2000s >> 2004 >> no-1197-may-2004

Book Reviews

Within the System. By Richard Montague. Trafford Publishing, £9.75. Order from http://www.trafford.com

Richard Montague is well known as a contributor to the Socialist Standard on both events in Ireland and the wider case against capitalism and for socialism. Now a collection of 24 of his short stories has been published. The author believes that the creative arts, including short story writing, have an important role in exposing the grim reality of global capitalism. Few socialists would disagree.

The star of the show, for this reviewer at any rate, is the longest and arguably the most imaginative story, ‘General Immunity Serum‘. GIS originates in a small drug research laboratory in London and is marketed as a fortifying agent to reinforce the body’s resistance to minor ailments. The makers produce leaflets, but the most effective promotion turns out to be local radio. Callers swear that GIS has solved their health problem: baldness, migraine, asthma, allergies, arthritis – even cancer and AIDS.

Soon the huge popularity and success of GIS around the world causes problems for the capitalist economy. Shares in drug and chemical companies plummet, followed by insurance shares. Hospitals close; doctors, nurses and auxiliary staff become unemployed. GIS’s conquest of human sickness and disease destroys millions of jobs in industries unconnected with medicine – the building trade, motor manufacture and marketing, and so on. Millions of home owners with mortgages are thrown into hopeless negative equity.

There is much unrest and civil strife on a world scale. The British government sets up a Royal Commission. Its majority report urges “bold initiatives to kick-start the economy”; its minority report wants GIS to be declared an illegal substance. At a rally in Hyde Park a speaker reveals the real problem and its solution. Because of the way society is organised, GIS can be regarded as a terrible catastrophe. The answer is a society based on co-operative production for needs and free access to the means of satisfying those needs.

The ‘Last Story’ concerns a newspaper editor about to retire who confronts his employer with a front-page story he knows won’t get published: “Economy murders 40,000 kids!… Yesterday 40,000 children died because economics, the way we order production and distribution in our world, could not afford £5,000 for food and medicines to keep them alive!”

‘Maggie’s Dream’ is an amusing tale about how Margaret Thatcher has a nightmare that she is in a strange new world without money and the market. Dennis complains that his money won’t buy him even a nip. A companion with an outsize briefcase containing ú15m in paper money finds that this won’t buy him a lump of bread. Maggie, shocked but undeterred, says “They’ll have to learn to appreciate the magic of the market.”

On a more sombre note, ‘Pieces of Paper’ is a moving account of how a war-damaged man (“not crazy, just a bit… peculiar”) copes with a life of poverty. George is employed, Saturdays only, as a cleaner and gardener for £10 a week. His far-from-rich employer has a wife who wants a second-hand car. So they can no longer afford to pay George the £10. On learning this his reaction is remarkable but not angry or self-pitying: “It’s all mad, isn’t it, sir?… There’s the world out there, a veritable fairyland of everything, far more for everybody that needs or wants more… And, y’know, few would really want more if everybody had enough.”

The last story, ‘Contrasts’, is the only one outside, rather than within the system. It describes a radio broadcast by a historian on 3 June 2077. The Revolution – free access democracy – had swept across the entire planet in 2046. Elections, one spurring the other, brought down the entire world capitalist political structures like a vast domino trail. The old system was considerably modified in the period preceding the Revolution. The capitalists themselves became frenetic reformers as they tried to hold off their own downfall. “The new way of life entailed a great ‘openness’ between people that was utterly alien within capitalism… What was a fragmented, vicious and secretive world of internecine greed and strife became a… a family, a human family of equals.”

Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance. By Noam Chomsky. Hamish Hamilton £16.99.

This is the latest in a long line of books by Chomsky on US ‘foreign’ policy. Like the others, it presents a devastating critique of the American ruling class’s support for dictatorships and readiness to use military might to get their way.

One of the key points of this text is the extent of the USA’s current ambitions. With effectively no rivals, the US can aspire to ‘permanent global hegemony by reliance on force where necessary’. This strategy involves ‘preventive war’: invading (or just threatening to invade) countries which step out of line or present any kind of challenge to US power. The US has a virtual monopoly of large-scale violence, can almost do what it likes in the global arena, and intends to keep things this way.

While the exact degree of US aims is new, it is of course just an extension of previous policies. In the early part of the 20th century, British companies were driven out of Venezuela, leaving US firms in charge of its vast oil industry (as they still are today). While other countries were weakened in the Second World War, the US emerged as economically dominant and strategically secure. It moved to gain effective dominance over the Middle East, which had the extra advantage of giving it control over Japan’s energy supplies. In 1958, independent Arab nationalism was fought with help from Israel and Turkey, while the same year mass slaughter in Indonesia ‘eliminated the mass-based political party of the poor and opened the doors wide to Western investors’. This last quote unfortunately reveals one of Chomsky’s shortcomings: his uncritical enthusiasm for reformist anti-Western movements which in reality stand for a more nationalist version of capitalism. (This kind of logic has reached its nadir in his endorsement of John Kerry for US president, as a lesser evil than Bush!)

In more recent years, the US has consistently supported tyrannical dictators and then claimed credit for their overthrow. At the same time it has done its best to undermine any government that did not bow down before it, as in Cuba and Nicaragua, leading to the conclusion that the US is ‘a leading terrorist state’. Domestically, the tactic has been for whichever faction is in power to maintain it by instilling fear in the population – 9/11 of course made this much easier. At the same time, the government has cut back on welfare spending, from schools to social security. Chomsky’s summary of all this is:

“Maintaining a hold on political power and enhancing US control of the world’s primary energy sources are major steps toward the twin goals that have been declared with considerable clarity: to institutionalize a radical restructuring of domestic society that will roll back the progressive reforms of a century, and to establish an imperial grand strategy of world domination.”

Note that this passage again shows Chomsky’s support for allegedly-progressive reforms which in fact do not challenge the power of the capitalist class or modify the subordinate status of workers.

The ambitions of the US rulers are no longer confined to terra firma, as they wish to extend their control to space. This is not an arms race exactly, as the US is the only real competitor in the militarisation of space. Ballistic missile defence (BMD) is yet another tool for global dominance, designed to make the US practically impregnable yet able to strike almost anywhere. In some variants, BMD will be so all-embracing that the US will effectively ‘own’ space (the jargon is ‘full-spectrum dominance’). US hegemony is apparently seen as more important than mere human survival (hence the book’s title).

Chomsky’s persistently ironic style will not be to everyone’s taste, but his book does give a thorough picture of the leading superpower’s plans for all our futures.

Marx’s Capital. By Ben Fine and Alfredo Saad-Filho, Pluto Press, 2004.

This book was favourably reviewed in the Socialist Standard when it was first published in 1975 and again with the third edition of 1989. This fourth edition is substantially rewritten, doubling the text length, yet still coming in at under 200 pages. This is quite an achievement for an introduction to the thousands of pages in the three volumes of Marx’s Capital, as well as some of the multi-volume Theories of Surplus Value, the so-called fourth volume of Capital.

As the authors point out, “Marx is not interested primarily in constructing a price theory, a set of efficiency criteria or a series of welfare propositions; he never intended to be a narrow ‘economist’ or even a political economist”. Rather, they argue that Marx sought to challenge the assumptions that political economy (the older and more accurate term for economics) makes about capitalism:

“the monopoly of the means of production by a small minority, the wage employment of the majority, the distribution of the products by monetary exchange, and remuneration involving the economic categories of prices, profits and wages”.

As an introduction to Marx’s Capital, this book offers a much more reliable guide than the late Ernest Mandel’s 1976 introduction in the current Penguin edition of Capital. Mandel, in common with other Trotskyists, defended the then USSR in the misguided belief that it had overthrown capitalism.

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