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Book Reviews

Market analyst

Why not socialism? By G. A. Cohen. Princeton University Press, 2009.

This pocket-size 83-page book is easy to read and it’s easy to agree with some of what the author writes. But it’s hard to see him as he no doubt saw himself (he died in August just before the book came out): someone who understands the different between capitalism and socialism.

First the positive things in the book. These mostly centre around Cohen’s critical remarks about some aspects of capitalism: “I give as little service as I can in exchange for as much service as I can get: I want to buy cheap and sell dear”. And although he favours market ‘socialism’ he does recognise how similar it is to market capitalism: “exchange under market socialism is no less market exchange than it is under capitalism”.

Now the longer list of things to disagree with: “it is a familiar socialist policy to insist on equality of both income and hours of work”. No, that isn’t a socialist policy. In socialism there won’t be (money) incomes or insistence that we all work the same hours.

Cohen claims that socialism is infeasible “even if people are, or could become, in the right culture, sufficiently generous, we do not know how to harness that generosity: we do not know how, through appropriate rules and stimuli, to make generosity turn the wheels of the economy”. In socialism we shall treat each other as fellow humans not as commodities. It has nothing to do with harnessing generosity or turning the wheels of the economy.

“Market socialism does not fully satisfy socialist standards of distributive justice, but it scores far better by those standards than market capitalism does, and is therefore an eminently worthwhile project, from a socialist point of view.” No, it isn’t.

To sum up, Cohen writes of “We socialists.” But he should really say “We ‘market socialists’ who muddy the water about what socialism means…”

SRP
 

Full House

Sarah Glynn, ed: Where the Other Half Lives: Lower Income Housing in a Neoliberal World. Pluto Press £16.99.

Social housing (also known by various other names, especially council housing) has generally been aimed at workers on below-average incomes, though its extent has varied from country to country. This book studies the effects on social housing of the implementation of ‘neoliberal’ policies, which involve the partial dismantling of the welfare state and of Keynesian government initiatives. Its particular strength is its coverage of developments in a number of countries.

In the UK the 1890 Housing Act made it easier for local authorities to build and manage houses, though these were still expected to make a profit. A further act of 1919 allowed for government subsidies but was seen as a temporary measure in the immediate post-war period. It was not until the mid-twenties that a major programme of building council houses began. Social housing has generally been regarded as subordinate to the private sector, and as too expensive for the very poorest, who were forced into privately-rented slums. Housing associations may have started as self-help organisations, but are now just part of the whole housing industry.

Social housing has been more widespread in Scotland than in England, and once housed over half the population. Stock transfers and demolitions, however, have drastically reduced this figure. A chapter on the recent situation in Dundee notes that only one-fifth of houses there are currently council-owned, there is a backlog of over six thousand homes, and only two hundred new council homes are built each year.
 
The proportion of home ownership in France is considerably lower than in Britain. In 2008, more than one million French people were classed as homeless and over two million as poorly housed, with six million at risk of losing their homes for one reason or another. As might be expected, the US has never had more than a marginal role for social housing. Under neoliberalism, even this has been scaled back, with houses demolished and tenants given vouchers that can be accepted by private landlords, but inevitably private rents are driven up and people are forced to live further out in cities.

Of course there have been various forms of resistance, such as rent strikes and the tent cities set up in Paris and other French towns. Sadly, these can do little to alter the fact that under capitalism, whatever the role of social housing and the state, decent and secure housing is unavailable to large numbers of workers. Neither Keynesian nor neoliberal policies can deliver good-quality affordable homes. And a lot of council housing is shoddy and badly-designed.

In our review copy one batch of pages was bound upside-down. Possibly an unintended comment on the topsy-turvy priorities of housing under capitalism.

PB

End of work?

Critical Social Theory and the End of Work.. By Edward Granter. Ashgate, 2009. £55.

The main theme of this book (adapted from a PhD thesis) is that work is being eliminated through the use of advanced production technology. The Critical Social Theory in the title refers to the publications of the Frankfurt School (notably Adorno, Horkheimer, Lowenthal and Marcuse) but the views on work of other critical social theorists such as Marx and Gorz are also included.

Sensibly Granter devotes a few pages to definitions of work, but the results are disappointing. The author wastes space telling us that someone thinks work is “picking something up and putting it down somewhere else because you have to”. Gorz is more helpful in pointing out that “‘work’ nowadays refers almost exclusively to activities carried out for a wage”. Curiously Granter writes of work hundreds of times but hardly mentions employment. He doesn’t seem at all clear that although all employment involves work, not all work is employment.

The chapter on utopians and the end of work summarises what More, Fourier and the little-known Etzber had to say on the subject. Apparently Etzber though that the ‘powers in nature’ (wind, solar, tidal energy) could be developed to replace all human labour. The two pages devoted to William Morris correctly note that his News From Nowhere was a reaction to Bellamy’s Looking Backward, but the fail to convey much of the richness of Morris’s imagination about what work will be like in socialist society.

Granter’s discussion of Marx quotes from no less than 14 of his works and the author believes there are “many Marxisms”. He confuses the issue by referring to “the erstwhile superpower that many saw as operating on Marxist principles…” It is also misleading to say that “The idea of the end of work is at the centre of Marx’s vision of a future society…” Granter is however on stronger ground when he writes that Marx was not in any way against work and did advocate its “radical transformation”.

Prior to a short concluding section, the final chapter is about globalisation and work. This is by far the most opinionated and forceful chapter, offering the most devastating critique of capitalism. Starting with Marx’s “It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connection everywhere,” Granter goes on to show that the impetus for globalisation “comes primarily from the need of the expanding capitalist system to maximise profit”. The worst victims are Britain’s underpaid, easy to sack, second class workforce of migrant labour, ‘a world of gangmasters, zero hour contracts, the minimum wage [or less] and eventually no employment rights.”

SRP

Free

Free. The Future of a Radical Price.  By Chris Anderson. Random House. 2009. £18.99.

“What happens when advances in technology allow many things to be produced for more or less nothing? And what happens when those things are then made available to the consumer for free?” asks the publicity for this (paying) book by the editor of Wired. His answer is not that this is the beginning of some sort of transition towards a system where eventually all goods and services will be available free of charge (which it isn’t anyway). It’s that profit-seeking enterprises involved in these things have to adopt, have adopted and will increasingly adopt, a different marketing strategy.

Thus, enterprises in that line of business can choose to give away free DVDs and charge for DVD-players or they can give away free DVD-players and charge for DVDs, in either case covering their costs and making a profit.

It is, as Anderson explains, a modern version of the strategy adopted by saloon owners in New Orleans in the 1880s. They offered customers free lunches banking on them buying drinks priced so as to cover the cost of the lunches. Hence the saying “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. Today – and it will be the case as long as capitalism lasts – there’s no such thing either as a free DVD or a free paper or a free mobile. Those giving them away will be recuperating the cost from something else that they are selling.

Still, it can’t be bad that there are books discussing things being free.

ALB

Workers' education
 
Plebs. By Colin Waugh, Post-16 Educator. 221 Firth Park Road, Sheffield S5 6WW. £3

This large-size pamphlet is misleadingly subtitled 'The lost legacy of independent working-class education', giving the impression that it deals with a larger subject than it actually does. As an account of the Ruskin strike of 1909, it is a useful summary, giving extensive background to the decision of the highly politicised Ruskin students to boycott lectures in defence of Dennis Hird, the Principal dismissed in the struggle to extend University control over the college. There is a section on the influence of Daniel De Leon on some of the students and on the choice of the word "Plebs" (from his pamphlet Two Pages of Roman History).

However, rather more information would have been appreciated as to the results of the strike – namely the establishment of the Central Labour College as a radical alternative to Ruskin and what became the National Council of Labour Colleges as a riposte to the Workers Education Association. The fate of these organisations, namely withdrawal of funds by the trade unions, is particularly important because the author asserts a need for 'independent working class education' in the present day. We in the Socialist Party agree that it is necessary to understand all aspects of capitalism in order to bring about social change but point out that such education cannot be the work of defensive organisations such as trade unions but must be part and parcel of the work of the offensive political organisation of the working class.

KAZ