Opinion polls and a United Ireland – 1

Everyone loves an opinion poll on the potential result of a referendum on a united Ireland.  The media has something to report and its commentators have something to comment on. 

Nationalists in particular like them – they are a good fit with Sinn Fein policy of being in favour of a united Ireland while not actually being able to do very much about it.  It keeps the pot simmering with the promise that someday soon it will come to the boil.  Nationalism repeats that there needs to be a conversation about what a united Ireland will be like, as if talking about it brings it closer – giving the impression of doing so – at least to its supporters.

The Dublin Governing parties don’t mind since their policy of sometimes expressing support for a united Ireland tallies with the general view of the Southern population that it would be a nice idea, although without much evidence of it exercising itself to bring it about.  A perfect fit for the Southern establishment and its political representatives.

The British government doesn’t mind because it has said it will do whatever the people want, once again demonstrating its good offices, while it can be confident that it will not be required to do anything very much.

Only Unionists seem not be enamoured with them, even though they should, since they usually show there being no realistic chance of the majority in the North voting for unity in the foreseeable.  This might be a result of their normally dour political outlook in which seventeenth century politics seems by far the most attractive, and among whom some think flying the union flag for Prince Andrew on his birthday is the honourable and righteous thing to do.

Of course, they have an aversion to seeing the little enclave carved out for them being anything other than as British as Finchley, and nobody asks this North London district if it wants to leave the union. They are also concerned that opinion polls may show them winning most of the time, but that they only have to lose the real thing once to have lost definitively, which is progress of a sort, since the last time they lost such a vote they changed the rules to ensure that they couldn’t.

Two opinion polls were reported at the end of last year, one in the North and one in the South, and the issue will become more excited as the results of the March 2021 census in Northern Ireland begin to be published in March this year, although with full results only by next year.

These polls are attractive because they allow for various interpretations.  As we have seen in the vote for Brexit, some on the left still see it as a great idea even if it rallied a reactionary vote around Boris Johnson and split the Labour Party.  If only, they say, the Party had supported Brexit it could have stolen Johnson’s thunder and won over all the pissed-off working class voters available to a progressive sovereignty politics!

Fortunately, opinion polls can rule some claims out, including the idea of Brexit powered by progressive politics, as the Lord Ashcroft poll showed. It demonstrated that it was primarily an English nationalist vote with strong anti-immigrant content that would supposedly have expanded the Labour Party vote by pissing off the 63 per cent of its supporters who voted Remain.  Very convincing, I don’t think.

The Ashcroft poll on Irish Unity reported that ‘The news that Northern Ireland voters would choose to stay in the UK – by a majority of 54% to 46% in my poll, once undecideds are excluded – is a welcome early Christmas gift for unionists. In a similar survey two years ago, I found a wafer-thin margin for Ulster to join the Republic in a united Ireland.’

It then said that ‘My latest research, published today, shows a clear swing back towards remaining in the United Kingdom . . . But as I also found in my survey of over 3,000 voters and focus group discussions throughout the province, it is the nationalists who feel things are heading their way.’

When I first heard this previous poll result, I didn’t believe it to be accurate and in discussion with a colleague in work he didn’t believe it either. It wasn’t consistent with what I knew and with other polling results.  There has also been no political development in the past two years that could explain an increase in support for remaining in the UK or a fall in support for a united Ireland.

The latest poll has recorded that ‘Nearly two thirds (63%) of voters thought that in a border poll tomorrow, Northern Ireland would vote to stay in the UK. However, by 51% to 34% they thought that a referendum in 10 years’ time would produce a majority for joining the Republic in a united Ireland.’

‘While 90% of self-described Unionists thought voters would choose the UK in an immediate border poll, only 64% thought this would be the outcome ten years from now,’ while Nationalists belief that the vote would be for a united Ireland increased from 47% to 91%.

Nationalists overwhelmingly (93%) expected Northern Ireland to be out of the UK within 20 years, two thirds (67%) of unionists thought they would still be part of the Union at that stage. However, fewer than half (47%) of unionists thought the status quo would still prevail in 50 years; 23% said they thought Ulster would have left by then, and 30% said they didn’t know.

This reflects a certain pessimism of unionists, consistent with their reactionary and generally paranoid politics where ‘Lundies’ and traitors are a constant threat, but also reflects for some a nagging unspoken acknowledgement of the illegitimacy of their position, which doesn’t however extend to shifting from it.  I recall my not very political late Aunt from the Shankill Road in Belfast saying that there would be a united Ireland, but not in her lifetime.  That, it appears, continues to be another largely unacknowledged view.

Whether the pessimism of unionism collapses into resignation and the optimism of nationalism becomes a spur to action is yet to be determined.

to be continued

Goodbye Covid-19?

Common Cold Can Protect Against Infection by COVID-19 Virus

Professor Tim Colbourn of University College London was quoted in the ‘Financial Times’ (on 4 Jan) that it was “entirely reasonable to think that the burden of Covid can be reduced by 95 per cent in 2022, so that it’s no longer a top 10 health problem.  That would be a reasonable goal to end the pandemic.”

The article notes that ‘some experts view Omicron itself as a pointer to future evolution of the Sars-Cov-2 virus, as natural selection favours mutations that pass quickly and efficiently between people who already have some immune protection . . . These conclusions are supported by epidemiological evidence that the risk of severe disease is reduced by half or more with Omicron.’

The Director of the Wellcome Medical foundation, Jeremy Farrar, is quoted as saying that he was reassured at the prospect of Omicron taking over from Delta and that “I’d be more worried if you had different variants circulating at the same time.” 

The article states that ‘another variant of the virus is a certainty and that while individual changes in the genetic code are random the environmental pressures that allow some to thrive are not.  This favours variants that transmit quickly while evading immune response but mutations that make the virus more lethal are unlikely to make it fitter and may even be a handicap.’

Jennifer Rohn, a cell biologist and UCL professor, said that “although you can imagine a deadly new variant emerging that’s more harmful . . . I don’t know how feasible that would be for this virus.  Sars-Cov-2 depends on infecting cells and it may already be close to the limits of its repertoire.”

The article notes that the view that the virus will become milder is ‘a matter of debate among scientists’, but quotes another professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, Paul Hunter, that he is convinced this is true of coronaviruses.  “Sars-Cov-2 will continue to throw up new variants forever but our cellular immunity will build up protection against severe disease every time we’re infected. In the end we’ll stop worrying about it.”

Jeremy Farrar notes that there is a small risk of an evolutionary jump – “something out of left field that does not come from existing lineages”, the article states that ‘most experts regard it as extremely unlikely. “I’m much more scared of another pandemic caused by a new virus that we don’t yet know about than by some variant of Sars-Cov-2” says Tim Colbourn.

Since much of the left has taken a doomsday view of Covid-19 this is perhaps not good news for their perspectives.  How they can continue to argue for a zero-Covid policy – the article quotes a forecast of 3bn infections world-wide over the next two months – is a terrain I don’t really want to explore.  With perspective not far from the fictitious character Private Frazer of ‘Dad’s Army’, perhaps they will cling to a dialectical understanding of the non-linear revolutionary genetic leap that will confirm their pessimism.

They will not, in addition, be enamoured with the views of the former chairman of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, Dr. Clive Dix, who has said ‘Covid should be treated as an endemic virus similar to flu, and ministers should end mass-vaccination after the booster campaign.’

He effectively repeats the views of Dr. Gerald Barry in Dublin quoted in the previous post in calling ‘for a major rethink of the UK’s Covid strategy, in effect reversing the approach of the past two years and returning to a “new normality”.

“We need to analyse whether we use the current booster campaign to ensure the vulnerable are protected, if this is seen to be necessary,” he said. “Mass population-based vaccination in the UK should now end.”

The Guardian’ article goes on to report him saying that ministers should urgently back research into Covid immunity beyond antibodies to include B-cells and T-cells (white blood cells). This could help create vaccines for vulnerable people specific to Covid variants . . .  adding: “We now need to manage disease, not virus spread. So stopping progression to severe disease in vulnerable groups is the future objective.”’

The article quotes Professor Eleanor Riley, professor of immunology and infectious disease at the University of Edinburgh, saying: “Everything depends on whether another variant comes up.  A fourth dose or second booster of the existing vaccine probably isn’t going to achieve very much. The evidence is that immunity against severe disease is much longer lasting. The only justification for doing a second booster for the majority of the population would be if we saw clear evidence of people, five or six months after their booster, ending up in hospital with severe Covid.”

Most people will welcome these views, if only because it’s what they want to hear, as they are tired of lockdown and fed up with the restrictions on their lives.  One danger of pretending everyone has been equally in danger from Covid-19 was always that the vulnerable would be overlooked.  A continuing blanket assertion that we are all still threatened, including children, is worse than useless.

The left’s zero-Covid strategy has nowhere to go, except to expose its exponents as wild catastrophists whose ultra-left politics is exposed once again; supporting longer restrictions for which more and more people can see little justification.  Believing that socialist revolution can only arise out of crisis, they wrongly assume that every crisis requires revolutionary methods.  They do so in pursuit of relevance and sign of their revolutionary purity.  That social crisis has not shown itself conducive to working class politics was the subject of some of the earliest posts on this blog.

A continued forlorn and regressive campaign for zero-Covid will ignore the real issues that are arising, and will have to argue that individual, very basic, freedoms and civil rights should continue to be suppressed by the state.

The issues arising include other costs of lockdown, which will affect working people, and the young especially, for decades.  A left that wants this lockdown extended and deepened has no credibility in responding to these problems.

These costs include financial, health and educational losses.  Calls by the left for the government to pay for workers not to work exhibit all the ignorance often called out by conservatives and reactionaries.  Those workers genuinely at risk or sick must be fully protected but this requires that the rest of the working class actually continues to work.  Real mass lockdown of society is impossible.  Pretending that only ‘essential’ workers should continue to work divides the working class perniciously and reveals levels of ignorance about a division of labour under capitalism that makes the vast majority ‘essential’.

As for asking the government to pay, this reveals incredible confusion at multiple levels – illusions in the capitalist state; illusions in the power of money without workers producing goods and services to buy with this money; the effects of inflation on workers’ living standards in simply handing out money, and the fact that governments don’t pay for anything – they tax or borrow and pay back the latter with the former, unless of course they print money, but then see previous comment.

If any of what this left claimed was true for any length of time, the ‘property question’ which Marx said was key would not be the ‘leading question’ in socialist politics.

More immediately, socialists should support workers being back in the workplace, in order to strengthen their feelings of shared identity, interests, solidarity and organisation.  Concern about health and safety should be dealt with collectively, which is much easier to do if you actually work closely together.

The Health Service has failed – see this earlier post – but to say so is almost to be damned as impugning the staff who work in it, some of whom have made real sacrifices during the pandemic.  Unfortunately, the politicians and bureaucrats who have been responsible for the incapacity of health services to carry out their role have cynically hid behind them, substituting rhetoric about heroes and rituals of hand-clapping for an effective service.

The British left is especially bought into illusions in the NHS, which is a health bureaucracy that was exposed from the start as incapable of protecting even its own staff.  The overwork of many staff is testament to its essential nature as a medical bureaucratic creature of the state, which for socialists is first and foremost a capitalist state with operations, functions and direction determined by the requirements of its class character.

Much of the Irish left wants an Irish NHS, because health care in the South is two tier, in complete ignorance of the fact that the failure of the NHS in the North means that health care there is more and more two tier as well.

Health provision in the pandemic has undergone a real crisis, with services closed down or restricted, waiting lists increased and diagnoses not carried out.  Just like an economic crisis, no crisis goes to waste as far as those in power are concerned.  Simply defending the existing service and believing that more money is the answer is an illusion.

So, to answer the question – Covid-19 will only go away if a zero-Covid policy was possible and was implemented.  It isn’t possible so it isn’t going to happen.  Instead Covid-19 and the mistaken reaction to it will leave in its wake multiple problems.  We need to understand the reason for this mistaken reaction and what the correct approach now is to the current and future evolution of the disease.

Back to part 2

‘Lockdowns . . . a failure of public health policy.’

Coronavirus: 133 patients in intensive care as pressure on hospitals builds

When University College Dublin virologist Dr Gerald Barry was interviewed by ‘The Irish Times’ and asked ­– why have we so many cases when we’re so highly boosted? – he said ‘Even asking the question points to the root of our problem in Ireland and in many parts of the world, we are using a tool that isn’t designed to stop infections and then wondering why it didn’t stop infections.’

‘I would strongly advocate for a complete reassessment of everything we have done to this point, identify everything else that could be done that would help, knock off everything that isn’t feasible or is unaffordable and do everything else.’

So we have failed? – ‘The problem with a “do more” strategy is that some countries that have demonstrably done less to curb the spread of infection, such as England, seem to be doing better overall.’

Just such a reassessment was recently reported in ‘The Guardian’ from Professor Mark Woolhouse, ‘one of the country’s leading epidemiologists’, who has written a forthcoming book, ‘The Year the World Went Mad: A Scientific Memoir’.  Lockdown, he says, ‘was a lazy solution to a novel coronavirus epidemic, as well as a hugely damaging one”.

The day Britain went mad is reported as when ‘the No 10 briefing in March 2020, cabinet minister Michael Gove warned the virus did not discriminate. “Everyone is at risk,” he announced.’  To which Woodhouse responds: “I am afraid Gove’s statement was simply not true. In fact, this is a very discriminatory virus. Some people are much more at risk from it than others. People over 75 are an astonishing 10,000 times more at risk than those who are under 15.”

 “We did serious harm to our children and young adults who were robbed of their education, jobs and normal existence, as well as suffering damage to their future prospects, while they were left to inherit a record-breaking mountain of public debt.  All this to protect the NHS from a disease that is a far, far greater threat to the elderly, frail and infirm than to the young and healthy.”

“We were mesmerised by the once-in-a-century scale of the emergency and succeeded only in making a crisis even worse. In short, we panicked. This was an epidemic crying out for a precision public health approach and it got the opposite.”

That Covid-19 is a disease that discriminates is a point made often on this blog and by others, which should have signaled that a blanket approach wasn’t warranted.  A recent paper analysing this has recently been published, which shows the disparity in effect by age, despite the difficulties in measurement. 

It records that in ‘Twenty-five seroprevalence surveys representing 14 countries were included . . . the median IFR [Infection Fatality Rate] in community-dwelling elderly and elderly overall was 2.9% (range 0.2%-6.9%) and 4.9% (range 0.2%-16.8%) . . . IFR was higher with larger proportions of people >85 years. Younger age strata had low IFR values (median 0.0013%, 0.0088%, 0.021%, 0.042%, 0.14%, and 0.65%, at 0-19, 20-29, 30-39, 40-49, 50-59, and 60-69 years . . .’

These IFRs have been calculated using data from 2020 and are therefore before widespread vaccination, at least in richer countries and before the less virulent Omicron variant.  We can therefore expect these numbers to have fallen not only due to vaccination but also better hospital treatment as lessons began to be learned about ventilation etc.  The paper notes that ‘absolute risk values still have substantial uncertainty’ and mentions the low number of elderly in the studies examined by the paper, but which might also reflect uncertainty about the total number of infections and number of deaths actually caused by Covid as opposed to deaths of people with Covid.

The link here to IFRs for various diseases shows that for the younger age groups Covid-19 is far down the list.  According to the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control here Influenza (over all ages) appears more severe than Covid-19 for those aged below 30 although this also depends on the virus, host issues, and other factors.

The paper also notes that ‘besides age, comorbidities and lower functional status markedly affects COVID-19 death risk. Particularly elderly nursing home residents accounted for 30-70% of COVID-19 deaths in high-income countries in the first wave, despite comprising <1% of the population. IFR in nursing home residents has been estimated to be as high as 25%.’

Professor Woolhouse argues in ‘The Guardian‘ article that:

‘the country should have put far more effort into protecting the vulnerable. Well over 30,000 people died of Covid-19 in Britain’s care homes. On average, each home got an extra £250,000 from the government to protect against the virus . . .  “Much more should have been spent on providing protection for care homes,”

He ‘castigates the government for offering nothing more than a letter telling those shielding elderly parents and other vulnerable individuals in their own homes to take precautions,’ something this bloggers’ wife found particularly galling as medical personalities and politicians congratulated themselves and were congratulated by others for efforts on her and others’ behalf which consisted of nothing much more than a letter.

As ‘The Guardian’ goes on in reporting Woodhouse’s views ­– ‘The nation could have spent several thousand pounds per household on provision of routine testing and in helping to implement Covid-safe measures for those shielding others and that would still have amounted to a small fraction of the £300bn we eventually spent on our pandemic response, he argues. Indeed, Woolhouse is particularly disdainful of the neglect of “shielders”, such as care home workers and informal carers. “These people stood between the vulnerable and the virus but, for most of 2020, they got minimal recognition and received no help.”

The British Government, according to Woodhouse, thus “lacked a convincing plan for adequately protecting the more vulnerable members of society, the elderly and those who are immuno-compromised.”  

“Lockdowns aren’t a public health policy. They signify a failure of public health policy.”

Back to part 1

Forward to part 3

Hello Omicron

Omicron puts scientists on red alert

Back in December the Deputy First Minister warned that Omicron will hit Northern Ireland “like a ton of bricks”.  “Once again we find ourselves dealing with what potentially is going to be the worst time through the whole of the pandemic,” she added. ‘We are continuing to work around the clock with public health officials to understand the impact because there are things that we currently know, but there are also things that we do not know.’ 

The Chief Medical Officer for Northern Ireland said that he was ‘more concerned than at any previous point in the pandemic’. The Chief Scientific Advisor said that it was inevitable that cases would double every couple of days.

In Dublin the Health Minister said that ‘the reality is the situation is very stark.’  Asked about the comment of the English Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, that hospitalisations will be as bad if not worse  than last winter, he said ‘we could well see that, yes.’  Leo Varadkar warned that the situation was ‘beyond our worst feras’

Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation has said that Omicron will ‘fill the hospitals up, we will fill the ICUs up.’ Similar warnings were made by politicians and health authorities across the world.

A month later the tone has changed. The Ministry for Health in Northern Ireland has admitted Omicron has not been the threat anticipated, now acknowledged in the South as well.  Learning to live with Covid has been accorded greater weight alongside recognition that lockdowns cannot continue forever. There are now more prominent questions about exactly what the threat from Covid-19 is, and just how many in hospital have been admitted with Covid or for something else but just happen to also be infected.  

At the end of last week it was reported that 44 per cent of those in hospital In the Irish State were diagnosed with Covid only after being admitted, some of whom will not have been admitted due to its effects. While nearly 1,000 Covid related patients are in hospital with the infection almost 500 patients are awaiting discharge from hospital but have nowhere to go, filling beds and potentially posing a risk of further infection.

The need for adequate social services is a longer story than ‘War and Peace’ and as unfinished as most people’s efforts at ‘Ulysses’.  The health service bureaucracy complains that services are under threat from Covid but the real problem is its own failings, in capacity and organisation.  In the South there was much dismay at news that five times more senior managers were recruited in the second quarter of last year than medical staff.

These senior managers complain about staff absences due to Covid but many of these staff are not actually sick but following the isolation rules recommended by them.  And this is not the only part of their lockdown strategy which is worse than useless and is falling apart.  Useless, because testing results take so long when people are most infectious in the first few days.  Useless because many people have been unable to get tests when they want, Useless because to be effective tests would have to be carried out continuously in a way that cannot be performed.  At €200 per PCR test it is an expensive waste.  Falling apart because testing cannot meet demand so it is not even a reliable indicator of extent of infection. It has been estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 infections went unrecorded last week, up to about 10 per cent of the population. In what possible way could testing act as any sort of measure of control? 

The argument between the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) and Government about whether hospitality should close at 5pm or 8pm now looks laughably pointless, while widespread use of derogations calls into question the whole policy as does reduced periods required in isolation.  At the end of the first week in January there were fewer people in ICU than before Christmas. What is happening is that lots of people are now getting natural immunity.

Even in December it was still clear that infection was primarily an issue for elderly people and especially those unvaccinated.  In mid-December it was reported that 68 per cent of deaths related to Covid in the previous week were among those with an underlying condition and two-thirds were among those aged 65 or older.  This age group accounted for 50 per cent of hospitalisations while the unvaccinated accounted for 45 per cent of patients in ICU.  The unvaccinated were more likely to be in hospital and had a higher death rate. The majority in ICU over the last month have had the Delta and not Omicron variant.

When warnings were first made about the new Omicron variant it was stated by the CMO in England, Chris Whitty, that ‘there are several things we don’t know [about Omicron] but all things that we do know are bad’, which wasn’t true.  The administration in the North and Government in the South took their cue from these warnings.

When the Taoiseach Micheál Martin warned that the projections by NPHET were ‘sobering’, one journalist noted that ‘nobody pointed out that NPHET’s projections have frequently been almost drunkenly inaccurate.’  He admitted that this might not matter given the large numbers involved but this brings us back to Whitty’s remark about all the things known about Omicron were bad.

It was widely argued that the danger of hospitalisation, requirement for ICU, and death – let’s call each of these ‘ Z’ – were all a function of cases, let us call this ‘X’.  The severity of the Omicron variant was known from South Africa to be significantly milder but when the sheer number of cases was taken into account a milder variant with a lower severity – let’s call this level of severity ‘Y’, meant that a much bigger X multiplied by a lower Y still meant a very large Z, i.e. large number of hospitalisations etc.  All making perfect sense in algebraic terms but pretty meaningless in real terms.

If the severity of infection was lower there could be no assumption that a higher number of infections with a mild disease would be a calamity rather than a lot of people suffering a mild infection; but as we see, Whitty and those following simply assumed that a higher number of cases would almost inevitably bring a higher number of hospitalisations, requirement for ICU, and deaths.

Given the much increased transmissibility of Omicron and large numbers forecast it is hardly justified to believe that any general lockdown was going to work, an inadequate testing regime would be relevant, and that a strategy bases on protecting everyone could possibly work.  A policy of focused protection of those known to be most vulnerable is the only one to make sense but hostility to this, in the form of the ‘Great Barrington Declaration’, has been widespread for a long time and defaulting to it would have opened up those responsible for the existing approach to questions.

The reason not to do so, as at the start of the pandemic, was the claim that with so much uncertainty about the new virus the precautionary principle was required: assume the worst and prepare for it while perhaps hoping for the best.  Unfortunately, this explanation doesn’t convince.

If it must be assumed millions would be infected then it should have been obvious that generalised lockdown could not work, even more obvious now with Omicron.  The precautionary principle would require that an optimistic view of its efficacy could not be assumed.  The precautionary principle would also mandate a serious analysis of the prospective harm caused by generalised lockdown and I’ve yet to see any.

Relevant also is the fact that right from the start of the pandemic it was not a question of complete uncertainty – some things were known and should have been acted upon but were effectively ignored.  This was that the real threat to the population was highly correlated with age, with the more elderly suffering a risk multiple times greater than of younger people, which would point to a focused strategy of protection.

Instead of precaution, the real reason was the assumption that the health system could not cope with a sudden increase in cases but, since these were overwhelmingly those at risk, this too was no answer to those advancing the argument of an alternative approach.

Forward to part 2

‘From Empire to Europe’, and then where?

‘From Empire to Europe: The Decline and Revival of British Industry since the Second World War, Geoffrey Owen, Harper Collins, 2000.

This is another book I read last year: a history that more than most has contemporary relevance.  It charts the story of British manufacturing from the end of the Second World War to the end of the century.  The majority consists of ten chapters on the experience of separate industries, from textiles and steel to cars and pharmaceuticals.  Not all are stories of failure.

Two early chapters present the historical background and four at the end review differing explanations for Britain’s relative decline.

The book was first published in 1999 and screams ‘BREXIT’ – as a history of the future of Britain outside the EU, or so it might too easily be concluded.  In fact, given the relative starting positions of Britain and the rest of Europe, then and now, the mistake of standing outside of the rest the continent now looks more obviously stupid and will more quickly be seen to be so.  If it isn’t already.

After the war ended it was expected that in due course Germany would resume its pre-war role of supplying Europe with manufactures; Britain could concentrate on the rest of the world with which it already traded.  The Labour Government decided against joining the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) and ceding sovereignty over its two most important industries, while the left of the Labour Party complained of the economic liberalism on the Continent it said led to social injustice.  Foreign  Secretary, Ernest Bevin, insisted that Britain was ‘not just another European country.’  Some economists at the Board of Trade favoured membership of the ECSC on the grounds of exposure to European competition, but this was a minority view.

The Tory Government from 1951 broadly followed its predecessor, rejecting a second opportunity to join the ECSC or taking part in negotiations to create the Common Market.  European integration was, in the words of another author quoted, ‘at best irrelevant to Britain’s economic self-interest and at worst a political nuisance which had to be tolerated, if only in public, because of the Americans.’

Again and again, Owen records the effect of being outside the European market.  In textiles small and medium-sized firms from Italy and Germany benefited ‘to a far greater extent than the British industry from the expansion of intra-European trade in the 1950s and 1960s . . . where the long-standing bias towards non-European export markets proved to be a serious disadvantage’ (p57)

When eventually Britain did join the Common Market, it found that its European competitors ‘instead of scale and standardisation . . . had put more emphasis on design and technical innovation . . . imports from the Continent rose sharply in the second half of the 1970s, and the British textile industry, having neglected European markets in the 1950s and 1960s, was not well equipped to respond.’ (p77)

In shipbuilding ‘the export trade was regarded as marginal and unpredictable’ and ‘a marketing strategy geared to the requirements of domestic owners was becoming obsolete’. (p97 & 100). In steel, ‘traditionally the most nationalistic of all major industries . . .  European steel-makers needed a market as large and competitive as that of the US’, and ‘while recognising that the smaller domestic market-imposed limits on how far British steel-makers could go in the American direction . . .’ there were barriers to this being achieved within Britain.

On the other hand, while ‘there was a long tradition of price-fixing in French steel, and the industry had bee oriented almost entirely to the domestic market the effect of the European Coal and Steel Community (which was opposed by most French steel makers) was to break down the parochialism of the industry and force it to plan for a wider European market.’ (p 148, 127 & 130).

In the paper industry, joining the Common Market ‘would have exposed it ‘at an earlier stage to competition in a large dynamic market; ‘modernisation and rationalisation which occurred in the 1980s and 1990s might have occurred earlier’ and it would ‘have provided export opportunities’ which might also ‘have started earlier.’ (p170)

In relation to the engineering industry Owen writes that, after the war, ‘when the continental economies were in disarray and the need for hard currency was urgent’, when standing aside might been seen as explicable, ‘the neglect of Continental Europe . . . after its recovery in the 1950s . . . was to prove a serious error.’ Seemingly strongly placed in the early 1960s, low economic growth and lack of involvement in intra-European trade meant that ‘an increasing number of British manufacturers were falling behind their Continental counterparts in the scale of their production.’   The failure to Europeanise in the 10–15 years after the war meant that for many firms it was too late when they did.

A similar experience les behind the decline of the British motor industry: ‘the decline of Leyland has to be seen as an avoidable disaster, largely attributable to the failure to Europeanise the business in the 1950s and 1960s.’ (p249). The ‘low priority’ given by British firms to Continental Europe meant that they did not join ‘homogenous, fast-expanding and highly competitive mass market enabled companies such as Renault, Volkswagen and Fiat to narrow the productivity gap with American manufactures . . .’ (p250)

Owen points out that European industry was itself not always successful and notes its failure in computers and semiconductors.  Of the former he says that ‘European industry might have done better if governments, instead of nurturing and protecting national champions, had concentrated on widening the market for computers . . . As it was, nationalistic, producer-oriented policies, discriminating in favour of chosen domestic suppliers, exacerbated Europe’s most serious weakness vis-à-vis the US, the small size of the market.’ (p270)

Owen makes clear that lack of orientation to a European market was sometimes a mistake not just made by the British, and that failure was not simply a result of lack of access to that market.  Other strategic mistakes were made. Half a century later it would therefore be an identical mistake to see market restrictions only on a continental scale as the problem, when many industries now have global markets and global production.

So, Renault is partnered with Nissan and Mitsubishi; Volkswagen includes Audi, Bentley, Bugatti, Porsche, SEAT, Škoda plus others and has an alliance with Ford, while Fiat is now part of Stellantis, which includes Chrysler, Jeep, Peugeot, and Citroën.  Britain has a small luxury car market with volume production owned by foreign companies.

Owen tells a similar story about chemicals, noting however that the success of ICI by the end of the period covered was despite the factors that harmed the development of British companies in other industries.

Others were also successful, such as pharmaceuticals, which Owen says was due, among other things, to its ‘openness to foreign investment.’ (p372). This ensured that ‘British-owned firms were forced to compete against the world leaders and learn from them.’ (p387)

In the last chapters he looks at common explanations for the decline of British industry after the war, including the nature and dominance of the financial system; the quality of training, education and culture; poor industrial relations, and Government policy.

On the first, he says that ‘the financial system on its own does not have a decisive influence on which countries succeed in particular industries, although it may play a supporting role.’ (p403).  He does not believe culture or education factors were decisive either, and although he notes that ‘there is no doubt that some British companies were badly managed in the 1950s and 1960s . . . there was significant improvement in the 1980s and 1990s.’ (p 422)

On Government policy ‘the decision to opt out of European integration was the biggest missed opportunity of the 1945–60 period, more important than any mistakes in macro-economic policy.  Indeed, it is hard to argue that Britain suffered from uniquely incompetent macro-economic management during these years.’  (p 450) Britain became a member of the EEC ‘fifteen years too late.’  He concludes on an optimistic note, telling us that ‘by the end of the 1990s Britain had found a role for itself as a medium-sized industrial nation, well integrated into the world market.’  (p 461)

Everyone loves a happy ending so maybe it’s as well the book hasn’t had another edition.  The ‘unique incompetence’ of British Government economic policy that didn’t exist after the war looks as if it has arrived.  But not only the government, the informed commentariat look as if they think this policy should persist, or, more charitably, be persevered with.

In today’s ‘Financial Times’ (6 January) Robert Shrimsley records the view that ‘Tories are wondering what happened to the Brexit they promised’, as if they got ‘the house red’ rather than the ‘vintage claret’.  He recommends that ‘whether one sees Brexit as fabulous or foolhardy, it is absurd not to take the wins that are available.’   

Unfortunately, the wins he seems to champion do not seem to be up to very much and also have downsides. His recommendation, therefore, is to continue better with a failed policy that will do nothing much more than deliver failure.  He, like Kier Starmer – the so-called leader of the opposition – can no more think of going back into the EU than Tory Eurosceptics could previously stop dreaming of leaving it.

The book tells a sorry tale of British failure to appreciate where the world was going and what its place in this changing world was to be.  It has happened again with Brexit.  Deciding to persevere is what’s called déjà vu all over again. 

Some books I read in 2021 (3) – ‘The Illusions of Postmodernism’

The appearance of widespread support among organisations describing themselves as Marxist for demands that don’t have a material basis – I’m referring to the claims of some trans activists that men can become women simply by declaring it – has come as has surprise to many, although perhaps it should not.

In attempting to explain this, those Marxists who are rooted in a materialist understanding of the world have referred to these organisations’ orientation to students, who are a strong constituency of the broad movement supporting this particular claim.  In effect, it is argued that these organisations that should know better do not want to alienate potential recruits and presumably don’t see the issue as important enough to risk doing so.

They are acutely aware that even to raise any question invites denunciation as a transphobe and calls for what is now called cancelling – ‘trans rights are not a debate’ is not only a slogan.  This censorious approach does not sit well with Marxists, for whom this is simply not an approach we can afford to take even if we wanted to, which we don’t.

It is all very well for trans activists to refuse to debate, or refuse to argue for their views and address challenges; their demands have had access in corporate boardrooms and HR departments, and in the corridors of government departments, judiciary and university administrations.  This is a more than inviting substitute.  For Marxists this is impossible – our politics are based on the self-emancipation of working people and this isn’t going to come from within these locations.

Of course, a more interesting question is how this constituency came to support these views in the first place, although the book reviewed doesn’t really focus on this.  I’ve rather read it with a view as to how these views, that should be so alien, have been so easily embraced by sections of the Left.

Reading Terry Eagleton’s ‘The Illusions of Postmodernism’, published twenty-five years ago, makes a number of observations about its target that help inform this inquiry.

So, in his preface, he defends himself against the anticipated criticism that he is placing himself on the same side as conservatives, which has often been an argument of some on the Left, thus the examples are numerous.  As one example we have Brexit, which supposedly must be supported because the EU is capitalist, and big business supports it, so we can’t be on the same side as it.  Of course, this also requires a certain set of blinkers.

Eagleton agrees that ‘radicals and conservatives, after all, necessarily share some ground in common’, which explains resistance to postmodernism and its progeny, including the type of claim above.  ‘Radicals, for example, are traditionalists., just as conservatives are; it is simply that they adhere to entirely different traditions.’ (page ix) 

The Left has lots of ‘antis’ – anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism and anti-austerity.  That none of them necessarily entails socialism gets missed, so much so that some organisations name or define themselves in these terms, forgetting that there are reactionary movements that endorse each.  Ironically, many ‘social justice’ demands today are not even anti-capitalist.

He thus notes that postmodernist ideas (and their offspring) can be subversive but not transformative; positive content is effectively evacuated and the power to change does not arise, even if it were contemplated, from reality but from moral outrage against the oppressive power of language, hence the need to police it.

‘Some, one might predict, would assume that the dominant system was entirely negative – that nothing within this seamlessly non-contradictory whole could by definition be of value – and turn from it in dismay to ideologise some numinous Other.’ (page 7)

Many on the Left have long thought of capitalism as in terminal decline, in continual crisis with workers equally as long being exhorted to be angry and outraged.  Capitalism has no contradictions, otherwise it would not simply be utterly reactionary and, faced with a simple negative, the positive becomes a socialism that is not grounded in capitalism but has its own foundations.  Since these are uncontaminated by capitalism they are uncontaminated by reality and must rest on purely ethical claims – as do the claims of trans activists that men can become women and that they must be supported because they are oppressed: ‘only the oppressed know their oppression’ so no need to be ‘labouring away in the British museum’, as Eagleton explains, in order to understand it. (page 5)

In responding to postmodernist claims that it is opposed to dogma – and Marxism is always characterised by opponents as such – Eagleton notes that ‘one of the commonest forms of postmodernist dogma is an intuitive appeal to ‘experience’, which is absolute because it cannot be gainsaid.’ (page 67)  This, of course, also means that anyone else’s experience, of postmodernists for example, cannot be challenged either.

The low level of class struggle facilitates the alternative arising out of capitalism being judged on purely moral grounds because a real mass struggle will contain lots of impurities (which of course Marxists will want to combat) so will not therefore withstand any test based on a perfectly moral yardstick.

We know this from the experience Marxist organisations continually hark back to – the Russian revolution.  The issue here is not to excuse or condemn its failings but to recognise it is not a great example for today and that these failings were not moral but material and political.  It wasn’t ripe for socialism, particularly if left on its own – and it was left on its own – and given this it was inevitable that something other than working class self-emancipation would rise to take over.

This is what has happened with opposition to racism and sexual oppression etc.  Without a working class movement which can embrace them and offer a totally different system, within which their needs can be expressed, their demands are enveloped by politics compatible with capitalism.  All the rhetoric and ‘Theory’ is mainly camouflage.

So, the autonomous and rational individual subject that is the basis of liberalism is taken to another level when such an individual can determine the sexual nature of their own body.  It is claimed by some transgender activists that their gender identity is innate and not an internal processing of external culture, but this is similar to ‘any brand of epistemological anti-realism, it consistently denies the possibility of describing the way the world is, and just as consistently finds itself doing so.’ (page 28)

Hence, some trans activists deny the world has caused their gender dysphoria but just as consistently demand that this world can and must ameliorate it.

As Eagleton notes ‘at a certain point in the 1970s, all concern with biology became ‘biologistic’ overnight . . . Properly afraid of a vulgar reductionism, some strands of postmodernism responded to this danger by the rather more violent tactic of erasing the biological, and occasionally the economic, altogether.   In speaking materially about culture, it began to speak culturally about the material.’ (page 48)

‘What culture you inhabit is not definitive of your humanity, in the sense that beings of different cultures are not creatures of different species.  To be some kind of cultural being is indeed essential to our humanity, but not to be any particular kind.  There are no non-cultural human beings, not because culture is all there is to human beings, but because culture belongs to their nature.’ (page 101)

Eagleton takes up the sibling of race and gender as these are perceived by some postmodernists, which is class.  But ‘classism’ is not something Marxists have ever complained about, unlike racism and sexism.

‘’Classism, on this analogy, would seem to be the sin of stereotyping people in terms of social class, which taken literally would mean that it was politically incorrect to describe Donald Trump as a capitalist. Socialists, however, churlishly refuse to subscribe to the orthodoxy that social class is a bad thing, even though they are out to abolish it.  For socialism, the working class is an excellent thing, since without it one could never usurp the power of capital.’

‘On the surface, the class–race–gender triplet appears convincing enough.  Some people are oppressed because of their gender, some on account of their race, and others by virtue of their class.  But this is a deeply misleading formulation.  For it is not as though some individuals display certain characteristics known as ‘class’, which then result in their oppression.  On the contrary, Marxists have considered that to belong to a social class just is to be oppressed, or to be an oppressor.  Class is in this sense a wholly social category, as being female or having a certain skin pigmentation is not.’ (page 57)

‘The oppression of women is a matter of gender, which is wholly a social construct; but women are oppressed as women, which involves the kind of body one happens to have.  Being bourgeois or proletarian, by contrast, is not biological at all.’ (page 58)

Some of these ideas are obvious for Marxists, which points not to explaining how easily some Marxist organisations have adopted idealist constructs of woman, but how difficult it should be.  Any explanation should therefore entail how this departure is not really unique and surely a result of some general malaise.

So, to come back to what I have called the moral basis of much of the politics practiced by some on the Left; Eagleton asks a question that returns us to social reality – ‘Is the capitalist system progressive?’

He responds – ‘The only reasonable answer is a firm yes and no.  On the one hand, Marx’s praise for capitalism is surely well justified.  Capitalism, as he never tires of arguing, is the most dynamic, revolutionary, transgressive social system known to history, one which melts barriers, deconstructs oppositions, pitches diverse life-forms promiscuously together and unleashes an infinity of desire . . . As the greatest accumulation of productive forces which history has ever witnessed, it is capitalism which for the first time makes feasible the dream of a social order free of want and toil.’

‘All of this, of course, is bought at the most terrible cost.  This dynamic, exuberant release of potential is also one long unspeakable human tragedy, in which powers are crippled and squandered, lives crushed and blighted, and the great majority of men and women condemned to fruitless labour for the profit of a few.  Capitalism is most certainly a progressive system, and is just as certainly nothing of the kind.’ (page 61)

For a long time, many on the Left have sought to overcome their marginality by relying on capitalist crises to radicalise workers, but through a moral critique unhinged from how that capitalism works.  The key question for them was creation of a revolutionary party, but neither capitalist crises or moral indignation will create it, so it becomes as idealistic a construct as postmodern ideas of social justice that look to other agencies, if they look at all.  When they do they especially look to the state.

Today some of the Left endorses claims that are utterly unrelated to reality, doing so because these appear as demands of the oppressed, forgetting that the working class is not the agent of change because it is particularly oppressed; others have been much more oppressed and much more numerous.   Unfortunately, an ungrounded moralistic alternative is very unlikely to be accepted by the working class and especially its more irrational claims.  This Left will make another mistake, and if we have learnt anything, it is that it always pays for them.

Some books I read in 2021 (2) – ‘Market Maoists’

The rapid economic growth of China to one of the world’s leading powers has prompted debate on how this was achieved, from its extreme poverty to the prodigious development associated with its insertion into the world capitalist system.  This book traces the evolution of the earlier relations between China under Mao and the capitalist world, before the explicit economic reorientation and while still proclaiming adherence to the revolutionary transformation to socialism.

The fact that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) still proclaims socialism, and that before the Deng Xiaoping era China had relations with the capitalist world, means that the story is not a simple one, hence the debate on whether China today is capitalist or imperialist.  This book doesn’t directly address these issues but seeks to provide the story of the early Maoist relations with the capitalist world, starting with the semi-underground trading arrangements set up by the CCP in British ruled Hong Kong in 1938, years before the conquest of political power nationally in 1949.

In the first full year of Maoist rule roughly 74 per cent of trade was with capitalist countries; two years later this had fallen to 21 per cent, with the share taken by the Soviet Union etc. dramatically increasing.  Like the experience of the USSR surveyed in the previous post, China sought to trade its farm goods for advanced technology and equipment, plus chemicals and fuels, in order to build its industry.

As is well known, the 1949 revolution did not initially involve state takeover of all private capitalist enterprises and the Maoists were acutely conscious of their lack of economic experience, which had been limited to relatively remote rural regions.  CCP policy involved repeatedly contacting foreign capitalists to explore trading opportunities, and the book records their meeting in Tianjin with the American Chamber of Commerce to discuss cooperation, although with no success.

This policy was very much encouraged by Stalin, with the Maoist leadership supporting trade with Japan despite the very recent and brutal war against their occupation.  This and later engagements were far from smooth.  For Stalin, geopolitical considerations of defending the Soviet Union were paramount while the Chinese sought to expose latent contradictions between Japan and the US; something which was to become a recurring theme as the US attempted to isolate the new regime and China attempted to wriggle free. Other capitalist states showed themselves to be more open to acceptance of it by way of developing trading opportunities.

The eruption of the Korean war set back Mao’s plans; when meeting with Stalin for the first and only time he told him that “China needs a period of 3–5 years of peace”.  Their negotiations yielded a new Sino-Soviet Treaty in 1950 but relationships were not particularly warm as Stalin kept Mao hanging about Moscow for a second meeting in order to show him who was boss.

Most welcome was a loan from the Soviet Union, its need apparent from the government budget in the first three months of the new year being nearly balanced, having been in deficit by nearly two-thirds in the previous year.

The importance given to trade was made clear through the decision to break the unwritten rule – that commercial work should remain in the hand of trusted CCP members – and employ technical experts from the old Nationalist regime.  The new Korean war-time conditions meant a return to clandestine trading activities, with the CIA estimating that “China was smuggling between two hundred and three hundred tons of strategic materials from Hong Kong to mainland China every night.” (page 82)

The launch of the “three Anti Campaign” targeting corruption, waste and obstructionism in 1951 was followed in 1952 by the “Five Anti Campaign” which mobilised the population against China’s corrupt bourgeoisie.  Native private capitalists would no longer be protected as the CCP consolidated its control of the economy.

These campaigns also involved targeting the type of individuals that the Party wanted to recruit to agencies set up to assist its development of trade with capitalist countries, a problem that was to recur again, requiring the support of leading sections of the bureaucracy for the state bodies involved and their work. Zhou Enlai told the Chinese delegation to an international conference in Moscow that “You must make friends widely, don’t just make friends with progressives; make reactionary friends, too.” (page 89). The US opposed the conference but the Chinese delegation were able to sign its first contract with the British, while the CIA lamented that “our side can be expected to sustain loss after loss.” (page 91)

The CCP showed its elastic use of Marxist categories, developing “a new narrative for China’s place in global markets, one that centred on the theme of trading with capitalists as an anti-imperialist struggle.” (page 99).

In this vein, the end of the Korean war in 1953 was received by China as an opportunity to undermine the US blockade and use the Geneva Conference, organised to settle the peace at the end of hostilities, to enhance the new line of “peace in economics”.  In that year the country’s volume of trade reached its highest level since 1930; exchange with the capitalist countries growing by 29 per cent on the previous year. China however was still not important globally, so this didn’t prevent its share of capitalist countries’ trade falling relatively as world exchange soared.

On the back of this the CCP elaborated the concept of the “five principles of peaceful coexistence”, which entailed containing American imperialism and hastening the demise of capitalism.  Meanwhile relations with other capitalist countries such as Britain and France could be improved.

In 1958 China opened its first significant trade exhibition in Canton from April 25 to May 25 hosting 1,200 people from nineteen countries.  Later in the year Britain decided unilaterally to eliminate the differential (greater restrictions compared to the Soviet Union) in controls on exports to China, followed within weeks by a host of other countries including France, West Germany, Italy and Holland.

Not long after this Mao launched the Great Leap Forward, by which he hoped to mobilise the population to overcome existing material constraints and rapidly accelerate the industrialisation and modernisation of the country.  It was a project that seemed directly to contradict the foundations of the Marxist doctrine he claimed to hold, which recognised that the underdevelopment of the forces of production could not be overcome by sheer will.  In the event, they couldn’t, and the initiative failed in its objective, including that of catching up with Britain in fifteen years.

Part of it was meant to involve a key role for trade with foreign capitalism.  Like the Soviet Union, taxation of agriculture – in effect the peasant – was to provide the resources to feed the growth of the working class which would also allow for increased trade with foreign capitalism.  Unfortunately, this period saw political considerations lead to a major spat with Japan and a fall in trade until the early 1960s.

This, however, was only one aspect of the harmful effects of the Great Leap Forward on the conduct of trade policy.  Decentralisation of decision making led to import orders from capitalist markets in the first six months exceeding by twice the ministry budget for the whole year.  Targets were missed, foreign currency reserves fell and the risk arose of defaulting on contracts.  The central state struggled to regain control while “chaos” reigned in Chinese ports causing “crippling” delays. (page 145)

Japanese business and others started to complain about Chinese price “dumping”, pirating of designs and copying of Western patents.  Other South-East Asian countries complained of special financial inducements, while China encouraged ethnic Chinese in these countries to boycott Japanese goods, although British diplomats in a number of them reported scant evidence of this happening.

At the same time relations with the Soviet Union started to fall apart and China launched an artillery attack on the Nationalist Kuomintang-occupied Island of Jinmen.  For Mao this was part of the effort to rally the people to the demands of the Great Leap Forward.

Zhou Enlai again intervened to support the organisation of the work of the Ministry of Foreign Trade, including to ensure contracts with foreign capitalist were honoured.  At a meeting of staff he told them that “[we would] rather ourselves not eat or eat less, not use or use less, and fulfil the contracts already signed.” (page 149). The Ministry had for years been aware of the need to defend China’s credit rating and Zhou was concerned that dumping was affecting relations with capitalist countries, including India, which was concerned about “dumping” of cotton on the market.

Zhou acknowledged that international trade with capitalists was a form of class struggle, ‘but China could not afford to struggle blindly.’  The Ministry had to differentiate between different capitalists in order to serve China’s diplomatic objectives and avoid behaviour that would undercut relationships. (page 150).

Zhou emphasised the political purpose of trade but the Ministry was caught between the demands of the Great Leap Forward (GLF) and commercial requirements.  He repeated the mantras of zili gengsheng (revival through one’s own efforts) and repudiated the concept of shangzhan (“commercial war”), emphasising heping jingji (“peaceful economics”. (Page 152) ‘“The Great Leap Forward must also accord with objective realties”, he said. “Foreign trade cannot jump 40–50 percent all at once,” he told ministry officials.’ (page 152).

Unfortunately, ‘Zhou’s call for a more moderate trade policy in late 1958 proved too nuanced for the brute force of the GLF’.  New, more modest, targets for exports and imports were set but ‘still exceeded the actual 1958 values by 19 percent and 3 percent respectively.’

Inevitably contracts were not fulfilled.  Like the other aspects of the GLF, ‘the situation became absurd.  Regions without a single walnut tree had been ordered to harvest the nuts for export.’ (page 153). The demands of the GLF for “more, faster, better, more economical” continued into the new decade.

The state failed to meet its grain target but exceeded its export targets as the last-ditch efforts of the Ministry of Foreign Trade to do so were successful.  Food stocks declined precipitously in 1959 and early 1960 and a crisis was imminent: ‘people were already starving in some places.  The bottom was falling out of the Great Leap Forward.’ (page 158)

Relations with the Soviet Union finally collapsed and the Ministry of Trade had nowhere to turn except the capitalist world for the imports necessary for modernisation and the grain necessary to save lives in the famine.  The Maoist regime was led to discover that Soviet “revisionism” was worse than US imperialism.  One task considered an immediate priority was consequently taken to be wiping out the debt to the ‘socialist countries’, necessary in order to defend China’s “international reputation” (guoji shang de shengyu).

The Chinese state struggled to procure the grain necessary to avoid greater catastrophe, especially while trying to keep the famine a secret. Billed as a great step forward to socialism, and while denouncing “revisionism”, the Great Leap Forward precipitated the requirement for grain imports from the capitalist world throughout the first half of the 1960s. (Although the degree to which other factors were responsible is controversial).  It compelled compromising on the principle of avoiding capitalist debt, which up to then had had the effect of limiting China’s fuller entry into the world capitalist market.

The necessity to regularly import grain from the capitalist world, and maximise exports to it in order to earn the foreign currency to pay for the grain, while husbanding its reserves, meant that foreign trade could no longer be ‘tightly scripted, discrete transactions conducted at arm’s length’. Jason Kelly states that ‘It presaged a much more consequential shift in China’s relationship to the global economy that would occur during Reform and Opening.’(page 176)

Trade then increased, first with Japan, then with Western Europe, so that trade with the capitalist world that had been 18 per cent of the total in 1955 reached 70 per cent by volume in 1964. The CCP also moved away from the Great Leap Forward, Zhou Enlai telling the National People’s Congress in 1962 that ‘“blindness” (mangmuxing) to objective laws had marred China’s socialist construction.’ (page 184)

China was, however, about to go through another tumultuous upheaval before learning the same lesson again. The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), of which the late socialist Neil Davidson said ‘every word was a lie’, launched an antibureaucratic campaign against potential capitalist restoration that included familiar target such as ‘bourgeois specialists’ and ‘venerable masters’.

Launched by a section of the CCP bureaucracy it was ended by same, although in-between it witnessed mass assaults on the state apparatus, so that its origin eventually allowed for the manner of its ending.  The Cultural Revolution hit China’s trade but the “figures seem mild in relation to the chaos . . . These were significant declines, but not catastrophic” and “were not caused solely by the Cultural Revolution.” (page 189)

These developments, including skirmishes with the Soviet Union from 1967 but more seriously in 1969, led to rapprochement with the United States.  The logic of socialism in one country, the unity of the Communist – more accurately Stalinist – World, took a giant step towards its ultimate conclusion. China’s planners thus forecast a significant increase in trade with the capitalist world in the fourth Five-Year Plan (1971–1975), including import of whole plant equipment, and later for thousands of foreign workers to come to work in the country.

Many of these developments to closer ties with the capitalist world, and without all the talk about it undermining that world, preceded the changes introduced by Deng Xiaoping, who until 1973 was repairing tractor parts in Jiangxi Province following his purge.  The following years saw the post-Mao leadership of Hua Guofeng launch an even larger, too large as it turned out, import programme, while other CCP leaders worried that China was embracing capitalist markets ‘too enthusiastically.’ (page 208)

Deng Xiaoping, speaking to Party officials in 1978, sums up the history presented in the book: “when Comrade Mao Zedong was alive, we also wanted to expand economic and technological exchanges between China and the outside world, including developing economic and trade relations with some capitalist nations, and even the introduction [into China] of foreign capital, joint ventures, etc.” (page 209).

The book chronicles the early history of one aspect of China’s relationship with capitalism and illustrates incidentally the Marxist understanding of the necessary preconditions for the achievement of socialism and the inevitable failure of trying to leap over them or seeking to achieve this goal in a single country.  The book is, of course, not written from a Marxist perspective and given the size and importance of China, and its rich history over the last 70 or so years, it can be no more than a partial history. It is nevertheless very interesting for its exploration of one aspect of China’s less recent economic development.

Some books I read in 2021 (1) – ‘Red Globalisation’

‘Red Globalisation: The political economy of the Soviet Cold War from Stalin to Krushchev’, Oscar Sanchez-Sibony, Cambridge University Press, 2014

Despite the disintegration of the Soviet Union and Eastern bloc the politics of Stalinism lives on, infecting even those who declare their politics to be its historic left opposition.  This politics is summed up in the idea of the possibility of establishing socialism in one country.  

For example, there is no basis for left support for Brexit other than the possibility of taking otherwise prohibitive steps towards socialism on a purely national basis.  Such a view of this left case is supported by its argument that the EU prevents the implementation of state ownership, which, when combined with nationalism, is termed nationalisation and is considered more or less synonymous with socialism.

Since neither state ownership or nationalism expresses specifically working class interests or its powers to assert them, they do not at all define socialism.  Despite its demise the example of the Soviet Union continues to be been held up as embodying socialism, based on its definition as state ownership, and moreover this achievement in one country, so justifying nationalism.

The book ‘Red Globalisation’ argues that the Soviet Union, far from being an economic construct separate from the world capitalist economy, was intrinsically enmeshed within it as a middle-income country, very much subject to the forces shaping that world economy.  This can be seen not only in its autarky in the 1930s but also in its own particular globalisation after the Second World War.

To forestall any presumption that the book can be employed to make the case that the Soviet Union was some sort of capitalism, it simply confirms that socialism can be international or not at all.  The book argues that ‘as is usual in large countries, trade did not play much of a role in the Soviet Union’s economic growth at this time; in this almost purely domestic achievement, coercion and surveillance were everything, and these only started to be undermined by Krushchev’s reforms late in the 1950s.’ (page 122). It should also be noted that this reviewer would not agree to the assessment that the domestic achievements of the Soviet Union could be put down solely to repression.

After the early years of the revolution, far from disengaging from the capitalist world, Sanchez-Sibony argues that from the industrialisation debate in the 1920s onwards there was widespread agreement on the necessity of links with the foreign capitalist market, and all the steps considered necessary to ensure that this would succeed, including following ‘the liberal prescription of gold standard orthodoxy, namely austerity.’ (page 36-7).

The pressure experienced on new regime’s currency and gold reserves ‘threatened the credibility of the state’s commitment to monetary stability both domestically and abroad . . .  possible exclusion from international capital markets . . . was not countenanced until it became inevitable . . .‘ (page 37).  Sanchez-Sibony notes that the ‘NEP had been designed precisely to take advantage of the coming global expansion; what the Bolsheviks got instead was the full measure of the world economy’s 1920s fluctuations.’ (page 45)

While one response to these was monetary expansion, this only resulted in inflation and a plummeting value of the currency, leading to increased exertion and coercion.  Remaining creditworthy became ‘a bit of an obsession, particularly for Stalin, who would prove quite willing to implement whatever policies were needed to achieve this purpose, both in the 1930s and after World War II, even if it compounded times of starvation.’ (page 47).

So, while the first five-year plan envisaged foreign trade as one of the most rapidly growing sectors, the Great Depression led to a reduction in credit and then of trade, with internal crises leading to a turn to what was called ‘import substitution’ but was in fact import deprivation – reduced imports did not lead to increased domestic production.

It therefore became a case of attempting to make a virtue out of necessity rather than any ‘discourse on the desirability of economic independence.’ (page 52). Cuts to imports to one-third of their 1931 value kept the Soviet Union solvent in 1933 while austerity allowed it to pay off its debt by 1935 – ‘the surprise was that the Soviet Union, unlike many economically emerging countries during those years, did not default on its debt, preferring to starve the Soviet population instead . . .’ (page 53) This included, by the way, paying Adolf Hitler the debt accrued to Germany in gold ingots in the mid-1930s.

All this did not result in any particularly autarkic economy by world standards; while exports by value fell by half between 1931 and 1934, by volume they fell by 28 percent, still 18 percent above the 1929 level, while world trade had reduced by 20 percent.

Sanchez-Sibony acknowledges that ‘trade did not revive much thereafter’, explaining this by the preparations for war making import dependence ‘a foolhardy proposition’ or ‘perhaps’ Soviet leaders coming to believe their ‘own propaganda on the virtues of economic independence’, which seems rather unlikely given their prior and later history.  He argues that imports of equipment became less critical than they had been at the beginning of industrialisation while the requirement  for industrial materials increased and the import of military technology became a priority. (page 55)

He states that during this period ‘the soviets continued to be dictated terms by the world economy against their plans and best interests’ and speculates whether both the role of Stalin and the course of Soviet history might have been different ‘had the Soviet state developed in a globalising, inflationary world economy more akin to the triumph of the 1950s rather than the disaster of the interwar period?’ (page 56)

Following the war, the settlement in Eastern Europe ‘presented the Soviets with their first opportunity ever to trade with other countries without overwhelming economic or political complications.  It was telling that they seized the opportunity; it heralded the explosion to come.’ (page 70) See graph below:

Foreign Trade turnover by Region (millions 1961 rubles) [from ‘Red Globalisation]

This however did not entail a decoupling from the world capitalist system.  Referencing the new Bretton Woods system in the West, Sanchez-Sibony writes that ‘the Soviet Union, along with its CMEA [Council for Mutual Economic Assistance] partners, remained appendages to the much larger and dominant liberal construct.’ (page 73)

He recalls one ‘small episode’ that ‘best captures the nature of power relations in the new liberal order the Soviets encountered against their best predictions.’  This involved Soviet fears for the security of their ‘meagre’ reserves, more than two-thirds of which lay in American banks and almost half of which was already committed to importing rubber, that they thought might be safer if they were deposited in European banks. (page 73)

The Soviet Union remained committed to engagement with world capitalism, in what they called the “international division of labour”, resisting defaulting on their war debts in order to defend their credit within ‘the liberal financial architecture of the postwar period.’ (page 74). 

The shortage of dollars was a problem for the Soviets as it was for everyone else and they often employed barter arrangements to avoid currency requirements. They could, however, ‘only watch from the sidelines and rage about the subversive American influence’ as the latter led the reconstruction of a functioning capitalist system in Europe through Marshall Plan funding and the European Payments Union, which facilitated commercial and financial transactions among the West European countries.

The Americans became a real barrier to economic relations with other capitalist powers, which only loosened as these reduced their dependence on the US.  Even so, the Soviet economy began to grow quickly during the 1950s with foreign trade expanding at an even faster rate, the vast proportion with the other Stalinist states.  The weight of trade with developing countries also grew along with the process of decolonisation although it soon reached a  plateau, while trade with the West continued to grow ‘unrelentingly’, with the Soviet Union especially keen for access to Western technology, which was exchanged for raw materials such as oil and timber. 

Ironically Sanchez-Sibony argues that ‘the Soviet Union’s inherently weak position in international politics’ was exploited by both its East European allies, whose provision of low quality goods was subsidised, and other ‘alleged allies in the developing world.’ (page 95)  

In 1958 the Soviet Union was declaring that “in the future we will not relax our efforts to normalise and expand trade and economic relations with capitalist countries,” which year was also the beginning of large net imports of machinery from the West. (pages 107-8). About the same time Soviet leaders started to become preoccupied with repeated complaints by customers about the quality of Soviet exports.  These even included issues with their exports of raw materials, such as unseasoned timber, and coal and chromium ‘riddled with too many impurities.’ (p 116) 

Nevertheless, statistics for foreign trade showed that it increased from 12 percent of national income in 1960, to 21 per cent in 1975 and to 27 per cent in 1980; levels comparable to that of Japan.  In fact, Sanchez-Sibony claims that ‘the Soviet Union throughout the postwar era was more sensitive to changes in the world economy than other large countries such as the United States, Brazil, India, and by the late 1970s, even Japan.’ (page 5).

Far from it advancing beyond capitalism however its trade with Western Europe spoke of the reverse – ‘whereas in 1955, manufactured goods made up 28 percent of Soviet exports to Western Europe, in 1983 the figure was 6 percent.  In the mid 1980s, some three-fourths of their exports to the developed countries consisted of oil, gas, and gold.’ (page 19)

He records the fate of eight Ilyushin IL-18 airplanes sold to Ghana in the early 1960s.  Only four worked regularly, only clocking up fifteen hours each month on average, while a single British Bristol Britannia was flying 113 hours a month and required less repairs.

The Soviet Union’s trade with newly independent nations involved ‘no great Communist crusade’, and a good part of ‘Red Globalisation‘ details the commercial considerations on both sides and the absence of ideological considerations, whatever pretence was sometimes made.  For the Soviet Union ‘the main motivations . . . were political goodwill and the alleviation of western pressure on both the Soviet Union and its economic partners.’ (page 251)

He records the visit of Indian businessmen to the Soviet Union in 1954 to what were presented as the country’s most modern ‘flagship’ factories, such as Moscow’s “Stalin” car factory, and the “Red Proletariat” machine-building factory.

The report back by the businessmen to its government noted that they thought the factories ‘rather dilapidated’, housed in ‘neglected buildings’ and with ‘machinery suffering from widespread disrepair’.  They were unimpressed by the quality of output and productivity and the factory manager’s lack of concern for quality.  The ‘airplanes were chronically late’, the trams were ‘too full’, and the hotels outside Moscow and Leningrad ‘were badly made and unsanitary’, although the ‘people seemed content and children in particular looked healthy and well taken care of.’

They concluded that ‘there was little in the way of technology and industrial equipment in the Soviet Union that could not be bought somewhere else, and moreover have it be of better quality.’ (pages 162-3)

More trade with the West was thus not going to be the answer to the question of economic development while exports were uncompetitive.  In any case, as we have seen, trade with the West did increase and the Soviet Union still collapsed.  Even without autarky or the constraints on trade imposed, especially by the United States, the Soviet Union could not constitute a society with greater productivity than Western capitalism.

’Opening-up’ was not in itself an answer.  Trade with the West did not negate the problems imposed by the Stalinist policy of ‘socialism in one country’, which could not survive even with the benefit of massive oil price increases in the 1970s, of which the Soviet Union was a great beneficiary.

‘Red Globalisation’ is not a particularly long book so it could not be comprehensive. It has also been criticised by some academics for relying on a rather narrow range of archival material that avoids the documentation that would reveal the (supposedly aggressively anti-capitalist) ideological and political motives of the Soviet Union, as opposed to the portrayal by Sanchez-Sibony that it was overwhelmingly economic considerations that drove trade and economic policy.

They advance this argument by noting the original Bolshevik repudiation of the Tsarist debt and particularly the state monopoly of trade.  These, they say, demonstrate the mainly ideological character of Soviet policy.  This however misses the point, or rather several.

As Sanchez-Sibony himself argues, the choice of economic policy was itself ideological, which for Marxists derived from Stalinism’s commitment to a policy of socialism in one country.  The commitment to a state monopoly of trade was simply a reflection of the non-capitalist character of the Soviet Union, while the early Bolshevik repudiation of Tsarist debt reflects, among other things, the revolutionary character of the Soviet regime at that early point of the revolution. 

Sanchez-Sibony’s book is mainly concerned to show that the Soviet Union was not an autonomous autarky but that ‘the world economy quickly slotted the country within its economic and technological hierarchy.’ (page 247). This failure has been registered by much of the Left but not assimilated.  The majority of workers consider its experiment a failure, while the determination of much of the left not to learn from it also signals its determination to continue to own that failure.

Covid and the failure of the NHS

Thirty-six years ago I had an interview for a temporary clerical officer job in the local hospital.  One question was – ‘Who is the most important person in the health service?’

Thinking on my feet as I sat in the interview I answered – ‘the patient.’

Which is the right answer.

Although this doesn’t appear to be the case today.

While I was recruited to possibly the very lowest rank in the health service all those years ago, those today at the very top appear to have a different view.

Last week the Minister for Health at Stormont, Robin Swann, issued a public consultation on whether new staff recruited to the health service and social services should be compulsorily vaccinated.  The Minister both in the consultation and in interviews more or less ruled out vaccination of all staff, considering it relevant, or perhaps only possible, for new and agency staff.

It should be remembered that the Minister and Executive ensured that all health service staff, including office staff with no contact with patients, were offered vaccination last year before patients described as extremely clinically vulnerable – those with suppressed immune systems for example. 

When some of these patients were sent the draft of a letter proposing that they ensure all visitors to their homes take a Covid test, the project disappeared when it was returned with a question whether this would also include the visit of district nurses.

The public consultation launched last week mentions that “Trade unions, employees and employers will have a key role in this consultation, but the views of the general public will also be very important.” It also mentioned relatives, and failed to mention patients.

This week the Minister announced he wanted the introduction of a mandatory Covid-19 passport scheme and this has been agreed by all the parties except the DUP.  So, while the Minister wants anyone going into a restaurant or pub to demonstrate that they are vaccinated, or not otherwise a risk, he thinks it’s acceptable for nursing staff dealing with the care of vulnerable patients to be excused this requirement.

Part of the reason for the recent increase in Covid is obviously the partially seasonal nature of the virus. In the case of Northern Ireland however it is also due to the relatively lower numbers vaccinated than Scotland, England and Wales, despite having had a head start on them.  It currently has a higher number totally unvaccinated and a lower number fully vaccinated with a booster shot.

Not only has this probably led to increased severity of infection – requiring hospitalisation – but also increased the sickness level of health service staff (up to 20% among nurses).  Media reports following Freedom of Information requests indicate potentially lower vaccination rates among nursing and social services staff than among the rest of the population.

The trade union UNISON has opposed mandatory vaccination of nurses and called for a voluntary approach of persuasion.  The union might appear to be on more solid ground if it did not make the stupid point of asking why health service staff should be singled out.  Management might also strengthen its position if it were to at least mention the needs of patients, that their views should be canvassed, and that protocols were in place to ensure that the most vulnerable patients were not unnecessarily exposed to unvaccinated staff.  Both might have more of a point if they had followed through on their argument and were to point to a rigorous campaign to get staff to voluntarily vaccinate.

Unfortunately, as argued before, the needs of the NHS bureaucracy have been put before the needs of the people it is supposed to serve; summed up in the mantra that we must ‘protect the NHS.’  Politicians wave the possibility of the closure of Emergency departments; of the health service “about to topple over” if immediate action is not taken; and warnings by senior medical staff that “this phase of the pandemic is now the toughest”.

Just like the Tories in Britain, they point to the crisis they helped create in order to point away from their own culpability.  Instead, it becomes an alibi that implicates those subject to a collapsing service who are blamed for not following guidance and advice.

They congratulate the staff on their heroism in order to absolve themselves while making their heroism a continuing requirement of their work; wrap themselves around the NHS brand in order to avoid and deflect away from their role in its failure, and threaten future collapse as a move to pre-emptively protect . . . themselves.

This partially explains Swann’s particular penchant for lavishing praise on NHS staff with ‘proof’ of seriousness by repeated announcements of additional funding.  When advertising the gruelling pressure on doctors and nurses dealing with the pandemic, he presents himself as a vicarious fellow sufferer.  Identification of the NHS with himself reaches a pinnacle when he says that “I don’t have enough nurses, I don’t have enough doctors.”

Additional funding, as he acknowledges himself, cannot conjure up and deploy staff out of nowhere; its announcement is instead more usefully deployed as a response to internal requests for action by medical staff raising concern at where services are heading.  Additional funding cannot immediately increase capacity, especially if it is non-recurring and limited to a one-off injection, but unfortunately long-term planning has not been a strong feature of the NHS.

So, we are now enjoined to accept renewed restrictions involving Covid-19 passports in order that the NHS not be overwhelmed.  Unfortunately, it is abundantly clear that the NHS has already been overwhelmed.  While pointing to the crisis and away from themselves we are supposed to listen to the words of politicians and not recall their responsibility and years of inaction.

Years of unprecedented underfunding of the NHS are now presented as a historic problem that attaches to no one in particular today.  We are simply reminded that the task now, our task, is to ‘protect the NHS’ in an unprecedented pandemic.

Many socialists get very defensive about criticism of the NHS, as if it were some sort of socialist enterprise in the midst of capitalism.  The reasons for this are numerous, including that it is free at the point of delivery, is not run for a profit and is owned by the state.

Except that it is not free, and is funded by a regressive taxation system; many private companies make a lot of money out of it; it is owned and managed by a capitalist state, and having worked in it for 22 years I can confirm that there is nothing democratic about the way it is managed.  Like all state ownership, it is bureaucratic and unaccountable, as repeated scandals exposed within it testify.

It is not therefore simply a question of underfunding, and to uncritically defend it because the only alternative is conceived as privatisation is a mistake.  Socialism involves different ownership of the productive forces, including those that protect and improve our health, and this democratic workers’ ownership is not a question of a name on a title deed but of how productive forces are organised and developed.  

Workers are not ignorant or indifferent to the bureaucratic failings of the NHS because they are the ones who use it, while some better off workers, middle classes, and definitely the richest all use private health care to one degree or another.

It is argued that the pandemic is unprecedented but the longer restrictions continue the more circumstances can no longer bear the description of exceptional.  The lower rate of vaccination might go some way to explaining the greater effect of increased incidence of Covid than in other countries, while the later roll-out of booster vaccinations than in other countries might similarly explain renewed restrictions.  Nevertheless, it is the declared necessity of protecting the health system that is employed as justification for the new restrictions announced this week.

We have been informed repeatedly about the pressure which health service staff have been put under, and our reliance on them has been reason enough for most people to accept restrictions.  That this pressure has been harsh is real enough but this in itself does not permit the demands of the politicians and bureaucrats to go without challenge.

There have been enough first- and second-hand reports that not all NHS staff have been under similar pressure to ask why this organisation cannot more effectively and efficiently deal with Covid and the other demands placed upon it. Some of the reasons we have mentioned above ­– that the NHS is a bureaucracy in which individual talent and commitment can only have individual effects.

That the NHS is failing is shown by some of the latest statistics from the Northern Ireland health service which show that between the years 2019/20 and 2020/21 total admissions to hospitals fell by 30%; average occupied beds fell by 17.9% and total theatre cases fell from 110,605 to 59,762, a fall of 46%, and 50% on the previous year’s figure.

What these figures show is that it was not simply a question of capacity but the capability to use that capacity and the inability to use it efficiently.  A factor in this will no doubt be increased sickness of staff, but the higher rate of unvaccinated staff contributed to this. Other factors will be the inability to institute infection control without reducing capacity with the creation of much-hyped ‘Nightingale Hospitals’ illustrating the problem.

The results of this failure can be seen in increased waiting times; for example in the 112,915 patients waiting to go to hospital at 30 June 2021, up from 97,243 at 30 June 2020, and 88,203 at the same time in 2019; an increase of 28% over the two years. This is an example of only the most obvious and measurable outcome, which most damaging effect is in the impact on health.

The British government has successfully protected itself by using the NHS as a shield because its popularity has facilitated this, which in turn is partially because the only alternative to it is perceived as privatisation, which is widely unpopular.  Much of the Left, with its state-centred view of socialism and greater predilection for knowing what it is against rather than what it is for, has put itself in no position but to follow the government, with the add-on of demanding more money.

When the London Olympics opened nearly ten years ago, it was noted that the NHS was part of the show, a tribute to its place in the national psyche.  What it wasn’t was a tribute to socialism, no more than was the presence in the show of James Bond and the Queen.  

Three books on Transgender Politics (4 of 4) – Trans – When Ideology Meets Reality

The third book – Trans – was bought in an Oxfam bookshop in England and I wonder would I be able to buy it there again?

It is, like the first, a critique of gender identity theory, which claims that if someone identifies as a woman, they are a woman, regardless of any contrary biological facts.  It is justified because it is claimed that no one can know more or better about a person than the person themselves.  This is plausible to many, and compassion and sympathy for those minorities facing discrimination lead many to accept these claims without considering the full consequences.

The author Helen Joyce argues early in the book that this is not what gender self-identification is about – “it is a misnomer. It is actually about requiring others to identify you as a member of the sex you proclaim.”

Not to do so is to invite denunciation as transphobic, including sometimes the hyperbolic claim that that to do so makes trans people feel unsafe.  The subjectivism of ‘I am who I say I am’ is replaced by ‘you must agree with what I say and agree to the demands that I make’.  Changing objective reality is what it is about, while seeking to redefine it through declaration.

Joyce says that this leads to an Orwellian world, an accusation she notes that is “often made too lightly”, but in this case is applicable because it robs language of the words to frame opposition to gender self-identification (gender ID).  ‘Male’ and ‘female’ becomes both biology and identity; for example, it is your sex when you are born and also your identity some time before and then after you transition. But if they are the same why does any transition matter if your sex is defined by your gender identity?  What does it mean to identify as female if your biological sex is unimportant to your gender identity and thus your sex?

A potential response is that medical intervention and or outward presentation is how I would like to express my identity (and therefore my sex) and this does involve a transition.  The real problem is therefore not lack of words, although this causes multiple confusion and makes any discussion a terminological nightmare, but the closed world of pure subjectivism that demands objective validation and over-rides every negative effect of this validation.

At the end of the previous review, I argued that the differences of view demonstrate that the demands of some trans activists are not the same as, and sometimes in opposition to, those of others, especially women.

But not only that, Joyce states of these activists that “this powerful new lobby far outnumbers the trans people it claims to speak for.  And it serves their interests very poorly.”  One of the purposes of the book is to substantiate these claims and to show that “its overreach is likely to provoke a backlash that will harm ordinary trans people, who simply want safety and social acceptance.”

Joyce gives a brief history of transsexuality and why some men want to be women.  Contrary to the claim that ‘I am who I say I am’ must be automatically accepted, Joyce states that “in no field of medicine are patients’ reports the last word.”  

Certainly, if I were to go to a doctor and say that I have ‘X’ condition and she either says ‘no you don’t’, or ‘I would like to investigate first’, it would usually be a very good idea to accept this, even if only provisionally.  People routinely discount other’s claims about themselves, including about their behaviour, character, temperament and other proclaimed physical traits.  The claim that gender identity is some other physical and mental attribute immune to questioning and sacrosanct requires other’s faith in what they are being told, in other words acceptance without justification.

Joyce refers to studies in the 1970s and 1980s of people’s views of their sex as children and later as adults which showed that “in every one the majority outgrew their dysphoria, and the majority of those ‘desisters’ turned-out gay in adulthood.”  She reports that it is not possible to determine who among those expressing gender dysphoria will persist and seek assignment as the opposite sex, and who will desist, and cites ongoing research that whether highly feminine boys desist and identify as gay men, or persist as transwomen, or something else “is largely determined by their culture.”

Except when children are put on puberty blockers, which one study reported seemed to lead to every child in the study persisting and progressing to take cross-sex hormones.  This particular finding would thus appear to confirm the claims of some trans activists that transitioning treatment for gender dysphoria should be given without questioning or delay.  However, for Joyce, this result is likely only because such treatment itself “blocked the developmental process whereby gender dysphoria often resolves.”

The existence and reporting of such research reinforces Kathleen Stock’s appeal for “robust, accurate data.”  Joyce also comments, as did Stock, on what she sees as misleading clams.  So, she states, some of the statements made by activists to support medical intervention is misleading, citing the claims that forty-eight per cent of young trans people have attempted suicide.  This, she says, comes from responses “of twenty-seven British trans people in a larger survey promoted on LGBT websites.”  The number of respondents is both “tiny” and other explanations for elevated risk are more likely.  

Joyce notes that on the American left “activists had started to judge people and ideas, not according to the evidence . . . but according to a very particular notion of social justice.” And as we have seen, such an approach can mean accepting a three-year-old boy’s claim to be a girl.  Seeking simply to explore what might lie behind such a claim, and not immediately confirming it, is damned as transphobic and thus hazardous for therapists who might be faced with the choice.

Where Shon Faye records the stories of trans people transitioning Joyce records some of the stories of those who went through irreversible medical and surgical procedures that damaged their future health as well as life prospects, for example their future fertility, and who now bitterly regret what was done.

For Joyce, particular gender types that are today in many places considered perfectly ordinary – because the person is gay or does not, for example, fit some stereotypical masculinity – is now argued as evidence that the person is actually a different sex.  And this has the effect of only confirming the old stereotypical view of what it means to be a man or woman.

That gender ID is actually regressive is concealed by it being “defined as an inner knowing” and supposedly revealed by stereotyped appearances and action. “You long to hear that girls (or boys) are people with female (or male) bodies who behave however they damn well please; instead you hear that girls (or boys) are people who behave in feminine (or masculine) ways.”

Another way in which she states that the demands of this ideology have been regressive is that, despite complaining about the objectivisation of trans people by repeated prurient inquiry into their bodies, their demand for inclusivity has led to the objectification of women.  So, women become ‘people who menstruate’, ‘pregnant people’, or ‘people who bleed’, or as the Lancet recently put it ­– ‘bodies with vaginas’.  Trans women become women and women become menstruators etc.

Feminists note the absence of terms such as ‘people with sperm’ or ‘people with penises’ to refer to men.  The supposed requirement for inclusion of transmen does not seem to require the same erasure of the name for biological males. Joyce notes that while gender self-identification is a cardinal requirement of social justice for some, racial self-identification is taboo.  Lesbians who are defined by sexual orientation have this rendered meaningless by there being no meaningful definition of sex, with gender being paramount.  This leads to absurdities that they should really consider transwomen with penises as sexual partners.

The effect on women is further taken up in the argument for single-sex spaces for women on the grounds of “risk reduction, comfort and an opportunity for women to be somewhere that their needs are centred.”  So, while not all males are violent, almost all assaults on women are by men and “it is impossible for women to tell which males pose a risk”.  In some circumstances, such as prisons, self-identification is particularly dangerous as transferring to a women’s prison is especially attractive to the most dangerous men.

She notes therefore that the demands of some trans activists have a direct effect on women, including lesbians, that they do not have on men, including gay men.  It isn’t obvious to her why gay people have not reacted more than they have and gives the example of the fight to add sexual orientation to the list of protected classes in the US Civil Rights Act, to which trans activists tried to tag on gender identity.  When the latter was dropped some “furious trans activists not only withdrew support for the slimmed-down bill, but campaigned against it’, an example with relevance to Shon Faye’s assertion that the demands of trans liberation are “synonymous” with the goals of the gay rights and feminist movements.

She notes, as have others, that although trans’ campaign groups “talk is about the world’s downtrodden . . . the money comes in large part from the world’s most powerful people . . .”  Faye similarly speaks of the oppressed but also notes that the cause she supports is corrupted by corporate interests for whom a gesture to trans rights is good PR.

Joyce argues that trans activists’ influence is exercised through providing training to judges, through the charity Stonewall’s ‘diversity champions’ scheme covering 850 organisations, employing a quarter of the workforce, and guidance to the press, who then report on female paedophiles, homicidal sex-offending teenage girls, and an axe-welding woman, all of whom are male.

That the trans movement is a top-down movement and not a mass, popular one is demonstrated by Joyce’s recounting of how the Irish State brought in gender self-identification under the cover of same-sex marriage.

As Joyce notes: “there was no public consultation or information campaign about gender self-ID.  Even now, hardly anyone I talk to in Ireland knows they can change their sex more cheaply and easily than they could get a passport.  And that, it turns out, was deliberate.”

She then points out that a large international law firm working for a network of LGBT youth organisations noted that the right to change one’s legal sex without parental consent would be unpopular.  However, the firm pointed out that other unpopular trans-rights policies had become law, citing Ireland.  It therefore “recommended linking such proposals with unrelated ones that commanded broad support” as in Ireland, advising clients to stay out of the news, and informing them that “Irish transactivists had ‘directly lobbied individual politicians and tried to keep press coverage to a minimum.’”

Yet this is held up as an example to follow by Shon Faye in her book.  She endorses a letter by trans rights activists who opposed British feminists coming to Dublin to debate the issue.  This was, for these activists, an example of the arrogance of imperialism and colonialism.  Faye states that “the whiteness and unexamined colonialism of mainstream UK feminism correlate(s) directly with its tendencies towards transphobia.”

The conflation of British feminists coming to Dublin for a debate, and British colonialism/imperialism in Ireland, would be a serious minimising of the crimes of the latter, if one could take the argument at all seriously.  The misdirection seriously mistook its Irish audience, misreading a very large room.  As a letter to ‘The Irish Times’ noted, such an attitude assumed Irish women could not, after a debate, be able to make up their own minds.

Joyce argues that:

“The idea that what makes someone a man or woman is performance of, or identification with, gender is incompatible with the foundational feminist belief that women, like men, are fully human and should not be restricted by stereotypes.  Same-sex orientation cannot be defended if people are self-defined identities, rather than fleshy mortals whose sex can easily be perceived by others.  Free speech is incompatible with privileging discourse over material reality.”

Back to part 3