Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Self-Service is Disservice.


The predominance of so-called 'self-service' machines in supermarkets should worry those concerned by the depredations of the market. The 'self-service' machines turn us into unpaid employees for a Tesco, or a Morrison's, or a Sainsbury's, and even a wholesome Waitrose. The fact of the matter is that it is a service to Tesco, not ourselves, for the most part, to man the till in the place of a paid worker. It is another way in which the rinsing of people, as workers and consumers, to amass huge profits - and it means worse and worse working conditions and job prospects for vast numbers of people. With all that said, it is unavoidable given the pace at which we have to live, that we are going to avoid queuing for longer (unless we have a tobacco habit), and we can't find an exit point in waiting longer. Notice that the fetish of 'free-choice' actually offers little in the way of quality, and even less in the way of consultation.

Before we go any further I ought to do some throat-clearing: the kind of jobs available to people in supermarkets should be romanticised, they are not examples of fulfilling work by and large. Nevertheless, it has to be said that once such an area of job opportunities is closed off it will leave behind a section of people who had little other immediate option to working in a supermarket. The innovation of 'self-service' machines really allow businesses to discard labour in the endless attempt to pull in enough labour to squeeze dry, but not too much as it encumber the maximalisation of profits. Important aside: profits are by definition what is leftover after the cost of labour is taken into account, before that point its just revenue. The contradiction faced by businesses is in the need to scrap labour to save money, while at the same time drag in even more of it to keep up productivity. The workers are a burden, but at the same time they are invaluable to the economy, they are a cost to be cut, and the source of mountainous revenue.

It is not the case that the prices of food have fallen since this innovation of the marketplace. Yet the liberal accounts of technological progress would have us believe that the betterment of life overall will come out of the liberating capacities of technology. Its a convenient viewpoint, for a liberal or even a Fabian, there is no need for radical change as the evolution of technology will gradually perfect us and perfect our society. If the 'self-service' machines are to be installed then the goods should be cheaper, and if not, then the employees of the supermarket should have a higher wage. Neither is the case. Not only do they take our money for over-priced products they make extra money by not hiring the staff to man the tills. It's yet another instance of the rationality of the market really amounting to irrationality. The business can depend on human beings to act against their own interests, to work for free, to buy over-priced garbage, and ultimately to contribute to the further enrichment of those layabouts convinced of their own brilliance - the crust of wealth hoarders.

Only under particular conditions would self-service actually be conducive to social betterment. The companies could probably be cooperatised, we could each be hired and have a slice of the profits if we are to be engaged in any meaningful kind of self-service. The right to work has to be enforced if there is to be full employment and equitable standards of living enabling each person to lead fulfilling lives instead of living to fulfill the lives of a tiny few. Under conditions of universality and mutuality these machines would be of better social use. It might actually free people from a mind dulling role standing by counters, leaving them to more authentic pursuits, and not just tossing them on the wayside to rot. Otherwise the machine is a bloody con, for consumers, and for workers. In the meantime one can hope that the managers will be replaced by machine innovation sooner rather than later. Now that would be progress of a kind.

Thursday, 6 February 2014

This Card Will Rob You.


Bourgeois individualism is everywhere in its contaminating influence. Its stench in the rotten verbal foliage presented as public discourse. Nevertheless, vast swathes of well-meaning consumers will flood into shopping centres across the land to purchase commodities to stand-in for substantial gestures of selfless affection. This is prompted by Valentine's Day. It can also be prompted by Christmas and other festivities. It is unavoidable in today's world. There is little hope of escaping the rat race of the market in a society built around that rather pernicious little invention.

Out of the cards we may choose to buy the 'Thank You' card is by far the lowest of the low. The 'Thank You' card deprives us of our capacity for altruism and allow us to act as selfishly as possible, freeing us from writing letters of gratitude. It is about negative equality, the falsely level playing field where each participant must not lose anything without their consent and, if so deserving, must be compensated for any selfless action. No one should get something for nothing, likewise no one should give something for nothing. It is what lies behind the slow-motion destruction of the Welfare State: each of us must fend for ourselves in the marketplace, free to fail if we cannot succeed. The presumption that the efforts we exercise will produce reward for ourselves converges with the means to skip such efforts to the reward.

Instantaneous gratification is the promise of the marketplace - so long as you can afford the price! The ensnarement of individuals with the preoccupation with the insignificant things of life carries with itself hefty doses of ideology. In other words, the atomisation of life under neoliberal conditions is not just bodily, it is engendered by the performances we engage in with one another. We live and breathe and enact the precepts of a market society even in our most intimate relations it would seem. The exchange of cards, one card for the occasion, and a compensatory 'Thank You' card, really regulates a basic relation between people. Instead of a phone call, or a letter, or email if you like, expressing gratitude - or none, if needs be - we pay for a piece of card which does it for us. The advantage of this is that it allows you to avoid the awkwardness of feigning gratitude where none is due. Yet new limitations follow every advance made.

Monday, 3 February 2014

A Late Response to Brendan Simms.


Last week, I read a piece on anti-Semitism in The Evening Standard in which the writer - Brendan Simms - argued that it is connected with 'anti-capitalism' and 'anti-globalization' on the nationalist Right. He even went as far as to suggest that it was anti-capitalism which led Adolf Hitler to anti-Semitism. In his mind Simms actually conflates Hitler's rage against the Versailles Treaty with anti-capitalist sympathies. Hitler was enraged by the defeat and humiliation of Germany as a burgeoning imperial power. Furthermore, it was this treaty which was used by the British and French empires to engender an inevitable crisis within Germany that helped create the conditions for the rise of the Nazi Party. Instead Simms claims Hitler "accused" internationally-oriented Anglo-American capitalism for the destruction of Germany, as if the consequence was not an actuality at all. Ironically, it was the financial hub of American capitalism that imploded in 1929, taking the world economy with it, that led directly to Hitler's victory in 1933.

Sadly Mr Simms seems short on historical perspective. It has become somewhat fashionable to claim that the Left is a harbinger of anti-Semitism and belongs in the same ballpark as Fascism (if not worse, for some). He wants to situate the Left as a natural ally of Hamas, Iran, and even Hungarian neo-fascists, for its commitments to 'anti-globalization' and anti-capitalism. He claims these forces are coalescing against Israel and liberal democratic capitalism. I wonder if Mr Simms was present at the dinner where George W Bush consorted openly, for money, with self-declared 'Messianic Jews' converted to Christianity in order to bring on the Rapture. The anti-Jewish ramblings of Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and John Hagee, might not be so easy to swallow. Even still the article is packed with innuendo like "This makes [anti-Semitism] dangerous not just to Jews but to those seen as their allies, most of the Western capitalist democracies, or plutocracies, as anti-Semites (but not only they) often call them." That point requires more pause for thought.

It wasn't that surprising to find that Mr Simms is a prominent figure in the Henry Jackson Society, that heroic brigade of laptop bombardiers for whom there is never enough blood to spill around the world. It is awfully convenient for the Henry Jackson Society to discover that their enemies are all virulent anti-Semites. It presupposes that the actions they back to the hilt have an immaculate moral character. There's a switch-side to that coin. To what degree can the aggressive foreign policy of the US and Israel be defended morally, that includes the criminal use of white phosphorous against human beings in Fallujah in 2005 and in Gaza in 2009. The easy way is to simply slander the critics and opposition while the killing frenzy reaches a peak. This is a part of what Douglas Murray seems to think of as a struggle for civilisation over relativism. Actually the opponents of mad-dog neoconservatism are closer to where progressive republican Immanuel Kant stood in the late 18th Century. Far from relativism. More like the core of the Enlightenment.

Someone should tell Mr Simms that the only thing that brings anti-Semites together is Judeophobia, apart from that they can be pretty varied, as anyone who has put a few minutes into researching the Far-Right. Anders Behring Breivik, the Butcher of Utoya, managed to be pro-Israel and anti-Semitic in his writings. Holocaust denier Nick Griffin can't make his mind up on the subject, pledging support for Operation Cast Lead one minute, and then accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing the next. Perhaps Simms has the on-and-off talks between the Israelis and Palestinians in mind when he penned the article. As Alexander Cockburn wrote in 2004 "Over the past 20 years I've learned there's a quick way of figuring out just how badly Israel is behaving. You see a brisk uptick in the number of articles here accusing the left of anti-Semitism." Yesterday we found Prime Minister Netanyahu accusing John Kerry of being an 'anti-Semite'. The Palestinians suspect the talks are a smokescreen and have good reason to reckon so.

This comes as Danske Bank, the biggest Danish bank, divests from an Israeli company on the grounds that it is tied to settlement building. Then there were those EU sanctions last year. Clearly the Israeli government can see the creeping impact of its isolation in the international community. So it is a testament to Netanyahu's paranoia that he would attack his closest and most important allies in the world. But his fears may well come to fruition if the US backs down at the UN. And that would almost certainly mean the Palestinians would get a state of some kind. Meanwhile the Hank Jackson know-nothings - which includes the combined mental might of Michael Gove, David Willetts, Denis MacShane, and not just Douglas Murray - can get back to their domestic agenda of ripping tax-payer money out of public services to feather the nests of the ultra-rich. It's clear what people like Murray and Simms want, and it isn't civilisation.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Lenin on anti-Semitism.


Vladimir Illyich had his moments. It was in March of 1919 that the White Armies were waging a general offensive on the Siberian front. There Kolchak's forces engaged in mass-floggings, summary executions, anti-Jewish pogroms, the destruction of thousands of villages and farms. The reactionary forces led by Kolchak and Denikin had been incubated by the Tsarist regime and had been stirred to act by the fall of Bloody Nicholas. On the side of counter-revolution the powers of Europe, alongside the US, Japan, and China, intervened to strangle Bolshevism in its cradle. The possibility of defeat was a very real one at this time. Lenin took the time to stake out a political position on the anti-Jewish pogroms being carried out by the White movement and its allies:

Anti-Semitism means spreading enmity towards the Jews. When the accursed Tsarist monarchy was living its last days it tried to incite ignorant workers and peasants against the Jews. The Tsarist police, in alliance with the landowners and the capitalists, organised pogroms against the Jews. The landowners and capitalists tried to divert the hatred of the workers and peasants who were tortured by want against the Jews. In other countries, too, we often see the capitalists fomenting hatred against the Jews in order to blind the workers, to divert their attention from the real enemy of the working people, capital. Hatred towards the Jews persists only in those countries where slavery to the landowners and capitalists has created abysmal ignorance among the workers and peasants. Only the most ignorant and downtrodden people can believe the lies and slander that are spread about the Jews. This is a survival of ancient feudal times, when the priests burned heretics at the stake, when the peasants lived in slavery, and when the people were crushed and inarticulate. This ancient, feudal ignorance is passing away; the eyes of the people are being opened.
It is not the Jews who are the enemies of the working people. The enemies of the workers are the capitalists of all countries. Among the Jews there are working people, and they form the majority. They are our brothers, who, like us, are oppressed by capital; they are our comrades in the struggle for socialism. Among the Jews there are kulaks, exploiters and capitalists, just as there are among the Russians, and among people of all nations. The capitalists strive to sow and foment hatred between workers of different faiths, different nations and different races. Those who do not work are kept in power by the power and strength of capital. Rich Jews, like rich Russians, and the rich in all countries, are in alliance to oppress, crush, rob and disunite the workers.
Shame on accursed Tsarism which tortured and persecuted the Jews. Shame on those who foment hatred towards the Jews, who foment hatred towards other nations.
Long live the fraternal trust and fighting alliance of the workers of all nations in the struggle to overthrow capital.

This was one of eight speeches by Lenin recorded on gramophone. Significantly, it would later be the speech left out by the Communist Party when they came to re-record these speeches to re-circulate them in 1961. And this was Khrushchev's thaw. It's clear there had been a regression. It would get worse: Brezhnev would later reinstate the Jewish quota in Russian schools. The measure had originally been used by the Tsarist regime as part of a whole swathe of laws instituted to restrict and persecute Russian Jews. This was the same regime we can thank for the word 'pogrom' and the first drafts of The Elders of the Protocols of Zion, which was produced by the secret police and later distributed by the Black Hundreds. The anti-Jewish legislation of the Russian Empire would be obliterated in the revolutionary fervour of 1917. From then on the anti-Semites had a new canard, the Jews had stolen the motherland.

Right from the beginning there was a tension between the secular policies of the Bolsheviks and the official commitment to self-determination. The Jews were not problematic as an oppressed people with a unique culture, what the Bolsheviks found problematic was the Jewish faith and political Zionism offered the potential of an independent current. At first it was secular Yiddish culture which received the patronage of the state, while education remained secular, and Hebrew remained suppressed as it was under the Tsar. Even still the leap to equal rights was a dramatic one for a society that had been in the frenzy of pogroms not long before. Stalin would later set out to establish an autonomous Jewish region in the easternmost corner of Russia. It was meant to be a compromise with Jewish nationalism. Yet Stalin would later back the establishment of Israel in 1948 and arm the Israelis in the war of that same year.

It wasn't over yet. Stalin had hoped that Israel would be a Soviet ally in the Middle East. When Golda Meir and the Israeli delegation came to Moscow in 1948 there was a spontaneous gathering of thousands of Jews. At that point Stalin was frightened of where this could lead and initiated an anti-Semitic campaign of his own against "rootless cosmopolitans". It went as far as purges of doctors and assassinations of actors, not even famous Yiddish poets were safe. Through it all Stalin enjoyed popular support from Kibbutzniks within Israel. Even still the Soviet Union would move to a much more critical position on Israel in the coming decades and align itself with Arab dictatorships instead. The new restrictions on Jews extending to preventing them from emigrating to Israel. It was the birth of the refuseniks, a favourite cause of neoconservatives. And yet today's neo-fascists still see Jewish-Bolshevism under their beds at night.