Tuesday, 31 August 2010

In Defence of Dawkins

Following on from yesterday's post there was a letter from a local religious nut attacking Dawkins, and Evolution in our local evening paper a couple of years ago at around the time of the furore over the Danish Cartoons. That is an illustration of the point I was making about the fact that opening the door to religious intolerance for one group, means that all the other religious zealots will attempt to barge their way through too. The following is a copy of a letter I sent in reply at the time.

Dear Sir,

Your correspondent Brian Ball criticises Professor Richard Dawkins’ recent TV programme “Religion – The Root of All Evil.”

Mr. Ball accuses Dawkins of quoting selectively he says,

“As you rightly say, in Genesis 22, God tested Abraham by telling him to sacrifice his son, Isaac, to see how much he loved Him. You may think this is sick for God to do this, yet don' t we test each other, our families and our own friends to see how much they love us? “

Well yes, I do think it is sick, and no I have never tested my family to see how much they loved me. I would think you would need to be a rather strange and insecure person to do so. Is Mr. Ball telling us that God is insecure, that maybe he has done things which might cause His “children” not to love him? Moreover, I would ask your readers whether even were they to test the love of their families would they do so by asking them to kill their children??? I would suggest that anyone capable of making such a request is no fit parent, and needs treatment for their evil and sadistic tendencies. What does this tell us about both this God, and the man he chose as the Father of the Chosen Few. First of all what does it tell us about Abraham? That he was a man prepared to butcher children based on voices he heard in his head. Didn’t Ian Brady and Myra Hyndley do something similar, are they the kind of people Mr. Ball wants to put up to us as examples of how to live a good life? Secondly, what does it tell us about this God. That the kind of people he wanted as his followers were people capable of butchering children!!! Surely, this cannot be the same God of Jesus Christ. And perhaps it is not, for Mr. Ball admits that there is more than one God, he just wants to support one of them rather than any of the others. Given the kind of sadistic tendencies this God demonstrates I think Mr. Ball has chosen badly. Mr. Ball’s statement that God wouldn’t have let Abraham do it is no defence, as the request in itself is an act of evil and perversion. Mr. Ball has a further problem here. He tells us that God did this to test whether Abraham loved him. Why would an omnipotent God need to do that? Being omnipotent he would know whether Abraham loved him or not, and would know whether or not he would do what was asked of him. If he did not know these things then he could not be omnipotent, and if he was not omnipotent then he was not God at all but a fraud.

The same kind of problem arises with Dawkins example of the Pauline doctrine of original sin. According to St.Paul, Jesus dies in order that God could forgive mankind. But an omnipotent God could have forgiven mankind without putting himself/his son through all this torture and pain. He could have simply said, “I forgive you.” As Dawkins points out, for someone to put themselves/their son through such unnecessary pain and suffering is a sign of sadomasochistic tendencies. Does Mr. Ball want us to believe in a God that is a sadomasochist? But, in fact, the doctrine, along with the story of the resurrection, is a construct of St. Paul written several hundred years after the crucifixion. Certainly, in the teachings of the original Disciples there is no mention of the miraculous resurrection, something you would have thought they might have commented upon. The closest Disciple to Jesus was Mary Magdalen, who was probably his wife. The teachings of Mary Magdalen are in stark contrast to those of Paul. But, there again, we know that, in the power struggle, after Jesus’ death, (or more likely his escape along the Silk road to Shrinegar in Kashmir where he is probably buried) the other Disciples and Peter, in particular, tried to push Mary out. They and their followers went so far as to deliberately confuse her with Mary the prostitute in order to blacken her name. Only recently has the Catholic Church admitted to that, and apologised for it.

Mr. Ball continues.

“Richard then goes on to mention the story in Judges 19 - again not telling the whole story. Yes, the Jews did have a custom where they treated their visitors with a lot of respect, and were required to protect them as much as they could. Yet giving his own daughter and his visitors' mistress to the men, who wanted to have sex with the male guest, would not have been condoned by God”

But here it is Mr. Ball who quotes selectively. Last year, I was a bit bored, when on holiday, and began reading the Bible again from the beginning. I noticed, shall we say, a few anomalies and began making some notes. By the time I had got to the end of Exodus I gave up because I had pages and pages of contradictions, of clearly ridiculous statements, let alone examples of the kind of atrocious attitudes given by Dawkins above. In most cases, these actions were carried out by the very people that the Old Testament sets up as supposed examples of how to lead a good life. We have, for example, a number of cases where Abraham (chosen by God for his willingness to slaughter children) palms off his wife to other men as being his sister, in much the same way as the example given by Dawkins above. In fact, these are illustrative, because the writers of the story obviously forgot they had told it once, and then used it again in another setting. In other words, Abraham of whom in Genesis 28:14 God says “….and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be Blessed”, basically acts as a pimp for his wife. Later on, again obviously forgetting what they had written earlier, they describe Sarah as actually being Abraham’s sister, which means that he was living in an incestuous relationship with her. In Genesis 20:1 to 20:8 where Abraham palms off Sarah to the King of Gerar as being his sister, in order to save his own neck, what is God’s response? Does God punish Abraham for this act of wickedness? No he punishes the poor duped king!! A look at the genealogy given of Abraham’s father Terah also gives further evidence of the confusion the writers got themselves into as far as Sarah’s relationship to Abraham.

Or take the laws supposed to have been handed down by God to Moses. Does God see all of his children as equal in these laws? We read in Exodus 21:12,

“He who strikes a man so that he dies shall surely be put to death.”

However, things were not the same if you happened to be a slave or servant. We read in 21:20

“And if a man beats his male or female servant with a rod, so that he dies under his hand he shall surely be punished (i.e. not put to death).”

Even then,

“Notwithstanding, if he remains alive a day or two he shall not be punished, for he is his property.”

And although we find in 21:32 that a person, whose ox killed someone, could be killed this did not apply if the person killed was a slave. Then the ox owner merely had to compensate the slave owner for loss of property. Why would a fair and compassionate God write such laws that treated slaves and freemen differently? Because these laws like everything else in the Bible were not written by God, they were written by human beings, written hundreds, and in the case of the Old Testament thousands, of years after the events they are supposed to describe. The words it contains are no more the Word of God than the words on the back of a Corn Flakes packet. The Ten Commandments were basically laws to protect the property of the rich.

Why any Christian would want to uphold the barbarous philosophy of the Old Testament is beyond me. Jesus Christ didn’t spend much time doing so, and his philosophy of tolerance and compassion stands in stark contrast to the hatred and intolerance spewed out on virtually every page of the Old Testament. But then as recent studies have shown Christ was almost certainly educated in the teaching of the Buddha during his youth in India, and Christ’s teaching in many parts are almost word for word copies of the teachings of Buddhism, which predates Christianity by 500 years, and a far cry from the barbarism of the Old Testament philosophy.

Finally, Mr. Ball says,

“I felt I needed to send this letter in for one reason - because there are a lot of people out there who don' t know The Bible, and have been totally mislead and misinformed by Richard Dawkins. A backlash, I feel, due to his Evolution Theory being blown out of the water.”

I think that it is because many people have not read the Bible critically that people like Mr. Ball can make the statements they do, quoting from it selectively and avoiding the contradictions and ridiculous statements made on virtually every page of the Old Testament. As for Mr. Ball’s last statement that the Theory of Evolution has been blown out of the water, that can only be described for what it is, an outright lie. The Theory of Evolution is backed by probably the greatest amount of documented evidence of any scientific theory in any sphere. The Creation myth is supported by none, and everything we know about the history of the Earth and the development of life on it shows it to be a ridiculous story, and nothing more. Even the Catholic Church accepts Evolution as the explanation of the development of life on Earth, and to be compatible with Catholic belief. The only people who believe in Creationism are a few ignorant bigots. Even the advocates of Intelligent Design do not try to defend the notion that the Earth was created in 6 days, or that Man was created out of the dust. The only thing Creationists can point to is words in a book written over a very long period of time, by many different people each with their own axe to grind, and interests to further. But of course, there are other people of a similar bent who believe that the words contained in their Holy Books are the words of their one true God, and can hold this belief with equal validity, or lack thereof. Muslims with the Quran, for example. In fact the Moonies could just as legitimately claim that the words of the Reverend Moon are the words of God transmitted to him. It is because each of these different groups of religious fanatics can equally claim that they and only they have the monopoly of truth that Dawkins can rightly point to the evil nature of religion in promoting conflict.

Even the more refined version of Creationism – Intelligent Design – has been shown to be hokum, its proponents little better than snake oil salesmen. In a recent Court case in the US the proponents of ID put forward their arguments, and supposed evidence. On every count evolutionary scientists completely dismantled their arguments and their evidence. The court decided, in crushing terms for the supporters of ID, that it was not scientific, that its propositions did not hold water, and that it was religion not science.

Without the theory of evolution we would have no chance of fighting such things as the threat of Bird Flu, a virus which, like all forms of life, evolves and changes to best suit its environment, as the theory of Evolution predicts. Or does Mr. Ball want to tell us that the Bird Flu virus, which might kill hundreds of thousands of innocent children, is a new creature created by God that he is sending to cause yet more death and destruction to sinners and innocents alike? Like all scientific theories Evolution is open to question and development. That is the difference between science and religion. Science is inherently democratic, it encourages dissent, questioning and thereby development and greater knowledge. Religion is totalitarian. It tells people what to think, what to believe, and allows no questioning, no development, no possibility of greater knowledge. In a world where greater knowledge and understanding is vital for human survival, where the ability to question ideas needs to be welcomed, rather than insistence on a given truth, which leads to conflicts with others beliefs, then Dawkins is right religion is the root of evil.

Monday, 30 August 2010

Creationists On the March

I have been watching the More4 series of programmes by Richard Dawkins taking on the ideas of organised religion. Over recent years the Left has had a problem with religion. For a long time, after the defeat of the religious Right in Britain in the 1960's over their attempts to retain censorship, and maintain medieval laws on blasphemy, fought out in the Courts over Lady Chatterley, and Gay News, we thought that one of the basic elements of bourgeois democracy, the right to Free Speech had been well entrenched. Moreover, as even the basic elements of Education provided by the Capitalist Education system, and the context of a modern industrialised society, in which the basic tenets of science were absorbed by the mass of population were enough to lead the vast majority of people to recognise that the words contained in a Book written by a number of different authors more than 2000 years ago, were not an adequate explanation of how the Earth had been created, or how Man and other animals had developed. In fact, for many it gave rise to the necessary question - if that bit of the Bible was not true, why believe any of the rest of it?

As if to emphasise that fact, even the religious leaders, and the teachers of religion in school, found themselves in a quandary of how to respond to such questions, when the body of evidence for science was so great, and their own beliefs so unsupportable. They shifted ground to argue that the Bible had to be read as allegory rather than literal truth. Even the "Gospel Truth", was apparently now only relative.

But, it is a good lesson that nothing ever progresses in a straight line, and even ground won that seems solidly defended, can come under attack, unless it is regularly maintained, reinforced, and seen as a bastion from which to move forward. I remember when I first left school coming up against a lay preacher in the Town Hall where I was working, and he was a fundamentalist. At first, I found confronting his ideas a bit of a novelty, but ultimately they are a bit like the trolls, who frequent the Internet. In order to have a rational discussion there have to be certain rules for debate. The troll, and the fundamentalist are different. The troll has no fixed views, or if they do they do not form the basis of their trolling activity, which is merely to engage in argument for the sake of argument, and to prolong such debates for as long as possible, by whatever means possible. The fundamentalist does have fixed views. But what they share is a closed mind. The former is not interested in an exchange of views only arguing, the latter is not interested in an exchange of views either, but only conveying theirs. Both will defend their position by similar means, essentially just denying any truth put to them, whilst asserting their truth without any credible evidence.

A few years later, when I was teaching I had a worse experience, as a number of apprentices I had in a class were Pentecostalists, and as a teacher I could not just walk away from a class discussion with them, simply on the basis that there was no rational basis for discussion with people who will reject any evidence no matter how strong, and simply assert in its place there own prejudices. In the US, as Dawkins programmes demonstrates this is a problem, in a way that it is not here - yet. The scientist Craig Ventner, whose company decoded the human genome, said in a lecture a year or so ago that it was ironic that the US is the most technologically advanced country on the planet by far, and yet around 40% of its population still believe that Man walked with dinosaurs, and that the planet is less than 10,000 years old, a belief they hold to as a result of holding the Bible to be absolute truth. In parts of the US, teachers are physically hounded out if they teach Evolution and real science in schools.

In Britain, despite the State encouraging the development of Faith Schools, financed by rich religious zealots, such views are still a small minority. But, minorities can become majorities. The Lefts problems have been further enhanced as a result of its own bankrupt politics. Having failed to build a revolutionary Party based in the working class, and having cut itself off from the existing Workers Party, the left in its search for new recruits dedicated itself not to the struggle for Socialism, but a struggle against Capitalism, and what was seen to be its Evil Twin, Imperialism. As a consequence sections of the left such as but not only the SWP accommodated themselves to some of the most reactionary political forces on the Planet, in the form of various clerical-fascist governments, and movements, solely on the basis of a spurious "anti-imperialism". These forces may not have been worse than the Christian clerical-fascists in the US, who adopted their own forms of terrorism against those they opposed such as the doctors performing abortions, or the homosexuals. But, having given the forces of Political-Islam such Left cover, the advance of those forces, the challenge to Free Speech that they brought forward, acted to also provide cover for the other religious zealots to put their heads above the parapet too. If blasphemy against Mohammed was not to be allowed, then why should it be allowed against Jesus?

I agree people should be free to believe whatever nonsense they like. Galileo should have been free to argue his viewpoint after all when the majority of the planet thought he was a nutter. The problem, however, seems to me to be this. We are socialists, Marxists even, we have a view not just of how the world is, but how it should be. We do not wish just to have the right to hold those beliefs, but to convince others that they are correct. That means also then creating a world and society according to those values. In that world people might be free to hold whatever beliefs they continued to have, but the dominant view would prevail.

Someone who continued to believe that freedom could only be achieved through a free market for instance might be free to put that into practice in terms of employing themselves or maybe even a few other people, but many Marxists (I wouldn't be amongst them) would see it as the function of the state to prevent such people from say owning a large enterprise that exploited workers.

In short what I am saying is that if you have a world view the whole point is that if you hold it sincerely then you DO want it to be put into practice, and not want it to be something you just take out to read every so often. The problem secularists are now having with religion is that for a long time they have got used to religionists being hypocrites, people who hold their religious beliefs as a token, who even at the highest levels of the Church have effectively given in to Science, and compromised their beliefs. It is the shock of now confronting people who assert their beliefs, and their right to try to structure a world according to those beliefs as determinedly as socialists put forward their beliefs and try to create a world according to them.

Socialists would be appalled if anyone suggested that they should not try to implement their beliefs in practice, so why should socialists expect religionists to be any less appalled. This makes the answer difficult. No secularist wants to allow religionists to impose their views on society, but to deny the right to put those views into practice sets a dangerous precedent for socialists. Just as legitimately could a bourgeois society refuse to allow socialists to put its views into practice, could argue against the formation of Trade Unions, Co-operative organisations etc. or any other practical application of socialist ideas.

The answer must surely be not to look at measures which effectively amount to censorship and limitation of freedom, but to once and for all destroy the arguments upon which the religionists stand.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

Concessions Or Conveniences - Part 4

Part 4 – Political Concessions?

“The French Revolution of 1848 saved the English middle class. The Socialistic pronunciamentos of the victorious French workmen frightened the small middle class of England and disorganised the narrower, but more matter-of-fact movement of the English working class. At the very moment when Chartism was bound to assert itself in its full strength, it collapsed internally before even it collapsed externally, on the 10th of April, 1848. The action of the working class was thrust into the background. The capitalist class triumphed along the whole line.

“The Reform Bill of 1831 had been the victory of the whole capitalist class over the landed aristocracy. The repeal of the Corn Laws was the victory of the manufacturing capitalist not only over the landed aristocracy, but over those sections of capitalists, too, whose interests were more or less bound up with the landed interest-bankers, stockjobbers, fundholders, etc. Free Trade meant the readjustment of the whole home and foreign, commercial and financial policy of England in accordance with the interests of the manufacturing capitalists — the class which now [These words belong apparently not to Bright but to his adherents. See The Quarterly Review, Vol. 71, No. 141, p. 273.-Ed.] represented the nation. And they set about this task with a will. Every obstacle to industrial production was mercilessly removed. The tariff and the whole system of taxation were revolutionised. Everything was made subordinate to one end, but that end of the utmost importance to the manufacturing capitalist: the cheapening of all raw produce, and especially of the means of living of the working class; the reduction of the cost of raw material, and the keeping down – if not as yet the bringing down - of wages. England was to become the ‘workshop of the world’; all other countries were to become for England what Ireland already was-markets for her manufactured goods, supplying her in return with raw materials and food. England, the great manufacturing centre of an agricultural world, with an ever-increasing number of corn and cotton-growing Irelands revolving around her, the industrial sun. What a glorious prospect!

“The manufacturing capitalists set about the realisation of this their great object with that strong common sense and that contempt for traditional principles which has ever distinguished them from their more narrow-minded compeers on the Continent. Chartism was dying out. The revival of commercial prosperity, natural after the revulsion of 1847 had spent itself, was put down altogether to the credit of Free Trade. Both these circumstances had turned the English working class, politically, into the tail of the ‘great Liberal Party’, the party led by the manufacturers. This advantage, once gained, had to be perpetuated. And the manufacturing capitalists, from the Chartist opposition, not to Free Trade, but to the transformation of Free Trade into the one vital national question, had learnt, and were learning more and more, that the middle class can never obtain full social and political power over the nation except by the help of the working class. Thus a gradual change came over the relations between both classes. The Factory Acts, once the bugbear of all manufacturers, were not only willingly submitted to, but their expansion into acts regulating almost all trades was tolerated. Trades Unions, hitherto considered inventions of the devil himself, were now petted and patronised as perfectly legitimate institutions, and as useful means of spreading sound economical doctrines amongst the workers. Even strikes, than which nothing had been more nefarious up to 1848, were now gradually found out to be occasionally very useful, especially when provoked by the masters themselves, at their own time. Of the legal enactments, placing the workman at a lower level or at a disadvantage with regard to the master, at least the most revolting were repealed. And, practically, that horrid People’s Charter actually became the political programme of the very manufacturers who had opposed it to the last. The Abolition of the Property Qualification and Vote by Ballot are now the law of the land. The Reform Acts of 1867 and 1884 make a near approach to universal suffrage, at least such as it now exists in Germany; the Redistribution Bill now before Parliament creates equal electoral districts-on the whole not more unequal than those of France or Germany; payment of members, and shorter, if not actually annual Parliaments, are visibly looming in the distanceand yet there are people who say that Chartism is dead.”

(Preface To The Second German Edition of “The Condition Of The Working Class."_

Here, in fact, we see the key to understanding some current events. The increasing dominance since WWII of the giant, multi-national, capitalist has meant that an increasing division within capital itself has arisen, similar to that described above by Engels. In many ways, the interests of this big capital are best served by the traditional politics of Social Democracy, which promote those ideas of social harmony, and which, at the same time, creates the conditions, through state intervention of the kinds of working-class that this capital requires. Only at times of severe crisis does this capital turn to the more traditional bourgeois parties. Those parties, now, in fact, represent, ideologically not this big capital, but reflect the interests of those more backward elements, the small capitalists, who, as Engels describes, can only survive on the back of those penny-pinching devices, and extraction of absolute surplus value, that big capital now sees as an encumbrance. Yet, in a bourgeois democracy, the achievement of political power is determined not directly by the power of big capital, which continues to dominate the state, but by an electorate whose ideas will be determined by a whole range of influences outside the control of that big capital. Hence we have the policies of right-wing, populist governments across Europe which threaten to throw the capitalist economy into an unnecessary crisis, that is not in the interests of big capital, but which plays to the immediate concerns of the small capitalists, middle class, and backward sections of workers that make up the electoral support for those Governments.

Similarly, in the US, Obama#s healthcare policies are themselves in that social-democratic tradition, and geared to meeting the needs of US big capital, which has been crippled in international competition, as a result of the massive payments it has had to make to cover the insurance and pension costs of its employees – greater, in many cases, for its retired workforce, than the actual wage bill. Small capital in the US, for the reasons Engels sets out here, has been the main bulwark of opposition to Obama's plans, precisely because it has been able to avoid making such payments. Its smaller, less well organised workforce has been unable to negotiate the kinds of health insurance that big capital has provided for its workers. Even some large companies, such as Wal-Mart, have refused to provide workers with cover, instead happy for their workers to rely on the existing socialised healthcare provision, and in the process provoking the ire of their larger competitors. In short, Obama's healthcare proposals, particularly in their more radical earlier versions of a “Public Option”, are not at all concessions to workers, but merely a convenience for big capital.

Workers should be aware of this in order to avoid being conned into believing that such conveniences for capital, are in any sense concessions won from it.

Concessions Or Conveniences - Part 3

Part 3 – The Crafty Bastards

An example, of how clever Capital is in doing this, is the extent to which the demands outlined in the Communist Manifesto were simply adopted by it, and implemented. Of course, its also an indication that the demands listed in it, were far from Communist, but merely a statement of Radical Liberalism, reflective of Marx and Engels political development at the time.

Engels himself was not slow to recognise this fact. In this passage, he demonstrates how capital had begun to adopt this method as early as the second half of the 19th Century. The overwhelming feeling you get in reading it is, what a bunch of clever, cunning, crafty bastards they are.

“The state of things described in this book belongs to-day, in many respects, to the past, as far as England is concerned. Though not expressly stated in our recognised treatises, it is still a law of modern Political Economy that the larger the scale on which capitalistic production is carried on, the less can it support the petty devices of swindling and pilfering which characterise its early stages. The pettifogging business tricks of the Polish Jew, the representative in Europe of commerce in its lowest stage, those tricks that serve him so well in his own country, and are generally practised there, he finds to be out of date and out of place when he comes to Hamburg or Berlin; and, again, the commission agent who hails from Berlin or Hamburg, Jew or Christian, after frequenting the Manchester Exchange for a few months, finds out that in order to buy cotton yarn or cloth cheap, he, too, had better drop those slightly more refined but still miserable wiles and subterfuges which are considered the acme of cleverness in his native country. The fact is, those tricks do not pay any longer in a large market, where time is money, and where a certain standard of commercial morality is unavoidably developed, purely as a means of saving time and trouble. And it is the same with the relation between the manufacturer and his “hands.”

The revival of trade, after the crisis of 1847, was the dawn of a new industrial epoch. The repeal of the Corn Laws[1] and the financial reforms subsequent thereon gave to English industry and commerce all the elbow-room they had asked for. The discovery of the Californian and Australian gold-fields followed in rapid succession. The colonial markets developed at an increasing rate their capacity for absorbing English manufactured goods. In India millions of hand-weavers were finally crushed out by the Lancashire power-loom. China was more and more being opened up. Above all, the United States — then, commercially speaking, a mere colonial market, but by far the biggest of them all — underwent an economic development astounding even for that rapidly progressive country. And, finally, the new means of communication introduced at the close of the preceding period — railways and ocean steamers — were now worked out on an international scale; they realised actually what had hitherto existed only potentially, a world-market. This world-market, at first, was composed of a number of chiefly or entirely agricultural countries grouped around one manufacturing centre — England which consumed the greater part of their surplus raw produce, and supplied them in return with the greater part of their requirements in manufactured articles. No wonder England’s industrial progress was colossal and unparalleled, and such that the status of 1844 now appears to us as comparatively primitive and insignificant. And in proportion as this increase took place, in the same proportion did manufacturing industry become apparently moralised. The competition of manufacturer against manufacturer by means of petty thefts upon the workpeople did no longer pay. Trade had outgrown such low means of making money; they were not worth while practising for the manufacturing millionaire, and served merely to keep alive the competition of smaller traders, thankful to pick up a penny wherever they could. Thus the truck system was suppressed, the Ten Hours’ Bill [2] was enacted, and a number of other secondary reforms introduced — much against the spirit of Free Trade and unbridled competition, but quite as much in favour of the giant-capitalist in his competition with his less favoured brother. Moreover, the larger the concern, and with it the number of hands, the greater the loss and inconvenience caused by every conflict between master and men; and thus a new spirit came over the masters, especially the large ones, which taught them to avoid unnecessary squabbles, to acquiesce in the existence and power of Trades’ Unions, and finally even to discover in strikes — at opportune times — a powerful means to serve their own ends. The largest manufacturers, formerly the leaders of the war against the working-class, were now the foremost to preach peace and harmony. And for a very good reason. The fact is that all these concessions to justice and philanthropy were nothing else but means to accelerate the concentration of capital in the hands of the few, for whom the niggardly extra extortions of former years had lost all importance and had become actual nuisances; and to crush all the quicker and all the safer their smaller competitors, who could not make both ends meet without such perquisites. Thus the development of production on the basis of the capitalistic system has of itself sufficed — at least in the leading industries, for in the more unimportant branches this is far from being the case — to do away with all those minor grievances which aggravated the workman’s fate during its earlier stages. And thus it renders more and more evident the great central fact that the cause of the miserable condition of the working-class is to be sought, not in these minor grievances, but in the capitalistic system itself. The wage-worker sells to the capitalist his labour-power for a certain daily sum. After a few hours’ work he has reproduced the value of that sum; but the substance of his contract is, that he has to work another series of hours to complete his working-day; and the value he produces during these additional hours of surplus labour is surplus value, which costs the capitalist nothing, but yet goes into his pocket. That is the basis of the system which tends more and more to split up civilised society into a few Rothschilds and Vanderbilts, the owners of all the means of production and subsistence, on the one hand, and an immense number of wage-workers, the owners of nothing but their labour-power, on the other. And that this result is caused, not by this or that secondary grievance, but by the system itself — this fact has been brought out in bold relief by the development of Capitalism in England since 1847. 

Again, the repeated visitations of cholera, typhus, small-pox, and other epidemics have shown the British bourgeois the urgent necessity of sanitation in his towns and cities, if he wishes to save himself and family from falling victims to such diseases. Accordingly, the most crying abuses described in this book have either disappeared or have been made less conspicuous. Drainage has been introduced or improved, wide avenues have been opened out athwart many of the worst “slums” I had to describe. “Little Ireland” [3] had disappeared, and the “Seven Dials” [4] are next on the list for sweeping away. But what of that? Whole districts which in 1844 I could describe as almost idyllic have now, with the growth of the towns, fallen into the same state of dilapidation, discomfort, and misery. Only the pigs and the heaps of refuse are no longer tolerated. The bourgeoisie have made further progress in the art of hiding the distress of the working-class. But that, in regard to their dwellings, no substantial improvement has taken place is amply proved by the Report of the Royal Commission “on the Housing of the Poor,” 1885. And this is the case, too, in other respects. Police regulations have been plentiful as blackberries; but they can only hedge in the distress of the workers, they cannot remove it.” 

(Preface to the English Edition of “The Condition of the Working Class in England")

Concessions Or Conveniences - Part 2

Part 2 – Bourgeois Health & Education Factories

More recent examples can be seen of this. In the 1930's, in the USSR, the major hindrance to increased production arose, because new, more technological machines, that were capable of much greater levels of output, had to be slowed down, because the workers who had to use them, having been recruited recently from the peasantry, lacked the education and training to use them.

Frequently, that led to the machines actually being broken due to misuse. The USSR, poured resources into educating and training these workers with a massive corresponding rise in productivity. In a speech in the US a couple of years ago, Alan Greenspan told Congress that US education was failing.

He didn't think it was failing because it wasn't providing a decent education to all US citizens, but essentially because it wasn't producing enough of the right kinds of workers. Highly skilled, and educated workers had over the last thirty years, seen their incomes rise significantly, whilst the ordinary unskilled workers had seen their wages at best stagnate, or even fall. Of course, Greenspan wasn't particularly, concerned about the latter, other than the consequences it might have for social stability. On the contrary, his main concern was about the former. Given that the US will be only able to compete globally by developing its advantage in high value added production, the high wages of workers in that sector are a problem. The solution for Capital is to increase the number of more highly educated, and skilled workers, to increase the supply, and, therefore, reduce the wages of such workers. A similar drive is behind the need for UK Capital to encourage more working-class kids to go to university or higher education, and hence New Labour's policy of 50% entrance into Higher Education. Of course, just as it did with lower levels of education, it wants the workers to pay themselves for making them more productive instruments of capitalist production.

And, for the same reasons, especially as the use of contraception by the working-class has prevented the normal increase in the supply of workers that capital could previously count on as a natural stabilising mechanism over wages, capital needed to ensure that the workers on which it had spent time and money educating and training, were actually healthy enough, and lived long enough, to ensure that their was the maximum return on that investment. Given also, that the amount of constant capital that these workers now set in motion was massive, capital could not afford disruptions to its production process as a result of the human components of the process being faulty or absent. A few years ago, I heard that explained quite clearly. Someone I was talking to, told me he was a Transport Manager for TESCO. He had been provided with membership of BUPA. As a member of the Labour Party, and a Councillor, he told me he had asked if he could refuse to accept it. No he was told, and the reason he was given was exactly that stated above. You are in a high paid, job, we have invested in you, and we want to ensure you are not away from work due to ill-health for any time longer than necessary.

In fact, as I've described previously some socialists have explained why, in fact, the bourgeois healthcare provided by the NHS, which treats it as a commodity sold to workers, paid for via a compulsory deduction from their wages, might even be contrary to workers health needs. The oversubscribing of anti-depressants, and antibiotics, would seem to confirm that view, as does the emphasis placed on secondary healthcare – the building of expensive hospitals, the carrying out of expensive surgical procedures etc – rather than on primary care, or even on dealing with those factors within capitalism most responsible for causing workers ill-health, also seems to back that up. Time after time studies have shown that whether it is in education or in healthcare, the largest improvement has resulted from better living conditions, and conversely, where living conditions remain poor, workers continue to die young, to suffer ill-health, and any natural intellectual advantage they might have as infants, is lost by the time they are just seven years old, as against less intelligent kids from more affluent backgrounds. Yet, in the 60 years of its existence the Welfare State has done nothing to challenge, less still to fundamentally change, those basic underlying causes of ill-health, or poor educational attainment. It has merely performed the function that capital assigns to it, to provide the necessary supply of workers, suitably educated, trained, and socialised, and able to work for capital for a sufficient duration to maximise its investment in them.

Concessions Or Conveniences - Part 1

Part 1 – The Civilising Mission

“Thus the truck system was suppressed, the Ten Hours’ Bill [2] was enacted, and a number of other secondary reforms introduced — much against the spirit of Free Trade and unbridled competition, but quite as much in favour of the giant-capitalist in his competition with his less favoured brother. Moreover, the larger the concern, and with it the number of hands, the greater the loss and inconvenience caused by every conflict between master and men; and thus a new spirit came over the masters, especially the large ones, which taught them to avoid unnecessary squabbles, to acquiesce in the existence and power of Trades’ Unions, and finally even to discover in strikes — at opportune times — a powerful means to serve their own ends. The largest manufacturers, formerly the leaders of the war against the working-class, were now the foremost to preach peace and harmony. And for a very good reason. The fact is that all these concessions to justice and philanthropy were nothing else but means to accelerate the concentration of capital in the hands of the few, for whom the niggardly extra extortions of former years had lost all importance and had become actual nuisances; and to crush all the quicker and all the safer their smaller competitors, who could not make both ends meet without such perquisites.”

(Engels – The Condition of The Working Class in England)

In recent posts, I have challenged the view that, provided the Labour Movement is organised enough, militant enough, it can win concessions from Capital. Its not surprising that sections of the Left hold such a view, because, although, Marx and Engels advised against placing too much importance on the industrial struggle, on the recurring, “guerilla actions”, that has, in reality, been the arena, during periods of upsurge, that the Left has given, almost all of its attention. Given that it is during these times that workers make the greatest economic advance, the Left is bound to see that advance as being, not a product of the economic conditions, but of its own actions. But, are these, really concessions wrung by Labour from Capital, or are they as I would argue merely conveniences for Capital, merely dressed up in the clothes of workers demands, and all the more effective, for that reason, in deluding the workers into a continuing belief that Capitalism can meet their needs, and all they have to do is to negotiate a better bargain.

Living conditions did improve from the middle of the 19th Century onwards, but, in the Grundrisse, Marx explains this as merely being the consequence of the “Civilising Mission of Capital”, that is as Capital Accumulation proceeds, even though the production of Relative Surplus Value relatively reduces the amount of labour required, absolute demand for Labour increases, and this increased demand for Labour Power, by the simple operation of the laws of demand and supply, results in a higher price for Labour Power. A convenient development, because it also coincides with the production of larger, and more extensive numbers of use values, for which Capital needs to find a market. See: Wages, Prices and Profits.

Occasionally, workers faced with the closure of the firm they work for, have been able, by militant action, to prevent it. But, far more frequently they have not. Even when such action has appeared successful, it has only forestalled the closure until some future date when the workers have been weakened. Usually, such success is then accompanied with large scale rationalisation, and job losses, which themselves create those conditions of weakness. Even if the rationalisation and job loss does not occur at a particular plant, where such militant action is seen to have forestalled closure, it happens then at other plants, such that the victory is won at the expense not of Capital, but of other workers.

Under some conditions, Capital. via its State, will be prepared to step in, and nationalise a failing plant or industry, but it is foolish to see such action as being a concession to workers resulting from their militant action. The actions of the Capitalist State in the US and UK to nationalise the Banks, during the financial crisis, had nothing to do with them making concessions to a militant working class, but everything to do with stepping in to look after the interests of Capital, by saving a crucial element of its economic system! The nationalisations of the post-war Labour Government were of the same nature. Almost all of the industries, were basic core industries upon which British industrial capital depended, but almost all of which were suffering from decades of under-investment by their private owners. The capitalist state stepped in to provide that needed capital out of the public purse, and at the same time, and from the same source, paid out huge amounts of compensation to the former owners. At the same time, it carried through huge rationalisations of production, throwing thousands of workers on the dole, in the case of coal, more than even Maggie Thatcher was later to achieve. In those industries, which were capable of making decent profits, such as steel, there was massive opposition to nationalisation, and it was only pressure from within the Labour Party, not the unions, that led Attlee to nationalise it, and once the Tories got back in in 1951, they were quick to denationalise it. See The Lessons Of UCS

The example of the NHS is often cited as a concession won from Capital by concerted working-class pressure, along with other elements of the Welfare State. Yet, the basic elements of that Welfare State were drawn up, not by a Labour, or even a Liberal politician, but by the Tory Neville Chamberlain, in the 1920's.

Moreover, although the Welfare State was only properly introduced after WWII, Chamberlain drew up his proposals in the 1920's, at a time when, rather than the working-class being strong, and able to wring concessions from Capital, it was very weak, having just lost the General Strike, and the consequences of the onset of the Long Wave downturn were beginning to be felt. Although workers benefit from the provision of decent healthcare, the NHS has to be seen in this wider context. They clearly also benefit from the higher living standards that Capitalism has provided them as a result of the accumulation of Capital, of that “Civilising Mission”, but those higher living standards are not concessions that Capital has conceded, but merely a necessary bi-product of its own development. The same is true of the provision of elements of that higher living standard in the form of healthcare and education. Early on, Capital realised the need for workers to have a basic level of Education if they were to be productive workers once production increasingly became more technical. The more technical production, and life within Capitalist society became, the more Education workers were deemed to need, in order to be effective production units. Initially, Capital had workers pay for this education themselves in direct payments, but it soon became apparent that there were problems with this. Workers might decide to keep their money rather than spend it on educating their kids, and so insufficiently educated workers would be produced. Secondly, from 1852, the Co-op had been providing socialist education for its members and their children, and the First International was advocating education free of any class bias.

As workers living standards rose, and it became increasingly capable of the “self-government” and independence from the state that the First International advocated – see Politics and Programme of The First International - the capitalists also recognised the need for them to be in control of this education, precisely in order to use it as a means of indoctrination, and socialisation of workers, and to prevent it being used by workers against them. The clearest example of that was the struggle over independent working-class education waged by the Plebs League.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Northern Soul Classics - Ernie Bush - Breakaway

A bit of Northern/Disco crossover from Ernie Bush. A wonderful dancer from the 1970's. Not to be confused with the many other Northern dancers that go by the same title.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Roubini Becomes Even More Filled With Gloom

Nouriel Roubini has become even more bearish in his assessments. Following some truly awful economic data out of the US yesterday, showing a big drop in Durable Orders, Roubini says he believes things are getting worse not better, and now palces the chances of a Double-Dip at 40%, and growing. He also says that unlike the onset of the recession, governments and Central Banks have run short on policy bullets to use to remedy the situation.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Liberal-Tory Narrative Begins To Unwind

Central to the Liberal-Tory narrative has been that although the measures they are introducing are severe, they are both necessary, and also fair. Anyone with a brain knew that this narrative was hardly credible to begin with, but it was enough of a fig-leaf to enable careerist Liberals, desperate to get their grubby hands on a bit of power and kudos to justify their lash up with the Tories. It was obvious that this narrative would soon begin to unwind, and it is.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies, has today blown apart the fiction put out by the Government, that its Budget was “progressive”. The IFS has demonstrated what everybody else knew, which is that the Budget hits the poorest hardest. I haven't read the full report yet, but one account I heard on the TV last night suggested that the poorest are hit five times harder than the richest! But, what is new? There has not been a crisis that hit Capitalism in its 200 year history of such crises that was not caused by the Capitalists themselves, but which they made the workers and poor pay the price of. The Liberal-Tories have tried to counter the IFS claims by saying that it doesn't take into account the Tax and Benefit proposals that had been put forward by Labour, and which the Budget didn't reverse! Precisely, they were LABOUR proposals, and this was looking at the effects of what the Liberal-Tories were doing. But, even taking that into account, the Budget still hits the poorest hardest. The Treasury says the IFS study doesn't take account of the effects of the Budget on growth, and, therefore of employment. But, its only if you swallow the Liberal-Tory line that the Budget will enhance growth and employment that this could have a likely positive effect. In fact, as most economists have said, the consequences of the Budget are likely to be lower growth, and higher unemployment, with a consequent worse effect on the poorest. If you look at the specific measures mentioned by the Treasury in this regard in relation to National Insurance, and Corporation Tax then its hard to see how this benefits the poorest. The NI measures introduced by the Liberal-Tories do not reduce the contributions of workers only of employers. A cut in NI means that the biggest advantage to an employer is the saving they can make on higher earnings not lower earnings, so if it were to have any effect on hiring – which in current economic conditions, and the uncertainty that the Budget has created, is unlikely – it would be to encourage the hiring of more higher end workers not the poorest paid workers. And, precisely in those economic conditions, the cut in Corporation Tax – especially given the removal of incentives to reinvest profits in various Capital Allowances – is more likely to see companies using the higher after tax profits, to simply increase dividend payments, or bonuses, or other forms of high-end Executive remuneration, rather than reinvest it, or even to sit on the cash, given low interest rates. The only other use would be to finance mergers and acquisitions, and the last few weeks have seen a rash of such activity. But, such activity rather than increasing productive investment or employment, normally has the opposite effect. It means that one company buys out its opposition in the market, and takes the opportunity, thereby, to simply pick up the best bits of equipment, the best workers, and scrap the rest with a relatively reduced supply of commodities then sent to market so that prices and profits rise.

The Liberal-Tory proposals on the NHS are also coming under severe pressure. They had said that the NHS was ring-fenced against any cuts, but again anyone with a brain knew that was another fiction. The coalition agreement between the Liberals and Tories, specifically stated that there should be no big changes in the NHS structure. Neither had stood in the election on the basis of the kinds of major restructuring of the NHS that is now being proposed. The Liberal-Tories propose to scrap the Regional Health Authorities, and to hand over around £80 billion of NHS commissioning budget to GP's, by scrapping the PCT's. But, as was stated on Newsnight last night, the Liberal-Tories, who speak a lot about efficiency don't even seem to have thought out the immediate financial implications of such a move. Scrapping the PCT's will mean thousands of their administrative workers will be made redundant. That means millions of pounds paid out in redundancy payments, and, in the short term, a hit to the Treasury in lost tax, and higher Benefits. But, the GP's, who have no experience in handling such Budgets will either have to massively increase their own administrative staff to deal with this new work, or else farm it out to the private companies such as Tribal, who are eagerly awaiting this privatisation of the NHS, and the opportunity to get their hands on some of that £80 billion. Their share prices have gone up since the Tories announcements, unlike the many companies whose shares have tanked as a result of the Budget measures. From an economic efficiency perspective, only, this latter option would be better than the GP's themselves taking on this work, because at least it benefits from the savings of economies of scale, as opposed to the work being spread out amongst thousands of GP, surgeries, each replicating the activities of the others. From, the perspective of what is in the best interests of workers it most certainly is not the better option. But, if GP's did expand their administrative staff, then its likely that many of those taken on would be former PCT staff. Great for them, but from the perspective of saving public funds, how does it make sense to make thousands of people redundant and incur redundancy costs, only then for those same people to basically resume their former work, but under a different boss?

Yesterday, also saw increasing concern at the consequences of the proposals from patients like the Mother of a boy with Muscular Dystrophy, who pointed out that most GP's do not have the knowledge of such conditions to be able to organise the range of clinicians that will be needed to deal with the condition. And we have seen the consequences of this before. There will be a tendency for doctors to manage their Budget by getting rid of those patients off their books who are the costliest. Given that when it comes to Health as with everything else we most certainly are not “All in this together”, and ill-health is a corollary of low-income, then the worst hit will once again be the poorest in society, congregated in areas of deprivation, which already suffer from being unable to attract enough GP's, and other health professionals. The proposal of Nadine Dorries, put up by the Tories on Newsnight to defend this, that it will give patients more power, that they will be able to directly confront the GP, to demand the services they need is ridiculous. Firstly, if GP's do not know everything they need to know to undertake this work, then its obvious that ordinary workers as individuals do not know. And the least likely time you are going to stand up to a Doctor and do any kind of demanding, is precisely at the time when you are ill!

But, the response from Andy Burnham was pretty pathetic too. He complained, correctly, about the Liberal-Tories proposals removing accountability, but the implication of his argument, and indeed the statements he made in that regard, that there was such accountability via the PCT's and RHA's is clearly nonsense. Both were introduced from the top down by Labour, and neither have even the kind of democratic accountability that past Health oversight, which was also lacking in any kind of real democratic control, demonstrated. At the very least a democratic alternative to both the present system, and the Liberal-Tory proposals, would be that PCT's became annually, elected bodies, preferably incorporated into rejuvenated Town or Parish Councils that had increased powers and responsibilities assigned to them. But, so long as such bodies had to deal with a massive State bureaucracy entrenched in the NHS itself, and in the Department of Health, and so long as Health continues to be viewed as a commodity sold to workers in return for the payment of taxes, rather than a Use Value, produced by workers, and over which they have to have ownership and control, and so long as the production of that commodity is so heavily determined by the role of the massive companies who profit from its production – the drug companies, the health equipment companies, the construction companies that build the huge monolithic hospitals, and the IT companies who sell the huge and overly expensive computer systems to them – then even that kind of local democratic control would be overwhelmed. Nor is it likely that it would even be conceded. The trajectory has been to continually undermine and reduce the most local levels of democratic control – where the bureaucrats tend to be less powerful relative to the elected representatives – and to further centralise control in the hands of huge, professional bureaucracies.

Its not surprising that last weekend the press was full of stories about Liberal defections to Labour. Charles Kennedy, the most high-profile of those mentioned has denied the stories, but other Liberal MP's, and Peers have not denied that they have been talking to Labour. Of course, they have been having such talks. As I've pointed out previously Liberal politicians are the consummate Opportunists. Those in areas where they think the alliance with the Tories will cost them there seat, will, of course, look to get picked up by a Labour party, whose own electoralist, and opportunist politics will not baulk at picking up an extra seat now, with the prospect of retaining it at the next election, which Labour looks well placed to win, certainly better placed if the Liberals are destroyed, given that its likely that they will do a deal not to challenge their Tory allies in seats where Labour might benefit from a split vote. Incidentally, that is one reason that Ed Miliband is right that Labour should now annihilate the Liberals, and why Will Straw was wrong in his comments in Left Foot Forward. The other reason we should destroy the Liberals, is the lesson from 1983, when the role of the SDP/Liberal Alliance was a major factor in costing Labour the election, and just the simple fact that from a socialist perspective it is better to have the basic class lines as clear as possible. A Two-Party system that reflects the fact that society is divided into two main contending classes, is itself a powerful ideological weapon. The more that is blurred by the profusion of tiny parties the harder it is to convey a clear socialist message to workers.

But, whatever the Liberal MP's and Peers do, indeed whatever Labour does, it is clear that the unravelling of the Liberal-Tory narrative has already begun, and the next few weeks and months will see it unravel even more quickly. At a grass roots level the Liberals are already haemorrhaging not just members but Councillors. They are losing voters even more quickly. For my part we should take heart from that. My Dad told me when I was little that the basic tactic used by the bosses was “Divide and Rule”. We should use the divisions between the Liberals and Tories, between the Government, and the State, and with the dominant sections of Capital and present out own united front, if not yet to rule, at least for now to beat back the Libeal-Tory attacks.

Monday, 23 August 2010

BBC Can Do Funny

The BBC's "Roger & Val Have Just Got In", is probably the least funny thing I've ever seen including some Shakespearean tragedies. But, the BBC can do comedy without trying. Bear in mind these News presenters get paid £90,000 a year!

BBC Sinks To The Gutter

Over the last few years, the BBC did its bit to contribute to the Credit Crunch with all of the assorted property shows it flooded the screen with that attempted to persuade people that they could make easy money from becoming a property developer, or by simply carrying out some superficial tidying and decorating of their houses when they sold them. The Credit Crunch, which was in part the result of this kind of idea that wealth can come from such activities rather than the need to actually produce something, and the consequent drop in the housing market, fortunately meant that such programmes disappeared from the screen, though they have been quick to try to re-format, now to programmes that in some ways contradict the very things they were previously promoting. But, the BBC must be finding difficulty getting replacement programming - certainly if the dreadful new "comedy" with Dawn French is anything to go by - to attract viewers. Unfortunately, it now seems to be sinking to the level of the Daily Mail, and the other gutter press to do the job.

I had the misfortune whilst changing channels to happen across "Saints & Scroungers" hosted by one of the former property programme presenters, now obviously looking for another easy money job. It was supposed to look at both sides of a coin - the deserving "Saints" in need of benefits and State support, and on the other the benefit cheats. In fact, for what I could stand to watch of the programme, which was even conveyed in the kind of voice that the BBC used to retain, for taking the piss out of Sun Editorials, it was mostly just a chance to depict some people who were engaging in Benefit Fraud on an industrial scale, as being in some way typical of Benefit Fraudsters. The couple depicted had stolen the ID of something like 100 people in order to fraudulently claim benefits, of around £1 million.

There are Four things to say about that. Firstly, no one would condone such criminal activity. Secondly, its by no means typical. Most of the people who are guilty of benefit Fraud are people who are basically piss poor, and do the odd job in order to make their benefit stretch a bit further. Thirdly, even this million pounds is chicken feed compared to the billions of pounds that goes missing every year in tax fraud. HMRC themselves estimate that something like £120 billion goes unpaid in tax by the rich, and big companies. Can we expect to see similar programmes each week tracking down the rich tax cheats at prime time, rather than tucked away in a Panorama, or some other news programme? Finally, the amount that goes in Benefit Fraud is less than the benefits unlcaimed, and the kinds of scurrilous programme presented by the BBC here, will only act to frighten many more people off claiming.

A short amount of time was given over to a family who needed support as a result of having a child born with Autism. The end of this piece before going back to the real purpose of the programme a sting on the fraudsters, showed the family getting various benefits and support to buy equipment for their son etc., and the comment from the presenter, "If you need something, and you are entitled, just ask?"

Obviously, being on a BBC presenter's salary he's never had to try that himself, or he'd have known how inane such a comment is. In fact, my own eldest son has Autism. Through all his time at school, because, like many people with his form of ASD, Aspergers, he his high functioning, that is he is very, intelligent and gifted, he lacked any kind of support, because naturally the school's tend to focus their attention on those kids with other behavioural problems, and learning difficulties. Certainly, they did then, when few people had any real understanding of ASD - Autistic Spectrum Disorder. That meant that the only support he got was from us his family, which is very stressful.

Even now, when knowledge of the disorder is better, it was not until a year ago, and after considerable effort on our part, and the support of the local Autistic Society that he was diagnosed. But, having been diagnosed, we were basically told, "Well that's it, you've been diagnosed, off you go," because, as in most areas, the only thing that exists is a diagnostic service not any kind of support service. The only Support Services that exist are those from voluntary bodies such as the Autistic Societies, and Aspergers groups, which are themselves heavily dependent on the families of sufferers to organise events and so on. I'm sure that people who have experience of dealing with family members with other disabilities could relate similar stories, and the problems of sufferers, and of carers will get even worse as a result of the Liberal-Tory Cuts, and attacks on welfare.

That the BBC should jump on that bandwagon is disgusting. I'm glad we have Freesat, so that we've got a choice of channels if this is the kind of programming the BBC is sinking to.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Soul On Trent

Yesterday, Stoke reclaimed its title as Northern Soul Capital of the world. A couple of years ago, as I've written about previously, my youngest son worked as a cameraman on the film, Soul Boy that was made on location in Stoke. He also got a bit part in the film. Yesterday saw the Stoke premiere of the film, which goes on general release on 3rd September. So we got free tickets to see the film, and meet the films Producer and Directors, as well as tickets to the Northern Soul All-Nighter in Stoke's Kings Hall, which is where most of the dancing scenes are filmed because of its similarity to the Wigan Casino Club. There was also a perfomance on stage by Gabriella Cilmi.

As one of the DJ's said, they didn't get it perfect as a description of Northern Soul at the time, but they gave it a bloody good go. The story is set in 1974 in Stoke. It features a young lad Joe, who having spotted a girl he fancies, and gone to have his hair cut in the salon where she works is introduced to Northern Soul played on her cassette player, and tempted to join her in a trip to the famous Wigan Casino Club, which was the best known Northern Soul venue of the time. In fact, so well-known that many celebrities visited it. Anna Ford the newsreader was an attender, and so was Newsnight's, Paul Mason. Others attendees were one Mark Almond, who so liked Gloria Taylor's "Tainted Love" that his group Soft Cell, released their own version, along with another Northern Soul classic, Dean Parrish's "Tell Her". The Club was voted world's best disco ahead of New York's 49 Club, and its reported that even in a hut part way up Mount Everest, someone has inscribed the words "Wigan Casino Rules".

On the bus up to Wigan, Joe finds that some of his friends, including a girl who has a crush on him are also Northern Soul fans. Joe finds he can't dance as well as he would like. Something we all felt when first starting to learn the moves. Joe had come second in quite a few ice skating competitions, the scenes of which were cut out of the final edit. But, with help from the girl who has the crush on him, he begins to learn the basics, and, of course, quickly becomes pretty good. At the club there is a bit of a bully guy, something that was out of character, because all the All-Nighters were remarkably free of any trouble, as everyone there just went to dance. Long story short, it ends up as a confrontation between Joe, and this guy, and a dance off. But, I'm not saying more than that, because you should go see the film.

There were some criticisms I'd have that I've mentioned before. As the film was based in Stoke there could have been some mention of the Golden Torch in Tunstall, which was cloed down by the Council in 1973, but until that time, had been the main Northern Soul Club in Britain. I can see why they didn't mention it, because it would have not fitted the script. Also, in 1974, there were still at least half a dozen pits still open in North Staffordshire, and alongside the Pottery Industry, and the steel works was the main employer, certainly for men. 1974 was also the year of the Miners Strike, and of the three-day week, and it was, therefore, something that affected most of the people who lived in Stoke. In fact, I remember a heated debate in Bews record shop, which was, and had been for many years the main source of Northern Soul records in the area, and where some of the DJ's from the Torch also worked. If Soul Boy II is made, some of these other background features could be included to give the script a bit more depth.

The film was premiered at Stoke's Film Theatre, with a second showing in the King's Hall. My main complaint would be that either the sound system was a bit crap, or else the DJ had the bass turned up way too much, because a lot of the dialogue on the film was hard to make out. I also found that during the actual All-Nighter, I was finding that many of the records were a good way through before I recognised what they were, because the bass was just drowning everything out into a monotonal thud. That might be okay for the modern dance music that is just a repetitive bass back beat with little or no variation, but the thing about Northern Soul is that it is uplifting, and it gets that uplifting feeling precisely from the variation between low and high notes. In fact, when I play it, I turn the bass down, and the treble up, in order to emphasise that variation, and also because too much bass simply drowns out the rich variety of sounds, and instrumentation that goes into the whole texture of the music.

There are some videos on Youtube if you search for "Soul Boy Stoke Premiere", but I haven't put any up, because apart from the Gabriella Cilmi one all the others are very dark, and I expect some better ones will be posted soon.

What was great to see was the number of young people there, and the fact that the tradition of the dancing continues. I was talking to one young lad, who had got most of the moves, who must have been not much older than about 13, and one great bit was to see him and another teenager dancing off against each other, and both recognising the talent of the other. Brilliant, except it made me want to be 16 again.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Northern Soul Classics - Bok To Bach - Father's Angels

Back to the dancers. This is from the mid 70's, and one of the few Northern Soul records to feature a Harp. According to the limited information there is about the group, it was originally made up of kids brought together in a youth club by a priest, and hence the name. It had been rumoured that Father's Angels were in fact the session musicians that went on to become the Philly Band MFSB, whose hits included "Family Affair". That was correted by Jerry Ross who had a big role in developing the Sound of Philadelphia. He says, "They were a local group from Allentown, Pennsylvania (just like Jay & The Techniques) brought to me by the disc jockey Gene Kaye. They were represented by Father Angelo who was a priest in Allentown and they used to travel around in a big orange bus and perform. There were about ten guys in the group as I recall. When they came to me they didn't have a name - they were Father Angelo and the band - so I called them Father's Angels."

(Courtesy of the blurb on the "Ain't Nothing But A House Party" CD

Friday, 20 August 2010

The Lessons Of UCS - Part 3

The Positive Lessons Of UCS

Having set out what was limited in the UCS struggle, however, let me now turn to what really was positive in the struggle. It is particularly significant given the current conditions, and potential struggles over the Cuts and privatisation.

The first thing that can be said is that UCS demonstrated what real Trade Union struggle is about. In recent years, the Trade Union bureaucracy have been able to exert a stifling control over their members. They have been able to do that for a number of connected reasons. Firstly, the kind of rank and file militancy that developed, particularly from the late 1950's, and into the 1960's, signified by the development of the Shop Steward as a significant force, was itself a function of the Long Wave Boom that began in 1949. That Boom meant that, even in a decrepit Capitalist economy like Britain, the rapid accumulation of Capital soon meant that the reserve army of labour started to become exhausted. Capital responded by encouraging more women into the Labour Market, and by encouraging immigration from the Commonwealth, particularly to do those jobs that British workers could now choose not to do, because of the availability of more pleasant, and better paid jobs. The rapid accumulation of Capital was itself a function of the rising rate, and volume of profit. Once workers began to recognise that they could move from one job to another, with relative ease, in order to seek out better wages, they became more confident about their position, more prepared to make demands on their existing employers, in the knowledge that if they refused, then as an individual they could move elsewhere, and increasingly, as a group, they could threaten to strike, and the boss would quickly give in, because the cost of lost production was greater than the cost of conceding. Under these conditions, workers could recognise their own collective strength, and the most effective means of exerting it, was the lightning strike, the wildcat action that was over, even before the full-time officials could be mobilised to try to persuade the workers to go back to work whilst negotiations took place.

As that boom ended in 1974, the militancy that had been built up, and that rank and file organisation remained in place. It formed the basis of the struggles like UCS, and of the Miners in 1974, and of the strikes even during the 1979 Winter of Discontent. It was certainly the basis of the repeated disputes in the car industry, and of the action of Ford Workers, which bust the Social Contract, and opened the floodgates to other workers. But, constrained within that Trade Union consciousness, without any kind of political strategy that could have taken the working-class beyond such repeated industrial actions, faced now with bosses more prepared to fight, because easy profits were no longer to be had, and the relative costs of a strike were not so great, workers found themselves increasingly involved in ever more bitter, ever longer disputes, and with increasingly greater losses from them. The longer the disputes lasted, the less the power of the rank and file organisation relative to the role of the full-time officials, and the central TU bureaucratic machine, often backed up by the TUC, ever ready to propose some kind of compromise.

Moreover, the bosses had not remained passive either. In response to the development of the rank and file organisation, they had proposed new structures, which acted to draw sections of that rank and file leadership into the TU bureaucracy, as another tier, which the workers would have to contend with in future. A whole series of Consultative Committees, were established which gave former rank and file leaders a permanent role as negotiators, and acted to separate them from the shop floor. As the Tories consolidated their victory over the working-class, that was backed up by legislation to undermine the mainstay of the rank and file movement, spontaneity. By introducing complex rules over balloting etc. the Tories made it almost impossible to organise the kind of immediate response to the bosses that had been so successful for workers in the 1960's. The delay, the requirement for secret ballots, meant that control was taken out of the hands of the members and placed directly in the hands of the full-time bureaucrats, who then had every opportunity to sell-out.

Moreover, the repeated defeats of the 1980's and 90's, also had its effect on workers consciousness, making them less inclined to lose wages during a strike, and more likely to place their faith in the professional negotiating skills of “the union”, which was increasingly seen not as anything other than themselves, but was seen as something separate from them, something they paid money into in the expectation of getting some service back in return, rather like paying into an insurance scheme. Indeed, increasingly, the union bureaucrats were happy to sell “the union” on the basis of such an approach, and with a plethora of “commodities” that members could consume from, cheap insurance, to holidays, legal cover and so on. UCS is important, because it represents the complete antithesis to that view of what a Trade Union is, what the purpose of belonging to a Trade Union is, and demonstrates the kind of response that workers have to be able to organise for themselves at a rank and file level of the current attacks of the Liberal-Tories are to be thrown back.

But, UCS also demonstrated the importance of that rank and file organisation in another way. Reid, and his comrades insisted on a disciplined approach, he famously addressed the workers and told them that

“We are not going to strike. We are not even having a sit-in strike. Nobody and nothing will come in and nothing will go out without our permission. And there will be no hooliganism, there will be no vandalism, there will be no bevvying because the world is watching us, and it is our responsibility to conduct ourselves with responsibility, and with dignity, and with maturity.”

That discipline is important not just for the reason Reid describes here, of preventing the bosses from using it to attack the workers as irresponsible, but that without it, there is a tendency for other workers to drift away, and thereby to undermine the solidarity of the action.

The second thing that is positive out of UCS, and which flows from that rank and file organisation, is that faced with an immediate situation, the workers reacted with an equally immediate response. Although, the last couple of years have seen the re-emergence of the occupation as a tactic by workers, it is today much more difficult to organise, because that kind of rank and file organisation is missing, and because the tradition of immediate action based on working-class self-activity has largely been lost over the last couple of decades. Today, it would be more likely that workers would already have been sent home, whilst a full-time official negotiates the terms of the closure than that workers would respond to the first intimation of closure by organising an instant mass meeting, grabbing the keys, and locking the plant down. But, such action in itself is more like a well-disciplined military action than what today passes for Trades Unionism, and for such actions again a well-organised, well-disciplined rank and file organisation is needed, with competent NCO's, in the form of shop stewards. More importantly, that response was to refuse to accept the sanctity of Capitalist property. One of the fundamental aspects of Marx's analysis of Capital as a social relation is that unlike previous modes of production, where the producer employed the means of production, under capitalism it is the other way around, it is Capital – dead labour – which employs living labour. Labour is allowed to work, only at the discretion of Capital, despite the fact that in its physical form as factories, machines, tools etc. this Capital is itself the product of Labour, of workers.

A fundamental aspect then of challenging Capitalist society is to break that social relationship, to break the domination of Labour by Capital. By seizing control of the shipyards that is what the UCS workers did. They asserted the right of living labour over dead labour, of Labour over Capital. They basically said, these yards, these cranes, this welding equipment and so on have been made by us the workers as a class, we refuse to accept that we can only work at the discretion of the needs of that Capital, whose function should, on the contrary, be to serve our needs. And, that message was further amplified by their decision to do just that – to continue to work, to employ those pieces of equipment – rather than to strike. In so doing they stopped that equipment being Capital, ended its dominance over them, and reduced it to its proper place, as simply means of production, to be used by the workers.

The third positive aspect of UCS then flowed from that. The workers demonstrated, if further demonstration were needed, that the modern working-class, is educated, trained and disciplined enough to run the economy without the need for highly paid bosses, those same highly paid bosses, who the bosses themselves, and their lackeys in Government and the media, tell us have to be paid millions of pounds a year, or else the economy will collapse. These are, of course, the same millionaire bosses who actually did cause the economy to collapse as a result of their reckless speculation. Yet, despite that, and possibly for the same reasons, just as the French Communist Party failed to take the workers forward in 1968, when the workers there had taken control of the factories, and were beginning to conduct production under their own Workers Control, Reid and his comrades failed to take the UCS workers forward having shown that they could run the shipyards themselves. In fact, they did not even use their position to demand that the yards be run under workers control, after the Government had agreed to rescue them. They simply went back to business as usual. Once again that demonstrates the limitations of that Economistic, Trades Union, reformist consciousness, as opposed to that revolutionary consciousness that Marx describes of the Lancashire textile workers who took over their factories and ran them as Co-operatives, thereby breaking for good that domination of Capital over Labour within them.

It was as if Spartacus having led the slaves out of their captivity, and having seized land of their own, had waged a war not to defend that territory, and to free the rest of the slaves, but had instead waged a war, with the promise to hand over the land they had seized, if only the slave owners would take them back as slaves under better conditions! At the present time, workers are facing a fight over cuts, and privatisation by the Liberal-Tories, and a fight over the rising unemployment that will inevitably result from those policies. The lesson of UCS, is that, as I suggested recently, Fighting The Cuts our response to proposals to close schools, or libraries, or hospitals, or any other Public Building, should be to organise to occupy them, and to organise their continued operation under workers ownership and control. But, unlike UCS, having demonstrated that we can do that more efficiently than either State or private Capital, we should demand that our ownership and control of it, be legalised, just as the Argentinian workers ownership of their Co-operatives, seized from the capitalists when they sought to close them down, has been legalised. We should begin to join up such Co-operatives, through a National Co-operative federation that links every Co-operative enterprise to all the others, that centralises the surpluses of all Co-ops in order that it can be mobilised to defend and extend the Co-op sector, and within each community, where such Public Services have been taken over by the workers, we should begin to develop our own forms of democratic structures, so that the necessary decisions of how these services should be run in our interests can be made.

The real lesson of UCS is that Trade Union struggle is inadequate, and when that Trade Union struggle is forced to go beyond its immediate limits, to defy the notions of Capitalist property, we should not allow that Pandora's Box to be closed again, but should pick out the Hope that resides within it, the Hope that resides in the idea that our future lies in Workers Ownership and control of the means of production, in the establishment of Co-operative production, in short – in Socialism.

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