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Reflection and Analysis from a World-Socialist Perspective
Stefan (Stephen D. Shenfield)
56 articles, 2006—2010
Wage slavery * Non-profit production * Patents * Looters Land * Paying for air * Working hours * Sulphur mining Global warming * Childen’s TV * Arctic * Moon * Asteroids Gods * Maoist China * 9/11 * Globalisation * Ghettoes The war business * Congo * Opium * Georgia * Zionism Gaza * Iraq * Iran * South Africa * Utopias * Why smile? Malawi * Afghanistan * Obama * Charity * Swine flu Christian fascism * waste and want * Russian “Communists”
I greet and address you as a fellow earthling and human being! This is a crucial time for our species and for the planet that remains our only home. New global dangers loom while old problems remain unresolved. The world continues to tear itself apart. Our survival has never been more in question. Shall we allow a system of power and profit inherited from the barbaric past to devour what still remains of our home? Or shall we combine our efforts to replace that system by world socialism – the common ownership and democratic control of the means of life by the whole of the world’s people? I present this e-book (thanks to Scribd) without charge to readers throughout the world. In this sense, it prefigures world socialism in form as well as content. It brings together under nine thematic headings forty articles that I have written over the last three years. All but three of the articles appeared in The Socialist Standard, journal of the Socialist Party of Great Britain (SPGB), which is one of the companion parties of the World Socialist Movement (WSM). One article appeared in The World Socialist Review, published by another WSM companion party, the World Socialist Party of the U.S. (WSPUS). Two articles have not been published before. In the process of re-reading the articles I made minor changes to some of them, mostly of a stylistic nature. Let me explain that I have not been a socialist my whole life. I belonged to the SPGB in my youth and in recent years have been a member of the WSPUS. For a long time in between I was either “non-political” or
involved in various sorts of reform politics. In two of the articles included here I criticise my own thinking during this period. Although the articles are on diverse topics, I would not claim that they provide a fully balanced picture of socialist thinking. To some extent they reflect my academic experience in the field of international relations. However, these articles may serve as a starting point. I hope they will whet your appetite and tempt you to explore the writing of other world socialists. For this purpose I recommend the WSM site www.worldsocialism.org, which has links to many other relevant sites and blogs in various languages, and also www.worldincommon.org. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us, and the world will be as one” (John Lennon, Imagine). I have provided some introductory comments on specific articles under section headings. You are welcome to reproduce whole articles for non-profit purposes, provided that you indicate the original source. I would appreciate any kind of feedback – well, almost any kind! My e-mail address is shown below. Please inform me about any links, references, reproductions, etc. Any of this will give me encouragement. Stephen D. Shenfield (Stefan) Summer 2009 firstname.lastname@example.org
Second edition (Fall 2009): Six articles have been added to the first edition, bringing the total to 46.
I would like to add another recommended site, that of the World Socialist Party of the United States (of which I am a member) at www.wspus.org Third edition (Spring 2010): Five more pieces (four new and one that I had mislaid) bring the total to 51. Fourth edition (August 2010): Now 56.
Section 1. Profits versus needs
Waste and want: Grapes of Wrath revisited This land is their land Non-profit production: wave of the future? Patents and the suppression of inventions: capitalism versus technological advance Who are the looters? New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina Paying for air: why not? Evil people or evil system?
Why they keep piling up manure: the psychology of wealth accumulation Dedicated to serving the rich: the reality of aid Unemployment – is it really the problem?
Section 2. Working to survive
Labour without end? The rise in working hours Is wage labor really a form of slavery? “Better I die of radiation than my children of hunger” Labour in hell: mining sulphur in Indonesia Malawi: children of the tobacco fields Are you a human or a robot?
Section 3. Politics in various countries
Selecting a U.S. president: the invisible primaries Obama: whose president? American public opinion and the S-word: weakening of a taboo? Christian fascism: the best response Fascists take over Russian Communist Party Still in chains: South Africa after apartheid
Zionism and antisemitism: two dangerous ideologies that thrive on each other Sliding into the abyss: the Gaza Ghetto Maoist China as a class society: illusion and reality
Section 4. Popular culture
Smile, smile, smile! But why? The play world and capitalist reality
Section 5. International relations
The end of national sovereignty? Globalisation versus national capitalism Latin America: the changing geopolitical context The scramble for the Arctic The next capitalist frontier – the moon Asteroid wars Antics in the South China Sea
Section 6. War and peace (mostly war)
The war business: why do capitalist states prepare for and wage war? Campaigners for humanitarian intervention: “useful idiots” of militarism
Nuclear weapons are still there September 11, 2001: reflections on a somewhat unusual act of war Iran in the crosshairs Iraq: violence without end or purpose? War in Georgia Congo: the mobile phone war Opium wars, old and new War in Gaza: propaganda and realities Israel’s state piracy: warding off the threat of peace Ten good reasons why we are fighting in Afghanistan
Section 7. Non-military global threats
Global warming: is it (or will it soon be) too late? Mystery of the pig/bird/human flu virus
Section 8. Historical reflections
Driven from Eden: was the Neolithic Revolution entirely a good thing? Camouflaging class rule The trouble with gods The fall of “communism”: why so peaceful?
Section 9. Thinking about socialism
Evo Morales: a call for socialism? Socialism: class interest or human interest? Was nowhere somewhere? More’s Utopia and the meaning of socialism Bogdanov, technocracy and socialism Free access to what? Some problems of consumption in socialism
PROFITS versus NEEDS
These articles focus in different ways on the contrast between “production for profit” as the dominant form of economic activity under capitalism and “production for need” as a guiding principle of socialism.
Waste and Want: Grapes of Wrath revisited
In his famous novel The Grapes of Wrath (Chapter 25), John Steinbeck described how food was destroyed during the Great Depression:
Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people come for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges if they could drive out and pick them up? And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges... A million people hungry, needing the fruit – and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains. And the smell of rot fills the country. Burn coffee for fuel in the ships... Dump potatoes in the rivers and place guards along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out [with nets]. Slaughter the pigs and bury them... And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates – died of malnutrition – because the food must be forced to rot.
A few more facts. In 1933 alone, the federal government bought 6
million hogs and destroyed them. Vast quantities of milk were poured down the sewers. 25 million acres of crops (the area of a square with sides 200 miles long) were ploughed under. In Brazil, 69 million bags of coffee, equivalent to two years’ output, were destroyed. All to keep up prices. What about this time round? The current depression is the deepest since that of the 1930s, and its end is not yet in sight. As real wages continue to fall and austerity measures bite harder, more and more goods will remain unsold. Falling prices and profits are already leading to scenes reminiscent of those portrayed by Steinbeck. Leaving strawberries to rot. In March 2010, reports appeared that Florida strawberry growers, faced with a flooded market and a sharp collapse in wholesale prices, were leaving huge tracts to rot in the fields. Most of these farmers did not allow people in to pick fruit for themselves. They were afraid that cucumbers and other new crops they were planting between the rows might be harmed. Not only the strawberries went to waste but also the water used to grow them. Cultivation of the wasted strawberries drained the groundwater and caused local water shortages. Bulldozing houses. There have been reports from around the United
States of the destruction of houses, many of them newly built. Most foreclosed houses can no longer be sold at auction, even for prices as low as $500. They end up in the hands of banks that see no medium-term prospect of reselling them and conclude that the cheapest solution is to tear them down. This happens not only to individual houses but often to whole streets. In May 2009, a bank decided to bulldoze an almost finished housing complex in California rather than spend the few hundred thousand dollars needed to complete it. Meanwhile the ranks of the homeless continue to swell. They are in desperate need of housing but generate no “effective demand”. Slashing clothes and shoes. In early January 2010, The New York Times ran a story about two major retail chains, H&M and Wal-Mart, throwing out unsold clothes in trash bags. First they are made unwearable: employees are told to slash garments, slice holes in shoes, cut sleeves off coats, fingers off gloves, etc.. The response to this article included internet testimony from exemployees of other large stores, revealing how widespread these practices now are. Cheryl: “I worked at Dillards for several years. They do the same thing. Their logic was that if they donated it [to charity] people would try to
bring it back to exchange for other merchandise.” Martha: “Yeah, I used to work at a store where they would rip the bed sheets, blankets and pillow cases if they couldn’t sell them, then throw them away... I thought it was dumb. I wanted to take it and donate it, but they didn’t let me.” Nat: “I used to work for H&M and hated to cut the clothing [that] I knew we could have given away to those who needed it. We destroyed EVERYTHING and I found it so stupid. It was such a waste and sad!” Maryliz: “This just makes me sick. How terrible, especially right now with people freezing to death. They could have been saved if they had sufficient warm clothing. Shame on the companies that do this.” Maggie: “I got so mad that my managers wouldn’t box up [unsold food] and take it to shelters that I called corporate headquarters... They wouldn’t let the food be donated! Some blather about how that would devalue the brand, because people would just go to that shelter to eat the food instead of coming and paying for it.”
Steinbeck finishes Chapter 25 with the passage that gives his book its
title: “In the eyes of the hungry there is a growing wrath. In the souls of the people the grapes of wrath are filling and growing heavy, growing heavy for the vintage.” There is ample cause for wrath. But wrath is not enough. The managers who got Maggie so angry have to act as they do. (Otherwise they won’t remain managers.) The things that Maggie and the others naively see as use values they have to view solely as potential exchange values. They have to pursue the commercial logic of maximising profit or minimising loss. The idea of giving people what they need, simply because they need it, is inconsistent with this logic. It expresses a different, human logic, which will come into its own once we reorganize society on a different, human basis. August 2010
This land is their land
You must have heard the song by Woody Guthrie that begins: “This land is your land, this land is my land.” Well, no doubt it should be, but it isn’t. Many millions of working
people own no land at all. Those who are a bit better off own the small plot on which their house stands — a fraction of an acre. So who does own the land? Over 95 percent of the privately held land in the United States is owned by just 3 percent of the population. These are the people who own the land, the industry, the technology — all the means of life on which we depend. This land is their land. A land survey conducted in 1999 found that the 53,000 largest landlords — those owning 2,000 acres (3 square miles) or more — own a total of 350 million acres, worth $366 billion. On average each of these people owns about 7,000 acres (11 square miles), worth some $7 million. Even this is quite modest by comparison with the largest landowners. King Ranch (Texas), owned by the Kleberg family, is worth about a billion. At 825,000 acres or 1,300 square miles, it is larger than the state of Rhode Island. Besides 60,000 head of cattle, the ranch includes farmland and game preserves. There are whole towns that belong to a single individual. The “developer” Ben Carpenter owns the town of Las Colinas near Dallas, with 12,000 acres, about 20,000 residents, and about a square mile of ofﬁce space. Country and western singer Loretta Lynn owns Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. It is also possible to buy an island — if you have the money, of course. In 1919 William Wrigley, Jr. (of chewing gum fame) bought the 74 square miles of Santa Catalina Island, 22 miles offshore from Los Angeles. There are quite a few privately owned islands scattered around the world.
Even Josip Broz Tito, ruler of the so-called “Socialist” Republic of Yugoslavia, hadone — Vanga in the Adriatic, home to his three palatial villas. Apparently Woody Guthrie did know whose land this really is. One verse of the original song went:
Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me. A sign was painted, said “Private property.” But on the other side it didn’t say nothing. That side was made for you and me.
This was one of two verses that were later suppressed, turning a protest against private property into yet another piece of patriotic drivel. John Lennon’s “Imagine” is more difﬁcult to distort: Imagine all the people Sharing all the world No need for greed or hunger A brotherhood of Man.
WSPUS website, November 21, 2005
Non-profit production: wave of the future?
Each year half a million people in India and other tropical countries catch visceral leishmaniasis, also known as black fever. Infected by the bite of a sand fly, they rapidly weaken and lose weight before dying with painfully swollen livers and spleens. A safe and effective treatment for black fever was found long ago: the antibiotic paromomycin (cure rate 95%). But the firm that developed it -Pharmacia, a precursor of Pfizer – shelved it in the 1960s for lack of a "viable market." What that means is that the people who need it cannot afford to pay for it. It is simply not profitable for pharmaceutical companies to fight diseases that afflict the poor. Less than 1% of the new drugs developed in 1975–99 were for tropical diseases (Joel Bakan, The Corporation, p. 49). Lack of effective demand is not the only thing that makes many useful drugs unprofitable. In general, a capitalist firm can only make big profits by selling drugs on which it has a patent – that is, an exclusive right to make, use, and sell a new product for a certain period (in Britain and the US it is 20 or even 25 years). Firms are not interested in making drugs that cannot be patented, and indeed will go to great lengths to suppress them. Cancer provides a striking example. The established treatments for
cancer — surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy — are destructive, usually ineffective, and weaken the body’s natural resistance. Many alternative therapies that are demonstrably safer and more effective are denounced as “quackery” and often banned under pressure from those with a vested interest in the established treatments. One is amygdalin (laetrile), a carbohydrate that occurs in some 1,200 plants throughout the world. Another is the simple off-the-shelf chemical hydrazine sulfate (Ralph W. Moss, The Cancer Industry, Ch. 8, 10). It is precisely the wide availability of such substances that makes them unpatentable and therefore unprofitable. An interesting recent development is the emergence of a new kind of charity that raises money not just to distribute but to produce things that people need but can't afford. One such organization is the Institute for OneWorld Health (IOWH), founded in San Francisco in 2000 by Dr. Victoria Hale (http://www.oneworldhealth.org). A pharmaceutical chemist, Dr. Hale had felt frustrated watching the industry abandon badly needed and promising but unprofitable drugs. At about the same time, James Fruchterman, an electrical engineer, set up Benetech, another "nonprofit company," in Palo Alto, California, to produce new types of equipment for the disabled. The first program of IOWH aims to make paromomycin available to black fever sufferers in the north Indian state of Bihar. The program is being funded (to the tune of $4,700,000) mainly by Bill and Melinda Gates. The Indian government has given its approval and an Indian firm (Gland Pharma of Hyderabad) has agreed to manufacture the drug at cost. Other programmes are planned to tackle Chagas disease, malaria, and diarrhea. It is hard not to sympathize with well-meaning projects of this kind.
But we also have to consider the problems faced by nonprofit organizations as they operate under the constraints of a profit-driven economy. The first problem is how to raise enough money. IOWH is asking the Gates for another $30 million. They can't take out loans or raise funds on the capital market because that would force them to operate on a profit-oriented basis. But unfortunately only a few of the very wealthy are willing to give to charity on a really major scale and the demands made on those few are legion. And doesn't it seem perverse first to accumulate profit and then use it to ameliorate the ills constantly generated by that same profit-making process? Does the left hand know what the right hand is up to? It also bears noting that the paromomycin is not going to be provided free of charge. The aim is only to make it as affordable as possible. Dr. Hale hopes to keep the cost down to $10 for a 21-day course of treatment, but the website of the World Health Organization merely says "below $50." We shall see. The point is that in the context of India – and especially in that of Bihar, India's poorest state – these are by no means paltry sums. The average per capita income in Bihar is $120 (5,500 rupees) a year. As the distribution of income is highly unequal, even $10 will be well beyond the means of many sufferers. In his enthusiastic report in the Guardian Weekly (October 20-26, 2006, p. 29), Ken Burnett asks why nonprofit pharmaceutical companies should not be followed by nonprofit seed companies, water companies, travel companies, and so on. Why not, indeed? But if this is supposed to be a process that develops under capitalism, we can't avoid asking: "Where is the money coming from?" So far all we have is one small nonprofit pharmaceutical company and one small nonprofit engineering firm. Nevertheless, it is encouraging to see people trying to move in this
direction, people who crave meaningful work for the benefit of the community. The very existence of nonprofit companies is a protest against and challenge to the system of production for profit. We would only take the argument to the next logical step. Why not extend the principle of production for need to the world economy as a whole? January 2007
Patents and the suppression of inventions: capitalism versus technological advance
Capitalism has been widely celebrated for its capacity for rapid technological advance. Thus Marx in the Communist Manifesto of 1848: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production.” A century later Joseph Schumpeter declared that “creative destruction” is “the essential fact about capitalism” (Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 1942). And surely this fact has never been truer than it is today, in the age of microelectronics and bioengineering? The technological dynamism of capitalism is undeniable, especially in comparison with earlier historical formations. This, however, is only half the story. The functioning of capitalism also entails the shelving or suppression of many useful inventions. One common cause of neglect is the limited purchasing power of those who stand to benefit from some discovery, as in the case of drugs to treat tropical diseases. Another key factor behind the non-use of inventions is the patents system. A patent is a legally protected exclusive right to use a new product or process, valid for a fixed period of time (typically 20—25 years). Patent
rights supposedly belong to “inventors” and promote technological advance by giving inventors a substantial material interest in the results of their work. It’s a dubious rationale because most inventors are members of the working class and the patents on their inventions, like the windfall profits from them, belong not to them but to their employers. If they’re lucky they might get a small bonus. They go on inventing things because it gives them satisfaction. That’s human nature. Nevertheless, the patents system does encourage companies to employ research scientists and engineers and in some cases to exploit patented inventions or license other companies to exploit them. In many other cases, however, a particular invention is viewed primarily as a threat to profits from the sale of an existing product, demand for which it would undercut. It will then seem more profitable not to make the new product while using the patent to prevent anyone else from making it. According to various studies, anywhere from 40% to 90% of patents are never used or licensed. But what if the patent on the unwelcome invention is already owned by a competitor who plans to exploit it? Even in this situation there is often some action that can be taken to ward off the threat. Firms interested in developing new technologies tend to be financially weak and vulnerable. They may be threatened, paid not to use their patents, or simply taken over, patents and all. The permutations are endless. There are many ways to skin a cat, as they say. Let’s consider a few examples. They are taken from articles by Kurt Saunders, an expert on business law at California State University, and Linda Levine, an engineer at Carnegie Mellon University. (The articles are available at http://www.mttlr.org/voleleven/saunders.pdf and http://jolt.law.harvard.edu/articles/pdf/v15/15HarvJLTech389.pdf)
* * * Anemia is a worldwide scourge, with a disproportionate impact on women, children, and poor people (due to iron-deficient diet). Even in the US it affects an estimated 3.5 million people. It is treated with a drug called erythropoietin (EPO), which promotes the formation of red blood cells. A big problem with EPO is that the body secretes it almost immediately, so doses have to be very high. That makes EPO very lucrative for AMGEN, the company that owns the patents, while the patient suffers distressing side effects and foots the bill. Thus, a person on dialysis for kidney failure requires lifelong EPO at $10,000 a year. Most of the world’s sufferers, of course, have no access to such costly treatment. In 1997, Gisella Clemons, a scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, discovered a protein binding factor for EPO—that is, a protein that sticks to it and blocks its excretion. Combining this protein with EPO increases take-up by 10—50 times, vastly reducing the dosage required and making the drug both safer and more affordable. AMGEN was not interested. The company refused to make the more effective form of EPO themselves or to allow others to make it by giving them access to the patents in its possession. Martha Luehrmann, a colleague of Clemons, gave vent to her frustration: “A wonderful advance that could save hundreds of thousands of children from anemia and death stays on the shelf because the patent system protects a company that doesn’t want to see any risk to its bottom line.” Another example from the pharmaceutical industry. Bloch, a medical researcher employed by Smith-Kline UK, devised a new dietary supplement
for use in diuretic therapy. His supplement, a balanced combination of magnesium and potassium compounds, overcame the main defect of existing diuretic drugs, including Smith-Kline’s own Dyazide—namely, potassium depletion and its effects (fatigue, dizziness, confusion, etc.). In 1974 Bloch and Smith-Kline concluded a licensing agreement by which Smith-Kline undertook either to develop the supplement itself or to surrender its exclusive rights to Bloch. In the event it did neither. Bloch went to court, where his claims were accepted but no effective action was taken. Many inventions have been suppressed in the motor vehicle industry. Several of these could have greatly improved the efficiency of fuel use and reduced or even eliminated polluting emissions. In 1936, for instance, Charles Pogue invented a carburetor that enabled a car to run over 200 miles to the gallon at speeds of up to 70 mph. More recently, Tom Ogle designed a car in which a series of hoses fed a mixture of gas vapors and air directly into the engine. Tested in 1977, it averaged 100 miles per gallon at 55 mph. It is the oil corporations rather than the automobile manufacturers themselves that have the strongest interest in suppressing inventions that improve fuel efficiency and thereby reduce gasoline consumption. Thus, Exxon is said to have purchased and buried the design for a “momentum engine” with high fuel efficiency. Patents do not last forever. For that among other reasons, many new products do eventually see the light of day, even if only two, three or four decades after being invented. Patent owners imposed such long delays on the appearance of many now familiar products. Thus, the fluorescent light bulb was patented in the 1920s but kept off the market until 1938 in order to keep energy efficiency low and demand for electricity high. A “safe” (or at least safer) cigarette, from which much carcinogenic material had been removed,
was invented in the 1960s but suppressed in favor of the more dangerous kind until the last few years. The same thing happened to the telephone answering machine, the plain paper photocopier, the auto-focus camera, emission control devices for motor vehicles, the electronic thermometer, and artificial caviar. * * * There are two divergent tendencies in patent law. On the one hand, patents are recognized as a form of property. An owner of property has the right to use that property or not at his or her discretion, and this applies to patents as it does, say, to land. On the other hand, legislators created patent law for the purpose of promoting technological advance in the public interest, so should the courts not try to discourage its misuse for the opposite purpose? Legal reformers like Saunders and Levine advocate changes to patent law that will strengthen the “public interest” tendency and impede the suppression of useful inventions. The provisions of patent law do matter. The law already places certain restrictions on the rights of patent owners; otherwise inventions would be suppressed even more thoroughly. So legal reform might have a beneficial effect. But, as in other areas of industrial regulation, companies will find means of complying with the letter of any new requirements while thwarting their spirit. Let us suppose that the owner of a new patent is required to put it to use within a fairly short time interval or otherwise forfeits the patent (and Saunders and Levine do not suggest anything nearly as drastic). Could he not start production of the new product while “sabotaging” it to make sure sales of the old product would not be affected? For instance, the new product
could be produced on a small scale and in deliberately slipshod fashion, sold at a very high price with hardly any advertising, and so on. How much does it really matter if an invention has to wait a few decades before it is widely applied? Not very much, perhaps, if it’s a new kind of camera or photocopier. The delay is harder to tolerate if it’s an effective treatment for a previously incurable disease. And, with global warming upon us, new sources of environmentally harmless energy and new devices to raise energy efficiency are a matter of life and death for the planet. We can’t afford to wait until capitalists finally find it profitable to make the switch to new technologies. It is high time to put knowledge and human creativity at the direct disposal of the community. February 2007
Who are the looters? New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina
What is the first priority of government in the wake of disaster? Saving lives? Looking after the survivors? Disposing of the dead and preventing epidemics? Think again. At best these things come second. The first priority of government in the wake of disaster is exactly the same as its first priority at other times: maintaining or restoring "order" -- that is, its powers of coercion. Moreover, the first purpose of "order" is to protect and enforce property rights. From this point of view, the main threat posed by disasters
like Hurricane Katrina is not the threat to human life and health, to the environment, or even to the economy. It is the threat of "chaos," the threat to "order" and "civilization," but above all to property, arising from the temporary breakdown of government. The "looter" symbolizes and dramatizes this threat, conjuring up images of Viking warriors on the rampage, barbaric violence, evil incarnate. Of course, these particular "Vikings" were all the more terrifying for being black. In the days that followed the hurricane, the media stirred up racist fears of the poor black people ofNew Orleans, spreading rumours (the fashionable expression is "urban myths") later shown to be exaggerated out of all proportion, if not completely unfounded. For example, in the week following Katrina the number of murders was average for the city (four) (see Ivor van Heerden and Mike Bryan, The Storm, pp. 124-8). All in all, we shouldn't be too shocked or too surprised to learn that at 7 p.m. on Wednesday August 31, 2005 martial law was declared in the flooded city. Mayor Ray Nagin told police officers to stop rescuing people and focus solely on the job of cracking down on looters. This was just two and a half days after the hurricane made landfall and with thousands of people still stranded in attics and on rooftops. In one typically heroic encounter, police officers chased down a woman with a cart of supplies for her baby, handcuffed her - and then didn't know what to do with her. All the jails were flooded. By the end of the week that problem was solved. A new makeshift jail was set up at the Greyhound bus terminal, with accommodation for 750 prisoners. This was the first institution in the city to resume normal functioning. True, it could have been worse. After the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 people were shot dead as looters while foraging in the wreckage of
their own homes (see G. Hansen and E. Condon, Denial of Disaster, 1989). So why did people loot? Or to use less loaded language, why did they take things that didn't belong to them without paying for them? One man answered a TV interviewer who had asked him why he was looting by asking in turn: "Can you see anyone to pay?" The stores had been abandoned by their operators, but people still needed the things stored there. They needed food andfresh water, dressings for their wounds, new clothes to replace those ruined by exposure to the "toxic gumbo" of the floodwaters. Most of the so-called looting was of this kind - for the satisfaction of desperate need. In any sane society that would be a good enough reason for taking things. Two paramedics from San Francisco who found themselves trapped in New Orleans wrote about the Walgreens store on the corner of Royal and Iberville Streets in the French quarter. The owners had locked up and fled. Milk, yogurt, and cheese could be seen through the window in the dairy display case, spoiling in the heat. Should we expect the parents of hungry and thirsty children not to break in, even at the risk of being pursued by the police? Would they have been good parents had they failed to do all in their power to see to their children's needs? And what of storeowners who choose to let food go to waste rather than give it to needy neighbours? My first impulse is to wax lyrical about the sheer meanness of their behaviour. But probably they made no such conscious choice. As businesspeople they must have thought of the food and drink in their store not as products for assuaging hunger and thirst, but merely as commodities for profitable sale. If they could no longer be sold they might just as well go to waste.
There were looters who acted not just for themselves and their families but for the benefit of the local community. For instance, the young men who collected medical supplies from a Rite Aid for distribution among elderly neighbours. Or the man who distributed food from a Winn- Dixie store to the 200 or so people holed up at the Grand Palace Hotel. "He was trying to help suffering people, and the idea that he was looting never crossed his mind." Socially responsible people of this kind are sometimes described as "commandeering" or "requisitioning" the goods they seize. That may well be how they view their own actions. In legal terms, however, only government officials, as representatives of duly constituted authority, have the right to commandeer or requisition property in an emergency. Private citizens who do so, whatever their motives, are engaging in theft and may be penalized accordingly. Consider the feat of Jabar Gibson. This resourceful young man, purely on his own initiative, found a bus that was still in working order (the city authorities assumed that all buses had been ruined by the floodwater), took charge of it, filled it up with evacuees, and drove them to Houston. This was the first busload of evacuees to reach Houston after the storm (at 10 p.m. on Wednesday August 31). The police were forewarned that a "renegade bus" was on its way; if they had intercepted it Jabar might have been arrested and charged with theft. Fortunately he was in luck: he got through to his destination, to be greeted by Harris County Judge Robert Eckels. Presumably his crime has been forgiven. Of course, not all looters were responding to real personal, family, or community needs. Some were simply taking a rare opportunity to acquire coveted though non-essential consumer goods. For others looting (and
shitting in) fancy stores was a form of social protest or "empowerment," an outlet for pent-up anger against the endlessly advertised world of affluence from which they felt excluded. Finally, there was a phenomenon that I propose calling "entrepreneurial looting." Entrepreneurial looters gathered assets with a view to later sale. As they got stuff for free, they could sell at any price and still make a profit. For example, "urban foresters" went after valuable lumber. Other entrepreneurs sold looted liquor. The cases of large-scale organized looting by armed groups (their weapons also probably looted) that received so much publicity must, I think, have been of this character. Brinkley reports an interesting conversation between Lieutenant Colonel Bernard McLaughlin of the Louisiana National Guard and a man selling liquor at a makeshift bar. When McLaughlin tells the bartender he is shutting him down, the man replies that he is "just being entrepreneurial." Why shouldn't he make some money? McLaughlin gets angry at this appeal to "true American values.” "This is looting. You looted that... That's a 15-year felony. That's a 3-year mandatory minimum sentence." The man submits and McLaughlin proceeds to smash his bottles one by one. And yet the preceding account makes clear that McLaughlin's real objection to such bars has nothing to do with the provenance of the alcohol. He doesn't want the locals drinking alcohol because it makes them more quarrelsome and disorderly as well as further dehydrating their bodies. Would he have allowed the bar to stay open if it was selling - or giving away - only looted fruit juice, soda, and bottled water? Legally, however, looting remains "a 15-year felony," be its social consequences good or bad. Property is sacred. The bartender might also have tried to point out in his defence that
historically all capitalist enterprise is based on looting.Early capitalism looted land and other resources from peasants (in Europe) and from indigenous peoples (throughout the Americas and other colonial territories).The looting even extended to the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of human beings, such as the ancestors of most victims of Hurricane Katrina. Marx called it the primitive accumulation of capital. Looting is as American as cherry pie; the looters of New Orleans are keeping up an old American tradition and should surely receive all due credit as good patriots. But... it depends on whose possessions you loot, doesn't it? August 2006
Paying for air: why not?
Introductory note. As a researcher, I am swamped by a constant stream of Working Papers, Discussion Papers, Position Papers, Occasional Papers and Miscellaneous Papers that all sorts of schools, networks, institutes, foundations, and centres are kind enough to send my way. Most of them go straight on a pile for later transfer to the green recycle bin, but now and then one catches my eye. I was so impressed by the sheer brilliance of this “Thought Paper” by a junior economist at the Centre for Research, Analysis and Policy (CRAP) that I decided to share it with readers of The Socialist Standard. The author wishes to remain anonymous. — Stefan
Optimal efficiency in the use of any resource requires the functioning of an effective market in that resource. Everyone (that is, everyone who matters) accepts this thesis in principle, but proposals to put the principle into practice still run up against irrational fears and prejudices, hidebound attitudes and vague moral reservations. This applies especially to the still controversial issue of establishing a market in air. That no doubt explains why the published literature on air marketisation and privatisation is so scanty, although these topics have been the object of lively discussion among economic policy specialists, and not only at our centre. And yet, as people are beginning to realise, the air in the earth’s atmosphere is a limited resource like any other. If its use is to be rationalised, the consumption of air must be subject to the discipline of the market. As in the case of wood, water or any other resource, free access to air is a flagrant invitation to profligacy and waste. Studies by physiologists in several countries have revealed that surprisingly large proportions of individuals breathe more deeply and/or at more frequent intervals than strictly necessary for adequate body maintenance. Many of these irresponsible “free riders” encourage their children to follow their own bad example. Indeed, there are even misguided physicians who in deference to the latest health fad promote “deep breathing” practices among their patients. In the past, the purely technical difficulties of controlling air consumption confined discussion of air markets to the realm of futurological speculation. Thus, the writer Herbert George Wells, in a story that has for some reason been considered “dystopian,” imagined a future in which the majority of the population live and work underground and, in addition to
rent, pay private companies to ventilate their quarters. If they fall into arrears with their air payments the air supply is turned off until the next tenant resumes payment. Recent developments in pharmacology give reason to hope that in the not too distant future it will be feasible to control air consumption above ground. In the most plausible scenario, a legally mandated annual dose of a paralytic agent makes respiration impossible without subsequent weekly injection of an antidote, the market in which serves as a proxy air market. Of course, the first dose of the paralytic agent has to be combined with the first dose of the antidote; it is only from the second dose that the consumer starts to pay for the antidote – that is, for air access. The right to sell the antidote to different sections of the population could be sold at auction to the highest bidders. Those who feel that such an arrangement is morally repugnant usually justify their stance in terms of the naive idea that a person’s access to a vital necessity like air should not depend on how much money he or she has. Presumably it is acceptable to regulate access to luxuries by means of money, but not access to the necessities of life. But this idea makes no sense in the real world. Consider what absurd conclusions would follow if we applied it consistently. It would mean that there should be free access to food just because we have moral qualms about people starving to death. It would mean that there should be free access to housing, heating, and warm clothing just because we shrink from the sight of people freezing to death in the winter cold. It would mean that there should be free access to medical care just because we feel people should not die for lack of the money to get treated. After all, besides breathing, people need to eat and drink, keep warm, and so on. To be sure, asphyxiation is a quicker way to die than most. But that makes it more
humane, not less. What has this sort of fuzzy thinking got to do with economic rationality? April 2007
Evil people or evil system?
The Guardian (5 June) ran a story by George Monbiot about pharmaceutical companies’ promotion of baby formula in the Philippines. As in other underdeveloped countries, the majority of the population in the Philippines has access only to polluted water. As formula has to be mixed with water, its widespread use instead of breastfeeding kills thousands of children every year. Nevertheless, the corporations promote it in the most ruthless fashion. For instance, they encourage their saleswomen to dress as nurses to gain the confidence of young mothers. The Philippines government has tried to restrict the promotion of baby formula, but the Pharmaceutical & Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP), representing the manufacturers and backed by the US government and Chamber of Commerce, has led a campaign to thwart the attempt, using lobbying, diplomatic pressure, legal action and (apparently) targeted assassinations. All this is, indeed, horrifying, and indignation is a natural and healthy reaction. But against who or what should we direct our indignation? Often enough, indignation expresses itself as national hatred, typically as anti-Americanism. America Puts Profit Above Babies’ Lives – runs the
headline over the print version of the article. Of course, the American government and American business do put profit above babies’ lives (and above everything else). But the same is true of other countries. Ordinary Americans tend to feel that accusations against “America” are aimed at them too and respond in like manner: “You British are just as bad!” Nothing could be more irrelevant to the issue than nationality. The first target of activists opposing the promotion of baby formula in underdeveloped countries was Nestlé – a Swiss company. The members that PHAP represents include European, Australian, and Japanese as well as American companies. They are equally ruthless. Blaming “America” – or the Jews or the Japanese, perhaps, or some other nation or ethnic group -- is a form of the broader phenomenon called moralism. Alternatively, we might call it “blaming the bad guys.” Track down the “baby killers,” the evil people responsible for the evil deeds and do something about them. Do what exactly? Here things generally get fuzzy, but one Guardian reader has an answer: “The world right now needs another Revolution like the Bastille when all these greedy, unprincipled, corrupt and criminal politicians and industrialists are rounded up and summarily executed.” That should do the trick! Or would it? The “revolutionary” remedy has already been tried – in France, Russia, China and other countries. And yet there are still plenty of “bad guys” around, in those countries as elsewhere. Why should more shootings help? The more adaptable “bad guys” survive the “revolutions” by switching to the winning side in good time, and any who do get shot are readily replaced. What we have here is obviously an expression of extreme feeling, a fantasy of revenge, rather than a carefully thought-out solution. The moralistic
approach stirs up emotions so powerful that thinking is paralysed. Really evil people – people who obtain satisfaction from hurting others -- are few and far between. Their existence is not the crux of the matter. Most of the people involved in making and selling harmful products are not intrinsically evil. The saleswoman dressed as a nurse to sell more baby formula and earn her commission, the Chinese tobacco farmer, the Afghan poppy grower, the armaments worker making landmines that will maim and kill children as they play – they are all doing evil things. Their deeds are evil, but they themselves are not, for they have to make a living somehow. They have to feed and clothe their own children. Even the corporate executives who organize the evil deeds are not doing evil as a free and deliberate choice. They are required by law to do whatever is necessary to maximize profits for their shareholders. They could, of course, give up their positions and join the working class, but you can understand why so few of them would want to do that! The shareholders, in turn, do not feel obliged to concern themselves with the morality of the businesses that provide their dividends. Everywhere we look we find moral ambiguity. Evil is certainly being done, but no one is clearly to blame – only the social arrangement that we refer to as a system. Some of us are lucky enough to come by paid work that allows us the luxury of a relatively clean conscience. Some are not so lucky. The appropriate target of our indignation is the system that places people in such excruciating dilemmas, penalises altruistic impulses, rewards ruthless egoism and inexorably turns “good guys” (or potential “good guys”) into “bad guys.” It is only by understanding and changing the system that we can
build a way of life in which heeding the voice of our conscience will not jeopardise our livelihood and the wellbeing of our families. August 2007
Why they keep piling up manure: the psychology of wealth accumulation
Money is like manure. If you spread it around, it does a lot of good, but if you pile it up in one place, it stinks like hell. I can’t trace the original author, but it seems to be a popular motto among rich “philanthropists”. It has been attributed, in slightly variant wordings, to steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, oil tycoon J. Paul Getty, New York “socialite” Brooke Astor, Clint W. Murchison (chairman of Tecon Corporation) and Kenneth Langone (founder of The Home Depot). Two questions spring to mind. First, if these people so hate the smell of manure, why do they keep piling it up? After all, they are free to stop at any time. Second, what do they want all that money for anyway? Surely a few hundred million should suffice to buy all the luxuries anyone could want? So why chase after the billions?
An addiction to extravagance. One answer is offered by Eric Schoenberg of Columbia Business School (on the site of Forbes magazine). Driving your first Rolls Royce is a fantastic experience, he explains, but as you get used to it you no longer enjoy it so much. So you have to look for new experiences, which for some reason are always more and more expensive. Presumably, an obsession with money spoils the enjoyment of anything that does not cost a lot of it. The result is an addiction to extravagance that reinforces the drive to make more money. Kudos. Besides addiction to extravagance, the most common motive for accumulating wealth appears to be simply the desire to be admired by others. Kudos, however, depends less on absolute wealth than on place in the pecking order, as indicated by lists like the Forbes 400. Only Number One can feel fully confident of his superior status – and even he must beware of rivals overtaking him. Astonishing but true: many people honestly think – indeed, assume – that being rich is something worthy of pride and admiration. They consider having more money than anyone else the greatest of all conceivable human achievements. Never mind where the money came from, how it was acquired. To be a “winner” is glorious, to be a “loser” shameful and pitiable. They were brought up to think so, and can hardly imagine that anyone might be sincere in thinking otherwise. We might expect there to be an element of subtlety or mystery in the driving impulse at the core of a dynamic that spawns so much evil. Instead, we find something insufferably boring and trivial, the ultimate in banality.
The “philanthropists” And yet the worship of wealth need not wholly exclude other social values. Many people feel that just being rich is not sufficiently glorious in itself: in addition, one should “do good”. As a result, some wealthy individuals wish also to be “great humanitarians and philanthropists”. There is actually a special business that makes money by selling “philanthropic” fame. For a fixed sum you can have a concert hall, museum, hospital, college or whatever named after you (or a relative of yours). For example, Brown University named its Institute of International Studies, where I used to work, in honour of Tom Watson of IBM in exchange for $25 million. The publicity given to large “philanthropic” donations suggests that in certain circles kudos may now depend on how much money you give as well as how much you have. It is like the potlatch among the Kwakiutl of western Canada, where the wealthy gain kudos by making generous gifts. Guilt feelings? While “philanthropy” is often just a means of cultivating a favorable public image, some wealthy people may be sincere in wanting to “do good”. Some authors even attribute the giving of certain individuals to guilt feelings about how their fortunes were made. Thus, it is claimed that Brooke Astor was ashamed of her family’s reputation as New York’s biggest slumlords. Carnegie, we are told, felt guilt over the workers killed in the suppression of the Homestead strike of 1892. Yet he also wanted “Carnegie Steel to come out on top” – and that feeling
proved stronger than any sense of guilt. Ashamed or not, Astor gave nothing to the victims of her family’s rack-renting. Instead, she gave $200 million to cultural institutions. Similarly, Carnegie endowed the arts and academia, but gave nothing back to the workers who slaved in the heat of his steel mills at poverty line wages – twelve hours a day, every single day of the year except July 4. The ruthless capitalist precedes, makes possible and is vindicated by the “generous philanthropist”. The capitalist drives the system that causes the misery; the “philanthropist” then does a little to ameliorate that misery. Strangely enough, the capitalist and the “philanthropist” turn out to be one and the same person. Piling up and speading out Why keep piling up manure just to spread it out again? It seems senseless – even if the manure does not end up exactly where it was before. Yes, it seems senseless when we focus on outcome. But when we shift our attention to process, it starts to make more sense. Piling up brings one sort of kudos, then spreading out brings another. One sort does not cancel out the other. Both piling up and spreading out give the satisfaction of exercising power, making decisions that affect millions of lives – on the sole qualification of the possession of wealth. So it all makes perfect sense. From a certain point of view.
Dedicated to serving the rich: the reality of aid
“CARE: Dedicated to serving the poorest of the poor.” So reads a wall poster at the Haiti offices of the “humanitarian” agency CARE International. The offices are housed in a mansion in a wealthy district up in the hills above Port-au-Prince, at a hygienic distance from the poor people they are “dedicated to serve”. Well, you can’t expect the respectable ladies and gentlemen who administer aid to live and work down in the filth and stench of the shantytowns. Of course, you can’t blame the poor for the lack of sewers, but still... The aid administrators realise that they need the assistance of people who do know something about the poor and are capable of interacting with them. So they hire specialists called anthropologists, who acquire the requisite knowledge and skill as trainees by living for a time among poor people (formally in order to gather material for their Ph.D. theses). But some trainees “go native”. They come to sympathise with their temporary neighbors and feel the urge to talk about inconvenient realities that they have discovered. This annoys the administrators, who label them “idealists” and say they have “a negative attitude”. It would be quite unsuitable to appoint them to responsible positions in aid agencies. An eye-opening book has just appeared, written by just such a chatterbox: Timothy T. Schwartz, Travesty in Haiti. No publisher would touch it, so he published it himself.
Charity for the rich Very little aid ever reaches the poor, let alone the poorest of the poor. This is partly due to the practical difficulty that the poorest areas also have the poorest infrastructure (roads, storage facilities, etc.). But mainly it is because those who are supposed to distribute the aid sell most of it and pocket the proceeds. In some cases, aid goes directly to the rich. Schwartz describes an “orphanage” run by an American reverend where the “orphans” have parents who could easily afford to provide for them. The place is really an elite boarding school. Meanwhile, naïve churchgoers back in the States, most of them ordinary working people, fork out to support the “poor orphans” they have “adopted”, send them gifts, and even pay for their college education. The poor in rich countries give charity to the rich in poor countries. The more aid, the more misery Schwartz’ most important finding is this. When the flow of food aid into Haiti increases, the overall result is that malnutrition becomes more widespread, not less. Why? The great majority of Haitians are small farmers, dependent on selling food to meet their non-food needs. Typically, natural disaster prompts the decision to send food aid, but by the time it arrives the emergency is over and the country may well be right in the middle of a bumper harvest. The effect is to drive prices down further, causing enormous misery throughout the rural areas. It seems commonsense. If you see hungry people on TV, so you give
money to buy and send them food. But capitalism has a perverse logic of its own that has nothing to do with commonsense. Reactions that ignore that logic are liable to do more harm than good. Some experts and charities – notably, Oxfam – advocate aid in the form of cash transfers. Then food for distribution can be bought locally instead of imported, strengthening rather than undermining the local peasant economy. Local supply would also be quicker and easier to organise. Nevertheless, most aid agencies, and especially those like CARE that are dependent on Western governments, keep on shipping in food. They even require their national affiliates to cover operating expenses by selling part of the food received locally (“monetised food”). Expanding export markets US overseas food aid began in 1954. Until recently it was openly justified as a foreign policy tool and means of promoting American business interests. In particular, it has expanded export markets for US agriculture. Dumping surpluses abroad has helped the US and the EU maintain prices and profits on their domestic markets. According to the website of the US Agency for International Development, aid was used to transform Egypt from a food exporter in competition with the US into a net importer of food with a low-wage industrial sector. Since the 1980s Western governments and financial institutions pursued the same strategy in Haiti. The country was turned from an exporter into an importer of rice, sugar, and other crops, while 100,000 peasants abandoned the land to work for $2 a day in assembly plants, mostly US-owned, making T-shirts, jeans, and the like for the American market.
This new industrial sector has now also largely collapsed, leaving Haiti to depend increasingly on the Columbian drugs trade. A striking illustration of the commercial interests underlying aid is the fate of the Haitian pig. Farmers used to rely on a small black pig well adapted to conditions in rural Haiti. USAID had these pigs exterminated under the pretext of fighting a swine fever epidemic. The Haitian pig was replaced with a large white pig from Iowa that had to be fed large quantities of imported US corn. Do they know? Do the aid administrators understand what they are doing? It is clear from Schwartz that they understand very well. When he “reveals” his sensational findings, they do not argue that he is wrong. They just advise him that if he wants a job he should stop saying things that the US government does not want to hear. They know who they really serve. March 2010
Unemployment – is it really the problem?
Is unemployment really the problem? Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want to play down the misery of the millions who have lost their jobs – or the millions more who are going to lose their jobs – as the world slides deeper into the next Great Depression. I know very well what losing your job so often means. Losing your home
(well, you thought it was yours!). Losing medical coverage (if you had it). Even losing your family. But think. If not being employed was really the problem, wouldn’t you expect everyone without a job to be in misery? But there are many people who don’t have jobs and yet live well enough. People who don’t need jobs. Native people in the Amazon rainforest, for so long as they manage to preserve their old way of life, don’t need jobs. They have access to land, food, wood, medicinal herbs, other resources they need – to their means of life. When the logging and mining companies move in, they lose access. Sure, then they need jobs. Most of us in the “developed” countries lost access to the means of life long ago. They no longer belong to us. They were seized by a small minority who claim to own them. These owners allow us access to things we need only in exchange for money. If we can’t pay, they would sooner have things go to waste – sooner leave houses empty, for instance, than shelter the homeless. They allow us access to productive resources only when they hire us to work for them. If we try to get access without their permission, they call us criminals and send their police and jailors to punish us. These people – the employers, the owners of the means of life – are unemployed, every one of them. But it doesn’t bother them a bit! They live on the income from their property. They too don’t need jobs. So unemployment is a problem only for people who depend on being employed in order to live. That situation of dependence is what I mean by the real problem. Some of us try to escape from the situation of dependence by going into business for ourselves. But chances of success are small – even in good
times, let alone during a slump. Many don’t seek escape at all but appeal to the government to create more jobs, hoping to go back to slaving away for others. We socialists don’t appeal for jobs. We don’t want jobs. That doesn’t mean we’re lazy! We thirst for the opportunity to do useful work as free, equal, and dignified human beings – work to satisfy our needs and the needs of others. We want to be rid of an absurd system that artificially creates misery and wastes vast material, natural, and human resources. That is why we demand restoration of access to the means of life – their common ownership and democratic control by the whole community.
WORKING TO SURVIVE
Most of us under capitalism are legally free, but what sort of “freedom” is it when just in order to survive we have to devote most of our time and energy to labour that is alienated, meaningless and often dangerous to our health?
Labour without end?
The rise in working hours
Futurologists, Alvin Toffler being the best known, used to herald the imminent arrival of the "post-industrial society" – an arcadia in which automation has almost done away with work and our main problem will be how to cope with an excess of leisure. Indeed, labour productivity has risen steadily and at an accelerating rate throughout the last century, except for a blip in the period 1975--85, when labour productivity in the US (though not in Western Europe) fell slightly. But it is only in a rational (i.e., socialist) society, where the means of life serve the community as a whole, that higher productivity will equal less work. It is not widely recognized that since the 1970s working hours have tended to rise. There appear to be only two books about recent trends in working time: Juliet B. Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline of Leisure (BasicBooks, 1992) and Pietro Basso, Modern Times, Ancient Hours. Working Lives in the Twenty-First Century (translated from Italian by Giacomo Donis; Verso, 2003). Schor is concerned with the U.S. and has a reformist approach, while Basso attempts a Marxian analysis and focuses more on Europe. Today's young wage and salary workers work longer hours than their parents and grandparents did at the same age. There is less time not only for relaxation, hobbies, self-education, and political activity, but even for parenting, family life, sleep, socializing, and sex – much to the detriment of our quality of life and physical and emotional health. It isn't just a matter of the number of hours per day, week, or year. Working time has been "rationalized" as well as increased. That means greater intensity of effort and reduced opportunity for rest, social interaction,
and even going to the toilet during the workday (zero "dead time," also known as the Toyota system). It means "variable" or "flexible" schedules – flexible for the boss, not the worker – with more night and weekend work to keep costly machinery in nonstop operation. Many couples now meet only to hand over the kids as they change shifts. And while some are mercilessly overworked, others are thrown out of work altogether, all in the name of profitability. Working time has gone through some dramatic ups and downs in the course of history. Chattel slaves, of course, were forced to work long hours, though not always as long as wage slaves in the early days of capitalism, when 14 or even 16-hour days and 7-day weeks (i.e., 5,000 hours a year or more) were imposed on children and adults alike. Medieval peasants, by contrast, had led a more leisurely life. Thanks largely to the numerous holidays of the church calendar, according to four studies of Britain in the 13th to 16th centuries they typically worked 2,000 hours a year or less. The working hours of "primitive" tribal people also tend to be relatively short. Capitalist "progress" put paid to such idleness. In the mid-19th century working hours stood at about 3,500 hours a year (according to studies of Britain in 1840 and the U.S. in 1850). In England the Ten Hours Bill (May 1, 1848) brought the work week down to 60 hours in the countryside (where the Sabbath was enforced) and 70 hours in the cities (where it was not). For decade after decade the working class movement struggled for the 8-hour day, but it was not achieved until after World War One. Children were finally taken out of the mines and factories and put in school. Eventually the weekend and annual vacation came (though not for all). By the late 1940s the typical work year in most "developed" countries was down below 2,000 hours – just about where it
had been in the Middle Ages. After this the story varies somewhat from country to country. In France and Germany, where the trade unions fought for "work sharing" and the 35-hour week, the postwar decades saw a further modest decline in working hours. Paid vacations are much longer in these countries than in the U.S. and Japan. In the U.S. working hours were stable in the 1950s and 1960s, only to start rising again in the 1970s: the average work week increased by almost three hours between 1973 and 1997. In Britain the rise in hours appears to have levelled off in recent years. According to the U.K. Labour Force Survey, the proportion of employed persons usually working over 45 hours a week rose from 21% in 1991 to 24% in 1997 and then fell to 19% in 2003. American activists make a great deal of the contrast between the U.S. and Europe and point to Europe as a model for the U.S. to emulate. However, the same processes are underway in Europe, and indeed throughout the world, even though they are more advanced in the U.S. and Japan. (And in China the 11 or 12-hour day is standard.) Only certain groups of European production workers ever won the 35-hour week. For example, German metalworkers and typographers won an agreement for the 35-hour week in 1984, though it did not come into force until 1995. In exchange they had to accept intensified work regimes and "flexible" hours, including weekend work. Moreover, the employers have since launched a largely successful counteroffensive against reduced working hours. Why are working hours rising and what can we do about it? Some commentators blame "consumerism" and the "work and spend cycle". No doubt there are those who overwork, often in two full-time jobs, for the sake of conspicuous consumption – "to keep up with the Joneses".
But the usual pattern is probably for people to work more in an effort to preserve their accustomed standard of living despite another trend of the last quarter century: the decline in real wages. Many overwork to save for their children's education or for retirement, although the overwork makes it much less likely that they'll survive to enjoy their "nest egg". And many have to overwork just to make ends meet or under pressure from their employers (e.g., compulsory overtime). Managers are especially vulnerable to such pressure: thanks to the cell phone, they can be called upon at any time and are thereby deprived of any guaranteed non-working time. One important part of the explanation must be that it is cheaper for employers to hire a small number of employees to work long hours than it would be to divide up the available work among a larger number of employees. Many labour-related costs – training, administration, fringe benefits – depend on the number of employees, not total employee-hours. So "downsizing" is always an appealing way of quickly improving a firm's profitability and competitive position. Long hours also have the advantage of making workers more dependent on a specific employer and therefore easier to control. So could reforms change the incentive structure for both employers and employees in favour of shorter hours? Suggestions include improving the status of part-time work, abolishing higher rates for overtime, and banning compulsory overtime. Tax incentives could be devised for spreading available work more thinly. In principle such changes might have a certain effect. But if capitalists were to come under strong pressure from a reformist government in one country to shorten hours, they would surely move their assets elsewhere, as they already do to escape unwelcome regulation of other kinds.
Historical evidence does point to a clear relationship between working time and the willingness of workers and their organizations to fight for its reduction. Reduced hours have never flowed automatically from increased productivity. They have been won though long and intense struggle. And in today's world the struggle has to be waged on a global scale – not for the "right to work" but for the right to live, which includes the right to leisure. Or, to borrow the title of a classic pamphlet by Marx's son-in-law Paul Lafargue, the right to be lazy. May 2006
Is wage labor really a form of slavery?
We socialists like to refer to wage labor as “wage slavery” and call workers “wage-slaves”. Non-socialists may assume that we use these expressions as figures of speech, for rhetorical effect. No, we use them literally. They reflect our view of capitalist society. Socialists use the word “slavery” in a broad sense, to encompass both chattel slavery and wage slavery as alternative ways of exploiting labor. We are aware of the differences between them, but we also want to draw attention to their common purpose. Capitalist language conceals this common purpose by equating chattel slavery with slavery as such and by conflating wage labor with free labor. Socialists regard labor as free only where the laborers themselves individually or collectively own and control the means by which they labor (land, tools, machinery, etc.).
Why chattel slavery was abandoned The connection between chattel slavery and wage slavery as alternative modes of exploitation is visible in the debates within the British and American ruling class that led up to the abolition of chattel slavery. While religious abolitionists condemned slave-holding as a moral sin, the clinching argument against chattel slavery was that it was no longer the most effective way of exploiting the laboring population. It was abandoned because it was impeding economic and especially industrial development – that is, the accumulation of capital. The legal, social and political status of wage-slaves is superior to that of chattel slaves. However, when we compare their position in the labor process itself, we see that here the difference between them is not a fundamental one. They are all compelled to obey the orders of the “boss” who owns the instruments of production with which they work or who represents those who own them. In a small enterprise the boss may convey his orders directly, while in a large enterprise orders are passed down through a managerial hierarchy. But in all cases it is ultimately the boss who decides what to produce and how to produce it. The products of the labor of the (chattel or wage) slaves do not belong to them. Nor, indeed, does their own activity. The secret abode An obvious difference between chattel slavery and wage slavery is that as a chattel slave you are enslaved – totally subjected to another’s will – at every moment from birth to death, in every aspect of your life. As a wage-
slave, you are enslaved only at those times when your labor power is at the disposal of your employer. At other times, in other aspects of your life – as a consumer, a voter, a family member, a gardener perhaps – you enjoy a certain measure of freedom, respect and social equality. Thus, the wage-slave has some scope for self-development and selfrealisation that is denied the chattel slave. Limited scope, to be sure, for the wage-slave must regularly return to the cramped world of wage labor, which spread its influence over the rest of life like a pestilential mist. As a result of this split, capital confronts the worker in schizophrenic style, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The same person whom capital sedulously flatters and courts as a consumer and voter is helplessly exposed to harrassment, bullying, yells and insults at the place of employment. Capitalist ideologists focus on the “public” spheres of life in which people are relative social equals and do their best to ignore what happens inside the “private” sphere of wage slavery. Thus, economists analyze the exchange of resources among “market actors”, while political scientists talk about relations between the state and an imaginary classless community of citizens that they call “civil society”. Even children’s television programmes display the same bias. For instance, most of the human characters in Sesame Street earn their living through small individual and family businesses (a corner store, a fix-it shop, a dance studio, a veterinarian clinic, etc.). So there is a wide gap between superficial appearances and deep reality. The servitude of the wage worker is not visible on the surface of capitalist society; to witness it the investigator must enter “the secret abode of production, on the threshold of which stands: ‘no admittance except on business’” (Marx, Capital).
Who is the master? It may be objected that wage workers are not slaves because they have the legal right to leave a particular employer, even if in practice they may be reluctant to use that right out of fear of not finding another job. All that this proves, however, is that the wage worker is not the slave of any particular employer. According to Marx, the owner of the wage-slave is not the individual capitalist but the capitalist class – “capital as a whole”. Yes, you can leave one employer, but only in order to look for a new one. What you cannot do, lacking as you do all other access to the means of life, is escape from the thrall of employers as a class – that is, cease to be a wageslave. Is wage slavery worse? Some have argued that – at least in the absence of an effective social security “safety net” – wage slavery is even worse than chattel slavery. As the chattel slave is valuable property his master has an interest in preserving his life and strength, while the wage-slave is always at risk of being thrown out of employment and left to starve. Actually, the severity with which the chattel slave is treated depends on just how valuable he is. Where chattel slaves were in abundant supply and therefore quite cheap – as in San Domingo, where a slave rebellion in 1791 led to the abolition of chattel slavery and the establishment of the state of Haiti (C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins) – they were commonly worked, whipped, or otherwise tortured to death. How the wage-slave is treated
similarly depends on the availability of replacements. For instance, capitalists in China see no reason why they should protect young peasant workers in shoe factories from exposure to toxic chemicals in the glue, because plenty of teenage girls are constantly arriving from the countryside to replace those who fall too sick to work (Anita Chan, China’s Workers Under Assault: The Exploitation of Labor in a Globalizing Economy, M.E. Sharpe 2001). Intermediate forms As alternative modes of exploitation, chattel slavery and wage slavery are not separated by a Chinese Wall. Under conditions unfavorable for the working class, wage slavery can easily degenerate into an intermediate form that more closely resembles chattel slavery. It is common for desperately poor people in underdeveloped countries to be induced to sign a labor contract (which, being illiterate, they cannot read) by lies about the atrocious conditions that await them. By the time they discover the truth it is too late: they are forcibly prevented from running away. Such, for example, is the plight of the half million or more Haitian migrants who toil on plantations in the Dominican Republic (see http://www.batayouvriye.org/English/Positions1/dr.html). Comparable but more formalized was the system of indentured labor that prevailed in colonial America in the 17th and 18th century and was gradually displaced by black chattel slavery. In exchange for passage across the Atlantic, poor Europeans undertook to serve a master for a set number of years (typically seven). Some survived their temporary servitude, others did not.
Slavery and violence The word “slavery” conjures up the image of the cruel overseer on a plantation in the Caribbean or the old American South, wielding a whip over the heads of his helpless victims. The lash is rightly regarded as a symbol of chattel slavery. Yet here again no Chinese Wall separates one mode of exploitation from another. The lash has also been widely used against indentured laborers and certain categories of wage-slaves. Only in 1915, for instance, was a law passed in the United States (the La Follette Act) to prohibit the whipping of seamen. Even after that a sailor could still be placed in irons or put on reduced rations for disobeying orders. Children in the textile mills of 19th-century Britain were hit with leather straps for not working hard enough. In China, abolition of corporal punishment was one of the demands made by Anyuan coal miners in the strike of 1923. As Anita Chan shows in her book, it is in widespread use again today in factories owned by Taiwanese and Korean capitalists. Even in the developed countries, many people are bullied and tormented at work, usually by a person standing above them in the hierarchy. Some are driven to suicide. Many suffer serious physical or sexual assault. On one of many websites devoted to this problem (www.worktrauma.org) we find the story of a bookkeeper at a power tool company whom a manager kicked in the buttocks with such force that she was lifted off her heels, causing severe back injury as well as shock. While I was at Brown University, a laboratory assistant was raped in the lab by her supervisor.
Such acts of violence against employees are no longer sanctioned by law, but they happen all the time. The victim is sometimes able to win some compensation, but criminal charges are rarely made against the perpetrator. It doesn’t apply to me If you are fortunately situated, you may feel that my argument doesn’t apply to you. Your boss or manager treats you well, you do not suffer insult or assault, you are satisfied with your working conditions, and the work itself may even give you satisfaction. You at least are not a wage-slave. Or so you imagine. Some chattel slaves – in particular, the personal servants of kind masters and mistresses -- also had the good fortune to be treated well. But they had no guarantee that their good fortune would continue. They might be sold to or inherited by a cruel new master following the old master’s death, departure or bankruptcy. You too may suddenly find yourself with a nasty new boss or manager. The matter is out of your hands, precisely because you are only a wage-slave. If you are a technical specialist, a scientist or analyst of some kind, you may even say: “What sort of slave can I be? I am not ordered about all the time. On the contrary. I was hired for my expertise and I am expected to think for myself, solve problems and offer suggestions. True, I can’t make important decisions by myself, but my bosses are always willing to listen to me. And they are always polite to me.” You are deluding yourself. I know because I have been in a similar situation and deluded myself. Your bosses listen to you before they come to a decision. Once they make a decision, they expect you to accept it. But suppose you once forget yourself (which means -- forget your place) and
continue to argue against a decision that has already been made. Then you are in for a rude shock! What makes your delusion possible is that you have grown accustomed to analyze problems from your employer’s point of view. You are every bit as alienated from your own thinking as the assembly line worker is from his or her physical movements. And if a process that you think up is patented, do you imagine that the patent will belong to you? May 2010
“Better I die of radiation than my children of hunger”
In the village of Orlovka, in the Chui region of Kyrgyzstan, there used to be a uranium mine. Its closure in the early 1990s led to massive local unemployment. But the desperately poor residents have found a new way to survive. They sift through the waste dumped near the disused mine – "a moonscape of grey slag" – in search of material that they can sell to scrap merchants. There is iron and other metals, and graphite, but most valuable is silicon, which fetches $10 per kilo and ends up at electronics plants in neighbouring China. About a third of the diggers are children. There too are some of their teachers, who can't get by on the pittance called a salary. Injuries are frequent. Some people get buried alive when the holes they are digging cave in. There are many such places in the "undeveloped" countries. But this
one has an additional hazard. The waste is full of radioactive gas (up to 400 micro-roentgens per hour). The diggers, their bodies covered with festering sores, are dying of radiation sickness. They are aware of the fact, but as one man said: "Better I die of radiation than my children of hunger." Now just suppose these people had been rounded up at gunpoint and forced to do this work on the orders of some military junta or Islamist or "communist" dictatorship. Just imagine the furore that human rights organizations would raise against the regime committing such atrocities. But they were not rounded up at gunpoint, and no armed guards are needed to keep them at their labours. They are "independent market actors" – "entrepreneurs," indeed, legally free to leave the scrap collecting business whenever they like. So none of their "human rights," as the term is usually understood, has been violated. They are lucky enough to live in a country that is praised as a model "democracy" with an excellent "human rights record" – the “Switzerland of Central Asia.” And yet they are not a whit better off for all that. For there is one human right that they lack, and without it other human rights are not worth very much. They do not have the right of access to the means of life. "I wanted to work on the land," another digger remarked, "but unfortunately I don't have any." Quite so. And back into the radioactive gas... (Source. Institute of War and Peace Reporting (London), Reporting Central Asia, No. 438, March 10, 2006.) May 2006
Labour in hell: mining sulphur in Indonesia
“A man labours in hell.” So opens an article on the work of artist Darren Almond (Guardian Weekly, 25 January), referring to his video about workers who extract sulphur from the Kawah Ijen volcano in eastern Java. Imagine the scene. We are standing on the inner slope of the volcano’s crater. Below lies a spectacular and extremely acidic turquoise lake. Hot sulphurous gases (300º C+) rise through an opening in the earth’s crust (a solphatara) and hiss through fissures into the crater. Some of the gas passes through pipes that have been driven into the solphatara. In the pipes it starts to cool and condense. Molten sulphur trickles out of the pipes and solidifies on the slope. Here the miners, working with hammers and metal poles, break the deposits up into chunks and load them into baskets. Balancing a pair of baskets on a bamboo pole over his shoulder, each man makes his way over the crater rim and down 3 km to the collection point on the road below. The sulphur is then weighed and awaits delivery to the processing plant 19 km. away. Near the collection point is a row of shacks, used by miners who live too far away to return home every night. A load is typically 50 – 70 kg., though according to some sources it may be 80 or even 100 kg. The purchasing cooperative pays 350 rupiahs (almost 2 p.) a kilo, so for delivering two standard loads a day – some deliver three – a man earns the princely sum of 42,000 rupiahs (£2.31). The miners have a life expectancy of “not much over 30 years.” Carrying heavy loads up and down steep slopes progressively cripples them.
They are constantly exposed to sulphur – both the solid sulphur on the ground and in their baskets and the acidic sulphurous fumes that intermittently waft their way. Their only protection is a rag stuffed in the mouth and the temporary shelter offered by a few big rocks along the path. Sulphur is a corrosive irritant. It smells of shit – though a chemist would say that shit smells of sulphur. It gets all over the skin and into the eyes, mouth, teeth, nose and lungs, damaging everything it touches. It makes you dizzy, so maintaining your balance is a constant struggle. So is breathing. A tourist remarks in a blog that his exposure inside the crater was worse than getting tear-gassed. Miners’ reports of day-to-day changes in the severity of these effects are used in assessing the risk of an impending eruption. Why does the metaphor of hell come so readily to mind when describing this environment? I strongly suspect it is because the very idea of hell has its origin in people’s experience with volcanoes. The bible refers to hell as a place of “fire and brimstone” and it was with a rain of fire and brimstone that God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Brimstone is just an old name for sulphur. * * * The conditions of many jobs are rarely if ever witnessed by outsiders. Many people from various countries, however, have seen the miners of Kawah Ijen at their labour. The volcano is a tourist attraction and tour advertisements mention the miners as part of the exotic scenery of the area. When they get the chance, miners take time off to hire themselves out as tourist guides at the rate of 20--30,000 rupiahs (£1.10--£1.65) for half a day.
A fair bit can be learnt from the accounts that tourists place on the internet, though perhaps more about the tourists than the miners. An Australian student has posted an unusually sensitive essay. He recounts his conversation with a young man reluctantly going to the volcano for the first time. He has no choice, he explains. His family is poor and landless. His father, apparently already dead, had also mined sulphur, leaving home well before dawn to walk the almost 20 km. from their village – although sometimes he would rent a place in one of the shacks and stay at the volcano for two weeks at a time. As a child he used to see his father in daylight only on days when he was too sick or tired to work. Now the young man is taking his father’s place. The student does not think to ask when or how the family had lost its land. Landlessness in Indonesia has its origin in the nineteenth century, under Dutch rule, when the land of farmers who could not pay the land tax was stolen from them and handed to colonists for plantations of export crops. The tax, of course, was imposed precisely for this purpose. (The British played the same trick in their African colonies.) When Indonesia gained independence in 1945, the land was not returned but claimed by the state, which took over the role of the plantation owners. That is why the bus to the volcano passes by coffee and mango plantations. Now the government is promoting the cultivation of an oilseed plant called jatropha for biofuel exports, despite its toxic nuts and leaves. The landless will labour in hell in order to keep filling the voracious maw of the motor car as the oil runs out. * * *
Why, in our high-tech age, does a horrible job like sulphur mining have to be done by such primitive means, by the hard labour of “human donkeys”? Surely it could be mechanized? I see no technical barrier. A socialist society, to the extent that it needed to mine sulphur at all, would certainly mechanize the process. One idea that springs to mind is to use specialized robots. A major advantage of robots is that they can be designed to function in environments hostile to human beings, such as the surface of another planet. And being inside a volcanic crater is rather like being on another planet. In both cases the atmosphere is unsuitable for human respiration. In fact, there are thought to be “solphatara-like environments” on Mars. Probably sulphur could be extracted from volcanoes perfectly well by much less sophisticated mechanical means. It would suffice to extend the pipes over (or, if necessary, through) the crater wall and empty them into sealed tanks mounted on trucks. Possibly some pumping would be required. The engineers installing the system would be properly equipped with protective clothing and oxygen cylinders. Such an investment is evidently considered unprofitable. That reflects the low value – close to zero – that the profit system places on the health, welfare and lives of the poor. Despite its enormous and growing potential, the scope for applying technology within capitalism is limited. A key constraint is the availability of cheap labour, which reduces the savings from mechanization below the level of its costs. When operations are transferred to regions where labour costs are lower, the result is likely to be regression to more primitive technologies. One striking example is shipbreaking – the dismantling of decommissioned vessels to recover the steel. In the 1970s this was a highly
mechanized industrial operation carried out at European docks. Ships are now broken at “graveyards” on beaches in countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey, where workers labour with rudimentary tools, wearing little or no protective gear despite exposure to toxic fumes, gas explosions and fires, asbestos dust and falling pieces of metal. * * * In the previous article I wrote about other desperately poor people engaged in hellish labour – scavenging for saleable items in a radioactive dump in Kyrgyzstan. Clearly these situations are not all that exceptional. The most remarkable thing is that although these jobs are at least as horrible as the tasks imposed on prisoners in Nazi and Stalinist labour camps people do them of their own “free” will, without the least hint of physical or legal compulsion. They can leave at any time. No one will stop them. But they don’t. Their freedom is illusory because the consequence of leaving would be starvation for themselves and their families. And yet the illusion – the economists’ fiction of the “free market actor” – suffices to dull perception of their plight. If the miners at work in the crater were prisoners labouring under physical compulsion, the tourists observing them would surely be a little less complacent. Perhaps some human rights organization would even get angry on their behalf. And so the sulphur miners keep going. Because capitalism denies them all other access to the resources they need to live. And they want to live. Even knowing that they will be dead by their early thirties. Even if their lives seem – to those of us whose choices are less stark – hardly worth
living. March 2008
Malawi: children of the tobacco fields
We all know that tobacco harms those who smoke it. Few are aware of the damage it does to those who pick and process it. The “children’s organisation” Plan International recently issued a report about children in Malawi, some as young as five, who toil up to twelve hours in the tobacco fields for an average daily wage of 11 p. (Hard Work, Long Hours and Little Pay: Research with Children Working on Tobacco Farms in Malawi). The finding that has attracted most attention is that these children are being poisoned by the nicotine “juice” they absorb through the skin – and also ingest, as they have no chance to wash hands before eating. Many of the ailments that plague them -- headaches, abdominal and chest pain, nausea, breathlessness, dizziness – are symptoms of Green Tobacco Sickness. But much of their suffering has nothing to do with nicotine. All have blisters on their hands. All have pains – in the shoulders, neck, back, knees – caused by overexertion of their immature muscles. About a third of the children are coughing blood, which suggests TB. Many of the children examined had been beaten, kicked or otherwise physically abused by estate owners or supervisors. Many of the girls had been raped by them. One boy had deep knee wounds as a result of being made to walk across a stony field on his knees as punishment for “laziness”.
Who are these estate owners? Commercial tobacco farming in Malawi began late in the 19th century, when it was the British colony of Nyasaland. White settlers seized much of the best arable land for plantations of tea, coffee, tung trees (for their oil, used as a wood finisher) and – mostly -- tobacco. Even today the majority of owners of large estates are descendants of the colonial settlers, although now there are also black owners. In 1948 some tung and tobacco plantations (estates) were taken over by the Colonial Development Corporation, funded mainly by the British Treasury. After Malawi gained formal independence in 1964, these came under state ownership. Later they were reprivatised. Another recent change is the direct acquisition of some estates by international tobacco companies. The estates were established on land stolen from traditional peasant communities. The process began in colonial times but continued even after independence, under the Banda regime. Land theft impoverishes local communities and compels those worst affected to offer themselves – or their children! – to the estate owners as wage slaves. Tobacco is also grown on many small family farms. Here too, children work and suck in nicotine juice, alongside their parents. Malawi’s tobacco market is dominated – through subsidiaries -- by two international corporations, Universal Corporation and Alliance One International. These corporations operate a cartel, refusing to compete and colluding to keep tobacco purchase prices low. This in turn intensifies the pressure on farm owners to minimise costs by exploiting cheap or free child labour – a practice that the corporations hypocritically claim to oppose. Representatives of the corporations sit on several committees that
advise the government of Malawi on economic policy. By this means they ensure that their interests are served and block any initiatives to diversify the economy and reduce the country’s dependence on tobacco. The main reason why child labour is so prevalent in Malawian agriculture is the poverty – in particular, land hunger -- of most of the rural population. This reflects not any absolute shortage of land but rather the highly skewed pattern of land ownership. Large tracts of land lie fallow on the big estates. How does Plan International propose to help the children on the tobacco farms? Well, it will “educate farm owners and supervisors” and persuade them to provide the children with protective clothing. Taking the tobacco companies’ PR at face value, it will urge them to “scrutinise their suppliers more closely”. It will not, however, support a ban on children picking tobacco because that is “unrealistic” – as indeed it is if you refuse to challenge underlying social conditions. But what a pathetic contrast such “realism” makes with Plan International’s “vision” of “a world in which all children realise their full potential in societies that respect people’s rights and dignity”! Environmental degradation Besides ruining people’s health, tobacco degrades the environment. The tobacco monoculture that dominates much of Malawi depletes the soil of nutrients. It also causes extensive deforestation, as trees are felled to provide firewood for curing the tobacco leaves, and this in turn further
erodes the soil. Water sources are contaminated. After over a century of tobacco cultivation, all these processes are already far advanced. (For fuller analysis, see the chapter by Geist, Otanez and Kapito in Andrew Millington and Wendy Jepson, eds. Land Change Science in the Tropics: Changing Agricultural Landscapes, Springer 2008.) Tobacco in socialist society? Will tobacco be grown in socialist society? On a small scale, possibly, by addicts for their own use. But it’s hard to imagine socialist society making planned provision, within the framework of democratic decisionmaking, for tobacco production. People aware of all the harm caused by tobacco will surely prefer to halt cultivation of this noxious weed. They will seek to restore soil fertility, reverse deforestation and enhance local food supply. Even if, for the sake of argument, we suppose that the decision is made to continue producing tobacco, will it be implemented? Will the free people of socialist society, no longer spurred on by economic necessity, voluntarily poison themselves just to feed others’ addictions?
Are you a human or a robot?
Do you too get annoyed at unsolicited and unwelcome calls from telemarketers? Not only do they call at the most inconvenient moments. They always start with a tedious verification of your identity, so it takes a
while before you’re sure what kind of call it is. Unless, that is, you interrupt and ask: “Excuse me, are you an advertisement?” If you’re from Britain they probably won’t understand the question because you’ve forgotten to stress the third syllable instead of the second. But even if they do understand you won’t get a straight answer. They are following a prepared script that doesn’t make provision for impertinent interruptions. Anyway, by this time you know it isn’t a long-lost friend or relative trying to trace you. The easiest thing is to hang up. That’s what I did – usually. Unless I happened to be in an especially irritable mood. Then I would tell the hapless telemarketer off for invading my privacy, demand an immediate apology, and urge him or her to stop bothering people. I might even inquire: “Are you a human or a robot?” Reactions varied. The most common one was to terminate the call. Sometimes the caller would turn nasty. Once the poor woman at the other end was clearly upset. That stopped me short. I really didn’t want to upset or antagonize anyone. After all, they were only members of the working class trying to earn a living by selling their labor power – their talking power in this case. They were not robots, but neither were they allowed to be fully human. They were robotized, alienated human beings. One man said: “I’m doing my job. If you can get me another job I’ll give it up.” I reflected that it was largely a matter of luck that I wasn’t in the same plight myself. Since then I’ve tried not to be too rude to telemarketers. On occasions I’ve been quite nice. But that too is problematic. You see, even when I’m trying to be nice I can’t bring myself to stick to the script. Once I made a joke about the spiel. The talk-seller laughed and responded in kind. That was
pleasant for us both, but if a monitor had been listening in she would have got into trouble for abandoning the script. And it would have been my fault. I decided that I did, after all, want to complain. But I would direct my complaint higher up. I would call the company CEO or, failing that, the marketing director. At home. At 3 a.m. But I got no further than the telemarketer’s immediate supervisor, who adamantly refused to put me in touch with anyone above her. Those responsible for bothering so many people make damn sure they don’t get bothered themselves – cowardly hypocrites that they are! Well, here’s my new line. “I don’t like getting your call, but rest assured I understand your position. You don’t really want to bother strangers all day and endlessly repeat this crap, but you can’t find a better way of earning a living. I really sympathize.” I wonder what response that will get. An eloquent silence, I expect. They have to stick to the script. And yet what a futile waste all this advertising is – not only of material resources, but of human time, energy, talent, nerves and good feeling! All those thousands of people employed as robots and robotcontrollers to do nothing better than pester and manipulate millions of other people into buying things they don’t want or need. Just one part of the waste constantly generated by the money system.
POLITICS IN VARIOUS COUNTRIES
(United States, Russia, South Africa, Israel/Palestine, Maoist China)
Selecting a U.S. president: the invisible primaries
The expression “invisible primary” comes from Arthur T. Hadley, The Invisible Primary (Prentice-Hall, 1976). A more recent study refers to the “money primary” (Michael J. Goff, The Money Primary, Rowman & Littlefield, 2004). The two terms refer to the same process: the efforts of would-be candidates to gather support, raise funds and cultivate the media in the year before a presidential election, before the “visible” primaries begin. Charles Lewis, director of the Center for Public Integrity, defines the phenomenon as “a private referendum in which the wealthiest Americans substantially preselect and predetermine who our next president will be… The hottest candidate in the check-writing sweepstakes is deemed ‘worthy’ by the major media via hundreds of news stories… All others are dubbed
losers before the first [public] votes are cast.” This slightly overstates the case. The number of candidates deemed worthy may, as this time round, be two or three. But the great majority of would-be candidates are indeed thrown out. So to get through the invisible primary you need two things: money and media coverage (lots of both). Let’s look at this a bit more closely. Money and media coverage are closely connected – partly because money can buy media coverage in the form of political advertising, partly because (as Lewis notes) the media treat fundraising success as an important criterion of “credibility.” And also because both money and media coverage are allocated mainly by members of the same class, the capitalist class. They make most of the large financial contributions and some of them own and control the media. This is not to say that money and media coverage are perfectly correlated. A candidate needs money for many other purposes besides media coverage, such as to hire staff, pay travel expenses, and bribe uncommitted convention delegates. Nor does media coverage depend solely on fundraising success. For instance, the bosses of Fox, CBS, and NBC also take into account candidates’ political positions when deciding who will be allowed to take part in televised “debates” (actually, grillings by TV journalists) and what questions, if any, each participant will be asked. In terms of the analogy of a referendum of the capitalist class, it is a referendum in which the media owners have the casting vote. * * *
What makes the political positions of a candidate acceptable or unacceptable to the media owners? They would certainly judge any opposition to the capitalist system unacceptable. But the limits are in fact much narrower than that. In order to pass the test a candidate must not convey an “anti-corporate message” or challenge any significant corporate interest. That means in effect that he or she cannot advocate any serious reform. I reached this conclusion by observing what happened to the most “left-wing” of the Democratic Party candidates – Dennis Kucinich, the Congressional Representative for Cleveland. Kucinich is not against capitalism, though unlike the general run of American politicians he appears to be independent of specific business interests. (As mayor of Cleveland he resisted pressure to privatize the city’s public utility system.) Like Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s, with whose tradition he associates himself, he aspires to “save capitalism from itself” by instituting long-overdue reforms. He was the only candidate to stand for a “single-payer” system of healthcare finance that would eliminate the parasitic health insurance companies. Similarly, he was the only candidate to challenge the military-industrial complex by calling for big cuts in “defence” spending. These reforms are readily justified in capitalist terms, as essential to restore the competitiveness of U.S. civilian industry. The media did their best to ignore Kucinich, except to ridicule him as a “kook” because, like Carter and Reagan, he says he once saw a UFO. The networks excluded him from TV debates, even when that required changing their own rules. (He sued NBC, but the courts upheld its right to exclude him.) As a result most Americans were unaware of his candidacy, although polls indicate that the policies he advocates enjoy wide support. In January
he withdrew from the race, but has managed to hold onto his seat in congress. * * * In order to get through the invisible and visible primaries, a candidate, and especially a Democratic Party candidate, has to engage in vague and deceptive rhetoric. Obama and Hilary Clinton talk endlessly about change because that is what the voters to whom they appeal are looking for. They are fed up with sending their children to war, with layoffs and home foreclosures, with escalating health costs. Obama repeats the word “change” so often that it has been called his mantra. But just check out what specific changes Clinton and Obama have in mind and you can count on being underwhelmed. They would not have got through the invisible primary had they been determined on serious change. For example, Obama and Clinton convey the impression that they are finally going to make proper healthcare available to everyone. But this turns out to mean only that everyone will have access to health insurance. You will still have to pay for it. Well, in that sense the U.S. already has “universal healthcare”! OK, they will make the health insurance companies introduce a wider variety of more affordable schemes. That may reduce the number of uninsured somewhat. But cheaper schemes are schemes with poorer coverage and/or higher co-pays and deductibles. (A co-pay is the part of a charge for services that is paid by the patient, not the insurance company. A deductible is the amount that the patient has to pay before the insurance company starts to make any contribution at all.) And some people won’t be able to afford even the cheapest schemes on offer.
The media and the candidates themselves relieve the strain and frustration of trying to assess and compare policy positions by distracting us with trite pseudo-issues such as the relative merits of “youth” and “experience” and whether the U.S. is “ready” for a nonwhite or female president. Socialists consider most of what passes for “democracy” in the U.S. and other “democratic” countries to be phoney and corrupt – “the best democracy that money can buy.” But we do not deny the existence of some democratic elements in the political system of these countries. One such element is the suffrage itself, which we hope will eventually play a role in establishing the fuller democracy of socialism. The strength of these democratic elements changes over time, and the direction of change cannot be a matter of indifference to socialists. A crucial factor is the extent to which the capitalist class is able effectively to silence critics of capitalism by monopolizing control over communications media. Until the middle of the twentieth century outdoor public speaking was an important medium of free political discussion, through which socialists could reach quite a large audience. This democratic medium was displaced by television, to which socialists had virtually no access. Now the internet is starting to undermine the monopoly of the corporate mass media, although its impact so far has been modest. April 2008
Obama – whose president?
Whose president is Barack Obama? He would have us believe that he is president of “all Americans.” But how is that possible when there are such sharp conflicts of interest in American society? Does the business owner have the same interests as the workers he hires at or below the minimum wage? Or consider the health insurance company assessor whose pay and prospects depend on how many claims she denies. Does she have the same interests as those whose survival depends on her decisions? Is Obama president of the millions of “black” Americans who voted for him with such pride in their hearts? He has not addressed the specific problems that face “black” people. True, he has raised their status simply by being president. By the same token, he provides a pretext for pretending that the issue of racism no longer exists. If he can make it, why can’t they? Is Obama president of the millions of working people of all colors who voted for him because they hoped he would make their lives easier and more secure? Because they hoped he would stop layoffs, foreclosures, military adventures? Look at the military budget. Look at Afghanistan. Look at the huge bank bailouts – with no relief for mortgage holders. This is not to say that nothing Obama does will be of any benefit to working people. But of one thing you can be sure. Obama’s bosses will not allow him to push through any far-reaching reform. That is, any reform that threatens important corporate interests. Excuse me, what was that you just said? Obama’s bosses? Does the U.S. president have bosses? Isn’t he the boss? Well, yes, formally he’s the boss. But – like every ambitious politician
with his eye on the Oval Office – he went through a long process of vetting by potential wealthy sponsors. Without the backing of such individuals, he could not have got the money and media coverage he needed to run for president. (For a fuller explanation, see the preceding article “Selecting a U.S. President: The Invisible Primaries.”) Even now he is beholden to his sponsors. In the (admittedly unlikely) event that they decide they have made a mistake, they have the means to undermine or even destroy him. For example, one of Obama’s biggest backers was the commodity trader – that is, financial speculator – Paul Tudor Jones, whose fortune is estimated at $3.3 billion. He was instrumental in mobilizing the hedge fund business behind Obama. Naturally, that has absolutely no connection with those unconditional bank bailouts. Like all his predecessors, Obama is president of the U.S. capitalist class. Are they all the same? Does that mean that all American politicians are the same? That there is no significant difference between Democrats and Republicans, “liberals” and “conservatives”? Not at all. Different politicians rely on different sponsors. Each represents a specific mix of big business interests. In general, for instance, Republicans have closer connections with the oil corporations, Democrats with Wall Street.
Different politicians also use different kinds of rhetoric and have different approaches to government. Conservative Republicans ignore popular grievances and try to distract people by exploiting their fears (of “communism,” “socialism,” “radicalism,” terrorism, Islam, foreigners, etc.) and by waving the U.S. flag. Democrats, especially liberal Democrats, convey the impression that they understand and care deeply about the daily troubles of ordinary people – perhaps even deeply enough to do something about them (that’s where things start to get fuzzy). Some of them maintain links with trade unions. For them too, however, business connections are more important. Escaping from the trap Where does this leave us? It is tempting to support liberal Democrats because they seem to be – and to some small extent really may be – the lesser of two evils. But that offers us no hope of ever escaping from the trap. Politicians who promise change inevitably fail to deliver most of what they promise. Then their disappointed supporters relapse into apathy and the Republicans come back. And so on and on. It makes more sense to work toward a fundamental change in the social system. To build up media and organizations independent of capitalist control, and eventually use our votes as part of a strategy to introduce the fuller democracy of socialism. It’s a long and uphill struggle. But what real alternative is there?
American public opinion and the S-word: weakening of a taboo?
In April 2009, interviewers working for the Rasmussen agency asked 1,000 people: ‘Which is a better system – capitalism or socialism?’ 53% said capitalism, 20% socialism, and 27% were not sure. Although ‘capitalism’ came out the clear winner, commentators were shocked that almost half the respondents failed to give the ‘correct’ response on a matter so crucial to the dominant ideology. The interviewers did not define ‘capitalism’ or ‘socialism’, so we are left to guess what respondents understood by these words. No doubt most of those who answered ‘socialism’ did not have a clear or accurate idea of what it means. Nevertheless, socialists can take encouragement from the evident ability of a sizeable proportion of people to resist indoctrination by the corporate media, which never have anything good to say about any kind of ‘socialism’. Even the fact that so many Americans do not react negatively to the S-word itself is significant: people who do not take fright at the word are more likely to be open to consideration of the idea. A clue to how Americans interpret ‘capitalism’ is found in another Rasmussen poll (May 2009). Here people were asked: ‘Is a free market economy the same as a capitalist economy?’ 35% replied yes, 38% no. This result puzzled the hired ideologists of capital, who do equate the two concepts and like to use ‘the free market’ as a euphemism for ‘capitalism’. Yet another poll (December 2008) asked: ‘Which is better – a free market economy or a government-managed economy?’ 70% preferred a ‘free market economy’ and only 15% a ‘government-managed economy’. This implies that there is a substantial body of people (about 17%) who are
in favour of ‘the free market’ but against ‘capitalism’. In the US ‘capitalism’ is widely associated with big business and ‘the free market’ with small business. Hatred for big business commonly goes along with admiration for small business. In the frequent polls that compare the approval ratings of various occupational groups, small business owners regularly come out on top, while corporate CEOs (together with politicians) end up at the bottom. Those who are ‘against capitalism but for the free market’ are, perhaps, still influenced by the old populist idea of the good society as a relatively egalitarian community of small independent producers – farmers, fishermen, craftsmen, doctors, etc. This utopia has its roots in an idealised image of early rural colonial society in New England and Pennsylvania, before its transformation by industrial capitalism. Young people more inclined toward ‘socialism’ The proportion of respondents who say that ‘socialism’ is a better system than ‘capitalism’ varies with gender, age, race and income. Women are slightly more likely than men to prefer ‘socialism’; people with low incomes (under $40,000 per year) more than twice as likely as people with high incomes (over $75,000); and blacks almost twice as likely as whites, with equal proportions favouring ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ (31% each). Variation with age is especially striking. Proportions preferring ‘socialism’ in the older age groups (40 and over) are well below average. In the 30 – 39 age group the proportion rises to 26% and in the 18 – 29 age group to 33% (with 37% favouring ‘capitalism’). If we focus specifically on women aged 18 – 29, we again find an equal division of opinion: 36% for
‘capitalism’ and 36% for ‘socialism’. So young people seem to have a greater ability than their elders to resist brainwashing by the lie machine. Some other polls support this hypothesis. In recent years, for instance, media efforts to discredit and ridicule warnings about climate change have had considerable success. The proportion of respondents in Gallup polls who agree that ‘the seriousness of global warming has been exaggerated’ rose from 30% in 2006 to 33% in 2007, 35% in 2008 and 41% in 2009. This regressive shift, however, is confined to people aged 30 and over. The distribution of views in the 18 – 29 age group has not been affected. Why? How might these very hopeful findings be explained? If we believe widespread stereotype, nothing needs explaining: young people are ‘naturally’ rebellious and older people ‘naturally’ conformist. In fact, this is far from always the case. Rebellious and conformist generations tend to alternate. The young rebels of the 1960s gave way to the young conformists of the 1980s. The pendulum is now swinging back. I suggest three reasons. First, deteriorating economic conditions. This is the first generation of young people since the Great Depression who have no hope of maintaining, let alone improving on, their parents’ standard of living. They face a grim and uncertain future. Second, an increasing number of young people pay less attention to the corporate media, preferring to rely on the Internet. This exposes them to a broader range of ideas, including socialist ones.
Finally, the end of the Cold War. During the Cold War, ‘socialism’ and ‘communism’ were associated with a forbidding external enemy. Advocating them marked you out as a traitor. We protested that what we stood for was something quite different, but our voice was barely audible. We hoped that with the end of the Cold War it would become easier to spread socialist ideas. We felt disappointed that this did not seem to happen. The disappointment was premature. Attitudes do change in response to circumstances – but only when a new generation comes of age. For today’s young Americans the Cold War is ancient history.
Christian fascism: the best response
In American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America (Free Press, 2006), Chris Hedges warns of the danger presented by the section of the U.S. political spectrum usually known as the Christian right – a danger to democracy, tolerance, science and intellectual freedom. His warning concerns not Christian revivalism in general (traditional evangelists like Billy Graham, he points out, were concerned with saving souls not politics) but a specific highly political tendency called “dominionism” that aims to establish the world empire of a reborn “Christian America”. Dominionist preachers like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James
Dobson, R.J. Rushdoony and Rod Parseley propagate their worldview through a vast array of “megachurches” and publishing houses, home schools and universities, museums and broadcasting outlets. (The programming of Paul and Jan Crouch’s Trinity Broadcasting Network is carried on over 6,000 television stations at home and abroad.) Theirs is a relentlessly simplistic worldview, supposedly based on the Bible as the literal Word of God, that denounces all opponents as servants of Satan and eagerly anticipates the miraculous horrors of the Apocalypse. The dominionists are hostile to real science and deny global warming as well as evolution. Their “Gospel of Prosperity” celebrates unbridled capitalism and extravagant consumption. A long-term aim is government based on biblical law.
A purely American Fascism
Hedges makes out a convincing case for regarding dominionism as a variety of totalitarianism and fascism. In certain ways, however, the dominionists differ from earlier generations of fascists in the United States, even though they too used the Christian label. Dominionist symbols are purely American; they admit to no connection with classical foreign
fascisms (Italian, German, etc.). Comparing the new Christian fascists with the Ku Klux Klan, for instance, we find that each focuses on a quite different set of enemies. They renounce hatred for blacks, Catholics and Jews – the three bugbears of WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) bigotry. Instead, they appeal to Christians across racial lines, work with Catholics on issues such as abortion and prayer in schools, and cultivate a close alliance of convenience with the Zionist religious right, despite the divergent apocalyptic expectations of the two groups. The main targets of their hostility are those they call “secular humanists” – a catch-all for all who oppose them, non-fundamentalist Christians as well as atheists and agnostics – and also Islam.
A highly lucrative business
How do the dominionist preachers finance their activities? Partly by fleecing their flocks, who pay a “tithe” of 10% of income in addition to other donations. Other money comes from sympathetic capitalists, including Amway founder Richard DeVos and beer baron Joseph Coors. Finally, the Bush Administration, with which they had close ties through the Council for National Policy, enabled them to tap federal funds for “faith-based” social
service initiatives – an arrangement that Obama has left intact. We may reasonably doubt whether the big capitalists and politicians who support the dominionists care all that deeply about religious dogma. Their main interest presumably lies in the prospect of intensified control over and exploitation of the working class. Indeed, for the preachers themselves religion is, apart from anything else, a highly lucrative business. Their opulent lifestyles suggest that they divert a significant portion of the various cash flows into their own bank accounts. Evidently they have overlooked certain biblical passages – for instance, Jesus’ well-known remark about the camel who tried to pass through the eye of a needle.
Our attitude as socialists
The danger presented by “Christian fascism” is a real one. It threatens us as socialists at least as much as it threatens all other “servants of Satan”. Our ability to spread our ideas depends on tolerance of minority opinions. Moreover, people whose minds have been addled by belief in magic, miracles and divine texts are unlikely to be receptive to socialist ideas. So we cannot say: “It doesn’t matter which group of capitalists have
the upper hand; they are all equally bad because they all represent capitalism.” Of course it matters. Faced with the threat of fascism, socialists share a certain amount of common ground with non-socialists concerned to defend democracy and science. Both, for example, seek to debunk “creationism” and explain current scientific thinking about evolution. However, we must not jeopardise our identity as socialists by joining broad “anti-fascist” blocs that inevitably accept the continued existence of capitalism. One reason is that as socialists we have a unique contribution to make to effective action against fascism.
Real versus illusory community
In his book Hedges describes how vulnerable people are recruited into dominionist churches. The target of “seduction” is someone whose history and circumstances (family breakdown, abuse, addiction, isolation, etc.) make it especially hard to bear the absence of community in capitalism. The church offers an illusion of community and the victim snatches at the bait, only later to discover, when escape has become very difficult, that he or she has paid a high price in submission for yet another illusion.
The soil in which fascism grows is the impersonal and alienating conditions of life under capitalism, especially at times of crisis. Hedges appears to understand this. But there is a disconnect between analysis and conclusion. He calls for more determined resistance to Christian fascism, but offers no hope of a more communal way of life that might counter the emotional appeal of fascism. Only socialists, by holding out the prospect of real community, can act effectively to undermine the illusory community of fascism.
Fascists take over Russian Communist Party
In a Russian-language document now circulating on the internet, Yevgeny Volobuyev, a member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (CPRF) in St. Petersburg, “sounds the tocsin to warn of the danger of the CPRF finally turning into a fascist party.” Volobuyev explains that Russian fascists have been arguing for a long time on their websites about “what to do with the CPRF.” Some said that they should just put communists “up against the wall”, but others argued that
they should first join the CPRF and take over its structures. In recent years, with openly fascist organizations like Russian National Unity fragmenting and losing legal status, “fascists and people inclined toward fascism streamed into the CPRF.” There they found many party leaders “demoralised by the collapse of the Soviet Union” and sympathetic to their cause. With the help of these leaders, they “were able to create an unofficial fascist faction inside the CPRF” (officially the party does not allow factions). They also managed to gain control of the party’s internet sites. The infiltrators would have been less successful had the ground not been so well prepared for them. Ever since the CPRF was founded in 1993, it has been dominated by the Russian nationalist (“patriotic”) tendency led by Gennady Zyuganov. Until now, however, the party also had a place for people who still call themselves “internationalists” and “Marxist-Leninists”. (For an analysis of tendencies within the CPRF, see Chapter 3 of Stephen D. Shenfield, Russian Fascism, NY: M.E. Sharpe 2001.)
That is now changing. The fascist faction, acting through its allies in the party leadership, is carrying out individual and mass expulsions with a
view to purging the CPRF of all opponents of Russian nationalism: “The party organizations of entire regions are being destroyed.” Some local branches, such as the one to which Volobuyev belongs, have been targeted simply because of their multiethnic composition. “The situation has descended to the point of measuring skulls.” Only people of pure Russian descent are wanted. The “internationalists” are accused of refusing to participate in the “national liberation struggle” against Jews and other ethnic minorities branded as enemies of the Russian nation. Many party members are also accused of “neo-Trotskyism” – on the face of it an absurd accusation, as Volobuyev remarks, because with hardly any exceptions they have never read Trotsky and have no idea what Trotskyism is, let alone neo-Trotskyism. But the Russian nationalists know that Trotsky was the most prominent opponent of Stalin, whom they count as one of their own. And they know that Trotsky was a Jew.
The nationalists and fascists in the CPRF are allied with various party figures – all of ethnic Russian origin, of course – who are also big
businessmen (“oligarchs” in current Russian parlance). One such figure is Alexander Afanasyev, owner of a chain of parmacies. According to Volobuyev, the motive underlying the destruction of 22 of St. Petersburg’s 29 district party organizations was to clear a space on the CPRF list of candidates for Afanasyev to get a seat in the State Duma (parliament). Another “communist” oligarch is the CPRF functionary and insurance and vodka tycoon Sergei Shtogrin, currently deputy chairman of the Duma Committee on Budgetary and Tax Issues. Shtogrin has argued in favor of encouraging greater alcohol consumption in order to increase state revenues.
The Leninist organizational model
Most of the fascists’ victims do not understand what is happening. They believe that a “mistake” has been made and that “if they appeal to Zyuganov and the Central Committee truth will triumph”. As “disciplined and law-abiding communists”, they are reluctant to consolidate their forces by creating an “internationalist” or “Marxist-Leninist” faction, because this would mean breaking party rules. This sense of “discipline” reflects the basically undemocratic structure of the CPRF, which remains wedded to the Leninist organizational model of
“democratic centralism”. It is clear from Volobuyev’s account that ordinary members and even branch organizers still look to leaders for guidance and initiative. They take pride in the awards they receive from the leaders and are chastened by their reprimands – just like in the good old days of the “Soviet” regime. The undemocratic structure of the party facilitates the fascist takeover in other ways too. Arbitrary decisions can be made to expel members and whole branches even without clarification of the reasons.
Assuming that no effective moves are made to block the fascist takeover of the CPRF, what are the likely consequences for Russian politics? The CPRF will lose many of its local activists and depend increasingly on funding from oligarchs. It may end up with little to distinguish it from Zhirinovsky’s Liberal-Democratic Party of Russia, competing with the LDPR for the same extreme Russian nationalist electorate. Some new organizations may be formed by “internationalists” expelled from the CPRF. These people do not share the same views except on the admittedly important issue of nationalism. Some would like to restore
some version of the “Soviet” system. Others think in terms of reforming private capitalism or envision some kind of “market socialism”. Perhaps at least a few will be prompted by their experience in the CPRF to move toward a more democratic mode of organization and conception of socialism.
Still in chains: South Africa after apartheid
They never freed us. They only took the chain from around our neck and put it on our ankles. Anti-apartheid activist Rassool Snyman to Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine, NY: Henry Holt, 2007, p. 203)
The fight against the system of racial segregation and white supremacy called apartheid (“apartness” in Afrikaans) was one of the great liberal and left-wing causes of my generation. It was a fight not only for political democracy in South Africa but also for socio-economic reform. The Freedom Charter, adopted by the African National Congress in 1955 (www.anc.org.za), called for “restoring national wealth to the people” (understood as nationalization of the mines, banks and “monopoly industry”), “re-dividing the land among those who work it to banish famine and land hunger,” improved pay and working conditions, free healthcare, universal literacy, and decent housing for all.
Apartheid as a political and legal system was dismantled in the early 1990s. South Africa’s capitalists did not on the whole object. Apartheid had brought them immense profits from the exploitation of a cheap captive labor force. But it had its drawbacks. By denying training and advancement to a large majority of the workforce, it created a growing shortage of skilled labor. Capitalists are often willing to accept a measure of social change, provided that they can set its limits. Although apartheid is gone, economically South Africa is still one of the most unequal countries in the world. Almost all the land, mines and industry remain in the same (mostly white) hands. Almost half the population lives below subsistence level. Unemployment is widespread; children scavenge on dumps and landfill sites from sunrise to sunset seven days a week. Life expectancy is falling (a drop of 13 years since 1990) as AIDS, drug-resistant TB and other diseases spread. Even segregation still exists in practice. The wealthy take shelter in “gated communities” from the violence pervading the shantytowns. As the wealthy are no longer exclusively but only predominantly white, the proper name for this is class rather than race segregation. True, efforts have been made to improve living conditions. Close to two million new homes have been built. Whether they count as “decent housing” is another matter.) Water, telephone and electricity networks have been expanded. But while millions were rehoused, millions were also evicted for rent arrears. Nine million people were connected to the water supply, but during the same period ten million were disconnected as the price rose out of their reach. * * *
How did the main reform goals of the Freedom Charter come to be abandoned? Political journalist William Mervin Gumede tells the story in his book Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC (Cape Town: Zebra Press 2005). While political negotiations, conducted in the glare of publicity, moved the ANC toward government office, parallel and almost unpublicized economic negotiations, led on the ANC side by Thabo Mbeki (now president), ensured that when the ANC did take office it would be unable to act against white business interests. A new clause of the constitution made all private property sacrosanct. Power over economic policy was ceded to an “autonomous” central bank and international financial institutions. “The ANC found itself caught in a web made of arcane rules and regulations. As the web descended on the country only a few people even noticed it was there, but when the new government tried to give its voters the tangible benefits they expected the strands of the web tightened and [it] discovered that its powers were tightly bound” (Klein, pp. 202-3). The ANC hierarchy came under “relentless pressure” from local and international business, the (business-controlled) media, foreign politicians, the World Bank and IMF, etc. It was “an onslaught for which the ANC was wholly unprepared” (Gumede, p. 72). This does not mean that crude demands and threats played a crucial role. It was a process more of seduction than intimidation, aimed at integrating a set of new partners into the institutional structure and social milieu of the global capitalist class. This meant providing opportunities for ANC officials to go into business or train at American business schools and investment banks. Leading figures were lavished with hospitality: “Harry Oppenheimer
[former chairman of Anglo American Corporation and De Beers Consolidated Mines] was eager to entertain Mandela at his private estate, while Anglovaal’s Clive Menell hosted him for Christmas (1990) at his mansion… While separated from his wife, Mandela’s home for several months was the palatial estate of insurance tycoon Douw Steyn… His daughter Zinzi had a honeymoon partly financed by resort and casino king Sol Kerzner, and Mandela spent Christmas 1993 in the Bahamas as a guest of Heinz and Independent Newspapers chairman Sir Anthony O’Reilly” (Gumede, p. 72). It seems churlish to begrudge Mandela a little luxury after 27 years in prison. But what were his benefactors’ motives? However, the most effective form of capitalist influence was the impersonal pressure of “the markets.” As Mandela told the ANC’s 1997 national conference: “The mobility of capital and the globalization of the capital and other markets make it impossible for countries to decide national economic policy without regard to the likely response of these markets” (Klein, p. 207). And the markets punished the slightest sign of deviation from the “Washington consensus” with capital flight and speculation against the rand. Mbeki was the first to grasp what was needed to win the markets’ confidence. Precisely in order to live down its “revolutionary” and “Marxist” past, the ANC leaders had to prove themselves more Catholic than the pope. “Just call me a Thatcherite” – quipped Mbeki as he unveiled his new “shock therapy” program in 1996. South Africa could not afford the protectionist measures with which Malaysia, for instance, warded off the Asian financial crisis of 1997. Orthodoxy, however, was never rewarded with the hoped-for flood of foreign investment. The markets are stern taskmasters: they demand
everything and promise nothing. It is not altogether fair to say that Mandela or Mbeki “sold out.” They simply saw no escape from the “web” spun by global capital. Indeed, at the national level there is no escape. Reformers in other countries, such as the Solidarity movement in Poland and Lula’s Workers’ Party in Brazil, have gone through much the same experience on reaching office. Socialists have long said that socialism cannot be established in a single country. Now we also know that under conditions of globalization even a meaningful program of reform cannot be implemented in a single country. Capital is global. That is its trump card against any attempt to defy its dictates that is confined within national boundaries. The resistance to capital must also be organized on a global scale if it is to have any chance of success. March 2008
Zionism and antisemitism: two dangerous ideologies that thrive on each other
It's now 110 years since Theodor Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews) and launched the Zionist movement, nearly 60 since the state he envisaged came into being. Upset by the Dreyfus case (Dreyfus was a French Jewish army officer framed as a spy for Germany), Herzl had concluded that Jews would only be safe when they had a state of their own. As they ran for the shelters during the war with Hezbullah, Israelis may well have wondered whether there is any country in the world where
Jews are less safe. And although the Israeli government keeps emigration statistics secret, it is estimated that since 2003 more Jews have been seeking refuge by leaving Israel than by entering it. Thoughtful Israelis may also wonder how much of the antisemitism in the world today is generated by Israel itself through its mistreatment of Palestinians and Lebanese. Zionists are always complaining about antisemitism, real or imaginary. They use such complaints especially as a gambit to de-legitimise criticism of Zionism and Israel. From the start, however, Zionist opposition to anti-semitism has been superficial and selective, because Zionism is itself closely connected to anti-semitism. Zionists need antisemitism like heroin addicts need a fix. That’s how it’s been from the start. Herzl realised that if his project was to succeed he had to seek support wherever it might be found. And who was more likely to back his movement than the antisemites? Not the most extreme antisemites, who wanted to exterminate the Jews, but "moderate" ones who would be content to get rid of them. And so Herzl set off for Russia to sell his idea to the tsar's minister of police, Plehve, a notorious antisemite widely regarded as responsible for the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. An opportunistic alliance with another antisemitic ruler of Russia – Stalin – was crucial to the establishment of the state of Israel. On Stalin's instructions, Czechoslovakia provided arms and training that enabled the fledgling Zionist armed forces in Palestine to win the war of independence in 1947-48. Stalin's motive was to undermine the position of Britain in the Middle East. For some years the Israeli government continued to rely on Soviet military and diplomatic support, while keeping silent about the persecution of Soviet Jews, then at its height. (For more on this episode, see Arnold Krammer, The Forgotten Friendship: Israel and the Soviet Bloc,
1947-53, University of Illinois, 1974.) In 1953 the Israeli-Soviet alliance finally broke down. Israel switched to the other side of the Cold War, obtaining aid first from France and then from the US. Alliance with "the West" also entailed maintaining good relations with antisemitic regimes, notably in Latin America. Consider Argentina: a disproportionate number of Jews were among those killed, imprisoned and tortured by the military junta that ruled the country from 1976 to 1983. Given the "anti-democratic, anti-semitic and Nazi tendencies" of the Argentine officer corps, we may assume that they were persecuted not merely as political opponents but also as Jews. Meanwhile a stream of Israeli generals passed through Buenos Aires, selling the junta arms. (See http://www.jcpa.org/jpsr/jpsr-mualem-s04.htm and http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Terrorism/Argentina_STATUS.html; also Jacobo Timmerman's book Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number.) But it is not just a matter of Zionists and antisemites sometimes having strategic or business interests in common. There are ideological affinities. Zionists, like antisemites, are mostly racists and nationalists for whom it is abnormal that an ethnic group should live dispersed as a minority in various countries. It is therefore natural and only to be expected if the majority reacts badly to such an anomaly. There is a strong tendency in Zionism to agree that Jews have objectionable traits, which are to be overcome as they turn themselves into a normal nation by settling in Palestine "to rebuild the land and be rebuilt by it." What if the Jews in a given country are well integrated, face no significant antisemitism, and show no interest in being "normalized"? Originally Zionism was conceived as a means of solving the problem of
antisemitism. From this point of view, where the problem does not exist there is no need for the solution. However, ends and means were inverted long ago, and Zionism became an end in itself, with antisemitism a condition of its success. Antisemitism might still be regarded in principle as an evil, but as a necessary evil. Often it was also said to be a lesser evil compared to the threat of assimilation supposedly inherent in rising rates of intermarriage. Against this background, it seems a trifle naive to ask why Israel's ruling circles don't realise that by their own actions they are generating antisemitism. They realise. But they make it a point not to give a damn what the world thinks of them. There is nothing unique about the affinity between Zionism and antisemitism. Russian nationalism thrives on Russophobia (the denigration of Russians), Irish nationalism on anti-Irish prejudice, Islamism on hatred of Moslems, and so on. To escape the vicious circle, we must respond to ethnic persecution not by promoting "our own" brand of nationalist or religious politics, but by asserting our identity as human beings and citizens of the future world cooperative commonwealth. January 2007
Sliding into the abyss: the Gaza Ghetto
In my childhood I suffered fear, hunger and humiliation when I passed from the Warsaw Ghetto through labour camps to Buchenwald. I hear too many familiar sounds today.. I hear about 'closed areas' and I remember ghettos
and camps. I hear 'two-legged beasts# and I remember Untermenschen. I hear about tightening the siege, clearing the area, pounding the city into submission, and I remember suffering, destruction, death, blood and murder... Too many things in Israel remind me of too many things from my childhood. Shlomo Shmelzman Ha'aretz, 11 August 1982 In March a coalition of humanitarian and human rights organizations reported that the situation of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip was "worse now than it has ever been since the start of Israeli military occupation in 1967" (www.oxfam.org.uk). Since June 2007 the strip has been under near-total siege - fenced and walled in on land, the five border crossings mostly closed, the shoreline patrolled by the Israeli navy. Together with the sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union, the siege has progressively paralyzed public utilities and economic activity. Without fuel to generate electricity, wells no longer pump water for drinking or irrigation and sewage is no longer treated. Bakeries have run out of flour. Gunboats sink any fishing boats that are still able to put to sea. The Israeli army conducts repeated cross-border raids with tanks, bulldozers and helicopters, demolishing houses, razing crops, shooting and abducting civilians (Dr. Elias Akleh, 'Gaza's Imminent Explosion' at wcnews.net/content/view/23006/26). The untreated sewage is dumped into the sea. The smell and the mosquitoes and other insects it attracts make life very unpleasant for people living near the shore. Another threat to health arises from the use of cooking oil as a substitute fuel in vehicles: its combustion releases carcinogenic
hydrocarbons into the air. As unemployment approaches 50% and food prices rise rapidly, the proportion of families dependent on food aid has reached 80%. On April 24, UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) announced that due to lack of fuel food aid is no longer being distributed. The problem, as Erik Johnson explains, "is not yet a lack of food, but of money to buy it" (www.roadjunky.com/article/1612). True, with no fertilizer or seeds being imported, there is no new planting, so the outlook for the future is grim. But there is fresh produce of the kind that is usually exported but cannot be exported now because of the siege. The trouble is that local residents do not have enough money to buy it all. So much of it - if the money system is allowed to function in its normally perverse manner - will go to waste in the midst of growing starvation. * * * Observers have called the Gaza Strip "the world's largest open-air prison" (360 square kilometres), a cage, a concentration camp, now even a death camp. But a more accurate term for it, as well as for certain areas administered by the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, is ghetto. As in the Jewish ghettoes of Nazi-occupied or late medieval Europe (the first was established in Venice in 1516), the inhabitants of the Palestinian ghettoes are confined to closed areas but not directly governed by the dominant power. They have their own semi-autonomous though dependent institutions. This usage requires only expanding the concept to cover rural and mixed ruralurban as well as urban ghettoes. Another parallel that many draw is with the
Bantustans of apartheid South Africa. While officially Israel indignantly rejects the comparison with apartheid, former Italian premier Massimo D'Alema revealed that Israeli PM Sharon had stated at a private meeting that he took the Bantustans as his model (www.informationclearinghouse.info/article19256.htm). There is no conflict between the two parallels, as the Bantustan too may be regarded as a form of ghetto. Besides its basic political function of confining and controlling a stigmatized group, a ghetto may perform economic functions. It may provide capitalists with a captive and therefore cheap labour force. This used to be an important function of the Palestinian ghettoes. But as 'closure' has tightened they have lost this function. Palestinians have been replaced in menial jobs by workers from Romania, Thailand, the Philippines, and West Africa. The number of unemployed among Israelis has also increased (to about 200,000). So Palestinian ghetto workers are increasingly superfluous to the labour needs of Israel's capitalist economy. This gives even more cause for concern about their fate. One of the worst miseries inflicted on the hapless residents of the Gaza Ghetto is sonic booming. The Israeli Air Force flies U.S. F-16 fighter planes low and fast over the ghetto, generally every hour or two from midnight to dawn, deliberately creating sonic booms. The noise and the shockwaves prevent people sleeping, shake them up inside, make their pulses race, ears ring and noses bleed, cause miscarriages, crack walls, and smash windows. Children, especially, are terrified and traumatized: they suffer panic and anxiety attacks, have trouble breathing, wet their beds, lose appetite and concentration. Many are thrown off their beds, sometimes resulting in broken limbs. The sonic booming began in October 2005, after
the Jewish settlements were evacuated from Gaza. Since then it has been periodically suspended but always renewed. An anonymous IDF source described its purpose as "trying to send a message, to break civilian support for armed groups." And yet the first wave of booming was followed by the victory of Hamas in the Palestine Legislative Council elections of January 2006. (The U.S. had ordered free elections, but neglected to give clear instructions on who to vote for. In view of the harsh punishment for voting incorrectly, that was most unfair.) * * * A key test of intelligence in monkeys is whether the monkey goes on using a means that has repeatedly failed to achieve its purpose. By this criterion, Israeli generals and politicians appear to be very stupid, even for monkeys. But perhaps they are not so stupid. Perhaps their true purpose is something else. In the opinion of Professor Ur Shlonsky, that purpose is to "terrorise" the Palestinians and make "daily life ... unbearable" for them in order to "encourage emigration and weaken resistance to future expulsions" ('Zionist Ideology, the Non-Jews and the State of Israel,' University of Geneva, 10 February 2002). Some do emigrate, but for the great majority that is not a viable option. As for expulsion, how will the Palestinians of Gaza be expelled? Will they be pushed into the Sinai desert? Will Egypt be compelled to accept them? It seems more likely that in the absence of strong countervailing pressure they will simply be abandoned to perish where they are, of disease, starvation and thirst - a direct consequence of Israeli, American and European policy.
Maoist China as a class society: illusion and reality
The image of Maoist China conveyed in the poster art and other propaganda of the regime was that of a regimented and spartan but egalitarian society, without hierarchical class distinctions. Curiously enough, anti-Maoist propaganda conveyed a very similar image: several authors, for instance, dehumanized the Chinese under Mao as “blue ants.” In accordance with its egalitarian image, Maoism is commonly classified as a leftwing – indeed, “extreme left” or “ultra-left” – ideology. The blatant inequalities of postMao China have served only to enhance the image in retrospect. And yet the image was always an illusion, a meticulously maintained lie. The rich memoir literature that has become available since the “thaw” of 1978 begins to dispel the illusions and portray the realities of Maoist China. And one of those realities turns out to be a class structure that differs in detail but not in broad outline from that of the “old China.” * * * In Daughter of the River, Hong Ying gives a moving account of growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in a working class family in the provincial city of Chongqing. She maps the local landscape into three sharply divided domains. First, the hilly slum district on the south bank of the Yangtze River, where the author used to live – “the city’s garbage dump,” its “rotting
appendix,” crowded with ramshackle wooden sheds and with hardly any sewers. The residents are mostly “coolies” – unskilled labourers; it is very rare for a youngster to pass the college entrance exams. So it was before “liberation”; so it was in her time; so, judging by the photos in the book, it remains today. Second, on the north bank, the city proper. “The centre of the city,” she observes with bitter irony, “might as well be in another world, with red flags everywhere you look and rousing political songs filling the air [and] youngsters reading revolutionary books to prepare themselves for the life of a revolutionary cadre” – like the cadres (officials) who ridicule and humiliate her when she tries to get her father the pension to which as a disabled sailor he is entitled. And third, though she has never set eye on them, “the summer houses of the rich and powerful, hidden amid the lush green hillsides surrounding the city.” Here, it must be admitted, a minor change has occurred: “Once occupied by Chiang Kai-shek’s closest aides and his US advisers [Chongqing was the Kuomintang capital in 1937--45], they now accommodated high-ranking Communist Party officials.” * * * So China under Mao was, like China before Mao and China after Mao, a class-divided society. And, as in any other class-divided society, class struggle existed in various forms. However, the real class struggle between the real classes that made up the society was obscured by unrelenting official propaganda about an illusory “class struggle” (“Never forget class struggle!”) that was actually something else entirely.
In Maoist China the authorities assigned every citizen an official “class” label or political “hat.” A great deal depended on this label, from political influence and social respect to work assignments and access to medical care – not to mention the chance of ending up in a labour camp or on an execution ground. Most labels referred not to current social position but to the alleged former status of the person or of his or her parents and grandparents in the old society. Thus, “poor and lower middle peasants” (“red” categories), “upper middle peasants” (an intermediate category), and “rich peasants” and “landlords” (“black” categories) were currently all collective farmers. The harshest treatment (justified as “class struggle”) and worst jobs were reserved for “landlords,” who became a hereditary caste of pariahs like the Indian untouchables. The real function of the labels was to measure the presumed degree of loyalty to the regime. Party leaders in good standing, irrespective of family background, belonged to the “red” category of “revolutionary cadre.” Both prime minister Zhou Enlai and secret police chief Kang Sheng were sons of big landlords and Mao’s own father was a small landlord, but that did not count against them. Conversely, worker or poor peasant origin provided very limited protection to those who challenged party policy: a “class” label could be arbitrarily changed or the malcontent could be dumped in the catchall category of “bad element.” So we must decode the official “class struggle” as a continuing campaign to crush all actual and potential dissent. In official discourse “proletariat” (working class) was a codeword for the regime (or whichever faction controlled the regime at any given time). When workers in Shanghai went on strike in 1966--67, they were accused of falling under the influence of “class enemies wielding the weapon of economism.” In other words, they
were tools of the capitalist class striking against themselves! * * * Many Maoist sympathizers acknowledge that China under Mao was a highly unequal society, but put the blame on Mao’s opponents within the leadership – the notorious “capitalist roaders” supposedly headed by Liu Shaoqi. Mao himself and those who helped him launch the Cultural Revolution were, they ask us to believe, fighting against the party bureaucracy for a classless society. This “anti-bureaucratic” interpretation of the so-called Cultural Revolution is at variance with the official definition of its purpose. It was basically a brutal witch-hunt, assisted and supervised by the secret police, against anyone suspected of disloyalty to the “Emperor.” So intended targets did include many specific bureaucrats suspected of opposing Mao’s policies, but not the bureaucracy as a whole. True, in some places control over the movement was lost for a time, and Red Guards started deciding for themselves whom to attack. One organization even denounced the “butcher” Kang Sheng, who acted promptly to isolate and arrest its activists. In Hunan a Red Guard alliance called Sheng-wu-lien published a manifesto redefining the enemy more broadly as “the new bureaucratic bourgeoisie.” Denounced as a “counterrevolutionary” by Mao himself, Yang Xiguang, author of the manifesto, was jailed for ten years and narrowly escaped execution. (For more on Shengwu-lien, see http://www.marxists.de/china/hore/03-cultrev.htm. On Yang Xiguang, who died in Australia in 2004, see http://www.csaa.org.au/news11.04.html#Vale and his book Captive Spirits:
Prisoners of the Cultural Revolution.) At least since 1949, all top party leaders have lived and worked under extremely privileged conditions and in virtually total isolation from ordinary people. In Beijing they cloister themselves (and their servants) inside the Zhongnanhai complex, while in summer they vacation together at the seaside resort of Beidaihe. We get a sense of the unhealthy, claustrophobic and paranoid atmosphere of this environment from the memoirs of Mao’s personal physician, Dr. Li Zhisui (The Private Life of Chairman Mao). Jiang Qing, Kang Sheng, and other members of Mao’s faction were certainly no less privileged, corrupt or cynical than his opponents. It is absurd to cast them as champions of the people. The Red Guards appeared to be attacking privilege, but appearances were deceptive. First, they only attacked the privileges of those who had already been identified as “class enemies” on other grounds. Second, the net result of their rampage was merely the redistribution of privilege and property within the elite. Some individuals temporarily or permanently lost positions of power, while others – favoured Red Guard leaders and assorted opportunists – were elevated into the nomenklatura. The numerous antiques that Red Guards confiscated from well-to-do homes ended up not in public museums and art galleries but in storerooms where army generals and their wives took their pick -- as did Kang Sheng, himself a keen collector (John Byron and Robert Pack, The Claws of the Dragon). What then were the real policy differences between Mao and the “capitalist roaders”? Any state capitalist regime must pursue the long-term goal of capital accumulation within the context of great-power competition. In this respect there is no difference between Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” (1958--61) and
the “Four Modernizations” of the post-Mao period. But there is an important difference in strategy and style of management. Mao, a romantic with a pre-scientific mentality, relied on unrealistically ambitious and consequently disastrous campaigns. Aiming to overtake Britain in steel production, he forced the peasants to neglect agriculture and build small “backyard” furnaces that produced junk, plunging the country into history’s greatest famine. The “capitalist roaders” wanted a more rational, steady and sustained strategy for the accumulation of national capital. Mao’s idiosyncratic impulses kept on messing things up for them. What did Maoism mean for ordinary people? Some of Mao’s policies may have been of benefit – for example, the (now defunct) “barefoot doctor” program that attempted to make basic medical care available to the rural population. On balance, however, the modest positive impact of such policies was surely outweighed by all the suffering, repression, waste and disruption for which Mao was responsible. June 2007
Smile, smile, smile! But why?
We are under a constant onslaught of propaganda to keep smiling – or, in fancier language, to maintain a “positive outlook”. TV gurus and song lyrics drum the demand into our heads, and we echo them, telling ourselves things like “Mustn’t grumble!” and “Look on the bright side!” The “keep smiling” agitprop goes back a long way – at least a century. In 1914 men were marched to the slaughter like docile lambs to the cheerful strains of Pack All Your Troubles In Your Old Kit Bag and Smile, Smile, Smile! And in 1932, in the depths of the Great Depression, another hit snarled: Smile, Darn Ya, Smile!!! Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People appeared in 1936. His first two pieces of advice were “don’t criticize, condemn or complain” and “give honest and sincere appreciation.” How can you 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 waiter, air steward, hotel receptionist or croupier, for example, is expected to keep smiling, however irritating, rude or unpleasant a customer may be to him or her. “I am just not as good at faking that smile as I used to be,” bemoans one service worker. 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 twelve muscles, a frown only eleven (http://www.straightdope.com/columns/040116.html). In any case, isn’t exercising as many different muscles as possible supposed to be good for us? 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 what the smile propaganda is about. It serves 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. August 2007
The play world and capitalist reality
As a parent of a mentally retarded daughter whose mental age is stuck permanently at two, I get to watch a lot of TV programs and videos designed for young children. While many parents may try to protect their children from the realities of life under capitalism, those realities inevitably start to intrude at quite an early age. Children become aware, for instance, that a mysterious thing called money is needed to get things and that some people have much more
of it than others. However, many of the programs they watch present an ideal play world in which a benevolent parental figure like Barney or the Bear in the Big Blue House looks after all their needs and teaches them an egalitarian ethic of give and take, taking turns, and fair shares. The most isolated and self-contained play world is, no doubt, that of the Telly Tubbies, who play together harmoniously in an empty idyllic landscape, fed and kept clean by the hardworking and uncomplaining robot Noonoo. Some programs do set the children’s play against a sporadically glimpsed background of adult life. Some attempt may even be made to reassure children regarding some of the adult problems that affect them, such as divorce. And yet the most discomfiting realities remain concealed. You would never guess from Sesame Street, for instance, that the great majority of Americans live in racially segregated areas. Although Sesame Street is evidently an inner city neighborhood, everyone seems to live in modest comfort, no one is on drugs, and any hint of violence is taboo. The employment relationship, which dominates most people’s lives, is relegated to the margins of awareness by making most of the main adult characters self-employed (Maria and Louis have a fixit shop, Alan has a store, Gina is a vet, etc.). Other programs are set in a community of family farms, achieving the same effect. Rather than avoiding the issue of employment, one British series openly glorifies the institution. Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends are trains and other animated machines on the Island of Sodor. They all work for a man named Sir Topham Hatt, who is forever telling them off for “causing confusion and delay” when they forget his instructions and follow their own inclinations. The most honest children’s program I have seen is a cartoon named
after its central character, Arthur, an eight-year-old anthropomorphic aardvark. It confronts the viewer with social inequality as a problematic phenomenon, featuring characters in families at various economic levels, from Buster and his impoverished single-parent mother to Muffy, the spoiled daughter of a wealthy businessman. When Francine is embarrassed at having a trash collector as her father, he demonstrates to her and her friends the social value of his work. And Arthur himself learns that injustice is also a real problem when he is unjustly accused of stealing money that belongs to his school. Of course, he is vindicated at the last moment. As in films for the adult mass market, a happy ending is obligatory. After all, certain proprieties have to be observed when broaching the sensitive issue of injustice.
The first article in this section is devoted to the issue of globalisation. The other four articles examine how the shifting pattern of international relations affects different regions of the world – and outer space! The pattern changes, but not the dynamic of great power rivalry – until we block it.
The end of national sovereignty? Globalisation versus national capitalism
In 1648 the first modern diplomatic congress established a new political order in Europe, based for the first time on the principle of “national sovereignty.” This principle drew a sharp dividing line between foreign and domestic affairs. Each “national sovereign” was given free rein within the internationally recognized borders of his state. No outsider had any right to interfere. Recognized borders were inviolable. The “sovereign” was originally simply a prince; later the term was applied to any effective government. National sovereignty facilitated the undisturbed development of separate national capitalisms – British, French, German, American, and so on. Interstate boundaries were stabilized. Governments were able to take protectionist measures to defend home manufacturers against foreign competition.
Even today the principle of national sovereignty is far from dead. It is enshrined in the United Nations Charter: Chapter VII authorizes the Security Council to impose sanctions or use armed force only in the event of a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression.” In practice, however, national sovereignty has been deeply undermined – first of all, by the emergence of a global economy dominated by huge transnational corporations. International financial institutions such as the World Trade Organization and IMF have largely taken over economic policy making. Indebtedness leaves many states with merely the formal husk of independence. Some groups of states have “pooled” part of their sovereignty in supranational regional institutions. The prime example is the European Union. The old interstate system has also been destabilised by the breakup of Yugoslavia and the USSR into 26 new states, four of which lack international recognition. The decision of the West to recognize the independence of Kosovo from Serbia has set a precedent that makes it easier to carve up other states. Of course, the “independence” of Kosovo – occupied by NATO forces, governed by officials from the European Union, its constitution drafted at the U.S. State Department – is purely notional. Russia has now retaliated by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Although this will encourage secessionist movements inside Russia, blocking Georgia’s accession to NATO is evidently a higher priority. * * * National sovereignty is not only undermined in practice, but also
contested in theory. Thus, in recent years the United States and its closest allies have sought to legitimise their military attacks on other states. True, such attacks are nothing new. What is new is open advocacy of the principle of aggression. The main rationales used are the prevention of nuclear proliferation, counter-terrorism and humanitarian intervention. It is instructive to compare the Gulf War of 1991 with the current war against Iraq. The Gulf War, at least ostensibly, was launched in defence of the principle of national sovereignty, violated by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The elder Bush resisted pressure to “finish the job” – occupy Iraq and throw out the Ba’athist regime – out of concern that it would lead to the breakup of Iraq and, in particular, a new Kurdish state that would destabilise the whole region. Such considerations have not deterred his son. Paradoxically, the fragmentation of states is a natural corollary of the globalisation of capital. From the point of view of the transnational corporations, states no longer have important policy-making functions. It is enough if they enforce property rights and maintain basic infrastructure in areas important for business. Small states can do these jobs as well as large ones. In fact, they have definite advantages. They are more easily controlled, less likely to develop the will or capacity to challenge the prerogatives of global capital. All the same, there is nothing inevitable about globalisation. It has lost impetus recently, and may even have passed its zenith. One sign is the disarray within the WTO. Another is Russia’s change of direction: in contrast to the Yeltsin administration, which was politically submissive and kept the country wide open to global capital, the Putin regime reasserted national sovereignty, expelled foreign firms from strategic sectors of the
economy, and ensured the dominant position of national (state and private) capital. Global versus national capitalism has emerged as an important divide in world politics. This divide exists, first of all, within the capitalist class of individual countries. Thus, even in the U.S., the citadel of globalisation, some capitalists – currently excluded from power – are oriented toward the home market and favour national capitalism. And even in Russia some capitalists support globalisation. Nevertheless, the pattern of political forces differs from country to country, and as a result the global/national divide is reflected in international relations. Here the “globalisers,” led by the U.S., confront in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Russia, China and the Central Asian states) an embryonic alliance of national capitals bent on restoring the principle of national sovereignty to its former place in the interstate system. * * * This context clarifies the difference between our perspective as socialists and the attitude of anti-globalisation activists. Being against capitalist globalisation is not the same as being against capitalism in general. We have ample past experience of a world of competing national capitalisms – quite enough to demonstrate that there is no good reason for preferring such a world to a world under the sway of global capital. The main problem with the movement against globalisation is that it can be mobilized so easily in the interests of national capital, whatever the intentions of its supporters. To be fair, some anti-globalisation activists are aware of this danger. Acknowledging that humanity faces urgent problems that can only be
tackled effectively at the global level, they emphasize that they are not against globalisation as such: they are only against the sort of globalisation that serves the interests of the transnational corporations. This then leads them to explore ideas of globalisation of an “alternative” kind. These ideas at least point in the right direction. Socialism is also an alternative form of globalisation – a globalisation of human community that abolishes capital. October 2008
Latin America: The Changing Geopolitical Context
For close on 200 years the main geopolitical fact about Latin America has been the overwhelming economic and political domination of the United States—or, more precisely, of its ruling capitalist class. The wide range of instruments used to enforce this domination has included frequent direct and indirect military interventions. One source lists 55 such interventions since 1890.1 Another important instrument has been the foreign policy known as the Monroe Doctrine, first proclaimed by the U.S. president of that name in 1823. The gist of the Monroe Doctrine is that the U.S. regards Latin America as its own exclusive sphere of influence and will not tolerate the interference of “outside” powers in its affairs. The doctrine was initially directed against the colonial claims of Spain and France. For most of the twentieth century it was directed first against Germany and then against
Russia (the USSR). But does it still have any relevance now that Russia’s ambitions are confined to regions nearer home? In fact, as the Russian threat to U.S. hegemony in the Americas receded the doctrine was overtly redirected against another Eurasian challenger—Japan. On December 20, 1989, the U.S. bombed and invaded Panama, ostensibly in order to arrest the country’s president, Manuel Noriega, on drug trafficking charges. The real reason was that Noriega, who had earlier been willing to serve as an agent of the CIA, had begun to act in ways that the U.S. considered contrary to its interests.2 One example concerns the School of the Americas, where the U.S. army trains military officers from all over Latin America as torturers and assassins. The school had been based in Panama from 1946 to 1984, when it was withdrawn from the country at the demand of Noriega’s predecessor, Omar Torrijos.3 Noriega refused to accede to a request from the Reagan administration to allow the school to return. Noriega committed an even graver offence in U.S. eyes by entering into negotiations with a Japanese consortium that the businessman Shigeo Nagano had put together (with his government’s approval) for the purpose of financing the construction of a new and better sea-level canal between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans or of a new land-based inter-oceanic transportation system.4 The old Panama Canal, opened in 1914, has inadequate capacity for the current volume of traffic and cannot accommodate the largest of today’s seagoing vessels. It was, above all, the Japanese threat to its control of a strategic transportation route in its “backyard” that prompted the United States to intervene. China’s economic penetration of Latin America has been even more striking than that of Japan. As recently as 1995, for instance, China’s trade
with Brazil was a mere 6% of U.S. trade with Brazil; by 2005—6 it had reached 39%. In the case of Argentina the corresponding rise was from 15% to 70%.5 China is still some way behind but catching up fast. Chinese firms are also investing on a large scale in some countries. Their Brazilian investments include metals, consumer electronics, telecommunications equipment, and space technology. China and Brazil are jointly developing two satellites. Judging by the whole history of capitalist great power rivalry, we can expect that sooner or later the shifting pattern of economic relationships will change the military power equation, with a progressive dilution of U.S. domination over Latin America. Suppose that at some point in the future Japanese capitalists and a new Panamanian government revive the scheme for a new canal. But this time round, learning from experience, they press the Japanese government—no longer, perhaps, shackled by the “peace constitution”—to extend Panama military aid and a security guarantee. Of course, no other state is likely to replace the U.S. as the clear hegemon in the region. Like Africa and Central Asia today, Latin America will be an arena in which a number of outside powers compete for influence. As a declining global power, the U.S. will have to reconcile itself to the new situation and finally bury the Monroe Doctrine. For Latin American governments the new geopolitical context will have certain advantages. They will have more room for maneuver and be able to play off one outside power against another. Latin American workers, however, will discover that their basic position remains unchanged despite the new mix of nationalities among their employers. Workers in some African countries have already learnt this lesson. In Zambia, copper mines bought up by Chinese companies provided even
lower pay and even more hazardous working conditions than mines owned by other foreign companies. Following an explosion in which 49 miners died, five protestors were shot dead by police. The government temporarily closed down one mine after men were forced to work underground without boots or safety gear.6 Social protest in Latin America has traditionally targeted “Yanqui imperialism,” just as social protest in Eastern Europe used to be aimed against “Soviet imperialism.” Both are understandable responses to real oppression—but also parochial and superficial responses. The source of the oppression is capitalism itself, not the various national flags under which it operates. World Socialist Review, no. 21 (2008) (http://www.scribd.com/doc/2781501/World-Socialist-Review-US-LatinAmerica) Notes
1. http://www2.truman.edu/~marc/resources/interventions.html. The most recent instances were the sponsorship of a (failed) military coup to overthrow President Chavez in Venezuela in 2002 and an occupation of Haiti to remove President Aristide in 2004. Both presidents had been democratically elected.
2. On the background to the U.S. invasion, see Manuel Noriega and Peter Eisner, The Memoirs of Manuel Noriega, America’s Prisoner (NY: Random House, 1997).
3. In 2001, the school, now at Fort Benning, Georgia, was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Torrijos died in a plane crash under suspicious circumstances.
4. Or, alternatively, a new land-based inter-oceanic transportation system. See Noriega’s remarks to the Japan-Panama Friendship Association (a front for the consortium) in Tokyo on December 12, 1986 (Noriega and Eisner, pp. 271-5).
5. Comparing total value of imports and exports in 1995 and in 2005 and the first 9 months (Brazil) or 8 months (Argentina) of 2006.
6. Guardian Weekly, February 9—15, 2007, p. 9.
The scramble for the Arctic
On August 3, the oceanographer and polar explorer Artur Chilingarov descended 14,000 feet in a mini-submarine and dropped a titanium capsule containing a Russian flag on the seabed at the North Pole. “The Arctic is Russian,” he declared. In fact, the Russian government is laying claim not to the whole Arctic, but “only” to the Lomonosov Ridge, a wedge about half the size of Western Europe that it considers an extension of Siberia’s continental shelf. According to the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea, the five states with coastlines on the Arctic Ocean – Russia, Norway, Denmark (through ownership of Greenland), Canada and the United States (Alaska) – are
entitled to 200 miles of territorial waters, but can claim more distant chunks of Arctic seabed by demonstrating links to their continental shelves. This, of course, is a game that not only Russia can play. All the other Arctic states have advanced counterclaims or are preparing to do so, all on the basis of the same vague legal provision. Why is this carve-up happening now? Apart from people concerned with the deployment of nuclear submarine forces, the native Inuit (Eskimos), and a few scientists and explorers, no one used to care much about the Arctic. Vast quantities of oil, gas and other minerals might lie under the frozen wastes (up to 10 billion barrels of oil under the Lomonosov Ridge, for instance), but extracting them was not a practical proposition. So it did not matter if borders and exploitation rights were not very clearly defined. Now, however, it is starting to matter. In part this is due to advances in extraction technology, but the main reason is the rapid melting of the icecap under the impact of global warming. The extraction of all those underwater resources is no longer a pipedream, and the big oil and gas companies and the governments that back them are jockeying for position in the new arena. * * * From the perspective of survival of the planetary ecosystem, the rush to grab Arctic oil and gas is grotesque in the extreme. After all, it is largely the burning of oil and gas that is melting the ice, thereby opening up the prospect of extracting and burning yet more oil and gas and further accelerating global warming. The capitalists, however, have a quite different perspective. For them
the overriding imperative is to be sure of making every last cent, penny and kopeck of profit from selling hydrocarbons before finally proceeding to exploit the next source of profit – solar energy and other “alternative” energy sources. By then, unfortunately, it may well be too late to prevent runaway global warming from turning Earth into a second Venus. But that is something the capitalists do not want to know. The melting of the ice will also have a huge impact on shipping. Over the next few years, expanding areas of the Arctic — and within a few decades all of it — will be navigable to commercial shipping throughout the year. The Northeast Passage through the Russian Arctic and the Bering Strait is expected to be open within eight years, greatly reducing the distance and cost of sea transport between Europe and the Far East. The Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic will provide another link between the Atlantic and the Pacific, competing with the Panama Canal. New deepwater ports are planned to support trans-Arctic trade. Finally, a continuing rapid growth in Arctic tourism is anticipated. * * * The alarm with which the media have reacted to the Russian claim on the Lomonosov Ridge is reminiscent of the Cold War, especially in the context of other recent tensions between Russia and “the West.” Nevertheless, it is misleading to talk about a new Cold War or, indeed, about “the West.” We no longer live in a world of bipolar confrontation between “East” and “West.” We now live in a multipolar world of fluid alliances among a fairly large number of powers, some of them rising (e.g., China) and others in decline (e.g., the U.S.). In certain ways the early twenty-first
century resembles the first half of the twentieth century much more closely than it does the second. Nothing illustrates the new-old pattern of multipolarity more clearly than territorial disputes in the Arctic. Several important disputes do not involve Russia at all. They are between the other Arctic states, all of which are still formally allies, fellow members of NATO. The potentially most serious disputes are, perhaps, those between Canada and the United States. One concerns the offshore Canada/Alaska boundary, which traverses an area thought to be rich in oil and gas. The other dispute is over the straits that separate Canada’s Arctic islands from one another and from the mainland. Last year the Canadian government declared that it regarded these straits, which together make up the Northwest Passage, as Canadian Internal Waters. The US government has made clear that it still regards the straits as international waters by sending its navy to patrol them. Lord Palmerston is famous for his remark that “Britain has no permanent allies, only permanent interests.” Evidently the same is true of any capitalist state. The behaviour of the Arctic states also debunks the widely held idea that some states are inherently peace-loving and others inherently militaristic. Many people think of Canada as being in the first category. They might be perturbed to come across the following Guardian headline: “Canada flexes its muscles in scramble for the Arctic” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2007/jul/11/climatechange.climate change). As Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper observed in this
connection, “the world is changing.” It is changing in ways that on the surface seem quite dramatic. But there is a deeper level at which, as the French saying has it, “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” The scramble for the Arctic in the twenty-first century is a phenomenon of the same general kind as the nineteenth-century scramble for Africa. Both are cases of commercial and military rivalry between the capitalist classes of different countries to open up for plunder and exploitation a region that was previously closed to them. True, these scrambles now entail dangers that were unknown in the past. The 19th century knew nothing of either nuclear weapons or global warming. It is high time to move on. September 2007
The next capitalist frontier – the moon
Over the last few centuries, one region of the planet after another has been “opened up” to capitalist plunder. Often rival capitalist powers fought over the spoils of conquest. In the nineteenth century they had the “scramble for Africa.” In the twenty-first they are scrambling to control the resources of the Arctic, which global warming and technological advance are making accessible to exploitation. Once the Arctic and Antarctic are brought fully under the sway of capital, what next? Won’t that be the end of the story, the closing of the last frontier? There remains space, to be sure. But won’t the costs of extracting
resources and transporting them to earth be prohibitive? So you might think. In fact, the strategists of the six powers that now have active space programs – the United States, Russia, the European Union, China, India, and Japan – already have their sights on the commercial and military potential of the cosmos. On 22 October India launched the Chandrayaan-1 satellite, and on 11 November it entered moon orbit. One of its main tasks is to map deposits of Helium-3 (He-3). This isotope, used together with deuterium (H-2), is the optimal fuel for nuclear fusion: in particular, it minimises radioactive emissions. It is very rare on earth – according to one estimate, only 30 kg is available – because the solar wind that carries it is blocked by the earth’s atmosphere and magnetic field. The dust and rocks in the moon’s surface layer contain millions of tonnes of the stuff. It has been calculated that a single shuttle flight bearing a load of 25 tonnes (currently valued at $100 billion) would meet energy demand in India for several years or in the U.S. for one year, while three flights a year would suffice for the world (Guardian, 21 October; Tribune, 23 October). The main problem is extracting the He-3 as gas from the lunar soil. This requires heating the soil to a temperature of 800º C. in furnaces or towers, using solar power. (Silicon for solar cells is also abundant on the moon.) To collect enough gas for one load, it would be necessary to process 360,000 tonnes of soil. Nevertheless, technologically this is believed to be feasible; modern furnaces do actually process such huge quantities of material. Some specialists question whether it would be economically feasible to strip mine the moon in this way. Despite uncertainties, Indian strategists hope that the Chandrayaan-1 satellite will enable India to “stake a priority claim” on He-3 resources when
lunar colonization begins (SkyNews). India’s main rivals in this field appear to be the U.S., which has “re-energised” its moon program and plans to establish a manned base by 2020, and also China. Given the abundant supply of He-3 relative to foreseeable demand, why should India need to compete with other space powers for preferential access? Surely there is more than enough for everyone. Yes, but some locations on the moon’s surface are much better for mining than others. Finding the best locations is the main aim of satellite exploration. First, the nature of the terrain will obviously matter when building bases and installations, whether operated by human workers or robots. It will be a great advantage to have water (ice) available nearby. Second, it will be least expensive to work in areas where deposits are richest, where the smallest amount of soil has to be processed for each unit of gas extracted. Third, reliance on solar power for soil heating (and other purposes) puts a premium on those parts of the lunar surface which are exposed to sunlight for most of the time. These are also the warmest regions (by lunar standards). An example is the Shackleton Crater at the South Pole. India is especially interested in this area, and it is also here that the U.S. wants to establish its base. Certain places on the moon are already thought of as “strategic locations.” Thus, the topography of Malapert Mountain makes it an ideal spot for a radio relay station. Near the Shackleton Crater, it enhances the strategic value of the crater area. Considerations of this kind will become more important in the event of the moon’s militarisation. This may happen as a result of competition for
land and resources on the moon itself. Or it may happen simply as an extension of existing military preparations: lunar stations may serve as reserve command centres for wars on earth. Even if international agreements are reached to constrain the process of militarisation and divide the lunar surface into zones belonging to the various space powers, military threats may arise from “dual use” technologies. Let us suppose, for instance, that instead of mining He-3 a space power decides to generate electricity on the moon using solar cells and transmit it on microwave beams to a receiving station on earth. The problem – under capitalism – is that these same beams may equally well be used as powerful weapons against earth targets. There will also be potential conflict between the space powers and other countries that for one reason or another are unable to compete in this sphere. Like the club of nuclear weapons states, the space powers may constitute themselves as an exclusive club and think up a rationale for joint efforts to thwart “space power proliferation,” that is, to prevent other countries from acquiring space capabilities. The two clubs will, of course, largely overlap. It is absurd and presumptuous for humanity to venture into the cosmos while still divided into rival states and still dominated by primitive mechanisms like capital accumulation. Even the first people in space, almost half a century ago, could see that our planet is a single fragile system. A world socialist community will have to decide which elements of existing space programmes to retain and which to freeze or abandon. National programmes that are retained will be merged into global programmes, eliminating the wasteful duplication inherent in the competition among space powers. Ambitious programs of purely scientific
interest may be deferred pending the solution of more urgent problems. Attitudes in a socialist world toward reliance on space activities may diverge quite widely. Some people may wish to enjoy the benefits of a complex high-consumption lifestyle made possible by He-3 fuel for nuclear fusion and other off-earth technologies. Others may prefer to avoid the irreducible risks of a space-dependent strategy and solve earth’s problems here on earth, at least to whatever extent this proves possible. December 2008
On April 15, in a speech at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, President Obama outlined plans for the U.S. space program. He rejected proposals to “return” to the moon in favor of a plan to develop by 2025 new spacecraft for manned missions into deep space. The first destination will be “an asteroid”, followed by Mars in the mid-2030s. So perhaps I was wrong when I called the moon “the next capitalist frontier” (MW, December 2008). Why is an asteroid landing being given top priority?
Obama was certainly referring to one of the “near-earth asteroids” (NEAs). These are asteroids that have been dislodged, usually by the gravitational pull of Jupiter, from the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter into orbits that approach or intersect the orbit of the earth. About 7,000 NEAs have been discovered so far. Some are known to be fantastically rich in valuable metals and other minerals. In fact, many metals now mined on earth originated in asteroids that rained down on our planet after the crust cooled. Consider, for instance, the NEA known as 1986 DA. A mile and a half in diameter, it is estimated to contain ten billion tons of iron, one billion tons of nickel, 100,000 tons of platinum and over 10,000 tons of gold. The platinum alone, at the current price of £35 per gram, is worth £3.5 trillion. True, the price would fall rapidly once exploitation was underway, but at first the profits would be truly astronomical. Given the scale of expected revenues, costs are unlikely to be prohibitive. Mining asteroids may even be more competitive than mining on the moon. Thanks to the very low gravity, a round trip to an NEA passing nearby will require less energy than a round trip to the moon. Processing might be carried out on site and only processed materials brought back to
earth. True, a way will have to be found to “tether” machinery to the asteroid so that it does not drift off into space.
Window of opportunity
Aanother problem with mining an NEA is that operations will have to be confined within a “window of opportunity” – that is, the few weeks or months when it is passing close enough to earth, for it may not return our way for many years to come (if ever). However, there is a way around this problem. Because NEAs are at most 20 miles in diameter, nuclear explosions can be used to change their course. This might be done if one were on a collision course with earth. (The Russian Space Agency is considering an attempt to deflect the asteroid Apophis, which has a tiny probability of hitting earth in 2036 or 2068.) A resource-rich NEA could be “captured” – that is, transported into earth orbit, where mining could continue for as long as it remained profitable. Recalling Murphy’s Law (“If anything can go wrong, it will”), I shudder at the thought of the calamities that may descend on us from above as a result of accident or miscalculation.
An asteroid war?
For a socialist world community, mining asteroids might be an attractive option. It would offer not a supplement but an alternative to mining on earth, with its attendant ecological and work-related costs (costs in the sense of consequences running counter to communal values, as opposed to financial costs). Of course, a socialist world would have no use for the gold. Under capitalism, however, the approach of a resource-rich NEA might well be an occasion for conflict between the U.S. and another space power (Russia, China or India), precisely because of the enormous profits at stake.
With adequate profit, capital is very bold. A certain 10 per cent. will ensure its employment anywhere; 20 per cent. certain will produce eagerness; 50 per cent., positive audacity; 100 per cent. will make it ready to trample on all human laws; 300 per cent., and there is not a crime at which it will scruple, nor a risk it will not run, even to the chance of its owner being hanged. Marx quoting P.J. Dunning, Capital, Vol. 1, Ch. 31
The use of celestial bodies remains unregulated by international law. There is a treaty designed for this purpose (the Moon Treaty of 1979), but it has never come into force because only a few states – not one of them a space power – have ratified it. An attempt in 1980 to get the U.S. Senate to ratify the treaty was defeated following lobbying by activists of the L5 Society, which was formed in 1975 to promote space colonization and manufacturing on the basis of private enterprise. The danger of war over a resource-rich asteroid may well be greater than the risk of war over lunar resources. First, the moon is large enough to accommodate rival mining, processing and transport operations, but a small asteroid may not be. Second, an NEA will have to be exploited while it is within easy reach, so there will be little time for maneuvering, negotiations and the application of indirect pressure. An asteroid war need not be waged openly. It is more likely to take the form of covert and deniable efforts to sabotage rival operations by various means (laser and other rays, radioelectronic warfare, etc.). Simultaneous attempts by different space/nuclear powers to capture an asteroid may have the unintended consequence of the asteroid hitting the earth. May 2010
Antics in the South China Sea
The recent incidents in the middle of the South China Sea, in which a large American ship was “harassed” by various Chinese boats, have a comical aspect. The “harassment” seems to have been mostly a matter of uncomfortably close approaches, flag waving, and beaming lights. The most violent moment was when the Americans used fire hoses to drench the sailors on a boat that had come too close, inducing them to strip to their underwear. These antics, however, may be the prelude to more serious conflict. An armed clash between China and the U.S. is, perhaps, more likely to occur in the South China Sea than in the context of a putative Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Many reports have described the American vessel, USNS Impeccable, as a “survey ship” or “ocean surveillance ship.” This creates the misleading impression that such ships exist for the purpose of oceanographic mapping or scientific research. In fact, although they are unarmed and have civilian crews, the “survey ships” belong to the U.S. navy and their function is to collect military intelligence. They are really spy ships. The main job of the survey ship deployed in the South China Sea is to track the Chinese submarines that patrol there, operating from a base at the southern tip of Hainan Island. These are nuclear submarines carrying intercontinental ballistic missiles – that is, they constitute China’s “nuclear
deterrent.” The tracking is done by means of underwater sonar arrays attached to the ship by cables. There was some attempt by Chinese sailors to sever the cables and set the arrays adrift. It is true that USNS Impeccable, lacking armaments more powerful than fire hoses, does not by itself pose a direct threat to the submarines. But the data it collects could be passed on to another vessel equipped with antisubmarine missiles. In other words, the spy ship is a key component of antisubmarine warfare capability. It is therefore no surprise that the Chinese government should want it to leave the area. It is in large part with a view to securing a sanctuary for its nuclear submarines that China asserts the right to control most of the South China Sea, an area of some 2 million square kilometres – to turn it into a “Chinese lake.” The legal case cooked up by its diplomats involves claiming the three main archipelagos in the sea as Chinese territory and then demarcating an Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) 200 miles (320 km.) wide around them as well as Hainan Island and along the shore of the mainland. Finally, China seeks to erase the distinction between territorial waters and an EEZ. The UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) prohibits the presence of a spy ship in territorial waters, but not in an EEZ. The U.S. position is that USNS Impeccable did not enter China’s territorial waters – it was 75 miles (120 km.) off the coast of Hainan at the time of the incidents – so its activity is perfectly legal. Of course, it does not matter to us as socialists which side has the better case in terms of international law. The whole world is the common heritage of mankind, and we do not recognize the right of capitalist powers to carve it up among themselves. While the military issue is the direct cause of the current clash
between China and the U.S., as it was of a similar clash involving aircraft in 1991, there are also other major issues at stake. First, rights in the South China Sea are crucial to control over vital shipping lanes. The shortest route between the Indian and the Pacific Ocean passes through the sea. This, for instance, is the route taken by tankers transporting crude oil from the Gulf to East Asia. One rationale for the U.S. presence is to keep the sea routes open: if China were allowed strategic dominance it could close off the Malacca Strait, which connects the South China Sea with the Indian Ocean. There are also plenty of resources to fight about in and under the sea, including valuable fishing grounds and still unexploited oil and gas fields. This is the underlying reason why it is so difficult to unravel the complicated tangle of territorial disputes over the sea and its islands among the six coastal states: China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and the Philippines. In 1974 and 1988 these disputes led to military clashes – in both cases between China and Vietnam. April 2009
WAR AND PEACE (mostly war)
The first article in this section is a general analysis of the causes of war in today’s world. The next two look at the specific issues of nuclear disarmament and humanitarian intervention. The articles that follow are about specific wars (or in the case of Iran -- a war that was prepared for but averted).
The war business: why do capitalist states prepare for and wage war?
As we socialists never tire of pointing out, the primary function of military power in capitalism is to protect and expand control over resources, markets and transport routes on behalf of the capitalist class of the country concerned. However, the costs and risks that wars and armaments entail for the capitalists themselves often outweigh the benefits to them. For example, while the U.S. did have real interests at stake in Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s, those interests were hardly commensurate with the
enormous costs of the war it was waging there. Growing awareness of this fact within the capitalist class eventually led to withdrawal. In other words, states have a tendency to act in ways that appear to be irrational even in terms of the capitalist interests that they are supposed to represent. There are various reasons for this apparent irrationality. But the main reason is this. War is not only a service that the state provides to the national capitalist class as a whole. War is also – and increasingly – a massive capitalist enterprise in its own right, a “war business” that wields considerable political clout and has special interests of its own. The core of the war business, of course, is the so-called militaryindustrial complex. Arms manufacturers, like other capitalist firms, seek to maximise their profits. It does not concern them whether the weapons they sell have a cogent strategic rationale. The military-industrial complex has a direct interest not only in the build-up of armaments but in war itself. War is the only way of testing weaponry under battlefield conditions. It uses up and destroys old stocks that then have to be replaced – rearmament is now, for instance, the top priority of the Georgian government – and stimulates demand in general. But nowadays arms firms are not the only large-scale “merchants of death.” Companies like Blackwater sell combat capability directly as the labour of hired mercenaries. Other companies, such as Halliburton, sell logistics and other war support services. * * * My argument is not that all armed conflicts are irrational in terms of
the costs and benefits accruing to national capital. Some undoubtedly make good sense in these terms, as when valuable resources can be acquired at moderate expense. One example might be the “cod wars” of the 1970s between Britain and Iceland over fishing rights in the North Atlantic. Another, perhaps, is the ongoing conflict over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, whose oil and gas deposits are coveted by China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. At the other extreme, some wars have no discernible connection with the control of markets and resources. The recent war in Georgia was in this category. Although important oil and gas pipelines run through the south of the country, Russia did not contest control over them. Russia’s rationale for war was “strategic” – that is, getting into a better position to fight future wars. Again, Israel’s wars are senseless from the point of view of the Israeli capitalist class as a whole, which has a clear interest in a peace settlement that will give it full access to the markets and cheap labour of the Middle East. This interest, however, seems unable to prevail against the political stranglehold of Israel’s military-industrial complex. The nature of the wars that the U.S. and its allies are currently fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan is less clear-cut. Control of resources, markets and transport routes is certainly an important factor, especially in Iraq, but the likely outcome is hardly such as to justify the enormous costs involved. While the ultimate motive for war may be to arrest the decline in the competitive position of the U.S. in the world economy, the actual effect is to accelerate that decline. So we end up with two contrasting models of the relationship between capitalism and war. In the first model, war appears as an instrument in the
hands of the state, which acts as the “executive committee of the (national) capitalist class as a whole” (Marx). The second model, unlike the first, takes into account the fact that war is evolving from an instrument at the service of the national capitalist class as a whole into a capitalist enterprise in its own right -- what we might call the war business. The war business has special capitalist interests of its own, so it cannot function simply as an instrument of more general capitalist interests. Does the first model represent capitalism in its “normal” form, while the second model represents an “abnormal” ultra-militaristic mutation of the capitalist system? Is the first model rational, in capitalist if not in human terms, while the second model is irrational? At first sight that seems reasonable. But is there in fact any good reason to regard one model as any more irrational than the other? Each model represents a possible variant of capitalism and a possible form of capitalist rationality. The difference is that the first model assumes the existence of such a thing as “national capital as a whole,” while the second model envisions only separate capitalist enterprises. Some firms sell sausages, some sell computers – and some sell war. November 2008
Campaigners for humanitarian intervention: “useful idiots” of militarism
There is nothing new in governments claiming to be motivated by humanitarian concerns when they go to war. To take a couple of old examples: tsarist Russia supposedly fought the Ottoman Empire in order to rescue Armenians from massacre by the Turks, while British intervention following the German invasion of Belgium in 1914 was justified by lurid drawings of “Huns” skewering babies on their bayonets (www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/FWWatrocities.htm). The enemy atrocities might be real, as in the first example, or imaginary, as in the second, but in both cases the claim of humanitarian motivation was fraudulent. Governments decided for or against war on the basis of (sometimes erroneous) calculations of economic and strategic interest. That remains true today. Never, however, has it been so important for governments to win public support for wars by claiming humanitarian motives. As in the past, some of the “facts” underlying the claims are fabricated. Thus, Tony Blair repeatedly claimed that 400,000 bodies had been found in Iraqi mass graves, although the number of corpses uncovered was only 5,000. But again, the claims are false even when the facts are true. Often this is obvious because the atrocity occurred long before foreign governments expressed any outrage over it. Why bring the matter up just now? Britain and the U.S. had no objection when Saddam used poison gas on Kurdish villages in 1988 because at that time he was their ally. The weeks preceding the dispatch of British troops to Afghanistan were marked by a media campaign against the oppression of women in that country, with even Cherie Blair roped in. The issue was then dropped as suddenly as it was raised. * * *
What is new is the emergence, within the broader human rights movement, of a loosely organized network that campaigns for military intervention wherever that seems to be the only effective means of halting or preventing genocidal atrocities against some ethnic group. Currently, for example, there is an international campaign for intervention in Darfur (Sudan). During the period when I was not a socialist, I was involved for a while in one of the organizations that makes up this network: the Institute for the Study of Genocide (ISG). My research, publicized through the ISG, helped to bring the massacres of Bosnian Moslems by Serb militias to the attention of the U.S. media and politicians – including, notably, Bill Clinton, who at that time was campaigning for president. Later Clinton did intervene militarily in Yugoslavia, though over Kosovo rather than Bosnia. Unlike governments, anti-genocide activists like the ISG have quite genuine humanitarian motives. They recall how “the world sat by” and allowed the Armenian genocide and the Holocaust to proceed. (Though at war with Nazi Germany, the Allied command turned down pleas to bomb the railway lines leading to Auschwitz.) They are determined to establish humanitarian considerations as an integral part of policy making, so that “we” will not let such terrible things happen again. Any decent person will sympathize with this line of thought. But there is a problem with it. Let us shift our focus from the moral imperative of effective action to the political forces capable of such action. Who is “the world”? Who is “we”? The only “we” capable of intervening is governments with their armed forces. But governments do not exist for humanitarian purposes. They are therefore loathe to intervene for humanitarian reasons,
and it is close to impossible to compel them to do so. From the point of view of governments, the existence of a public movement for humanitarian intervention has both pros and cons. It is irritating and embarrassing to have to face down emotional public demands to intervene in places where no important “national interests” are at stake – in Rwanda, for instance, or Darfur. On the other hand, when you are inclined to intervene anyway for other, more “important” reasons it is extremely convenient to have a public movement pressing for intervention. That makes it much easier to drum up public support for war, and at the same time you can enhance your democratic credentials by “responding to public opinion.” In the case of Yugoslavia, the demand to intervene effectively over Bosnia was resisted, but the campaign in which I participated prepared the ground for intervention over Kosovo. The evidence now available suggests that in Kosovo, in contrast to Bosnia, there was never any real danger of genocide (as opposed to the usual ethnic cleansing). In Kosovo, however, and again in contrast to Bosnia, significant interests were at stake, such as a major oil pipeline and metal-mining complex. It may appear to campaigners for humanitarian intervention that they have a certain limited success. They “win some and lose some.” But if we look more deeply into the real interests involved we see that their success is largely illusory. It is by no means clear that their efforts have the net effect of reducing the amount of suffering in the world. In fact, by supporting and helping to legitimize brutal and devastating wars they may well increase the total of suffering. The epithet “useful idiots” (or “useful fools”) was used to pillory Western pacifists who supposedly served the interests of the Soviet Union, though without intending to do so and for the best of all possible motives.
Jean Bricmont borrows the expression for a different purpose, calling campaigners for humanitarian intervention the “useful idiots” of Western militarism and imperialism (Humanitarian Imperialism: Using Human Rights to Sell War, NY: Monthly Review Press, 2006). Again, this is not meant to cast any aspersions on their motives. As socialists we would only question the stress on “Western.” In principle such people could equally well serve as useful idiots for nonWestern (Russian, Chinese, Indian, etc.) militarism and imperialism, though in practice they are active mostly in Western countries. Calls for humanitarian intervention only make sense in terms of a false conception of the nature and functions of government. They feed a delusion that obscures the reality of our capitalist world, thereby making it harder to overcome that reality. August 2008
Nuclear weapons are still there
Who protests against nuclear weapons nowadays? People seem to have halfforgotten them. But they are still there, patiently lying in wait. In The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger (NY: Henry Holt & Co., 2007), Jonathan Schell even speaks of a “nuclear renaissance” in the new century. True, there are fewer nukes than there used to be. The number of active nuclear weapons has declined from a Cold War peak of some 65,000
to below 20,000. In another decade it may fall to 10,000. But this is scant consolation, for several reasons: * Many decommissioned weapons are not destroyed, but only partially dismantled and placed in storage. * The 10,000 remaining nukes will still suffice to wipe out the human race many times over. Even the use of 100 would cause disaster on an unprecedented scale. Atmospheric scientists at UCLA and the University of Colorado modeled the climatic effects of the use of 100 Hiroshima-type bombs – just 0.03% of the explosive power of the global arsenal – in a nuclear war between India and Pakistan. These countries have fought four wars and now have about 75 nukes each. Direct fatalities would be comparable with World War Two, while millions of tons of soot borne aloft would devastate agriculture over vast expanses of Eurasia and North America. * Nuclear weapons do not serve merely as status symbols or for mutual deterrence. Resort to them remains an option for the contingency of a serious setback in a conventional war, and new types of high-precision nukes, such as the so-called “bunker busters”, have been designed for that purpose. Nuclear weapons may even be used to stop a state acquiring nuclear weapons, or to suppress nuclear capacity that is in danger of falling under “terrorist” control (say, in the context of a disintegrating Pakistan). * Finally, the number of nuclear weapons states has increased and is likely to increase further. The nuclear nonproliferation regime is gradually
losing its ability to inhibit the chain reaction. The double standard on which it is based – one rule for members of the nuclear club, another for the rest – is (as Schell argues) no longer viable. If all states with the requisite economic and technological capacity are not to acquire nuclear weapons, then they must all agree to renounce them. The numerical decline might be cause for optimism if it could be seen as progress toward nuclear disarmament. Unfortunately, there are no grounds for such an interpretation. Nuclear weapon states are determined to maintain and upgrade their arsenals. Total numbers are falling as Russia and the U.S. shed what they consider excess capacity, but they are restructuring their nuclear forces, not giving them up. Once this process is complete the decline in numbers will level off. * * * So why have people half-forgotten the nuclear threat? For one thing, it has been overshadowed by another threat to the human species – global warming. Even before people became fully aware of this new peril, however, the end of the Cold War had largely dispelled the fear of nuclear war. A reformist at the time, I was closely involved in the peace and disarmament movements of the 1980s. With benefit of hindsight, I realize now that these movements did not perceive the nuclear threat in its broadest sense because they were too preoccupied by the specific context of the superpower nuclear confrontation of that period. This was especially true of European Nuclear Disarmament (END).
Western governments told us that “we” needed nuclear weapons to deter the Soviet threat. We anti-nuclear campaigners did not believe they were right, but we were naïve enough to believe that they believed what they told us. We drew the logical implication that they would become favorably disposed to nuclear disarmament if relations with the Soviet Union could only be sufficiently improved. So we hopefully looked forward to the new and deeper East-West détente heralded by Gorbachev. Not only did the Cold War come to an end; the Soviet Union itself collapsed. No more “Soviet threat” to worry our rulers! But did they heave a sigh of relief and rush to dispose of their nuclear weapons? No, they started to come up with substitute rationales for keeping the things. Blair, announcing renewal of the Trident program in 2006, explained that nuclear confrontation with another major power “remains possible in the decades ahead.” Schell sums it up nicely: “By reviving and refurbishing their arsenals, the nuclear powers signal that they expect that great-power rivalries will return” (p. 210). The unpredictability of the future, they tell us, is itself a good reason to hold on to nuclear weapons. And the future is always unpredictable. The world is dominated by a system based on conflict – conflict over resources of all kinds, conflict between competing property interests and the states that represent them. Once nuclear weapons were discovered and became tools in this conflict, they were bound to threaten human survival. The threat only seemed to have a necessary connection with the specific pattern of global power that happened to exist at the time. That pattern has started to change, there are new potential adversaries, but the conflict-based system remains. So does the nuclear threat.
* * * Schell calls for “action in concert by all the nations on Earth” (p. 217) to abolish nuclear weapons, halt global warming, and tackle other urgent global problems. His eloquence is moving, but his vision is only very briefly sketched and lacks substance. True, he has some technical and organizational proposals. Like IAEA director Mohammed ElBaradei, for instance, he would revive the Baruch Plan put forward by Truman in 1946 and place all nuclear fuel production under the control of an international agency. But he fails to consider what political, social and economic changes might be necessary to create and sustain the international trust and cooperation that he seeks. Let us suppose, for the sake of argument, that nuclear disarmament were somehow to be achieved within the existing conflict-based system. Many states would still have the technological capacity to make nuclear weapons again if they so decided. This is known as the “breakout” problem. It is hard to imagine countries resisting this temptation when at war or even under conditions of acute military confrontation. As we need not just to achieve but maintain nuclear disarmament, we therefore also need to abolish war in general, together with all weapons that can be used to threaten war. A close reading of Schell suggests that he accepts this point, though he does not spell it out. But take the argument a step further. Wars arise out of conflicts over the control of resources. Doesn’t this mean that an end has to be put to such conflicts? And how can this be done without placing resources under the control of a global community – that is, without establishing world socialism?
Socialists are not against nuclear (or general) disarmament within capitalism. We know that the world faces problems of the greatest urgency and we know that the global social revolution is not an immediate prospect. We have no wish to hold human survival hostage to the attainment of our ideals. Please go ahead and prove us wrong by abolishing nuclear weapons without abolishing capitalism. Nothing, apart from socialism itself, would make us happier. The trouble is that we simply don’t understand how it can be done. That is why we see no alternative to working for socialism. February 2008
September 11, 2001: reflections on a somewhat unusual act of war
As an act of war, the al-Qaeda attack on the Pentagon and the World Trade Centre was somewhat unusual, though not unprecedented, in three respects. First, the method used was non-standard. Standard military practice is to blow things and people up by dropping bombs or firing shells and missiles on them. But flying planes right into the target has been done before. Japanese kamikaze pilots used the technique against U.S. warships in the Pacific during World War Two. Second, al-Qaeda is a non-state actor. Such actors rarely have the
capacity to carry through such a complex and costly operation. Therefore alQaeda must have had financial backing from wealthy sponsors - Osama bin Laden himself comes from an extremely wealthy family - and the support, or at least complicity, of one or more powerful states. In general, arranging wars is a pastime for members of the capitalist class, though they get hirelings to do the dirty work for them. Working people don't command the necessary resources. Finally, it is a little unusual for the U.S. to be on the receiving end of a military assault from abroad. For a comparable attack on the continental United States, you have to go back to 1814, when the British army entered Washington and burned down the White House and the Capitol. In other ways the attack was not unusual in the least. As an atrocity it was par for the course. The death toll, initially estimated at 6,500, was later revised downward to about 2,800. Atrocities on a similar or larger scale are committed routinely by the U.S. in other countries. To take just one example, 3--4,000 civilians were killed in the invasion of Panama in December 1989. Even if we start the reckoning with September 11, we find that the U.S. was quick to even the score. According to an independent study, 3,767 Afghan civilians (hardly any of them connected with al-Qaeda) had been killed inbombing raids by 6 December, 2001. This figure does not include the far more numerous indirect casualties resulting from the creation of refugees and the disruption of food and other supplies. * * * The attack should not have been a total surprise, a bolt out of the blue.
After all, it was merely the next step in a war that Osama bin Laden had formally declared on the United States in August 1996. He had built up a far-flung network of front companies, banks,"charities," and NGOs (e.g., the World Union of Moslem Youth) to raise funds and recruit young fighters for the war. He had already attacked American assets abroad, notably the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998, and there was ample intelligence warning that a major attack on US soil was in the offing. So the parallel with Pearl Harbor is pretty weak. And yet September 11 clearly did come as a shock to Bush. That was because the attack came from forces that the U.S., its sidekicks Britain and Israel, and the Bush family in particular had long regarded as friends, allies and partners. This explains why Bush ignored the warnings - just as Stalin ignored warnings of impending attack by Nazi Germany in 1941 and felt "betrayed" by Hitler when the attack came. American, British, and Israeli ruling circles saw the main threats to their economic and strategic interests in the Moslem world as coming from "communists" and secular nationalists backed by the Soviet Union (e.g. Nasser in Egypt, Ghaddafi in Libya, the PLO). When Khomeini's theocracy took power, Iran was added to the list of enemies, together with associated Shi'ite Islamist movements in other countries. Sunni Islamist movements, however, were encouraged - largely on the principle that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," although also because they seemed more interested in imposing ritual conformity on their own communities and in fighting "communism" than in challenging the substantive interests of the "infidel" powers. The Islamists were also beneficiaries of the "neo-liberal" economic policies of Western institutions. In Pakistan, for example, the secular state
schools collapsed in the1980s as a result of public spending cuts imposed by the IMF. This left the Saudi-financed religious schools (madrassas) as the only educational option available to boys who were not from wealthy families. (Girls, needless to say, didn't even have that option.) It was from these madrassas that the Taliban drew its recruits. Moreover, relations with the leading Sunni Islamist power, Saudi Arabia, were and still are vital to Britain and the US in economic terms. The Saudi capitalist class, led by the royal family and influential families like the bin Ladens, not only sells these countries' oil but uses much of the proceeds to buy arms from them and invest in their economies. There are close and long-established personal and business ties between wealthy Saudis and British and American capitalists and politicians, including the father of the current US president and several members of his administration. The Saudi—U.S. alliance also entailed close military cooperation, above all in the fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden went to Pakistan in 1979 as an official of the Saudi intelligence service to finance, organize, and control the anti- Soviet Afghan resistance in collaboration with the CIA. It was here that Osama, who had trained as an engineer and economist with a view to taking part in the family business, acquired his taste for war. Osama fell out with the Saudi royal family in 1991 when they allowed the US to set up military bases on the "holy" soil of Arabia following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. But even in exile Osama received frequent visits from relatives, who provided a channel of communication between him and the royal family. An understanding appears to have been reached. Osama would abstain from attacking targets inside Saudi Arabia and in return no action would be taken
against his Saudi supporters, who included various members of his own and of other wealthy families (such as Khalid bin Mahfouz, the "banker of terror") and even certain royal princes. And the Saudi authorities did protect these people, refusing to provide U.S. intelligence agencies with any information that might compromise them. So September 11 originated in a "betrayal" by the Saudi capitalist class of their American friends, allies and partners. How can we account for such strange ingratitude to those to whom they owe their vast riches? It probably has to do with the circumstances in which the Saudi capitalist class came into being. They did not make themselves into capitalists. It was done for them when oil was discovered in Arabia (in 1938) and property rights in that oil were vested in the royal house. The Saudi capitalists are a class of bedouin patriarchs turned rentiers, who became capitalists by investing their revenue. So they retain to some extent a pre-capitalist mentality and have a deeply ambivalent attitude to the capitalist world in which they now operate. * * * Despite the shock effect, U.S. ruling circles did not necessarily regard 9/11 as an unalloyed evil. In his book The New Crusade, anti-war analyst Rahul Mahajan draws attention to a document entitled Rebuilding America's Defenses, issued in September 2000 by the Project for the New American Century, a neo-conservative think tank with links to the Bush administration. The authors call for increased military spending to preserve US "global preeminence," but add that such a programme will be politically impossible unless there is a "catastrophic and catalyzing event, like a new Pearl Harbor."
The purposes for which the fear generated by the al-Qaeda attack was exploited suggest that it filled this bill. The threat of "terrorism" has been used to push through military programs ranging from anti-missile defence to germ warfare. Thus, a vast lab is being built near Washington called the National Biodefence Analysis and Countermeasures Center, where in violation of the1972 biological and toxin weapons convention the most lethal bacteria and viruses are to be stockpiled (Guardian Weekly, 4-10 August 2006). What a tempting target that will make for terrorists to infiltrate or attack! The "war on terrorism" unleashed in the aftermath of September 11, against first Afghanistan and then Iraq, is not - so Mahajan argues - a war on terrorism, just as the "war on drugs" is not a war on drugs. Combating terrorism and drugs are both low priorities, and the "wars" against them are covers for the pursuit of higher-priority interests. In Afghanistan the U.S. had turned against the Taliban (previously welcomed as a force for "stability"), mainly because they were unwilling to host oil and gas pipelines from Central Asia to Pakistan, and was looking for a pretext to overthrow them. Capturing Osama was that pretext, for it was obvious that the chaos of war would create ideal conditions for him to escape. Iraq was invaded to secure control over its oil and in the hope of establishing a new strategic beachhead in the Middle East. Saddam had no ties with Islamic terrorism, just as he had no nuclear weapons. To the likes of Osama he was not even a genuine Moslem. Bush demanded of his experts that they find ties between Iraq and terrorism; when they replied that there were none, he pretended not to hear and reiterated his demand. In October
2001 Vice President Dick Cheney declared that the war on terrorism"may never end -- at least, not in our lifetime" (Washington Post, 21 October, 2001). Am I alone in finding this suspicious? Ordinarily in a war it is considered important for morale to hold out some prospect of victory, however remote. Does Cheney want and need the "war" to go on forever? * * * To sustain the facade of the "war on terror" it is necessary to arrest lots of people. As there is no real evidence against most of them, they are held without trial in secret facilities scattered throughout the world, where like the victims of Stalin's purges - they are tortured to extract the “necessary” evidence. In her book The Language of Empire, Lila Rajiva describes for us the sickening tortures at Abu Ghraib, the prison complex outside Baghdad that the U.S. occupation authorities took over from Saddam. The accounts and photos (some taken as exposés, others as souvenirs) are monotonous in their sameness. This suggests that the torture is not a spontaneous practice of jailers and interrogators, but a system designed by government experts and approved at the top. The system goes by the code name R21 and is taught to British and U.S. military intelligence personnel at the British Joint Services Interrogation Centre at Gilbertine Priory, Chicksands, near Bedford (The Guardian, 8 May 2004). It is designed to shock Moslem cultural sensibilities. Victims are stripped naked and hooded, savaged by dogs, and forced under threat of beatings to masturbate and simulate sexual acts in front of sniggering female soldiers (another triumph for sexual equality). That's just for starters; it gets worse. I leave it to the reader to ponder what this may imply about “Western values” and “Western civilization."
And yet those who order these horrors know very well who is responsible for terrorism (the Islamist variety) and where they are. But no bombs have been dropped on the palaces of Riyadh. No scions of the bin Ladens and bin Mahfouz or princes of the House of Saud have been stripped naked, set upon by dogs or sexually humiliated. There's class justice for you! A few regrettable incidents can't be allowed to spoil British and U.S. relations with a vital ally and business partner. September 2006
Iran in the crosshairs
Preparations for a U.S. attack on Iran are well advanced. 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 U.S.
Congress to create a “legal” justification for aggression. Why are the dominant capitalist interests in the U.S. so bent on war with Iran? The war propaganda provides a highly distorted and incomplete picture of the real reasons. * * * 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 U.S. 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 U.S. and its allies. Finally, the U.S. 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.” 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 U.S. interests (listen to an interview with Jonathan Schell on www.therealnews.com). The U.S. 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. * * *
While the U.S. 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 U.S. seeks to restore and maintain control over the hydrocarbon resources of the Middle East, a region that contains 55% of the world’s oil and 40% of its gas. The occupation of Iraq marks an important step toward this goal. The petroleum law that the U.S. is imposing on Iraq will give foreign companies direct control of its oilfields through “production sharing agreements”. Iran, which alone accounts for 10% of world oil and 16% 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 U.S. 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% 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 U.S. 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 U.S. invasion it has gone back to using dollars. This may be an important motive for attacking Iran too. * * * The collapse of the Soviet Union enabled the U.S. 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 U.S. The geopolitical map of the world has begun to shift, and Iran occupies a central place in this process. The framework of a potential antiU.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 U.S., may follow.) So here too attacking Iran may be seen as a way of averting a threat to U.S. predominance. There is a certain logic to the motives that drove the U.S. 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 U.S. 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. January 2008
Iraq: violence without end or purpose?
Every 10 years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business. Michael Ledeen (American Enterprise Institute) Last month 100 U.S. veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan held hearings in Washington to describe their experience. Named Winter Soldier after a similar meeting of Vietnam veterans in 1971, the event was ignored by the major corporate media outlets. In contrast to Vietnam, media coverage of these wars is sanitized. Viewers see no scenes of carnage, hear no cries of pain. No publicity accompanies the coffins on their return.
On the internet, however, there is uncensored testimony, including videos and personal blogs (e.g.: ivaw.org, indybay.org, therealnews.com, 5yearstoomany.org, aliveinbaghdad.org). These are the sources on which I draw here. Let’s start with the army recruiter who inveigles the naïve youngster into the inferno. A sinister figure? Or just another victim? After all, he didn’t seek transfer to the Recruitment Command. Now he has to make his quota or else endure constant humiliation, weekends in “corrective retraining” and the threat of the sack. So he works himself to exhaustion, answers the kids’ questions with lies, and recruits anyone he can, whether or not they meet official standards of health, education or “moral character” (i.e., no criminal record). Few now join for “patriotic” reasons. Most are bribed with the promise of financial benefits, often payment of college fees. Many foreign residents sign up as a way of becoming U.S. citizens. Over 100 have been awarded citizenship posthumously. A few weeks of basic training and the new teenage soldier, who has probably never been abroad or even in another region of the U.S., suddenly finds himself in a strange, uncomfortable and disorienting environment. He does not understand the language, nor can he decipher the Arabic script. He has been taught to fear every haji -- the term used to dehumanize Iraqis – as a possible enemy. He starts to kill and goes on killing, usually with the connivance of his superiors, often with their open encouragement. He kills in blind fear, or on orders, or even out of boredom. Most likely he feels no shame: his mates take souvenir photos of him standing by his “trophies.” It is not necessarily only Iraqis who he kills. When Marines find their forward movement blocked, one blogger tells us, they “start using their
training ‘to destroy the enemy’ on civilians or other Marines.” Violence and degradation pervade relations not just between the military and Iraqi civilians but also within the military. Soldiers are abused and humiliated by officers. Rape is commonplace. It is hard to see what purpose all this violence can possibly serve. The U.S. government would like to suppress all resistance to the occupation and stabilize a client regime that can be trusted to keep Iraq open to plunder by Western (mainly U.S.) corporations. But the more people are killed the more of their relatives and friends will take up arms to avenge them. Various militias temporarily ally themselves with the occupation forces in order to eliminate their rivals, but later they too will fight the Americans (as well as one another). And the persisting “instability” and destruction of resources make Iraq less appealing to corporate investors. So the chances are that the U.S. will cut losses and give up, although the process will no doubt drag on for years. Otherwise the fighting will continue until the whole population is dead or has fled the country. In that case there will be no one left to run the puppet government or work for the corporations. Of course, the chore of administration could be dumped on the UN and workers brought in from abroad. Amid the bloody mayhem, measures are still taken to preserve the sanctity of property – or at least of American property. One soldier tells of being sent with others to guard a military contractor’s truck that has broken down on the highway. After hours of warding off hungry Iraqis who want to take the food stored inside, they received the order to destroy the truck together with its contents. On another occasion they were ordered to destroy an ambulance. When capitalists are forced by circumstances to abandon their
property, they evidently prefer to have it destroyed rather than permit its use to satisfy the needs of desperate people. That is the true face of our real, class enemy. The cost of this futile war to American society can hardly be compared with the damage inflicted on a devastated and shattered Iraq. It is quite substantial nonetheless. As always, the working class pays by far the highest price for their masters’ insane adventures. Over 4,000 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq so far. This may seem quite modest in view of the 50,000 killed in Vietnam. However, the number killed is a misleading indicator of the amount of suffering. Due to medical advances, the ratio of wounded to killed, which was 3:1 in Vietnam, is 7:1 in Iraq. Many soldiers who in previous wars would have died of severe brain injury, loss of limbs or extensive third-degree burns have been “saved” – not restored to health, but salvaged to live out the rest of their lives in pain and discomfort. Even more numerous are the psychological casualties. Apart from those who serve in office jobs and rarely if ever leave the Green Zone (the specially secured part of Baghdad where the U.S. embassy and military headquarters are located), there can be few who return from Iraq free of psychological trauma -- “post-traumatic stress disorder” as the psychiatrists call it. (Over 100,000 are seeking treatment, but there must be many more who do not seek treatment – and, indeed, it is doubtful whether any effective treatment exists.) Many veterans feel unbearable guilt for what they have done, although it is those who sent them who are mainly responsible. So it is not uncommon for a young soldier to return home “safe and sound” only to hang
himself the next day. Besides suicide, the veterans are prone to alcoholism and depression, homicide and domestic violence. And there are so many of these brutalized and traumatized veterans! While “only” about 175,000 troops are deployed at any one time (currently 158,000 in Iraq and 18,000 in Afghanistan), at least 1,400,000 soldiers have fought at some time in one or both of these wars. The damage to the social fabric is therefore enormous -- in the same way that the social fabric in Russia, for instance, has been torn by its wars in Afghanistan and Chechnya. And a new war against Iran is still on the cards. Nor can we exclude a U.S. military intervention against pro-Taliban forces in northwestern Pakistan. May 2008
War in Georgia
The war in Georgia seems to be over. How it began is still not clear. The first major military action was Georgia’s bombardment of Tskhinval, but some claim that this was itself a response to escalation in the low-intensity fighting in the villages of South Ossetia that has been going on for many years. In any case, the Georgian assault on South Ossetia gave Russia a golden opportunity to pursue its own goals under cover of humanitarian intervention. In general, both sides have excelled in hypocrisy. Russia as the protector of small peoples – after Chechnya? The United States as the champion of national sovereignty against foreign aggression – after Iraq? And yet there are always people prepared to take such guff seriously, or
pretend to. The context of the war needs to be understood at three levels: Level 1. The struggle within Georgia for control over territory, waged by ethnically based mini-states (Georgian, Abkhaz, Osset). Level 2. The confrontation between Georgia and Russia. Level 3. The renewed great power confrontation between Russia and the West, especially between Russia and the U.S. The West in its propaganda stresses Level 2, casting Russia as aggressor and Georgia as victim while obscuring its own role. Russian propaganda stresses Level 1, casting Georgians as aggressors and Abkhaz and Ossets as victims, and also Level 3, casting the U.S. and its allies as aggressors and Russia as their victim. Only by focusing on Level 3 can we grasp what the war is really about. The rulers of great powers often regard the areas immediately beyond their borders as their rightful “sphere of influence.” Thus, the U.S. calls Central America and the Caribbean its “backyard,” while Russia refers to other parts of the former USSR as its “near abroad.” They are especially concerned to prevent military ties between outside powers and states in their sphere of influence. Recall the outraged response of U.S. politicians when the Soviet Union deployed nuclear missiles in Cuba in 1962. After a period of weakness, Russia is now reclaiming great power status and a sphere of influence. In the military field, the main goals are to
prevent Georgia and Ukraine joining NATO and block the deployment of ABM systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. In addition, Russia will not allow post-Soviet states to cooperate with the U.S. in any attack on Iran. The Russian operation has succeeded in keeping Georgia out of NATO for the foreseeable future: it has demonstrated the risks involved and several of the existing European member states are unwilling to take those risks. Another Russian goal – not yet achieved – is to oust Saakashvili, who is rightly viewed as an American client. (The “rose revolution” that brought him to power in 2003 was funded by the U.S. government, through such agencies as the National Endowment for Democracy.) * * * It would be a mistake to interpret even the knee-jerk support of the American media for Georgia as indicative of unequivocal support. The U.S. and its allies (with Israel playing a major role) did create the conditions for war by encouraging their client and by arming and training his forces. However, it appears that Saakashvili started major hostilities on his own, without seeking prior approval from Bush, who was enjoying the Olympics at the time. This evidently caused some annoyance. The U.S. refused him the practical support on which he was counting. Like many ambitious but inexperienced politicians before him, he overplayed his hand. We must bear in mind that the Western ruling class is deeply divided concerning policy toward Russia. Certain forces, especially in the U.S., are upset that Russia is no longer subservient to the West and regard it once more as an adversary. Other forces have a more realistic view of the shifting balance of world power, are wary of making too many enemies and fighting
too many wars at once, and want to maintain a more cooperative relationship with Russia. These forces are particularly strong in West European countries that are dependent on Russian gas. The dominant view among our masters, fortunately, is that they have no interests at stake in Georgia worth the risk of war with Russia. They have only one really important economic interest in Georgia: the pipelines connecting the Caspian oil and gas fields with Turkey’s Mediterranean coast (Baku – Ceyhan), which pass through the south of the country. Significantly, although Russia bombed many valuable assets in Georgia care was taken not to bomb these pipelines. Perhaps secret assurances were given that the pipelines would not be damaged. The Russian rulers too have no really vital economic (as opposed to strategic) interest in Georgia. Abkhazia has long been their favorite vacation spot and still has considerable tourist potential. Western Georgia is a traditional source of tea, tobacco, walnuts and citrus fruit. * * * Our hearts go out to the many thousands of ordinary working people who have borne the brunt of suffering in this war, as they do in every war – cowering terrified in basements as the shells burst above them, jumping to their death from burning buildings, trudging along the roads tired, hungry and thirsty in the summer heat. And yet we also have to say something that must sound heartless in the circumstances. The majority of these ordinary working people – of the adults among them – share responsibility for their current plight. Because it was they who demonstrated and voted for the politicians who ordered the
shelling and the bombing. And most of them, it appears, are still ready to demonstrate and vote for the same politicians. Because they still believe that the location of state borders matters more, infinitely more than their own lives or the lives of their children. Because they still view as their enemy ordinary working people who happen to be of different descent and speak a different language. These delusions, for so long as they persist, guarantee that this will not be the last war. September 2008
Congo: the Mobile Phone War
Although the peace accord of 2003 ended five years of war in other parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, fighting has continued intermittently in the eastern Kivu region. The latest bout began on October 25, when the rebel forces of Laurent Nkunda resumed their offensive, accompanied by the usual atrocities against civilians, burning villages, and floods of starving refugees. What is this war about? At first sight, it looks like spillover from the Hutu-Tutsi conflict in neighbouring Rwanda. General Nkunda, a Congolese Tutsi and Christian fundamentalist, says he is protecting his people from the Interahamwe, the Hutu militia that perpetrated the Rwandan genocide of 1994 and later fled over the border. He is backed by troops of the current Tutsi government of Rwanda, which the Interahamwe seeks to overthrow.
This version is a smokescreen. Nkunda has shown much less interest in pursuing the Interahamwe than in seizing control of Kivu’s rich mineral resources – partly on behalf of Rwandan business interests, partly perhaps for his own enrichment. He exploits the memory of genocide to mobilize the Tutsis in his support and win foreign sympathy, much as Israel exploits the memory of the Holocaust for its purposes. Control over resources is also the main concern of the Congo government in Kinshasa and its armed forces. The most valuable minerals in the Kivu region are two metallic ores called cassiterite and coltan. These contain substances whose special properties are ideally suited to various high-tech applications. Niobium alloys are used in jet and rocket engines because they remain stable at very high temperatures, while tantalum and tin oxide are used in making electronic circuitry for devices ranging from computers to DVD players and MRI scanners. In particular, the rapidly rising demand for mobile phones has pushed up the price of coltan, fuelling the fight to control and mine its deposits. So we could call the war in eastern Congo “the mobile phone war.” On both sides, part of the proceeds from selling resources (through chains of middlemen) on the world market goes to finance military operations, which in turn secure access to the resources. This is an example of the “war as business” model, which arises in this case from the weakness of state institutions in Central Africa. * * * In the Congo it is especially difficult for the government to exercise sovereignty over “its” territory, which is roughly the area of Western Europe (2.34 million km2). The transportation and communications infrastructure is
extremely underdeveloped; no road or rail link traverses the whole country from east to west. Under these conditions, it is quite impossible to defend borders with nine neighbours that stretch over 10,744 km. Neighbouring states can therefore invade Congo territory whenever they like. No fewer than seven foreign armies fought in the “civil” war that began in 1998. In the background, the old colonial powers – France, Belgium and Britain – and two players newer to the region, the United States and China, jockey for position, assiduously promoting the interests of their corporations while carefully concealing how these corporations hire private armies and fuel the conflict. All these governments, armies and corporations are after the same things, the vast resources that lie on – and especially under – Congolese soil: various metals, diamonds, uranium, potash, timber, wildlife, oil and gas, etc. Then there are the “peacekeeping” forces of the United Nations, even though there is no peace to keep. The real reason for their deployment is, in fact, to protect the interests of French and other foreign capital. It is this that explains the apparently odd fact that most of the “peacekeepers” are kept well away from the areas affected by the current fighting. Those who do enter the combat zone make no effort to assist relief work or protect civilians, who vent their anger by yelling and throwing stones at the UN vehicles. Torn apart by rival predators, there is a striking parallel between today’s Congo and another “helpless giant” – China in the second half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century. In a different system of society, many resources in central Africa could be utilized for the purpose of ecologically sustainable development for the benefit of local communities. The natural products of the rainforest could
be preserved and harvested for dietary and medicinal use. There is a vast potential for hydroelectricity and, of course, solar power. But in a capitalist world Congo’s resources have been a curse not a blessing for the overwhelming majority of its people, bringing them invasion, enslavement, starvation, war and upheaval. European capital first descended on the country in 1885 in the horrific form of the Congo Free State, a corporate state controlled personally by King Leopold II of Belgium, who made money from it by exporting rubber collected under compulsion by the indigenous people. Those who failed to meet their quotas were mutilated; those who refused to work for the conquerors were killed. This reign of terror, which would have done the Nazis proud, led to a population loss of some ten million (see Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost). How many people must have wished that their country had no rubber! In 1908 the Congo Free State gave way to the Belgian Congo, which gained formal independence in 1960. Mobutu’s kleptocracy followed in 1971 and lasted until 1997, when the recent period of upheaval began. Regimes come and go, but the ravenous extraction of resources by foreign corporations never stops. January 2009
Opium wars, old and new
The phrase “opium wars” usually refers to the British military assaults of 1839-42 and 1856-60 that forced the Chinese emperor to allow British
merchants to sell his subjects opium. The opium was grown in India, where the tax revenue from its sale maintained the colonial administration. In 1839, imperial commissioner Lin Zexu wrote to Queen Victoria: “By what right do the barbarians use the poisonous drug to injure the Chinese people? Although they may not intend to do us harm, in coveting profit to an extreme they have no regard for injuring others. Let us ask, where is your conscience?” He never received an answer. It was not only the Chinese who suffered at the hands of the profitcoveting barbarians. They found it just as profitable to poison “their own people.” Britain imported 200,000 pounds of opium from India in 1840. It was consumed, quite legally, mostly mixed with alcohol in a flavoured concoction called laudanum, as an all-purpose painkiller, tranquilliser and sleeping potion. Society ladies used it to acquire the then-fashionable pallid complexion associated with tuberculosis, while the neglected and undernourished babies of the working class were dosed with it to keep them quiet while their mothers toiled long hours in the mills. Nowadays trading in opium is illegal. That, of course, does not prevent its large-scale production, sale and consumption, mostly as heroin. It merely raises prices and makes the business even more lucrative, though some “drug lords” perhaps envy the respectability enjoyed by their Victorian predecessors – and by pushers of currently legal poisons. * * * At present the global centre of opium production is Afghanistan (accounting for 93% of opiates sold worldwide in 2007). To be more
precise, production is concentrated in three border zones of Afghanistan: in the northeast, supplying the post-Soviet region through Tajikistan; in the west, for export through Iran; and above all in the south, for export through Pakistan. Sales within the country have also grown rapidly. Afghanistan’s annual earnings from opium exports are estimated at $4 billion. This is some 15 times larger than earnings from all legal exports combined (nuts, wool, cotton, carpets, etc.). Thus, opium has greater dominance over the Afghan economy than oil, for instance, has over the economies of most oil-exporting states. The farmers who grow the poppies get about a quarter of the money, $1 billion. The rest goes to traffickers and to the politicians, officials and military commanders who control the territory and protect the traffic (where they do not organize it directly). As we know, Afghanistan and adjoining areas of northwest Pakistan are at war. This is Obama’s favourite war, so we can expect it to intensify. On one side: the U.S. and NATO, their client regime under President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, their allies in Pakistan’s governing elite. On the other side: the Taliban and their Islamist allies in Pakistan. In between, fluctuating in their allegiance (depending on who pays more): the local bosses or “warlords.” What is the relationship between the war and the opium trade? First of all, the predominance of opium in the Afghan economy is largely a product of prolonged warfare. The many years of war disrupted long-established patterns of food production and distribution. Unlike food crops, poppies do not require much tending and so are better suited to unpredictable and chaotic conditions. All players, except possibly the U.S. and NATO, are closely involved in the opium trade. This applies equally to the Taliban, the warlords, and the
regimes in Kabul and Islamabad. One of the biggest traffickers, for example, is Karzai’s brother. All, to varying degrees, are financially dependent on opium. Pakistan receives U.S. aid and has other sources of revenue, but it too depends on opium money: the trucks that carry supplies over the border for NATO forces in Afghanistan return loaded with opium. To a large extent opium funds the war. It pays for weapons and hires fighters. And, in turn, the fighting is not only for control over territory, but also and especially for the control over opium production and exports that goes with territorial control. As in Congo, war is simultaneously a means and an end in the struggle to control a valuable resource – metallic ores in Congo, opium in Afghanistan. If Congo is a “mobile war”, then Afghanistan, to some extent at least, is a new opium war. The role of opium in U.S. policy regarding Afghanistan is more difficult to assess. The illegal status of the trade prevents opium interests from exerting open influence on the U.S. government, although secret influence – through links between politicians, officials and illegal business (“organized crime”) – may be significant. However, the U.S. market in illegal drugs is supplied primarily from other parts of the Americas, not from Afghanistan. Officially, the U.S. government conducts a “counternarcotics strategy” in Afghanistan. Farmers have been offered assistance in switching from poppies to wheat. In practice, even if the intentions behind such programs are genuine and even if they were to be adequately financed, the conditions of war and the reliance of U.S. allies on opium money would still militate against their success. It may be worth noting that the CIA, which has traditionally been quite willing to cooperate with foreign drug interests (for so long as they served its purposes) and even sell drugs itself to raise
additional funds, plays no part in anti-opium measures. March 2009
War in Gaza: propaganda and realities
According to Israeli propaganda, it was the only way to stop rocket attacks on Israel from Gaza. Some are sceptical about this version of events. The truce negotiated with Hamas last June held for four months, they say, and could probably have been maintained and extended were it not for Israel’s military incursion on 4 November and its continuing siege of Gaza. There is some evidence to suggest that the operation was a “war of choice,” planned well in advance for the purpose of destroying Hamas in Gaza. Israeli military historian Zeev Maoz has traced a long history of Israel using provocative measures to trigger reactions in order to create a pretext for military action (Defending the Holy Land: A Critical Analysis of Israel’s Security and Foreign Policy, University of Michigan Press, 2006). In a previous article I drew the distinction between “resource wars” that are fought directly for control over specific resources and “strategic wars” that reflect a long-term power struggle between rival capitalist states. To take recent examples, the “mobile phone war” in eastern Congo was a resource war while the war in Georgia was a strategic war. The factors underlying this war have to do both with resources and with strategic rivalry. Israel and the Palestinian factions are manoeuvring for control over offshore gas deposits. But there is also a strategic dimension that cannot be understood adequately at the local level.
Hamas is an integral part of the Islamist forces in the Moslem world. It arose as an offshoot of Egypt’s Moslem Brotherhood, which now poses the main threat to the U.S.-oriented Mubarak regime. That is a big reason why this regime, like Jordan and the Palestine Authority, more or less openly support Israel’s assault on Hamas. Hamas also depends heavily on support from Iran. Like Hezbollah in Lebanon and Iran’s clients in Iraq, it serves as a vehicle of Iran’s effort to establish itself as the leading power in the Middle East. This helps to explain the strength of U.S. and European support for Israel in this war. So there is some basis to Israel’s claim that it is fighting on behalf of an international “anti-extremist” – that is, anti-Islamist and anti-Iran – coalition. As always, the physical war is combined with a propaganda war. The message is drummed into people that “we” have no choice but to defend ourselves against an enemy bent on genocide. In the Western media the word “terrorist” routinely precedes any reference to Hamas. Of course, both sides are terrorist in the sense of targeting civilians. Israel uses terror on a much larger scale than Hamas, though that is solely because it has much greater military capacity. In principle, either side could have avoided the war by submitting to the other side’s political demands. It was a war of choice on both sides. Hamas could probably have saved “their people” from the fury of the Israeli war machine by ceding power in Gaza to the Palestine Authority. I make this point not to diminish Israel’s direct responsibility for its atrocities, but rather to highlight how little all the Palestinian as well as Israeli leaders really care about ordinary people. * * *
In demonizing Hamas the pro-Israel propagandists face a little problem. Earlier they themselves reluctantly granted Hamas a certain legitimacy in connection with its victory in the January 2006 elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council. Now they just say that Hamas seized power in a coup and delete any mention of the elections. In fact, it was the U.S. that insisted on the elections, perhaps not anticipating the outcome. Capitalism as a system is inherently undemocratic, because it concentrates real power in the hands of a small ruling and owning class. In general, elections may be welcomed as introducing a small element of democracy into this undemocratic system. People in Gaza, however, have been subjected to starvation, bombing, and other forms of harsh punishment in effect for having voted for candidates that the sponsors of the elections did not want. Under the circumstances, these elections were a nasty trick that had little to do with democracy. It appears that Obama will make another attempt to revive the “peace process,” which is supposed to lead to a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But unless he is willing to put Israel under very strong pressure to withdraw from all the territory occupied in 1967, such a state will amount to little more than a string of ghettoes or, to use the official term, “cantons”. A twostate solution on these terms would have to be imposed by force, and it is doubtful whether the Palestine Authority is up to the job. Yet another failure of the “peace process” could strengthen the growing trend in Palestinian opinion to accept the reality of Israel’s control over the whole of what used to be Palestine and demand citizenship rights within a single secular state. This would be equivalent to the ending of apartheid in South Africa but would not solve the problems faced by the
majority of the population. Not that the emergence of such a secular state is easy to envisage at present in view of the prevalence of ethnic-supremacist, sectarian and even racist outlooks in both Jewish-Israeli and Palestinian society. February 2009
Israel’s state piracy: warding off the threat of peace
The immediate purpose of Israel’s state piracy and mass kidnapping in the Eastern Mediterranean is clear. The aim is to maintain the siege (“closure”) of the Gaza Strip that was imposed in 2007 to induce the Gazans to overthrow the Hamas administration they had just elected. Of course, the political effect of the blockade, which caused enormous suffering (see MW, July 2008), was just the opposite. But there is an even more important aim – to reassert Israeli control over Gaza’s borders, airspace and territorial waters. This control was not relinquished when PM Ariel Sharon withdrew ground forces and settlers in 2005. Keeping Gaza and the West Bank isolated from direct contact with the outside world is crucial to Israel’s claim to continued sovereignty over the
occupied territories and preventing the emergence of a sovereign Palestinian state (or two such states). Some sections of the Israeli ruling class are prepared to accept a peace settlement based on the “two-state solution”. Peace would give Israeli business unrestricted access to Arab export markets and cheap labour. The present government, however, is a creature of interests tied to the occupation – above all, the military-industrial complex and the settlers’ lobby. The parties of the governing parliamentary coalition are either (like PM Bibi Netanyahu’s Likud) loathe to contemplate a genuinely sovereign Palestinian state or (like Jewish Home) committed to Greater Israel and thus opposed to a Palestinian state in principle. For these people, peace is a threat to be warded off at all costs. A danger that peace might be imposed emerged when the United States, on which Israel is now totally dependent, elected a president who believes that American strategic interests at the regional and global level demand urgent resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Why so violent?
This may help explain a somewhat puzzling aspect of Israel’s
response to the Free Gaza flotilla. Why was it so violent? The Israeli navy could have maintained the blockade and its control of Gazan waters simply by blocking the path of the aid ships until they gave up and went away. This method had worked well in the past. By massacring a dozen or so activists and hurting and humiliating many more – including influential individuals such as parliamentarians, former diplomats, and film makers – Israel has created a PR disaster for itself. It has strained relations with countries around the world and alienated its main regional ally, Turkey. Part of the explanation may be that key members of the Israeli cabinet are ex-generals accustomed to tackling political problems by military means (defence minister Ehud Barak) or simply thugs (foreign minister and former bouncer Avigdor Lieberman). They seem to have thought that a brutal reaction would deter future attempts to break the siege. There is another plausible motive. An atmosphere of heightened confrontation, making progress toward a negotiated settlement impossible, may have been exactly what the Israeli government sought to achieve. And if Israel’s state terrorism provokes a new upsurge in Palestinian terrorism, that will serve even better to thwart Obama and ward off the threat of peace.
There is another aspect to the issue of control over Gazan waters – one that commentators usually overlook. In 1999, the Palestinian Authority (PA) signed a 25-year agreement with British Gas and the Athens-based but Lebanese-owned Consolidated Contractors International Company (CCC) to explore for oil and gas off the Gazan coast. Two wells were drilled in 2000 and, sure enough, a major gas field was found, not very far from the spot where the Free Gaza flotilla was attacked. (Some offshore oil was also found.) Rights to the proceeds were assigned: 60% to British Gas, 30% to CCC, and only 10% to the PA. Nevertheless, the discovery enhanced prospects for an economically viable Palestinian state. When Sharon became prime minister in 2001, he challenged Palestinian sovereignty over the gas field and declared that Israel would never buy gas from the PA. The consortium made plans to pump the gas to Egypt instead. But all plans were scuppered in 2006 when Hamas replaced the PA in Gaza. Israel then tried to take over the negotiations, but British Gas decided to put the whole risky project on hold. Presumably both Israel and the PA still hope that eventually the gas will be theirs.
Israeli state piracy did not have the desired intimidating effect. More attempts to run the blockade followed. Iran and Turkey have offered naval escorts for future flotillas. Conceivably this will broaden the war, though it is more likely that the US will force Israel to abandon the siege. This is likely to trigger the collapse of the current Israeli government and greatly increase the chances of a peace settlement under its successor. A settlement will not eliminate capitalist rivalry over resources and zones of control. The seeds of future war will remain. Yet as socialists we will welcome even a fragile peace that temporarily halts the horrors of occupation and terror. That is partly because we sympathize with the suffering of our fellow workers, whatever their ethnic origin. It is always they who suffer the brunt of their masters’ wars. It is also because war provides an ideal opportunity and excuse to suppress democratic rights on both sides. Peace will create better conditions for democracy. No longer obsessed with ethnic conflict, “Jews” and “Palestinians” will refocus on the social, economic and ecological problems spawned by the “normal” peacetime functioning of capitalism. A space for socialist ideas will open up in this corner of our world.
Ten good reasons why we are fighting in Afghanistan
1. We are fighting in Afghanistan because we are loyal Americans. We have unquestioning trust in the wisdom of our leaders. 2. We are fighting in Afghanistan because we are devoted to the principles of free trade and free enterprise. That is why we want to protect the heroin export business of President Karzai’s brother and other Afghan warlords against interference and unfair competition by the Taliban. 3. We are fighting in Afghanistan because we want to secure the route for a pipeline to pump vast quantities of natural gas from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and India. 4. We are fighting in Afghanistan because we need stability there. We need stability to prevent the disruption of free enterprise (especially for the sake of Reason 3). Previously we backed the Taliban as a force for stability. Now we back the warlords as a force for stability. They too need stability (see Reason 2). Stability is something you can never have too much of.
5. We are fighting in Afghanistan because we hope that we’ll be lucky enough to survive unmaimed and then perhaps the army will pay for our college education and then perhaps we’ll find one of the few well-paid jobs that still exist by then. 6. We are fighting in Afghanistan because we want to be fair to our generals and give them a chance to get it right this time and overcome the trauma of their failure in Vietnam (the poor guys). 7. We are fighting in Afghanistan because we want to stimulate the American economy by expanding the market for U.S. arms manufacturers. 8. We are fighting in Afghanistan because we want to capture Osama bin Laden, who is no longer in the country. 9. We are fighting in Afghanistan because we want to show the world that we are no worse than the British and Russians, who fought in Afghanistan before us. 10. We are fighting in Afghanistan because President Obama is a transformative and restorative national leader and we do not want to undermine his position.
NON-MILITARY GLOBAL THREATS
The articles in this section are about two of the major nonmilitary threats that our planet and species face – global warming and trans-species pathogens. I realise that both of these problems merit much more extensive analysis.
Global warming: is it (or will it soon be) too late?
On 28 February, a sizeable chunk (400 sq. km.) of the Antarctic ice sheet toppled into the sea. This was just the latest sign that the planet is heating up more rapidly than the quasi-official forecasts of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have led us to expect.
Why does reality outpace prediction? For one thing, scientists are trained to be cautious. Most are reluctant to “speculate” – meaning to think a possibility through to its logical end result. They are especially reticent when addressing a broad public. Those who occupy positions in or close to government are under pressure to avoid “alarmism” and be “politically realistic.” To preserve a modicum of influence on the ruling class they must maintain an impression of respectable complacency. It is, of course, extremely difficult to form an adequate understanding of such a complex interactive system as the global climate. Scientists rely on computerised forecasting models to simulate such systems. But such models can only incorporate factors that are already well understood and not subject to excessive uncertainty. There is an inevitable lag, often a lengthy one, between the discovery of a new danger or feedback mechanism and its adequate representation in the models. For instance, the usual prediction for rise in sea level by 2100 is a little under one metre. We can cope with that, surely! But the only factor that it takes into account is thermal expansion, which is fairly easy to calculate. The big rise that will inundate coastal cities and vast lowland areas is that which will follow collapse of the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets, but no one knows when it will occur. Standard mathematical models are designed to analyse continuous, relatively gradual change. The greatest dangers, however, are posed by abrupt changes that give further sudden impetus to climate change. The collapse of ice sheets is one example. Another likely near-term event of this kind is a conflagration, sparked by increasingly hot and dry summertime conditions, that destroys much or even most of the remaining Amazonian
rainforest, turning an important carbon sink into yet another carbon emitter. Probably less imminent but even more terrifying is the prospect of the release into the atmosphere of massive amounts of methane as a result of the breakdown of frozen gas-ice compounds in the permafrost as it melts and on the ocean floor as it warms up. Methane is by far the most powerful of the greenhouse gases. It is also poisonous to life, at least as we know it. These dangers explain why some scientists fear that global warming may reach a “tipping point” beyond which it will become irreversible – that is, beyond all hope of effective human counteraction. Within a few generations, “runaway” climate change would then generate extreme conditions that human beings will be unable to withstand. This fear is fuelled by our knowledge of the geological record, which contains abundant evidence of past climatic disasters in which numerous species became extinct. It seems that when the biosphere of our planet is jolted out of its not very stable equilibrium – whether by collision with a meteorite or asteroid, by a supervolcanic eruption or by the insanity of capitalist production and consumption – it is susceptible to catastrophic climatic upheaval. * * * Environmentalists often warn that unless adequate action to arrest global warming is taken within a clearly specified and relatively short period it will be “too late.” Some socialists say the same thing, with the important proviso that “adequate action” must mean, above all, the establishment of world socialism. The urgency of the warning, it is hoped, will rouse people from lethargy to frenetic activism, though I suspect it is more likely to
reduce them to despair. These warnings have been repeated for quite a few years now, so it is natural that they should escalate. First, the time horizon shortens – from 15 – 20 years to ten or even five. Then the idea surfaces that time must surely have run out by now. Is it not already too late? In my opinion, the current state of scientific knowledge does not permit us to make categorical declarations of this sort. We cannot exclude the possibility that it will soon be, or already is, too late. Capitalism may have set in motion processes – perhaps processes that we do not yet even clearly perceive, let alone understand – on which no human ingenuity will have a significant effect. But nor can we exclude the possibility that it is not too late, that even 30, 40 or 50 years from now it will not be too late. Discussions of runaway climate change rarely take into proper consideration the potential of cosmic engineering projects such as giant space mirrors to divert the sun’s rays. Although these projects may entail risks of their own, the longer the transition to world socialism is delayed the more urgently the space agency of socialist society is likely to pursue them. For all the uncertainties, we can be certain that if we still have a chance of survival, it depends on the establishment of world socialism. If capitalism continues indefinitely, sooner or later we are doomed. So the sooner we establish socialism the better -- but perhaps better late than never. The climatic and environmental threat to human survival will come to occupy central place among the concerns that inspire people to work for socialism, overshadowing all else. May 2009
Mystery of the pig/bird/human flu virus
“Swine flu” is really a misleading term for the current pandemic, inasmuch as no single species serves as host of preference for the new virus. It does not need to mutate as it jumps from pig to human and back again. This is a fully trans-species disease. According to the findings of Canada’s National Microbiology Lab, the genome of the new virus is a strange composite of eight segments from four old viruses, associated with two distinct varieties of swine flu (North American and Eurasian), a North American avian flu and a human flu (the H3N2 strain last seen in 1993). New Scientist calls it “an unusually mongrelised mix of genetic sequences.” It is widely assumed that the virus evolved in a pig. Suspicion has come to rest on a huge fly-infested lake of pig shit on the site of a pig factory – calling these places “farms” creates quite the wrong impression – in the central Mexican province of Veracruz. The pig factory (one of 16 in the province) is owned by Granjas Carroll, which is itself half-owned by the U.S. pork and beef conglomerate, Smithfield Farms. The idea that this particular factory is the source of the outbreak is based on the fact that a young boy living nearby is the earliest known case of infection with the virus. This explanation is certainly plausible. Pigs are susceptible to most if not all of the main virus families, so different kinds of virus can easily accumulate inside the cells of their tissues and exchange genetic material. Pigs are therefore ideal incubators for the evolution and spead of viruses,
especially when their immune systems are weakened by being crammed together in the filthy pens provided by profit-seeking agribusiness. Over the years, many experts have predicted that the outcome would be pandemics of new diseases. Nevertheless, the evidence for this version seems far from conclusive. There may well be earlier cases elsewhere that have not been traced. Smithfield systematically obstructs all investigation into its operations, but that proves nothing: no doubt there are many things that they want to hide. So other possibilities cannot be ruled out. It is unwarranted to assume that the virus must have originated in Mexico because conditions there are more unhygienic than in the U.S. The pig factories in Veracruz and those in North Carolina are owned by the same firms and run in the same way. According to Online Journal, a “top UN scientist” believes that the virus was released, accidentally or deliberately, from a biological weapons lab, inasmuch as certain features of its highly unusual structure are suggestive of genetic engineering. A possible source is the U.S. Army Medical Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick, Maryland. It was from here, for instance, that someone spread anthrax germs in 2001. * * * When the pandemic first hit the headlines, scientists did not yet even understand the nature of the new virus and it was impossible to assess the severity of the danger. That did not deter some politicians and officials from reassuring the public and others from voicing the most alarming predictions. To a large extent, the mixed responses can be explained in terms of divergent commercial and other interests. The reassurance is designed to
avert panic and unrest, safeguard sales and exports of U.S. and Mexican pork, protect the tourist industry and maintain business confidence. The alarmism serves the interests, above all, of the big pharmaceutical companies that produce anti-flu drugs and vaccines. Mass vaccination is not always an effective measure against pathogens susceptible to rapid mutation. Moreover, the vaccine itself may be contaminated with viruses. Thus, last December a lab of Baxter International in Austria distributed vaccines contaminated with live avian flu virus to 18 countries. The same company has now been commissioned by the World Health Organization to develop an experimental vaccine for the new flu. Whatever the outcome of the current pandemic, it is safe to say that it will not be the last. On the one hand, meat factories and biological weapons labs continue to generate new pathogens. On the other hand, these pathogens are increasingly drug-resistant due to the indiscriminate use of antibiotics and other malpractices. It is only a matter of time before we find ourselves helpless in face of some new and much more fatal trans-species virus or bacterium. * * * Eliminating the profit motive will remove the major obstacle to the prevention of trans-species pandemics. Those responsible for food production will be able to give proper weight to environmental and public health considerations. However, this may not suffice if socialist society were to commit itself to providing a meat-rich diet for most of the population. (Some people, of course, will not want such a diet.) Disease control may well require the
abandonment of animal factories and a return to a more traditional type of farming. This is likely to reduce the supply of meat, although it will also enhance its taste and nutritional value. Besides change in patterns of production and consumption, a shift away from reliance on air travel would help slow down the spread of new diseases and allow more time for research and countermeasures. (It would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.) Work schedules might be coordinated in such a way as to give people the time they need to use and enjoy slower means of travel, interspersed as desired with participation in the life of local communities, including farming. June 2009
The articles in this section share a long historical perspective. The first article reconsiders the transition from the hunting and gathering way of life to agriculture-based “civilization.” The second article reflects on how the political expression of class rule has changed with the advance of democracy. The third article analyzes the relationship between class society and religion.
Driven from Eden: was the Neolithic Revolution entirely a good thing?
Some 10,000 years ago – quite recently in the four million years of human evolution – communities began to rely less on hunting, fishing, and foraging for food and settled down to plant crops and rear livestock. This change, known as the Neolithic (New Stone Age) Revolution, opened the way to landed property, city life, patriarchy, slavery, imperial conquest, and all the other delights of "civilization" – that is, class society. It has generally been seen as a great step forward for humanity. This was the view was taken
Marx, who believed that the development of class society would eventually lead to a return to communal life at a higher technological level. And yet we inherit a myth that mourns the pre-Neolithic life as a paradise lost. The Bible tells us that God drove Adam from the Garden of Eden to till the accursed ground ("it shall bring forth thorns and thistles for you") and eat bread in the sweat of his face. As for Eve, she was to bear children in sorrow and be ruled over by her husband (Genesis 3: 17--19, 23). If only they had played their cards right! So what was life really like for our prehistoric ancestors? There are two kinds of evidence. We can learn quite a lot about the material aspects of their existence –what they ate, what tools they used, how often they moved camp, how healthy they were – from the archeological record, although its interpretation is sometimes open to dispute. We can also use information collected in modern times about people still living by hunting and gathering, such as Australian aborigines and South African bushmen, making due allowance for change in environmental conditions. Thus, many contemporary Stone Age groups have been pushed out into "marginal" semidesert environments. In prehistoric times people lived under a wide range of natural conditions, often much more favorable to human life than the Kalahari or the Australian outback. Even in these marginal environments, however, surviving hunters and gatherers live quite an easy life, working on average just two to four hours a day. Many daylight hours are spent socializing, dancing or napping. (See Marshall Sahlins, Stone Age Economics, Tavistock Publications, 1974.) Their diet is adequate in quantity, varied, and nutritious. For instance, the Kalahari bushmen eat over a hundred varieties of plant, including fruits, berries, nuts, gums, roots and bulbs, leafy greens, beans, and melons.
Archeological evidence suggests that our Stone Age ancestors were also generally well fed and healthy. Late Paleolithic skeletons from Greece and Turkey show an average height of 5' 9" for men and 5' 5" for women, as compared to 5' 3" and 5' 0" for skeletons from a later agricultural period (3,000 BCE). At least until very recently, agriculture involved much more work than hunting and gathering. Moreover, as God warned Adam, it was more exhausting work than the activities it replaced. Farmers have typically depended heavily on one or two species of grain or tuber (wheat, maize, rice, potatoes). If the crop failed they starved: recall the potato blight that caused the great Irish famine. As well as being less reliable, their food supply was poorer in nutritional quality, with more carbohydrates and less protein and vitamins. Farming was also bad for people's health. Dense settlement facilitated the transmission of disease and made it more difficult to dispose of human waste away from the living area. The clearing of woodland for habitation and cultivation created attractive habitats for mosquitoes. Why then did our ancestors give up their customary way of life and switch to agriculture? Mark Nathan Cohen (The Food Crisis in Prehistory, Yale University Press, 1977) argues that for a long time they knew how to plant, weed, and even irrigate crops, and, like many Amazonian groups today, did so selectively on a small scale. Not only did they hunt, fish and forage; they gardened too. But they chose not to farm until forced to do so by the gradually rising pressure of population on resources. For all its disadvantages, agriculture can yield more food per unit area, thereby supporting a denser population. Who would voluntarily exchange the excitement of the hunt and
easygoing companionship of the foraging expedition, let alone the creative experimentation of rainforest gardening, for the monotonous, backbreaking toil of tilling the soil? The prehistoric development of gardening skills demonstrates that technological progress did occur in "primitive" communities and, moreover, that it tended to take more ecologically sustainable forms than it has in class society. Thus the transition to agriculture did not mark the beginning of technological progress. The Neolithic Revolution may have been socially regressive in yet another sense. Contemporary Stone Age groups are culturally open. Intermarriage is common across the boundaries not only of local bands but also of broader speech communities. Among bushmen, "individuals are free to move from group to group, partake of local resources, and participate in whatever cooperative social efforts occur wherever they are" (Cohen, p. 62). The same will apply, we hope, in a future socialist society. In the view of many though not all prehistorians, the wide geographical distribution of identical sets of tools (e.g., the Acheulian tool complex) indicates a similar cultural openness in the Stone Age. Only in the period immediately preceding the shift to agriculture did Stone Age society fracture into closed "tribal" groups. It is not my argument that the Neolithic Revolution and the class societies that emerged from it have been socially regressive in all respects. Their cultural, scientific and technological achievements cannot be denied. But as we contemplate the last few millennia, full of suffering, futility, and moral and ecological degradation, we may well wonder whether the losses outweigh the gains.
Camouflaging class rule
The story goes like this. Everyone is basically equal. There is no ruling class as we are all citizens in a “democracy.” We live not in capitalism (that outmoded concept) but in a classless “market economy” where we are all consumers, taxpayers and investors (if only through our pension schemes). In some countries the camouflage is taken one step further: the social system is officially defined to be not just democratic but actually socialist. Those who insist on pointing out the reality behind the camouflage are labelled “extremists,” denied access to the mass media and banished from respectable society. This camouflage is so familiar to us that it is easy to assume it has always existed. In fact, it is quite a recent development in historical terms. Pre-industrial ruling classes never thought of pretending that they did not exist. On the contrary, they glorified or even deified themselves as intrinsically superior beings. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, who for many centuries was considered the fount of all wisdom, wrote that some people are slaves and others masters in accordance with their natures. Feudal law highlighted class by specifying in detail the dress appropriate to each class and making it illegal for people to wear clothes inappropriate to their station in life. The situation started to change when the thinkers of the Enlightenment (such as Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu) questioned
the doctrine of natural inequality as well as other received ideas. In 1789 revolutionaries overthrew the French monarchy and aristocracy in the name of the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. But some of them (Babeuf and his followers), disappointed that the revolution had failed to achieve these ideals, wanted to go further and strike at the roots of property itself. For the first time a ruling class felt the need for some camouflage. In Britain, the transition from feudalism to capitalism was accompanied by less political upheaval, so the need for concealment was not felt until later. Democracy was condemned as a dangerous extremist notion, while the class structure continued to be sanctified by religion and custom. Nineteenth-century economists like Ricardo and Adam Smith talked openly about the division of society into classes. They were closer in this respect to Marx than to their twentieth-century successors. Perhaps you also recall a verse from the old hymn All Things Bright and Beautiful: The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate, He made them high and lowly, And ordered their estate. British ruling class attitudes started to shift later in the nineteenth century, in response to the grassroots movement of the working class Chartists for universal male suffrage. The capitalists began to wonder whether they had exaggerated the threat inherent in political democracy. Perhaps it would not endanger class privilege all that much, provided that at the same time they made greater efforts to indoctrinate the workers. That is
why the 1867 Reform Act, which first extended the franchise to part of the working class (male householders), was followed by the 1870 Education Act, which first made provision for general elementary education. “We must educate our masters,” Chancellor of the Exchequer Robert Lowe cynically remarked. By the early twentieth century the ideological transformation was complete. Capitalist society could now be defined as “democracy” and its demands imposed in the name of democracy, as when U.S. president Woodrow Wilson christened World War One “a war to make the world safe for democracy.” The class structure was henceforth to be camouflaged rather than openly justified. It was also about this time that there appeared new economic theories – in particular, the marginalist school – in which class was no longer a central concept. With the rise of the so-called “communist” regimes in Russia and elsewhere, a similar fate befell the word “socialism.” The new class system in these countries was defined as “socialism,” just as the old class system in the West was defined as “democracy.” But the essence of the matter was the same: in both cases, in mainstream or official discourse the real class structure of the society simply did not exist. In the countries under Communist Party rule, just to say that there was a ruling class was grounds for condemnation as a “Trotskyite” or “counterrevolutionary.” The camouflaging of class rule generates endless hypocrisy, and hypocrisy is not one of the more appealing character traits. But as the poet Matthew Arnold remarked, “hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” The prevalence of hypocrisy is a sign that it is no longer possible openly to justify certain evils, showing that there has after all been some progress in human thinking. Class society is now on the defensive, and there is no way
to defend the indefensible. June 2007
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 “Godfearing” 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. 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 fourteenth 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. 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 supported 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 very closely to the class structure. Judaism also has its “pure” priestly caste – the cohanim, who trace descent from Moses’ brother Aaron. 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. January 2008
The fall of “communism”: why so peaceful?
In late 1989 and early 1990, in the space of a few months, the “communist” regimes in a string of East European countries fell from power. They were
soon followed by the “Soviet” regime in Russia itself, which collapsed in the wake of a failed coup in August 1991. Almost everywhere the change occurred more or less peacefully. This seemed especially remarkable in light of the history of these regimes, which in the past had made ruthless use of violence to suppress opposition. In Russia three anti-coup protestors were killed while trying to halt and disable a tank. There was one major case of violent transition -- Romania, where Ceausescu’s dictatorship was overthrown in December 1989 at the cost of about 1,100 dead and several thousand wounded. In Poland and Hungary, the ruling parties had already agreed to give up their power monopoly in 1988, when they entered negotiations with opposition forces to plan the details of the transition. In East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria, they were not quite so willing to give way, but nor were they willing to do what was necessary to retain power – that is, crush the rising wave of popular protest by force. A lack of will The crucial immediate cause of the demise of the “communist” regimes was the fact that – except in Romania – they did not even make a serious attempt at violent suppression of opposition forces. They lacked the will to do so. Consider, for instance, what happened at the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. In response to a confusing announcement that the regulations for through passage were to be relaxed, a crowd gathered and started pushing their way past the guards. The guards, heavily outnumbered, frantically telephoned various officials to ask whether they should use their
firearms, but no one was willing to give them instructions. So they did nothing. Even the coup plotters in Russia never gave the troops under their command orders to shoot into the crowds that were blocking their way. They too were reluctant to shed large amounts of blood, and that may well have been their undoing. Why were all these “communist” bosses so deficient in ruthlessness? In a few cases, including that of Gorbachev, humanitarian scruples or squeamishness seem to have played a part. This is a less plausible explanation for the inaction of the East German leaders, who made plans for a bloody crackdown – for instance, preparing hospitals to receive large numbers of patients with gunshot wounds – but never carried them out. The main factor for most officials was probably a loss of confidence in the future of the state-capitalist system over which they presided. And accepting the inevitable was greatly eased for many of them by the expectation of doing no less well for themselves under private capitalism. Nomenklatura capitalism Historically, whether the transition from one type of class society to another is predominantly violent or peaceful has always depended on the ability of members of the old ruling class to adapt themselves to the new socio-economic relations and merge smoothly into the new ruling class. In the transition from feudalism to capitalism, for instance, the British aristocrats merged into the rising capitalist class, while their French counterparts had to be overthrown in a violent upheaval. In most cases, the transition from state to private capitalism has been
closer to the “British” model. Many (though by no means all) “communist” bureaucrats, both in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union, welcomed the privatisation of capital because they saw the opportunity to exploit their official positions to establish themselves as private capitalists. This applied especially to top managers in the state ministries in charge of potentially lucrative industries like oil and gas, which could be – and were – reorganised as private (or mixed state-private) capitalist corporations. Lower-level managers and specialists were able to siphon off resources for private businesses now legalised under the guise of “cooperatives.” Quite a few Communist Youth League officials also found ways to set up in business. Far from all the “new” private capitalists were former members of the party-state “nomenklatura” (bureaucracy). In particular, quite a few emerged from the criminal underworld. Nevertheless, the phenomenon of “nomenklatura capitalism” was widespread enough to disillusion many activists of the “anti-communist” revolution, who concluded that there had been no real “revolution” at all. Between Moscow and Brussels In the East European countries another factor was at work. For sudden and unexpected as the “velvet revolutions” may have appeared at the time, the conditions that made them possible had developed gradually over the previous decade or so. Above all, Eastern Europe was no longer strictly within the sphere of Soviet influence. Soviet troops were being withdrawn from the region. The “Brezhnev doctrine”, which had justified military intervention in
Czechoslovakia in 1968, was dead. Hard-line East European leaders could no longer count on economic or military backing from Moscow: Gorbachev had made that clear to them. Lacking confidence in their own strength and accustomed to dependence on the Kremlin, they were not likely to act decisively on their own. Moreover, a number of the East European countries (especially Poland) were deeply in debt – to the tune of over $100 billion – to Western creditors, making them vulnerable to Western pressure. Their economic ties were increasingly with Western Europe rather than with the Soviet Union or one another. Close economic ties had developed between East and West Germany. Hungary was already seeking to join the EEC. Thus, in terms of great power alignments, Eastern Europe in 1989 was a “grey zone” between Moscow and Brussels, in the middle of a process of reorientation from east to west. At some point this external shift was likely to trigger a corresponding internal change from state to private capitalism. Awareness of this reality weakened the resolve of “communist” leaders to struggle against the tide. The counter-example of Romania It is helpful to compare the cases of peaceful transition with the clear counter-example of Romania. Here the army, police and special security forces (Securitate) were ordered to disperse protesting crowds by force – and did so. As the popular rising escalated, however, the defence minister decided at a certain point to thwart Ceausescu’s orders and back his rival Iliescu. This split the army and security forces into opposing factions, which then fought one another until the capture, “trial” and execution of Ceausescu
finally decided the issue. In contrast to the collective leaderships of the other East European regimes, Ceausescu exercised a strict personal dictatorship. Thus, the views of a broader power elite, many of whom might have accepted the transition to private capitalism, carried little weight. And Ceausescu himself was certainly not lacking in self-confidence or ruthlessness. Moreover, he was largely independent of outside powers. He had broken Romania’s ties of dependence on the Soviet Union long before. Nor was he vulnerable to Western pressure: although he accepted loans from the West in the 1970s, he repaid them in full in the 1980s by exporting consumer goods (thereby exacerbating domestic shortages and discontent). Would orders have been obeyed? I have argued that the “post-communist” transition was peaceful (except in Romania) because leaders did not try to retain power by force. But would they have succeeded had they tried? Would their orders have been obeyed? It is impossible to be sure, but I think the answer is probably -- yes, on the whole. Even a highly unpopular regime – and few can have been so deeply hated as Ceausescu’s – can crush an unarmed (or even lightly armed) populace so long as it has at its disposal disciplined armed forces equipped with modern weaponry. This is confirmed by recent experience in Iran and Honduras. As we have seen, the guards at the Berlin Wall were prepared to use their firearms if ordered to do so. The likely outcome is harder to predict in the case of Russia during the attempted coup of August 1991. Soldiers and commanders were unsure
what to do, but that was because with the president (Gorbachev) removed from the picture it was difficult to tell who constituted the legitimate authority – the plotters’ emergency committee, Yeltsin, or perhaps neither? (This created the possibility of civil war, as in Romania.) However, the duty to obey orders that clearly did come from a legitimate authority was never in question. Implications for the transition to socialism What implications does this have for the transition to socialism? We might hope that when conditions are ripe the capitalist class will cede power as readily as the “communist” regimes did in most of Eastern Europe. If so, all the better. But there is reason to suspect that it might not happen that way. In some respects, the transition from capitalism to socialism may be more difficult than past transitions from one type of class society to another. Members of the ruling class in one class society, be they British aristocrats or Russian bureaucrats, may accept the transition to a different class society in the expectation of being able to convert their privileges into a new form, but they can hardly hope to retain privileged status in a classless society. In the World Socialist Movement, we consider it essential to aim at a peaceful transition to socialism. This is not only because we shrink from the prospect of bloodshed, though there is no shame in that. Above all, we reckon that in any violent confrontation with the capitalist state the working class faces the near-certainty of defeat and massacre – and the odds grow steadily worse as military technology advances. It is unrealistic to count on most or all of the soldiers defecting to the
side of the revolution. Special precautions will surely be taken to insulate the armed forces from the contagion of socialist ideas and bolster their discipline – that is, their readiness to obey orders. Under these circumstances, it is a foolhardy and dangerous anachronism to conceive of the socialist revolution in terms of a popular uprising. Of course, a popular movement is essential, but that movement must constitute itself as the legitimate authority in society through the democratic capture of the state. Even then it is conceivable that some people will try to take violent action against the socialist majority, but it will be much easier to thwart such people – if necessary, by using the armed forces against them.
THINKING ABOUT SOCIALISM
The articles in this section discuss the meaning of socialism. The first article considers what “socialism” means to President Evo Morales of Bolivia. The next two articles focus on a couple of literary utopias and their creators: Thomas More in early sixteenth-century England and Alexander Bogdanov in early twentieth-century Russia. Both utopias reveal the tension between democratic and authoritarian strands within the “socialist” (or “communist”) tradition. The final article is a contibution to debate among world socialists. World socialism is often described as a society of abundance and free access to goods, made possible by eliminating the waste inherent in capitalism and by making full use of the potential of science and technology. I ask whether there may in fact be limits to abundance and free access.
Evo Morales: a call for socialism?
On 21 April, 2008, President Evo Morales of Bolivia delivered the opening address to the Seventh Session of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York. His speech included the following passage: If we want to save the planet earth, to save life and humanity, we have a
duty to put an end to the capitalist system. Unless we put an end to the capitalist system, it is impossible to imagine that there will be equality and justice on this planet earth. This is why I believe that it is important to put an end to the exploitation of human beings and to the pillage of natural resources, to put an end to destructive wars for markets and raw materials, to the plundering of energy, particularly fossil fuels, to the excessive consumption of goods and to the accumulation of waste. The capitalist system only allows us to heap up waste. I would like to propose that the trillions of money earmarked for war should be channelled to make good the damage to the environment, to make reparations to the earth. Despite the striking anti-capitalist content of most of this passage, the last sentence reveals that Morales does not have a clear conception of the socialist alternative. He still thinks in terms of the money system. The accurate way of posing the problem focuses not on the waste of money but on the waste of real resources of all kinds – the waste of nature and its bounty, of human life and labour, of knowledge and its potential. True, money represents or symbolizes some – far from all -- of these real resources, but in a very inadequate and distorted manner. To substitute the symbol for the reality is a mystification. Nevertheless, I would like to argue that Morales is a good deal closer to a true understanding of socialism than most of the so-called “left” in Latin America or elsewhere. The very fact that he is addressing a world forum about the future of the species and the planet suggests that he is seeking an alternative at the global rather than national level. Although nationalization forms part of his domestic policy (the oil and gas industry in Bolivia was nationalized in 2006), he does not equate nationalization with socialism.
In a number of interviews Morales has been asked what he and his movement – the Movement for Socialism (MAS) – understand by socialism. Thus, Heinz Dieterich of Monthly Review (July 2006) asks him what country the socioeconomic model of the MAS most closely resembles. Brazil? Cuba? Venezuela? Morales does not like the way the question is put. (“[Socialism] is something much deeper. … It is to live in community and equality.”) He talks instead about the traditional peasant commune or ayllu of the indigenous peoples of the Andes, based on communal landholding and “respect for Mother Earth.” He himself grew up in an ayllu of the Aymara people in Oruro Province; in some parts of Bolivia such communities still exist. In another interview, to journalists from Spiegel, Morales says: “There was no private property in the past. Everything was communal property. In the Indian community where I was born, everything belonged to the community. This way of life is more equitable.” As The World Socialist Review, published by our companion party in the United States, comments: “This is more than just a variation on the leftist cop-out that socialism is a goal for the distant future; it is, on some level, an acceptance of it as a real alternative to capitalism” (http://www.scribd.com/doc/2781501/WorldSocialist-Review-US-Latin-America) Another indication that Morales is closer than most of the “left” to a genuine understanding of socialism is his opposition to the Bolshevik idea of the “vanguard party.” The MAS, he tells Dieterich, “was not created by political ideologues or by a group of intellectuals, but by peasant congresses to solve the problems of the people.” It has always rejected the pretensions to “leadership” of Leninist groups of different varieties -- followers of Stalin, Trotsky, or Mariategui (a Peruvian Bolshevik who has had great
influence on the left in Latin America). Of course, Morales is not only a thinker with more or less clear ideas about capitalism and socialism. He is also head of the government of an underdeveloped country that has to operate within the parameters of a capitalist world. As such he is no position to realize his more far-reaching aspirations. At most, he has been able – like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela – to divert some of the proceeds from the sale of oil and gas to making some improvement to the life of the impoverished indigenous communities. The fact remains that an internationally known figure has stood up at the United Nations and called upon the world community to bring the capitalist system to an end. Morales’ concept of socialism may be less clear than we would like, but it does at least bear some relation to the real thing. Viewed from the time when the UN and its specialized agencies are converted into the planning and coordinating centre of world socialism, this will, perhaps, be regarded as a milestone in its history. June 2008
Socialism: class interest or human interest?
Sometimes socialists argue for socialism as being in the interest of the working class. Sometimes socialists say that socialism is in the interest of humanity as a whole. Surely there is a logical contradiction here? What about the capitalist class? Is socialism in their interest too, or is it not? I see no real contradiction. After all, what is an “interest”? The dictionaries, rather unhelpfully, tell us that an interest is a benefit or
advantage. Short-term benefit or long-term? Self-perceived advantage or advantage in some objective sense? How we understand all these words depends on how we view human beings, on what we think makes them happy or miserable. Clearly, the great majority of capitalists do consider it in their interest to preserve – and, indeed, expand – their wealth and all the privileges that go with it. What many of them value is not so much a life of luxury and indulgence (some prefer to live modestly) as power and superior status, the sensation of towering way above the common herd (see: “Why they keep piling up manure: the psychology of wealth accumulation” in Section 1). Socialist capitalists However, a minority of capitalists have been socialists. Some have made important contributions to the socialist movement. The best known is Friedrich Engels, the friend and collaborator of Karl Marx. Before Marx and Engels there was Robert Owen, whose ideas had enormous influence on socialist thinking and are still relevant today. There are quite a few others. Did these socialist capitalists see themselves as altruists sacrificing their own interests for the sake of higher ideals? Or did they think that socialism was in some sense in their own interest? No doubt the answer varies from case to case. For the writer and artist William Morris, or the writer and playwright Oscar Wilde (who inherited substantial property though he died in abject poverty), the most important things in life were beauty and creativity. From this point of view, they regarded the replacement of capitalism by socialism as being in the interest of everyone, regardless of class. In his essay The
Soul of Man Under Socialism (1891), Oscar Wilde wrote: The possession of private property is very often extremely demoralising... In fact, property is really a nuisance. It involves ... endless attention to business, endless bother... In the interest of the rich we must get rid of it... [Under socialism] nobody will waste his life in accumulating things, and the symbols for things. The interest in human survival The emergence of weapons of mass destruction and the ecological crisis have radically changed the calculus of interests. There is now a very material sense in which all people and classes have a common interest in socialism as the sole means of ensuring the survival of the human race. Unfortunately, the common interest in human survival does not eliminate the difference between the real interest of humanity and the working class and the perceived interest of the capitalist class. The interest in human survival is a relatively long-term interest, while capitalists tend to focus on the short term. This tendency was reflected in a famous riposte that the economist John Maynard Keynes once made to an argument about the long term: “In the long run we are all dead.” In other words, the fate of future generations counts for nothing. In the short term the working class bear the brunt of environmental degradation, while those who are the most responsible for causing it are the best protected from its effects. It is working class areas that are exposed to chemical and radioactive pollution from mining operations, factories, toxic waste dumps and other sources. The capitalists maintain their country estates
in idyllic, unspoilt surroundings – although even they cannot escape the ultraviolet rays that penetrate through holes in the ozone layer. In the imaginary future world of Alexander Zinoviev’s The Human Anthill, nature survives only in small enclaves that people must pay to enter, the price being such as to exclude all but the wealthy. Interests and interests So there are interests and interests. In several very important senses, socialism is certainly in the interest of every human being. In other senses socialism remains above all in the interest of the working class. Both aspects of the matter require emphasis. There is no conflict between them. April 2010
Was nowhere somewhere? More’s Utopia and the meaning of socialism
The word utopia, together with its derivatives utopian and utopianism, is a familiar part of our political vocabulary. It originated as the title of a work by the Tudor lawyer, statesman and writer Thomas More, first published in Latin in 1516 as a traveller’s description of a remote island. Utopia is a pun: it can be read either as ou-topos, Greek for ‘no place’, or as eu-topos, ‘good place’ – that is, a good place (society) that exists in the imagination.
More invented the word, but the thing it represents is much older. Plato in his Republic discussed the nature of the ideal city state. Medieval serfs took solace in the imaginary ease and plenty of the Land of Cockaigne. More’s utopia, however, is the first to embody a response to capitalist social relations, which in the early 16th century were just emerging in England and the Low Countries (in agriculture and textiles). As the first modern utopia, it has a special place in the emergence of modern socialist thought. More’s Utopia consists of two ‘books’. Book I is his account of how he came to hear of Utopia. Book II describes the Utopians’ way of life – their towns and farms, government, economy, travel, slaves, marriages, military discipline, religions. More presents his story as true fact. Henry VIII sends him to Flanders as his ambassador to settle a dispute with Spain – and we know that this is true (it was in 1515; the dispute concerned the wool trade). During a break in the negotiations he meets his young friend Peter Giles, who introduces him to an explorer, Raphael Hythloday, just back from a long voyage. There follows a long conversation between More, Giles and Hythloday. Giles and More urge Hythloday to put the vast knowledge acquired on his travels to use by entering the service of a king. Hythloday refuses, arguing that no courtier dare speak his mind or advocate wise and just policies. This exchange is thought to reflect More’s misgivings about his own career in royal service. The conversation then turns to the situation in England. They discuss the enclosure (now we call it privatisation) of common land to graze sheep, the consequent pauperisation and uprooting of the peasantry (“your sheep devour men”), the futile cruelty of hanging wretches who steal to survive, and other social ills.
This leads them to the question of remedies. Hythloday declares that the injustice, conflict and waste inherent in the power of money can be overcome only by doing away with private property. More objects that this would remove the incentive to work. (Sounds familiar?) Hythloday replies that More would think otherwise had he been with him in Utopia. Utopia is, indeed, a society without private property. Households contribute to and draw freely on common stocks of goods. Money is used only in dealings with foreign countries, while gold and jewels are regarded as baubles for children and “fools” (i.e., the mentally retarded). In these respects Utopia resembles socialism as we conceive of it. In other respects, however, it does not. Decision-making procedures are only partly democratic. A hierarchy of “magistrates” enforces draconian regulations: travel, for instance, requires official permission. The main penalty for serious transgressions is enslavement – not to individuals, of course, but to the community. Thus, there is a class of slaves who do not participate in common ownership but are themselves owned. Utopia is not a classless society. * * * Almost all critics treat More’s factual presentation as a mere literary device. They do not believe that he met an explorer while in Flanders or that he was influenced in his description of Utopia by information about real places. This is not to say that they attribute everything solely to More’s fertile imagination. They often draw connections between his ideas and the thought of Greco-Roman antiquity. In the foreword to an edition of Utopia published in 1893, William Morris even calls Utopia ‘an idealised ancient
society’. More was one of the foremost classical scholars of his day, so it is a plausible view. Yet More always maintained, even in private correspondence, that Utopia was based on fact. Was he joking? He liked a good joke. Two researchers take More at his word. It is quite possible, they argue, that he did meet an explorer who had encountered or heard about a pre-Columbian society in the Americas that served More as a prototype for Utopia. Arthur E. Morgan, an engineer who was chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority in the 1930s, takes the Inca Empire as the prototype (Nowhere was Somewhere: How History Makes Utopias and How Utopias Make History, University of North Carolina Press 1946), while the anthropologist Lorainne Stobbart identifies the Utopians with the Maya of the Yucatan Peninsula in present-day Mexico (Utopia: Fact or Fiction? The Evidence from the Americas, Alan Sutton 1992). This approach cannot be dismissed just because it has only two advocates. To detect parallels between More’s Utopia and the Incas or Maya requires knowledge that crosses disciplinary boundaries. Academic specialisation being what it is, scholars with such knowledge are few and far between. Nor is it valid to argue that Hythloday cannot represent a real person because Europeans knew nothing of the Maya or Incas at the time when More was writing Utopia (1515—16). This is true only if we accept the conventional chronology that conflates discovery with the military expeditions of the Spanish conquistadors (Cortes first landed in Yucatan in 1517; Pizarro entered Inca territory in 1526). But Morgan and Stobbart demonstrate on the basis of old maps and documents that Portuguese explorers reached the eastern shores of Central and South America as early
as the fourteenth century (Hythloday is Portuguese), while English sailors were trading with the new lands by the 1470s. Whether any of these early travellers got as far as Peru is less certain, though some may have obtained indirect information about the Incas. How closely does More’s Utopia resemble the Maya and Inca civilizations? Morgan and Stobbart detail numerous similarities in political and economic organization, dress, social customs, city layout, family life, science and art, and so on – even down to such practices as the erection of memorial pillars and ceremonial wearing of quetzal feathers. The Maya and the Incas, like the Utopians, used money only in foreign trade and had common stores from which officials distributed produce (except that, in contrast to Utopia, it was rationed). It is extremely unlikely that so many close parallels should arise purely by chance. But there are also important differences. The most telling criticism made against these authors is that they obscure a wide gap in social structure between the aristocratic autocracies of the Maya and the Incas and the basically democratic governance of More’s Utopia (see George Logan’s review of Stobbart in Moreana, June 1994). It is therefore doubtful whether Utopia is a direct representation of any specific pre-Columbian society. Nevertheless, More’s account does probably reflect the influence of knowledge of such societies that he had somehow acquired, possibly from a Portuguese explorer he met in Flanders. * * * This conclusion has implications for our understanding of the development of socialist ideas. For it means that a seminal work of modern
socialist thought bears the imprint of archaic societies that though not based on private property were far removed from the classless democracy of genuine socialism. The Maya and Inca social systems are strikingly ‘pure’ examples of what Marx called the ‘Asiatic mode of production’. In this mode, a royal bureaucracy extracts and redistributes surplus from pre-existing peasant communes and directs public works. The monarch is considered the owner of land and resources. The word ‘Asiatic’ does not, of course, fit the New World context (Marx had mainly India in mind). Karl Wittfogel, stressing the centrality of water management, coined the term ‘hydraulic mode of production’. Or we might call it the pre-industrial bureaucratic mode of production. Louis Baudin paints a vivid picture of what it was like to live under this system in his Daily Life in Peru under the Last Incas (Macmillan, 1961). It was a hard life for the common people, but their basic necessities were supplied: a small dwelling, two woollen garments each when they marry, a patch of land, relief in the event of local famine. They were more fortunate in this regard than poor people were in More’s England – or than they themselves would be after the Spanish conquest. But they were victims of class exploitation nonetheless. It is understandable that the Incas and the Maya should have appealed to early European critics of capitalism. Theirs, however, was not the only alternative model that the pre-Columbian Americas offered to the reign of private property. The New World was also home to the much more egalitarian ‘primitive communism’ of peoples like the Iroquois who so fascinated the 19th-century anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan and through him Engels and Marx, influencing their conception of ‘advanced
communism’. * * * More’s utopia is a sort of compromise between the democratic and authoritarian-bureaucratic conceptions of communal life. He omits important information that would help us clarify the nature of the society that he is portraying. In particular, how are the higher officials appointed or elected? (We know that lower-level officials are elected.) Do they have material privileges? Does Utopia have an aristocracy of any kind? I interpret this ambiguity in light of More’s general attitude toward the lower classes. He felt genuine compassion for the suffering of the poor. This is clear not only from the sentiments he expresses through his alter ego Hythloday, but also from his reputation as an upright and honest judge and official. He did not take bribes from the rich and he patronised the poor. By the standards of his day and age, he was open-minded and tolerant. He belonged to the same social type as that other upright and honest official, his near-contemporary in Ming China, Hai Rui. But More, like Hai Rui, was no rebel. He was a “good servant” of God and king, a member of the ruling class with a strong belief in order and hierarchy. His ideal was not the fully democratic self-administration of society, which he could hardly imagine, but rather paternalistic “good government” by upright and honest officials like himself. * * * So what shall we make of More’s Utopia? It is, to be sure, an eloquent
critique of the cruelty and perversity of capitalism, all the more remarkable for having been written at a time when that system had scarcely bared its fangs. However, More – although he envisages the abolition of money – does not provide a picture of what we now mean by socialism. But then that could hardly have been expected of him. July 2009
Bogdanov, technocracy and socialism
The terms “Bolshevism” and “Leninism” are usually treated as synonyms. In view of Lenin’s enormous influence over the Bolshevik party, that might seem fair enough. But in fact Lenin did have political and intellectual rivals inside his own party. The most important of these non-Leninist Bolsheviks was Alexander Bogdanov (1873—1928). Bogdanov was a man of many talents and interests. His formal training was in medicine and psychiatry. He invented an original philosophy that he called “tectology” and is now regarded as a precursor of systems theory (synergetics). He was also a Marxian economist, a theorist of culture, a popular science fiction writer, and of course a political activist. Even today most of his work is not available in English. The only book devoted to him is Zenovia Sochor’s study of his ideas about culture (Revolution and Culture: The Bogdanov-Lenin Controversy, Cornell University Press 1988). A volume of Bogdanov’s science fiction has, however, appeared in English (Red Star: The First Bolshevik Utopia, translated by Charles Rougle
and edited by Loren R. Graham and Richard Stites, Indiana University Press 1984). Here we have two novels set on Mars (Red Star and Engineer Menni), a poem “A Martian Stranded on Earth,” and interpretative essays by each of the editors. Red Star recounts how Martians take the Russian Bolshevik Leonid to their home planet to learn about the communist society there and act as a link between earth and Mars. Engineer Menni is also set on Mars, but at an earlier stage, shortly before the transition from capitalism to communism. Menni’s mission in life is to design Mars’ great canals—it was widely believed at the time that there are canals on Mars—and organize and manage their construction. * * * Both Russian and Western commentators have called Bogdanov an advocate of “technocracy” and the promoter of a “cult of the engineer.” Thus Richard Stites speaks of his “celebration of technocratic power [and] the technical intelligentsia.” On the surface this assessment seems justified. Engineer Menni was popular among Soviet planners at the time of the first Five Year Plan, and Menni is certainly a heroic figure with whom any aspiring technocrat might readily identify. But you do not have to search very hard to find evidence that suggests a different assessment. In Red Star Bogdanov presents communist Mars as a society beset by serious problems—by no means a utopia. Technology is a major source of these problems. Leonid discovers, for instance, that some workers are so mesmerized by the machinery they operate that they refuse to stop working and have to be forced to rest. And Nella, Menni’s abandoned lover, sings a song in which she complains that for all his virtues Menni is
lacking in compassion: His heart is of ice, no pain does it feel For the creatures brought low by Fate… The tears of the wretches cast into the fray Warm not his heart of stone. The Martian political system portrayed in Red Star—little explicit detail is provided—does indeed seem to be technocratic rather than democratic. Thus, the speakers at a conference convened to consider Martian colonization of earth are an astronautical engineer, a physician, and a mathematician (who argues in favor of annihilating all earthlings and is later killed by a distraught Leonid). Martians in managerial positions move around in flying “gondolas” that do not seem to be available to ordinary Martians. (If they were, air traffic control would be a nightmare.) This is not a society that I would wish to call socialist or communist even though the exchange of commodities has been abolished and production is for use. In Engineer Menni we find a clue as to why the revolution has given birth to a technocratic society. A workers’ delegate at a trade union congress bemoans the fact that the workers’ ignorance prevents them from judging matters for themselves and puts them at the mercy of experts, whom they have no choice but to believe. Both Bogdanov’s fiction and his political writings as presented by Sochor suggest that he expected the coming revolution against capitalism to lead to a technocratic society. This was because the workers lacked the knowledge and initiative to seize control of social affairs for themselves. One reason for this situation was the hierarchical and authoritarian nature of
the capitalist production process. Another was the hierarchical and authoritarian mode of organization of the Bolshevik party, although Bogdanov considered such organization necessary and inevitable—he was a Bolshevik, after all. This, however, was not a prospect that Bogdanov welcomed or idealized. He knew that real socialism (or communism) could only be a fully democratic society. And he knew that only a highly cultured and knowledgeable working class could achieve real socialism. That is why questions of culture and education were so central to his thought and work. The emphasis on knowledge and understanding as prerequisites for real socialism (as opposed to technocratic pseudo-socialism) is common ground that he shares with us in the world socialist movement. While Bogdanov remained loyal to the Bolshevik regime in Russia until the end of his life, his ideas were deeply subversive of the society over which that regime presided. Bogdanov’s ideas were the inspiration for a dissident group called “Workers’ Truth” that was active for a time in the early 1920s (although it appears that Bogdanov did not have personal ties with them). In their manifesto, “Workers’ Truth” declared that the old bourgeoisie had been replaced as masters of production by “the technical intelligentsia under state capitalism.” The Communist Party had become the party of this intelligentsia, which was the nucleus of a rising new bourgeoisie. April 2007
Free access to what? Some problems of consumption in socialism
We say that socialism will be “a society of free access.” However, one obvious but rarely clarified question is: free access to what? Even if everything produced is made freely available to people, how will the range of goods and services to be supplied be determined? One answer might be: if producing a thing is technically possible and if someone somewhere wants it, then it will be supplied. But most people might feel that a single individual should not have so much leverage over others’ work. A rule might be established that a new product will be supplied once a certain number of people have registered a request for it. The number of requests required could vary, depending (say) on the difficulties involved in providing the new product, but also on how essential it was to those asking for it. Thus, specialised medications and prosthetics would surely be prepared even for very small numbers of people suffering from rare conditions – something that capitalist firms are reluctant to do because it is unlikely to yield a profit. However, it is possible that socialist society may decide, either by a formal procedure or spontaneously, not to produce certain things even if quite a few people want them. Such decisions might be made for a variety of reasons, good and not so good. First, the majority may vote against producing certain goods on the grounds that they endanger the consumer and/or other people. Examples might include guns for hunting, explosives for demolition, porn, and highly addictive substances (which might be made available only through treatment programmes). Conceivably, majorities might go too far and refuse to
authorise some goods and services on vague and inadequate grounds such as being “inconsistent with socialist values.” Second, the production of certain goods may be judged too unpleasant or dangerous, to producers or to local residents, even after all possible safety precautions have been taken. Consider bird’s nest soup, a delicacy treasured by gourmets for its supposed medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. Collectors stand on bamboo scaffolding to harvest swifts’ nests from high up on cave walls, at considerable risk to their lives. Capitalism resolves such conflicts of interest in favour of the consumer because people will do just about anything to survive. But members of socialist society, like the wealthy of today, will be free of economic duress: their needs will be met as of right. This will not undermine their willingness to work, but they are likely to be rather picky in choosing the work they do. Few miners (to take a more important example) will be keen to go on working underground. Whether or not society adopts a formal decision to abolish the most unpleasant kinds of work, people will “vote with their feet”. The issue is how society reacts. Unless people can be induced to continue temporarily with work they want to leave, society may have to accept the situation and adjust to the resulting change in the range of products available. * * * What about goods that may not be dangerous to consume or produce but do incorporate large amounts of labour, energy, and materials, with a correspondingly large environmental impact? Will socialist society ensure free access to luxury goods like those currently consumed by the wealthy –
for instance, the “off road vehicle” sold as a boys’ toy by Harrods (see http://www.harrods.com)? It may be objected that the members of socialist society will not want to ape the lifestyle of the idle rich under capitalism. However, a demand for highly intricate products need have nothing to do with frivolous selfindulgence. It may arise from a spreading interest in artistic self-expression and scientific exploration. There may be numerous amateur scientists clamouring for the latest sophisticated equipment for their home labs. Will socialist society provide free access to electron microscopes? Or to space travel for the millions of people who dream of venturing into outer space? (At present the Russian Space Agency offers trips to the International Space Station for $1 million.) There is also a class of “locational” goods that can never be supplied in abundance because they are tied to specific locations. Whatever precautions are taken, for example, the number of tourists allowed into nature reserves must be restricted if ecologically sensitive habitats are not to be degraded. Another knotty question is how the principle of free access is to be applied in the sphere of housing. One of the top priorities when socialism is established will be to replace substandard housing stock so that everyone has access to spacious and comfortable housing. Presumably certain standards will be set for new residential construction – quite high ones, no doubt. But surely the new housing will not be as spacious and luxurious as the most expensive residences under capitalism. People will not have free access to their own marble palaces. In short, for certain categories of goods and services free access is bound to be infeasible, certainly in the early stages of socialist society and
possibly even in its maturity. The real choice in these cases is between nonprovision and restricted provision. So alongside free access stores, there may be restricted access outlets for various kinds of specialised goods, perhaps using some sort of coupon system. It is conceivable that socialist society will decide that things that cannot – for whatever reason – be produced in abundance should not be produced at all. Such a decision would have obvious disadvantages, but it would preserve the principle of “free access to what has been produced” and avoid the difficult problems associated with restricting access, such as enforcement. However, we can envision restricted access arrangements that socialist society is much more likely to find acceptable and on which it may, indeed, extensively rely. People may have free access to many facilities at local and regional centres but without the option of taking equipment home. Museums and art galleries that do not charge for entry exemplify this kind of arrangement. Similarly, there could be community centres equipped for specialised cuisine, exercise and sports, arts and music making, and scientific exploration. There could also be depots where people have access to specialised goods – for instance, do-it-yourself and gardening equipment, and also motor vehicles – on a borrow-and-return basis, as in libraries. The staff at these depots would also maintain the equipment in good working order and provide advice and assistance as needed. This would be much more efficient than keeping machines like lawn mowers at home, where they stand unused 99% of the time. To sum up, it would be wrong to play down the scope that socialism offers for the solution of our problems. Enormous resources will be freed up
when we get rid of the waste inherent in capitalism. But the new society will face urgent tasks that will also be daunting in their enormity. It is hard to judge which enormity is likely to be the greater. Socialists should not assume that socialism will quickly solve all the problems inherited from the past, and need to think about socialism – and especially its crucial early stages – in a practical and realistic spirit. July 2007
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