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Book Reviews

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Corporate takeover

The Captive State. The Corporate Takeover of Britain. By George Monbiot, Macmillan.

The British state was traditionally seen by liberal commentators as one of the most "well-established" parliamentary democracies, relatively free of corruption. But this perception is changing, with much talk of a "disconnection" between the interests of the people and the activities of government. George Monbiot's book is an important contribution towards this shift of opinion.

The reluctance of many a Labour voter at the recent election can quickly turn into outright regret, after a few minutes of picking up this book. Monbiot takes the reader beyond the run-of- the-mill media illusion of politicians' and their supposedly all-important press conferences and five-point plans. This is about the incorporation of corporate interests into the machinery of government.

Monbiot shows many cases where the business agenda determines the ground rules to which government is expected to adhere. Large retail firms and construction companies, for example, are shown to have acquired a strong grip over planning and development policy. Nick Raynsford's 1998 withdrawal of Labour's pledged right of appeal against town planning decisions is one of numerous examples of broken promises and contradictions in Labour policy exposed by Monbiot.

This reviewer had a recent, first-hand experience of the absence of democracy in local government – at a council planning meeting to consider a proposed "development" behind the garden where I live (actually the removal of some old woodland to make way for a car park). All Labour party councillors voted in favour without any of them even bothering to speak in defence. Local residents had found out about the meeting in spite of it having not been officially publicised and scheduled during a holiday period. They expressed the many arguments against the plan: pollution, noise, environmental quality etc but the shameful-looking Labour councillors did not reply, knowing that they had a majority over the Conservative Party minority who opposed the plan. "And this is supposed to be a democracy," said one resident afterwards. "It was all a stitch-up – planned weeks ago," said another.

Monbiot shows that commercial interests are paramount at all levels of state decision-making. He shows how they influence government regulatory bodies and the research agendas of British universities (everything from the Environment Agency to the Biotechnology and Biology Research Council). The "Fat Cats Directory" lists many business people who have served industries such as biotechnology and petroleum, whilst also having a role in the government-run institutions that supposedly regulate these industries.

Socialists have consistently said that the State never did exist to represent the interests of the majority of us (even if a majority of voters did elect the governing party that resides within it). The picture from Monbiot of corporation-dominated government is really the logical outcome of a class-divided society where the state must serve the owning minority. So what do we do about it? Monbiot calls for

"the peaceful mobilization of millions of people in nations all over the world. Globalization, in other words must be matched with internationalism: campaigning, worldwide, for better means of government" (p.357).

"Better" government, for Monbiot, means government that is held "accountable" and actively regulates corporations. Monbiot envisages this democratisation of government as occuring on an international scale through multilateral agreements. This book still points to the willingness of transnational corporations to relocate to more favourable climates for profit-making, as well as their capacity to change government policies to suit their interests. Yet Monbiot does not reach the conclusion of socialists that the profit motive will undermine reformist attempts to restrain it.

Monbiot's vision of a political culture of "permanent agitation" is, at least, an implicit recognition of this built-in tension within capitalism. It is outlined in the final chapter entitled "A Troublemaker's Charter". The international campaign against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment is offered as an example of a successful international campaign. (This was a World Trade Organisation proposal for reducing the scope for national regulation of investment decisions; it was eventually withdrawn.) Yet, just a few pages on, the more recent Transatlantic Economic Partnership (involving the US and the EU) is introduced; a more gradualist move towards the same kind of goal, says Monbiot. So, the trouble-making should not ease up. More of it is needed as the problems of capitalism continually spill forth.

Monbiot does not consider the possibility that, when peacefully mobilised, the people of this world might seek to permanently end the cause of the social divisions he describes.

 

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Beginner's guide

Marx: a beginners guide. By Gill Hands, Hodder & Stroughton.

As a basic introduction to Marx's ideas for 10- to 16-year-olds this short book could, with some reservations, be recommended. It is rather unfortunate that this age group is not specified as it would provide a useful resource, especially for schools.

Brief summaries of Marx's ideas on philosophy, economics and history are particularly well-written. The most serious errors are in a paragraph regarding the "dictatorship of the proletariat". For Marx, this was a very brief period in which the proletariat as a whole are able to dictate to the bourgeoisie. Since the working class is the vast majority such a stage could not be undemocratic, as the author states.

Similarly, the communist (or socialist) party as the "vanguard of the proletariat" is not a concept found in Marx's writings and is entirely a Leninist product. While Marx did envisage a purely political period of transition before the creation of communism, he did not refer to this as "socialism" since in his works the terms "socialism" and "communism" are used interchangeably to refer to the new system of society following capitalism.

These and some others are common mistakes and do not detract too much from a generally useful work.

 

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A happy ending

The Millennium. By Upton Sinclair, Seven Stories Press, 2000.
Now this is a story with a real happy ending: "The last capitalist . . . starved to death . . . and the Co-operative Commonwealth reigned forever after!" As propaganda The Millennium (first published 1924), is hot stuff. Sinclair deals with such heavyweights as the revolutionary transformation of consciousness and the materialist conception of history, by concrete (if ludicrous) examples in an interesting and readable way. Yet the one basic problem is that, despite his relentless materialism, Sinclair was a utopian. It was the inevitable failure of Sinclair's previous venture, an experimental commune called Helicon Hall, that led him to write The Millennium as a play in 1907. Sinclair brings the woolly utopian ideas, such as the broad-based "humanitarian" appeal to all classes, forward with him. The most noticeable aspect of this is that his co-operative commonwealth (which is as socialist as we could possibly demand) is formed by a policy of withdrawal from capitalist society. It is, and always has been, our view, supported by historical evidence, that this strategy is doomed to failure. Useful as such communities are as examples of the possibilities of co-operation, in the long run they do not enhance the prospects of socialism.

 

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Causes of Nazi anti-Semitism

Anti-Semitism & National Socialism. By Moishe Postone, Chronos Publications.

It may seem odd that the release of an essay on the historical material causes of Nazi anti-Semitism could be timely; but this re-issue of Moishe Postone's 1986 essay certainly is.

Postone's effort is to locate the material causes of Nazi anti-Semitism neither in simple irrationalism or racism, nor in functionalist terms of fascism as the ally of big capital. Instead he locates the cause through Marx's theory of commodity fetishism: that relations between people appears as relations between things.

While the commodity hides real social relations, it also carries its own inherent contradiction between use-value and exchange-value. That is the physical objects of capitalism are also accompanied by an abstract monetary content. Postone postulates that the core of Nazi thinking lay in a Romantic favouring of the physical object over the abstracted monetary content, i.e. favouring use-value and physicality over exchange-value and ideas. This approach is flawed in as much as it still sees the concrete commodity in place of the social relationship that lies behind it, i.e. it continues to accept the basis of capitalism whilst rejecting only a part of it, the money side.

Postone contends that this can account for the fact that despite their anti-Modern tendencies, the Nazis could still favour and employ advanced technology, most horrifically in the attempted industrial destruction of a group of people. Having found the Jews as a convenient focal point for their anxieties regarding the abstraction of commodities under capitalism (Jews being themselves world-wide and seemingly apart from the communities in which they live). Thus, the Holocaust comes to be figured as an attempt to render the abstract Jew physical, firstly by slave labour, and then the stripping of their material worldly possessions, before the final annihilation of their "abstract" content through the industrial gas chambers.

This pamphlet is timely in that it relates Nazi ideology both to capitalism, and to a wider form of seeming anti-capitalism (such as the British Labour movement) which has historically counterposed industrial capital to finance capital. Indeed, this process is going on today in terms of the street anti-capitalist movement, with its opposition to the WTO and the World Bank, counterposing globalisation to a concrete localised (possibly national) capitalism.

Whilst Jews are no longer functioning as a convenient focus for this fetish, this breed of thought remains damaging and potentially dangerous. This pamphlet demonstrates the imperative for getting across a clear understanding of what capitalism is, and using that as a means to combat it, rather than attacking surfaces.

Although written in difficult and academic language, Postone has managed to get a very powerful argument across in this remarkable short essay.

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