Sunday, December 20, 2009

Copenhagen: A summit of civilized hyenas

‘Climate’ talks marked by capitalist rivalries

Representatives from underdeveloped nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America staged a walkout for several hours December 14 at the UN-sponsored summit talks on climate. The action by the nations, known as the Group of 77, highlights the real purpose of the meeting in Copenhagen—rivalry between the imperialist powers and their economic dominance of the so-called developing nations.

The stated aim of the talks is to adopt an international treaty that would mandate countries to reduce levels of greenhouse gas emissions, a byproduct of burning fossil fuels like oil, gas, and coal.

Europe vs. America
Some capitalist rulers, in the United States in particular, have opposed such regulations, saying the added costs of investment in technology and equipment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would cut into their profits. They also argue that they would be at an unfair disadvantage without imposition of stringent regulations on the industries of semicolonial nations.

Western European delegations, on the other hand, are pushing for the most restrictive emissions guidelines. Capitalist industries in Europe are less dependent on fossil fuels since they have turned substantially to nuclear power as a source of energy. Nuclear power accounts for 76 percent of the energy needs of French industries, 53 percent in Belgium, 42 percent in Sweden, and 28 percent in Germany.

The European Union will likely commit to a 30 percent reduction in emissions, according to the London Guardian. The New York Times reports that many European governments support an enforcement mechanism in the treaty that penalizes countries that fail to comply.

One draft document calls for “developing” countries to reduce their emissions by 15 to 30 percent by 2020.

Semicolonial countries are home to 76 percent of the world’s population, while they account for only 42 percent of greenhouse gas emissions and 19 percent of the world’s gross domestic product. The group of most developed countries makes up 19 percent of the population, while producing 51 percent of emissions and holding 75 percent of the GDP. The United States has 5 percent of the population with 20 percent of emissions and 30 percent of the GDP.

A major component of the conference has been a U.S.-led campaign against China and its ability to compete in international trade. The delegation from Washington said December 14 that it would not support any deal that did not include a verification mechanism for China’s emissions levels, which Beijing has rejected. Being able to compete with Chinese industry is a major concern for the U.S. rulers and the so-called climate debate is one place this becomes sharpest.

In June the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill on climate and energy policy that “allows for the imposition of tariffs on goods from countries that do not constrain their carbon output,” according to the New York Times. A group of 10 senators wrote to President Barack Obama warning that the Senate would not ratify any treaty that did not “protect American industry from foreign competitors who do not have to meet global warming emissions limits,” said the Times.

Washington’s actions are similar to the stance it took around the 1997 Kyoto treaty. That treaty imposed goals for emissions reductions for the developed countries but was optional for underdeveloped nations. The U.S. government refused to sign because the added costs to accommodate these changes by U.S. companies, they argued, would make underdeveloped countries more competitive in the world market.

During the Copenhagen conference several protest actions have taken place, the largest drawing tens of thousands of activists. Some of the actions have been organized to press for strong regulations, while others have sought to prevent the conference from taking place as planned. A rally held December 12 attracted 40,000 according to police accounts, or nearly 100,000 according to organizers.

Police told the Associated Press that they had arrested 968 people in a “preventive action” at the demonstration. Leading up to the conference, the Danish government passed a law granting police sweeping powers to make “preemptive” arrests. According to the Guardian, “the new powers of ‘pre-emptive’ detention would increase from 6 to 12 hours and apply to international activists. If protesters are charged with hindering the police, the penalty will increase from a fine to 40 days in prison. Protesters can also be fined an increased amount of 5,000 krona (US$978) for breach of the peace, disorderly behaviour, and remaining after the police have broken up a demonstration.”

The Bernanke Hosannas Begin (can chairmanship of the World Bank be far behind?)

Time names Gravy Train Conductor Person of the Year -- ALL ABOARD!

Товарищ Х

The Real War on Christmas

Words by Товарищ X and original art by Tim Hosler

Rudolph's Revenge Hits Merchant of Misery

The Real War on Christmas

The real "War on Christmas" is waged by capitalist forces gathering on the right, and our Santa is not going to take it lying down. This year, packing his dependable Golden Shovel, he is wreaking Rudolph's Revenge on a notorious merchant of misery, several times distinguished as Grinch of the Year, Wal-mart.

"This is not a war of ideas," says Santa, "this is class warfare." He explained that forces on the right are using a time worn tactic against workers and the oppressed by casting the War on Christmas in religious terms. "Religion", he continued, "is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." He furthermore called on those engaged in the struggle to give up illusions about their conditions, to organize , to fight back, and to continue the fight until a better world is won for all.

"This is not a snow shovel that I'm packing here," he said. "It is an emblem of our role in this historic struggle. We are, together, the gravediggers of capitalism. So, don't just stand there counting your change-- get to digging!"

He cautioned us to arm ourselves against the seasonal onslaught of "free market" propaganda. "Freedom," said Santa, "is a good reindeer to ride. But to ride where?" The Wal-marts and their apologists,as he explained, seek "market freedom," the freedom to make huge profits while pursuing the freedom to pauperize workers, the freedom to bust unions, the freedom to leech off of community resources, etc. "The world can not any longer afford to grant such freedoms," said Santa. "Don't be suckered in by the unremitting din of the season's buy-my-crap music. I release you from the seasonal obligation to buy stuff for each other, package it in over-priced paper, label it with a lame-o card and give it away on the 25th of December."

"Give the gift of solidarity this year," he said with a wink. "Let another worker know that their injury is your injury, and that together you can stand against it. Stand with the oppressed so that they can rise from their knees. I like where this is going. Let's take that sweet freedom ride together...."

His voice faded as his sleigh streaked to it's next target, and the workers, inspired now, were heard to chant, "Ho, ho, damned ho, capitalism's got to go!"

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

5.9 million unemployed

Obama at ‘job summit’: gov’t can’t do anything about jobs

According to the government unemployment figures for November nearly 18 million people are out of work.

While the jobless rate dropped from 10.2 percent in October to 10 percent in November, the number of those on the unemployment rolls without work for more than six months rose by nearly 300,000 to 5.9 million. That’s the highest for that category since records began being kept in 1948. Thirty-eight percent of those receiving unemployment benefits have been out of work for at least 28 weeks.

At a one-day “jobs summit” December 3, initiated by the White House, President Barack Obama said there’s little the government can do to resolve the mounting unemployment crisis.

Attending the summit were some 130 corporate executives—including from American Airlines, Nucor Corp., Google Inc., Walt Disney Co., and Fed-Ex—as well as small business owners and some union officials.

Obama said he had called business executives together to hear some “good ideas on how to create jobs.” He said that many businesses remain skittish about hiring and that many “have figured out how to squeeze more productivity out of fewer workers.” This is “not translating into hiring,” he said.

The president insisted that there’s not very much that the government is going to do. “Our resources are limited,” he stated. “So we can’t make any ill-considered decisions right now.” He added, “We don’t have enough public dollars to fill the hole of private dollars that was created as a consequence of the crisis.”

Obama said he would announce some of his own “new ideas” shortly. Among them is a “cash for caulkers” program to weatherize houses and businesses, according to the New York Times. It would be modeled after the July-August “cash for clunkers” initiative that was supposed to boost automobile sales and production, but had very little impact on putting back to work the tens of thousands of laid-off auto workers.

Long-term unemployed
The total number of those without work in November was 15.4 million, according to the Labor Department. Another 2.3 million unemployed workers “marginally attached to the workforce” are not counted, as the government claims they are “discouraged” or haven’t looked for work in the past four weeks. With 9.2 million others having to accept only part-time work, the combined unemployed and underemployed rate is actually 17.2 percent, or nearly 27 million workers.

The Labor Department numbers continue to show a disproportionate impact on Blacks, other oppressed nationalities, and youth. The unemployment rate for African Americans in November was 15.6 percent; for Latinos, 12.7 percent; and for teenagers, 26.7 percent. One-third of 16-24-year-old Black men are out of work.

Attacks on workers continue both through layoffs and through “productivity” speedup by the bosses. Labor “productivity” in manufacturing rose by 13.4 percent in the third quarter of 2009, with fewer workers producing more. On December 3 Harley-Davidson announced the layoff of 950 union workers at its largest plant in York, Pennsylvania.

Unless Congress renews federal jobless benefits, more than 1 million workers will lose benefits in January. Even though Congress recently approved a 14-week federal extension, it’s based on previous extensions that are slated to end December 31, reported the New York Times. Without an extension of the entire federal benefits program, those who started getting state benefits after July 1, 2009, won’t be able to get any federal benefits after state payments end in six months.

The day after the “jobs summit,” Obama took this discussion on the road, visiting Allentown, Pennsylvania. At a town hall meeting at Lehigh Carbon Community College, he said he planned to summon top bankers to the White House later this month to urge them to make more credit available and tell them “the taxpayers were there for you to clean up your mistakes. You now have a responsibility to be there for the community now that we’re bearing the brunt of a lot of these problems that you caused,” reported the Washington Post.

The crisis, however, is rooted in the contraction of capitalist production worldwide. In the United States, employers over the past 23 months have slashed 7.2 million jobs.

David Harvey's transitional program

Organizing for the Anti-Capitalist Transition
by David Harvey


The historical geography of capitalist development is at a key inflexion point in which the geographical configurations of power are rapidly shifting at the very moment when the temporal dynamic is facing very serious constraints. Three-percent compound annual growth (generally considered the minimum satisfactory growth rate for a healthy capitalist economy) is becoming less and less feasible to sustain without resort to all manner of fictions (such as those that have characterized asset markets and financial affairs over the last two decades). There are good reasons to believe that there is no alternative to a new global order of governance that will eventually have to manage the transition to a zero growth economy. If that is to be done in an equitable way, then there is no alternative to socialism or communism. Since the late 1990s, the World Social Forum became the center for articulating the theme "another world is possible." It must now take up the task of defining how another socialism or communism is possible and how the transition to these alternatives is to be accomplished. The current crisis offers a window of opportunity to reflect on what might be involved.

The current crisis originated in the steps taken to resolve the crisis of the1970s. These steps included:

(a) The successful assault upon organized labor and its political institutions while mobilizing global labor surpluses, instituting labor-saving technological changes, and heightening competition. The result has been global wage repressions (a declining share of wages in total GDP almost everywhere) and the creation of an even vaster disposable labor reserve living under marginal conditions.

(b) Undermining previous structures of monopoly power and displacing the previous stage of (nation-state) monopoly capitalism by opening up capitalism to far fiercer international competition. Intensifying global competition translated into lower non-financial corporate profits. Uneven geographical development and inter-territorial competition became key features in capitalist development, opening the way towards the beginnings of a hegemonic shift of power particularly but not exclusively towards East Asia.

(c) Utilizing and empowering the most fluid and highly mobile form of capital -- money capital -- to reallocate capital resources globally (eventually through electronic markets) thus sparking deindustrialization in traditional core regions and new forms of (ultra-oppressive) industrialization and natural resource and agricultural raw material extractions in emergent markets. The corollary was to enhance the profitability of financial corporations and to find new ways to globalize and supposedly absorb risks through the creation of fictitious capital markets.

(d) At the other end of the social scale, this meant heightened reliance on "accumulation by dispossession" as a means to augment capitalist class power. The new rounds of primitive accumulation against indigenous and peasant populations were augmented by asset losses of the lower classes in the core economies (as witnessed by the sub-prime housing market in the US which foisted a huge asset loss particularly upon African American populations).

(e) The augmentation of otherwise sagging effective demand by pushing the debt economy (governmental, corporate, and household) to its limits (particularly in the USA and the UK but also in many other countries from Latvia to Dubai).

(f) Compensating for anemic rates of return in production by the construction of a whole series of asset market bubbles, all of which had a Ponzi character, culminating in the property bubble that burst in 2007-8. These asset bubbles drew upon finance capital and were facilitated by extensive financial innovations such as derivatives and collateralized debt obligations.

The political forces that coalesced and mobilized behind these transitions had a distinctive class character and clothed themselves in the vestments of a distinctive ideology called neoliberal. The ideology rested upon the idea that free markets, free trade, personal initiative, and entrepreneurialism were the best guarantors of individual liberty and freedom and that the "nanny state" should be dismantled for the benefit of all. But the practice entailed that the state must stand behind the integrity of financial institutions, thus introducing (beginning with the Mexican and developing countries debt crisis of 1982) "moral hazard" big time into the financial system. The state (local and national) also became increasingly committed to providing a "good business climate" to attract investments in a highly competitive environment. The interests of the people were secondary to the interests of capital, and in the event of a conflict between them, the interests of the people had to be sacrificed (as became standard practice in IMF structural adjustments programs from the early 1980s onwards). The system that has been created amounts to a veritable form of communism for the capitalist class.


Can capitalism survive the present trauma? Yes. But at what cost? This question masks another. Can the capitalist class reproduce its power in the face of the raft of economic, social, political, geopolitical, and environmental difficulties? Again, the answer is a resounding "yes." But the mass of the people will have to surrender the fruits of their labor to those in power, to surrender many of their rights and their hard-won asset values (in everything from housing to pension rights), and to suffer environmental degradations galore, to say nothing of serial reductions in their living standards, which means starvation for many of those already struggling to survive at rock bottom. Class inequalities will increase (as we already see happening). All of that may require more than a little political repression, police violence, and militarized state control to stifle unrest.

Since much of this is unpredictable and since the spaces of the global economy are so variable, then uncertainties as to outcomes are heightened at times of crisis. All manner of localized possibilities arise for either nascent capitalists in some new space to seize opportunities to challenge older class and territorial hegemonies (as when Silicon Valley replaced Detroit from the mid-1970s onwards in the United States) or for radical movements to challenge the reproduction of an already destabilized class power. To say that the capitalist class and capitalism can survive is not to say that they are predestined to do so nor does it say that their future character is given. Crises are moments of paradox and possibilities

Melodramas of rationality and conspiracism

Agatha Christie - radical conservative thinker
by Johann Hari

It is only here, in her homeland, that Agatha Christie has not been given the respect she deserves. Europeans as eminent as Roland Barthes and Umberto Eco describe her as "brilliant" and "extraordinary" without a blush; Americans as distinguished as Raymond Chandler and Billy Wilder viewed her as one of the most exciting novelists of her time. The King of the self-consciously highbrow French literary scene, Michel Houllebecq, write a hymn of praise to her in his latest novel, ‘Platform’. He lauds in particular her 1946 work ‘The Hollow’ as "a strange, poignant book; these are deep waters [she writes about], with powerful undercurrents." Yet the English insist on seeing her as fodder for the tourists and perhaps the regions; a writer of elaborate crossword puzzles, not literature.

The verdict of the late novelist Anthony Burgess
accurately summarises the English intelligentsia’s
view of Christie. "She put people off reading the
higher art of detection – from the Moonstone to Gaudy
Night – by setting a lower standard and making it
somehow canonical," he wrote in the 1980s. "If she was
the queen of the whodunit, she used her royal rank to
condone flimsy characterisation, plentiful cliché,
implausibility, and verbal vacuity… All we have [in
her novels] is an abstract puzzle minimally clothed in
the garments of upper middle-class morality."

The literary critic Edmund Wilson once famously
sniffed, "Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?" (The
obvious retort to this is – err, about a billion
people, which is rather more than will ever care about
your writings, Mr Wilson.) One small fact reveals the
nature of much of the Christie-bashing lit-crit pack:
Wilson had not even read the famous 1926 novel when he
wrote his essay. Indeed, he only ever looked at one of
her works, the rather atypical ‘Death Comes As The
End’, a strange, not entirely effective story set
entirely in Pre-Dynastic Egypt.

There seems to be no limit to English academic’s
haughty contempt for Christie. Critic Peter Lennon
claimed that "her dialogue is tinnitus to the ear",
and that her dénouements were ineffective because "you
are not shocked that one of the pieces of cardboard
has committed a felony nor do you rejoice that a brown
paper bag with a perm has not."

It would be easy to join in this sneering – but for
one problem. How, if Christie wrote such rubbish, can
we explain the fact that her works have resonated even
at the farthest extremes of geography and history? In
Buchenwald concentration camp, Jewish inmates acted
out an amateur production of ‘Ten Little Niggers’, and
several later claimed that this helped them retain
their will to live. The Tupamaros guerrillas, who
kidnapped the British ambassador to Uruguay Sir
Geoffrey Jackson in 1970, adopted Miss Marple as their
honorary leader. They believed that she embodied
justice. Christie’s works sold over ten million copies
in the Arab world alone in the 1990s. Something
interesting is going on here, and it is not a
universal taste for rubbish.

The answer cannot be found in Christie’s
straightforward biography. She was born into an
uber-Victorian family in the uber-Victorian coastal
town of Torquay in 1890, as the triumphant Victorian
era was sailing peacefully towards the Somme. Other
than her famous disappearance – which has been
analysed to death elsewhere – and her extensive world
travel, Christie’s life was rather uneventful. She
loathed and avoided publicity in a way that would be
unimaginable to contemporary populist authors. She was
so cripplingly shy that when she arrived at the
Mousetrap’s tenth anniversary party at the Savoy, she
uncomplainingly allowed a doorman who didn’t recognise
her to turn her away. She returned home, downcast, and
cried. In her twenties, she was once returned to her
mother at a dance by a gentleman who explained, "Here
is your daughter. She has learned to dance. You had
better teach her to talk now."

Her famously timid nature has, however, left a false
impression of Christie as a woman who retreated from
the world and then made up stories based on a
constricted, upper-middle class world view. Far from
it: this is a woman who, after she was dumped by her
husband, took her daughter on a world tour where she
taught herself how to surf and bagged herself a
notoriously dishy man 15 years her junior. When she
became engaged to the archaeologist Max Mallowan, he
asked her if she minded marrying a man whose
profession was "digging up the dead." She placed her
hand on his and replied, "Darling, I adore corpses and

The Christie recorded by history seems likeable, dry
and clever: but this cannot account for the fact that
she is the best-selling author in human history after
the team who complied the Bible. The obvious
explanation is her capacity for finding every possible
permutation of the conventional detective story twist:
indeed, she was so successful in this pursuit that
almost nobody tries in the genre any more. To give
just a few examples: she created mysteries where the
narrator was the murderer (Roger Ackroyd), the entire
cast were the murderers (Murder on the Orient
), nobody was the murderer (it was suicide in
Elephants Never Forget), and even where Poirot was the
murderer (the extraordinary Curtain, Poirot’s final
appearance). If you are ever tempted to imagine that
writing plots like Christie’s is an easy activity, try
adapting one of her novels for the stage, as I did a
few years ago with my colleague Sarah Punshon. If we
tampered with one plot device in ‘The Secret
Adversary’, all the others untangled: her works are a
delicate ecology where every line feeds off every
other. We soon realised we needed some kind of visual
chart showing the progress and location of the main
characters. Three days later, the walls of my kitchen
were literally hidden behind a massive chart worthy of
Steven Hawking’s physics equations. I received rather
strange looks when a plumber arrived and had to peel
back large pages marked ‘Plan now to kill Jane! Take
her to house in Soho and drug her.’

But the plots alone do not explain Christie. No: I
believe that the great unappreciated aspect of her
work is that she was an intensely and relentlessly
political thinker. No, don’t throw your copy of
Prospect to one side in derision.

The first non-family member to read Christie’s fiction
was the novelist Eden Phillpotts. He told her to "try
and cut all moralisations out of your novels; you are
much too fond of them." He missed the point. Christie
– a genius when it came to narrative – did not write,
as is so often supposed, solely to tell fabulously
intricate stories. Moral and political instruction is
at the core of every Christie novel. In the Middle
East at the height of the Second World War, Graham
Greene approached her to ask if she would be prepared
to write pro-Allied propaganda. She declined – at
least in part because she was already propagandising
expertly for her own causes.

Hmmm, you may be wondering – I missed the novel where
Miss Marple offers her interpretation of ‘Das
Capital’. You can’t quite recall the book where Poirot
leads a revolution in a South American country. This
is fair enough, but there is a sustained political
analysis in Agatha’s novels, and it is explicitly
discussed in almost every text. To some extent, the
genre itself is conservative. The film critic Peter
Canby has argued that "whodunnits are politically
conservative, being artefacts of a well-ordered world
where all questions have answers, all debts are paid
and all crises rise and fall with tidal
predictability… [it] soothes the readers and helps to
put him to sleep at the end of a day spent in a very
different world." But Christie took this further: she
had, as Houllebeq argues, "a radical theoretical
engagement" with Burkean conservatism. At a time of
massive social transformations in areas as fundamental
to individual identity as gender, family and class,
Agatha offered the soothing balm of Burkean
conservatism. She offers an eternal England, a natural
order that will always act spontaneously against evil
to restore its own rural sense of calm. There is a
clear natural order to Christie’s world, and – in true
Burkean style - it is only disrupted by greed,
wickedness or misguided political ambition. The world
is not – as it seems so often – chaotic and
terrifying. No, as Poirot explains in ‘Appointment
with Death’, "the absolute logic of events is
fascinating and orderly."

Her work conforms to Burkean conservatism in every
respect: justice rarely comes from the state. Rather,
it arises from within civil society – a private
detective, a clever old spinster. Indeed, what is Miss
Marple but the perfect embodiment of Burke’s thought?
She has almost infinite wisdom because she has lived
so very long (by the later novels, she is barely able
to move and, by some calculations, over 100). She has
slowly – like parliament and all traditional bodies,
according to Burke – accrued "the wisdom of the ages",
and this is the key to her success. From her solitary
spot in a small English village, she has learned
everything about human nature. Wisdom resides, in
Christie and Burke’s worlds, in the very old and the
very ordinary.

The novels are shot through with a Burkean fear of
enlightenment rationalism. There is a persistent fear
of the young and those with grand Archimedean social
projects. Christie’s greatest anxiety, she once
explained, was of "idealists who want to make us happy
by force." The minute a character is described as an
idealist in one of her novels, you’ve found your
murderer. Any rational attempt to supersede the
‘natural’ order is terrifying for her: she could have
scripted Stanley baldwin’s comment about David Lloyd
George that he "is a dynamic force, and a dynamic
force is a very dangerous thing." In ‘They Came to
Baghdad’, a rational plan for a New World Order is
revealed to be a veil for absolutist fascism. In ‘They
Do It With Mirrors’, a plan to establish an island
which would be administered by (and eventually
rehabilitate) young offenders degenerates into
psychosis. In ‘Destination Unknown’, a communistic
scientific community turns out to be a veil for a
crazed megalomaniac. This list could go on for a very
long time.

Her protagonists stand, novel after novel, against
those who seek to disrupt the natural order and
interpret the world with a misleading ‘rationalism’.
As one of her heroes explains, "We’re humble-minded
men. We don’t expect to save the world, only pick up
one or two broken pieces and remove a spanner or two
when it’s jamming up the works." Or, as another
heroine asks, "Isn’t muddle a better breeding ground
for kindliness and individuality than a world order
that’s imposed?"

In its ugliest moments, Christie’s conservatism
crossed over into a contempt for Jews, who are so
often associated with rationalist political
philosophies and a ‘cosmopolitanism’ that is
antithetical to the Burkean paradigm of the English
village. There is a streak of anti-Semitism running
through the pre-1950s novels which cannot be denied
even by her admirers. ‘The Mysterious Mr Quinn’ has an
ugly passage about "men of Hebraic extraction, sallow
men with hooked noses, wearing flamboyant jewellery."
‘Peril At End House’ has a character referred to as
"the long-nosed Mr Lazarus", of whom somebody says,
"he’s a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one."
Against this, it is worth pointing out that her novel
‘Giant’s Bread’ (written under the pseudonym of Mary
Westmacott) features an extremely sympathetic portrait
of the Levinnes, a Jewish family who suffer from
anti-Semitism in England. Christie’s hostility to Jews
was, I suspect, more political than personal (and no
less reprehensible for that).

The other aspect of her conservatism which seems most
unsavoury today is her hostility to feminism. She
believed that Victorian women had a privileged place
which women’s liberation – another rationalist
movement tampering with the natural order – threatened
to undermine. In the 1960s, she was sent a
questionnaire by an Italian magazine investigating the
attitudes of prominent women towards feminism. In
response to a question about the cause of women’s
increasingly active role in the workplace, Agatha
attributed it to "the foolishness of women in
relinquishing their position of privilege obtained
after many centuries of civilisation. Primitive women
toil incessantly. We seem determined to return to that
state voluntarily."

Christie’s ouevre up until, say, ‘Cat Amongst the
Pigeons’ in the late 1950s is an intriguing – if
conventional - study in Burkean philosophy. What makes
her more than that – what pushes her work into a
higher realm – is that she was a clever enough woman
to realise that the Burkean order she loved was
becoming less and less tenable as social change
accelerated. Often, the novels she wrote as an old
woman from the 1960s until her death in 1974 are
dismissed as inferior to the more famous early works,
and it is undoubtedly the case that the plots are less
sharp and imaginative. But I have always believed that
they are the most intriguing: they chart the nervous
breakdown of Burke’s England, and the intellectual
bankruptcy of a conservatism derived from Disraeli and
Baldwin, better than any other writer I know.

The best way to illustrate this is to look at two
novels which almost book-end her oeuvre: her second
novel, ‘The Secret Adversary’, written in 1921, and
her penultimate work, ‘Passenger to Frankfurt’,
written in 1970. Both are explicitly political works,
yet the calm, certain conservatism of Adversary has,
by 1970, disintegrated into a chaotic, trembling fear
of change.

‘The Secret Adversary’ is an irresistible, bizarre
reactionary fable written at the height of public
anxieties about a general strike and the possibility
of a British revolution. Tommy and Tuppence –
Christie’s most under-rated recurring characters – are
a sprightly young couple recently demobbed from the
First World War forces and in search of a distraction
from their tedious new lives. Gradually, they begin to
investigate a powerful man "who lives in the shadows"
known only as ‘Mr Brown’. He is a figure at the heart
of the English establishment who is seeking to
destabilise the nation and forment anarchy so that he
can seize absolute power for himself. Gradually – in a
politically outrageous development – it emerges that
Brown is secretly controlling almost every progressive
force in Britain: the trade unions, Irish nationalism,
the Labour Party and others. It is even implied that
he was behind the Russian Revolution.

In several brief, lucid passages, Christie dramatises
the bourgeois fears of social disorder in a way that
has yet to be bettered. One young thug fantasises
about "diamonds and pearls rolling in the gutter," an
image which is central to the novel as the ultimate
signifier of the breakdown of all that is decent. Mr
Brown is, of course, apprehended and English order
restored by the last page. What is striking in
relation to the later works is the confidence with
which Christie imagines social order can be restored:
Britain is brought to the brink of revolution, but the
apprehension of one man (who turns out to be a King’s
Counsel and close friend of the Prime Minister) puts
all those social anxieties back in the box. It is not
hard to see why this would have been reassuring to a
1920s middle class readership: it applies the same
model for extirpating evil to the political sphere as
Christie applies to the world of the English village.
Miss Marple catches the murderer and the world goes
back to the way it was before the awful act took
place; Tommy and Tuppence catch the revolutionary, and
the world goes back to the way it was before the
political troubles began. Burke’s principles are again
central: the natural order is only disrupted by
malice; society tends towards a benevolent stasis
which is only interfered with by the wicked.

Skip, then, to ‘Passenger to Frankfurt’. Again, a
normal person (this time an English civil servant, Sir
Stafford Nye) is slightly bored and begins to stumble
upon an occluded, ideologically-driven political force
that seeks to destabilise the world and seize control
(in this novel, they are a strange cult who worship
the bastard son of Adolf Hitler). But even before the
chaos begins, there is a sense that we are no longer
in Miss Marple’s England. Sir Stafford notes to
himself as he reads his newspaper, "No child has been
kidnapped or raped this morning. That was a nice

The simple binary division of the world in ‘Adversary’
– you are either with Mr Brown or with us – is gone
too. There were the political idealists – power hungry
and wrong-headed – and then there was the great mass
of humanity, who sought clam and order. Yet in
Frankfurt, the characters themselves see that the
world has become so complex that Manichean simplicity
is no longer possible. Of a secret agent, one
character asks, "Is she ours or is she theirs, if you
know who ‘theirs’ is?… What with the Chinese and the
Ruskies and the rather queer crowd that’s behind all
the student troubles and the New Mafia and the rather
odd lot on South America." The conservative stability
of the earlier novels has collapsed; Christie herself
saw that, the further her stories travelled from the
English villages of the 1930s, the less credible the
belief system of that world became. Forced out into a
complex urban environment – or, increasingly, an
international one – she saw that Burke’s thought had
no real application any longer.

Yet she obviously misses it like a lost limb. She
cannot quite accept that bad things can happen without
a malicious human agent standing somewhere behind
them. Social change is still regarded as the result of
a bad person: she seriously suggests repeatedly in the
novel that drug use is being promoted among the young
to make them unthinking and therefore susceptible to
the charms of a new fascistic leader. Whereas in
‘Adversary’ she ties up all the loose ends neatly, she
feels unable to in ‘Passenger’ – the world she has
created or, as she saw it, reflected is so inherently
unstable that the old conservative resolution is no
longer possible. The novel’s narrative simply peters
out, and her readers are left simply with a pervasive
fear and the suggestion that Christie’s – and their –
nexus for understanding the world, small-c
conservatism, is not longer tenable.

The journey from Adversary to Passenger was a gradual
one. The rural England she loved slowly dies in the
novels as the years pass. In ‘Nemesis’, written in the
late 1960s, Miss Marple laments that her natural
habitat is vanishing when she says of St Mary Mead,
"It used to be a very pretty old-world village but of
course, like everything else it’s becoming what they
call ‘developed’ these days." Another character adds,
"Nothing is like it used to be – it’s all spoilt –

The death of the old conservatism has been confusing
for the right across the world. Stanley Baldwin took
it for granted that his conservatism would rule his
party forever, but now the Tory party advocate the
rationalist politics he loathed: in her recent book,
‘Statecraft’, Margaret Thatcher explicitly endorses
the US constitutional model over the evolutionary
Burkean constitution of Britain. She sees that her old
conservative world is dying, and so is the way she
understood it, and she would, I suspect, have recoiled
from the neocons.

The Burkean conservatism that Christie loved is now
officially dead. Nobody seriously espouses it any
longer, and when John Major tried to play some of its
tunes a decade ago he sounded ridiculous. There are a
few isolated people – Roger Scruton, the Salisbury
Review and Prince Charles spring to mind – who try to
revive it, but they are an eccentric fringe. I am not
a conservative, or anything like it, but the closest I
have ever come to seeing its appeal was when I read
Christie. She is a political propagandist and literary
figure of remarkable power.

The philosophy she espouses – of a world stable and
ordered if only these pesky progressives wouldn’t make
such an unseemly fuss – remains across the world a far
more powerful force than many of us on the left admit.
Some people will always resist the appeal of
Enlightenment optimism in favour of a mythical Burkean
natural order that they believe we tamper with at our
peril. If the neoconservatives and Wilsonians (I bunch
myself in the latter category) who today are trying to
restructure the Middle East want to understand why
this is, then the novels of Agatha Christie are a very
good place to start.

A popular outline of "The German Ideology"

The German Ideology

Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels, 1846

"When we conceive things thus, as they really are and happen, every profound philosophical problem is solved."

Let us revolt against the rule of thought, unlike the Young Hegel ians who claim to be materialists, but cling to the idea that minds needed changing first. To understand the German way, we must begin , not with ideas, but with facts. Human society developed through tribal society to the growth of cities (with their government, slavery and private property) and to feudal estates relying on oppressed serfs. This history requires, first, human survival through eating, drinking, clothing and shelter, necessarily leading to the making of things, reproduction and social cooperation. Only after these four 'moments' need human thought be considered. In families a form of slavery exists, where each member has certain fixed tasks. This 'Division of Labour' continues today. If its divisions are so wide that the majority of the world are left propertyless, then the people will all at once begin a communist society, in which the state will regulate production so that each individual is free to do what they want, when they want. It is essential to see this history as a world history where inventions, machines and money are what determine the future, not grand ideas. It is the sum of productive forces, not princes and battles, which is the real 'essence of man'. This is not so-called communism of Feuerbach, which deems human desire satisfied when its material condition matches its mental essence. In all times the ruling class are always the people with the ruling ideas, a position they maintain by pretending their ideas to be from beyond themselves and for the common good. The rise of manufacturing and 'big industry' has destroyed craft skill and begun a trade in money. In doing so it has created a new class of propertyless workers who have no control over their own existence. As such, they do not form a class-interest, but, the world over, have the same interests. Communism is an economic movement, overturning all previous relations between people, by accepting that the present conditions are created by production and intercourse.

"The Condensed Edition of Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels The German Ideology" just 4900 words, can be enjoyed here.

1918 Manx General Strike recalled

On 3 July this year it was the 90th anniversary of the little-known Manx general strike, the Isle of Man's first and only general strike. Its immediate cause was the withdrawal of the subsidy to the flour industry, resulting in rising bread prices. This sparked unprecedented mass strike action across the island, bringing it to a complete standstill for the next two days and under effective control of the strike committee. The strike was only called off after it had forced the government to continue the subsidy.

Christian Daugherty
The Manx government and the Lieutenant of the Isle of Man, Lord Raglan, were very unpopular because of their resistance to reform. Manx workers and poor farmers were angered that the government had repeatedly postponed the introduction of direct taxation of wealth (this was seen as more fair than indirect taxation), old age pensions, national insurance and workmen's compensation. All of which had already been introduced in the rest of Britain.

As early during the war as 1916, there was a demonstration against the government at the Tynwald day ceremony.

Lord Raglan was met with shouts of 'resign'. When the Manx parliament, the House of Keys was mentioned, there were shouts of 'dissolve'. Demonstrators carried signs saying 'no food taxes', 'direct taxation' and calling for old age pensions. Speakers were met with boos and jeers and at one point someone threw a clump of mud and grass which hit Lord Raglan in the face.

On 20 April 1918 the Laxey miners went on strike for better wages, but were ordered back to work by the minister of munitions pending a decision on their case. Manx workers were then further angered by the raising of indirect taxation in April, the raising of the military age to 51 in May and the announcement of a government surplus of over £40,000 in June.

The final straw came with the removal of the nine-penny loaf. At which point the workers vowed to remain on strike until it was restored.

On the evening of Wednesday 3 July 1918 trade union leaders on the island called a general strike. They formed a strike committee composed of trade unionists that sat continuously for the next two days, at the strike headquarters in Salisbury Hall. The strike committee was in effect a soviet and an embryonic form of workers' power on the Isle of Man.

The practical power of the strike committee is demonstrated by the fact that during the strike only one boat sailed to the island from Liverpool. This was with permission of the strike committee and on condition that upon arrival its crew should also stop work and join the strike for its duration. No boats left the island.

On Thursday morning the government was shocked when mail and passenger boats didn't arrive and the cargo workers refused to load the ships. Amongst the sailors, firemen and cargo workers there was full union membership and 100% support for the strike.

The railway management had high hopes of using non-union labour to run services and early on Thursday morning there were some trains to Douglas, but only one from Douglas to the south of the island.

Its passengers brought news of the strike in Douglas, resulting in a crowd gathering at the station and holding a spontaneous demonstration in support of the strike. The crowd then persuaded the non-union train drivers and the train guards to join the strike.

At noon a crowd mainly consisting of women and children marched to the Douglas train station to prevent any more trains running. Having arrived they persuaded the signal operator and the clerical staff to join the strike and no more trains ran during the strike.

There were also a few electric trams from Ramsey to Douglas early on Thursday morning, run by non-union workers and management. The union workforce protested in Ramsey and a meeting in Douglas, called by the strike committee, ended with a half mile procession to the electric tram station. There were no further tram journeys for the remainder of the strike.

After this, the strike remained solid throughout the island for the rest of Thursday and Friday, resulting in the cancelling of the Tynwald day ceremony on Friday. At 3pm on Friday the government announced they would continue the flour subsidy. Having achieved their aim the strike was called off and the workers returned to work triumphant after the two most tumultuous days in the history of the Manx labour movement.

The Manx working class still remained very radicalised after the strike ended. On Armistice Day, trade unionist and general strike leader Hall Caine made a speech. He said of the war that: "Liberty has nearly been wrecked during the last four years. We have seen it as we see a ship sometimes outside - beset with tumultuous seas, with the black cormorants of autocracy screeching and squirming above it. "

The Manx ruling class took fright at the general strike and the show of strength by the Manx working class. It came only seven months after the October revolution in Russia had brought the Russian working class to power. This show of strength frightened them into making concessions.

Firstly the government agreed to continue the flour subsidy. Through continued pressure, within two years of the strike most of the July 1916 demonstrators' demands had been won.

On 27 July 1918 the income tax bill was signed by the Tynwald. On 17 December Lord Raglan, Lieutenant of the Isle of Man resigned after sixteen years. This was followed by the passing of the adult suffrage bill in February 1919 and the workmen's compensation bill in March 1919. The old age pension and national health insurance bill was passed in May 1920.

As the current economic crisis in the financial sector hits the island, the lessons of the general strike will become increasingly important for Manx workers.

The Isle of Man's economy is even more dependent on the financial/service sector than the UK. In 2000 it was estimated to be about 86% of GDP. As the crisis bites, Manx workers will face the biggest attack on jobs, pay and public services for a generation. This is after more than 20 years of economic growth have resulted in a certain stabilisation of living standards.

The general strike has important lessons for UK workers today, who have already faced more than a generation of attacks on their living standards. As the economic crisis grinds on we will face intensified attacks.

The Manx general strike shows that workers, through united strike action, can completely paralyse the power of a government. They can force the ruling class into a retreat and win progressive reforms benefitting all workers.

This would not have been possible without the trade unions having strong membership and the active participation by the workers. A determined, trusted and elected trade union leadership was also essential.

Unfortunately there was no Bolshevik-type party to take the political leadership and push the movement forward towards socialism.

Serious reforms cannot be gained by persuading the capitalists that aspects of their society are unjust. They can only be gained by directly opposing capitalism, with the power of the organised labour movement.

Monday, December 14, 2009

The good, the bad, and the obscurantist

History of theory

A review of Alex Callinicos, Social Theory: A Historical Introduction (Polity, 1999), £14.99


Alex Callinicos's latest book embodies all those qualities that have come to characterise his writing. Social Theory is elegantly and clearly written. It reflects an enormous range of reading and the assimilation of a wide range of often complex thinkers and theories. Anyone interested in social theory, especially undergraduate students working in the area of social studies, will find key theories succinctly encapsulated without loss of subtlety. They will also have their horizons expanded as Alex makes the compelling case for the inclusion of a much broader understanding of who should be counted as a social theorist than the more conventional hidebound bourgeois textbooks. For he does not just discuss the 'usual suspects' in terms of theorists of society--for example, Hegel, Marx, Durkheim and Weber--although there are excellent chapters devoted to each of them. He also discusses Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, Lukács, Heidegger, Keynes and Hayek. And whilst this is obviously not the first book that someone new to Marxism would most benefit from, those who have a somewhat greater familiarity with the tradition will find the book very stimulating and edifying.

The social theories that emerged within the Enlightenment and since may be classified in three different ways according to their attitude to 'modernity', ie capitalism. The first approach is 'represented above all by Marx... He...kept his concept of history as a dialectical process motored by contradictions inherent in specific social formations. Civil society, or rather bourgeois not the End of History, but simply a historically transitory social form whose claims to realise individual freedom are belied by its roots in capitalist exploitation. The Enlightenment aspiration to create an authentically rational society requires a further social revolution'.1

The second position is that of social theories which accept modern bourgeois society and provide a broad defence of it, modern liberalism being the prime example. Its theorists range from Tocqueville and Mill through Durkheim and Weber, who 'both make clear their emphatic belief that the hope of social revolution that will radically improve on actually existing modernity is the merest illusion', to Talcott Parsons. In examining these different thinkers Alex brings out some of the tensions in their attitude towards, and indeed reservations that some of them had about, modernity. Indeed, for summary descriptions of the principal views of these thinkers Alex's account can rarely have been bettered. He even makes Parsons, the dominant bourgeois sociologist in much of the post-war period (and someone I've always thought boring as well as politically reactionary), an interesting thinker whose views deserve comprehension and then rejection.

Finally there is the position taken by Nietzsche of radically rejecting modernity and the scientific rationality that the Enlightenment introduced. Nietzsche's philosophy was widely influential, particularly in Germany towards the end of the 19th and in the early decades of the 20th century. It had a key influence on Weber, even though Weber's social theory ultimately represents the acceptance of 'modernity' rather than its reactionary rejection. Later Nietzsche was to have a significant effect on one of the most influential and controversial philosophers and social theorists of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, and then on the postmodernists, and particularly one of their most interesting theorists, Michel Foucault.

Social Theory takes a chronological approach, showing the development of the principal theories through the work of the most important theorists. Alex locates the development of these ideas in relation to economic, social and political developments of the day. However, there is no hint of reducing the ideas he deals with to some kind of passive reflection of the ideological needs of particular classes. Alex is well aware of the influence that preceding thinkers and theories have on serious social theorists, the manner in which they respond to pre-existing intellectual traditions and pursue their own intellectual curiosity and ability.

In one fascinating chapter he provides a brilliant summary of Darwin's theory of evolution, contrasting it with inaccurate pop versions of the theory that owe more to Lamarck. He then shows how Darwin's scientific theory is taken up and used in different ways by on the one hand the liberal, Spenser, and on the other by the Marxist, Kautsky. In the same chapter he goes on again to give a wonderfully concise summation of the principal elements of Nietzsche's theories with their extraordinary combination of 'naturalism which treats humankind as continuous with nature and an anti-naturalism which insists on what sets human beings apart from other species'.2 Social Darwinism (eg Spenser's theories) and biological racism 'are repellent instances of naturalism; Weber is the most important champion of anti-naturalism; Marxism, even in its Kautskyan version, seeks to span the two traditions'.3 Nietzsche's peculiarity lies in the way the 'human subject is naturalised, reduced to an incoherent cluster of biological drives, while nature is subjectivised, since all aspects of the physical as well as the social world are expressions of the will to power'.4 In the space of just a few lines Alex once again deftly illuminates the similarities and differences between a wide range of diverse theories.

This is again brought out in Alex's treatment of Freud, a thinker profoundly influential on the 20th century mindset but not perhaps immediately obvious as a social theorist. Freud's significance, Alex argues, lies in 'the decisive step of cracking open the self and exposing the forces responsible for its constitution'.5 Freud's theory of the mind is most important for establishing 'the most powerful and influential formulation of the concept of the unconscious'.6 Again, for the single clearest, most concise and yet sufficiently comprehensive summary of Freud's principal theories over the space of just six pages, Alex cannot be surpassed.

It is here that I would like to enter a small reservation. Alex is, quite correctly, extremely impressed by the power and imagination of the intellectual edifice that Freud constructed. Nor can Freud's general influence on the spirit of the age be denied. Alex refers to the challenge Freud might appear to pose to the Enlightenment confidence in the use of reason, given the existence of hidden desires and drives, but seeks to show that Freud's work marked 'a major extension, and not the abandonment, of the Enlightenment project'.7 He goes on to refer apparently favourably to attempts within the Frankfurt School, and in particular by Herbert Marcuse, to forge out of historical materialism and psychoanalysis a broader theory of human liberation. My reservation is that Freud's detailed theories seem unlikely to be true and some of the intellectual framework he brought to the study of the mind is lacking in coherence, and that there are therefore more profound criticisms that might be raised.

In another striking chapter Alex juxtaposes Lukács and Gramsci to Heidegger. Lukács and Gramsci represent a Hegelian reaction to the determinism of Second International Marxism, which had failed so abysmally in the face of the supreme test of the First World War. Lukács and Gramsci in their different ways laid far greater emphasis on the subjective element in the historical process, the nature and development of class consciousness compared to objective economic structures. Lukács emphasised that 'reality can only be understood and penetrated as a totality, and only a subject which is itself a totality is capable of this penetration'.8 It is only the working class which represents this subjective totality and which therefore is the only class from whose standpoint genuine understanding of capitalist society is possible, 'because the transformation of labour power into a commodity is the real basis on which that society is built'.9

Heidegger has been an immensely important figure, not so much in this country with its more insular and parochial philosophical tradition, but in continental Europe. He continues to exert a strong intellectual influence in Germany, France and Italy. He is probably the single most important intellectual influence on the doyen of the deconstructionist postmodernists in France, Jacques Derrida. This is perhaps all the more surprising since Heidegger warmly endorsed the coming to power of the Nazi regime in 1933, endorsed or acquiesced in the purge of academics, in particular Jews, upon his elevation at the Nazis' behest to Rector of Freiburg University, and continued to support an idealised National Socialism even when he became disappointed by actually existing Nazism. Alex quotes the infamous letter he wrote to Marcuse in January 1948: 'I expected from "National Socialism" a spiritual renewal of life in its entirety, a reconciliation of social antagonisms and a deliverance of Western Dasein [human existence] from the dangers of communism'.10 He claimed soon to have recognised his 'political error', but, as Alex points out, 'he nevertheless refused to condemn the extermination of the Jews, comparing it to the expulsion of Germans from areas annexed by Poland, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union at the end of the Second World War'.11

Despite this despicable political background Heidegger was a serious philosopher, particularly in his masterwork Being and Time, written in the late 1920s before he was so politically compromised. Again Alex provides a good summary of some of the principal ideas of what is a very difficult work. A key intention of his analysis of Dasein is to overcome the Cartesian dualism which had permeated much, but by no means all, of Enlightenment thinking. Alex describes Heidegger's analysis of 'Being-in-the-world' as 'stunning', 'one of the great philosophical achievements of the 20th century'.12 I confess to being somewhat less stunned by Heidegger's analysis, and I do not believe that Heidegger successfully overcomes some of the persisting philosophical problems concerning the relationship of human beings to a reality beyond them and to other human beings themselves. Be that as it may, Heidegger is interestingly portrayed as a thinker who is responding to the tumultuous times of the 1920s, a social world 'as alienated as that evoked by Lukács in his theory of reification. But, unlike Lukács, he finds no agency internal to this world that offers an escape'.13 Alex quotes Richard Wolin's observation that, for Heidegger, 'once the inauthenticity of all traditional social norms has been existentially unmasked, the only remaining basis for moral orientation is...a radical assertion of will...unconstrained by the impediments of social convention'.14 And here we can discern the link, albeit underdetermined, between Heidegger and Nietzsche, and Heidegger and Hitler, even though his relationship to both came some years later.

Many readers will be most eager to reach the sections of the book which deal with more contemporary thinkers and arguments. Alex demonstrates, however, that an understanding of the intellectual history and tradition of social theorising can be crucial to getting a handle on more contemporary thinkers and their strengths and vulnerabilities. In the last two chapters of the book Alex comes into the more contemporary period, examining the structuralism of Levi-Strauss and Althusser, the post-structuralism of Foucault, and the theories of Habermas and Bourdieu, the latter a leftist French intellectual who has actively supported the oppositional movements which started with the wave of public sector strikes in France in 1995. He goes on to examine the views of Ulrich Beck and Anthony Giddens.

Alex identifies the limitations of the Saussurean model of language on which the structuralists drew so heavily, and his brief portrayal of Althusser's theories seems unsympathetic to Althusser's project in just about every respect. In particular Alex contrasts Althusser's claim that 'history is a process without a subject', with the theories of Gramsci and Lukács.15 The intellectual weaknesses of structuralism made it an easy target for the disillusioned post-1968 post-structuralists. As Alex puts it, the 'conceptual flaws of Althusserian Marxism thus meant it was liable to collapse into something much closer to the kind of Nietzschean social theory which began to gain ground in the mid-1970s'.16 The key figure in this process was Michel Foucault. Ironically, for all the talk of the rejection of 'grand narratives', Foucault's underlying theory was just as much a grand narrative, if a less sophisticated one, than Marx's attempts to provide a theory of the capitalist system. And for all the brilliance of some of Foucault's detailed historical and social analyses, his underlying philosophy ultimately lacked coherence. The all-pervasiveness of the 'will to power' denied him a vantage point from which he could legitimately claim to have got to the truth about the systems of domination he sought to analyse, and provided no coherent ground on which to theorise resistance to that domination. Alex's comprehensive demolition of the whole postmodernist edifice in Against Postmodernism is briefly but very usefully echoed in the critique of Foucault.

Alex's views on Habermas, Giddens and Bourdieu have been expounded at some length in other publications. He is more in favour of Habermas and Bourdieu, who have retained a critical edge to their work, and less in favour of Beck and Giddens, as one might expect, although he detects vulnerabilities and weaknesses in all four. In the final chapter he gives reasons to reject the novelty and validity of the critique of modernity offered by Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida in particular. He also points out the ambiguity of the term 'modernity' as it has been used by social theorists. There is the philosophical idea of modernity as 'the historical realisation of the Enlightenment's conception of a present which justifies itself by its difference from the past it leaves behind and by the indefinite progress it will achieve in the future'.17 Secondly, there is the view that modernity refers to a particular kind of society, and thirdly, that it is a particular form of experience within society. Alex gently teases out the differences in these conceptions in order then to test out the theories, particularly those of Giddens and Beck, which have come to dominate the academy and which prefer to deploy the concept of modernity to that of capitalism.
Alex claims that 'most versions of social theory would benefit from a dialogue with a naturalistic conception of the world which recognises the continuities between both the physical and social worlds and the forms of understanding appropriate to them, but which does not suppress or ignore the discontinuities between them'.18 On this Alex is undoubtedly right. He has never been afraid to draw on and develop theory where he feels there are legitimate questions which even the best of the classical Marxist tradition has either not addressed or not answered adequately. Social Theory shows the same commitment to understand our enemies' theories, the better to contest them intellectually and shore up any weaknesses on our side.

Alex goes on to argue that the widespread tendency amongst contemporary social theorists towards a pessimism about the possibility of radical social change is not just the product of a reasonable induction from the historical experience of the 20th century, but has material roots in the increasingly narrow specialisms of academic life, cut off from political activity and practice. Even Bourdieu's call for an 'International of intellectuals committed to defending the autonomy of the universes of cultural production',19 whilst progress itself 'serves to underline how deeply entrenched the idea of a radical disjunction between theory and practice has become among those intellectuals who seek to situate it historically and sociologically'.20

Alex finishes by arguing that the attempt to silence Marx will not be so easily accomplished. Marx's analysis of capitalism remains unsurpassed. Firstly, he saw capitalism as a dynamic mode of production spreading out and coming to dominate the whole of the world, an extraordinarily prescient analysis which has finally come to pass at the end of the 20th century. Secondly, Marx saw that the dynamism was beset by chronic instability, an instability which destroys production and lives and which exposes as nonsense the claim that capitalism is the 'fairest and most rational way of meeting humankind's economic needs'.21 Thirdly, 'there is a necessary connection between the process of capital accumulation and the exploitation of wage-labour. In remaking the world, capitalism creates a class of workers who over time will develop the numbers, cohesion and self-organisation necessary to revolutionise society'.22 'Social theory...belongs to the heritage of the Enlightenment...spurred on by the voice of the radicalised Enlightenment, social theory can become what the philosophers believed reason to be, a force for liberation'.23 Alex's excellent and timely book is a significant contribution to increasing the chances of social theory becoming that force for liberation.


1 A Callinicos, Social Theory (Cambridge, 1999), p56.
2 Ibid, p115.
3 Ibid, p115.
4 Ibid, p115.
5 Ibid, pp188-189.
6 Ibid, p189.
7 Ibid, p193.
8 Quote from Lukács, ibid, p207.
9 Ibid, p207.
10 M Heidegger, Letter to Herbert Marcuse, 20 January 1948, reprinted in R Wolin (ed), The Heidegger Controversy (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1993), p162.
11 A Callinicos, op cit, p217.
12 Ibid, p219.
13 Ibid, p220.
14 R Wolin, The Politics of Being (New York, 1990), p39, quoted in A Callinicos, op cit, p221.
15 L Althusser, Politics and History (London, 1972), p183, quoted in A Callinicos, op cit, p270.
16 Ibid, p276.
17 Ibid, p297.
18 Ibid, p306.
19 P Bourdieu, The Rules of Art (Cambridge, 1996), p344, quoted in A Callinicos, op cit, p310.
20 Ibid, p310.
21 Ibid, p316.
22 Ibid, p316.
23 Ibid, p318.

Is violence genetic?

The Demonic Ape: A critique of the BBC 2
Written by Alan Woods
Wednesday, 28 January 2004

Even those who accept the theory of evolution frequently draw reactionary conclusions from the evidence provided by science. In Darwin’s day, natural selection was presented as a justification of capitalism and its dog-eat-dog morality. The fact that such ideas have no basis in what he actually wrote is conveniently ignored. A recent BBC documentary attempts something similar in trying to establish that the violence of human males is genetically determined and can be proved by looking at the behaviour of chimpanzees. Alan Woods explains why this theory is flawed.

The subject of human origins has always been surrounded by controversy. When Charles Darwin first proposed the theory of evolution, he was subjected to merciless attacks by reactionaries, especially the Church, which continued to maintain that God created the world in six days and that the first woman was formed from the rib of the first man.

According to the Church and its defenders, every species was created separately, and therefore there was no possible link between species. In particular, the anti-evolutionists denied any link between humans and the "lower species."

Nowadays the theory of evolution has been completely vindicated. In particular the human genome project has established beyond doubt that humans are genetically related to other species – not just apes, but even flies and bacteria. But this has not prevented the reactionaries from continuing to attack evolution, especially in the USA, where the Creationist movement is demanding that American schoolchildren be taught the first book of Genesis, instead of Darwin. Needless to say, the religious right has many sympathisers in the Bush administration.

However, even those who accept the theory of evolution frequently draw reactionary conclusions from the evidence provided by science. In Darwin's day, natural selection was presented as a justification of capitalism and its dog-eat-dog morality. The "survival of the fittest" was thought to provide the perfect proof of the "inevitability" of capitalism, where the rich (presented as the "strongest", irrespective of their real physical condition or ability to reproduce) crushed the "weak (the working class)" underfoot. Even today these reactionary distortions of Darwin's ideas can be seen in the so-called school of Social Darwinism. The fact that such ideas have no basis in what he actually wrote is conveniently ignored.

Marxism and science
Science cannot separate itself from society, and scientists can be influenced by incorrect political and philosophical ideas. For about a century the study of human origins was completely undermined by the prevailing idealist philosophy. Following the idealist notion that the brain determines everything, it was assumed that our earliest ancestors would necessarily have a big brain. The search for the "missing link" therefore reduced itself to the search for a humanoid fossil that would display this trait.

So convinced were the anthropologists of this that they allowed themselves to be deceived by the so-called Piltdown Man, which was later exposed as a crude forgery, in which the cranium of a human was combined with the jaw bone of an ape. In fact, by basing itself on idealism, science had been following the wrong track for a hundred years. The exact opposite was the case. The brains of the earliest anthropoid apes were the same size as the brain of a chimpanzee.

This was already predicted over a hundred years ago by Frederick Engels in his remarkable work, The Role of Labour in the Transition of Ape to Man. He explained that the earliest ancestors of man first separated themselves from the other apes by the upright posture, which freed the hands for labour. This was the precondition for the development of humankind. But the real qualitative leap was the production of stone tools. This was responsible for the development of society, language and culture that decisively sets us apart from all other animals. The late Stephen Jay Gould pointed out that if the scientists had paid attention to what Engels had written, they would have saved themselves a hundred years of error.

Tools, language and culture
Unfortunately, it seems that science must go from one extreme to another before arriving at the truth. In the nineteenth century there was a tendency to exaggerate the difference between humans and other animals. In recent years, however, there has been a tendency to go to the opposite extreme: to play down the difference between humans and apes, in particular chimpanzees. This leads to other mistakes, as we saw clearly in the BBC Horizon programme broadcast on the second of January.

Chimpanzees and humans, it is true, share many common traits. Genetically chimps share over 98% of their DNA with humans. They are our closest living relatives, and we share a common ancestor with them from over 5 million years ago. From this ancestor both humans and chimpanzees diverged to evolve into the separate species you see today.

It has become fashionable to say that chimpanzees also make and use tools – a trait previously thought to be solely human. Chimpanzees are known to fish for ants, use leaves as sponges to soak up water. They even crack open nuts with a wooden hammer. The programme concluded that "it seemed humans would have to be redefined." But this is really not the case. It is just another case of an inability to think dialectically.

The assertion, which again surfaced in the programme, that chimpanzees use tools is so exaggerated as to become false. It is true that chimpanzees are known to use sticks to catch ants and the like, but this behaviour, while remarkable in itself, hardly bears comparison with the tool-making activity of humans, as I showed in Reason in Revolt.

In their anxiety to eradicate the boundary line between humans and apes, some scientists now maintain that chimpanzees have a primitive form of language and appear to use vocalisations to communicate in a sophisticated manner. Recent research by Professor Sarah Boysen, quoted on the programme, suggests that chimpanzee vocalisations are "word-like".

The experiments used were certainly interesting. The chimpanzees in Boysen's study were shown a choice of pictures of different fruit, while the recorded cries of chimpanzees were played to them. They were consistently able to choose the correct picture to match the sound. This suggests that chimpanzees made certain calls that other chimps understood. They could be interpreted to mean that they have a primitive form of language.

Some would go even further. Chimpanzees are said not only to speak but to possess culture. This is defined as the handing down of learned traits from generation to generation. In this limited sense, it is possible to claim that chimpanzees have a kind of culture. Different populations of chimps had different tools. Even when these diverse groups of chimps had the same tools they used them in different ways. Some groups of chimpanzees eat termites with long sticks and others use very short sticks and eat them one by one. And those are said to represent cultural differences in the chimpanzees.

Dr. Goodall concludes: "It was pretty obvious that chimpanzees have their own kind of primitive culture." (my emphasis, AW) Others have come to a similar conclusion. Prof Michael Tomasell (Max Planck Institute) says in the programme: "Chimpanzees in one location use one kind of tool and in another location use another kind of tool. So that meets the minimal criterion for culture." The implications of such a conclusion would be profound. If chimpanzees use tools, and possess both language and culture, they would have a number of fundamental traits we think of as solely human.

The "theory of mind"
There are other significant differences between humans and other animals. One of them is called theory of mind – that is, we know what other people are thinking. Experiments have shown that even very young children have the beginnings of theory of mind. Since we cannot talk to them it is harder to tell if chimpanzees have theory of mind. But at the Max Plank Institute they have designed ingenious experiments to find out.

From these experiments it would appear that chimpanzees understand the needs and the emotions of other chimpanzees and respond correctly. This implies that they do have theory of mind. The next step was to pose the question: if chimpanzees are so similar to us could they tell us something about humans? Step by step the programme tried to eradicate the difference between chimpanzees and humans and then to derive human behaviour from animal behaviour. But the whole thing was based on incorrect premises. The roots of this error – like the previous error that said that the earliest humans must have big brains – is philosophical and methodological in character.

The experiments concerning language are very interesting, but they do not show what they are intended to show. It seems that the sounds made by chimpanzees in the presence of a particular fruit do, in fact, signify "bananas" or "grapes". That is an astonishing discovery and provides an important insight into the origins of speech. But does it really prove that chimpanzees possess a language and a culture?

According to Professor Sarah Boysen: "this may mean that there is some kind of meaning to the vocalisations they make. They could be similar to a word." (my emphasis) The cautious way in which Professor Boysen expresses herself is sufficient to emphasise the extremely tentative nature of these discoveries – interesting as they undoubtedly are. "Word-like" does not yet mean "words", much less "language", in the sense we would understand it. It means what it says: sounds that bear some resemblance to words, but which are not yet words – a bare potential that has not yet realised itself.

Hegel once observed that when we expect to see an oak tree with its mass of foliage and vast trunk, we are not satisfied if we are shown an acorn instead. An acorn, as we know is not an oak tree, or, more correctly, it is not yet an oak tree. It is only an oak tree in potential – the embryo of a future tree in a completely undeveloped state.

The cries of the chimpanzee are no more a language than the acorn is an oak tree, but under certain conditions they could well form part of the raw material out of which language later developed. Language only arises at a certain level of human development, and this is related to the need to develop a far more complex system of communication, related to the complicated process of collective production of stone tools and the correspondingly complex and sophisticated social and family relations that arise from these.

This brings us directly to the question of culture. Here the makers of the programme make the same mistake. They claim that chimpanzees also exhibit culture. If that were really the case then we would indeed have to completely revise our ideas, and the boundary line between humans and chimpanzees would be eradicated altogether. It is stated that different groups of chimpanzees use their "tools" in different ways. Moreover, this trait involves the handing down of learned traits from generation to generation. What is this but a form of culture?

The same mistake is made as the mistake regarding tools and speech. What we see here is not culture, as in human culture, but only the undeveloped potential for culture – the raw material from which it could later develop. But since true culture is the product of a complex society based exclusively on the production of tools, and since this premises is lacking in the world of chimpanzees, this "potential" can never be developed. It remains an unfulfilled promise, condemned to languish forever in the same undeveloped stage.

The way in which the earliest humans separated from the other primates was explained by Engels, and has been completely vindicated by modern anthropology. The first decisive step was the upright stance that freed the hands for manual labour. Over a long period the use of the hands, first for the manipulation of tools and then for the systematic production of stone tools, produced a revolution. It led to radical changes in the anatomy and brain size of our ancestors. For the first time we see a species that not only produced tools in an organized, collective manner, but which was entirely dependant on this productive activity for its survival.

All the things that make us human ultimately depend on this collective productive activity and originate in it. The need for a complex language and culture arises from this unique form of activity, and from the complex social relations that derived from it. Nothing remotely similar to this can be found in the animal kingdom. By contrast, the production of tools in chimpanzees appears as an accidental activity and not something fundamental to the survival of the species. It does not create complex forms of interrelationships and is usually individual and not social activity.

Even if chimpanzees were anatomically capable of pronouncing real words (which they are not), there would be no real need for developing a complex language system such as humans possess. Evolution is a very economical process and only gives rise to such an extraordinary adaptation when it is demanded by the needs of survival. In the case of human society, that complex system of sounds and meaning we call language is an absolute necessity. For chimpanzees it is not.

The same is true of what we call culture. Human culture arises from the needs of an extremely complex system of relationships that are ultimately based on the demands of collective productive labour. Our species, unlike all other species, does not merely take the natural environment as it is, but actively transforms it through labour. We create an artificial environment, based on collective production, and this tends to an ever greater degree of complexity.

In other species, genetically conditioned (inborn) instinct plays the main role. Certain activities can be learnt (not only in chimpanzees but in many of the lower species also) but these do not play the main role. The role of culture in human society is absolutely decisive. Without it we would perish. Human language and culture therefore arises from a way of life and a system of production that is quite unlike that of any other species.

The source of the mistake is in each case the same: the inability to think dialectically. The fact that we share almost 99 percent of our genes with chimpanzees is very striking. But it is precisely the missing one percent that is decisive: it represents the leap from quantity to quality. This is statistically very small, but from a dialectical point of view (and in real evolutionary terms) it represents an unbridgeable chasm. And all attempts to close the gap will be fruitless.

The "Demonic Ape"
Having "proved" the identity between apes and humans, the Horizon programme proceeded to introduce the question of violence. At one time it was thought that chimpanzees were peaceful vegetarians, but in recent years cases have been reported that show that chimpanzees hunt small monkeys and eat meat. More recently it has been shown that, at least in some circumstances, male chimpanzees kill other males. Chimpanzees have been known even to attack human infants.

The programme cited the following gruesome example. On May 15th 2002 Rukia Sadiki set off to meet her husband. She was with her niece and her baby daughter Miasa. It was a route they had taken many times before from their village, through Gombe National Park to Lake Tanganyika. What they didn't know is that on that day they were being followed. The attacker snatched the child and dragged her in to the jungle. Miasa's body was found in a tree. She had been partially eaten.

This is then used as the basis to show that violent behaviour is something inherent in both chimpanzees and humans, since males of both species supposedly also share similarly violent traits.

The programme states:

"The only other primates that kill their own kind are in fact, us. Humans and chimpanzees show a common aggressive tendency and will actively seek out and kill members of their own species. Chimpanzees and humans are the only other species that, out of 4000 other mammal species and 10 million other non-mammal species, have been observed to hunt and kill members of a rival group."

The demonic male hypothesis was put forward by Richard Wrangham (Harvard University) to explain the violent behaviour seen in both male chimpanzees and male humans. The hypothesis suggests that as only the males of both species display this behaviour, that this propensity for male violence has been inherited from our common ancestor 5 million years ago.

This theory is elaborated in Professor Richard Wrangham's book, Demonic Males, where it is argued that male chimpanzees kill other members of their species in order to extend their territory size to gain access to more fruit, and increase the number of females that might enter their group.

Listen to how Professor Wrangham talks about the hunting activities of chimpanzees:

"You get incredibly excited when you watch chimps hunting, and all the sympathy that otherwise one might expect to feel for the poor prey just goes out of the window because you identify so strongly with the chimpanzee. They are so intent and they are so excited, the passion that they feel is just so extraordinary. Then they settle down in to eating it and you have a time to reflect on, on what is actually happening. And you realise that this is a very extraordinary behaviour because there is far more meat eating going on in chimpanzees than there is in any other species of primate than humans."

At this point science is abandoned in favour of subjectivism and imagination. It was later found that there were cases of chimpanzees killing their own kind. In the sixties the group that Goodall studied split in to two fractions, Kasakela and Kahama. The rivalry between the two turned in to a bloody "civil war". One by one the males in the Kasakela group killed every male and some of the females in their neighbouring group. Only a few years before the victims had been their constant companions. In total a third of all male deaths at Gombe were at the hands of other chimpanzees.

Wrangham speaks of this case with evident relish: "It was in January of 1974 that we first had this report of one of the males in Kahama, Hodi, being attacked by a group from Kasakela. He jumped out of the tree, he ran but they got him, somebody got a foot, somebody got a hand, they pinned him down and then they beat on top of him. The attack went on for more than five minutes and by the time they let him go you could hardly crawl away. And Hodi was never seen again."

The conclusion drawn by some scientists was that chimpanzees were not like us just because they could think, reason and use tools. They were like us because they could be cruel. Here is how Professor Wrangham puts it:

"There is a sense in which this looks sadistic, the, the joy, this is kind of hard to take you know because again it's got horrible echoes of what happens with humans at times. The males who attack, they do seem to take a certain joy in the attack, their drinking of the blood sometimes, or the biting, gripping with the teeth of the skin on part of the arm and then rearing the head back and taking the skin with it and tearing it all the way around. They look as though they're in a state of, of intense excitement and maybe joy."

The conclusion is quite clear: Chimpanzees kill for pleasure, for the joy of killing, and are therefore naturally sadistic. And since chimpanzees are essentially the same as humans, we too are naturally cruel and inclined to violence, murder and savagery. Wrangham's theory is that violent male behaviour is the result of our shared evolutionary past. Professor Wrangham says:

"The demonic male hypothesis is one that just responds to some very dramatic observations. We only know of two mammals in the world in which males make deliberate attempts to guard and kill members of neighbouring groups. And those two mammals are chimpanzees and humans."

The question of the environment
However, this argument is unsound. In other parts of Africa no evidence has been found for aggression among chimpanzees. The chimpanzees at Prof Christophe Boesch's research site on the Ivory Coast appear to be less aggressive towards people.

There are other examples. In a remote part of the Congo in an area known as the Goualogo Triangle, a young American scientist called Crickette Sanz has recently begun to study a group of chimpanzees that had never had contact with humans. But unlike the chimpanzees of Gombe, they do not show any abnormal levels of aggression, and there is no sign of chimps killing other chimps. This might be due to the fact that they are less habituated (familiar with human contact) and that the forests are more pristine. In other words, the environment plays a significant role in shaping the behaviour of chimpanzees.

The programme centred on the case of Frodo, the dominant alpha male of the longest studied group of wild chimpanzees in the world. He is now highly habituated and shows no fear of human beings. He has always ruled his group with force and maintains his high status in the group as a result. His violence has always been apparent - even as a youngster he used to throw rocks at Jane Goodall. His escalating violence as an adult is probably due to a combination of habituation, his alpha status and increased competition for resources as a result of increased human encroachment on his dwindling habitat.

Pressure from humans
The place where most violence in chimpanzees has been witnessed is Gombe, and the circumstances are indeed special. There have been major changes in the habitat and the circumstances over the years. Once Gombe was surrounded by forest but now the trees have been felled. There is a village within the park which is expanding, refugees surround it. The chimps are completely cut off from the rest of the rainforest. Some fear they could become extinct within fifteen years.

The chimpanzees of Gombe are under extreme pressure from humans. Their habitat has been largely destroyed, thus creating pressure and stress in the chimpanzee population, and competition for reduced living space. They have been affected by many serious respiratory infections believed to have been transmitted from humans. Prof. Sussman concludes: "You could look at this much like an animal group that's living in a very stressful environment and in, in some ways it's very much like the difference between a naturally living population and one living in a zoo."

Because of human encroachment some of the chimps are already dying. They have caught diseases from the large numbers of people who have visited, filmed, followed and fed them for forty years. Even the mighty Frodo was laid low. There are now six long-term chimpanzee study sites including Gombe. The chimpanzees in every one of those sites are aggressive. Every site also suffers from human pressure.

Chimpanzees in these long term study sites are losing out to logging companies and to poachers who invade the rainforest and snare them for bush meat. Those that survive are left with injuries that can alter their behaviour. Prof Christophe Boesch of the Max Planck Institute comments: "People are to realise that this encroachment that human do on nature is also doing on the home of many animals who live there and including chimpanzees or any other animal species, and it can present a tremendous stress on them."

It is clear that chimpanzees can be aggressive. The same is true of practically every other species. But evidence from most long term sites suggest that even by chimpanzee standards the violence at Gombe has been excessive. Christophe Boesch works in the Tai Forest on the Ivory Coast. His site suffers from significant human disturbance, a civil war. Yet the chimpanzees do not seem to be as aggressive as those at Gombe. He says:

"I have not seen this kind of killing in Thai Forest. This violence is not always present. Richard Wrangham's ideas originate from his observation in Gombe, and it's obviously something extremely worrying to see the chimpanzees killing other chimps. But I also think we need to take in account in this thinking these huge behavioural diversity that exists between chimpanzee population." In fact, the peculiar behaviour of the chimpanzees in Gombe is probably the result of the peculiar objective conditions that exist there.

Jane Goodall became secretary to the famous palaeontologist Louis Leakey. Precisely because she had no preconceptions about these animals Leakey asked her to study the chimpanzees of Gombe by the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Tanzania. As a young woman Dr. Jane Goodall befriended a group of wild chimpanzees in the African rainforest. Her observations played a key role in developing our understanding of chimpanzees. As a way to win the chimps' trust, she decided to feed them. At Gombe the chimpanzees were fed so that they would quickly lose their fear of human beings and could be studied, feeding had an enormous impact.

Dr. Goodall recalls: "When we were feeding bananas on a daily basis to anybody who came along there was very unusual aggression between the chimps, and in addition it was attracting the baboons. And although baboons and chimpanzees fight over palm nuts in a ripe palm tree, quite often actually, but this was, was again creating real tension and aggression between the chimpanzees and the baboons, the whole situation was terrible."

In other words, human intervention had so transformed the conditions of life of the animals under observation that it heightened the violence. Nowadays such methods are rightly regarded as unscientific. Feeding may have changed the behaviour of the chimpanzees to such an extent that some have questioned the data on aggression collected at Gombe. In recent years this has been of considerable concern to the researchers at Gombe who are now implementing ways of reducing human contact. Banana feeding finally stopped about two years ago.

By basing their ideas on what they've seen at Gombe, scientists have undoubtedly overstated chimpanzee aggression and therefore also the parallel between human behaviour and that of chimpanzees. Prof. Sussman concludes: "I don't think there's very much evidence for the demonic male hypothesis, it's actually based on a number of instances of chimpanzees killing one another in certain circumstances and the hypothesises are based on the fact, or on the idea, that chimpanzees and humans share genes that are similar that cause them to be violent. I don't think that's very explanatory or helps us understand violence in chimpanzees or in humans."

This is obviously correct. The programme concluded: "This may be the supreme irony of Gombe. In our desire to understand ourselves we may have distorted the very animals we were using as a mirror. We do share much with our closest ancestors, but ultimately chimpanzees are not windows in to the human soul."

Social being determines consciousness
It seems overwhelmingly probable that stress caused by humans can make chimpanzees more violent. This view is backed up by the comments of Dr Jane Goodall herself: "I didn't see aggression to start with. There's no question that chimpanzees become more aggressive as a result of crowding, as a result of competition for food. It took a long time at Gombe before I realised how aggressive chimpanzees could be."

Commenting on the demonic male hypothesis, Professor Robert Sussman of Washington University says: "I think the demonic male hypothesis is basically a speculative idea about how the relationship between chimpanzee and human behaviour might have evolved. And I think it's actually, actually wrong. I think by saying that humans for example have a propensity for aggression or chimpanzees have a propensity for aggression is saying very little, because all animals have a propensity for aggression given different circumstances. And what's really interesting and important is understand the circumstances." (my emphasis)

It is, of course, possible to draw certain parallels between the behaviour of chimpanzees and humans, as long as we also bear in mind the differences and therefore the limitations of all such analogies. In this case, however, the conclusions to be drawn are very different to those of Professor Wrangham.

Just as in the world of humans social being determines consciousness, so in the world of our nearest primate relatives, changes in the environment have a decisive effect on behaviour. The destruction of the natural habitat of chimpanzees as a result of human activity puts great stress on the animal population, which expresses itself in excessively aggressive behaviour. Though the propensity for violent behaviour exists among chimpanzees, as in every other animal species, it only manifests itself in the extreme way described here when environmental changes creates conditions of unbearable tension and the competition for scarce resources leads to conflict.

What applies to our nearest animal relatives also applies to us, at least in the following sense. If men, women and children are deprived of human living conditions, they will inevitably lose part of their humanity. If people are subjected to an environment of scarcity, the result will be a struggle to obtain the means of life. This struggle has gone on uninterruptedly for the whole of written history. It has had a profound effect on the behaviour and psychology of people, and continues to warp and distort their character down to the present day. It is called the class struggle. And the class struggle is neither more nor less than the struggle for the possession of the surplus produced by the working class.

Many people grieve over the lamentable state of modern society: the spiritual emptiness, the cynicism, the nihilism, the escapism, the absence of belief, the scepticism, and cynicism. Of course, such states of mind cannot be attributed to our primate relatives. The kind of "culture" related to different ways of fishing for ants is not sufficiently advanced to give rise to such states of mind. But other features resemble perhaps all too closely the kind of behaviour displayed by the chimpanzees of Gombe: the violence, the cruelty and indifference towards the suffering of others, the inequality, the lack of elementary human solidarity.

The roots of this behaviour, however, are not to be found in genetics but in society. If you place men and women in intolerable living conditions, in overcrowded cities clogged with traffic, noise and pollution; if you encourage a morality based on greed and competition in which the strongest trample on the weakest; if you make people live on inhuman housing estates, amidst uncollected garbage and discarded syringes, then it is hardly surprising if the result is an explosive mixture of violence, crime and vandalism. These are not the unalterable product of our genes but only the symptoms of a society in a dead end.

Marx explained long ago that social being determines consciousness: that is to say, the material conditions in which men and women live and work will eventually determine the way they think and act. In short, if you treat people like animals they will behave like animals.

January 28, 2004