Is capitalism the best system on offer?

“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all” – Karl Marx

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This is the text of a talk given by David McMullen at the Monthly Argument on Wednesday October 19, at The Royal Oak Hotel, Fitzroy. David is the author of Bright Future.

Is capitalism the best system on offer?

As you are well aware we presently live under the capitalist system where the means of production are owned primarily by a small ruling class. Now is this system the best on offer? My answer to the question is no. However, the journey to the better alternative is going to be a tortuous process. This alternative is the very opposite of capitalism. It is a classless society where the means of production are socially owned, and it has usually been called communism.

Now how does this alternative claim to be better? It claims to be better than capitalism on the grounds that it would allow the individual to fully develop and thrive under conditions of mutual regard rather than the dog eat dog world of capitalism.

However, for such a society two things are required. These are (1) a very high level of economic development and (2) the successful completion of a rocky period of revolutionary transition during which we fundamentally transform ourselves and our relations with each other.

The first of these – a very high level of economic development – allows us to eliminate poverty and toil, and this is absolutely critical if we are going to dispense with the profit motive. This is because it opens up the possibility of people working because they like what they are doing and they want to contribute, while at the same time being happy with an equal share of an increasing prosperity. While it is possible to imagine people sharing prosperity and enjoyable work, it is not possible to imagine people sharing poverty and toil. The Middle Ages shows us that it only requires a small band of thugs who would prefer to have a lot more than everybody else and you have a very nasty class society. Also the experience of the Soviet Union, and the various regimes derived from it, shows what happens when you try and go beyond capitalism under backward economic conditions.

In the rich countries we have reached an economic level where it is possible to imagine everyone enjoying something approaching toil free prosperity. However, what about the rest of the world where most people live? What are the prospects there? The middle income countries such as China and India should start approaching fair levels of development in a generation or so if they maintain a reasonable growth rate. On the other hand the poorest countries where most people live will need to begin, and sustain, a growth takeoff similar to India and China in order to get to out of their present poverty later this century.

Many raise doubts about the possibility of achieving global economic prosperity. They either say that everyone having high and increasing living standards is impossible because of resource limits to growth or because capitalism’s disregard for the environment will lead to ecological collapse and a very bleak future.

The limits to growth view is based on a number of notions: (1) that minerals become too difficult to extract as we have to dig deeper or rely on lower grades of mineral ore. As a result capital becomes increasingly devoted to extraction and this leaves less and less for the rest of the economy. (2) Economic growth necessarily creates an increasing waste stream that the natural environment can no longer cope with. (3) Increasing food production will ultimately deplete the soil. I think there is ample evidence technological advances can solve those sort of problems. I dealt with this issue at length at the debate in June. It is available online as is this talk.

Now is capitalism going to completely trash the environment because of its shortsighted search for profits? I think we can expect quite a lot of trashing of forests and pollution of air and water as the poorer countries develop. However, countering that is the fact that newer technologies tend to be cleaner and as countries get richer there is increasing political pressure to reduce environmental damage and remedy past damage.

As for CO2 emissions. They are very unlikely to be brought down to the levels that people are talking about. We are pretending to do something while achieving very little. The Europeans have made a lot of noise but are reneging on all their promises. India and China are continuing to build coal power plants at a cracking pace. China is also building quite a few in other countries. Germany and Japan are building more coal power plants because of their stupid decision to get out of nuclear power.

There are two strategies for significantly reducing CO2. The first would involve a massive total switch to renewable and nuclear power in coming decades. However, because these technologies are far more expensive than fossil fuels it is not going to happen. Keep in mind that it would require massive subsidies to the less developed countries who have made it clear that they are not going to abandon much cheaper fossil fuels unless compensated. These countries are already consuming more than half the world’s energy and the percentage will soon be a lot higher.

The second strategy is to to implement a massive research and development program aimed at providing energy options that greatly close the cost gap with fossil fuels. This would be far cheaper than the first strategy. And it is a strategy that Bill Gates is promoting with only modest success. And it is the strategy I support.

For the moment I am noncommittal on the level of threat to the environment that is posed by capitalism’s failure to act on CO2 emissions. Views on the subject range from little impact to a runaway greenhouse effect that would put the human race in a very sticky position.

Now on that rather uncertain note, let’s move on to the second requirement if we are to achieve a classless, collectively owned society. As said at the beginning, we have to complete a very rocky period of revolutionary transition during which we fundamentally transform ourselves and our relations with each other.

While getting rid of the capitalists and installing a revolutionary government will be a protracted and tortuous business, it will not be enough. We also require an entire historical period of struggle to make the transition from a society based on profit to one based on mutual regard. This will have many ups and downs and may possibly include major defeats.

The central thing here is a struggle with a new bourgeoisie that is bound to emerge after the revolution because you can’t immediately eliminate the old division of labor. For some time society will still have a lot of hierarchy, and all levels of government including the very top will be full of phonies pretending to be revolutionaries and also revolutionaries who become corrupted by power. This new group proved irresistible in the Soviet Union and its derivative regimes. To counter this it will be critical to have a revolutionary mass movement that can push back against it.

There is also a struggle with people at all levels of society who are slow to adopt the behavior and thinking of mutual regard. This will require people to have the moral courage, self-confidence and social skills to stand up to problematic behavior. At the moment we tend to knuckle under or run away from a problem. The principle of mutual regard can be summed up as – I will go out of my way for others and others do likewise, and we all share in the better outcome that results. It is enlightened self-interest because our welfare depends on the welfare of others. And we mustn’t forget the direct satisfaction that we get from helping others and contributing to the general good.

I rather like this paragraph from the Communist Manifesto dealing with this subject:

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

Finally, a very important point to make is that the less that capitalism has modernized societies the harder the task of transition will be. Pre-capitalist societies are really awful and people’s heads are full of even more crap than modern people. In these societies the average person is ignorant and uneducated. They are servile and accepting of the idea that some people are superior to others, and have a right to push everyone else around. There is no conception of democracy or individual liberty. The individual is tied down by obligations and loyalties to groups such as extended family, clan and tribe. And women are completely subordinate to men. It is virtually impossible to imagine creating a classless society on the basis of this kind of culture.

So to sum up.

Firstly, a society more advanced than capitalism requires a high level of economic development, what is sometimes called post-scarcity.
Secondly, this new society requires more than simply installing a revolutionary government and dispossessing the capitalists. There is an entire historical period when ordinary people will have to push back against the opponents of the revolution and thoroughly internalize the new morality of mutual regard.
And thirdly, on a more mundane note, there needs to be a massive increase in research and development spending in order to develop the new energy technologies that economic growth requires.

Why ‘Earth Hour’ is silly

We should not be demonising electricity — we should be celebrating it.

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With thanks to Spiked for permission to republish this article by John Slater.

On 19 March every year, millions of people in developed countries spend 60 minutes of their lives reeling in collective guilt over the evil of fossil fuels. But when people turn off the lights for Earth Hour, they only hold a candle to their own ignorance.

Earth Hour is exactly the type of feel-good event today’s environmentalists seem to relish. It provides a ready-made opportunity for people to flaunt their social conscience by denouncing industrialisation, electricity, fossil fuels and the other ‘excesses’ that make 21st-century life worth living.

But what these candle-waving, middle-class do-gooders forget are the 1.3 billion people who will spend all of 19 March in the dark – not out of some desire to be close to nature, but because that’s how they spend every other day of the year.

How long without electricity would today’s Earth Hour enthusiasts last before their warm inner glow turned to despair?

Perhaps if people were forced seriously to contemplate life off the grid, they’d come to accept the empirical fact that nothing has done more to advance the plight of humanity than cheap, reliable electricity.

The problem with Earth Hour isn’t that burning candles actually emits more carbon than using a lightbulb, nor that large numbers of households simultaneously going dark disrupts the power grid and actually increases emissions.

No, the problem with Earth Hour is that it makes a villain out of electricity provision, the very thing that’s allowed humanity to rise out of abject poverty and reach the standard of living we enjoy today. So, since you probably won’t hear it anywhere else, here are just a few of the tremendous benefits of cheap, reliable electricity:

It feeds the world
Worldwide poverty is at its lowest rate in human history.

his is in large part because of the modern methods of mass food production that depend on cheap electricity. Industrial farming practices, including irrigation, mass food storage and transport, would all be impossible if environmentalists had their way. In the Middle Ages over 90 per cent of Europe’s workforce worked on farms; today, less than five per cent does. This has freed millions of people from backbreaking labour to develop their own skills and talents, which in turn have enriched our lives.

And once this mass-produced food reaches our homes, it is electricity that allows us to cook it quickly and safely, without exposing ourselves to health risks from chronic smoke inhalation. Two million people in developing countries still die each year from noxious fumes caused by traditional indoor heating and cooking practices. This gives some insight into what cheap electricity has meant for human welfare.

It saves lives
Electricity has made possible the advances and wide availability of modern medicine, from vaccines to antibiotics and surgery.

According to the World Health Organisation, the measles vaccine alone has saved over 17million lives worldwide since 2000. This wouldn’t have happened had there not been cheap, electrically powered refrigeration for the storage and transportation of the vaccine.

It creates prosperity
As Bjorn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist, points out, the electricity available to people in wealthy countries is roughly the equivalent of having 56 servants working for you in pre-industrial times. It’s easy to forget this if you have the luxury of boiling a cup of tea and sitting down to watch a digitally recorded episode of MasterChef once your annual 60 minutes of environmental self-flagellation is up. But for the people of, say, Liberia or South Sudan or Sierra Leone, every hour is Earth Hour. Life is short and illness often deadly. People spend most of their waking hours fighting a neverending struggle for basic necessities like food and shelter.

There is no doubt that our prosperity has come at a cost to the natural world. But if we care about making the world a better place, the last thing we should be doing is turning off the lights. If what we want is a genuine accommodation with Mother Nature, we should be concentrating humanity’s collective energies on finding cleaner and cheaper ways of sustaining modern life, not harking back to some pre-industrial fantasy.

Contrary to the delusions of eco-pessimists, cheap electricity is exactly the kind of innovation we need more of. London’s air quality today is the best it’s been since coal became a common fuel for lime burners in the early Middle Ages. Why? Because thanks to electricity, factories are no longer run on coal power. Nor do households have to burn it to cook and stay warm.

The idea that human progress actually helps the environment flies in the face of everything today’s environmental zealots hold dear. In their eyes, humanity must repent for daring to industrialise. That means putting an end to the wealth and material excess that characterise our daily lives.

If people are actually interested in saving the planet, they’d be better off lighting their houses with electricity, not mourning human progress in the dark.

John Slater is a Young Voices Advocate, and an Australian writer based in Washington DC. Follow him on twitter, @JohnSlater93.

Marx was no green

The Communist Manifesto Project has just published an article titled ‘Was Marx a green?‘ I’m republishing it below, with gratitude to the writer David McMullen.

In reading a draft of the piece, these thoughts came to mind:

In Mao’s critique of Stalin’s Economic Problems in the USSR Mao says Stalin is wrong to believe that human development is restricted by natural laws. Mao asserts that humans can work out ways to overcome these laws:

(Stalin) 2. Leaving aside astronomical, geological, and othersimilar processes, which man really is powerless to influence, even if he has come to know the laws of their development. . . . (Mao response) 2. This argument is wrong. Human knowledge and the capability to transform nature have no limit. Stalin did not consider these matters developmentally. What cannot now be done, may be done in the future.

To me, this kind of thinking – this spirit – was what attracted me to Maoists in the Left in Melbourne back in the late 1960s. They were the ones drawing critically from previous socialist experience, rather than rejecting it out of hand, and they were the ones really placing human conscious activity centre-stage and understanding the inter-relationship between economic base and cultural superstructure.

Marxists have always wanted progress and revolution and Karl Marx supported capital ‘p’ Progress in his time ­ but those who try to reinvent him as a green steady­-statist reverse his progressive and revolutionary nature and turn him into his opposite.

­As for the town and country divide, Engels nails the distinction between those greens (or ‘utopians’, in his time) who value small-scale craft-based life over the advances brought about by the C19th Industrial Revolution, despite its immediate grimness. In the Introduction to The Condition of the working class in England (1845) he talks about the much healthier, more humane, way of life in feudal rural England but says, no!, it sucks because in such a pre-industrial village and family based way of life, the people’s horizons were so limited. They were ‘comfortable in their silent vegetation’:

Before the introduction of machinery, the spinning and weaving of raw materials was carried on in the workingman’s home. Wife and daughter spun the yarn that the father wove or that they sold, if he did not work it up himself. These weaver families lived in the country in the neighbourhood of the towns, and could get on fairly well with their wages, because the home market was almost the only one and the crushing power of competition that came later, with the conquest of foreign markets and the extension of trade, did not yet press upon wages. There was, further, a constant increase in the demand for the home market, keeping pace with the slow increase in population and employing all the workers; and there was also the impossibility of vigorous competition of the workers among themselves, consequent upon the rural dispersion of their homes. So it was that the weaver was usually in a position to lay by something, and rent a little piece of land, that he cultivated in his leisure hours, of which he had as many as he chose to take, since he could weave whenever and as long as he pleased. True, he was a bad farmer and managed his land inefficiently, often obtaining but poor crops; nevertheless, he was no proletarian, he had a stake in the country, he was permanently settled, and stood one step higher in society than the English workman of today.

So the workers vegetated throughout a passably comfortable existence, leading a righteous and peaceful life in all piety and probity; and their material position was far better than that of their successors. They did not need to overwork; they did no more than they chose to do, and yet earned what they needed. They had leisure for healthful work in garden or field, work which, in itself, was recreation for them, and they could take part besides in the recreations and games of their neighbours, and all these games — bowling, cricket, football, etc., contributed to their physical health and vigour. They were, for the most part, strong, well-built people, in whose physique little or no difference from that of their peasant neighbours was discoverable. Their children grew up in the fresh country air, and, if they could help their parents at work, it was only occasionally; while of eight or twelve hours work for them there was no question.

What the moral and intellectual character of this class was may be guessed. Shut off from the towns, which they never entered, their yarn and woven stuff being delivered to travelling agents for payment of wages — so shut off that old people who lived quite in the neighborhood of the town never went thither until they were robbed of their trade by the introduction of machinery and obliged to look about them in the towns for work — the weavers stood upon the moral and intellectual plane of the yeomen with whom they were usually immediately connected through their little holdings. They regarded their squire, the greatest landholder of the region, as their natural superior; they asked advice of him, laid their small disputes before him for settlement, and gave him all honour, as this patriarchal relation involved. They were “respectable” people, good husbands and fathers, led moral lives because they had no temptation to be immoral, there being no groggeries or low houses in their vicinity, and because the host, at whose inn they now and then quenched their thirst, was also a respectable man, usually a large tenant-farmer who took pride in his good order, good beer, and early hours. They had their children the whole day at home, and brought them up in obedience and the fear of God; the patriarchal relationship remained undisturbed so long as the children were unmarried.

The young people grew up in idyllic simplicity and intimacy with their playmates until they married; and even though sexual intercourse before marriage almost unfailingly took place, this happened only when the moral obligation of marriage was recognised on both sides, and a subsequent wedding made everything good. In short, the English industrial workers of those days lived and thought after the fashion still to be found here and there in Germany, in retirement and seclusion, without mental activity and without violent fluctuations in their position in life. They could rarely read and far more rarely write; went regularly to church, never talked politics, never conspired, never thought, delighted in physical exercises, listened with inherited reverence when the Bible was read, and were, in their unquestioning humility, exceedingly well-disposed towards the “superior” classes. But intellectually, they were dead; lived only for their petty, private interest, for their looms and gardens, and knew nothing of the mighty movement which, beyond their horizon, was sweeping through mankind. They were comfortable in their silent vegetation, and but for the industrial revolution they would never have emerged from this existence, which, cosily romantic as it was, was nevertheless not worthy of human beings. In truth, they were not human beings; they were merely toiling machines in the service of the few aristocrats who had guided history down to that time. The industrial revolution has simply carried this out to its logical end by making the workers machines pure and simple, taking from them the last trace of independent activity, and so forcing them to think and demand a position worthy of men.

Anyway, here is David McMullen’s article, with which I basically agree.

Marx Was No Green
There are Greens who espouse an “ecological Marxism” and claim that if Marx was around today he would support organic agriculture and a steady state economy based on renewable resources that provides everyone with “sufficiency”. In such an economy the poor and rich countries would converge, with the former increasing somewhat and the latter shrinking a lot. The most notable exponent of this view is John Bellamy Foster, the editor of The Monthly Review. (We will call him JBF for short.) He goes through the writings of Marx and tortures them until they deliver a green essence.
JBF draws our attention to a number of Marx’s views that you could use to start building a case that he was a Green. Marx was concerned about the destruction of natural stocks of fertile soil, forests and fish needed by future generations. He also commented on how consumption often included frivolities that reflected people’s alienation rather than real needs and that human thriving requires more than increased consumption. JBF also correctly points out that when Marx talked about mastering nature he did not mean destroying it but mastering its laws and harnessing it accordingly. However, from here on the case begins to unravel.

JBF tries to extract greenness from the fact that Marx was a materialist who believed we lived in a material world where we depended on plants and animals for food, water to drink and air to breath. This is a long stretch.

The greening of Marx of course requires JBF to explain away how Marx and Engels talked about communism unleashing the productive forces. He claims this thoroughly ungreen viewpoint was confined to their youthful less mature writings. This is not true as these quotes from the 1870s attest:

Let us take, first of all, the words “proceeds of labor” in the sense of the product of labor; then the co-operative proceeds of labor are the total social product.
From this must now be deducted: First, cover for replacement of the means of production used up. Second, additional portion for expansion of production [emphasis added]. Third, reserve or insurance funds to provide against accidents, dislocations caused by natural calamities, etc.
Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875
The expansive force of the means of production bursts the bonds that the capitalist mode of production had imposed upon them. Their deliverance from these bonds is the one precondition for an unbroken, constantly accelerated development of the productive forces, and therewith for a practically unlimited increase of production itself. Nor is this all. The socialised appropriation of the means of production does away, not only with the present artificial restrictions upon production, but also with the positive waste and devastation of productive forces and products that are at the present time the inevitable concomitants of production, and that reach their height in the crises. Further, it sets free for the community at large a mass of means of production and of products, by doing away with the senseless extravagance of the ruling classes of today and their political representatives. The possibility of securing for every member of society, by means of socialised production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day by day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties — this possibility is now for the first time here, but it is here.
Engels, Anti-Duhring, 1877
JBF also has to misconstrue Marx’s constant reference to the fact that capitalists are compelled by the forces of competition to accumulate  in order to survive, by suggesting that he actually disapproved of the process. For Marx the plowing back of much of the surplus value rather than spending it all on extravagant consumption was what made capitalism superior to previous societies where there was a compulsion to stagnate. It is what delivered economic and social progress.
Under communism, the robust development of the productive forces will lead both to the qualitative improvements in output and also to the use of increasing amounts of energy and materials. This would occur not just through accumulation but also through greater investment in research and development and through making each generation of plant and equipment better than the last. It is not hard to imagine the uses. Increased automation will require millions of robots. People will want ready access to various recreation facilities such as gyms, gardens, artificial ski slopes, master chef kitchens, laboratories, workshops and research facilities. The requirements of an increasing population will also have to be considered. While the population is expected to plateau and then decline later this century, under communism you would expect it to start rising again as the burden of having children will be much less. We need large emergency facilities to deal with super-volcanoes and tsunamis. We will need to prepare for the effects of major climate change such rising sea levels and eventually the next ice age.  Major space programs will among other things protect us from meteors and allow us to start moving off the planet in order to explore, settle and exploit extraterrestrial resources. It will be a long time before we run out of things to do with iron, steel, glass etc. This increasing production under communism will proceed with an on-going decoupling from impacts on the environment. We will see food produced with less and less use of land and water, and the industrial waste streams in extraction, production and disposal cleaned up and reduced.

JBF’s pièce de résistance is to pick up on Marx’s analysis of the contradiction between town and country. In the separation of town and country, Marx was concerned about two things. Firstly it stunted the brains of those in the country and ruined the physical health of those in city. Secondly it meant a break in the nutrient cycle as human waste and food scraps were not returned to the farm but instead dumped in rivers and oceans. This transfer of people from the land to cities was an inevitable part of capitalist development. Capitalist farming needed less workers and the cost to the soil and to workers of concentrating the latter in the cities was of no concern to industrial capitalists.

However, these problems are being resolved without having to spread the population evenly over the landscape. High density living in large cities can now be quite healthy and comfortable. Living in the countryside no longer means being cut off from the world given modern modes of transport and communications. This modern transport can also truck in fertilizer, be it human waste, animal manure or the synthetic kind that is now produced in abundance. Indeed, the present concern is excessive nutrients and resulting emissions into ground water or the atmosphere. The best hope for dealing with this under present capitalist conditions is through increased regulation and better management including greater adoption of precision farming.

The organic farming favored by JBF would just make things worse for the environment. It does not allow the use of synthetic fertilizer and so requires rotations that include nitrogen fixing legumes that are simply plowed back into the soil. So a world of organic agriculture would require far more land being assigned to farming to get the same net crop and less for forests and other natural uses. Magically getting the 7 billion people presently on the planet to become vegetarians would reduce the land pressure given that crops consumed directly provide humans with more calories than if they are fed to animals first. However, that would be undone later this century when we have 2 or 3 billion extra mouths to feed.
It is very important that red and green are seen as being at total odds. Humanity and the environment require economic progress and communism is impossible without it. The sooner we have a vocal Marxism supporting economic growth, and un-green things such as nuclear power and genetic engineering, the better
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The Communist Manifesto Project – opposing the ‘reactionists’. Some annotations.

“The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part” – Karl Marx 1848

Marx considered capitalism revolutionary, an advance on all previous societies. Most contemporary “Marxists” and the pseudo left more broadly either disagree or are highly ambivalent… For example, they bemoan “corporate globalization” and believe that the very far from complete process of economic development is ecologically unsustainable and we need to revert to a something “simpler”. Marx refers to these people as “reactionists”.

(Via The Communist Manifesto Project)

 

communist-manifesto

 

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Annotations

These are some comments to consider while reading The Communist Manifesto. Most of them highlight the many instances where Marx’s views are contrary to those of present-day “Marxists”. Marx is referred to as the writer here. While Engels was a co-author, the final writing was the work of Marx.

Chapter 1: Bourgeois and Proletarians

“The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part.”

Marx then goes on to elaborate on this point in the subsequent 11 paragraphs. He considered capitalism revolutionary, an advance on all previous societies. Most contemporary “Marxists” and the pseudo left more broadly either disagree or are highly ambivalent. They do not see the capitalist transformation of the economy and society as the launching pad for communism. Rather, the society they want requires a retreat from this process. For example, they bemoan “corporate globalization” and believe that the very far from complete process of economic development is ecologically unsustainable and we need to revert to a something “simpler”. Marx refers to these people as “reactionists”.

” We see then: the means of production and of exchange, on whose foundation the bourgeoisie built itself up, were generated in feudal society. At a certain stage in the development of these means of production and of exchange, the conditions under which feudal society produced and exchanged, the feudal organisation of agriculture and manufacturing industry, in one word, the feudal relations of property became no longer compatible with the already developed productive forces; they became so many fetters. They had to be burst asunder; they were burst asunder.”

So the transition from capitalism to communism will not be unique. As well as the transition from feudalism to capitalism there was also the transition from hunter-gathering to agriculture based society. In each case there was a total change in thinking and doing – “human nature”.

” For many a decade past the history of industry and commerce is but the history of the revolt of modern productive forces against modern conditions of production, against the property relations that are the conditions for the existence of the bourgeois and of its rule. ”

Marx goes on to cite capitalist economic crises as a prime example of the system’s obsolescence. Some claim that crises are not inevitable under capitalism. However, the evidence seems to suggest that they can only be delayed and at the cost of making them worse.

Other economic failings of the system include its slowness to innovate [see here] and its inability to tap the enthusiasm and initiative of workers [see here].

” Owing to the extensive use of machinery, ……. according to their age and sex.”

This is an accurate description of machine tending where work becomes confined to simple repetition. However, this should not be taken to be Marx’s overall assessment of work under capitalism. In Capital Vol. I Chapter Fifteen Section 9, he has two paragraphs that gives his general view of the labor process under capitalism. These are quoted in full below.

“Modern industry never looks upon and treats the existing form of a process as final. The technical basis of that industry is therefore revolutionary, while all earlier modes of production were essentially conservative. [225] By means of machinery, chemical processes and other methods, it is continually causing changes not only in the technical basis of production, but also in the functions of the labourer, and in the social combinations of the labour-process. At the same time, it thereby also revolutionises the division of labour within the society, and incessantly launches masses of capital and of workpeople from one branch of production to another. But if modern industry, by its very nature, therefore necessitates variation of labour, fluency of function, universal mobility of the labourer, on the other hand, in its capitalistic form, it reproduces the old division of labour with its ossified particularisations.We have seen how this absolute contradiction between the technical necessities of modern industry, and the social character inherent in its capitalistic form, dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer; how it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his hands his means of subsistence, [226] and, by suppressing his detail-function, to make him superfluous, we have seen, too, how this antagonism vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital; in the incessant human sacrifices from among the working-class, in the most reckless squandering of labour-power and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy which turns every economic progress into a social calamity. This is the negative side. But if, on the one hand, variation of work at present imposes itself after the manner of an overpowering natural law, and with the blindly destructive action of a natural law that meets with resistance [227] at all points, modern industry, on the other hand, through its catastrophes imposes the necessity of recognising, as a fundamental law of production, variation of work, consequently fitness of the labourer for varied work, consequently the greatest possible development of his varied aptitudes. It becomes a question of life and death for society to adapt the mode of production to the normal functioning of this law. Modern Industry, indeed, compels society, under penalty of death, to replace the detail-worker of to-day, grappled by life-long repetition of one and the same trivial operation, and thus reduced to the mere fragment of a man, by the fully developed individual, fit for a variety of labours, ready to face any change of production, and to whom the different social functions he performs, are but so many modes of giving free scope to his own natural and acquired powers.

“One step already spontaneously taken towards effecting this revolution is the establishment of technical and agricultural schools, and of “écoles d’enseignement professionnel,” in which the children of the working-men receive some little instruction in technology and in the practical handling of the various implements of labour. Though the Factory Act, that first and meagre concession wrung from capital, is limited to combining elementary education with work in the factory, there can be no doubt that when the working-class comes into power, as inevitably it must, technical instruction, both theoretical and practical, will take its proper place in the working-class schools. There is also no doubt that such revolutionary ferments, the final result of which is the abolition of the old division of labour, are diametrically opposed to the capitalistic form of production, and to the economic status of the labourer corresponding to that form. But the historical development of the antagonisms, immanent in a given form of production, is the only way in which that form of production can be dissolved and a new form established. “Ne sutor ultra crepidam” — this nec plus ultra of handicraft wisdom became sheer nonsense, from the moment the watchmaker Watt invented the steam-engine, the barber Arkwright, the throstle, and the working-jeweller, Fulton, the steamship. [228]”

“226.
“You take my life
When you do take the means whereby I live.”
Shakespeare.

227. A French workman, on his return from San-Francisco, writes as follows: “I never could have believed, that I was capable of working at the various occupations I was employed on in California. I was firmly convinced that I was fit for nothing but letter-press printing…. Once in the midst of this world of adventurers, who change their occupation as often as they do their shirt, egad, I did as the others. As mining did not turn out remunerative enough, I left it for the town, where in succession I became typographer, slater, plumber, &c. In consequence of thus finding out that I am fit to any sort of work, I feel less of a mollusk and more of a man.” (A. Corbon, “De l’enseignement professionnel,” 2ème ed., p. 50.)

228. John Bellers, a very phenomenon in the history of Political Economy, saw most clearly at the end of the 17th century, the necessity for abolishing the present system of education and division of labour, which beget hypertrophy and atrophy at the two opposite extremities of society. Amongst other things he says this: “An idle learning being little better than the learning of idleness…. Bodily labour, it’s a primitive institution of God…. Labour being as proper for the bodies’ health as eating is for its living; for what pains a man saves by ease, he will find in disease…. Labour adds oil to the lamp of life, when thinking inflames it…. A childish silly employ” (a warning this, by presentiment, against the Basedows and their modern imitators) “leaves the children’s minds silly,” (“Proposals for Raising a Colledge of Industry of all Useful Trades and Husbandry.” Lond., 1696, pp. 12, 14, 18.)”

The basic message is that despite the tendency for capitalism to impose a narrow division of labor, the objective conditions of modern industry limit the extent they can do that.

This view is very much at odds with Braverman’s Labor and Monopoly Capital, The Degradation of Work in the Twentieth Century. This book has had a very unfortunate influence of how people on the left view the labor process under capitalism. It claims that capitalism tends to increasingly degrade work and deskill workers. The present situation totally refutes this view given that 15-20 per cent of the workforce have university degrees and a larger number have vocational training. If it were true that capitalism was simply reducing the workforce to automatons, it would be hard to see how they could ever get rid of, and then manage without, the bourgeoisie. For a full refutation of Braverman see Deskilling Debunked.

” The various interests and conditions of life within the ranks of the proletariat are more and more equalized, in proportion as machinery obliterates all distinctions of labour, and nearly everywhere reduces wages to the same low level. ”

While proletarians are no longer mainly machine tenders, the point about equalization is still quite valid.
The wage disparity among the vast majority of workers is not enough to generate major differences in material conditions of life. There is a mass mainstream, with perhaps 10 per cent at the top and 10 per cent at the bottom living in different worlds. This is important from the point of view of overall solidarity and individuals identifying with most other people. The way that the vast bulk of people think of themselves as ‘middle class’ is one reflection of this.

” Finally, in times when the class struggle nears the decisive hour, the progress of dissolution going on within the ruling class, in fact within the whole range of old society, assumes such a violent, glaring character, that a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.”

Now most members of the intelligentsia are part of the proletariat. They come from proletarian families and works for a salary. Unfortunately, because of their employee status most are hacks working in the service of the bourgeoisie. This includes the pseudo left in the social sciences who have done much to stifle young inquiring minds. Under these circumstances independent thinkers with independent means would be most valuable.

” Of all the classes that stand face to face with the bourgeoisie today, the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class. The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of Modern Industry; the proletariat is its special and essential product.”

In modern capitalist societies the vast majority of people are members of the proletariat. They are either wage or salary earners or on welfare. They have no means of production of their own. The capitalists are a tiny minority and the petty bourgeoisie comprise around 10 per cent. The proletariat is revolutionary because it has no interest in the present system and can do without the bourgeoisie. For more on the modern proletariat go here.

“All the preceding classes that got the upper hand sought to fortify their already acquired status by subjecting society at large to their conditions of appropriation. The proletarians cannot become masters of the productive forces of society, except by abolishing their own previous mode of appropriation, and thereby also every other previous mode of appropriation. They have nothing of their own to secure and to fortify; their mission is to destroy all previous securities for, and insurances of, individual property.

“All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.”

The proletariat has to own all the means of production in common. Parceling them out to separate groups of workers would simply bring you back to capitalism.

” The modern labourer, on the contrary, instead of rising with the process of industry, sinks deeper and deeper below the conditions of existence of his own class. He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.”

This is still indeed the case for a significant section of the proletariat. A pauper is someone who cannot support them-self. In the present context that means being on the dole or invalid pension. Pauperism occurs because capitalism fails to ensure that everyone is equipped with the abilities required for the workforce and also leaves many people the psychological casualties of a dog eat dog society.

Chapter 2: Proletarians and Communists

“In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality.’

A lot of the pseudo left demand protection from “cheap foreign labor”.

“Communistic abolition of buying and selling”
This means no more markets. Most “Marxists” have gone to water on this and agree with the bourgeoisie that it is impossible. For a discussion of how communism would thrive without markets go here.

” The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State,i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.”

This is totally at odds with the green anti-growth view that is now so widely held.

” In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

Another way of expressing this is to say – each person’s free development depends on the free development of everyone else. This is obvious if you think about how difficult it would be to fully thrive if those around you are hopelessly inadequate.

Chapter 3: Socialist and Communist Literature

​In this chapter Marx lists the various types of “anti -capitalism” that prevailed at that time. A new list for the present time needs to be prepared. There will be significant similarities and they will be as equally reactionary.

Chapter 4: Position of the Communists in Relation to the Various Existing Opposition Parties

This chapter looks at immediate tasks for communists at that time. At the present moment the big issue is the Arab Spring. This revolution, no matter however totally bourgeois, is in the interest of the proletariat and people, both of the region and internationally. The major capitalist powers must be placed under the greatest possible pressure to do all they can assist, including militarily. The “Marxists” and other pseudo leftists have done all they can to oppose this and are a total disgrace.

A case for an amnesty for asylum seekers in Australia

…in addition to the cost of keeping 2,500 people in detention, and in addition to the cost of ensuring the other 27,000 don’t abscond, why not advocate something that makes much more sense than wanting nicer, more efficient, ways of keeping people out? Why not allow them the opportunity to contribute to the community and society without the restrictions of the bridging visas by letting them in?

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images refugee
The bloke in the red shirt might be your next dentist…

* * * *  

Amnesties occur when a government grants a pardon to a group of individuals. It can apply to prisoners, or people in other forms of detention. Or even people not in prison or detention. An amnesty for asylum seekers would be a pathway to permanent residence. 

Australia’s experience of amnesties in the immigration field date back to Australia Day (26 January) 1976 when Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser granted amnesty to illegal immigrants. At that time, this meant individuals who had entered Australia lawfully but overstayed their visas. The period in which applications could be made for amnesty expired on 30 April that year. It was an offer too good to refuse.

The Coalition government realized that these ‘illegals’ were in the country anyway. They were part of Australian society, despite their official status, and working or bludging, or having fun, playing music, fishing, reading, chatting with neighbours, going to the pub, etc, like the rest of us. And, again like the rest of us, they had a future here.   Fraser’s standing in immigration history is being rewritten and mythologized by all-too-eager academics who seem to have put aside any semblance of critical approach.

Fraser was responsible for formalising the distinction between genuine and non-genuine refugees through the establishment of the Determination of Refugee Status Committee in 1978; a decision that laid the basis for all the subsequent problems arising from exclusion.  

When it came to the ‘Australia Day’ amnesty of 1976, Fraser gave with one hand while taking with the other. He also funded a special unit to hunt them down. A cost-benefit analysis may have found that the benefits outweighed the costs in letting them stay. Not that that is the only – or main – point. But what is important to note is that the amnesty did not alter the basic policy: over-stayers after 30 April 1976 were in big trouble if caught.  

Australia’s next experience of amnesty occurred during the Hawke years when, in 1989, Prime Minister Bob Hawke announced that the thousands of Chinese students studying in Australia would be permitted to remain here until 31 July 1990 on a temporary basis. This was later extended to June 1994 and then, as was the intention all along, 42,000 were allowed to apply for permanent residence.  Again, it was an offer too good to refuse. Who in their right mind, after the Tiananmen massacre, would want to return to live under a social-fascist regime compared to life in bourgeois-democratic Australia?  

The situation today: about 30,000 in limbo and detention  

Currently, in Australia, living as part of our community and society but separated from it by various restrictions imposed by a ‘bridging visa’ system, there are more than 27,000 people, mostly asylum seekers waiting to have their cases determined. Most have been waiting  for a long time.   There are also 2,500 in detention centres.

It’s always helpful to look on the bright side in any bad situation. There are about ten thousand fewer in detention today than there were under Gillard’s Labor government. When it comes to detention of asylum seekers, Labor holds the record. (Lest we forget).  

It is curious, to me, that pro-refugee groups tend to advocate the more rapid processing of these asylum seekers’ claims, as though it is fair enough to identify those who are not genuine refugees, rather than questioning the system itself. Sadly, this is the main paradigm in public discourse. Nearly everyone, the Greens included, think it’s fair enough to keep out asylum seekers who are not genuine refugees. So, a family might sell everything in, say, Iran, risk their lives by escaping, lose nearly everything to unscrupulous people-smugglers (note: these guys are not to be romanticized) and then having made it across the dangerous, often deadly, waters, under the old ‘Fraser system’ they could be be rejected because they are found to be ‘economic’ refugees not the ‘political’ type.   Needless to say, within this paradigm, they have to leave the country, which they will not do voluntarily. They therefore (the dominant thinking goes) need to be detained in some way, lest they abscond into the community. The Greens want this process to be accomplished quickly, more efficiently and ‘nicely’; Labor and the Coalition are rather less polite about it, though at each election since 1996, Shadow Ministers for Immigration have promised to ‘speed up’ the determination process.  

Those who were denied permanent residency because they were found to be economic refugees made the journey in order to have a better life – and, after such a journey you can be sure that means they will want to improve things generally. My parents paid ten pound each to get here in 1954, and were allowed in. Their motivation was a better life for themselves but mostly for my future. Both my parents made special contributions to their community (in Brunswick, Melbourne) and in other ways. Had they not been ‘authorised’ migrants but rather ‘economic refugees’, and allowed in, their contributions would have not been diminished in any way.

There are financial and human costs involved in maintaining these 30,000 people in their current state. Most of the costs are borne by government – you and me.   We are denying each of them the opportunity to be productive and useful members of society, as a result of restrictions placed on them through the bridging visas. As I say to my wife: That asylum seeker lighting a fire and jumping up and down on top of the detention centre’s roof may be our next dentist!   So, in addition to the cost of keeping 2,500 people in detention, and in addition to the cost of ensuring the other 27,000 don’t abscond, why not advocate something that makes much more sense than wanting nicer, more efficient, ways of keeping people out? Why not allow them the opportunity to contribute to the community and society without the restrictions of the bridging visas by letting them in?  

In other words: let’s call for an amnesty for them all.  

Given the current parliamentary political situation in Australia, the demand could reap some benefits. After all, isn’t the ALP keen to recapture votes it has lost to the Greens on this issue? Aren’t the Greens out to convince us that they represent a humanitarian alternative on the refugee issue? Wouldn’t Labor and the Greens have the numbers in this fine humanitarian and entirely practicable act?   And 30,000 is not a big number. For heaven’s sake, 30,000 is about a third of the net loss Australia experienced through permanent departures last year. And last year we took in 200,000 newcomers.

Above all, from the viewpoint of the prevailing consensus, the actual refugee policy would not have to change. Much as I think it should, and must – and will (one day). An amnesty can be granted as an act of compassion, without any need to change current refugee policy.  

‘Christian compassion’ for Australia Day next year.  

Let’s call it… er… well… “Christian compassion”. Yes, Christian compassion for ‘Australia Day’ 2016. Marking the 40th anniversary of the first amnesty granted by a Coalition government in Australia.  

Tony: ya there?  

Bill?  

Richard?  

* * * * 

If the Dalai Lama is Marxist, then so was Leo X111.

jetsons

Last month at a university lecture in Kolkata, India, the Dalai Lama declared that, when it comes to “socio-economic theory”, he is a Marxist. His reasoning was as follows:

“In capitalist countries, there is an increasing gap between the rich and the poor. In Marxism, there is emphasis on equal distribution.”

The Dalai Lama joins a growing list of religious leaders, including Pope Francis, and other global celebrities, to declare an affinity with the notion of ‘equal distribution of wealth’, an idea that is widely (but wrongly) regarded as being Marxist. A leftist influenced by Marxism does not ask, “How can wealth be distributed more equitably?” but rather “Who produces the wealth in the first place?” And: “Why does socially produced wealth end up in the hands of the owners of the means of producing it (machines, factories, raw materials, etc) rather than in the hands of those without whom it could not have been generated?”

The positive side of the publicity is that Marxism is of international interest again, as a theory that helps to understand the dynamics of capitalism. This is happening  at a time when, in the advanced economies, capitalism isn’t delivering the promised goods any more and growing numbers of people are pissed off.

But, one must feel some sympathy for old Karl. His exasperation with those who adopted the brand without understanding the content led him to declare 150 years ago that “If anything is certain, it is that I myself am not a Marxist”. Marxism is not, and has never been, about the equal distribution of wealth.

‘To each according to his contribution’: Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme

In his Critique of the Gotha Programme, written as a letter in 1875 in response to the draft platform of the German Social Democratic Workers Party (SDAP), Marx pulled no punches when he described the idea of “fair distribution” being proposed by the SDAP as “obsolete verbal rubbish”, which ‘perverted a realistic outlook’.

He first tackles the proposal in the draft platform that “the proceeds of labor belong undiminished with equal right to all members of society” and asks: “’To all members of society’? To those who do not work as well? What remains then of the ‘undiminished’ proceeds of labor? Only to those members of society who work? What remains then of the ‘equal right’ of all members of society?”

Marx then dissects the notion of “proceeds of labor” in the sense of “a product of labor” with the co-operative proceeds “the total social product”.

“From this”, he points out, “must now be deducted: First, cover for replacement of the means of production used up. Second, additional portion for expansion of production. Third, reserve or insurance funds to provide against accidents, dislocations caused by natural calamities, etc. These deductions from the ‘undiminished’ proceeds of labor are an economic necessity, and their magnitude is to be determined according to available means and forces, and partly by computation of probabilities, but they are in no way calculable by equity”.

He continues: “There remains the other part of the total product, intended to serve as means of consumption. Before this is divided among the individuals, there has to be deducted again, from it: First, the general costs of administration not belonging to production. This part will, from the outset, be very considerably restricted in comparison with present-day society, and it diminishes in proportion as the new society develops. Second, that which is intended for the common satisfaction of needs, such as schools, health services, etc. From the outset, this part grows considerably in comparison with present-day society, and it grows in proportion as the new society develops. Third, funds for those unable to work, etc., in short, for what is included under so-called official poor relief today. Only now do we come to the ‘distribution’… to that part of the means of consumption which is divided among the individual producers of the co-operative society”.

As Marx notes, the “undiminished” proceeds of labor in the draft have now become converted into the “diminished” proceeds, “although what the producer is deprived of in his capacity as a private individual benefits him directly or indirectly in his capacity as a member of society”.

And what of the obvious and natural inequality among individual workers?  “… one man is superior to another physically, or mentally, and supplies more labor in the same time, or can labor for a longer time; and labor, to serve as a measure, must be defined by its duration or intensity, otherwise it ceases to be a standard of measurement. This equal right is an unequal right for unequal labor. It recognizes no class differences, because everyone is only a worker like everyone else; but it tacitly recognizes unequal individual endowment, and thus productive capacity, as a natural privilege. It is, therefore, a right of inequality, in its content, like every right. Right, by its very nature, can consist only in the application of an equal standard; but unequal individuals (and they would not be different individuals if they were not unequal) are measurable only by an equal standard insofar as they are brought under an equal point of view, are taken from one definite side only — for instance, in the present case, are regarded only as workers and nothing more is seen in them, everything else being ignored. Further, one worker is married, another is not; one has more children than another, and so on and so forth. Thus, with an equal performance of labor, and hence an equal in the social consumption fund, one will in fact receive more than another, one will be richer than another, and so on. To avoid all these defects, right, instead of being equal, would have to be unequal”.

The Critique of the Gotha Programme is one of my favourite works by Marx. In it, he is thinking practically about how the future society based on socialism – ‘To each according to his contribution’ – and then communism – ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’ – might develop. A most important point is that the new socialist society emerges from the old capitalist one and will still be marked by the culture and habits of the past. It will not be a wholly new system simply because the old social relations have been overthrown.

Accordingly, argues Marx, the individual producer in socialist society receives back from society – after the deductions have been made – “exactly what he gives to it”. He continues: “What he has given to it is his individual quantum of labor…The same amount of labor which he has given to society in one form, he receives back in another”. Marx’s view of how this could be done involved certificates rather than money.

And, “the same principle prevails as that which regulates the exchange of commodities, as far as this is exchange of equal values… a given amount of labor in one form is exchanged for an equal amount of labor in another form. Hence, equal right here is still in principle – bourgeois right, although principle and practice are no longer at loggerheads, while the exchange of equivalents in commodity exchange exists only on the average and not in the individual case. In spite of this advance, this equal right is still constantly stigmatized by a bourgeois limitation. The right of the producers is proportional to the labor they supply; the equality consists in the fact that measurement is made with an equal standard, labor.”

Progressive taxation as a distributive measure

It is true that in the Communist Manifesto, Marx advocated a system of “heavy progressive or graduated income” taxation, which is the way wealth is redistributed by governments, and argued about, in capitalist societies today. But progressive taxation has now been part and parcel of capitalism for more than a century. It would be absurd to regard the Prussian government of 1891, when modern progressive taxation was first introduced, as Marxist; even if Emperor Wilhelm 11 did regard himself as “king of the mob”.

Progressive taxation imposes a greater rate of tax on the wealthier income-earners. In Australia, people who earn less than $18,200 per year pay no income tax, those who earn between $18,200 and $180,000 pay (an average of) 20%, while those who earn over $180,000 pay at a rate of 45%. It can be a way of redistributing wealth downwards, as in the case of funding the Welfare State, or upwards through subsidies and ‘bail-outs’ to the capitalist class. Labor parties, or right-wing social democratic parties, are particularly good at the latter. In Australia, under the former Labor government led by Prime Minister Gillard, subsidies amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars were handed out to the big capitalists. In 2012 alone, nearly $90 million went to General Motors Holden.

Mind you, the US experience shows that ‘right-wing’ parties, like the Republicans, are also extremely good at it too. Witness Bush jr’s $700 billion bail-outs to failed financial-services capitalists over there. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Democrats or Republicans, or Labor or Coalition, they will do what it takes with workers’ money to keep zombie capitalism going. Naturally, people become disenchanted with a political party system of that kind and it becomes common to hear phrases such as “No matter who you vote for, you end up with a politician”.

It cannot be disputed that progressive taxation occurs under capitalism and does not in any way challenge the basic set of social relations defining it.

Rerum Novarum, distributism and fascism

By the measure of the notion of fair wealth distribution, the Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo X111, which was formulated in 1891 as a Catholic conservative response to the ills of capitalism and the ascendancy of secular democracy and the growing interest in socialism among the working classes, might also be regarded as ‘Marxist’. Rerum Novarum advocated ‘distributism’, a system in which means of production and property are distributed throughout society as in medieval times, as an alternative to both capitalism and socialism. It was, and is, a desire to return to the era of the guild, an economy centred on small land holdings and artisan production, and based on class collaboration (ie, the peasants/workers ‘accepting their place’ in return for being exploited more nicely).

In Australia, the best known advocate of this system was B.A. Santamaria. In his book, The earth, our Mother (1945), the basis of the new small-scale distributive society was to be the family unit living as close to possible to self-sufficiency on the land. As in medieval times, prior to industrial capitalism, this society would be protected from the ‘corrupting’ influences of big cities and secular materialism by the unifying ‘higher’ spiritual values of the Church. The cooperation of owners and producers would also be cemented through the promotion of nationalism, adherence to custom and tradition, and ethnic solidarity (the folk or volk).

Much of this has resonance today in E. F. Schumacher’s Small is beautiful (1973) and the Green movement. The higher spiritual value from the viewpoint of green ideology is Gaia, or the idea of harmony with, and subservience to, Nature.

Not surprisingly, in the twentieth century, Rerum Novarum and distributism influenced fascist movements, including Italy’s with its corporatist form of tyranny under Mussolini. That influence is also seen in the right-wing social democratic and Christian Democratic commitment to systems of arbitration between workers and owners of means of production. Australia currently has one avowedly ‘distributionist’ parliamentary political party: the Democratic Labour Party. Appropriately, its representative in the federal Senate is a practitioner of one of the medieval era’s ‘mechanical arts’: blacksmithing.

Given that the medieval feudal past cannot – (and should not!) – return, then the quest for more equitable distribution of wealth ends up being a defence of the status quo, capitalism. To socialists influenced by Marxism, capitalism was a revolutionary leap forward from feudalism, because feudalism limited the capacity of individuals to expand their horizons and to be freer. It trapped people in what Marx called “rural idiocy”. At best, from a Marxist perspective, the issue of wealth distribution – the gap ‘between rich and poor’, as the media likes to put it – is useful because it can raise the real question of production rather than distribution, of how value is produced and how it is appropriated. And, from there, why the appropriators need to be expropriated.

The revolutionary nature of capitalism in the nineteenth century

To Marx, capitalism was revolutionary in the way it overturned feudal claptrap and “at last” compelled people “to face with sober senses their real conditions of life and their relations with their kind”.

In the Communist Manifesto, he put it poetically:

“The bourgeoisie has disclosed how it came to pass that the brutal display of vigor in the Middle Ages, which reactionaries so much admire, found its fitting complement in the most slothful indolence. It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former exoduses of nations and crusades.

“The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air… “

Industrial capitalism created material conditions that cannot be unmade but only taken further, and social relations that can be overturned and transformed into something new and better.

Marxists are all for progress with a big ‘P’. It’s about the future, not yearning for a ‘small is beautiful’ rural past.

Distribution of wealth and relations of production

Under capitalism, with private ownership of means of production, and production for private profit, distribution of social wealth flows from the relations of production. The resultant scale of inequality can be no other way. Increases in inequality between rich and poor or, more to the point, between the owning class and the working class is part of the system of exploitation of wage labour itself, through which value is created.

In Wage Labour and Capital, Marx points out how,

“…even the most favorable situation for the working class, namely, the most rapid growth of capital, however much it may improve the material life of the worker, does not abolish the antagonism between his interests and the interests of the capitalist. Profit and wages remain as before, in inverse proportion. If capital grows rapidly, wages may rise, but the profit of capital rises disproportionately faster. The material position of the worker has improved, but at the cost of his social position. The social chasm that separates him from the capitalist has widened…

“Growth of productive capital and rise of wages, are they really so indissolubly united as the bourgeois economists maintain? We must not believe their mere words. We dare not believe them even when they claim that the fatter capital is the more will its slave be pampered. The bourgeoisie is too much enlightened, it keeps its accounts much too carefully, to share the prejudices of the feudal lord, who makes an ostentatious display of the magnificence of his retinue.”

On this last point, I think Marx would reconsider his position were he alive today. The ostentatiousness of the big bourgeoisie is sometimes astonishing – be it in the USA, the Russian Federation or China.

Marx would also be amazed at the material progress that has taken place, especially for the working class, but any great thinker from the nineteenth century would be the same. Marx acknowledged that the material conditions for the workers were improving even in his time. The important point is that the social chasm widens. (There are, of course, plenty of other reasons why capitalism sucks and has outlived its usefulness).

Labour theory of value: Marx meets the Jetsons!

The Marxist labour theory of value (LTV) explains how exchange value is created by labour’s interaction with nature and how, in the capitalist mode of production, wage labour is exploited. Bourgeois economists hate the theory because it lay at the heart of Marx’s analysis of the need for revolution. Capitalism reaches a point where it is a fetter on production – as we have seen for some decades now. Workers as a class without borders have nothing to lose by overthrowing this system based on their exploitation. Some real productivity can then occur, free from the constraints of production geared to the pursuit of private profit. For starters, we’ll be able to mass produce and have our own flying-cars!

I wanted to find a good summary of the theory that wasn’t too scant, and found the following at a non-Marxist economics blog called ‘Unlearning Economics’:

“Marx’s theory goes as follows: under capitalism, the value of commodities is determined by the ‘socially necessary’ amount of labour required to produce them (‘variable capital’), plus the current necessary cost of the capital used up in production (‘constant capital’). Fixed capital, such as machines, adds value at the same rate it depreciates, while raw commodities are used up completely and so add all of their value. Labour is generally paid less than the value it adds, and therefore is the sole source of profit.

“Here’s a brief mathematical example: say an hour of labour adds £1 of value, and a certain type of chair requires 8 hours of labour (‘labour-time’), uses £2 worth of wood and depreciates a saw worth £10 by 1/10th (i.e. after the saw is used 10 times it will break). It follows that, according to the LTV, the value of this chair is:

“(1/10)*£10 + (8*£1) + £2 = £11

“The only way the capitalist can make a profit is to pay the labourer less than the value he creates (for the most part, Marx suggested wages were determined by a social subsistence level). So if the wage is, say, £0.50, the capitalist will have £4 worth of profit. Contrary to what many think, this does not imply that capital-intensive industries will have lower rates of profit, as the rate of profit will tend to equalise between industries, ‘sharing out’ the total surplus value produced in the economy.

“The qualifiers of “necessary” costs and “socially necessary” labour are also important. It’s logically possible that a madman could purchase a saw for £100 for some reason, or that a lazy labourer could take 10 hours to make the chair, but this would do nothing to alter the resultant value of the chair. Marx was concerned with general rules, not specific cases, which could obviously fluctuate wildly as they are based on human behaviour.

“The main implication of this theory is that, since capitalists tend to use labour saving technology to increase productivity, over time they use relatively more constant capital – which cannot be a source of surplus – and this drives down the rate of profit: the Tendency of the Rate of Profit to Fall (TRPF). Though the first capitalist who uses the technology will be able to sell at the market price, and thus gain, once the technology is widely adopted, the value of the commodity will decrease – a ‘fallacy of composition’. Again, this may not be true in particular industries at any one time, but it holds true across the economy as a whole. The result will be intermittent crises as capitalists face lower profits and try to increase them by pushing down wages, devaluing their constant capital, or through technological progress. Marx never predicted capitalism would collapse in on itself, though he did suggest that the working class would revolt as their wages were pushed down”.

Conclusion

A shared prosperity can only spring from common ownership of the means of production. It is not possible under capitalism. The system would grind to a halt. The capitalist would not invest and they would have no incentive to force alienated workers to keep their noses to the grind stone. The system of distribution cannot be separated from the system of ownership.

 

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10 KICKASS THINGS HUMANITY DID IN 2014

C21st Left

Even in this era of low expectations, intellectual daring finds a way.

Article by Brendan O’Neill reprinted with permission of Spiked. With thanks.

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It’s all the rage to be down about humanity. Public figures are forever lecturing us about our ‘eco-footprint’ and how our industrial arrogance turned what was an innocent ball of biodiversity spinning through space into a smoggy, nearly dead planet. Campaigners constantly tell us that if ebola doesn’t kill us, then AIDS probably will, or maybe it will be climate change, or perhaps it will be all that junk grub and booze and fags we stupidly consume. If a Martian visited Earth (more on Martians in a minute) and turned on the TV or opened a newspaper, he or she or it could be forgiven for thinking that human beings are little more than destroyers — of both the planet and themselves — who never do anything nice or brilliant.

But we do. Still. Even in this era of low expectations. Even when every cultural signal says, ‘Don’t explore’, ‘Don’t expand’, ‘Don’t go forth and multiply’. Even in the twenty-first century’s sludge of misanthropic thinking, the green shoots of intellectual daring find a way, and peek through. So here are 10 kickass things done by humanity in 2014.

10) We emailed a spanner into space

Yes, you read that right: human beings emailed a spanner into space. It seems like only yesterday — well, 20 years ago — that we were marvelling at the fact that we could send letters, and then photos, from our computers, across continents, in the blink of an eye, without having to wait for airplanes to deliver them. Now, NASA has emailed an actual object. How? Well, the International Space Station has a 3D printer; one of the ISS guys told NASA he needed a new socket wrench, and instead of making him wait months for it to be delivered from Earth, NASA emailed him instructions to put into the 3D printer and, lo, the exact spanner he needed came out. You know what this means? We finally have something very like teleportation, the dream of Star Trek and countless other sci-fi fantasies. The possibilities are endless. There is already talk of, at some future point, putting 3D printers on the moon that will dig into the moon’s crust and use its raw materials to print out the beginnings of human habitats. Would save us having to do the hard graft.

9) We made sperm

Yes, I know, the male section of humankind is always making sperm — but this year we made it without the benefit of sex, or our right hands, in a laboratory. Researchers at Cambridge University converted adult skin tissue into the precursors of sperm, and eggs, and are now exploring whether these precursor cells can become actual sperm and eggs. It’s like a winding back of time, a teasing out of the long-gone, most embryonic conditions of our cells, of ourselves. This research could have two potential impacts, one amazing, one almost unbelievable. The amazing one is that even the infertile might be able to breed children of an exact genetic match, their own children, through the creation of sperm and eggs from their skin cells. The almost unbelievable one is that this could represent the beginnings of mankind assuming mastery over evolution itself, no longer having to heed nature’s diktats about when the animal body may and may not multiply. Some will darkly shout ‘Brave New World!’ — I say so long as it’s all about choice, autonomy and giving people what they want, bring it on.

8) We found loads of new fossil fuels

You know all that talk of peak oil, peak gas, peak this, peak that? Turns out it was nonsense. Such nonsense that this year the oil price fell dramatically, for many varied reasons, but one of which is that there’s more oil than we thought. Some are going so far as to call ours an ‘age of abundance’. As the Financial Times said in November, ‘Ideas about peak oil seem to have been decisively refuted’. There is now thought to be 3.3 trillion barrels of oil and 22,900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. And 1,040 billion tonnes of coal. Which is a lot. Three per cent more coal than we thought we had in 2011, in fact. Because that’s the thing: new fossil fuels are being discovered all the time. It’s no accident that all that peak bollocks was refuted this year: it’s a result, in large part, of the ‘shale revolution’, of what the FT calls ‘advances in the techniques of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing’ — that is, of human endeavour. We might live in what feels like post-Enlightenment times, but we’re still doing that Enlightenment thing of ‘wresting nature’s secrets from her grasp’ (Francis Bacon). Up next: a uranium revolution?

7) We made more ‘ninja particles’

Yes, ‘ninja particles’ are as cool as they sound. As part of the explosion of research into nanomedicine — the implanting of infinitesimal machines or microbes into the body to attack disease — researchers have developed synthetic molecules that mimic our immune systems. It’s hoped these manmade molecules will one day, soon, be sent into the human body to attach themselves to certain microbes and cause those microbes to rupture — ‘as if they’d been hit by an explosive shuriken (ninja star)’, as one report in September gloriously said. These manmade ninjas could prove brilliantly deadly against antibiotic-resistant bugs and in bodies whose immune systems are rejecting newly transplanted organs. What was a Hollywood fantasy in the Eighties — Dennis Quaid being shrunk and sent into a human body in Inner Space — is now becoming a kind-of reality.

6) We found a former lake on Mars

From inner space to outer space, where in 2014 we discovered that a massive crater on Mars used to be a lake. Plucky, roving Curiosity, the wonderfully named, car-sized robot that NASA sent on a 350,000,000-mile journey to Mars in 2011, has been poking around and collecting data for boffins to analyse. And its examination of the sediment build-up in a 96-mile crater suggests this crater once held water, billions of years ago. Which means it could very well have generated life, too, even if just microbial life — Martian microbial life. Right now, as you chill in the holiday season, Curiosity is roaming the red planet, exploring a whole new mysterious world on humankind’s behalf. Next step: actual humans going where so far only a little robot has boldly gone, surely.

5) We made a lame man walk

‘And the lame shall walk’, said Christ in Matthew 11:5, boasting of his miraculous powers. We actually had to wait near-on 2,000 years for a man to make a lame man walk, and it wasn’t a Messiah who did it — it was cell-manipulating researchers. In 2010, a 40-year-old Pole was paralysed after being stabbed in the back. This year, thanks to scientists in London and surgeons in Poland, he can move his legs again and walk with the aid of a frame. The scientists took cells from his nasal cavity, which are among the most self-renewing cells in the human body, and nurtured and nourished them outside of his body before transplanting them into his spinal cord, injecting an invisible-to-the-naked-eye gaggle of cells into his spine 100 times over six months. And then — he moved his legs. It’s early days, but just imagine the possibilities if lifeless parts of the human body could be resurrected with injections.

4) We meddled with crops to make them more nutritious

To the fury of well-off, eco Westerners who never have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, mankind has been genetically modifying crops for years. This year we harvested crops genetically modified for nutritional value. Through splicing genes and patching organic data together in whole new ways — yes, yes, through ‘playing God’ — British scientists boosted a crop of camelina with Omega-3. The possibilities of these man-meddled nutrient-rich crops are endless, potentially delivering much-needed vitamins and sustenance to even the poorest of the world. One of the scientists described the research centre at which this work is done, in Hertfordshire, England, as ‘looking like Guantanamo’, all high fences, CCTV and Alsatians — a reminder that here in the West there are still many misanthropes ready and willing to destroy the fruits of mankind’s nature-defying labour.

3) We continued to wage war on poverty

When it was revealed in December that 92million Chinese people still live in poverty, Western media outlets had a field day. They overlooked the fact that, over the past 30 years, 753million Chinese have been lifted out of extreme poverty. Around the world, poverty is still a massive problem, but grinding poverty is in decline. In India, 126million have been lifted out of extreme poverty; in Indonesia, 66million. In 1990, 23.6 per cent of people in the developing world were undernourished; today, 11.8 per cent are — too many, but less. Two hundred years ago, the prototype modern miserabilist Thomas Malthus, hero to many greens, said there wasn’t enough stuff to sustain the people of Earth. There were 980million people on Earth back then. In the past 30 years more than 980million people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. Malthusians: getting shit wrong since 1798.

2) We continued to wage war on disease

Disease, nature’s violent whim, is in retreat from man’s deployment of science and technology. In December, the Lancet revealed that the global years lost as a result of killer diseases — from cancer to malaria to HIV — has been in steady and stunning decline since 1990. The list of once deadly diseases now cured by mankind, in the West at least, continues to grow: alongside tetanus, rabies, polio, yellow fever, measles and smallpox — causer of plagues of old — we may soon be able to add AIDS: manmade drugs now largely prevent HIV from becoming AIDS, meaning that this year deaths from AIDS were at their lowest since the peak of 10 years ago.

1) We landed a spacecraft on a comet

Six weeks after it happened, this still boggles the mind. A spacecraft called Rosetta, launched into the vast void 10 years ago, landed on a comet that is only 2.5 miles wide and is travelling at 24,600 miles per hour 300million miles away from Earth. As researchers at the European Space Agency that launched Rosetta said, this is like a fly landing on a speeding bullet. Why did we do this? Well, why not? And also because exploring the comet’s make-up will boost our understanding of our solar system. The comet’s composition reflects the pre-solar system stuff from which our Sun and planets were formed. Basically, we’re going back in time, exploring with machines the original raw materials of our corner of the universe. And yet, what was the big media talking point about Rosetta? That scientist guy’s shirt, which some silly media feminists found offensive: a brutal reminder of the medievalism and miserabilism that lurk in our midst even as we do spectacular things.

All this stuff — the emailing of spanners, the deployment of miniature ‘ninjas’, the robotic exploration of space — has been achieved in an era hostile to risk-taking and suspicious of mankind, in which we’re encouraged to worship at the altar of precaution and be always safe rather than sorry. So just imagine what we might achieve if we stripped way this straitjacket of anti-human thought and truly unleashed the human instinct to explore and to know. That’s what spiked will continue to devote itself to in 2015 — battling against the backward idea that humanity is a destructive force, and reviving the view of humans as controllers of the Earth, defiers of nature, and potential masters of the universe.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Republished from 29th December Spiked with thanks.