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Book Reviews: 'Hate', 'Remaking Scarcity', 'The Psychopath Test'

On the Right-Wing

Hate. By Matthew Collins, Biteback Publishing, 2011. £14.99.

Subtitled ‘My Life in the British Far Right’this is the story of a former member of the National Front in the late 80s and early 90s who then became close to the leadership of the British National Party in the days when it was more openly Nazi than it is now. Collins also later became a fringe participant in the violent Combat 18 group of Nazis and is in a similar mould to other former far-right activists like Ray Hill and Tim Hepple who became ‘moles’for the anti-fascists associated with Searchlight magazine.

It is an account that is frightening but entertaining in equal measure, giving an insight into the mindset that drives someone from a white, working class background to be involved in fascist politics. It also gives an insight into some of the violent tactics and internal feuding that have characterised the far right in Britain for decades.

The leaders of the so-called ‘master race’are clearly shown up to be the misguided and psychologically unbalanced individuals many of them are. Referring to a particular sortee by Combat 18 thugs in Brick Lane, Collins comments: ‘I looked along our line at the drug dealers, the gangsters, the football hooligans and wife beaters who believed in their tiny minds that they were going to save the white race from drug dealers, wife beaters, gangsters, Jews, blacks and Asians’, and this pretty much sums it up.

The later chapters chronicle Collins’movement away from racist politics over time, his particular function as a ‘mole’for Searchlight and the police interest in his activities, though these don’t perhaps have the depth they might have. The foot soldiers (and ‘political soldiers’) of the BNP, NF, etc have long being considered a potential threat to public order and are therefore closely monitored –and sometimes infiltrated –by the state apparatus, often acting on information gathered by the anti-fascists on the left. This has created much controversy in recent times about the link between the two and Collins doesn’t perhaps address this as clearly as he might.

There are also a few factual errors here and there but nevertheless this is a book worth reading. This is especially so in a political climate where the BNP (despite some recent internal strife) has been garnering significant numbers of working class votes from the politically disaffected since the skinheads, swastikas and jackboots have been less visible to the public eye.

DAP

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Economics

Remaking Scarcity – From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy. ByCostas Panayotakis, Pluto Press.

The subject of economics is commonly understood as being the problem of unlimited wants in the face of finite resources. Likewise socialism, communism and common ownership are seen as arising out of conditions which bring about the elimination of scarcity. Panayotakis, who describes himself as a “recovering economist”, frames the issue a little differently. For him scarcity itself is not necessarily the problem but rather it is the “the undemocratic determination of the configuration of scarcity that people live under” that leads to the social-ills of today.

This book is in effect in two halves, the first is a well written critique of many of the underlying assumptions that make up neo-classical economics and the second explores what Panayotakis calls “economic democracy” and compares two models for the operation of such a society. Panayotakis uses economic democracy “the principle that all citizens should have an equal voice over the goals and the operation of the economic system” as a yardstick to measure how successful an social system is. According to this measure and as would be expected, capitalism fares badly.

David Schweickart's conception of economic democracy is also put up against this measuring stick. Schweickart sees his system as achieving a balance between democracy, planning, and markets. Workers have democratic control of the companies they work for, firms trade between themselves and the general public and should the smooth functioning of this worker ran market economy be disrupted the State will step in to ensure that all is returned to a happy state of bliss. How close this proposal is to the current economic system is striking. Schweickart does not seem to realise that the problem with the market economy is not so much that the workers do not have democratic control of the means of production but that market forces ultimately control any decisions that have to be made, “accumulate or die” will remain the mantra until the competitive struggle for profits is removed. Panayotakis seems aware of these criticisms but does not really drive the point home.

To contrast with this “market-socialist” blueprint Panayotakis offers up the schemes of Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel. Commonly known as “Parecon” this system of participatory economics sees productive decisions co-ordinated by a network of workplace, neighbourhood, and facilitation councils which communicate amongst each other until pricing and production levels are agreed upon. However, in this system competition between enterprises is not eliminated, the law of value still operates, enterprises that fail to compete would go under and so the tension between profit and wages remains. Albert and Hahnel are trying to find political solutions to what is essentially an economic problem.

What is missing from this book is the argument for the type of classless, stateless and non-market system of free access which we would call world socialism. Economic democracy is as much a problem of economics as it is of democracy. A truly democratic economy cannot be realised until the economy is governed directly by human need.

DJP

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Lists and Drugs

The Psychopath Test. By Jon Ronson, Picador. £8.99.

This is a very funny book, but also a very sad and disturbing one. Its subtitle is ‘A journey through the madness industry’, which gives a good idea of how mental illness is a source of status and profit for some who claim to treat it.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is published by the American Psychiatric Association (which makes $5m a year from its sales), and supposedly provides a list of disorders and how to identify and classify them. But in the case of psychopathy (or sociopathy or anti-social personality disorder) nobody has any real idea as to what this condition comprises. A widely-used psychopathy checklist, provided by Bob Hare, contains points such as grandiose sense of self-worth, proneness to boredom, impulsivity and lack of remorse. Using these and similar tests, maybe half the population can be viewed as having some mental illness, which is good news for the pharmaceutical companies that make the drugs which are claimed to treat such illnesses. And to illustrate the kind of nonsense found in such circles, one nineteenth-century American doctor identified a mental disorder called drapetomania in some slaves (meaning a desire to escape from slavery).

As for actually treating psychopathy, nobody really seems to have a clue, though there have been many attempts (including Nude Psychotherapy), and many criminal psychopaths re-offend quite soon after being released. Too often ‘treatment’ just consists of detaining people.

But is it really just a matter of a few anti-social individuals? Hare claims that psychopaths are responsible for much of what is wrong with society, with many being in top positions in business. For what some see as psychopathic traits, others will view as being distinctive of good leadership. Some chief executives of companies genuinely seem to enjoy sacking workers, especially if it leads to the share price going up. Nobody is arguing that more than a few percent of bosses are psychopaths but, as Ronson says, ‘I wondered if sometimes the difference between a psychopath in Broadmoor and a psychopath on Wall Street was the luck of being born into a stable, rich family.’

And if psychiatrists find it hard to diagnose psychopathy and other mental illnesses, it can be very difficult to convince people that you are actually sane. Ronson recounts an experiment run by an American psychologist called David Rosenhan: eight people presented themselves to mental hospitals, saying they had a voice in their head but otherwise acting completely normally. All were diagnosed with schizophrenia or manic depression, were admitted and were kept in for an average of nineteen days, despite their behaviour from their time of admission being completely normal. But then psychiatrists have little idea as to how to distinguish ‘normal’ from ‘ill’.

We should make it clear that, while capitalism may benefit from having executives who are psychopathic, the problem lies not with the dysfunctional bosses but with a sick system.

PB