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Book Reviews

What’s In Your Shopping Trolley?

Andrew Simms: Tescopoly. Constable £7.99.

This is not just about Tesco but about the ways that supermarkets in general drive other shops out of business, put an end to true community life and exploit their suppliers. Waitrose, for example, are now seen as a big threat by delis and farm shops (Guardian, 3 July).

On the other hand, Tesco is clearly viewed here as the main villain of the piece, being the dominant grocer in 81 of the UK’s 121 postcode areas. In Swansea, for instance, 54p of every pound spent on groceries is spent at Tesco. In the year ending February 2006, it made £2.2 billion in profit. It’s also expanding abroad, e.g. intending to open 47 stores in South Korea in 2006–7. (For more on Tesco see www.tescopoly.org, which is not connected with this book.)

Among the tactics that have made Tesco so (in capitalist terms) successful include: selling some products below cost; selling others at whatever they can get away with; undermining competitors in various ways; paying suppliers less than the industry average. Child labour is common among clothing suppliers, while prices for bananas, for instance, have been constantly driven down (more than halving in real terms over the last forty years). Tesco in effect get loans from suppliers, as they don’t pay for goods till some time after receiving them, while they of course get the money from sales straight away.

Supermarkets restrict our choice of where and to shop and what to buy. They tend to force local shops to go under, and this has a domino effect on other local services, from window-cleaners to accountants. Villages which have no general store of their own ‘quickly lose their identities’, according to the Countryside Agency.

Simms is well aware that Tesco and other supermarkets are simply doing what ‘the system’ allows and what investors expect, i.e. making the biggest profit it can. The global food industry is organised to meet the demands of investors rather than to feed people. He is pleased when people get together to persuade the council to block a planning application from Tesco. But he seems to think that moving to a society of small shops in place of giant superstores is really going to make a big difference. In reality what is needed is further reflection on the idea of food being produced to feed people, and realisation that this means an end not just to superstores but to production for profit, whether of food or anything else.

PB

Crying Wolf

Six Degrees. Our Future on a Hotter Planet. By Mark Lynas. Fourth Estate. 2007. £12.99

Why do some campaigners against climate change have to exaggerate? Lynas argues that, unless the emission of greenhouse gases peaks by 2015 – in only eight years from now – we will be heading for a “runaway global warming and the destruction of most life on Earth” by 2100.

His book traces, on the basis of scientific studies and hypotheses, the effects on climate and the other changes this will bring, of an average global temperature rise of 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6º centigrade respectively. A rise of 1º to 2º by 2100 is already, he says, inevitable, given past and likely CO² emissions up to 2015 but this would be tolerable. His contention is that any rise above this level will not only have damaging effects in terms of rising sea levels, more violent storms, more droughts and desertification, but if CO² go on rising will start a runaway warming that will, when the temperature rise reaches 5- 6º, create Hell on Earth.

Socialists are not climatologists. So, in the debate over global warming we can only exercise critical thinking while taking into account the views of the majority of scientists working in the field. Their view, as expressed in the Fourth Assessment report of the International Panel on Climate Change in February is that:

Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.

This statement has clearly been carefully worded. Most, that is, not all, leaving room for the possibility that some may be due to natural phenomena beyond human control such as increased solar radiation or volcanic activity. Since the mid-20th century, that is, not since 1900, nor since the industrial revolution, but since the time averaged global temperature began rising again after falling in the 1950s and 1960s. Very likely, that is, we are not fully certain as we dont yet know the exact relationship between a given increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and an increase in average global temperature.

The Earth is warming and this is causing problems and something needs to be done about it. Our contention is that the only framework within which anything lastingly effective can be done is a world where the Earths resources have become the common heritage of all humanity, so eliminating the vested commercial interests and market forces that have caused global warming. Crying wolf, as Lynas does, doesnt help towards understanding this.

ALB

Watering down socialism

We won’t pay! By Gary Mulcahy. Published by ‘Socialist Party’. £3.

This pamphlet somewhat tediously sets out in detail the arguments offered by those - probably the great majority across the social spectrum in Northern Ireland - who are opposed to the proposed introduction of water charges.

Despite the generality of this opposition, it is the fragmented Left that have made the issue their current hobby-horse. Indeed, given the strength of opposition to water charges, it should prove a unifying element among those who support the notion that the capitalist leopard can have its spots removed one at a time. The pamphlet is aimed at the creation of a united Left front to the charges; however in lengthy and vigorous excoriation of their political kindred, it shows that while there is agreement on purpose within the Left there is acrid diversity regarding the means of achieving that purpose.

These verbal punch-ups are endemic within the Left; inevitable political afterthoughts nourished in the fecund soil of failure and disillusion brought about by the belief that they can control or seriously influence capitalism without the overwhelming authority of a socialist-conscious working class.

These ‘vanguard cadres’ don’t view the democratic process as a means of achieving the revolutionary change from capitalism to socialism. They aim at 'improvement', at making capitalism better for its wage slaves which is akin to suggesting that the slaughter house should be made better for the cattle.

Against the Marxian view that the achievement of socialism must be the work of the working class this so-called ‘Socialist Party’ (a reincarnation of Militant) adheres to the absurdly arrogant Leninist thesis that workers are incapable of emancipating themselves and must be led to political salvation by a political elite.

The pioneers of the socialist movement held to the view that since capitalism was based on the exploitation of the working class it could not function in the interests of that class. Understanding this essential truth they urged workers to organise to end capitalism. As Marx put it, workers should abandon the conservative motto ‘A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ and, instead, to inscribe on their banner ‘Abolition of the wages system’.

However well-intentioned Left reformists might be it is a fact that by distorting the essential meaning of the terms socialism and communism (which Marx and Engels used interchangeably) they have seriously set back the growth of socialist consciousness.

A gross example of this distortion appears on page 47 of the pamphlet under the heading ‘The Need For a Socialist Alternative’. The author recites a few of the greater obscenities of recent capitalist plunder and cites the need for a mass socialist party to - no! not to abolish capitalism; not to use our unified power to end its iniquitous wages and money system; not to dump commodity production into the dustbin of history - but to retain what is patently now a harmful social anachronism but under the aegis of the state. Probably they would argue that unlike Lenin and the totalitarian empire he endorsed when his ‘vanguard’ established state capitalism in Russia, their vanguard would be more socially virtuous.

RM