10 January 2005
This is the time of year when you are meant to engage in retrospection, look back on the events of the past year and pass ‘learned’ judgements, the lessons we hav(en’t) learned and so on and so forth. However, it strikes me that the events of the past year have more in common with those of the 1930s than with the 21st century and the ‘end of history’. And there’s another reason why I’d rather cast my mind further back, well in fact there are several reasons why, not the least of which are my parents who cut their political teeth in that turbulent and decisive decade. These were the people and those of their generation who were instrumental in shaping my own life and values. The world that shaped them was tumultuous and perhaps even more unsure than ours is today. It was most definitely a hard life for the vast majority even in the so-called developed world, and a time that determined the lives of my dad and his brothers and sisters as well as my mum and her brothers and sisters, sixteen in all. The Spanish Civil War, the rise of Fascism, the Unemployed marches, and what was commonly perceived as the dying gasps of Capitalism were the major elements that shaped the thinking of that decade. On the surface, a far cry from the current situation one would think but how true is this perception?
I have written about my dad and his brothers a couple of times before, one essay of which is available here (’Working Class Heroes’). My dad seems to have split his time between being a professional musician, a skilled engineer and toolmaker as well as being a trade union organiser, first with the Amalgamated Engineering Union and later, after the war with the Musicians Union. All of this in spite of leaving school at fourteen. He was also as far as I can ascertain, some kind of courier for the Communist International, maintaining links with the Communist Party of South Africa (fifty years later I kind of followed in his footsteps) using his job as a musician on the ships that visited South Africa as the means. Yet he was by no means an exception for his times and indeed his peers, many of them engineers were to fight for Republican Spain, never to return.
Today however, the ‘pundits’ pour scorn on my dad and his times, branding them either as apologists or dupes of Stalin or at best, idealists, but in order to understand why my dad and his peers acted the way they did it is necessary to recognise that the world of the 1930s was, for progressives an either/or situation. It was very much a time of taking sides for unlike today the Left was the future rather than the past. The Left was also the cutting edge of ideas, in science and the arts. To be Progressive was to be avant garde.
The struggle was between Fascism and Socialism. Socialism after all, offered a way forward from the chaos of capitalism. Capitalism was in crisis what with the Great Depression, mass unemployment, starvation, impending war and so forth. ‘Scientific Socialism’ as it was called, offered working people a future, a society based upon the rational use of resources, the removal of inequalities with nobody either too rich or too poor. All boring stuff these days for those of us who live in the so-called developed world.
Today it’s fashionable to decry the idea of Socialism as something from the past, an anachronism, yet the crisis of capital is palpable, what else explains the ‘war on terror’? Okay, so there are terrorists but they’ve been around since the late 1800s, one need only look back to the ‘Siege of Sidney Street’ led by the arch-terrorist of his time, Winston Churchill, only then the ‘terrorists’ were branded as “Russian Anarchists” but a comparable hysterical media blitz accompanied the siege:
“We were clearly in the presence of a class of crime and a type of criminal which for generations had no counterpart in England. The ruthless ferocity of the criminals, their intelligence, their unerring marksmanship their modern weapons and equipment, all disclosed the characteristic of the Russian Anarchist” – Churchill’s memoirs
“Even the most sentimental will feel that the time has come to stop the abuse of this country’s hospitality by the foreign malefactors.” – The Daily Mail
“I spent some hours with the anarchists of Whitechapel. I felt rather heroic and also rather nervous when I set forth upon this perilous journey…nothing happened to me. I could laugh now at my fears. These alien anarchists were as tame as rabbits. I am convinced that they had not a revolver among them. Yet, remembering the words I heard, I am sure that this intellectual anarchy, this philosophy of revolution, is more dangerous than pistols and nitro-glycerine. For out of the anarchist club in the East End come ideas.” – Sir Philip Gibbs in the Weekly Graphic
The Daily Mail still peddles the same tired old propaganda to this day with its headlines about ‘illegal aliens’ (”foreign malefactors”) abusing our ‘hospitality’. So it’s capitalism that hasn’t changed in one hundred years including the way it uses its range of predictable myths about ‘aliens’, designed to push all the right buttons in a population acclimated to be citizens of the empire.
What has changed of course is the Left and it would seem that in the foreseeable future anyway, the chances are that in the West, the ‘Left’ still hasn’t ‘got it’. As per usual, it’s those on the front line of the imperialist war on the planet, its people and its resources that not only take the brunt of the onslaught but who also resist its depredations. We are doomed it seems, in spite of all our knowledge about the workings of capital, not to have acquired the wisdom to use it. Instead, we bicker interminably about ‘real socialism’ and have done so for the last one hundred years. We expend more energy attacking each other than we’ve ever expended on attacking capitalism.
Do I include myself in my derogatory description of the ‘Left’? Well I suppose to some degree I have no choice. I do after all live in the developed world. I am a product of the developed world with its hang-ups and the inevitable ‘damage’ to my consciousness. However, I will continue to be an independent socialist voice and the degree to which it is possible, ‘practice what I preach’.
I should perhaps, expand on this. I am by no means a ‘hair shirt’ socialist, nor a ‘moralist’ when it comes to lifestyle. In any case it’s not about ‘lifestyle’ per se but it is about being true to one’s self. As my friend Patricia put it to me some years ago, the most difficult thing to be is yourself because that means breaking free of the drug of accumulation, self-hate and all the other effects of capitalist accumulation. And it is the most difficult thing to do – to break free. Comrade Karl put it this way (and he used to whore and drink his way across London after a hard day at the British Library, live off his rich capitalist buddy Engels and died in abject poverty, not that I’m advocating this as a lifestyle):
The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theater, go dancing, go drinking, think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save and the greater will become that treasure which neither moths nor maggots can consume — your capital. The less you are, the less you give expression to your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life … So all passions and all activity are submerged in greed – Karl Marx, notebooks, 1844
One of my readers wrote me that he wanted to do more to change things (he knows who he is), essentially that he felt helpless, that doing ‘small’ things seemed so inconsequential. But I profoundly disagree with this assessment of the ineffectiveness of ‘small’ things and I think it’s pretty easy to demonstrate that ‘small’ things are immensely powerful. When taken as a whole, small things can bring down governments but, and it’s a big but, when the small things are a part of the right thing. So for example when two million people marched in London against Blair’s Murder Inc. it was two million small actions that could have led to much bigger things, like toppling the Blair government. Where we failed was in not focusing the anger, the real injustice that millions of people felt about invading an already butchered and defenceless country and here we come back to the failure of the ‘Left’ to understand the nature of capitalism’s hold on people’s consciousness. In other words, the ‘Left’ let the people down (and we wonder why people are cynical!) by not taking the anger and injustice felt by the vast majority of the people and directing it constructively and realistically forward. Instead, we indulged ourselves in how ‘big’ the demo was and what it ‘proved’, but by itself it ‘proved’ nothing, merely that people, when the facts are clear to them and the issues are big enough, will express their feelings. What should have been the start of something was treated as if it was the end.
People are all too aware of the fact that their ‘leaders’ lie to them, which is in itself proof of the weakness of the system and how fearful it is of its own population, that’s why it seeks to enslave us in order to ‘free us’.
But to bring this back to where my folks came in, unlike the 1930s, even with all its horrors, it is now not only about seeking to construct an alternative to capitalism, it is now literally about the future viability of the biosphere that keeps us all alive. And I contend that the two are inextricably connected. The ‘Greens’ would have us believe that if we stop flying in jet planes all over the place, stick solar panels on our rooftops and so forth, we can turn things around. And whilst the levels of consumption are ridiculous and conspicuous simply by virtue of being utterly unnecessary and importantly, ultimately unsatisfactory (as all the surveys show in so many ways about the levels of profound unhappiness that people feel about their lives), shifting the blame onto the personal merely sidesteps the issue.
And what could be a greater demonstration of this process at work than the Tsunami and how even as the Western world milks peoples’ compassion for all its worth, it continues to rain death on the Iraqi population (perhaps $5 billion in ‘aid’ versus $100 billion to wage war), talks of ‘freezing’ Third World debt for a year (but not cancelling it, knowing that in a year, they can begin to squeeze the poor once more) and funnels ‘aid’ to the Indonesian government even as it takes advantage of the chaos to continue to wage war on the population of Aceh.
And ironies of ironies, those most able to send aid, the big corporations, are the most stingy, thinking that a figure like £1 million sounds a lot until you realise that £1 million is perhaps only one hour’s turnover for a large, multi-national corporation. One hour folks! Think on that for awhile.
The issue therefore is not about our feelings of ‘guilt’ or even of personal responsibility but firstly about recognition of fundamental causes of events. This from the latest issue of ‘Private Eye’ magazine:
Earlier this year … the Privy Council overturned a High Court ruling allowing the former inhabitants of the British-owned island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean the right to return to their homeland.
The islanders had been forcibly deported in the 1960s to make way for an American airbase. One of the reasons given by the Foreign Office … was that “Diego Garcia and the Chagos Archipelago are at risk from global warming” [due to] … rising sea levels.
[But the Tsunami left] Diego Garcia “relatively unscathed” [even though it] is considerably closer to the epicentre of the quake than the Maldives, it can only mean one thing… that it is one of the safest areas for low-lying habitation in the Indian Ocean! (Private Eye No. 1123, p. 3)
So even as our governments shed crocodile tears over the suffering in Indonesia and elsewhere, they know what the real deal is. Diego Garcia was used by the US to launch its Stealth bombers in the destruction of Iraq in 2003. It’s not knowledge that sets us free but understanding. And, as I’ve written about here before, the issue is not ‘Peak Oil’ but the falling rate of return on investment.
Daily output [in Venezuela, of oil] continued to fall, and by 1982, production was only half the 1970 production peak. Proven, recoverable reserves from conventional sources increased 34 percent. This bears repeating: while daily output continued to fall, proven recoverable reserves increased. Daily production levels were, and remain, independent of proven reserves.
Further exploration and development has continued to yield increased estimates of proven recoverable reserves. 2003 reserves from conventional sources are now twice those estimated in the peak production year of 1970, despite the continued restriction of daily output. (See Class and History Part 6 by S. Artesian).
This doesn’t mean we should continue to guzzle oil like there’s no tomorrow but it does mean digging beneath what seems so reasonable and look for the real reasons for events. This does require effort, there’s no getting away from it, but the one thing the last couple of years have proved is that our governments, once they are revealed as liars not to be trusted, it’s virtually impossible to recover that trust. Building on this revelation then and turning it to our advantage is obviously the next step. This is also the time when we make resolutions as we look toward the new year. Resolution can mean a pledge but it can also mean outcome, determination or solution.