Issue 284 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2004 Copyright © Socialist Review
'The sisterhood of women, like the brotherhood of men, is a hollow sham to labour,' the great American radical Elizabeth Gurley Flynn wrote at the beginning of the last century. The existence of the Bushwomen--the Republican women George W Bush has paraded in his government--sums up why the idea of a sisterhood of all women remains just as much a sham today.
Media pundits fell over themselves to remark on how Bush has included more women and ethnic minorities in his government than any other administration. These women are sold as the supposedly soft face of the Bush regime. Bush once even declared, 'The "W" stands for women.' In reality they are hard-nosed warriors for the ruling class--profit-driven free market fanatics and warmongers driving through anti working class, anti-women, anti civil rights policies which are destroying the lives of millions.
Perhaps the most well known of these right wing warriors is Bush's national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, the woman who famously had a Chevron tanker named after her. But this book tells the stories of many of the lesser known Bushwomen who have 'benefited directly from feminism and the hard won civil rights struggle, in the destruction of whose victories they actively collaborate.'
There's Kay Cole James, for example. She is in charge of appointing staff in Bush's White House. She's so pro-women that in 1998 she signed a Southern Baptist Convention declaration stating that wives should always submit to the authority of their husbands!
Or there's Karen Hughes, Bush's director of communications, who positively drips with her oil connections. This is a woman who once said that she would have loved to have done public relations for the giant Exxon company after the Exxon Valdez Alaskan oil spill. Hughes is also responsible for spinning the war in Afghanistan as a 'war to liberate women'. But as this book points out, this was just a cynical cover to justify a war that murdered and injured thousands of women while doing nothing to provide the food, water, health and education women in Afghanistan so desperately need.
The corporate connections of some of the women serving in Bush's regime are staggering. Elain Chao, Bush's labour secretary--responsible for the lives of millions of workers--comes from a Chinese-American immigrant family that made its money from a giant shipping company. Chao likes to tell of how she and her family pulled themselves 'up by the bootstraps'. But just take a look at this list of capitalist firms that gave Chao's bootstraps a pull as she did their bidding. These are just a few of the many companies she has served on the board of directors of: Northwest Airlines, Clorox, Dole Food Company, Nasdaq, and HCA Healthcare.
As labour secretary, Chao has presided over huge budget cuts which have slashed funding for health and safety regulations, child labour regulations and the minimum wage. She is now advocating a Family Time Workplace Flexibility Act. This would give unlimited flexibility for US bosses and eliminate overtime pay for an incredible 80 million workers. It is no surprise to then learn that she made her mark in government by using anti-union legislation to beat a strike by 10,000 dockers in 2002 and was the most vociferous advocate of sending in troops to crush the strike.
This book is full of the details of the dirty records of many of the women in Bush's regime. That would make it an interesting enough read. But Laura Flanders is also severely critical of the record of the other mainstream, equally pro-capitalist US party, the Democrats. She also slates the mainstream feminist organisations in the US, like the National Organisation of Women, for giving right wing women 'feminist cover' and for 'keeping their criticisms of powerful women to themselves'.
This book is a very timely reminder both of the right wing record of the Bush regime, but also of why women of the ruling class are the enemies and not the friends of working class and poor women the world over.
The Betrayal of Dissent
A polemic that starts from a flawed premise won't hit its target. Lucas could have written a useful counterblast to those, like Christopher Hitchens, who abandoned socialist politics and turned themselves into cheerleaders for Bush and witch-hunters of dissent. Unfortunately the central theme of this book is to place Hitchens and his ilk in the tradition of George Orwell who, it is argued, performed the same function at the start of the Cold War. The rationale for this is that Hitchens has written a very complimentary book about Orwell and uses him to defend his apostasy.
There are two obvious problems with this argument. Firstly, Hitchens is not the first to use Orwell in this way. Since the publication of Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four bourgeois ideologues have heralded his work as proof that any socialist transformation of society will inevitably degenerate into totalitarianism. This is despite the fact that Orwell himself repudiated this interpretation. Secondly, to put Hitchens and Orwell in the same tradition is to lose all sense of literary proportion. Orwell's shortcomings are transparent and have been well documented in this magazine (see July/August 2003 SR) and elsewhere, but they pale into insignificance when placed against his towering contribution to political writing. By distorting Orwell's legacy beyond recognition, Lucas undermines his own case.
Orwell wrote about political events from the perspective of active personal engagement, and his ability to use his own experience to popularise socialist ideas has had a lasting impact. Homage to Catalonia, about his experiences fighting on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, is a socialist classic that has inspired thousands to become politically active. His writings on language, particularly his universally acknowledged concept of 'Newspeak', are formidable weapons in our armoury against ruling class spin doctors . Even though Ninety Eighty-Four and Animal Farm have become hardy perennials of the school curriculum for their supposedly anti-socialist message, their actual impact on students has largely been the opposite. Having taught them in schools for more than 30 years, I can testify to their ability to enhance students' grasp of political discourse and be open to interpretations more sympathetic to our tradition.
Of course Orwell has always been vilified by Stalinists and their fellow travellers for his graphic description of the way in which the Communist Party in Spain put the interests of Soviet foreign policy before the interests of the Spanish republic, with disastrous consequences. Orwell also illuminated the betrayal of the revolution in the Soviet Union at a time when sections of the literary establishment were fawning in their admiration of Stalin's regime. Lucas, whatever his own political perspective, seems to have implicitly accepted the criticisms from this tradition. He seems to take Orwell's attacks on Stalinism as attacks on socialism.
This is a great pity. His book is copiously annotated with references to the current debates on both sides of the Atlantic that could contribute to our rebuttal of the intellectual apologists for Bush and Blair. Lucas is meticulous in tracing the political degeneration of Hitchens, who has reinvented himself as the champion of the New American Century and whose writing now has more resemblance to the bilious abuse of a Julie Burchill than to any coherent critical analysis. Nick Cohen and David Aaronovitch are subjected to the same kind of microscopic attention. Lucas also traces the way in which public debate in the US after 9/11 was debased by the media cheerleaders for retribution, aided and abetted by tame intellectuals. He reminds us of the way in which genuine dissenters like Sontag and Chomsky were abused and marginalised. His book could have complemented the work of these and the many others who have exposed the real agenda of the US neoconservatives, but he has missed the opportunity.
His conclusion argues that the attack on dissent is cloaked in the respectability of an 'Orwell' hijacked by the right. This new 'Orwell' seems to have replaced the original. Instead of accepting the inevitability of this distortion Lucas could have challenged it. His book would have been all the more valuable had he attempted to do so and his argument against the apologists for imperialism would have been strengthened. Orwell has always been used by the right. It doesn't mean that the left shouldn't reclaim him.
Derivatives are composed of futures and options. Instead of trading a commodity, what is traded is the right or the obligation to buy or sell a commodity at a future point. These can then be yoked together in exotic combinations, rather like accumulator bets. As they are only tenuously connected to the 'real' world of the production of actually useful things, they are prey to wild speculation. This gives rise to a vast game of hot potato where the aim is to make a quick buck by passing them on before the day of reckoning when the music eventually stops.
Futures trading, and its associated crashes down to earth, has been around since the Dutch tulip-related boom and bust of the 1630s (yes, tulips). But, argues financial analyst and law professor Frank Partnoy, something new and altogether more frightening became possible and widespread in the 1990s--its most high-profile casualties being Enron, WorldCom and Barings Bank. He chronicles the emergence of a new breed of whizzkid investment banker who, for a premium, could concoct tailor-made 'off balance sheet' interest rate swaps for clients who wished to conceal less than spectacular profit figures from shareholders and regulators. Impenetrable formulae allowed businesses to gamble on largely unregulated derivatives markets, touted by smooth-talking salesmen with the attitude, and he quotes, to 'Lure people into that calm and then just totally fuck 'em.' Even fine upstanding companies like Procter & Gamble got burned in this way, you'll be distressed to learn.
These new financial instruments appealed to investors because they allow firms to use 'creative' refinancing methods to evade tax, up their credit ratings or escape tight legal restrictions on the use of funds--performing seeming miracles by, as Partnoy puts it, 'driving trucks through small exceptions'. Which is why citizens of California were mystified to wake up one morning in 1994 and discover that, because interest rates had been raised by a mere 0.25 percent, clairvoyant-consulting chump Robert Citron had managed overnight to bankrupt Orange County of over $1 billion of taxpayers' money while technically remaining within the county's strict regulations governing the use of public funds.
Amid a mass of narrative detail about shady dealings by thoroughly obnoxious grandmother-sellers that will be only so much corroboratory ammunition for Socialist Review readers, Partnoy maintains a lucid and lively style. But his central metaphor of greed and corruption as infectious diseases merely labels what it purports to explain. Increasingly desperate speculation greatly aggravated, but did not act as the initial cause of, the maladies of most of the businesses in question.
Those who lost their job or savings thanks to the nefarious activities of Barings et al will take cold comfort from Partnoy's proposed remedies, which amount to moral condemnation and punitive legislation. The greater vigilance he advocates over those who have voluntarily changed their middle name to 'greed' will be some challenge for those of us for whom derivatives trading might as well be rocket science. As for the likelihood of tighter regulation being introduced, we shouldn't be suckered into that bet when investment companies contribute more to the Republican and Democratic party coffers than even the energy corporations. And as long as the Federal Reserve can helpfully facilitate the bailing out of ailing hedge funds like Long Term Capital Management, it's obvious that a different definition of 'risk' is being used to the one you or I understand.
Partnoy's game theory is enough to tell him that, yes, when John Meriwether of Salomon Brothers can get a $10 million yearly bonus but be fined only $50,000 for financial impropriety, the incentives veer towards accounts book haute cuisine. It ought also to remind him that a more regulated US market would merely encourage benefit-tourist speculative flows to migrate to a new home where the asking of fewer questions is a selling point. Thus are we all held to ransom.
Don't let that discourage you: despite the wholly-expected anticlimax of the tickle round the edge reforms proposed, Partnoy has written the definitive book on the insanity of derivatives. The explanations of obfuscatory jargon such as 'put-call parity', 'structured notes', 'regulatory arbitrage' and 'toxic waste' (actually, that last one's quite descriptive) are the clearest I've come across. And it has a picture of a big fat cat smoking a cigar on the front.
'If I knew it would be possible to save all the [Jewish] children in Germany by bringing them to England, and only half of them by transporting them to Eretz Israel [Palestine], then I would opt for the second alternative' (David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, 1938).
Apartheid Israel is a compelling, in-depth account of how political Zionism has carefully structured its legal, political and social systems to exclude Palestinians from all but the most trivial aspects of the Israeli state. Uri Davis's meticulous research presents Israel for what it is--a racist apartheid state that from the beginning was ideologically motivated even to the extent of cynically exploiting murderous Nazi anti-Semitism to achieve its aims.
Davis shows how powerful organisations like the World Zionist Organisation (WZO), the Jewish Agency and the Jewish Land Fund dictated the shape the Israeli state would take, with the WZO operating in the new Israel as a 'state within a state'. Jewish fundamentalism intertwined with the state, depriving Palestinians of land, property, citizenship and ultimately legal rights. From this flowed logically the criminal acts of mass expulsions, wide-scale ethnic cleansing, and arbitrary murder of innocents on a daily basis.
Densely packed with statistics and facts, one of the book's strengths is the first-hand accounts of Palestinian Arabs and early Jewish settlers--the colourful descriptions of the villages, towns and the original inhabitants ethnically cleansed by the terrorist death squads, led by future leaders of the Israeli state. Moreover, Davis is absolutely clear whose side he is on--the millions of dispossessed Palestinians inside and outside Israel. Contrary to much liberal opinion, his recognition of the right of Palestinians to resist in whatever way they can is admirable.
There is, however, one fundamental question that is never addressed by Davis. Why, despite the international condemnation for the many atrocities committed by successive Israeli governments since its bloody birth in 1948, have the leading powers done nothing to stop the atrocities, the land grabs and the building of the new 'Berlin Wall'? This is where his appeal to international values, justice or morality enshrined within the Declaration of Universal Human Rights fall flat. Seeing the state or international organisations such as the UN as neutral ignores reality and, sadly, history.
Davis is not a dreamer. This book dispels the myth held by some on the left that change can come from within--from a reinvigorated Israeli working class. For Davis, Zionism's roots are too deep. Zionism in any guise--be it Labour Zionism, Socialist Zionism, the kibbutz or the moshav--is fundamentally racist and cannot be reformed. Davis also shows that to be anti-Zionist is not to be racist. Zionism is both a political and social construct, and thus open to criticism.
There are rightly many comparisons made with South African apartheid, particularly the international anti-apartheid campaigns. Yet although international condemnation, boycotts and solidarity had an impact on this regime, its eventual downfall was brought about by the organised working class in South Africa, who alone had the power to hit South African capital where it hurt most. This points the way forward for the Palestinian struggle. Davis's book, however, ultimately offers little more than hope--that one day justice will prevail. How we get there is never truly explored.
Israel's continued existence as an apartheid pariah state is rooted not primarily in its legal and political structures, but in the need of US imperialism to have a 'ruthless outpost for western domination of the Middle East' in order to protect the interests of western multinationals and maintain profits. It is clear that the Palestinians cannot win a war against the US-backed armed might of Israel. The solution for the Palestinians lies with the organised united working class of the Middle East and the wider world. This Davis ignores.
The anti-capitalist movement has helped show us who the real enemy is--the multinationals and imperialism. Palestinian resistance shines like a beacon for all the oppressed across the globe. Justice for the Palestinians has to be central to the wider struggle against a system that daily breeds war, poverty and death on a global scale.
State of the World 2004
I am typing this review on my computer, which probably weighs a few kilograms. To produce it hundreds of kilograms of materials were processed, most of which were discarded. To produce each two-gram microchip requires 630 times its own mass in materials, including 72 grams of constituent chemicals, 1,200 grams of fossil fuels to power the processes, and an astounding 32,000 grams of water. For every gram of copper wire, 110 grams of waste rock and ore was discarded.
The continual obsolescence of computers means millions are scrapped every year. The US exports 50 to 80 percent of them to countries like India and China. There, workers on poverty wages break them apart, often with their bare hands, trying to salvage the valuable gold and copper inside. Plastic casings are burnt away or dissolved in acid to release the metals, exposing the workers to incredibly toxic fumes. The remaining solid wastes are at best placed in landfill, at worst thrown into local rivers.
This book describes a world gone mad, where the production of almost all the goods we use is predicated on enormous waste, and disregard for human and environmental health.
Longer articles are interspersed with excellent primers on the environmental impact of goods we might take for granted. For example, anti-bacterial liquid soaps, laced with triclosan and other anti-microbials, drain into the sewage system and help to generate drug-resistant bacteria. These products, advertised as the key to getting rid of germs, are in fact no more effective than ordinary soaps.
This book provides a brilliant resource for any critic of the system, socialist or otherwise. But the book does not emerge from the socialist tradition, and there are points where I feel a different emphasis would be helpful, and others where I have more profound disagreements.
The authors focus on the existence of a 'consumer class', which is held to be to a greater or lesser extent responsible for the excesses of the system. This is not the argument that an elite in the west are benefiting from consumerism while the developing world suffers. The authors recognise the existence of a growing consumer class in the developing world, and they too, it is argued, need to change their lifestyles. The authors also recognise that this class has limited choices, that governments and corporations wield the major share of power. Their calls for change are directed both at affluent consumers and at businesses and governments.
The articles assessing progress towards sustainability tend to focus either on legislative projects where progress appears to me to be minimal, or on relatively small-scale schemes run by enlightened individuals. These fair trade cooperatives and eco-friendly businesses are admirable, but their success or failure depends entirely on the vagaries of the market, and they tend to operate on such a small scale that they barely scratch the surface of the problem.
There are small numbers of designers and technologists attempting to produce goods in a different way. I was inspired by the concept of cradle to cradle design, the idea that goods should be designed to be infinitely recyclable, that there should either be no waste in the manufacturing process or that waste should be biodegradable and suitable for composting. A tiny number of goods are being designed and produced in this way. In any sane society this technology would attract billions of dollars in investment, rather than be a minority pursuit.
My major point of disagreement is the premise of the book — the focus of consumption and consumerism as the major force driving the world towards environmental destruction. The preface quotes approvingly the historian Gary Cross, who argues that neither capitalist democracy nor communism but consumerism emerged as the victor in the ideological battle of the 20th century. Consumerism, sold to us by big business through advertising, is the new dominant ideology. The shopping mall replaces the church, the union meeting and the political party. Consumption gives meaning to our otherwise dreary lives.
When life gets bad, many of us do rush out to the shops. But is this really the major driving force in the world economy? I prefer a much older idea, that the drive for accumulation and profit are the key to understanding the relentless, illogical, destructive march of capitalism.
I agree with the authors that part of the solution will be a change in lifestyles. But I believe that these different lifestyles will only emerge on the grand scale needed as part of a larger collective process to transform the economic and democratic basis of the system. When the bulk of humanity is involved in a collective process to change the world, they will revolutionise themselves and their lifestyles.
Where Vultures Feast
Ike Okonta and Oronto Douglas
Shell is in trouble. Despite being quoted as 'the world's most profitable company', it has been accused of fiddling its books and lying to shareholders. In an oil-accounting exercise that would make Enron proud, it has overstated oil reserves in Nigeria, allegedly in order to squeeze more cash out of the corrupt regime. However, as Okonta and Douglas show at length, this is the least of its worries.
Their passionate history of the Niger Delta over the last 150 years takes us from slavery, colonisation and murderous multinationals to rebellion, resistance and organisation. The impact of Shell (and the other oil multinationals) has been immense.
The mass production of palm oil to grease the machines of early industrial Europe began the process. But the discovery of crude oil a century later in the 1930s has had the biggest impact on one of the world's most fragile environs. Nigeria has been left littered with wells, oil spills and exploration sites. The sites are placed wherever oil may be. People, animals, rivers and fauna are displaced at the whim of an oil giant. And yet the problems continue.
Natural gas is released when the oil is pumped. This could of course be sold as it is elsewhere around the world. But in Nigeria it is simply burnt off, leaving the air heavy with thick black clouds and fires that give the impression of permanent daylight. And whereas in Scotland the oil pipes themselves are buried, in Nigeria they lie like a scar on the landscape and literally divide communities.
The impact on Nigeria's population has been disastrous. Many jobs are reserved for foreign employees, as the oil companies can claim grants for 'expert staff they have to import'. Many more livelihoods have been destroyed--such as fishing, farming and associated trades--and every new spill or pipeline destroys more.
When British colonial rule finally left Nigeria in the 1950s, hopes for a new, democratic Nigeria soon evaporated. At times there have been elections. Sometimes the result has even been implemented. But at all times the squabbling, corrupt, parasitic ruling class has kept control. This has mainly been through competing army generals who have acted with utmost brutality whenever they have felt it to be necessary. At one point, after the army ran amok in a village, a general called a public meeting to explain to the survivors why they deserved the treatment they got! And while the rulers may have been fighting against each other, they have always managed to make sure that Shell has never been hindered in its extraction of resources.
The people of Nigeria have not just sat and accepted their fate. What makes this book so readable is that opposition plays a central part in the story. Many of us have heard of Ken Saro-Wiwa, who headed the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP). They succeeded in pushing Shell out of the Ogoni region. For this, Saro-Wiwa and eight other compatriots were murdered by the Nigerian regime. Shell of course denies any responsibility. Yet they boasted to Saro-Wiwa while awaiting his death sentence that they could get him freed if only he stopped the resistance. However, these nine murders have only helped spread the mood of resistance and brought the plight of the Nigerian people to a worldwide audience. More communities have organised against the multinationals and their client regime. This movement is chronicled in great detail.
The book finishes with Saro-Wiwa's pre-conviction speech at his show trial. He talks of the inevitable victory for the people of Nigeria. Quite how this will come about is not at the crux of this read. The object of this book is more to inform us of the crimes and corruption of rulers and oil bosses. And if ideas are weapons, then this book is a very powerful arm to possess.
A Small Corner of Hell
University of Chicago Press £17.50
If you want to know what life is like at the receiving end of Russian imperialism, I don't think you could do much better than this grim little book. Anna Politkovskaya is a Russian journalist who has broken with her own imperial establishment to report on its atrocities in Chechnya--not just once or twice, but over and over again. She has cowered under Russian air attack together with Chechen refugees and been tortured by Russian officers as a pro-Chechen 'militant bitch'. Her extraordinary courage in one of the most dangerous places on earth makes her account all the more believable.
The various armed forces of the massive Russian Federation have been smashing up the tiny republic of Chechnya for roughly six out of the last ten years. These forces number somewhere around 100,000. They are ranged against maybe 1,500 Chechen fighters. According to the most recent credible estimate I can find, somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 Chechen civilians had been killed by the beginning of last year (plus 13,000 to 20,000 combatants). By November 2003 there were, according to the UN, 210,000 refugees in Chechnya and in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, and an unknown number in other parts of Russia. These are huge proportions of the Chechen population even if you accept the official Russian claim that it is over a million. They give some idea of the scale of the ongoing catastrophe. But you need the testimony of a Politkovskaya to know what it feels like.
Through her you smell the fear and feel the reality of mutilation and death by bullet, bomb, landmine and torture. You witness the heroism of starving old women giving up their scraps of food to the young. You witness also the demoralisation of the starving half-crazed women tearing at each other's rations, tuberculosis victims spitting at the uninfected to jump a place in the food queue. You understand the brutalisation of the Russian military, whose major crimes include at least four big massacres since 1999. You admire all the more the troops who refuse to crack, like the ones who saved 89 inmates of an old people's home under intense fire from their own side.
Chechnya has been subjected to a harsh regime of institutionalised corruption in which those who systematically thieve its oil wealth are protected by Russian uniforms and guns. Yet western leaders have kept remarkably quiet about it. Keeping quiet about Chechnya is part of the price for Russian compliance in the west's own dirty wars. If the mainstream western media suddenly regain the power of speech about Chechnya (as they have recently about the threat to democracy in Russia proper), it won't be on account of humanitarian scruples. It will be because Putin and Co aren't complying enough. Russian imperialism may be down but it's far from out. The US is the world's only superpower, but it isn't right next door in the way Russia is for a great swathe of countries from the Baltic Sea to the Pacific Ocean.
There are striking parallels in this book with the activities of western imperialism from Vietnam to Iraq. A lot of the differences are basically due to Russia being poorer than Britain or the US. Sadly, Politkovskaya's understanding of the Putin leadership seems to be restricted to its Soviet origin. She never mentions the western aggressiveness to which it is responding. Consequently, she never mentions the international anti-war movement which incorporates the only real alternative to the relentless pressure of imperial competition, east and west. Her book is an important contribution to that movement nevertheless.
Superman: Red Son
Mark Millar, Dave Johnson, Kilian Plunkett, Andrew Robinson and Walden Wong
The abstract 'S' symbol which Superman sports on his chest is, like Mickey Mouse or the Coca-Cola logo, a universally recognised icon. Paradoxically, very few people actually buy or read his comics any more. Figures released in early 2004 show that Superman comics sell fewer than 35,000 copies a month.
However, when Red Son, featuring 'the Man of Steel', hit the shops in the US it was a runaway bestseller, with an audience far beyond the ever-contracting ranks of comic enthusiasts. It received massive media attention for a comic, and was reviewed by everyone from Entertainment Weekly to Rolling Stone, with no little outrage expressed at the transformation of this conservative icon into a 'red' superhero fighting for what he sees as 'international socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat'.
For this is Superman's story told as if he'd been raised on a collective farm in the USSR instead of Smallville, Kansas. It opens in the early 1950s with Superman just starting out on his career as 'the comrade of steel'. He's already a favourite of Stalin, who realises that Superman makes the USSR the world's only genuine superpower. When the US government find out about him they turn to the mad genius Lex Luthor for help, beginning a decades-long struggle between the two. By the late 1970s most of the world has joined the Superman-led Soviet Union, with only Chile and the US remaining outside. Superman has built a utopia where 'poverty, disease and ignorance have been virtually eliminated from the Warsaw Pact states'. But for all the prosperity that the new USSR has achieved under the leadership of someone who can personally fulfil a Five-Year Plan in minutes, vestiges of the old totalitarianism remain. State surveillance is ubiquitous, heavily armed police patrol the streets and dissidents are subjected to lobotomies to make them conform. We are informed that 'disobedience to the party is virtually dead'. Superman patrols the planet, imposing 'full spectrum dominance' beyond George W Bush's dreams. The only internal resistance to the new order comes from disgruntled apparatchiks who have been pushed aside and from a Russian Batman, now re-imagined as an anarchist refusenik, committing 19th-century style bombings against symbols of the state. The only external threat comes from Luthor, who replaces Jack Kennedy as president of a US in near collapse, turns its fortunes around overnight, and in a climactic showdown moves to smash Superman and the world he's built.
But for all the extra sales and media attention, Red Son isn't a great comic. The artwork is crude, derivative and bland, and it doesn't serve the story very well. The story, written by Mark Millar, the son of a Coatbridge trade unionist with Stalinist sympathies, has been told better elsewhere. The key theme of Red Son--of a utopia created by a god-like superhero and its social consequences--goes back to the pioneering work of Alan Moore. In 1982 Moore revived the 1950s British superhero Marvelman (later changed to Miracleman to avoid potential lawsuits) and began a story arc in which he took the superhero fantasy to its logical conclusion. Miracleman abolished all existing authority and ushered in a golden age in which capitalism and its works--money, hunger, poverty, ecological destruction--were ended. Even Margaret Thatcher was powerless before him as he overthrew the free market state and sent her packing into the dustbin of history. Practically every superhero comic since has been influenced by Moore. They have also drawn on Frank Miller's wonderfully gritty 1985 Batman opus, The Dark Knight Returns. This gave us an ageing Batman in post Bernard Goetz America now much more ambivalent in its attitudes towards vigilantes and superheroes. Red Son is hardly in this league.
Millar insists that his Superman is 'an allegory of George W Bush' and the story 'vilifies America's "unethical foreign policy"'. Millar started work on Red Son in 1996 but the project stalled. It was revived and completed during the so called 'war on terror', and hit the stores at the tail end of the war on Iraq. This was the making of it. It found an audience among those who had seen what the Bush doctrine of 'pre-emptive retaliation' meant, and responded to an Orwellian fable about the 'moral implications of one man or one country policing the entire world'. That's why socialists should welcome its success.
Finally, though it seemed deliciously subversive to draw Superman with a hammer and sickle on his chest instead of that world-famous 'S', it should be remembered that Superman didn't always stand for 'truth, justice and the American way'. Like many who were eventually assimilated into the establishment, he had a radical past. The early Superman was less powerful than he'd become later. He was able to leap tall buildings with a single bound but he couldn't fly. He was also a vigilante whose enemies were often respectable pillars of US society. He took on slum landlords, corrupt businessmen, politicians and warmongers, and it made him an immediate success. His first appearance in Action Comics #1 in 1938 sold 500,000 copies. By 1939 Superman's own comic was selling 1,250,000 copies per issue. If DC Comics, who publish Superman, want to make him a regular bestseller again they might like to think about that.
New Labour, Old Labour
Anthony Seldon and Kevin Hickson
This book is a series of essays on aspects of the Labour governments of 1974-79, led first by Harold Wilson and then from 1976 by Jim Callaghan. For those readers old enough to recall the 1970s, many omissions will be spotted. There is, for example, no mention of the epic Grunwick dispute for union rights in north west London or, even more surprisingly, of the rise of the National Front and the opposition that stopped it. For those readers not old enough to remember the 1970s, there is more than enough narrative here to provide a guide.
Few of the authors have a political perspective that is even close to the traditions of Socialist Review, but even allowing for this, and the omissions noted above, the book can be read with interest. It seeks to provide some comparison of the Old Labour governments of the 1970s and the New Labour government since 1997. In a concluding chapter Peter Riddell points out that there have been some continuities, such as a focus on getting a minimum wage and banning foxhunting. He also suggests that there are marked breaks--in the attitude to the unions and to the market--which make New Labour further to the right even than the former benchmark for such a position of the early 1960s Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell.
In a useful chapter Jim Tomlinson draws attention to how it is has suited both New Labour and modern Tory mythology to see the 1974-79 governments as failures, when the economic situation they faced--of the post-1974 oil crisis of economic decline and high inflation--was common across Europe.
Elsewhere Robert Taylor suggests that the Wilson/Callaghan government in fact had some useful achievements around safety and equal pay legislation to its name. Taylor focuses on the Social Contract between the government and the unions, dubbed the 'Social Contrick' by critics at the time, which sought to control prices and wage rises. It is hardly mentioned in the book, but by the 'Winter of Discontent' of 1979, this had come to mean an attempt to cap wage rises to 5 percent with inflation running at 8 to 10 percent. He also underlines the influence that the Communist Party had on Labour policy through its strength in the official structures of various unions and its opposition to the Social Contract. The CPGB did formally oppose the policy, but in practice policed it, a point Taylor does not quite get around to making. The consequences for the left were disastrous.
All this material is interesting enough, but secondary to a theme that runs throughout the book, and particularly in the contribution of former MP Stuart Holland, which is to remind us of a world that we have lost. This is the world of the National Enterprise Board, originally designed to handle the nationalisation of the top 25 British companies, of planning agreements with many more companies, of government help for leading worker co-operatives and of the alternative economic strategy, focused on import controls and greater state direction of investment. All this was backed up by a powerful Labour left with Tony Benn, after 1974, industry minister.
The strategy did not work of course, depending on your view either because it was sabotaged by the Labour right or because it is simply not possible to reform capitalism piecemeal out of existence. However, the idea that the public sector is much better at running things than the private and that the market cannot be left to decide is one heard so little in official British politics today that it is simply mind-boggling to read this book and discover or recall that such ideas were centre stage 30 years ago, and that a Labour Party that espoused them won two elections in 1974.