A year of Covid-19 (1) – following ‘the science’

On 20 April last year the lead story in ‘The Irish Times’ was a report of research led by an Irish scientist that there may have to be repeated waves of Covid-19 epidemics until enough of the population is infected to provide herd immunity.  At best there would be three more infection cycles before 60 per cent was infected, enough for immunity.

It reported intense debate on the subject, with World Health Organisation epidemiologists warning that there was no proof yet that having the infection would confer immunity for a significant period of time.  Later, when it was apparent that immunity did occur, the response was that the level of antibodies recorded in previously infected cases declined more or less rapidly so that immunity would also decline.  This however did not take account of the body’s reduced need for higher levels and its newly acquired capacity to ramp up again if required; it also did not take account of the role of T-cells in fighting infection.

The point however, is that herd immunity was not dismissed as beyond the pale and was not considered a euphemism for mass murder.  In fact, as the link to the debate below records, herd immunity is not so much a strategy as an outcome, the inevitable outcome of defeating the pandemic.  That it has been understood as anything else illustrates the impairment of critical thought that has accompanied the physical restrictions introduced by lockdown.

Throughout the pandemic, governments in Ireland, Britain and elsewhere have been keen to demand that people follow ‘the science’ (as they put it), backed up by certain scientists or doctors, usually on the state payroll, who have given authority to government policy even when it is sometimes reported that they don’t agree with it.

The appeal to authority, the idea that there is one ‘science’ with one rational direction available to policy makers, the unwillingness to debate, and repeated charges of lack of transparency; all these are very far from any scientific approach.  The debate here on what the correct approach should be is an example of what has not been presented to populations.  The effects of this have been many and not always acknowledged.

I recently had a disagreement on Facebook with a supporter of a ‘Zero-Covid’ strategy, who refused to accept our differences were political, claiming that there was a psychological issue involved with my approach (along with some other remarks I have committed to amnesia).  The alternative that I argued, of focused protection of the vulnerable and opposition to generalised lockdown, was not received as a legitimate one to be considered, but simply one to be condemned and damned as so mistaken as to be the product of some psychological imperfection.

What was remarkable was that the principal issue facing the world was argued as something above, beyond or otherwise disassociated from politics.  Marxists, and this guy is one of long standing, are supposed to base their ideas on the reality that science, morality and all aspects of human behaviour are permeated with politics.  Science has its political aspects and the actions of the Government and state obviously does, especially when they involve drastic restrictions on human activity.

So, to regard Covid-19 as a non-political issue is absurd.  That such an argument could arise on social media is not at all surprising since everything under the sun appears on it.  In this case however the response is not uncommon, and is a mirror reflection of the approach taken by almost all Governments, which is to deny legitimacy to any questioning of their policies.  We can see this clearly for example in the pathetic ‘opposition’ of Keir Starmer, whose only point of disagreement is that the lockdown policy of the Government has been implemented incompetently and incompletely.

The policy of inducing fear into the population is ably assisted by a willing media seeking the simple and the sensational, through stressing the lethal nature of the virus; repetition of statistics on cases, hospitalisation numbers and patients in intensive care; the numbers with ‘long-Covid’; the prominence given to sufferers among the young, and of course the rising number of deaths.

This goes along with a determined policy of down-playing the specificity of those most under threat, and claims that the virus is either out of control or will utterly swamp the health service.  The fear generated has enough truth behind it to get acceptance of actions that would in normal times have generated heated opposition; including cancelled urgent cancer operations and a policy of isolation of individuals that admits that increased domestic abuse and enormous deterioration in mental health will follow.  The cumulative effect in generating fear is to dampen and discourage further the exercise of people’s critical faculties.

Instead of opposing all this, much of the left has echoed it and amplified it, as my minor Facebook argument illustrated.  This Left demands stricter and longer lockdowns and ‘zero-Covid’, i.e. no cases and no deaths from Covid.  To state that there is an alternative approach to generalised lockdown, and admit that some deaths will almost certainly result, is to damn oneself out of one’s own mouth.  How dare you advocate a policy that accepts any deaths!

We will, for the moment, leave aside the obvious truth that the current lockdown policy has abysmally failed to prevent avoidable deaths, and that the ‘Zero-Covid’ policy has yet to indicate what injury and deaths would flow from its implementation.  It has failed to admit that it would have to be enforced; that the state would have to do the enforcing and that it would have to apply much enhanced powers of coercion to attempt to achieve it.  An additional result would be to limit further the space for open debate on different approaches and alternative futures following the pandemic.

The policy of the Left has not been to encourage scientific debate but to back one element of the consensus view that lockdowns are the answer.  The problem here is that there has been far from a free debate on what the best approach to dealing with Covid-19 is and not, as the left would have it, a refusal to follow through on what is so obviously the right, or rather only, one.

These two articles, here and here, show that there is no single and unequivocal scientific approach that supports lockdown.  Rather, there is an intensely political debate within the scientific community that has suffered from, but resisted, restrictions on discussion.  The result of the attempt to impose a single approach has been the development of what has been called ‘groupthink’, censorship and self-censorship and something of a climate of fear, in which critical thought is seen as criticism of the scientific establishment, which might be damaging to the careers of those who engage in it.

The inevitable uncertainties generated by a new viral infection requires engagement with the issues that the political establishment does not believe the population can handle, something the media reinforces with its superficial treatment of every issue.  The mechanisms and apparatus that circumscribes political argument has been easily employed to narrow debate on the right approach to dealing with the pandemic.  The idea that the issues around it are non-political is, to repeat, ludicrous.

This political debate has been grossly distorted by an anti-scientific assault by the far-right, typified by the often-imbecilic antics of Donald Trump, with his alternative denial of the virus, its importance, his success in dealing with it, and his recommendation about drinking bleach.  The mass base of scientific ignorance he mobilised in the US has been reflected everywhere to a greater or lesser extent.  The effect on rational criticism of the prevalent lockdown approach has been to prejudice reception of it and create a barrier to its discussion.  Sections of the left have joined in, unwittingly contributing to the anti-scientific shut-down of rational debate.  As with so many issues, the opposition to lockdown by sections of the right, whether of the crazed anti-vaxxers or libertarian conservatives, has been the cue for some on the left to take an opposing view.

We are over a year into the pandemic, about a year since it hit Europe, and there is no excuse for lack of debate on how to deal with it. Only episodically has one taken place in Ireland and like everywhere else, any alternative to lockdown has been subject to condemnation. It has had its own share of far-right sceptics that have made the task of challenging the lockdown consensus harder; but the fact is that the policy of lockdown has failed, and the experience of the last year has proved it, which is what we will review in the next post.

Forward to part 2

Is learning from Brexit possible?

Last week the ‘Financial Times‘ revealed that the Tory Government is working with big business on plans to tear up those workers’ rights enshrined in EU law.  This would include ending the 48-hour limit on the working week; changing rules on work breaks and ending the inclusion of overtime pay in holiday entitlements.  This is the list reported but there are undoubtedly others.

That this was one purpose of Brexit and its likely effect was both predictable and predicted, it comes as a surprise to no one.  Yet large swathes of the Left in Ireland and Britain supported it, although much less vocally in Ireland because it is so unpopular.  In any case their support for it has assisted putting in place these projected attacks and is indefensible and inexcusable.

An analysis of why they took such a position would have to look at such things as an originally opportunist position becoming hard-wired into their politics; their nationalist perspective arising from the view that the nation state will introduce socialism and come to embody it; general simple-minded opposition to the EU on the shallow grounds that it is a creature of capitalism, and the strong tendency to have a more concrete idea of what you are against than what you are for.  There’s also a large dose of ignorance and stupidity involved.

The significant role of stupidity first hit me when I read that left supporters of Brexit were complaining that the negotiations on the British side were being conducted by the Tories.  Further examples became clear when they, like the rest of the Brexit movement, demanded a harder Brexit as the only one worthy of the name, and for the same reason – there was no point otherwise.

Now that even a blind man can see what the future invites, what are the chances that this left will reconsider its support for Brexit and the political approach that led to it?  What might this involve?

Well, much of this left also supports Scottish nationalism, which perhaps should be no surprise since this too involves an obviously nationalist project that harbours illusions in a separate capitalist state.

In the weekend’s ‘Irish Times’ Fintan O’Toole has a long article on Scottish nationalism that is quite good.  It notes that in 1979 the referendum on devolution and creation of a new Scottish parliament couldn’t even get 40 per cent of the Scottish electorate to support it.  Now opinion polls show majority support for independence.  O’Toole looks for reasons for the change.

The first is the decline of the Empire that Scots played such a prominent and profitable role in creating, before it shrunk to the extent that many middle class Scots saw potential for better career opportunities in a separate state.  Some on the Left present this opportunist turn as some sort of anti-imperialism.  That some Irish accept this is where another heavy dose of stupidity comes in, although again, a common nationalist outlook is a more adequate political explanation.

The second reason is the growth of the idea that Scotland is more progressive than England (Wales hardly ever gets a mention), an idea O’Toole correctly describes as a ‘myth’.  This is traced to the idea that Thatcher and her policies came to be seen as an imposition on the country from outside rather than as a class-based assault on the whole British working class.

This isn’t really an explanation, more an outcome – why did Thatcherism come to be seen as a rallying cry for Scottish nationalism and not British working class struggle?  The venom of nationalism is now so prevalent in the bloodstream that even when English and Welsh workers try to move to the left, through the Jeremy Corbyn leadership of the Labour Party, the Scottish left prefers its own nationalism and opposes it.

O’Toole notes the mass opposition of 70,000 Celtic and Dundee United fans during Thatcher’s attendance at the Scottish cup final in 1988.  Many Celtic fans, traditionally a base of support for the Labour Party, are now ardent nationalists.  Again, their existing (partial) identity with Irish nationalism assisted the switch, although with just as little justification.

O’Toole notes that the Scottish National Party tacked to the left in order to garner support from those opposed to Thatcherism, but Scottish nationalism is not a complement to Celtic supporters’ residual Irish identity but a dilution of it, if not a rival.  Recent criticism by the SNP government of the actions of Celtic Football club and praise for Rangers may mainly be a piece of opportunist tacking to a part of the electorate it hasn’t had success with, but it is also politically consistent with any idea of Scottish nationalism.

What O’Toole doesn’t cover is the employment of constitutional solutions by the Labour Party to cover up for its hostility to a militant class opposition to Thatcherism.  Ultimately this played into the hands of the more aggressive nationalists, but then the Scottish Labour Party was even more venal and rotten than the rest of the party.

The third reason advanced by O’Toole is that Scottish nationalism is very much bolstered by the rise of English nationalism.  How else, for example, can you account for the popularity of the SNP Government’s handling of Covid-19 as opposed to widespread criticism of the Tories?  Objectively, the differences are much less than the similarities and both have a very poor record in terms of deaths, making the same mistake of seeding care homes with infected discharges from hospitals.

The Tories have repeatedly used the rise of Scottish nationalism to attack the Labour Party, which plays very well for the SNP. It can hardly be a surprise that nationalist division encourages divisive nationalism.  Yet this too seems to have escaped much of the British left, which supports Scottish nationalism but deplores English nationalism, except for the most degenerate Stalinist section that is now buying into it.

Why do they not get that the former has helped the latter?  Why do those who did oppose Brexit not see the parallels with Scottish nationalism, both movements championing the magical powers of ‘national sovereignty’?  Did they really miss the absence of a Scottish component of the Corbyn movement, the potential base of which had already been partially vaccinated against left politics by nationalism?  Do they really think that the left of the nationalist movement in Scotland was the equivalent of the Corbyn movement in the rest of Britain; ignoring the project of the supporters of Corbyn being to move the Labour Party to the left while the most distinguishing mark of the left supporters of Scottish nationalism is the militancy of their nationalism?  Do they also have to actually witness its full reactionary effects before they discover that nationalism really is not the friend of the working class?

An analysis of why these socialist have taken such a position would have to look at such things as an originally opportunist (but successful looking and therefore trendy) position becoming hard-wired into their politics; their lapse into a statist conception of socialism and mistaken assumption that national separation is the default democratic position of socialists; general simple-minded opposition to the UK on the shallow grounds that it is a creature of capitalism, and the strong tendency to have a more concrete idea of what you are for when it doesn’t actually entail any element of socialism.  Not to mention that dose of simple stupidity.

If the Left that supported Brexit had any idea what mistake it had made in supporting leaving the EU it would be revising its support for nationalism of the Scottish variety.  It would even wonder whether any newly gained national sovereignty for Scotland might unleash demands for workers sacrifice for the newly won ‘independent’ Scotland in the same way the Tories seek to make Britain competitive against the EU.

Of course, it can be argued that Scotland voted against Brexit and a separated Scotland will seek to join the EU; although this is not an argument open to supporters of Brexit.  But even in this case, the point is not that the EU is something in itself that socialists should support, rather it is to be accepted as an exemplar of the progressive development of capitalism, which to the extent that it is progress is also progress towards socialism, as it increases the international socialisation of the forces and relations of production.

The point is that this internationalisation of capitalism, that by this fact brings forward the grounds for socialism, only does so because it strengthens the potential unity of the working class across nations.  It is exactly this unity that Scottish nationalism opposes and destroys.

We have seen this above; through its arising upon the bones of the defeated British working class movement under Thatcherism, and its opposition to workers seeking to mobilise to the left under Corbyn: its opposition to spreading this movement and assistance to those also opposed to it in the rest of Britain.

There is very little indication that the Brexit supporting left has learnt any lessons.  Although it may be viewed as early days, it is a sign you aren’t stupid when you can see the policeman’s truncheon falling and you decide not to put your head in the way, rather than wait until it cracks your skull, whereupon you declare the need to defend yourself against police brutality.

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism 32 – what’s morality got to do with it?

Most, if not all, people will oppose capitalism on moral grounds, or will at least be motivated by concerns for what they consider fairness and justice.  Marx however was famously contemptuous of morality; it was said by someone who knew him that he ‘burst out laughing every time anyone spoke to him of morality.’

‘The communists do not preach morality at all’, Marx and Engels wrote in the German Ideology, which were early notebooks clarifying their ideas. In the published ‘Communist Manifesto they describe ‘Law, morality, religion, are . . . so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.’

In the editorial quoted in the last post, the Financial Times states that ‘it is a moral imperative to help the neediest.’  But as Trotsky said of it in ‘Their Morals and Ours’, ‘morality is a product of social development . . . it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.’  The FT editorial confirms both Marx and Trotsky right by stating that ‘lifting people out of economic precariousness is also greatly in the self-interest of the better off,’ this being a euphemism for the capitalist class and its senior management.

Obviously for Marxists and for workers generally it is not the interests of ‘the better off’ that is their concern.  For the working class their interest lies in determining their own needs and their ability to determine how they may be met.

Moral precepts may exist at a very general level but as Trotsky also says – at this level their extent of application is limited and unstable. The real world does not lend itself to abstract moral imperatives as a guide to conduct in situations of change and conflict, the world that actually exists.  Even looking at a paradigmatic case, in which one thirsty person has a bottle of water and requires all of it to survive, but is joined by an equally thirsty second person.  Should the water be shared equally, kept by the first owner or given to the second in order to satisfy a moral imperative?  Or rather, does any moral consideration arise from examination of the actual circumstances of the case; and what exactly is the moral option to be taken in this one?

Such an example demonstrates that what should be done is very much determined by what is, which constrains what can be done.  Each of these is not subject to timeless moral imperatives but to the concrete interests of individuals in society.  Since society and the individuals within it are made up of classes, these classes will have different interests and different moral perspectives.

To attempt to envelope all of them in an all-encompassing morality that is more than abstract generalisation will involve denial of divisions and contradictions, which can therefore only involve denial of the struggle between classes that expresses these contradictions. This necessarily leads to denial of any requirement to discuss how the class struggle should be conducted, since no legitimate class struggle is admitted. Instead, we have appeals from the newspaper of the capitalist class (price £2.90/€3.20 on weekdays) for that class to take a moral stance to avoid class struggle.

For Marxists, the alternative is not to seek some imposed satisfaction of needs as determined by another class but to fight for the separate and independent needs of the working class, as determined by itself.  When discussing the precariousness arising from ‘economic change’ and ‘globalisation’ the ‘Financial Times’ reaches for moral imperatives imposed on the capitalist class.  When Marx discusses the same, in the Communist Manifesto he does so in a very different way and addresses a very different audience:

‘The increasing improvement of machinery, ever more rapidly developing, makes their livelihood more and more precarious; the collisions between individual workmen and individual bourgeois take more and more the character of collisions between two classes. Thereupon, the workers begin to form combinations (Trades’ Unions) against the bourgeois; they club together in order to keep up the rate of wages; they found permanent associations in order to make provision beforehand for these occasional revolts. Here and there, the contest breaks out into riots.’

‘Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers. This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes. But every class struggle is a political struggle. And that union, to attain which the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their miserable highways, required centuries, the modern proletarian, thanks to railways, achieve in a few years.’

The moral imperative is not therefore to ‘help the neediest’ but for the ‘neediest’ to help themselves.  And in this, It is not a question of removing what is bad from society with a set of policies and actions that makes it more perfect, or of ‘polishing off the rougher edges’ as the FT would have it.  It is not seeking a solution based on some moral imperative standing above a flawed, defective or broken society that needs fixed.

When faced with the contradictions of capitalist society and the antagonisms arising from it Marx stated that:

“What constitutes dialectical movement is the coexistence of two contradictory sides, their conflict and their fusion into a new category. The very setting of the problem of eliminating the bad side cuts short the dialectic movement . . . from the moment the process of the dialectic movement is reduced to the simple process of opposing good to bad, and of administering one category as an antidote to another, the categories are deprived of all spontaneity; the idea “ceases to function”; there is no life left in it.”

This is not so much an indictment of the ideologues of capitalism but of those who oppose it with blueprints, plans or policies to make from it a good or just society, rejecting the contradictions within it that they think of as only a problem.  For those who see only the bad aspect of capitalism and seek to remove it, through whatever means, Marx says this:

‘So long as they look for science and merely make systems, so long as they are at the beginning of the struggle, they see in poverty nothing but poverty, without seeing in it the revolutionary, subversive side, which will overthrow the old society.’  (Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy)

So, what should be done is very much determined by what is.  The contradictions contained in what is determines social development (of which morality is a product) and determines what can be done.  It is not the application of moral judgements lying outside existing social development but imperatives that arise from the contradictions within it that determines what can be done.

The contradictions of the capitalist mode of production and their further development can be understood in terms of the contradiction between the development of the forces of production and the associated relations of production.  These have been the subject of previous posts and will be elaborated further in the next.

In the meantime, it would be well to note how Marx perceives what is, what should and what can through repeating the quotation above:

‘This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different localities in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous local struggles, all of the same character, into one national struggle between classes.’

It was no answer in Marx’s day to simply denounce the exploitation of ‘modern industry’ and call for a return to purely local development, just as it is no answer for the editor of the Financial Times to do so today.  If we slightly reword what Marx said we can see something else:

‘This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that place the workers of different nations in contact with one another. It was just this contact that was needed to centralise the numerous national struggles, all of the same character, into one international struggle between classes.’

Only three words are changed; but it shows how mistaken it is to oppose, and try to reverse, the current development of ‘modern industry’ because it breaks the bounds of the nation state and seeks to draw closer into an international union purely national economic and social development.

We refer, of course, to those who supported Brexit on the grounds that it would do exactly this and who did so because modern international economic development was bad and exploitative of the working class.  Action by the nation state, or within its confines, was the supposed solution to this particular expression of the development of modern industry.

In Trotsky’s pamphlet on morality much of the discussion revolves around the idea that the end justifies the means, lazily taken to imply that moral ends cannot justify immoral or amoral means.  It is however difficult to see what could justify adopted means other than the ends pursued.  For a Marxist the ends and means are mutually determining and what are means can be considered ends and what are ends are just further means.  As Marx said

‘Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.’

Some on the Left supported Brexit, though the means by which it was achieved was a catalogue of ignorant propaganda over many years; an ever more right-wing Conservative and wider reactionary movement; and a base of support centred on nationalism, xenophobia and racism.  That the purported ends and the actual means were out of kilter is demonstrated by this Left’s inability to tell anyone, including themselves, what is progressive about what has been achieved and how it has propelled the working class forward.

The EU was capitalist, was therefore bad, and so had to be opposed, by what turned out to be nothing much more than good intentions, or at least for some.  Such imperatives have the abstractness of moral absolutes and are certainly not derived from Marxism.  This Left can get its books out and recall its Marx but doesn’t understand what he said and cannot apply it.

Forward to part 33

Karl Marx’s alternative to capitalism part 31 – what would Marx have thought?

In a recent book ‘The Marx Revival’ one contributor writes of Marx that:

‘it is highly unlikely that he would ever have supported any of the critiques of capitalism that centre on exorbitant profits, soaring inequalities of income and wealth, perennial insecurity, uncontrolled power of money and finance,  growth without limits, rampant globalisation that devastates traditional social worlds, or ever harsher competition forcing everybody into a rat race to the bottom.’

Since this series of posts is about Marx’s alternative to capitalism, why not kick it off again by giving our own answer to this question.

The answer is that the writer is correct.  Let’s see why.

Profits that are too high?  Well, what constitutes too high?  There is hardly an objective answer to this.

Perhaps it could be said that Marxists should – by arguing that profits are the result of surplus value (labour for which no payment has been received by the worker) and therefore of exploitation – regard any level of profit as ‘too much’.  Except that even under a collective cooperative economy a surplus, not immediately distributed as wages, would have to be achieved to provide for investment in further accumulation and for social insurance purposes.

Even under capitalism, bigger profits should lead to more rapid accumulation of capital, including buildings and equipment etc. (constant capital) and employed workers (variable capital).   The latter should increase employment and contribute to the growth and potential power of the working class, including reducing unemployment and facilitating the organisation and fighting capacities of the class.

Of course, additional profits may lead to unproductive speculation and accumulation, but that is a further and different point; except that it raises the issue of who owns and disposes of the surplus (profit) produced.

“Soaring inequalities of income and wealth” are a common objection to capitalism, and there is no doubt that a society ruled by the working class would have much, much reduced inequality.  However, as is well known, in the first stages of the development of such a society inequality would remain.

So what constitutes unacceptable inequality?  Like the level of profits there is no objective answer.  In fact, it has been argued that the perception of unacceptable levels of inequality is at least partially determined by the level that already exists:

“Even though income inequality has increased, popular concern with inequality (for example, agreement with the statement that inequality is too high) has not grown. In comparative perspective, public opinion in more unequal countries is not systematically more concerned about income differences and does not exhibit stronger demands for redistribution.”

‘The Guardian’ has just reported that “Luke Hildyard, the director of the High Pay Centre, which campaigns for executive pay restraint, said: “Pay for top CEOs today is about 120 times that of the typical UK worker. Estimates suggest it was around 50 times at the turn of the millennium or 20 times in the early 1980s.”

In a society ruled by workers the level of need will play a greater role in determination of the level of income to be received, which will therefore still give rise to income inequalities.  Until more fully developed, this society will still have income inequalities at least partially determined by skill, knowledge and effort, determined not only individually but also by productive unit and industry etc, not to mention country.  Of course, the direction of travel will be very different, and the social, political and psychological effects of inequality will be taken into account in a very different way than the purely constrained economic calculations of the capitalist market.

It has to be recognised however that the greatest and most socially significant inequalities are determined by inequality in wealth; in particular the ownership of capital from which profit and its derivative revenues such as dividends, rent and interest etc are accumulated.  Equality of income can only realistically become an objective given equality of wealth, that is, the common ownership of the resources now commanded by capital through individual capitalists, corporations and states etc.

“Perennial insecurity” is not an affliction for those whose income is determined by the ownership of capital, or at least not in terms of fear of losing one’s livelihood, job, home or (for example if you are a US citizen) access to health care.  It is a real threat to a civilised existence if you work for a wage (and normally don’t receive enough income from capital) and it’s especially a threat if you are on zero hours, in part-time employment or otherwise have terrible employment contract conditions.

But fundamentally social and economic insecurity arises because you are a member of the working class who lives by selling their labour power and are potentially subject to very unfavourable circumstances when you do.

“Uncontrolled power of money and finance” refers to the simple fact, observable to everyone, that power is very often a function of money and money is power in itself, the power to purchase the resources of society. Most importantly, to employ money to control the production of society’s wealth and then partake of exaggerated levels of consumption.

This seems so common sense that the problem appears to be the ‘uncontrolled’ exercise by money and finance, but since possession of money can determine the level of control this is a merry-go-round.  To rob money and finance of its power would mean robbing it of its power to own and control production, to become capital that employs labour power to produce profit.

This is possible if the resources that are employed to produce society’s wealth, and from which incomes are received, is owned and controlled by the majority in society.  The power of money and finance then becomes a function of the decisions of the majority and subject to its direction, putting it under the control of society as a whole and removing the ‘uncontrolled’ power of its ownership and direction by the capitalist class and its most senior hirelings.

“Growth without limits” is hardly a problem if this growth breaks down barriers and obstacles to the satisfaction of human need.  It is a problem if instead it refers to the logic of capitalism, which is the limitless pursuit of profit and the disregard for un-privatised costs to humanity and rest of nature.

‘Rampant globalisation that devastates traditional social worlds’ is also a problem if these traditional social worlds met human need.  But, as Marx argued in the Grundrisse, “needs are originally confined and only develop along with the productive forces”.   Unfortunately, traditional societies have historically only addressed this by massively circumscribing and retarding the growth of productive forces and hence of the human needs that capitalism has developed.

Even more unfortunately, as Marx also says, “the development of the human productive powers is effected “at first at the cost of the majority of human individuals and even of the entire classes.”  “The higher development of the individuality is brought only through a historical process in which the individuals are sacrificed.”  The answer is not to artificially and foolishly seek to thwart the development of humanity’s productive powers and the potential for emancipation they contain.  It is not to seek to prevent capitalism in the name of less developed social systems, or seek to prevent less developed forms of capitalism from developing.

Finally, would Marx have supported a critique of capitalism centred on ‘ever harsher competition forcing everybody into a rat race to the bottom’?  In so far as this competition is the expression of the development of capitalism “a race to the bottom” in this critique simply expresses outward characteristics of the system.  It paints a damning picture but one, no matter how bright the colours painted, that is a representation of reality and a one-dimensional one at that.  It does not get to the heart of the question and so cannot give rise to an answer.

This is true of all the criticism mentioned.  The critique of capitalism cannot rest on an attempt to restrict profits.  This would simply be an attempt to stop the system working but not to go beyond it.   Inequalities of income and wealth cannot be dissolved through taxation and redistribution since it assumes continuing unequal ownership, while perennial insecurity cannot be eradicated as long as workers have to sell their labour power in the market and own nothing else.

The power of money exists mainly because of its power to command ownership of society’s productive powers without which human civilisation as we know it could not survive.  “Growth without limits, rampant globalisation that devastates traditional social worlds,” and “ever harsher competition forcing everybody into a rat race to the bottom” are simply the dynamics of capital and the pursuit of surplus value extraction from workers.

This is why for Marx, as explained in ‘The Communist Manifesto’, and after listing the various movements in which his comrades were involved, he said that they “bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.”

This means that the concerns that motivate these criticisms are not dismissed; concerns over inequality, insecurity and ‘the rat race’ etc.  It just means that these are not soluble within the confines of capitalism and only a revolutionary alternative can provide a solution.

In the ‘Financial Times’ editorial on the last day of 2020, the paper paid tribute to those who had worked through the Covid-19 pandemic: ‘these unsung heroes are underpaid, over-worked, and suffer unpredictable work opportunities and insecurity . . . and brutalised working conditions – to the point of such grotesque episodes as the woman giving birth in a toilet cubicle for fear of missing a shift.’

The newspaper declares that ‘it is a moral imperative to help the neediest’, as it decries inequality and the existence of a precariat: ‘lifting people out of economic precariousness is also greatly in the self-interest of the better off’.  But it does so mainly because it fears that ‘it is just a matter of time before the pitchforks come out for capitalism itself’; it therefore believes that ‘capitalism’s political acceptability requires its adherents to polish off its rougher edges.’

Many will contend that it is more than ‘rough edges’ that need to be polished off and that polishing off the whole system is required.  It is not therefore, as the FT editorial headline puts it, that ‘a better form of capitalism is possible.’  But what is much less understood is that it is not enough to pick up ‘the pitchforks’ against capitalism; we need an alternative that we can fight for. This alternative is least understood and is the subject of this series of posts.

The EU-UK Trade Agreement – first impressions (2) Title VIII Energy

The European Union has been attempting to build a single energy market for over two decades based on liberalised markets for both electricity and gas.  This started with the First Energy Package for electricity approved in 1996.  Britain had started the process earlier and by the end of 1990 had privatised the 12 regional electricity companies.  Far from the big bad EU pushing privatisation it was Britain that led the way, continuing to have a major influence on EU energy policy as a member state.

By looking at the Energy section of the new EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement we can see characteristics that are repeated throughout the Agreement and illustrate the wider issues that it contains.

Reading Title XVIII Energy of the Agreement is like reading the Directives of the EU’s Third Energy Package, without the detailed rules but with the same principles agreed by the two Parties.  So, we have agreement to “competition in markets and non-discrimination”; with wholesale electricity and natural gas prices that “reflect actual supply and demand”; rules that “encourage free price formation”; and services that “are procured in a transparent, market-based manner.”

The EU also claims that it has agreement to “enforceable commitments towards Paris Agreement and non-regression on climate change and carbon pricing, with possibility of linking EU and UK carbon pricing regimes.”

Since the energy sector is heavily regulated and of strategic importance the Agreement permits heavy state intervention so that the commitment to free markets is heavily qualified, something that the most extreme libertarian advocates of capitalism might bristle at and left supporters of Brexit fail to appreciate.

For example, one of the sections (Article ENER.8) on ‘Third-party access to transmission and distribution networks’ repeats the EU requirement that “Each Party shall implement arrangements for transmission system operators which are effective in removing any conflicts of interest arising as a result of the same person exercising control over a transmission system operator and a producer or supplier.”

The EU recognises that while there can be ‘competitive’ markets in electricity generation between different companies, and in electricity supply to final domestic and business customers, there can only be one provider of the transmission system of high voltage overhead power lines and associated equipment.  In order to prevent the transmission system owner in the middle of the industry discriminating against particular generators or suppliers from rival companies, these transmission system owners have to be ‘unbundled’ from any joint ownership of generation and supply.

In order to protect the ownership structure of Scottish companies the UK as a member state had the rules elaborated to protect ownership structures that on the face of it looked incompatible with separate ownership requirements and removal of any potential conflict of interest.  This was an example, noted earlier, of British influence and not the ‘subordination’ claimed by some supporters of Brexit that we noted in the previous post.  In practice also, the transmission system operators mostly remained state-owned across Europe.

How far the rules could be bent is best illustrated in Ireland where the largest generation company is owned by the Irish State; as is the largest supply company, while the transmission system (and distribution system of low voltage wires) is also owned by the Irish State.  Not only that, but the Irish State also owns generation in the North of Ireland, a supply company and the transmission and distribution systems as well.  It also owns the undersea cables (interconnector) joining the Irish electricity grid to the one in Britain.

Some states regard such assets as strategic and are keen to retain ownership.  What this does is make a nonsense of the view that the EU is somehow a more ‘neoliberal’ creature than Britain, but also that state ownership is somehow socialist.  The Irish State has never had a social-democratic Party in office without it being the junior partner of the traditionally most right-wing capitalist party in it, yet ownership of the electricity industry in the Irish state is dominated by that state.  Something the Irish supporters of Brexit seem utterly oblivious to.

State intervention obviously gives rise to concern about unfair competition but given that both sides subsidise renewable generation this will be a hard area to police, making it another potential area for conflict – “each Party preserves the right to adopt, maintain and enforce measures necessary to pursue legitimate public policy objectives . . .”

In the body of the Agreement and Annex ENER-2 ‘Energy and Environmental Subsidies’ there are numerous references to the need not to “significantly distort trade between the parties”, and that subsidies generally “shall be determined by means of a transparent, non-discriminatory and effective competitive process.”

This includes that “a Party shall not impose a higher price for exports of energy goods or raw materials to the other Party than the price charged for those energy goods or raw materials when destined for the domestic market . . .”

The existence and further development of undersea cables (interconnectors) joining the electricity grids of different countries is the foundation of the single European Energy market that Britain has left.  It is testament to what Marxists have analysed as the Internationalisation of the forces of production and upon which the socialisation of production will form the basis of international socialism.  Their existing development under capitalism imposes its own requirements regardless of reactionary political moves to limit or reverse the process.

The Agreement is therefore keen that the maximum level of the capacity of electricity interconnectors is made available (as also for gas interconnectors).  This is the case if for no other reason than, for example, the electricity interconnectors between Britain and France and Britain and the Netherlands are jointly owned by the British and French and the British and Dutch.  Brexit should therefore not prevent this process of interconnector development from continuing. (See here for a current list of existing and projected interconnection).

This requires continuing cooperation between the EU and UK even as the latter leaves the EU’s Single Energy Market.  Cooperation between the energy Regulators and the transmission system operators will continue although the EU is clear that this does not accord the UK partner equivalence to their own in either case.  In the case of the “administrative arrangements” between the GB and EU Regulatory Authorities, the Agreement states that it “shall not involve, or confer a status comparable to, participation in the [EU’s] Agency for the Cooperation of Energy Regulators by the regulatory authority in the United Kingdom.”  The cooperation nevertheless requires new provisions and rules for trading across the interconnectors joining the EU and Britain.

The main market for trading electricity in the EU is the Day-Ahead market in which hourly electricity flows are priced in an auction involving generators selling and suppliers buying power at the clearing price set by the auction.  This involves generation and supply companies right across the EU with the price calculated by an EU algorithm.  Because of restrictions in the flow of electricity across different countries a single price across Europe isn’t possible but the price differences that arise between different zones determines the direction in which electricity flows across the interconnectors between them.

So, for example, if the price in Britain is €60 and the price in France is €50 the flow of electricity would be to Britain, which would lower the price there and permit export from France and would be an efficient use of the interconnection.

The Agreement’s new arrangements are set out in an Annex (ENER-4):

“the Specialised Committee on Energy, as a matter of priority, shall take the necessary steps . . . to ensure that transmission system operators develop arrangements setting out technical procedures in accordance with Annex ENER-4 within a specific timeline.”

“If the Specialised Committee on Energy does not recommend that the Parties implement such technical procedures in accordance with Article ENER.19(4) . . .  it shall take decisions and make recommendations as necessary for electricity interconnector capacity to be allocated at the day-ahead market timeframe in accordance with Annex ENER-4.”

Which seems to say the Specialised Committee (made up of representatives of the EU and UK) can implement the new arrangements as set out in the Annex, and if it doesn’t agree to them, it can implement them anyway.

These arrangements envisage an auction involving the UK and those EU countries directly connected to the UK by interconnectors, before the EU Single Market Day-Ahead auction.  The results of it would be an input into the EU auction calculations.  The EU Day-Ahead auction closes at 12:00 and produces results for the 24 hours beginning 24:00 on the same day (all times are Central European Time i.e. one hour before UK time).

The newly mandated EU-UK auction would therefore have to be completed well before 12:00 and would not contain more up-to-date information on demand, the weather and power plant availability etc. which may thereby make it less attractive to potential participants.  In these circumstances the prices coming out of it may result in less efficient prices so that the interconnectors directly joining the UK with the other parts of the EU may not flow in the ‘correct’ direction.

In our example above, if, in the EU Day-Ahead auction, the price in Britain was €60 and the price in France was €50 the flow of electricity mandated by the earlier auction might be to France, which would lower the price there and permit export from Britain but would take electricity from where it is relatively expensive to where it is already relatively cheaper, exaggerating the price differences instead of bringing them together.  This would therefore not be an efficient use of the interconnectors.

This of course would affect both Britain and EU countries and would be sub-optimal for both but it is also the case that Britain would suffer proportionately more.  Another example of where exit from the EU may cause harm.

In looking in more detail at one area of the Trade Agreement we can see the stupidity of Brexit even from the narrow point of view of British capitalism.  This includes the left supporters of Brexit whose equally narrow nationalist claims are also unjustified as we have seen.  From a socialist point of view, while it undermines any genuine objective of international socialism Brexit also undermines its left supporters actual project of reforming capitalism through prioritising the nation state and its so-called ‘sovereignty’.

The EU-UK Trade Agreement – first impressions (1)

Thinking about the new trade agreement between the EU and UK I was remined of the words of Michael Corleone in the Godfather 2 – “keep your friends close but your enemies closer.”  And just like the film, the enemies speak of each other with admiration and respect, as forming a partnership, in coming together for what the EU describes as a ‘balanced’ agreement.

Of course, we can take this analogy too far: the EU and UK are not Mafia families.  Let us not be too hard or too soft on notorious enterprises engaged in legitimate business as well as activities that can only be described as criminal from any objective and moral viewpoint.

As a free and ‘sovereign’ power the British will have to do something with their newly found freedom and power, even if it only draws attention to newly discovered limits to both.  As I noted in the previous post – there will be no ‘moving on’ from Brexit, something noted in the European press.

In that post I noted that the EU would be going nowhere and the British would have to deal with it and the constraints it will impose.  Whatever admixture of rivalry and partnership arises following the Agreement it will not be a rivalry and partnership of equals.  The agreement shows that this is also true for the EU – Britain will still be there, as a rival and partner – and the Agreement leaves open the paths for both.  It has registered the relative balance of power between the EU with (roughly) a population of almost 448 million and GDP of €13.5 trillion, and that of Britain with 67 million and €2.5 trillion.

What is noteworthy is just how much has still to be agreed, from acceptance of the UK’s data adequacy; to services, including financial services; recognition of qualifications and much else.  In the next post I will look at the section on Energy that illustrates the extent of this, of what Brexit has torn up and now has to be replaced.

In the meantime the Tory Government and Tory press will sing the praises of an agreement that means that Britain will no longer benefit from free movement of goods, leading to more red tape for businesses; to customs formalities and checks on goods entering the EU, with more border delays; for food exports that require valid health certificates and systematic (phyto-)sanitary border checks, and companies wanting to supply both EU and UK markets having to meet two sets of standards and regulations while fulfilling all applicable compliance checks by EU bodies (with no equivalence of conformity assessment that would allow this to be done in and by the UK).

It will therefore probably take some time for the enormity of the losses to sink in, and for many Brexit supporters it never will; there will always be someone (foreign) to blame.  It is perhaps therefore not surprising to see even the most sober and informed supporters of Brexit exaggerate the potential role of Britain out on its own.

So we see this: “The most immediate conversations will be over what we have in this deal compared with what came before. To what extent will the UK be able to continue exporting services and which authorisations are still valid. These are matters of immediate economic importance, but less important than the overall implications whereby Britain and Brussels have shifted the regulatory focus from Brussels to Geneva, where the UK may enlist the support of its allies and fellow EU FTA holders to bring pressure to bear on the EU.”

“The longer term implications of this means the EU weakens its grip on technical governance to become more of a political and monetary union, the type that Britain could never be part of. We wish them the very best in their endeavours and look forward to working with them, but in international organisations we shall sit as sovereign equals rather than subordinates.”

Except of course that the idea that Britain was a subordinate in the EU is a myth.  The Single Market the Brexiteers have been so keen to leave is an example of the influence Britain has had, as was the enlargement of the EU after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  British influence could also be seen in EU policy on Energy, which I will look at in more detail.

A summary evaluation of the Agreement by the same Brexit supporters is that:

“It is one, also, which keeps the UK closer to the EU globally-based trading system than anyone could possibly have imagined at the outset of negotiations. It is one of considerable depth which creates a framework for a relationship which, if explored by people of far more diligence than Johnson and his cronies, could eventually be turned into a useful working agreement, albeit at savage cost to the UK in the interim.”

This “framework” within the Agreement, to be deployed for developing future relationships, includes “a Partnership Council, 19 specialised committees and four working groups which will no doubt be expanded over time.”

Their summary goes on to state that:

“The economic cost of that [Agreement] will be considerable and it will take two years at least to get the ball rolling through the various committees. A lot of work has to be done to rebuild trust and confidence between the parties, where the EU has to get the measure of Brexit Britain’s intentions and behaviour.”

“In this, one gets a sense that certain pennies have dropped. No doubt the election of Biden poured cold water on a number of transatlantic ideas and the UK is reassessing its global strategy, perhaps realising that the EU still matters as a trading partner. If there is a change in tone and attitude, the process of rebuilding will be faster.”

“This will no doubt leave remainers puzzling as to why we would go through such an enormous bureaucratic exercise to accomplish what amounts to very little at enormous cost. This is a dispute where remainers and leavers will never see eye to eye. This exercise is a switch from supranationalism to intergovernmentalism, broadening our horizons beyond Brussels, recognising that Britain was never an enthusiastic member of the EU and would always have to disembark before it reached its final destination – whatever that may be.”

“Brexit will never satisfy the eurosceptic fundamentalists because reality simply cannot oblige their definition of sovereignty, and though we may sit as sovereign equals in international forums, we do not sit as power equals. If we are to accomplish anything internationally we will need to build partnerships and alliances of like-minded nations, not least because the problems and threats we face in this century are far beyond the capacity of any country acting alone. Leavers just believe cooperation can happen without political subordination.”

The problem here of course is that partnerships and alliances have to have an objective and for that you need to identify your potential allies.  This would normally be those who are closest to you and with whom you trade most, but this is the EU and Brexit is all about tearing this alliance up.  So who are your future allies?

In the past Britain has used its power to seek allies in Europe and to divide its continental powers to prevent their unity.  However Brexit, far from dividing the EU, has united it by illustrating the price to be paid for leaving.  The only two other allies with near equivalent weight in the world is the US and China.  The former wouldn’t tolerate any real alliance with the latter, even if it made sense, and the former is, like every great power, interested in itself.  As one contributor to the discussion on the Brexit site noted – Britain won’t be at the table as an independent player, it will be on the table as part of the menu.  In any case any such alliance would render the just-signed Agreement redundant, which Johnson of course is quite capable of doing, as we have already seen.

These relatively sensible, if reactionary, Brexit supporters seem to envisage an ‘independent’ Britain forming ad hoc alliances with whomever Britain might seem aligned with at any particular moment.  This might be credible if the issues they might align on were also ad hoc and not themselves systematically defined.  The route of opportunist alliances has the potential for Britain to become a sort of rogue state, a deregulated offshore dump for the world’s criminals and partner for the world’s most disreputable regimes.  These supporters of Brexit therefore misunderstand both the nature of interests and of the particular interest of Britain.

They are however far and clear-sighted compared to Sir Keir Starmer who believes he can support the Government and not share the blame; not share in the opprobrium of Brexit that the majority of his party’s members and voters have for it.

If the process of getting to a deal has proved tortuous this will be as nothing compared to the torture of its effects.  When asked whether he was supporting something that would make people poorer Starmer avoided the question; but as the old saying goes – he may avoid it but it will not avoid him.

If, as it appears, his only justification is that the alternative of a no-deal is worse then he should oppose the rotten and false choice that the Government alone is responsible for.  By voting for it, on the other hand, he will join himself to this responsibility.  He claims to be giving leadership, but he is supposed to be the leader of the Opposition and leadership of the Opposition requires . . . guess what?

Once again, he has shown himself to be a smart lawyer and stupid politician, even when judged by the narrow electoralist criteria that appear to motivate him.  He will assume that progressive Labour supporters will have nowhere to go, without considering that this might include nowhere near a ballot box.

Brexit has been toxic to everything it touches, as it continues to move on it looks like another casualty of it could be the Labour Party.

‘Moving on’ from Brexit

Within minutes of the announcement that the negotiations between the EU Commission and Britain would continue the Labour Party put out a statement calling for Brexit to get done, plus supporting a deal so that we could all ‘move on’.  There was no sign of Starmer’s six tests for a Brexit that Labour could support because this would mean not supporting any deal.

So, the statement was one part opportunism and one part aping Boris Johnson’s “get Brexit done”.  The most stupid however was the idea that once there is a deal, any deal, we can all “move on”.

In 1957 the British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan sought to pre-empt creation of the European Economic Community by proposing a wider free trade area that would encompass the six would-be members of the EEC.  The six however had already committed while the British appeared to want to have their cake and eat it: gain a free trade area for its industrial goods in the rest of Europe while continuing its current arrangements with its old Empire, especially in relation to food.  For the prospective members of the EEC the British proposal appeared to threaten political ambitions for the new European organisation while France in particular saw it as a British attempt to take leadership.

When this British attempt failed it went ahead with creation of a separate European Free Trade Association (EFTA) that included Austria, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, Sweden and Switzerland, setting its launch date for May 1960.  When the EEC members accelerated plans for cutting tariffs in the same month EFTA, in an effort to keep up, followed suit with its own programme of cuts the following February.  An earlier example of the exercise of sovereignty and the ‘ratchet effect’ so objectionable to the British now.

Just over a year later Britain demonstrated its commitment to its new EFTA allies and announced it was applying to join the EEC.  It did this for many reasons, including that EFTA was too small, that the countries of the dying Empire were going to go their own way, and that the US supported West European unity, meaning that EFTA could never rival the EEC.

Joining it, according to Macmillan in 1961, was necessary not only to boost relatively poor economic performance but “to preserve the power and strength of Britain in the world.”  Showing its continuing devotion to its EFTA allies it unilaterally imposed a 15% surcharge on imports from EFTA members in 1964, making them in some ways worse off than the US.

Today Britain is on its own.  It will not be putting together an alliance of several other European states to rival the EU when it doesn’t even have the weight to compel direct negotiations with the two largest EU states, Germany and France.  Instead of such a coalition it trumpets an exit on “Australian” terms, which is a euphemism for no deal but has the merit of showing how isolated it is.

So, Britain sought EEC membership again and applied to join in May 1967.  Six months later France vetoed the application.    In June 1970 the EEC opened negotiations and in January 1973 the UK was admitted to membership.  There was no position for Britain outside it that remotely cohered with its view of its role in the world.

This is even more the case now when its relative power has continued to wane and will suffer a downward step change as it leaves, regardless of the post-imperial bluster that has gone off the scale.  When the Royal Navy boasts of four small boats defending British sovereignty you should know you’re in trouble.  As a nuclear power it awaits a decision on whether the US is going to go ahead with a missile system Britain depends upon for its ‘deterrent’.

Having rejected membership of the Single Market, even were the EU to agree to it, any deal that is now negotiated will be a ‘thin’ one.  In other words, it will address tariff barriers which average about 3 percent while leaving intact non-tariff barriers that are in the order of 20 percent.  Such barriers threaten the existence of whole industries, including motor manufacture, and many others that require EU approvals such as chemicals and aerospace.  Electricity interconnection with France and Ireland requires adoption of EU harmonised trading rules.  Not mutually accepted rules, not equivalent rules, but exactly the same rules.

The British have resiled against the necessity to align its rules with any development of those of the Single Market.  Why should it change its rules just because the EU changes theirs?  As we have seen, we have been somewhere like this before.

Were the British proposals to be accepted, and their rules to remain unchanged while the EU developed its own rulebook, the rules set by the EU would no longer govern entry into the Single Market.  Britain would have access without having to follow the same rules as member states.  In order to prevent this the EU would have to put on the brakes to take account of the European power that has assumed the strategy of preventing European unity for centuries.  The alternative would be to open itself up to other countries seeking the same privilege as the British.  Neither of these is going to happen.

So, we witness the issue of Fish remaining prominent as a way of allowing Britain to declare some sort of victory in a skirmish while surrendering on the main battlefield.

It seems fairly clear, as Denis Staunton from the ‘Irish Times” made clear this morning, that there will be a deal, but that won’t mean Britain can ‘move on’, except in the sense that it goes round another loop of either having to rejoin its European neighbours or sink by itself into an isolation its people will not accept. There is no ‘moving on’.

This means that the strategy of the British Labour Party of supporting Brexit through supporting or abstaining on the deal in Westminster will put it on the wrong side of history and make it joint owner of the disaster.  The referendum and tortured path since have demonstrated again and again that Brexit is toxic.  It will entail untold attacks on the working class, its rights and its standard of living.  The Labour Party should not be looking to be a donkey that blame can be tagged on to.

The division of workers along national lines shows how reactionary Brexit has been by inevitably promoting division within the British working class itself. We can see this through the millions of workers opposed to Brexit and the rise of Scottish nationalism, nurtured by the idea that one variety of British nationalism is somehow qualitatively better than another.  Already in England we see demands for some sort of autonomy for certain regions like the North of England, as if there was a geographical solution to a problem arising from the system that crosses all borders.  It is as if nothing has been learned from the failure of proposing the fix of devolution for Scotland as the solution to austerity and decline.

On the Left, the so-called Trotskyists are saying it could all have been different when it couldn’t; while Stalinists wallow in their own nationalism, in their demand for national sovereignty and their own version of (nativist) identity politics.

The unity of Europe and erosion of national political differences is objectively progressive. It is a task that socialists would themselves seek to accomplish.  That capitalism is doing it only confirms that it can be done in a rightist and conservative manner and that Marx was right to see capitalism as transitional to socialism.  Of course, it is only transitional to socialism if the working class makes it so, but it won’t if it fails to fight for the tasks that capitalism itself has commenced and imposes for its own ends.

The Left and Covid crisis

The policy of lockdowns has been approved by many on the left, with the additional argument that they have not been strict enough.  Some appear to believe that pandemic induced crises necessarily open up opportunities for revolutionary crises.  These are considered opportunities to mobilise the working class to resist attacks on its social position and turn it towards socialism.  Crises then become both the necessary and sufficient condition for political revolution.  What these sufficient and necessary conditions might actually be is not considered.  That question has been answered and is no longer a question.

Previous crises have not entailed socialist revolution, but rather than investigate why this is, the approach has been to lament the weakness of the revolutionary left and the treacherousness of existing working class leaders.  Crises therefore are expected to do much of the heavy lifting of working-class political consciousness, allied to an unexplained rise to prominence of revolutionary organisations.  Rather than see such crises as occasions of potential radicalisation which must be based on prior conditions giving rise to class consciousness, this consciousness is assumed to arise from crises itself and the spontaneous activity generated.  This latter activity is then fed by Left economic and political demands that further radicalises it.

This process however requires prior development of the working class, including organisation and consciousness which already disposes the working class to defend itself through ‘spontaneous’ mobilisation that rests on some prior socialist consciousness.  We know that a lack of such consciousness has not been overcome by crisis in itself because of previous decades of defeats of working-class struggle; from a sober assessment of current working-class consciousness and passivity, and from appreciation that the last real revolutionary period rested on this prior development of socialist organisation.  Of course, many struggles in this period were betrayed by reformist and Stalinist leaderships but these betrayals had precisely the effect of setting the working-class back decades.  It’s why continuing opposition to these political trends in the working-class movement is a continuing imperative.  But it is wrong to simply repeat the explanations of previous defeats that happened decades ago as applicable now to much later generations.

In demanding a more stringent lockdown the purveyors of this general view rally behind the most lurid and sensational predictions of the effects and deaths that will be caused by Covid. The pandemic itself has become a ruling class conspiracy – “as far as the ruling elite is concerned, if the old and infirm die and allow for further cuts to pensions and health care, that is to be regarded as a positive good.”  As has been pointed out: across the world capitalist governments have spent fortunes in response to the pandemic.  If their objective has been to save money they have failed abysmally. In Ireland and UK the state has borrowed billions and seen their debt mushroom as a result.

If their favoured policy of total lockdown requires emulation of the approach of China, Australia and New Zealand etc., as some have claimed, then why are these countries not also in on the conspiracy?

This left appears oblivious to the cost of lockdown in terms of deaths, illness and social and economic loss; and sliding over who suffers these costs: from the lost jobs, education, domestic violence and damage to menial health.  It may point to the massive and wasted expenditures on testing and tracing systems that don’t work, and from failed and corrupt contract awards for PPE etc., but what has facilitated this?

They don’t stop to consider how their approach supports the politicians and state bureaucrats who cancel cancer and other life-saving treatments in order to protect their politicised health choices, and a health system that is failing and for which these politicians and bureaucrats bear responsibility.  Instead, their demand for lockdown puts the onus on the population to accept the most restrictive forms of social control and denial of civil rights, opposition to which is another one of their conspicuous silences.

Instead they oppose the opening of schools, though children are not at significant risk and infections in schools are low (see here and here and here).   One organisation dismisses schools as a “child-minding service’ employed to force parents into work, oblivious to this being a service that many parents are very glad of. It complains of trillions going to corporations but ignores that this is a product of lockdown; or do they believe that the state would give money to furloughed workers and not corporations?  What would happen if they didn’t, would all these corporations survive?

This organisation proposes committees that “would provide the means to organize a Europe-wide general strike to compel the closure of schools and nonessential production and allow workers to shelter at home.”  A stay away from work in order to get paid to stay away from work!  Since when did the capitalist class pay for an indefinite general strike? And how would one be organised with the mass of workers at home and socially distancing?  How would any revolutionary potential of a general strike be realised, i.e. acknowledging that society cannot simply close down but must continue to run, raising the question of who runs the economy – who rules?  How would this be possible unless major sections of the working class were actually at work?

“Massive resources must be invested to provide a high standard of living to everyone throughout the pandemic, including the resources required to maintain online learning for students.”  But how could anything be invested if the workers required to deliver the investment are to stay at home?  Or is this yet another essential section of the working class that must work – like so many the total-lockdown supporters refuse to acknowledge.

“The claim that there is “no money” for such measures is a patent lie. Trillions of euros have been handed to the banks and corporations in bailouts since the beginning of the pandemic. The resources exist, but they are monopolized by a corporate and financial oligarchy.”  The utterly un-Marxist idea is again advanced that money can equal “resources” and that pieces of paper are of use without human labour to deliver the real goods and services for which they are exchanged.  And anyway, isn’t the monopolisation of productive resources by a separate class not called capitalism?

Indeed it is, which once again demonstrates that every intervention by the ultra-left telescopes into demanding the overthrow of capitalism.

“The fortunes of the rich must be expropriated and the major corporations transformed into public utilities, democratically controlled by the working class as part of the socialist reorganization of economic life on the basis of social need, not private profit.”  But how are “the major corporations” to be put under the control of the workers unless they are actually at work?

As we know, Covid-19 is a specific threat that must be defended against.  When advocates of total lockdown call young people having a party ‘granny killers’ they acknowledge this reality.  Yet the pretence is still made that everyone is equally threatened at least to such degree that no strategy must distinguish between those who are old and/or otherwise vulnerable and those who are relatively young and healthy.  Students must go home, schools must close and young people socialising is an existential threat.

What this does is weaken the protection of those most at risk because it calls into question any restrictions.  If there really was no significant differential impact then many thousands of young people would have died. They haven’t.  Many working class people, as I have noted in previous posts, and here in a previous comment by a reader, are ignoring the rules when it suits.  The left advocates of complete lockdown are really now following Bertolt Brecht when he said – should this left not just elect a new people?

Most people however do register the greater threat to older and vulnerable people but rather than this being informed, encouraged and organised it has more or less been ignored by the authorities when it comes to organisation of the response.  Tightening restrictions affects everyone, and in some ways young people more, and undifferentiated relaxation exposes older people more because it cannot be admitted that they should still be shielded or socially distanced; just in case everyone decides that is the way it should stay, that this is the correct approach that should now be implemented and those in charge have got it wrong.

This approach has failed in Ireland, Britain and across Europe and further afield.  Part of the left doubles down and says the lockdown is not tough enough, without weighing up the cost or admitting that total lockdown has never actually been implemented because it can’t.  You cannot close down society, which relies on the continuous labour of millions of workers.  Admission that ‘essential’ work must continue never admits the enormous extent of what this entails given the development of the forces of production and division of labour involved.

A blanket threat in many ways protects the authorities from blame for failure because Covid-19 becomes an all-embracing indiscriminate threat that is difficult to defend against because of this character.  It allows them to introduce harsh social restrictions and coercive powers that for most people are totally unnecessary, and which some on the left who, were they consistent, should support because (1) they should endorse a fair claim to be necessary and (2) totally warranted given the assumed threat.  What could be more important that saving lives?

The longer the pandemic lasts the more incredible become the demands for total lockdown and ‘zero-Covid’.  The failure of existing restrictions has been too great to inspire notions that just more of the same will be both successful and at an acceptable cost.  Given the attacks stored up for the future, there will be plenty of time to reflect on the lessons.

Covid before cancer. Or maybe not.

The Northern Ireland Health minister was interviewed on the BBC here.  After first saying that he didn’t want anyone in the health service to be put in a position of making ethical decisions to deny essential medical treatment the interviewer told him that the Chief Executive of the Belfast Health Service Trust has said that they are already being made, and are life and death decisions.  Does Swann deny this or say he will investigate?  No.  He immediately and without hesitation attempts to justify something he said he didn’t want to happen, as if it hadn’t been happening.

He says that these decisions have to be made – “the ethical decision is could we turn a Covid patient away?  The answer is no.”  For other patients, “sorry your operation, your scope your diagnosis is going to have to be put off.”

When it is put to him that what he is saying is that a Covid patient won’t be turned away but that the result of this is that a cancer patient may die his answer is “yes, that’s as black and white as it is.”

So how is this ‘black and white’?  There has been no medical assessment provided that this blanket prioritisation is justified, in fact it is presented as if its justification is self-evident, an obvious ethical decision.  Except it’s not obvious and it is without justification, in both senses of that term – it has not been justified and any attempt to justify it would be wrong.

Swann says that we ‘cannot turn a Covid patient away’ but we already know that while over 50,000 people in the UK and over 3,000 in Ireland have died with Covid it is not at all clear how many of these have died of Covid.  So how can this particular disease be prioritised?

More people die of cancer than Covid-19.  There are around 165,000 deaths from cancer in the UK – that’s every year.  In 2018 over 4,000 people died of cancer in Northern Ireland.  In the Irish state over 9,000 die every year.

It cannot be because of the severity of the disease: cancer kills cancer patients because of their condition, while for most sufferers of Covid the disease is so mild they may not even know that they have had it.   If someone with Covid has a serious underlying condition making them vulnerable to death compared to a relatively healthy person with the same disease, what is it that makes the difference between survival and death?  Covid may be the proximate cause of death but Covid may not be the underlying condition without which death would not occur. If this is not considered an important distinction then presumably the health service and whole swathes of the economy will close down during the next flu season. A report from the Health Information Quality and Quality Authority shows that not all ‘Covid deaths’ should really be counted as such (see below).*

There is little that can be done to avoid many cancers; even those who don’t smoke, eat healthily and exercise fall prey to it.  Hospital treatment is necessary but can sometimes require less serious intervention if caught earlier, although this is precisely what is being deprioritised. Those most vulnerable to Covid on the other hand can take many of the measures we have all become accustomed to including social distancing etc.  The most vulnerable received shielding letters informing them of their vulnerability and measures they might want to take to limit exposure to infection.  Swann and his chief medical advisor have decided that these letters aren’t necessary this time but provided no real explanation why.  What has changed from the first lockdown?

Why is the protection of those most likely to suffer fatalities from Covid not the major focus of protection, support and prevention from these political leaders and bureaucrats?  Is it not really that, what both measures have in common – prioritisation of Covid patients within hospital and lack of focus on those most vulnerable – and what is being protected, as they have made clear repeatedly, is the NHS?   Protected from doing a job they know it will fail? And by their association, responsibility and accountability for it, protection of themselves?

The NHS in the North of Ireland is the worst in the UK.  There are, for example, more than 2,500 nursing vacancies.  As I have said before, Covid-19 may overwhelm the resources of the health service but is in itself not overwhelming.  It is only so because the NHS is already in crisis, and what we are asked to do is also to accept that we must collude in covering up this permanent crisis, including through regular speeches telling us how difficult it has been for the staff.

This message is all the more powerful, and successful, because it is largely true – many health service staff have been under enormous strain but this should not be an alibi for failure of the bureaucracy that is the NHS as an organisation.  As I have said before, the demand to protect the NHS, when it is supposed to be there to protect us, is an admission that this responsibility of the NHS will not be met.

The unjustified blanket prioritisation of Covid patients in hospital and the failure to issue shielding letters to the vulnerable are political decisions and have been successful because of a political campaign to justify lockdowns.  This has involved not only politicians but also senior health figures, who have given legitimacy to their decisions.  One such figure has been Gabriel Scally who has regularly intervened to argue that policies in the North and the South should be the same, as if two wrongs make a right.  He has stated that ‘the figures speak for themselves’ when it is well know that they don’t, and has stated that over 50,000 have died of the disease without recognition that dying with it is not the same as dying of it.  That such basic errors are repeated by a respected public health doctor illustrates the scope of the group think that has developed.

So egregious was the Health minister’s statement that the Department of Health put out a tweet entitled ‘Myth Buster’ with ‘myth number 1′ being “are Covid-19 patients being prioritised over other patients?” To which the answer was “No, they are not.  Patients are treated according to clinical priority.” Swann pitched in with “it is untrue and offensive for anyone to accuse frontline staff of prioritising one condition over another.”

Since it was Swann who said that prioritising was ‘black and white’ perhaps it is himself he is referring to as being offensive.  So who is right – the Department or the minister, and which version of the minister?

It would be difficult to deny that senior health staff would not be so stupid to as to admit such crass medical practice but easy to understand how Stormont politicians could grandstand with this level of idiocy and ineptitude.

The real problem is not that some politician has instructed hospital doctors to relegate individual cancer patients in order to prioritise Covid patients but that this is what has and will continue to happen by political decisions on allocation of resources that constrain individual medical assessments.  These individual decisions rely on higher level decisions on allocation of staff, wards and beds to deal with Covid that in the first wave witnessed empty Covid beds in the Nightingale hospital while other treatments were stopped.

Lockdown is a political decision involving an analysis not only of the disease but the potential impact of the response.  It is not a question of medical expertise determining the correct approach, even if one were naïve enough to believe that the medical profession is a paragon of virtue and wisdom.  The advocates of lockdown refer regularly to the number of cases, hospitalisation cases, numbers in ICU and deaths but rarely to the costs incurred by lockdown.  To do so would invite a critical debate they are ill prepared to have.  Swann’s mistake was to take soundbites to their logical conclusion and blurt it out.  It denotes the logic of the current approach but too crudely expresses its effects.

It is tempting to see in Swann’s first statement the chaos and breakdown of the functioning of the Stormont Executive that because of its reaction to the pandemic was seen for a while as an example of the political arrangements working.  No one is pretending they’re working now. However, the real political weakness lies not in the political primitiveness of Stormont but that such crass political interventions elicit no popular opposition. Unfortunately on this score looking for the left to offer one would be a complete waste of time, as we shall look at in the next post.

* HIQA: ‘The officially reported COVID-19 deaths may overestimate the true burden of excess mortality specifically caused by COVID-19. This may be due to the likely inclusion within official COVID-19 figures of people who were known to be infected with SARS-CoV-2 (coronavirus) at the time of death who were at or close to end-of–life independently of COVID-19 or whose cause of death may have been predominantly due to other factors.’

https://www.hiqa.ie/sites/default/files/2020-07/Analysis-of-excess-all-cause-mortality-in-Ireland-during-the-COVID-19-epidemic_0.pdf

 

 

Covid-19 – the random killer?

In a recent opinion column in ‘The Irish Times’ the writer asserted that the virus ‘has always killed randomly’, proving the old adage that opinions are like arseholes – everyone’s got one.  In fact, of course, Covid-19 doesn’t kill randomly and the fact that it doesn’t should be the starting point for understanding not only its effects but also how it should be dealt with.  And so, in many cases, it has.

For example, in this article in Nature Medicine the writers state in relation to the first wave that ‘in absolute terms, the total mortality toll of the pandemic was overwhelmingly in those aged 65 years and older, who experienced 94% of all excess deaths. In relative terms, older people were also affected more, with mortality in these ages being ~40% higher than it would have been in the absence of the pandemic in Spain and England and Wales and ~30% higher in Belgium, Scotland and Italy. The largest effect on those younger than 65 years was in England and Wales—26% (20–32%) for males and 22% (17–28%) for females—followed by Scotland, Spain, Sweden and Italy.’ 

It goes on to state that ‘the fourth group of countries, which experienced the highest mortality toll, consists of Belgium, Italy, Scotland, Spain and England and Wales’, which confounds the political spin that the Scottish Government did a good job.

‘The spread of infection within and between hospitals and care homes, and between them and the community, is itself an important determinant of infections and deaths in both the vulnerable groups and the general population. Where infection rates were high and care homes were not appropriately safeguarded—namely in Spain, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Italy, France and Sweden—a large number of care home residents died from confirmed or probable COVID-19. The initial seeding through discharge of infected patients to care homes was compounded by lack of testing and protective equipment for staff and residents and, especially in privately run care homes, regular movement of (temporary) staff across facilities.’

In the Irish state 93 per cent of fatalities have had an underlying condition according to the Central Statistics Office, with a median age of 83.  The most common underlying condition of those who died was chronic heart disease but the relevant conditions also included kidney, liver and neurological disease as well as cancer and diabetes.  In the North people aged 75 and over accounted for 78 per cent of Covid-19 related deaths in the year up to the end of October.

Health experts in Ireland, both North and South, and defenders of the lockdown approach more generally, have claimed that the only way to prevent death in these groups is a blanket lockdown that restricts everyone and justified their recent and current restrictions on this basis.  But it hasn’t worked.

In yesterday’s Belfast paper, the ‘Irish News’, it was reported that there were outbreaks of the virus in 146 care homes; in September it was only 20. At the end of last week the newspaper reported that 44 per cent of deaths were accounted for by care home residents.

Yesterdays ‘Irish Times’ reported that a letter from the Irish State’s health regulator to the Department of Health asked why residents at some nursing homes where staff had tested positive had not themselves been tested. “Luckily, to date most centres are reporting that these residents are asymptomatic.  However, we cannot rely on the situation continuing.”  In the month of October, 39 of the 103 deaths were of residents of nursing homes, while some of these homes have made persistent complaints of inadequate support from the health service.

Defenders of universal lockdown argue that you can’t protect the vulnerable without generalised measures, but these measures mean that not only has there not been a focus on, and resources directed to, those most in need but that there can’t be.

Lockdown brings temporary reductions in cases, hospitalisation and deaths that increase when they are inevitably relaxed, which earlier in the year was modified by the warmer weather during the summer.  This has led some to advocate stricter lockdowns and a ‘zero-Covid’ strategy, which sometimes doesn’t actually involve zero cases but only reduction to lower numbers so that test and trace then addresses new cases.  Since the majority of cases are asymptomatic it is never explained how these could be identified, and most of them wouldn’t; which also explains why the common metric to determine the severity of restrictions –  the R number – is a guess.  Given the wide range of estimates of this number right from the start it should have been obvious that imprecise metrics were being employed to justify an imprecise strategy.  It isn’t actually known how many people have had it or what sort of immunity has already been created.

The cost of the lockdowns has been enormous and the financial cost, which will be paid by workers in the near future, has been eye-watering.  The social and health cost has been less easily defined but we know it will also be huge. The Irish Hospital Consultant’s Association has estimated that almost 150,000 fewer people have had cancer screening in the first six months of this year compared to last, a drop of around 60 percent. In the North operations have been cancelled and cancer treatments delayed.  The graphic at the top of this post indicates the possible fatal consequences of such delay and was tweeted by a hospital doctor in Belfast.  Children’s and young people’s education has been badly damaged, domestic abuse is expected to have dramatically increased and children’s safeguarding has been endangered by the closure of schools and restricted access by healthcare professionals.  Mental health is expected to have suffered, something that can only get worse over the winter.

Huge sums of money have been announced and dispersed that previously were denounced as the ravings of a lunatic Jeremy Corbyn and the left of the Labour Party.  The difference however is that while the latter put forward increased spending as investment to deliver more and better jobs, the Tories have spent money to pay people to do nothing, or to pay out to their incompetent and corrupt friends through competition-free contracts.

The Left has long been aware that the best way to get people to do as they are told is to scare them, so the threat of terrorism has been used to spread fear and act as cover for attacks on democratic rights.  These attacks are as nothing compared to the restrictions imposed by general lockdowns.  We are invited to look down on Sweden and its policy of largely voluntary measures to restrict virus circulation and to accept that we aren’t responsible and sensible enough to do likewise – we are both too stupid and too smart.  Too stupid to be trusted and too smart to try.  Alternatives have come to be seen by many as the preserve of the far-right and assorted anti-science nut-jobs who sometimes deny that there is any threat at all.

The Left would normally have been expected to oppose this transparent attempt to scare the population into restrictions on their civil liberties, but instead they have joined in the moral outrage at those who aren’t doing as they are told.  So young people having a rave become ‘granny killers’.  They would normally have been expected to take an approach based on a materialist analysis.  Instead, they have demanded that massive sectors of the economy shut up shop and their workers get paid for doing nothing, workers who are overwhelmingly young and not threatened by the virus.  Pieces of paper or numbers on a computer screen are supposed to be a substitute for the production of real goods and services.  Everything Marx taught about capitalism is dumped in favour of illusions in money and the state.

The alternative of an intervention through which jobs are kept, the economy can continue to function and targeted measures are taken to protect the vulnerable are labelled herd immunity as if these were some sort of swear words.  The language of much of the Left has become dominated by definitions that are uttered as if they were insults.  So, in Scotland, unionism and unionists are by definition reactionary.  But do these words denote reaction by definition?  Would the description ‘rebel’ have denoted a reactionary during the American or Spanish civil war and would socialists therefore have rejected the description ‘unionist’ or ‘loyalist’ in these struggles?

Of course, it may be said that it all depends on the context, which is precisely the point.  The words herd immunity, which denote a real phenomenon, has become a term to dismiss consideration of a different way forward.  Any and all speculation that acquired immunity is inadequate has been published without recognition that these objections apply equally to vaccination. 

So, it has been noted that covid-specific antibodies have declined rapidly in those infected, without recognition that the immune system will have reduced these naturally because they are no longer required but will have developed the capacity to generate them again if required.  The possibility of achieving some sort of herd immunity was dismissed but it has been reported in ‘The Economist’ that in Northern Italy the most badly hit places including Bergamo now enjoy some degree of immunity: ‘Serosurveys show that antibodies there are not only common, but especially so among the old and health-care workers, who need them most.’

Less reported than the possible existence of antibodies and their rapid decline has been the potential of T-cells to provide protection.  This is only partly because they are harder to measure and less studied; they haven’t fitted the narrative.  Except  now they do.

One research project directed at health care workers in England may have found that six months after infection all the patients studied, even those who had mild symptoms, still had detectable levels of T-cells directed against the virus, even if their anti-bodies had disappeared.  This, it is speculated, might be why reinfection cases seem so rare.  It has been found that for some people T-cell response lasted over a decade in patients with the original SARS-COV-1 outbreak from 2002-03.

It is through seeking this type of response that the much-heralded Pfizer and BioNTech vaccine is based, and was reported in ‘The Economist’ before it became a headline in the mass media.

News of a potential vaccine doesn’t make the debate over the correct response irrelevant.  There will be no mass vaccination until well into 2021, as even the Northern Ireland Health Minister has said, even if it goes through all the necessary testing and authorisation, which it hasn’t as yet.  The avoidable cost of lockdown, which governments don’t seem to know how to get out of, is a big added pressure to rush vaccine approval, with all the risks this might involve.

Governments have narrowed down their options and, allied with their favoured expert advice, have given every appearance of the proverbial person who only has a hammer treating every problem as a nail.  Months of potential wasteful lockdown lie ahead and the issue of targeting the vulnerable doesn’t become less important because there appears a means of protection through vaccination.  Maybe then, finally, those pretending that the virus kills ‘randomly’, or that everyone has to be subject to equal treatment, will acknowledge that it doesn’t and they shouldn’t.