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Book Reviews

Bullshitters

Bad Science. By Ben Goldacre. Fourth Estate. £8.99.

In 1986 an American philosopher called Harry Frankfurt wrote an essay “On Bullshit” in which, according to Goldacre who writes a “Bad Science” column for the Guardian, he drew a distinction between lying and bullshitting. A liar knows the truth and seeks to disguise it. A bullshitter doesn’t know or even care about the truth but is out to impress.

Most of those Goldacre criticises in this book are bullshitters rather than liars – though not all, there are some genuine fakes and frauds amongst them. He starts with an easy target, homeopathy, which is patently absurd (as if bottles of diluted water shaken in a particular way could cure anything) but relatively innocuous (drinking diluted water won’t harm you). Some homeopathic practitioners, however, are not and, Goldacre reports, can be very nasty towards critics.

Their argument – and that of all the other ‘alternative’ medicines – is that their treatments work. They certainly seem to in some cases. People do get better after taking the pills or whatever. But the question that needs to be answered is why. Is it because of the pills or is there some other reason? There are a number of possible explanations other than the theory of the ‘alternative’ practitioners. Sometimes the body recovers spontaneously. Some ailments go in cycles, so a bad period will be followed by a less bad one. In others, any therapy, no matter what the theory behind it, will work: any therapy or even sympathetic listening will help. Then there is the ‘placebo’ effect (people getting better because they believe they are being given a certain treatment when in fact they haven’t been) which Goldacre discusses in interesting detail.

Much of the book is devoted to his criticism of popular TV and other ‘nutritionists’, who he identifies as prize bullshitters. Why? Because there is no verified, or even verifiable, evidence for their claims. Some of them may sincerely believe in what they say but their main aim is to make money. Goldacre is quick to add that the same applies to the pharmaceutical companies who are always inventing new ‘syndromes’ for which their pills are the best cure.

Goldacre also criticises scientifically-illiterate journalists who are more interested in a story that will keep readers or pander to their prejudices, so maintaining newspaper or magazine sales, than with the real situation. This can be dangerous as over the MMR scandal as it was because of them that a number of parents left their kids unprotected against measles which they and others later contracted.

The socialist angle on all this is that under capitalism people are forced to make money, one way or another, in order to live and, given this, some will adopt dubious and even dangerous ways of doing this. And that there’ll be no snake-oil salesmen in socialism.

ALB

Life on Earth

Ground Control. By Anna Minton. Penguin £9.99.

As new shopping malls and blocks of flats are built in city centres, they represent an extension of ownership by investors and private companies at the expense of local councils. Docklands in London, for instance, is privately-owned, and the flats there are mostly in gated enclaves. The Liverpool One shopping development belongs to Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster’s property company. These places are patrolled by private security guards and rigidly control what is or is not allowed to be done there (skateboarding, for instance, or selling political journals).

These and similar changes are the focus of Minton’s book, which gives a good overview of the situation, particularly with regard to housing and general control of behaviour in public. Despite the spread of CCTV (Britain has more cameras than the rest of Europe put together), people do not feel safer in the streets; in fact, fear of crime has been increasing as crime rates themselves fall. Stop-and-search powers are used more and more, but overwhelmingly in poorer areas. Breaching an ASBO can lead to a prison sentence for doing something which was not in itself a crime.

As far as housing is concerned, one consequence of gated communities is increased control over tenants. For instance, people may be forbidden from hanging out their washing or placing pots on exterior window sills. More seriously, profits for builders and property companies take priority over satisfying people’s housing needs. As Minton says, ‘house builders have greater guarantees of profits if they limit supply and so keep prices high’. The government’s Pathfinder programme is intended to solve problems that the market cannot tackle, but in practice it can mean houses being demolished and replaced by new ones that can be sold at higher prices. If a council declares that an area is due for demolition, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, with residents keen to move away and others unwilling to move in. At the same time, newly-built homes are unsold, as mortgages are much harder to obtain during the credit crunch.

The number of official homeless is nearly 100,000, though councils restrict who counts as ‘homeless’ in order to avoid their rehousing responsibilities. The bottom of the private rented sector includes many, many properties that are damp and overcrowded. In the worst cases, this can lead to ‘buggy babies’, left in their buggy all the time because there is no proper room for them to sit or play. Their heads may get misshapen because they spend so much time lying down. What a comment on the realities of destitution under capitalism.

PB

Social capital?

Theories of Social Capital. By Ben Fine, Pluto Press, 2010

In Marxian economics capital only exists when the appropriate historical and social conditions are present. Specifically, when the means of production are generally used to exploit wage labour for profit. In capitalist economics capital is one of the 'factors of production' along with land and labour (and, in some definitions, entrepreneurship or management). Capital is money invested in production with the expectation of profit, though in capitalist economics capital is primarily a timeless asset. This is why those who have been exposed to capitalist economics will sometimes express bafflement at the socialist proposal to abolish capital. 'But any society must have capital,’ they exclaim, as if we propose to physically destroy means of production. No, any modern society must have means of production (land, factories, railways, etc.), but it is only in the capitalist system of society that the means of production takes the form of capital. Socialists want to abolish capital by establishing common ownership of the means of production, replacing production for profit with production solely for use.

In the last 20 years or so, in an attempt to promote the illusion of the inevitability of capital, the term has been widened to include 'social capital'. Fine defines social capital as 'any aspect of the social that cannot be deemed to be economic but which can be deemed to be an asset'. It can be anything from your personal acquaintances, through communal or associational activity, to your identity or culture, and so on. The objective, whether clearly recognised as such or not, is to get the notion of profit into every aspect of our lives. It should come as no surprise that one of the main sponsors of the idea of 'social capital' is the World Bank, though its use is now well-established in certain academic disciplines, such as management studies.

Fine has also written, along with Alfredo Saad-Filho, a highly recommended work on Marxian economics called Marx's 'Capital'. Now in its fourth edition (2003) it is a remarkably succinct summary (216 pages) of Marx's multi-volume Capital.

LEW


Ancestors

Tracing Your Labour Movement Ancestors. By Mark Crail. Pen & Sword Books. £12.99.

This book is rather badly titled and is actually a guide to archive holdings relating to trade union, 'socialist' and other similar organisations rather than a mere accessory to the family historian and as such is potentially extremely useful to those interested in what is termed 'labour history'.

It could also be used as a pocket guide to the historic Left (of which, it should be pointed out, the Socialist Party does not claim to be part) as the entry for each organisation includes a potted history. Unfortunately many of these are less than accurate, including that for us. For instance, a couple of minor historical errors: the group which went on to form the SPGB did not simply break "with the Social Democratic Federation over its 'reformist' line and the increasingly erratic leadership of Henry Hyndman" but because of the dallyings of the SDF with non-socialist organisations and the anti-democratic (leadership) role of its Executive Committee. Also, the Socialist Standard has not been published since the "launch" of the Party in June 1904 but from September of that year.

These are however chickenfeed compared to the ideological bloopers. Following "a tradition known as 'impossibilism'" (mainly by historians), the Socialist Party allegedly holds that "reformism is of limited value in overthrowing capitalism". Not limited value but no value whatsoever. Individual reforms – that is legislation aimed at altering particular aspects of life under capitalism – may be to the advantage or disadvantage of the working class but as a policy such legal alterations are not "stepping stones to socialism" but the road to nowhere. Capitalism reformed is still capitalism. However beneficial (or otherwise as is now usually the case) individual reforms might be, the interest of the working class lies in overthrowing capitalism, not altering its workings.

KAZ