Book Review - The People of the Abyss

Centenary Edition
Jack London
Pluto Press
£10.99 paperback
192 pages
Those vaguely familiar with Jack London (pictured above) know him as a skilled writer, basing many of his stories on experiences from his rich, colourful and often dangerous life. Few remember him as the skilled political commentator and social critic who exposed many of the injustices of his day. The People of the Abyss is Jack London the investigative reporter relating an impassioned account of the degradation and squalor endured by the people of the East End of London in 1902, and this year marks the centenary of his visit to this part of London.

Living in the East End doss houses, London posed as a stranded American sailor, down on his luck. He mingled with the poorest of the poor, worked alongside them, ate with them, drank with them and slept amongst them in the workhouses. His observations are documented in full in People of the Abyss, and this is no work of fiction. This is the London in the days when the SPGB was about to be formed, and reading London’s account of the privation endured by millions of his fellow workers, one can’t help but ask why the clamour for an end to capitalism was not being screamed from every rooftop. He attempts an answer himself:

“Unhealthy working and living engenders unhealthy appetites and desires. Man cannot be worked worse than a horse is worked, and be fed and housed as a pig is fed and housed, and at the same time have clean and wholesome ideals and aspirations.” (p.162).

And who could blame them? For many in the East End of London in 1902, the daily struggle to live absorbed all their energies. Their life expectancy was 30 years; 55% of children died before the age of 5. Hundreds of thousands of impoverished men and women yearned only the public houses and alcohol in a pathetic attempt to “express their gregariousness” and because intoxication finally “brings the oblivion that nothing else can bring” (160). This is the England “where a constant army of 8 million lives on the border of starvation.” (155); where hundreds of thousands of families inhabit one room, and where “children take turn about in sitting up and drive the rats away from the sleepers (148); where the lucky go insane and the courageous commit suicide. And all of this when Britain had the largest empire ever know and milked the world.

The SPGB were not alone in the formative years of the 20th Century in pointing out the world of potential abundance we live in. Lamenting the widespread starvation of the day, the ‘hunger wail’ that echoed across the British Isles, London comments:
“And this in face of the fact that five men can produce bread for a thousand; that one workman can produce cotton cloth for 250 people, woollens for 300 and boots and shoes for 1000….and who dares to say that it is not mismanaged, this big house, when five men can produce bread for a thousand, and yet millions have not enough to eat?” (160)

The people of the Abyss is a masterly recording of the lives of the masses in 1902, and a poignant indictment on the capitalist system, and London is to be commended. However he affords us no panacea to the ills of the system he lambastes, but rather finishes with a lengthy note about how the system is being mismanaged, before ending:

“There can be no mistake. Civilisation has increased man’s producing powers an hundred-fold, and through mismanagement the men of Civilisation live worse than the beasts, and have less to eat and wear and protect them from the elements than the savage Inuit in a frigid climate who lives today as he lived in the stone age ten thousand years ago.” (p.170)

The people of the Abyss deserves to be read, for a Century after this book was written it is still possible to record the same, in spite of all the scientific and technological breakthroughs that have occurred since 1902 and which should be benefiting humanity.


Another American Cenury?

George Bush’s State of the Union address at the end of January was little short of a declaration of war on the world; an assertion that US interests are now paramount and woe betide anyone foolish enough to think otherwise.

Bush boldly announced that the ‘ war on terror’ was ‘only beginning’ and announced an enormous hike in military spending. This year’s military budget is up $36 bn to $379 bn and next year the US war machine will receive an extra $48 bn, with a further $120 bn promised over the next five years, bringing the total spent on the military by 2007 to $ 2 trillion. To get some estimate of this level of spending it is worth noting that this year’s increase alone is higher than the joint military spending of Europe, and larger than China’s existing military budget. Though just how such an awe inspiring arsenal of state of the arts weaponry is to stop September 11th type attacks on the USA is yet to be explained.

America has at last declared that the ’war on terror’ has replaced the threat of the ‘international communist conspiracy’ and found in this the pretext to set the agenda for the coming century. The Bush administration has embedded its flag in what it believes is the moral high ground. From now on it is a war of good against evil - evil being anyone standing directly in the way of the US and its aspirations of global domination, with the ‘war on terrorism’ allowing it to intervene anywhere and whenever and to deem who it likes a terrorist. Clearly this new ‘war’ will involve countless military interventions with no regard whatsoever for international sensibilities.

There are now bogeymen under every rock and the world needs protecting from them. Bush identified an ‘axis of evil’ in his State of the Union Address, pointing to the threat the world faced from North Korea, Iraq and Iran. Vice president Dick Cheney would later remark that the US is considering military action against 50 countries and that this ongoing conflict could last 50 years.

Bush’s advisor Richard Perle commented: “This is total war. We are fighting a variety of enemies. There are lots of them out there…if we just let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely, and we don’t try to piece together clever diplomacy, but just wage a total war, our children will sing great songs about us years from now.”

All of this has naturally left political analysts wondering just who will be next. Somalia, with untapped oil deposits off its coast and with whom the US has a score to settle following the botched ‘Restore Hope’ operation of a decade ago, which left thousands of innocents dead, or Yemen, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, Syria or Libya? All harbour bogeymen whose existence sullies the notion of western cultural supremacy. Any could be the next target for a war machine drunk with its recent victory in Afghanistan. And what a victory! – Usama bin Laden still not caught (the entire campaign was about catching him), 5 thousand civilians dead and 7 million facing starvation in refugee camps.

A key element in the US game plan for global hegemony is clearly control of the Caspian’s rich oil reserves – estimated to be able to produce 3.3 million gallons of crude oil per day and 4850 billion cubic feet of natural gas per year. Hence US military manoeuvring in the states surrounding Afghanistan and thus the attaching of the ’bogeyman’ label to any state perceived as standing in the way of these profits.

Already Kyrgistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan are under US military domination and there are US military tent cities in 13 states surrounding Afghanistan, with the map of US bases mirroring the route of a projected oil pipeline favoured by the US and which takes oil through Iran to the Indian ocean. To save the cost and inconvenience of laying a pipeline through Turkmenistan, Pakistan and Afghanistan, it is far easier to simply topple the Tehran regime, install a US proxy government and run Caspian oil directly through Iran. And who is to stop the US? The UN may object, but who is the UN? The best place from which to launch an attack upon Iran is Iraq, so both states now feature high on the US hit list.

Iran and Iraq are both perceived as the regional powers who challenge US strategic ambitions between Europe and East Asia. And invasions of these two countries would well fit the ongoing US strategy of asserting itself into strategic areas of the world, setting up is bases and installing US geopolitical influence in these regions. US interventions in recent years in Iraq, Somalia, the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan have allowed the US to leave behind its bases in these regions and to better oversee the activities of its corporate elite. With US economic power now being challenged by Europe and the East Asian bloc, military bases become a useful counterweight to the threat posed its corporate elite by its competitors and US control over Iran and Iraq gives the US control over extant oil supplies between Europe and East Asia.

Iraq has long been high up on the list of US targets, a fact perhaps best portrayed recently by the pathetic and futile US attempts to link the anthrax scare in the US to Saddam Hussein. The Guardian’s February 14th front page headline “ US targets Saddam” was not reporting anything new. The story had been doing the rounds in the Russian press for some time with Russian military intelligence suggesting a full scale attack on Iraq would begin in September. But now sources close to Bush say the CIA is already in Saudi Arabia and Northern Iraq preparing for a joint operation with Kurdish forces and that the third Iraqi war may commence in May with the mobilisation of 200,000 US troops from bases in Kuwait.

Undoubtedly the pretext for the US invasion of Iraq will be Iraq’s refusal to agree to terms laid down by a US lead weapons inspectorate into the country, hence Bush’s assertion in his State of the Union Address that Iraq “continues to flaunt its hostility towards the US” and that “this is a regime that has something to hide from the civilised world.”

The above may sound like so much scare-mongering, but when it is considered the US now accounts for 40 per cent of global military spending, that it spends more on its war machine than the next 19 states, that in the past year it has discarded numerous international treaties, including those pertaining to weapons control, that the space taken up by its military hardware covers an area the size of Sweden, that it has served notice on all countries opposing the notion of US hegemony that their days are numbered, we can’t but conclude that warfare will be as much a part of life in this century as the one we have just emerged from. And what do we make of Bush’s words in that most eloquent of addresses: “Now America is embracing a new ethic and a new creed: ‘let’s roll’”? And what better way to distract domestic attention from the corruption of US politics – wonderfully exhibited in the Enron scandal – than to commence a war on the enemies of US freedoms?

We have every reason to be fearful for the future of humanity. War is competition for profits (either via trade routes, mineral wealth, resources or areas of influence) writ large, and to safeguard its future profits, its control of world resources the world’s greatest and largest military power is accumulating an unimaginable array of weaponry, rolling up its sleeves and marching forward to stamp underfoot all it perceives as being a threat to its interests.

So when will you join with us? When a million Iranians lie smouldering? When North Korea resembles a Stone Age society? Or when cruise missiles are heading towards Beijing? We owe it to the millions about to die in the name of profit to act now. They cannot, their fate is sealed.


Economic Meltdown in Argentina (just capitalism functioning normally)

Argentina, the one time darling of the IMF, held up as an example of how a country should stringently adhere to structural adjustment programmes, is presently standing as a shining example of how the capitalist system can not be made to work in the interest of the majority. Economists are mostly in agreement that the cause of economic meltdown in Argentina and the consequent protests and rioting were the result of three distinctive and converging economic crises.

When Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo pegged the Argentinean peso to the dollar ten years ago – on a one to one basis – he envisaged that this would end hyperinflation. Three years ago, when Brazil devalued its real, foreign investors and speculators discovered their dollars brought them bigger returns in Brazil than in Argentina. This seriously began to upset Argentina’s foreign investments and exports, as buyers of Argentina products found they could get the same next door and far cheaper.

Argentina is now in debt to the tune of $132 billion – attributable largely to far-reaching borrowing carried out during the second term of the Carlos Menem government, prior to the election of President Fernando de la Rue. The effect of the domestic and foreign borrowing was to send domestic interest rates spiralling upwards. As the debt increased, so did the interest rates, which had a knock on effect for many businesses reliant upon credit.

In the 1990s, Menem further introduced mass privatisation. This resulted in many workers being made redundant, they being surplus to requirements now that profit was higher up the agenda for the utilities and, moreover, the cost of basic services (electricity, gas, telephones) began to rise.

So, back in 1999, the Argentinean recession began, increasing in ferocity as domestic demand declined and companies began to close and unemployment increased and, because the government’s tax revenues began shrinking, Argentina’s burden of debt became all the more heavier.

In November all of Argentina’s economic woes came to a head when people, fearful their pesos would be devalued, began hurrying to the banks to exchange them for dollars whilst the one-to-one rate was still in existence. Cavallo, fearful the banks would be drained of money, issued a decree which limited withdrawals to $1000 per person per month. The effect of this was to create mistrust in the government and widespread uncertainty with people rioting and protesting on the streets, with looting reported in many cities.

One week before Christmas the riots had spread to Buenos Aries. The president declared a state of emergency and brought troops onto the streets. But his government offered no remedy for the economic crisis and this only brought larger numbers of protestors back on to the streets within 24 hours, the unemployed being joined by ‘middle class’ professionals – all taking part in the looting. When thousands of protestors congregated in Congress Square, banging pots and pans, the resignation of the president, his economic minister and the entire cabinet was almost immediate. De la Rua was determined to make one impassioned speech before he left, but with an angry crowd having none of it, he was instantly whisked to safety by a helicopter.

Tensions rose. People poured in from outlying districts, blockading motorways and erecting barricades, destroying banks and multinationals, looting supermarkets and fighting with almost 40,000 police who had been drafted into the city. When the violence had subdued, 26 had been killed.

Argentineans blame de la Rua for the crisis, citing the fact that he was the president when the crisis was deteriorating more alarmingly – as if he could control the economy! As the economy was controlling him, he had no option but to cut public spending to service debt repayments, though not as much as the IMF insisted. De la Rua, however, did enter office foolishly promising to kick-start the economy and end high level corruption. By early 2000 he had introduced £650 million worth of spending cuts and forced through eight unpopular austerity plans, which included a 13% cut in state workers’ wages. Just prior to the unrest, the government planned to further cut public spending from £34 billion to £27 billion in a further attempt to service the crushing loan repayments.

The current president is one Eduardo Duhalde, a former ‘left-wing’ senator and once upon a time investigated for the corruption his predecessor promised to stamp out. At present he plans to freeze the prices charged by foreign-owned utilities companies and put a tax on foreign owned oil companies. To protect the ‘middle class’ from currency devaluation he has offered to convert dollar loans under $100,000 into pesos, at the one-to-one rate – placing a hefty burden on banks, not borrowers - and he has further promised that cash will be set aside for the unemployed. All of which amounts to a timely game plan to placate the more volatile sections of Argentinean society.

Meanwhile, IMF top brass are in Argentina demanding, on behalf of the US and Europe, that the country does not default on its loan obligations. Outside markets are watching events carefully aware of the fact that economic crisis have tended in the past to lead to military coups and all their implications and are now mindful of granting further loans to the region.

There has been much analysis of recent events in Argentina. The general mood is that the IMF is to blame, that its structural austerity programmes are socially and politically unsustainable and that its rule book needs tearing up. What has not been said is that, like the Argentinean government, the IMF is simply a body trying to make capitalism work. And in this regard they cannot really be faulted, because as events in Argentina have revealed, capitalism is working perfectly well, for this is the only way it can work in an anarchic and chaotic manner, negligent and oblivious to the misery and suffering it creates. If a few get rich while millions lose out big style, then this is capitalism working as it only can work and as the workers – from their years of experience of living within the system - voted for it to work. If there is recession and boom and recession, then capitalism is working healthily. In Argentina, therefore, capitalism is functioning normally.