The Assault on Truth

There were probably some raised eyebrows at Peter Oborne’s choice of the Morning Star to speak about his new book The Assault on Truth. It’s a withering and well documented piece which demonstrates how Boris Johnson, in particular, and the populist right, in general, systematically lie with impunity – but why had Oborne chosen the Morning Star to promote his book? Was he not a former journalist on the Spectator and Daily Mail and, until he resigned in 2015, Chief Political Commentator at the Daily Torygraph? Wouldn’t they provide better publicity?

Necessity drove Oborne to  choose the Morning Star.  Whether or not the readers of our yellow press would like to read it, Oborne’s book makes uncomfortable reading for the unsavoury bunch of mega rich tax avoiders  who own and manipulate our mass media . They have collectively ignored it and the state broadcasting service, aka the BBC, has predictably followed suit. Peter Oborne would have been well aware that any coverage in the Morning Star would not generate any secondary coverage by the BBC. The state broadcaster has a long standing policy of pretending that the Morning Star does not exist.

Peter Oborne is no socialist. His views appear to hark back to a golden age when capitalists behaved ‘honourably’; and he appears to share George Orwell’s anti-communism, failing in particular, to recognise that communists act in a principled way when assessing whether means justify ends – something  I endeavoured to point out in the letters section of the Morning Star following publication of his interview. He is, however, undoubtedly right to argue that Boris Johnson has plumbed new depths in dishonesty and his book is meticulously research, sourced and referenced. One would like to think that it will give Johnson and his aides a few sleepless nights – but, unfortunately, I doubt it.

References

https://morningstaronline.co.uk/article/c/truth-first-casualty-war-probity-public-life-and-politics

The Assault on Truth, Peter Oborne, Simon & Schuster, 2020 – available from your local bookshop – don’t buy it on Amazon!

THE BRITISH ACADEMY’S REPORT ON COVID

The British Academy has responded to the request in September 2020 from the Government Office for Science and published last week two reports –

  • The Covid Decade – understanding the long-term societal impacts of Covid-19
  • Shaping the Covid Decade – addressing the long term impacts of Covid-19

You can read these reports by following the links at the end of this blog.

The government was not taking much of a risk in asking the British Academy what were the long-term impacts of Covid. The Academy is part of The Establishment, comprising, as it does, more than a thousand ‘leading’ academics, few of whom could be deemed radical or cutting-edge. Although it must be conceded that the late Eric Hobsbawm, the brilliant Marxist historian and Communist Party member, was tolerated as a Fellow, more typical of its Fellows is Professor Colin Meyer who published a report for the Academy in 2019 on the Principles for Purposeful Business in which he expounded the view that it wasn’t ‘obscene to make a lot of money in the process of creating real solutions to the problems of the world’. The hollowness of this view has been further revealed during the Covid pandemic with rampant cronyism exploiting Track and Trace and PPE procurement and Big Pharma treating vaccination technology as a form of intellectual private property.

The report on Understanding the Long-term Societal Impacts of Covid-19 identifies nine areas which include, rather obviously, geographical inequalities, intergenerational and racial inequalities, health inequalities and unemployment. Also included is education, about which the report asks with stunning banality whether lifelong educational opportunities post-Covid are sufficient – whoever thought they were even before Covid! Two dimensions are, however, conspicuous by their absence: class and any detailed economic analysis of the financial mess we find ourselves in. The ‘leading economists’ on which the Academy can draw are, of course, bourgeois economists who typically ignore both distributional issues and political economy, while the ‘leading philosophers’ on which it draws are still engaged in trying to understanding the world, not, as Marx would have them do,  in trying to change it.

The report on Addressing the Long-term Societal Impacts of Covid advocates “joined up policy” across the whole range of societal elements – a sensible approach which this government (or one led by Starmer) can be relied on to ignore. Generalities proliferate while specific recommendations in this report are vague and unspecific. For example, a vague reform of the powers of central and local government is called for, not actual reform of the voting system, abolition of the upper chamber (and, as argued previously here, a randomly selected body) and specific tax raising powers for local government such as a Land Value Tax. Data sharing is called for but copyright, patents and commercial confidentiality remain unexamined. Support for community-based infrastructure is called for, but there is no mention of ending the anti-trade union laws. Everyone, including businesses, is exhorted to work together with a sense of ‘social purpose’ but there is no explanation of how that can happen when there are no common interests.

Perhaps the greatest weakness in both reports is their failure to link recovery from the Covid pandemic with the need to address global warming. Society faces one crisis, not two, and it is beyond the resources of capitalism to address it.

https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/publications/covid-decade-understanding-the-long-term-societal-impacts-of-covid-19/

https://www.thebritishacademy.ac.uk/publications/shaping-the-covid-decade-addressing-the-long-term-societal-impacts-of-covid-19/

Fixed Term Parliament?

At the end of last year, with the Covid pandemic re-igniting, the government chose to publish a draft bill to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA). The bill restores to the Prime Minster the power, concealed behind Royal prerogative, to dissolve Parliament at any time of his or her choosing. Should we be concerned?

The FTPA was a short-term fix by David Cameron, intended to tie the Lib-Dems into a five year coalition and protect him from the most regressive elements in his own party. Like the EU Referendum, another of Cameron’s short-term fixes, it failed to deliver what he wanted; but, like the EU Referendum, the FTPA was not without merit. Should we be concerned about its abolition?

Democracy literally means rule by the ‘demos’, i.e. the people, and contrasts with a number of other ‘ocracies’ such as theocracy (rule by priests), monarchy (rule by hereditary rulers) and plutocracy (rule be the very rich).  Bourgeois democracy, the model employed under capitalism[i], is more concerned with protecting capital and the interests of those who own it than in implementing the preferences of ‘the people’. Such preferences are to be expressed through market choices with only a limited expression allowed through the ballot box. Voter registration, mass media, voting systems and the manipulation of constituency boundaries ensure that voter choice does not extend to choosing socialism. Where this is occasionally threatened, for example in Spain in 1936 and Argentina in 1970, the military, often with foreign support, quickly steps in and curtails bourgeois democracy. On the whole, however, the introduction of universal suffrage has not led to a proliferation of such interventions. This can be explained by Marx’s assessment of bourgeois democracy as “allowing the oppressed once every few years to decide which particular representatives of the oppressing class shall represent and repress them in parliament” [ii] .

Only when the working class have secured state power will we experience real democracy. Meanwhile, however, it is worth campaigning for improvements in bourgeois democracy if only to expose its shortcomings. These improvements should include not only fixed-term parliaments but such reforms as

  • proportional representation, proving it is truly proportional and not controlled by the leaderships of the major political parties.
  • secure electronic voting.
  • an end to election deposits.
  • mandatory re-selection of  MPs who stand as Party candidates.
  • no more corporate donations – only individuals entitled to vote and their trade unions to be allowed to donate to political parties and subject to a lifetime ceiling of, say, £1000 per individual or trade union member.
  • local government based on the Committee System with tax raising powers.
  • a truly free press and mass media, i.e. owned by readers and listeners/viewers and certainly not by non-resident billionaires.
  • a BBC subject to democratic control, not government control.

[i] Except when it resorts to fascism or rule by military junta.

[ii] As summarised by Lenin in State and Revolution

Universities and Colleges of Further Education

In response to the derisory £50 million extra funding announced by the government to alleviate ‘student hardship’, the NUS has reminded us that students are currently being required to pay  for accommodation  they can neither  access nor, with casual  employment dried up, afford. The NUS is calling for a return to maintenance grants, more funding and an end to extortionate housing costs. In the longer term it wants a move towards ‘fully funded education’.

Communist would agree and go much further. The purposes of universities and colleges of further education are, as we see them, to provide free, open access, lifetime education to UK citizens and to conduct research that benefits the whole of society. This is best achieved when they are embedded in the local community and maintain an open door to local people. Universities should not act as businesses selling degrees in an international market. It is this mistaken aim that results in them being run by over-paid Chief Executives. Our vision of a university would be run democratically by workers, especially academics who work in the university, and other representatives from the wider community, including those from trade unions.

New Labour bears a heavy responsibility for promoting the disastrous business model for universities and treating degrees as commodities against which purchasers need to borrow. As in other areas, New Labour set the ball rolling which subsequent Tory and Tory/Lib Dem coalition governments continue to keep kicking down the road.

What can be done? It will be a hard struggle to achieve the free, open access, lifetime education we need. This is part of the wider political struggle in which the Communist Party is engaged. The Communist University in South London (CUiSL) does, however, demonstrate, on a very small scale and without any state backing or resources beyond those provided by the Communist Party, a viable, alternative model for university level education based on open and free access. It is for this reason that the Croydon Branch of the CP decided at its AGM this month to re-activate CUiSL as soon as classes at Ruskin House can safely resume. It was also decided that CUiSL would be returning to class discussions of topics and classic Marxist texts rather than committing itself to further extensive research projects such as global warming paper and (until it passed it over to the CP Economics Commission) banking.

I will post up specific proposals and plans for CUiSL as soon as we have them.

INCOMPETENT, CORRUPT AND MENDACIOUS

Writing in the Guardian today (Monday 1 February) Nesrine Malik struggles with the problem of why, with its ‘incompetent, corrupt and mendacious handling of the pandemic’ the Tories retain an approval rating of around 40% in the polls. Partial explanations are offered, including a mass media compromised by “credulity and ideological fellow feeling” (whether this includes the Guardian itself is not elucidated) and reluctance by voters to dump a failing leader at times of national crisis – not something that saved Neville Chamberlain. The actual cause of the Tories’ resilience lies, however, closer to the Guardian’s door than Nesrine Malik might care to ponder. The Guardian, with its unambiguous ‘remain’ line and tepid support for Jeremy Corbyn when he was under attack by the Parliamentary Labour Party, must assume some responsibility for the resulting compromised state of the Labour Party under its new leader, Sir Keir Starmer. But this is not the whole story. Things could have gone differently.

 Corbyn’s successful leadership campaign in 2017 revealed what many of us knew at the time: there is a substantial, largely unrepresented, body of opinion that wants, and will campaign for, socialism.  With very few exceptions, the Parliamentary Labour Party harbours no such ambition, and it did everything it could to undermine and eventually remove Jeremy Corbyn. Yet he could have prevailed if he been able to convince a clear majority of Labour Party members and Labour voters to respect the EU referendum and leave the EU. As this was actually Corbyn’s own view, it would not have been an impossible task. There was an excellent case that could have been made for ‘leave’ that had nothing to do with the Tories’ appeals to xenophobia and racism.  

 As the Communist Party has long recognised, the EU, with its powerless parliament and unalterable judgments by its Court of Justice, is fundamentally undemocratic and quite impossible to reform from the inside.  Indeed, as Greece demonstrated, had we abandoned Sterling and adopted the Euro as Tony Blair wished, even the option to leave would have been foreclosed. To counterpose, as the EU does, the free movement of capital with the free movement of labour is to entrench the power of the former and fetter the power of the latter. If Corbyn had stood by his principles and made these arguments to Labour members and Labour voters, he could have won them over. Instead, the Brexit debate inside the Labour Party, as elsewhere, was concerned with other issues, some real, some emotional, conducted through the medium of endless parliamentary squabbling which voters failed to understand and with which they soon tired. The Labour line on the EU in the 2019 general election was confused, the election was lost and Corbyn could be effortlessly ejected by the Parliamentary Labour Party and replaced by Starmer.

Is it then so surprising that public opinion has not turned from the Tories and to Labour? Labour under Starmer offers no prospect of radical reform, still less a road to socialism.  Labour under Starmer reverts to the traditional offer expected from right wing Labour:  we will manage capitalism better than the Tories. If voters are bored with or indifferent to this offer, even in the face of ‘incompetent, corrupt and mendacious handling of the pandemic’, who can blame them?

If only we could impeach Boris Johnson

Given our political system, restricted democracy and private ownership of mass media, there is little prospect of holding the present government, and Boris Johnson in particular, to account for their mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic. We lack even the theoretical possibility that exists under the US Constitution of impeaching the leader of the government. Impeachment is a power that should be invested in a second chamber, but the House of Lords is spectacularly unsuitable for exercising this power. Not only is it unrepresentative, it’s stuffed with Tory donors and cronies of the Prime Minster and his predecessors.

Our political affairs don’t have to be organised in this way. One alternative to the House of Lords would be a second chamber selected by lottery, a system called ‘sortition’ that has its roots in ancient Greek democracy.  The field for selection might be drawn from everyone over a certain age or from only those who self-nominate. Unlike the present House of Lords, the term should be fixed and convicted felons and the certifiably insane excluded. Such a body would be well placed to consider a motion to impeach the Prime Minister or any of his ministers.  To maintain its reputation and public esteem it should also have the power to impeach its own members by a majority or qualified majority vote.

Impeachments requires an inditement. In a more democratic system this would originate in the lower chamber but in our two party system distorted by first-past- the-post voting and a capitalist controlled media, we clearly cannot leave this to the House of Commons.  Exceeding a threshold vote in a plebiscite would be the best way of creating an inditement for the second chamber to consider.

We all probably have our own ideas about what an inditement of Boris Johnson for dereliction of duty and mis-management of the Covid-19 pandemic should contain. What are yours?

Carbon Tax

Capitalism’s shambolic response to Covid, especially that of the Johnson government, does not bode well for its ability to address the climate change crisis. Professor Henry D Jocoby’s advocacy in the Guardian on Tuesday, 5 January, of a fiscally neutral carbon tax to contain emissions is a timely reminder of the tough decisions that will be needed. A government such as ours which seems intent on not annoying its own most reactionary supporters while being willing to exploit workers, including teachers, NHS staff and other ‘key’ workers, to breaking point appears particularly unsuited for the task.  

Professor Jacoby’s proposal is not a new one. A fiscally neutral  carbon tax was advocated by James Hansen in his book Storms of my Grandchildren  more than ten years ago and was endorsed in the discussion paper on Global Warming by the Communist University in South London (link below). As for the rate for such a tax, Professor Jacoby gives by way of example a rate of $0.50 per Kilogram of CO2, but James Hansen saw this tax as one that would be increased annually until even the least costly hydro-carbons to extract would not be worth extracting. Some indication of the eventual rate of such a tax is provided by the marginal cost of Saudi Arabian crude, which is thought to be currently around $4 per barrel and its selling price of around $60 a barrel. A barrel of oil contains around 0.4 kg of CO2. To keep Saudi oil in the ground would take a tax of $56 a barrel or $140 per kilogram of CO2.  Some estimates of the cost of environmental damage per kilogram  of CO2  are indeed of this order, but such a high final rate might not be called for as green energy sources would expand to replace first the more expensive hydrocarbons. Nevertheless, even less high carbon tax rates would not only impoverish workers, they would create an immense tax revenue that governments would be unable to spend efficiently. This explains the need for a fiscally neutral tax. This neutrality would be achieved by re-distributing most of the proceeds of the tax on a per capita basis, enabling workers to pay the higher energy costs resulting from gradually turning off the tap of hydrocarbons. The possibility of implementing a realistic Universal Basic Income might at last become a real possibility.

A carbon tax would, of course, not be confined to oil. It would apply to all hydrocarbons including those implicit in imports. Thus a system of assessing and accounting for carbon content in all commodities would be called for. Only in this way can governments be held to account for CO2 emissions and their inclination to meet national CO2 reduction targets simply by closing manufacturing and substituting imported products forestalled.

A capitalist government would, of course, be unlikely to distribute the tax proceeds from a carbon tax on a per capita basis. It is fundamental to a capitalist economy that labour receives only sufficient to enable it to reproduce while the social surplus is accumulated by capital. Whether this remains possible, i.e. whether capitalism can survive global warming, is an open question that will be tested.    

GLOBAL WARMING – CUiSL discussion paper

UNDERSTANDING THE UK-EU AGREEMENT

It’s not easy to understand the draft UK-EU Agreement on Trade and Co-operation, but you will find a link to it below if you wish to try. For an excellent overall political assessment, I recommend that by Rob Griffith, our General Secretary, and John Foster, our International Secretary, in the Morning Star today (28 December 2020). From a totally different perspective there is also an excellent assessment by George Monbiot, link below. Monbiot’s politics encompass a participatory but parliamentary democracy that would somehow ‘respect’ the environment and guarantee welfare for all. Monbiot is neither a Marxist nor its practical embodiment, a communist. The weakness in his approach is apparent to Marxists, but it is nevertheless, encouraging that his assessment has much in common with that of Rob Griffiths and John Foster.


The Labour Party, on the other hand, has offered no clear assessment of the agreement, only a short-term tactical response. Keir Starmer, desperate to project an image of himself as someone who, in words that remind us of Tony Blair, “takes tough decisions in the national interest” immediately endorsed the agreement without much comment or insight and told Labour MPs to vote for it.


It now falls to the wider labour movement, not the Parliamentary Labour Party, to build a united movement focused on the fight for socialism.

Links
The draft EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement

George Monbiot assessment

Keir Starmer’s response

The Article by Rob Griffiths and John Foster is not yet posted on Morning Star Online but will no doubt appear shortly

CARNAGE AT THE BBC

We have come to expect in recent years little from the BBC Reith Lectures but the current series of three by Mark Carney, former Governor of the Bank of England, beginning today will not be without interest. Link here

Carney provided today a clear explanation of how neo-classical economics disregarded most of Adam Smith’s teaching and turned the rest on its head, substituting subjective value for the labour value employed by classical economists.  The dire consequences for us all were well described – a society that knows the price of everything, the value of nothing and considers itself powerless to address the distribution of wealth. There were references to Bentham and John Stuart Mill, but no mention of Marx’s Labour Theory of Value with which he overcame the problems inherent in classical value theory. Where Carney really began to flounder was when he touched on solutions. Calling for a limit to the expansion of markets into every corner of society and for corporate leaders to be induced in some unexplained way to act more ‘responsibly’ simply won’t cut it. It will be interesting to see whether he bottles out of calling for a comprehensive carbon tax in the final lecture. It can be argued that a carbon tax such as advocated by James Hansen is the only means by which capitalism can now survive.

The BBC could be relied on to pick only the most anodyne of questions following the lecture and it didn’t disappoint.  Questions were taken from, amongst others, John Osborne, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and Ed Balls, the former Economic Secretary.  This speaks for itself.  

The depth of Carney’s economic thinking was, nevertheless, profound compared with what passes for much economic discussion in our mass media today. The remaining lectures will be worth hearing; but in my experience you will, nevertheless, find much more profound and insightful analysis and discussion at Communist Party meetings, in the pages of the Morning Star and provided by the Marx Memorial Library.

Climate Change and Aviation

Climate Change, its consequences and who will bear the cost of ameliorating them,  is for communists a class issue. Some further evidence of this has been provided by recent disclosures about the airline industry.

According to a (typically muddled) speech by Transport Minister Grant Schapps on 19 October, it appears that, by one definition at least, the airline industry is receiving 11% of the entire government Covid support. Meanwhile, Heathrow Airport, owned by a consortium including Spanish group Ferrovial and the Qatar sovereign wealth fund, is appealing against the  High Court ruling that the third runway plan is illegal. The Court  found that ministers had failed to take into account its impact on the climate change!  Following the decision to appeal, a spokesperson for Heathrow commented that “once the benefits of air travel and connectivity have been restored … an expanded Heathrow will be required.”

With the government committed to bailing out the airline industry, who actually will benefit from this restoration of “air transport and connectivity”?  Research  by Gössling and Humpe published this month in the journal Global Environmental Change (link below),finds that 1% of frequent flyers cause half of aviation emissions. While this 1% is not quite the same as the 1% who own  half the world’s wealth, it is not unreasonable to conclude that the beneficiaries of “air transport connectivity” are the latter.

What about the impact on climate change of emissions from aviation? In the same paper   Gössling and Humpe point out that these emissions grew by a factor of 6 to 8 times between 1960 and 2018 and industry estimates prior to Covid indicated a further tripling between 2020 and 2050. Government meanwhile appears content with such projections. It ignores emissions from  aviation,(just as it ignores emissions from imported goods). This could render commitments to achieving zero net emissions by 2050 meaningless.

If aviation  emissions are a class issue, what is the solution? In a capitalist society taxing leisure flying might be attempted – but the 1% are unlikely to be deterred by even a 100% sales tax. A planned approach would be possible in a socialist society, with the ‘need to fly’ the criterion, not the ability to pay. How might we apply such a criterion to business and government flights?  Covid has demonstrated that much business flying is totally unnecessary. Business has no need to transport its top executives across the world in first class luxury by plane and still less by private jet. Remote conferencing provides a perfectly adequate alternative and will, in future, become even better  with the development of  hologram projection. Meanwhile, let’s not forget second class rail travel for our over-privileged business executives.

We face a climate emergency. It’s about time we started treating it as such.

Reference

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378020307779