A WORLD TORN APART
Reflection and Analysis from a World-
Stephen D. Shenfield
46 articles, 2006—2009
Non-profit production * Patents * Looters * Swine flu
Paying for air * Working hours * Sulphur mining
Global warming * Childen’s TV * Arctic * Moon
Gods * Maoist China * 9/11 * Globalisation * Ghettoes
The war business * Congo * Opium * Georgia * Zionism
Iraq * Iran * South Africa * Utopias * Why smile?
Malawi * Afghanistan * Obama * Philanthropy etc. etc.
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
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
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,
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
I plan to produce other e-books in the future – for example,
about my experiences as a government statistician and as a
Sovietologist. If you would like to be alerted to their appearance
please let me know.
Stephen D. Shenfield (Stefan)
Second edition (Fall 2009)
Six articles have been added to the first edition, bringing the
total to 46. I have marked the titles of new articles with asterisks in
the list of Contents (below).
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
Section 1. Profits versus needs
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
Section 2. Working to survive
Labour without end? The rise in working hours
“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?
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
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
* 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?
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
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.
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
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
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?
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
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
* * *
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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?
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. —
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
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
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
Evil people or evil system?
The Guardian (5 June) ran a story by George Monbiot about
pharmaceutical companies’ promotion of baby formula in the
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
All this is, indeed, horrifying, and indignation is a natural and
healthy reaction. But against who or what should we direct our
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
“Better I die of radiation than my children of
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.)
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
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
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-
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
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
* * *
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
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
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.
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
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
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”!
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
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 decision-making, 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’
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
robot-controllers 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
POLITICS IN VARIOUS
(United States, South Africa,
Israel/Palestine, Maoist China)
Selecting a U.S. president: the invisible
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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 high incomes (over $75,000 per year) more
than twice as likely as people with low incomes (under $40,000); 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.
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
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.
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
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
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
* * *
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,
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.
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
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
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.
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
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"
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
rural-urban 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
* * *
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
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 post-Mao 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
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
catch-all 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
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 “counter-revolutionary” by Mao himself, Yang
Xiguang, author of the manifesto, was jailed for ten years and
narrowly escaped execution. (For more on Sheng-wu-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
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
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
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
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
The entertainment industry is celebrated as the pacesetter of
nonstop smiling in the Irving Berlin song There’s No Business Like
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
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.
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 the
moon! 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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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 anti-submarine missiles. In other words, the spy
ship is a key component of anti-submarine 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
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
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.
WAR AND PEACE
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
military-industrial 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
* * *
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
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.
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
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
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
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 non-
Western (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.
Nuclear weapons are still there
Who protests against nuclear weapons nowadays? People seem to
have half-forgotten 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
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
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
* * *
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”
The unpredictability of the future, they tell us, is itself a good
reason to hold on to nuclear weapons. And the future is always
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
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.
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
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 al-Qaeda 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
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
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 pre-eminence," 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
The geopolitical map of the world has begun to shift, and Iran
occupies a central place in this process. The framework of a potential
anti-U.S. axis exists in the shape of the Shanghai Cooperation
Organization, which brings together Russia, China and post-Soviet
Central Asia. American strategists fear further consolidation and
militarization of the SCO and its expansion to draw in other major
Asian states and, first of all, Iran, which already has close ties with
both Russia and China. (India, though for the time being firmly
aligned with the 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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Only by focusing on Level 3 can we grasp what the war is really
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
* * *
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.
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
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.
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
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
profit-coveting 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
* * *
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.
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
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
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
* * *
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
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 two-state 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.
Ten good reasons why we are fighting in
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
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
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
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.
The articles in this section are about two of the major non-military
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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" semi-desert
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
In this way the idea of domination and submission is imprinted
in the psyche as a model for relationships between beings. That
model is then readily applied to social relationships – to the
relationship between man and woman, master and slave, and so on.
The Moroccan scholar Fatna A. Sabbah has shown how this works in
the case of Islam in her brilliant (pseudonymous) study Woman in the
Muslim Unconscious (Pergamon Press, 1984), but her analysis
applies equally well to the psychology of “God-fearing” Jews and
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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”
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
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.
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
* * *
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
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
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
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
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
* * *
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.
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—
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
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
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,
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
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.
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
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 self-indulgence. 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 non-provision 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
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