and encouragement are given to separatists in ethnic-minority areas of Iran: Arab Khuzestan in the southwest, "southern Azerbaijan" in the northwest. Resolutions are pushed through at the U.N. Security Council and in the US Congress to create a "legal" justification for aggression.

Why are the dominant capitalist interests in the US so bent on war with Iran? The war propaganda provides a highly distorted and incomplete picture of the real reasons.

"War against terror" – Stage 3?

An attack on Iran will be sold as the next stage, after Afghanistan and Iraq, of the "war against terror." What does this mean?

As with the attack on Iraq, the claim may be made, explicitly or implicitly, that the Iranian regime is connected in some way with Al-Qaeda. This time round the claim would be even more deceptive, as Iranian leaders denounced 9/11 and helped the US depose the Taliban in Afghanistan. The terrorism charge is also based on the real Iranian support of Hizbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. This, however, means enlarging the meaning of "terrorist" to cover any armed movement that opposes the regional interests of the US and its allies. Finally, the US Congress has passed a resolution – supported, incidentally, by leading Democratic presidential contender Senator Hilary Clinton – declaring Iran's Revolutionary Guards (an elite section of its armed forces) a terrorist organization. This justifies military action against them as part of the "war against terror."

Another "disarmament war"?

Above all, the Bush administration claims that Iran is very close to acquiring nuclear weapons and that a nuclear-armed Iran would be an unprecedented threat to world peace. The same claim was used to justify the attack on Iraq. No nuclear weapons capability was discovered after the invasion, but the claim had served its purpose. Iran is enriching uranium for a civilian nuclear power program under IAEA supervision, but there is no evidence that its leaders seek nuclear weapons and it will not be in a position to produce them for several (perhaps ten) years. This is a consensus view of specialists not only at the IAEA but also at the CIA and Pentagon.

Nevertheless, Iran is a rising power with ambitions of exerting influence in a region crowded with nuclear powers (Israel, Pakistan, India, Russia and China, not to mention the US nuclear presence). As such it is very likely to acquire nuclear weapons at some point. It might be willing to barter the nuclear weapons option for international recognition of its status as a regional power, but that is precisely what the US and its allies are unwilling to grant.

While the risk of accident or miscalculation does increase with the number of nuclear powers, there is no serious reason to suppose that Iran would be more dangerous than any other state with nuclear weapons. All nuclear states are prepared to resort to nuclear weapons under certain circumstances.

"Nuclear non-proliferation" started as an international agreement to confine nuclear weapons to the members of a small exclusive club. It has now come to mean "disarmament wars" to deny nuclear weapons status selectively to regimes considered hostile to US interests (listen to an interview with Jonathan Schell on The US seeks to prevent Iran from going nuclear because it would shift the balance of power in the Middle East, making American nuclear capabilities less intimidating and depriving Israel of its regional nuclear monopoly.

Oil and gas, dollars and euros

While the US does want to prevent Iran from eventually acquiring nuclear weapons, this does not explain the urgency of the preparations for war. The key factor is control over resources, in particular oil and natural gas. The US seeks to restore and maintain control over the hydrocarbon resources of the Middle East, a region that contains 55 percent of the world's oil and 40 percent of its gas.

The occupation of Iraq marks an important step toward this goal. The petroleum law that the US is imposing on Iraq will give foreign companies direct control of its oilfields through "production sharing agreements". Iran, which alone accounts for 10 percent of world oil and 16 percent of world gas, is the main remaining obstacle to regional domination.

Control over oil has various aspects. One is control over price – gaining the leverage to ensure the continued flow of cheap oil to the American economy. Another is control over who buys the oil. The country that buys the most oil from Iran is now China, a situation that upsets those in the US who view China as a major rival and future adversary. Arguably, however, the most important issue is which currency is used to price and sell oil.

As the position of the dollar in relation to other currencies weakens, the dollar is ceasing to function as the world's main reserve currency. Countries are shifting their foreign exchange reserves away from dollar assets toward assets denominated in other currencies, especially the euro. Dollar assets now constitute only 20 percent of Iran's reserves.

Similarly, oil producers increasingly prefer not to receive dollars for their oil. In late 2006 China began paying for Iranian oil in euros, while in September 2007 Japan's Nippon Oil agreed to pay for Iranian oil in yen. Continuation of this trend will flood the US economy with petrodollars, fuelling inflation and further weakening the dollar. It is feared that the result will be a deep recession.

Occupying oil-producing countries may seem like an obvious way to buck the trend, although the effect is bound to be temporary. In 2000 Iraq began selling oil for euros; subsequently it converted its reserves to euros. Since the US invasion it has gone back to using dollars. This may be an important motive for attacking Iran too.

The shifting geopolitical map

The collapse of the Soviet Union enabled the US to establish a temporary global geopolitical predominance, though at the cost of enormous military expenditure that exceeds that of all other countries combined. Like the dominant position of the dollar, this cannot last very much longer in view of the progressive economic decline of the US.

The geopolitical map of the world has begun to shift, and Iran occupies a central place in this process. The framework of a potential anti-U.S. axis exists in the shape of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which brings together Russia, China and post-Soviet Central Asia. American strategists fear further consolidation and militarization of the SCO and its expansion to draw in other major Asian states and, first of all, Iran, which already has close ties with both Russia and China. (India, though for the time being firmly aligned with the US, may follow.) So here too attacking Iran may be seen as a way of averting a threat to US predominance.

Senseless wars

There is a certain logic to the motives that drove the US to war in Iraq and may drive it to war with Iran. Nevertheless, these wars make no sense even in capitalist terms (let alone from the working class and human point of view). It is not just that costs are likely to exceed benefits, as was the case in Vietnam, for instance. They are senseless because under current world conditions the goal of securing long-term US predominance is unattainable. At most, the loss of economic and geopolitical primacy may be deferred for a few years, but it will be all the more precipitous when it does come.

The faction of the American capitalist class currently in power refuses to recognize this reality. Even their "mainstream" opponents in the "Democratic" Party are rather reluctant to do so. Admittedly, the top brass do not want another quagmire. Perhaps their resistance will save the day.