Book Reviews: ‘The Poor Stockinger’, ‘Life After the State’, & ‘ S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism’
‘The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott’, by Luke Fowler. Contributors Tom Steele and Owen Hatherley; published by Film and Video Umbrella, The Hepworth Wakefield and Wolverhampton Art Gallery, 2013, 80 pages, £7.50
This short booklet accompanies Luke Fowler’s film of the historian EP Thompson as a champion of workers’ education. The booklet contains the essay ‘EP Thompson, the WEA and Radical Workers’ Education in Yorkshire’by Tom Steele. Steele’s essay covers ‘The WEA and University Education for Workers and George Thompson – Rebellion in Yorkshire’. The WEA had its origin in 1903 as the Association to Promote the Higher Education of Working Men set up by Albert Mansbridge.
Steele writes about an important figure in WEA history, a George Thompson (no relation to EP), a carpenter and WEA Yorkshire District Secretary from 1914-45 who was supported by Arthur Greenwood, Labour Party politician who would later hold Cabinet positions in MacDonald’s and Attlee’s Labour governments. George Thompson believed ‘the aim of workers’ education should be to enable the student to raise not rise out of his class. The education he received was not intended for personal advancement but as trust for the good of others, and workers’ education was not to de-class the student but to deepen his understanding of class solidarity’ (JFC Harrison). However in Steele’s essay we can see the reformism of the WEA. The WEA Yorkshire District Commemoration Souvenir (1935) by Arthur Greenwood ‘could list no fewer than 350 past and present members of WEA classes currently holding public office, from the parish council to the House of Commons.’ Steele confirms that ‘the function of trade union education was to prepare organised labour for a role in government.’
It is with grim irony that ‘the more open form of class-sensitive cultural studies’ such as Culture and Society (1958) by Raymond Williams, The Uses of Literacy (1957) by Richard Hoggart, and The Making of the English Working Class (1962) by EP Thompson appeared at ‘the pivotal historical moment when Thompson’s digging into the historical origins of the working-class, and making a compelling narrative of its world-historical success in becoming a ‘class for itself’, tragically occurs just when working-class self-belief seems to be waning, and the WEA nationally had all but given up on the working-class.’
It is instructive to recall George Thompson who wrote in A Socialist’s View of the WEA: ‘Workers will only achieve emancipation when they are capable of thinking out issues for themselves and have the capacity and sufficient tolerance to achieve the ends collectively.’
Still the State
Dominic Frisby: Life After the State. Unbound. £9.99.
The best part of this book is the title, and even that is not totally accurate. Frisby in fact advocates capitalism with a much smaller state apparatus than now, combined with a so-called free market, and where the only tax is on land values. In the last few pages he does say he leans towards ‘anarcho-capitalism’ (capitalism with no state at all, supposedly), but he says nothing about how this would work and it is not his main focus, so we will ignore it here.
Frisby’s strategy is to blame nearly all the problems of society on the state. He defines capitalism as a system where prices and a business’s success or failure are determined by the market. What exists now is not real capitalism but something called crony capitalism, where success is determined by the privileges a business is granted by the state, in the form of subsidies, regulation, etc. Mysteriously, this is claimed to have existed only since the days of Thatcher and Reagan. Under crony capitalism, a person who benefits from the privileges granted by governments is a rent-seeker, defined as ‘Somebody who does not himself create new wealth, but appropriates that wealth from other people after it has already been created’. This is not a bad definition of a capitalist, but alas Frisby has no idea that the capitalist class do not themselves produce but exploit the rest of us.
He wants the state to do no more than defend property rights, which means there would still be police and armies. This is what the state exists for now: it is ‘a coercive machine (police, judiciary, armed forces, schools, etc.) for conserving the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers in a geographical area’ (www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/education/z-marxism).
The book has many shortcomings, one of which is that often only part of an argument is made. For instance, Frisby does not even try to argue that capitalism was wonderful before its crony variety developed. Further, he begins by discussing Glasgow, once a major port and centre of entrepreneurial activity (in the 18th century it controlled the tobacco trade with the US), and contrasts this with its current situation: high unemployment, low life expectancy, high murder rate. As with many things, this decline is supposed to have started with the First World War, when the state began to intervene much more in daily life. But he makes no attempt to describe the lives of Glaswegian workers in the 18th and 19th centuries, such as the appalling living and health conditions (life expectancy of 42 years for men and 45 for women in the 1820s, for instance). Of course, acknowledging this would have completely undermined the point he wishes to make.
Frisby claims that capitalism ‘exalts peaceful co-operation between producers and suppliers, without coercion, theft, and rent-seeking’. What is missing from this idyllic picture is the employer, and there can be no co-operation between the capitalist and the workers who are forced to sell their labour power. He sees socialism as involving a big state and high levels of taxation, yet mystifyingly he refers a couple of times to his own system as ‘socialism without the state’.
The book’s general level of reliability is illustrated by its author not even being able to cite the principle ‘From each according to ability, to each according to need’ correctly, mangling it as ‘From each according to their means, to those according to their needs’.
‘S.O.S. Alternatives to Capitalism’. By Richard Swift. New Internationalist. 2014. £9.99
Swift surveys the various movements and schools of thought which, over the years, have seen themselves as being anti-capitalist: reformist Social Democracy (which he recognises has come to accept capitalism), Russian, Chinese, etc state capitalism (which he calls ‘state socialism’), anarchism (whose anti-election dogma he criticises), Green parties (which he sees as going the way of Social Democracy), ‘ecosocialism’ (with which he identifies), the ‘commons’ movement, and the Italian ‘autonomists’.
His treatment is readable and perceptive, even if open to challenge on some points. He would probably classify us as old-fashioned Marxist ‘technological optimists’ and ‘economic determinists’. He himself is the opposite, seeing capitalism’s built-in drive to ‘growth’ as leading to ecological disaster in the fairly near future.
He opposes not only ‘growth’ in the capitalist sense of capital accumulation but also any increase in overall productive activity; in fact he wants a decrease in this – ‘degrowth’ – in order to save the planet. This may or may not be necessary in the long run but in the short run, to eliminate world hunger, ill-health and shanty towns, the production of useful things will surely need to be increased.
In any event, society won’t be able to control the amount and kind of production as long as productive resources are owned and controlled by a minority. Replacing this by the common ownership of the Earth’s natural and industrial resources under various forms of democratic control is an essential first step before anything lasting and constructive can be done.
Swift makes the valid point that it is not enough to criticise capitalism but that its critics must put forward a realistic alternative. But it is disappointing to find him advocating, in the concluding chapter, a form of that contradiction in terms ‘market socialism’ and ‘putting financial capital at the service of people, and providing a universal basic income’. Both are impossible reforms to capitalism and would be meaningless in a world where the Earth’s resources had become the common heritage of all.
Books received: The No-Nonsense Guide to Degrowth and Sustainability by Wayne Ellwood