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Book Reviews

Sick Society


Stan Cox: Sick Planet: Corporate Food and Medicine. Pluto Press £14.99.


This book examines the impact on workers, consumers and the whole planet of the production of medicines, food and various chemicals. Cox’s scientific expertise makes it more than just another volume about the destruction of the environment. (For more information, see


India is a major manufacturer of bulk drugs (raw materials for various pills and tablets), mainly for export. One consequence is that factories producing these bulk drugs pollute their local environment, leading to greater ill-health among residents. One study found that cancer rates were eleven times higher in villages near such factories than those further away. Perhaps this is a global version of a tendency that Cox notes for the US: the most heavily polluting factories are found in the poorest areas, where inhabitants and local government will be more concerned with supposed economic benefits than with environmental damage.


The dominance of factory-style methods in animal rearing makes it far more likely that food will be poisoned in some way. For instance, meat is often contaminated with faeces when it leaves the slaughterhouse. The rearing of poultry has become a vast labour-intensive machine, with repetitive strain injury being prevalent among workers who perform the same small series of actions hour after hour. Cox quotes a neurosurgeon who attempts to repair some of the damage done to these employees: “They become washed out of their humanity. Lives and families are devastated. If the company can demoralize, harass or degrade an injured worker, they will do it.”


In addition to pollution resulting from the production of medicines and food, there are plenty of other ways in which our environment is poisoned. For instance, Teflon makes saucepans easier to clean, but when heated it can give off perfluorochemicals (PFCs). These have entered the bloodstreams of humans and animals in many parts of the world, and are likely to stay around for a very long time, yet their safety is at the very least controversial.


In his final chapter, Cox looks at why production of items that seem to be useful is so often bad for us. Referring to Marx’s Capital, he argues that capitalism without growth is impossible, so it’s the capitalist need for profit that is responsible for the poisoning of the planet and its people. It is hard to see much merit in his proposal that we should develop small organisations that will form part of an unspecified system that will succeed capitalism. But it’s harder to disagree with his conclusion that we cannot have both capitalism and a liveable planet.



Gray Matter


John Gray: Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. Penguin £8.99.


Gray’s main argument is that unrealistic political aims should be abandoned and replaced by goals which are truly achievable. It is probably difficult to disagree with this as a general principle, but of course it all depends on what is regarded as realistic and unrealistic.


Quite a bit of Gray’s discussion is aimed at the impossibility of establishing a Socialist society. While Marx was an unrivalled analyst of capitalism, he says, his view of the future society was impractical. Central planning is bound to fail, since nobody can know enough to plan a modern economy; but this is based on the misconception that there will be an office somewhere that decides how many widgets will be produced and where. Other claims fare no better: it’s just not true that Lenin’s State and Revolution is rooted in Marx’s writings on the dictatorship of the proletariat. Lenin twisted Marx’s idea of a transitional form of state into a vicious repressive regime that ruled over workers. Gray’s view that Marx and Engels saw terror as part of the revolution is based on remarks made in a talk in 1850, rather than on any of their mature works. In any case, it deals with how workers should act if bourgeois democrats came to power (specifically in Germany) rather than with the aftermath of a Socialist revolution (the text is at


Furthermore, Gray claims that no trace has ever been found of ‘primitive communism’ (which is not true either — see the Socialist Standard for December 2006, on life before the Neolithic Revolution). A Socialist society is allegedly impossible because it would pursue harmony and so clash with ‘the diversity of human values’, since apparently a moneyless society would be a vision of hell to some people. To which we can only say that capitalists who yearn for a world where they are billionaires will just have to lump it in Socialism.


And what of the realism that ought to replace all this supposed utopianism? According to Gray, ‘The root of realist thinking is Machiavelli’s insight that governments exist, and must achieve all of their goals in a world of ceaseless conflict that is never far from a state of war’. The heart of realism is ‘its assertion of the innate defects of human beings’. In other words, we should accept capitalism with its violence and poverty, since people are too fierce and unreasonable to live in harmony. But the true realistic approach is to see through the pretensions of capitalism and its supporters and take the view that a society based on cooperation is a practical possibility.


Descriptive economics


Economics for Everyone. By Jim Stanford. Pluto Press.


This is a very readable description (rather than analysis) of how capitalism works, at least in the form we know it at the moment. At first sight, Stanfords definition of capitalism seems alright:


There are two key features that make an economy capitalist.

1. Most production of goods and services is undertaken by privately-owned companies, which produce and sell their output in hopes of making a profit. This is called production for profit.

2. Most work in the economy is performed by people who do not own their company or their output, but are hired by someone else in return for a money wage or salary. This is called wage labour.


Production for profit and wage labour are indeed defining features of capitalism, but elsewhere Stanford makes it clear that he thinks that it is not production for profit as such that defines capitalism but only production for private profit. One defining feature of capitalism, he writes later, is that most production is undertaken to generate private profit.


But this is to ignore the experience of the former USSR and of nationalised industries in the West, where the economy was still based on wage labour but where those who controlled the State or who ran the state-owned industries still undertook production to generate a profit extracted from the labour of the wage and salary workers. He has made the same mistake here as the old Labour Party thinkers who identified capitalism only with private enterprise capitalism, completely ignoring state capitalism (which in fact they were in effect advocating).


Because his approach is purely descriptive, Stanford dismisses Marxs labour theory of value on the grounds that it cant be observed directly. It is true that the market price of goods is not a direct reflection of the amount of what Marx called socially necessary labour-time incorporated in them, but is fixed by enterprises adding the going rate of profit to the costs of producing them. But the going rate of profit can only be adequately explained on the basis of the labour theory of value (as an averaging amongst capitals of the total surplus value produced).


Stanford accepts because its obvious that wealth can be produced only by work on nature-given material, but because his approach is purely descriptive he has to explain profits as a sort of ransom extracted from workers by private capitalist firms by virtue of them having private property rights over means of production. This is one way of putting it but, without a theory of value as well as a theory of price, there is no way of establishing the amount and limit of profits. In fact, Stanford says that if the perfect competition of the economics textbooks existed it would reduce profits to zero as goods would sell just at their cost price. Marxs labour theory of value explains why this wouldnt happen and why the price of goods would still contain some surplus value.


Stanford is also wrong about banks. He seems to think that they simply create credit as they wish, to lend to private industry and to individuals. Banks do indeed lend money and they do have a choice of who to lend to and when and this does have economic consequences, but they can only lend what has been deposited with them or what they have borrowed from other banks and financial institutions. They do just recycle spare money.


Stanford, an economist working for the Canadian Auto Workers union, writes as an open reformist who would like to see capitalism reformed so as to be what it is like in the Scandinavian countries. Although this is disappointing, it is heartening to see criticism of capitalism surfacing again and being given serious consideration.



Reclaiming Marx's “Capital.” By Andrew Kliman. Lexington Books, 2007


After Karl Marx's Capital was published it has come in for criticism from a particular direction. In Volume One of Capital (1867), Marx argued that the value of commodities (goods and services produced for sale and profit) are determined by socially necessary labour-time. Profit comes from unpaid surplus labour appropriated as surplus value. In Volume Three of Capital (1894), Marx explained that commodities tend to sell at prices of production, which is the price sufficient to yield the average rate of profit on capital advanced, and commodities actually sell at market prices which fluctuate around prices of production (assuming no monopolies). Marx indicated in Volume One that in a later book he would show the difference between value and price, as his analysis moved from the abstract to the determinate. And we now know, though Kliman does not mention this, that the notes which comprise Volume Three and edited for publication by Engels after Marx's death were written before the manuscript of Volume One.


However, many economists (including some who claim to be Marxist) maintain that prices cannot be derived from values in the way Marx described. In economics this is known as “the transformation problem”, but it has implications for other aspects of Marx's theory of value. What are the objections? The critics start by making a couple of assumptions about Marx's theory. Firstly, it is assumed that value and price must be two separate systems. Secondly, it is assumed that inputs into production and the outputs that subsequently emerge must be valued simultaneously, and the input and output prices must be equal. When these assumptions are made, so the critics claim, Marx's theory of value becomes “internally inconsistent” and breaks down.


However, these assumptions are mistaken. In Marx's theory, value and price are interdependent; profit exists when, but only when, surplus labour has been performed. The assumption that value and price must be two separate systems implies that there can be profit without surplus labour, which is a major misinterpretation of Marx's theory. And the assumption concerning simultaneous valuation and the equal prices of inputs and outputs flatly contradicts the main principle upon which Marx's value theory is founded, that value is determined by labour-time. It is because valuation necessarily involves labour-time that input and output prices can differ. Kliman shows that the “internal inconsistencies” appear when the theory is viewed as a simultaneous valuation and disappear when not viewed as a simultaneous valuation. In short, the critics have badly misunderstood Marx's theory of value.