2000s >> 2001 >> no-1158-january-2001

Book Reviews


* Democracy
* Globalization
* Home
* Prisons


The Retreat of Social Democracy. By John Callaghan, Manchester University Press, 2000.

Many of the social reforms implemented by the Labour government after the Second World War were repeated elsewhere in Europe, including Christian Democratic Germany and Italy. Many of these regimes did not claim to be socialist or social democratic, yet by the late 1950s they were spending more on social security than Britain. The economist J.M. Keynes had expressed the ruling class point of view when he called the Beveridge proposals for the British welfare state “the cheapest alternative open to us”. There were other benefits for the ruling class too, including higher profits by maintaining a downward pressure on wages. As Labour MP Richard Crossman explained to his readers in the Daily Mirror (15 November 1955):

“The fact is that ever since 1945 the British trade unionist would have enjoyed a far higher wage packet if his leaders had followed the American example and extorted the highest possible price for labour on a free market. Instead of doing so, however, they exercised extreme wage restraint. This they justified by pointing out to the worker the benefits he enjoyed under the welfare state—prices kept artificially low by food subsidies; rents kept artificially low by housing subsidies, rent restriction; and in addition the Health Service.”

But these reforms were always liable to be reversed if the economy ran into trouble and capitalists sought to reduce the costs of the state. This is precisely what happened in the 1970s when economic stagnation and high inflation (so-called “stagflation”) set in. This set the scene for the rise of Thatcherism and the neo-liberal agenda, hastening the retreat of Social Democracy around the world. Although Professor Callaghan acknowledges the capitalist nature of economic stagnation as a factor in the retreat of social democracy, it is clear that he attributes most of the blame to Social Democrat leaders for capitulating to the Thatcherite onslaught. This may well be the case, but Thatcher was the bastard child of capitalist crisis.

Callaghan also claims that wages increases contributed to inflation. But wage increases cannot cause inflation. Unless market conditions change in their favour, or they are a monopoly or in receipt of a government subsidy, businesses cannot raise prices simply because they have had to pay higher wages. If businesses could recover wage increases by increasing their prices, there would be no point in their resisting wage claims. The fact that they do resist wage increases is because they increase costs and reduce profits. This is quite separate from inflation—a persistent increase in the general price level—which is the sole responsibility of governments when they issue more currency than is needed for the economy at that time.

Callaghan’s qualified support for Labour and Social Democratic parties in Europe rests on the bizarre claim that “self-avowed socialists” exist in all of them. But it is unlikely that the leftist Callaghan would acknowledge Stalin as a socialist because Stalin said he was one. Even Tony Blair very occasionally uses the “s” word, but does anyone still take him seriously?




Globalization: Neoliberal Challenge, Radical Responses. By Robert Went, London/Sterling VA: Pluto Press, 2000.

Robert Went argues that though the world economy is nothing like as “globalised”, nor corporations as “footloose” as many believe, there are far-reaching changes going on in the functioning of capitalism. It could be argued that while none of the factors which are seen to make up “globalisation” is new in itself the scale and ferocity of current economic restructuring and attacks on wages and conditions do make for a distinct epoch in the capitalist system. The effects, with which we are all too familiar, are spelled out by Went. These trends lead to:

“greater social inequality as the result of a dual polarisation process, both within countries and on a world scale among different countries; to progressive levelling down of wages, working conditions and social security; to extensive migratory flows; to life-threatening ecological deterioration and destruction; to a greater role for unaccountable international institutions and regional entities; and to further whittling-away of democracy.”

This is all part and parcel of the profit system of course, but Went points to the relative world-wide intensification of these processes and the economic reasons for them.

“In the mid-1970s,” he points out, “an end came to the expansive period throughout the capitalist world.” Basically, around this time growth expressed as a percentage increase in Gross National Product slowed up and with this process the rate of profit also began to drop. The priority for the capitalist class was to salvage the rate of profit. First and foremost this meant attacking the working class and increasing exploitation—pushing down wages and curtailing working-class organisation. Accommodating our aspirations to a half-decent life was no longer a price they could pay. Went claims that since around the mid-1980s the rate of profit has been steadily rising so “perhaps for the first time in history, increasing profit rates do not lead to more economic growth”. While growth falls, profits rise and this has only been possible through upping the tempo of class robbery—getting “leaner and meaner”. In short then, “globalisation” has been a symptom of, and a response to, a period of crisis in the capitalist system. The boom in currency speculation and weird financial wheeler-dealing is another symptom of this depressive period.

It is probably too obvious to comment that capitalism has always been a globalising system, seeking out possibilities for profit in every nook and cranny on the planet. But it is this period of crisis that has compelled the system to attempt to fully extend its laws and relations into every aspect of human life and experience. As Went states:

“money can be made by turning more and more things into commodities; patents on animals, plants and human genes; leisure time (television, shopping expeditions, amusement parks for day trippers, casinos); culture (media commercialisation, corporate sponsorship of museums, exhibits and cultural events); sex (sex tourism, pornography, sex lines) and human organs”.

Once again, none of this is entirely new, but the scope and ferocity of the never-ending pursuit of profit by the capitalist class grows by the day. Above all, this surely points to a system which is decadent, destructive and poisonous to humanity. That it continues in a world in which we have long been able to produce an abundance for all points to the only solution there can possibly be to the situation described and analysed in this book—capitalism as a world system must be ended by working-class socialist revolution.

Though it sort of hints at it, nowhere in this book is it stated explicitly that the root cause of poverty and exploitation is the minority class ownership and control of the means of production and distribution and production for the market. This is what we’ve got to sort out and it is therefore disappointing that the author issues a rallying call for the creation of a movement to achieve things such as “reregulation of the financial sector”, “control over the labour process” and “redistribution of income”, especially when elsewhere he accepts that such things will never again be possible. This is basically a call for renegotiating our conditions of exploitation under capitalism when the book itself is stuffed full of evidence of the need for the long overdue abolition of the system and its whole stinking edifice.




HOME – An anthology. Edited by Kathleen McPhilery with the Common Words Group. Katabasis, 2000.

At its title suggest, this is a compilation of writings on the theme of “home”, following on from a similar anthology, “work” (reviewed in the Socialist Standard, March 1999).

The entries are classed as poems, essays, accounts and reports—the collection relies too heavily on poetry for my personal taste, but otherwise there is plenty to interest the politically aware reader.

The collection opens with a fascinating essay by Dinah Livingstone, entitled “Home on Earth”, which poses many question about the nature of “home”, not just in the physical sense of four walls (if you’re lucky), but also in the broader sense of cultural or national environments. She regularly refers to the Zapatista slogan, “For a world where there is room for many worlds”, and also brings in the power of language—”as well as in a particular place, we are also at home in our mother tongue”. This thoughtful essay poses more questions than it answers, but certainly set me thinking about my relationship with the world.

Colin Davies, in “The Architecture of the Home”, contrasts “modern” vs. “traditional” styles of home building, with the “modernists” getting a clear thumbs-down: Frankfurt flats “spaced and oriented for optimum daylight and sunshine” made “no concessions to existing physical context or to any architectural tradition”. “Being perfect, the city is unalterable . . . It is a city without memory and without hope”. Davies goes on to reflect that, “Like every other material aspect of modern life, housing has become a commodity.”

Later, Dilys Wood offers a feminist perspective with her essay “Woman and Home”. I must confess to finding it slightly turgid, meandering along as it does to the conclusion that, “We have just reached the point at which the identification between woman and home has been broken and women can look forward to the same status as men in the world of paid employment.”

More about such depressing reformism later. These and other theoretical essays are interspersed with poems and much more personal accounts of “home” life in a variety of settings. Such settings vary from life on the street, to squats, child-care institutions, boarding schools, sheltered housing, nursing homes, even a Hare Krishna temple. These often poignant vignettes offer perhaps more sense of real humanity than the more abstract essays. The accounts of live in a nursing home offers a welcome note of cynicism and defiance whilst a Yugoslav refugee remarks: “I don’t think there is any justice left. I think that everything that is important in the world is money, money, money.”

Comments like this are scattered throughout the book. Ultimately, though, it is a slightly depressing read for socialists because the only solutions offered seem to be from the usual reformist cul-de-sac. The book’s fourth category, “reports”, consists of reports from organisations such as Shelter, the Catholic Housing Aid Society, etc, with an under-riding feeling that these are the “experts” to whom we should look for solutions. Maybe that is unfair, but despite much criticism of aspects of capitalism, nowhere is there any suggestion that abolishing the wages system might get to the root causes of society’s problems.

Despite its faults, however, Home is a well-researched and at times fascinating book.




Behind Bars: The hidden architecture of England’s prisons. Allan Brodie, Jane Croom, James O Davies.

To socialists this book is an abomination, as repugnant as “Floral Displays at Auschwitz” or “Idi Amin’s recipes for vegetarians”. But hey, you say, don’t get wound up, it’s only architecture, it’s only art. If this were so the book would be merely in bad taste. But it isn’t so. In fact it’s a thoroughly distasteful example of the reformist’s art.

To explain: the first part of the book is indeed a history of prison architecture and surprise, surprise, not all prisons look the grim Victorian monstrosities of popular imagination (although window bars and locks are recurring architectural themes). In the second section of the book, however, great pains are taken to contrast the prisons of today from those of yesteryear. The pointless labour of the treadwheel, the brutality of corporal punishment, chains and tin buckets to piss in, are all recalled. And today’s prisons? Images of children and animals, as if jail is a kind of friendly club for malefactors (Tony and his frigging budgie in HMP Grendon took the biscuit for me). But a prison is a prison for all that. A cell is nothing but a cell.

For all the 200 years of reform, prisons, like the poor, are still with us. Prison is an indictment of the capitalist system. Prison means punishment, generally punishment for the infraction of property laws. In the more exceptional cases of punishment for personal crimes, it results in the further alienation of already psychologically damaged individuals, who need treatment not punishment. Socialism means the abolition, not just of nasty jails, but of all places of punishment.



Leave a Reply