CHANGING THE WORLD, NOT MERELY UNDERSTANDING IT

The collapse of the class-based, slave -owning society of late antiquity might appear on casual reflection to hold few lessons about the future of capitalist society in the first quarter of the 21st Century, but a recent book by Professor Kyle Harper of the University of Oklahoma (The Fall of Rome – Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire, Princeton University Press) can give us pause for thought.

Professor Harper is no Marxist, but his approach is evidence-based, scientific and socio-economic. He does not directly address, as a Marxist might, whether the collapse of the social structures of Late Antiquity  arose from a failure of those structures to protect and grow the economy, but his findings can readily be considered from this perspective. The fundamental cause of the collapse of the Roman Empire, according to Professor Harper, was not, as has often been suggested, the growth of Christianity within its borders or Islam beyond its crumbling eastern edge; nor was it some intrinsic fault that only worked itself out in the fullness of time, suggestions for which have included contested imperial succession and the abandonment of the short sword and armour by Roman infantry. Drawing on both the latest archaeological and paleo-genetic evidence and on classical sources including judiciously assessed eye witness reports, Professor Harper convincingly demonstrates that the collapse was caused by climate change and pandemic disease: first the Antonine Plague in the mid-second century (probably a voracious smallpox pandemic), then the hammer blow of bubonic plague from 558 until 749. The way in which the consequences of disease and climate change interacted and undermined the economy of the Roman Empire, including its tax and fiscal structures, is dealt with in an admirably dialectical way; and the resulting class struggle– especially the efforts of the Roman land owning class to cling on and even expand their estates at a time of economic crisis and population decline is not ignored.

Professor Harper concludes his book with a muted but cautionary warning to the 21st Century reader. This concerns the recent discovery of the speed with which history’s great pathogens have evolved. This evolutionary facility to exploit opportunities opened up as society changes represents a threat to us today although it is one that Professor Harper only hints at. He is even more reticent about the threat today of climate change due to CO2 emissions even though the effect could be far greater than that which contributed so significantly to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire following the Antonine Plague.

We are indebted to Professor  Harper for an excellent book which helps us understand why the Roman Empire fell. We, his readers, need, however, to bear in mind Marx’s advice: it is not enough to understand the world – what we have to do is change it.

 

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The Anthropocene

Commenting on progress in the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) of the International Commission on Stratigraphy in recognising the Anthropocene as a distinct geological epoch, one in which human activity is having a dominant impact, the eminent geologist Steve Drury points out (see link below) that, while it is essentially a political, not a scientific statement, it is nevertheless to be welcomed, coinciding as it does with the rapidly escalating efforts, mainly by young people, to end massive threats to the Earth System. The only way, according to Professor Drury, to erase the “exponentially growing human buttock print on our home world” is for growth-dependent economics to be removed. If that social revolution doesn’t happen, there will, he argues, be a mass extinction to join the ‘Big Five’ previous ones (the most recent one being 65 million years ago) and society in all its personifications will collapse.

The growth-dependent economics to which Steve Drury refers is capitalism. Capitalism is the social system based on the accumulation of capital through economic growth and it cannot function in a world where that growth is curtailed. Previous and, in China, on-going attempts to build an alternative to capitalism, i.e. socialism leading to communism, may not always have prioritised sustainable growth and the welfare of future generations. Lack of scientific understanding resulted in some serious ecological mistakes in the USSR such as the draining of the Ural Sea, but at least the potential to plan the economy for the benefit of future generations exists under socialism. No such potential exists under capitalism. Under capitalism there is one objective: capital must accumulate; and one criterion for judging this – the market, which means net present value arrived at by discounting the future at a rate which reflects the required rate of capital accumulation. Capitalism is incapable of valuing the welfare of future generations without applying this savage discounting. It is therefore only to be expected that our government is seeking to placate climate change protestors with its tentative commitment to “zero carbon emissions” by 2050 while ignoring the carbon content in our imports – about to soar if British Steel is closed – and from aviation – similarly about to be boosted by Heathrow expansion.

 

https://wileyearthpages.wordpress.com/2019/06/12/anthropocene-edging-closer-to-being-official/

The Next Financial Crisis

It is now 11 years since the global financial system teetered on the brink of collapse and governments were forced to intervene to prop up it up. These interventions took the form of governments effectively guaranteeing all counterparty risk across the system. This secured the continuation of banks’ deposit taking and business and personal credit activities (i.e. their core banking business) but most of the risk guaranteed by governments arose from their speculative activity and this was also allowed to continue largely unchecked. Furthermore, the cost of this intervention by the subsequent Tory government in the UK, with the help of their supine Lib Dem collaborators, fell on the shoulders of UK workers and their families – the Tory strategy of ‘austerity’ that continues to this day. Meanwhile, following the feeble report by John Vickers in 2011 in which he ducked the opportunity to call for the complete separation of core banking from speculative trading, nothing has been done to reduce the risks being taken by banks “with other peoples’ money” as John Kay aptly described it [I] except for some further, over-complicated and ineffective regulation. Yet without fundamental changes to the ownership, conduct and activities of banks, and without bring the self-proclaimed ‘masters of the universe’ to account, another financial crisis is inescapable. The only question is when it will arrive.

The Croydon Branch of the Communist Party sponsors the Communist University in South London (CUiSL) and has good links with the Communist Party’s Economics Commission. We are currently exploring with both bodies the possibility of conducting a study of banking and banking crises and how the latter can be avoided in future. If you would like to be kept informed of progress and perhaps even participate in this work, please contact us at Croydon@communist-party.org.uk

[i] Other People’s Money – Masters of the Universe or Servants of the People?  John Kay, Profile Books, 2015

 

System Change, Not Climate Change

The government’s Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has finally been awakened from its slumbers by the school kids strikes, Extinction Rebellion demonstrations over Easter and Greta Thunberg’s visit to the UK and meeting with opposition leaders. With the UK slipping behind on its legal obligation to cut emissions by 2032, this is long overdue, but don’t expect too much from it. This is the body that gave the government cover for Heathrow expansion and has remained silent on fracking. Its assertion that the UK could and should lead the global fight against climate change by cutting greenhouse gases to nearly zero by 2050 is welcome, but, as one of its principal authors has admitted, there is no way this can be done without government action. How likely is this?

As the Communist University in South London argued in its discussion paper on climate change [1], there is no known technology that can remove carbon economically from the atmosphere once it’s there. The only known remedy for global warming is to keep fossil fuels in the ground. This cannot be done under capitalism, however many windmills we construct, however efficiently we burn hydrocarbons, however many solar panels we manufacture. There is simply too much profit to be made from pumping the known reserves of oil and gas, not to mention those waiting to be discovered when the poles melt as a result of the CO2 we have already pumped into the atmosphere. The capital this profit has created has given the extractive industries a death-grip on governments. It lobbies them, it finances their political parties and their leaders and it appears to be working on the assumption that, assisted by robotisation, the global elite can, unlike the rest of us, survive the threat of global extermination. Gated communities on top of mountains?

System Change, Not Climate Change is a slogan we can rally behind. Society can address climate change, but not under capitalism. As a system it has generated huge economic growth over the last two hundred years, but only at a price, and that price is now approaching the destruction of life on our planet. It’s not government action such as that called for by the CCC that can save the day, it’s changing the system from one whose function is to accumulate capital to one which meets everyone’s needs. That means a planned, democratic society managed for the benefit of ordinary working people. It’s called socialism.

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[1] https://communistuniversity.wordpress.com/2019/01/28/global-warming-a-discussion-paper/

PROTECTING CORBYN’S LEFT FLANK

We should take some comfort from the increasingly hysterical attacks on Jeremy Corbyn in the pages of our corrupt and corrupting national press. Recent examples:

  • Sunday Mail – twenty pages dismantling his entire life in an attempt to show he’s ‘unfit for office’.
  • Express – attacks over his entirely proper call for Bloody Sunday soldiers to face prosecution.
  • City AM – claims that his inner team includes communists (he should be so fortunate!).
  • Sunday Times – smears about his “anti‑semite army” supposedly revealed in
  • “Labour’s hate files” .

A Corbyn led government is their big fear. It’s much more frightening to them than falling out of the EU in a disorderly fashion. May’s bungling and dysfunctional management, her hubris in triggering Article 50 without securing support in parliament, her dependence on the Ulster Unionists – a party that has wrecked power sharing in Northern Ireland and is implicated in a scam to heat empty warehouses – are ignored. When they are addressed, blame Corbyn!

The experiences of the Allende government in Chile and Maduro’s current problems in Venezuela provide stark warnings about the difficulty of challenging the power of capital when the press remains in the hands of the owners of that capital. What Corbyn has endured at the hands of the press in recent months is nothing compared with the vitriol and lies that will be pumped out when he forms a government. What can be done about this?

First of all, of course, Labour has to win a general election and Corbyn has to ensure that his own Parliamentary Labour Party don’t try again to unseat him. That’s a job for the democratic socialists in the Labour Party, especially the many enthusiastic young people who have flocked to Momentum; but if a Left Labour government, once elected, is to survive, it will require support on its left flank to counter-balance the threat from the capitalist right. This is why we need a strong Communist Party. It can propose necessary policies and strategies that can tilt the balance of public opinion – policies and strategies that, while sensible, are simply too provocative for Labour to propose themselves but which are necessary to counterbalance those from the right.

One such strategy might be to dispossess the current owners of newspapers and transfer their shares into the collective ownership of their readers – just as the Communist Party did in 1945 with the Daily Worker (now the Morning Star). This is no panacea. We will still need regulation of the press, with, for example, a statutory right of reply, prominently displayed when individuals and their collectives are mis-reported or traduced. The regulation of other media – TV, radio and internet-based media, will present different problems, but none are insurmountable, especially if the BBC is swept clean of its current pro-capitalist and anti-working class bias.

Neither, of course, will a Corbyn government be a panacea; but, as the alarm shown by the rich and powerful at the prospect demonstrates, it could be a step in the right direction.

TEN WAYS TO IMPROVE DEMOCRACY?

The MPs expenses scandal and now the Brexit debacle have led to widespread dissatisfaction with parliamentary democracy. When working people wrest power from the capitalist class, building new, direct democratic structures will be part of our efforts to build a socialist future but, until then, what are the reforms we should seeking to our present democratic arrangements? Here are my top ten suggestions:

  1. Electronic voting for parliamentary and local government elections and national and local referendums.
  2. True proportional representation. This, of necessity, would include abolition of the House of Lords, chosen by the ultimate non-PR voting system; and while we are about it, let’s do away with monarchy, titles and honours in their entirety.
  3. Regional parliaments in England in lieu of the Westminster Parliament. These would meet in modern, circular debating chambers with electronic voting. Westminster Hall could be turned into a decent Peoples Palace but the rest of the grotesque Victorian-gothic monstrosity that is the Palace of Westminster can be bulldozed. Northern Ireland would be offered a referendum on either a regional parliament along similar lines or joining the Republic of Ireland. No more direct rule.
  4. Much, much lower limits on spending on elections and funding of parties, returning campaigning to unpaid activists, with corporate donations banned. Only individuals who can actually vote or their collectives (e.g. trade unions) should be allowed to donate.
  5. Abolish the Electoral Commission as unfit for purpose and form a truly independent election watchdog.
  6. Maximum possible delegation of powers to local councils with tax raising powers sufficient to meet 100% of the cost of services for which they are responsible.
  7. A UK Representative Council of delegates appointed by the regional and national parliaments to decide UK wide issues, interpret  the written constitution and agree an annual transfer payments between nations and regions to reflect disparities in revenue raising capacities.
  8. Members of the regional and national parliaments to be paid the average national wage. No second jobs, no second income, no private incomes or capital, no phony trusts to conceal wealth. If candidates cannot satisfy these stringent conditions, they cannot stand for election.
  9. Members of regional and national parliaments appointed for no more than two terms of four years each and subject to recall by voters. Being elected a member of these parliaments is an honour and a duty, not a career.
  10. Press and media, if they are to engage in anything other than strictly factual political reporting, must to be owned by readers/users or, in the case of the BBC, brought under democratic control.

 

You may disagree with some or all of these suggestions. If so, what would yours be?

Democracy

Democracy is more than the opportunity once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class are to represent and repress us. That was how Marx characterised representational democracy, which is the form employed in parliamentary and local government elections; but, to have any validity, even representational democracy requires

  • appropriate rules for when an election is called
  • a comprehensive electorate without class, gender or racial exclusions
  • an unfettered choice of candidates or, where this choice is effectively restricted by the dominance of political parties, the democratic selection of candidates by these parties
  • a level playing field for election expenditure, with appropriate ceiling at both the local and national level and transparency over where the money comes from
  • the ability of candidates to communicate their manifesto (or personal statement) to the electorate
  • the ability of voters to recall an elected representative who reneges on the manifesto on which they stood
  • a voting system that affords fair weighting and importance to every vote
  • the honest counting of votes – no stuffed ballot boxes

 

Parliamentary democracy fails to meet almost all these criteria. The Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011 has enabled the Tories to cling on despite successive defeats in parliament. Turnout at general elections is low due in part to the successful exclusion of low income voters, especially students and others without a permanent address. Political donations are allowed from corporations despite their lack of democratic legitimacy and, as Channel 4 recently revealed, scams exist to circumvent the already over-generous spending limits. A handful of right wing Labour MPs elected on the 2017 Labour Party manifesto who have left the party to form an independent group in parliament have been able to ignore calls to submit themselves for re-election. Many votes under our first-past-the-post system are worthless and governments can secure a working majority in parliament with the support of only a small fraction of the electorate – the Tories secured a majority in parliament in 2017 with the votes of only 29% of the electorate – plus, of course, some bungs to the Democratic Unionist Party. Only for the last criterion, honest counting of votes, does the parliamentary democracy perform well. There have been few instances in recent years of ballot box stuffing. This, in our experience, is largely due to the excellent and impartial work of local government election officers and their staff.

Local government democracy fares no better against these criteria. Furthermore, once elected, successful candidates soon discover that even majority administrations possess few powers and even less revenue raising capacity. Peter Latham, a member of the Croydon Branch of the Communist Party, has described the situation with great insight and clarity in his book Who Stole the Town Hall? [i] which we recommend.

 

Winston Churchill, in a much quoted epigram, once said that representational democracy is the “worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”. This really is a counsel of despair. We deserve better; and we must have better if we are to: defeat capitalism; keep it from arising again from the grave as it has done in Russia; and start out on the road to building a society which embodies the communist aim of from each according to the means, to each according to their need.

Direct democracy, the type favoured by communists, encourages the full participation of citizens, not a vote every few years. It doesn’t come pre-packed with a user manual. It takes different forms in different societies and at different points in these societies depending how far they have progressed on the road to building socialism. Work place councils (soviets), for example, played a crucial role in the early phase of the 1917 Revolution but were less important in its later stages. Some features are, however, universal. One is the need for real delegates who serve only one or two terms, consider themselves to be performing a public service not building a career and who can be recalled by the electorate, or those who nominated them, if they depart from their manifesto. Furthermore, these delegates should be drawn predominately from the working class and remunerated at a rate that reflects the average working wage and the level of benefit for those who cannot work (currently the Universal Credit benefit), not the inflated, professional-level salaries we currently pay to MPs. How else can the interests and experience of delegates be aligned with those who elect them? The argument we sometimes hear from MPs that ‘competitive’ salaries are necessary to attract and retain ‘talent’ should be treated with contempt. It is self-serving, delusional and demeans the skills and understanding of ordinary working people.

[i] Who Stole the Town Hall? Peter Latham, Policy Press, 2017.

BREXIT and TAX

VAT was introduced in the UK in 1973 as a condition of joining the then European Economic Community, the predecessor of the EU. Changes to the VAT rules require the unanimous agreement of all 28 EU countries. Originally introduced in the UK at 10%, these rules now require a minimum standard rate of 15% with one or two reduced rates, no lower than 5%, for certain specified goods on a pre-approved list. Further reduction in the VAT rate, including the use of a zero rate, is only allowed under EU rules for goods that have been taxed at that lower rate continuously since 1991. It is, therefore, under continued EU membership, a highly inflexible tax, but one not without merits. By requiring firms to deduct VAT paid on purchases from suppliers, it avoids the double taxation problem that arose with its UK predecessor, Purchase Tax. It is, nevertheless, highly ‘regressive’, i.e. it falls disproportionately on those on low incomes and leaves capital essentially untaxed. It is therefore unsurprising that, following the financial crash in 2008, the government relied on VAT to bail out the banks under its austerity strategy. VAT now contributes 21% of all the tax raised, up from 18% in 2009, and the amount raised has increased by 60% since then[i]. VAT has also made no contribution to reducing carbon emissions to help halt global warming.

In its 2017 General Election manifesto, the Labour Party called for VAT to be restricted to its current range of goods and services. However, according to the Communist Party pamphlet on The EU and Brexit – questions and answers [ii] , even this very modest proposal would breach EU rules. The potential for a progressive tax policy after we leave the EU would, however, be considerable and VAT could play a useful part in this. As was argued in From Each According to Their Means[iii], free from the EU we could vary VAT rates to meet policy objectives and give workers rebates paid through National Insurance. VAT could thus be adapted to incorporate a carbon tax along the lines of the fee and dividend model proposed by James Hansen and endorsed by the Communist University on South London in its discussion paper on Global Warming.[iv].

The people have spoken in the EU Referendum. The only vote we need now is a General Election so that the opportunities it opens up, including the reform of VAT, can be seized.

 

Footnotes

[i] according to UHY Hacker Young, quoted in Economia, February 2019

[ii] Available from the Communist Party for £1 plus postage. http://www.communist-party.org.uk.

[iii] Available from the Communist Party for £2 plus postage https://www.communist-party.org.uk/shop/pamphlets/2025-from-each-according-to-their-means.

[iv] https://communistuniversity.wordpress.com

WHAT IS BREXIT FOR?

Discussion around Brexit and the Withdrawal Agreement has concerned the Irish border and the Backstop, the loss of tariff-free access to the EU and the implications for the movement of people across borders. Remainers occasionally express concern about a potential loss of employment rights but this has little substance other than to attract naïve social democrats to the Remain cause as the EU has done nothing to resist the increasing casualisation of labour, the erosion of collective bargaining rights or anti-trade union legislation. The Big Issue that no one is debating is what sort of country will Britain be post-Brexit.

Neo-liberals tend to keep quiet about their ambitions for a post-Brexit Britain. Their dream is for a Singapore style economy twenty miles off the coast of France. This means an economy that is exploitative, de-regulated, minimally taxed, gutted of its social services and open to capital from across the world with no questions asked. Close ties with a USA are called for if only to ensure that we can continue to rent Trident and its up-grades.

Communists have a different ambition. If we are quiet about it, it is simply because the mass media does a good job ensuring that our views are not reported. We want a socialist Britain run for the benefit of those who live within its shores, not the owners of footloose international capital. To get there we will need a progressive tax system incorporating many of the ideas in our pamphlet From Each According to Their Means  (1). But as we point out in this pamphlet, many of these ideas – a land value tax; varying rates of VAT with rebates for workers to address social needs; unitary taxation of corporate profits to nullify the use of tax havens; and a tax and dividend carbon tax as advocated by  James Hansen to address global warming – would be impossible under continued membership of the EU or the Single Market.

So in the end the complexities melt away and the choice is a straightforward one: accept the block on progressive reforms that are a pre-requisite of social revolution or seize the opportunity to begin building socialism – provided, as Marx recommended in the Communist Manifesto, that we first “settle matters with our own bourgeoisie”. 

 

  1. Available from the Communist Party Shop at http://www.communist-party.org.uk/shop/pamphlets/2025-from-each-according-to-their-means.html

 

 

 

Global Warming

The Croydon Branch of the Communist Party has enthusiastically supported the decision by Croydon TUC to invite Derek Wall to speak at a public meeting at 7.30 pm at Ruskin House on Thursday, 10 January. Derek Wall is a former Principal Speaker of the Green Party but, unlike many greens, he recognises that climate change  cannot be overcome without “challenging capitalism”.

Communists agree but would go further than merely “challenging” capitalism. We seek its replacement by socialism and recognise that the scientific evidence indicates that time is running out. Furthermore, as was argued in the recent discussion paper from the Communist University in South London (CUiSL), global warming is a class issue that can only be resolved by social revolution. The only viable remedy open to capitalism if mass extinction is to be avoided is the carbon tax model proposed by James Hansen in which the tax is set at a sufficiently high level to keep fossil fuels in the ground and the revenues are distributed to citizens, not corporations. As recent decisions on fracking, airport expansion and defending Saudi Arabia demonstrate, those who own capital will never tolerate this. Their strategy is

A programme of developing green energy and promoting energy saving while leaving fossil fuel consumption to market forces

Making workers pay for the resulting costs and unavoided environmental damage

Protecting the capitalist elite even if this means retiring them to protected, secure environments

It doesn’t, however, matter how many windmills we build. If there are profits to be made from oil and gas extraction, this will continue until CO2 levels reach a point where the oceans boil dry – or, more likely, a tipping point is reached and we tumble into mass extinction.