Thursday, May 31, 2007
The Ecological Perspective
Current methods of production cause may undeniably be damaging the world's eco-systems in many ways, as shown elsewhere in this Environment section. Still, the question remains as to whether human productive activity, transforming materials originating from nature into goods suitable for human use, is inevitably damaging in an ecological sense. The massive scale of human productive activity certainly has immense implications for ecology and some radical greens argue that human activity on such a scale is incompatible with a harmonious relationship with the rest of nature.
In considering what we mean by 'ecological damage,' it is important to remember that these ecosystems are evolving. The biosphere as a whole, which consists of millions of mutually interdependent life forms, might be thought of as one single ecosystem.
Yet it is still possible to distinguish various sub-systems, or 'biomes' within it, on the basis of the different climatic and physical conditions that exist in different parts of the world. These range from the tundra of the Arctic, through the coniferous and deciduous forests and steppes, to the savannah and tropical rain forests of the regions near the equator. To each of these physical and climatic conditions there corresponds a stable ecosystem which evolves to its 'climax,' through a series of successive stages. This stable climax will be the situation where the amount of food produced by the plant life is sufficient, after taking account of the plants' own respiration needs, to sustainably meet the food energy requirements of all the animal life-forms within the system. It will be, in fact, the situation which makes optimum use, in terms of sustaining all the life-forms within the system, of the sun's light rays falling on the area.
An ecological climax is defined in terms of the existing physical and climatic conditions. It is clear that if these latter change, as they have done relatively frequently in the course of the thousands of millions of years life has existed - through such things as the sea level, and the coming and going of the ice ages - then the previously existing balance will be upset. A new one will then tend to develop in accordance with the new physical and climatic conditions.
The break-up of an old ecosystem plunges the different species and varieties of life-forms into a state of competition. In the case of plants, the competition would be to capture the sun's light rays. In the case of animals, it would be to recover the food energy produced by plants. The species and the individuals proving to be best adapted to the new conditions ("the fittest" as Darwin put it) would survive and flourish. Eventually a new stable ecosystem, with a different "climax", appropriate to the new geophysical conditions, would evolve. At such times biological evolution would have tended to speed up as whole. Species could disappear leaving the ecological niche they occupied to be filled by newcomers.
The world's eco-systems are continually evolving and hence there is no one 'original,' 'natural' state of the planet. After all, humans are both a product and part of nature and not something outside of it. There is no reason to regard an ecosystem in which humans, like other animals, live in limited numbers as "hunter gatherers" in the forest as any more "natural" than one in which there is a greater number of trees and forest plants. There is no basis in ecology for saying that trees should be the main life-form, nor even that the natural human condition is hunting and gathering.
Ecology and Socialism
The materials humans take from nature can be divided into two categories, according to whether they are renewable or non-renewable. Nearly everything of organic nature is renewable (since more of it can be grown in a relatively short period of time), as are certain natural forces which humans use as instruments of labour (rivers, waterfalls, wind, the sun's rays etc). Non-renewable resources on the other hand - such as mineral ores, coal, oil, clay, sand - are so called because they do not form part of some natural cycle that reproduces them, at least not with a timescale relevant for humans.
The most obvious way in which humans extract renewable materials from the biosphere is through agriculture. Agriculture involves, by definition, a fundamental change in the existing eco-system. The introduction of agriculture to Europe involved cutting most of the deciduous forest. This deciduous forest had represented a stable ecological climax for most of Europe. The land was used to grow plants which humans found useful, to the detriment of both the trees and other plants that had flourished in the forest. Agriculture involves deliberately preventing an ecosystem from developing towards a climax.
For an ecosystem involving agriculture to be a stable one requires deliberate action on the part of humans. This involves not only planting fields and keeping them clear of other plants which might grow there ('weeds'), but also to maintain the fertility of the soil which, without agriculture, would spontaneously renew itself.
Things go wrong when humans ignore the ecological consequences of their actions, for instance, by permitting overgrazing by their domesticated animals or by taking out of the soil without restoring the minerals and organic materials that are essential to normal plant growth. However, if humans observe these rules, then, as a number of historical examples testify, an ecosystem in which humans practice agriculture can be as stable as one from which humans are absent, or one in which they practice hunting and gathering.
This was understood and practiced in the relatively self-sufficient agriculture communities which existed up until the coming of capitalism, where what was produced was largely consumed on the spot. The human waste resulting from consumption, together with animal waste and those parts of plants and animals that were not used for food and other purposes, were restored to the soil where they were decomposed by insects, fungi and bacteria into the elements that sustain the soil's fertility.
When, however, the place of production and the place of consumption are separated, this cycle tends to break down. The result is that the fertility of the soil diminishes. If an area specialises in the production of a crop for export, i.e. for consumption elsewhere, this means that some of the mineral and organic matter incorporated into the crop will leave that area for ever and not be restored to the soil. The same applies to animal rearing. Animals require large amounts of calcium for their bones, as well as other minerals such as phosphorus, iron and magnesium, which also come from the soil, via the plants on which they feed. If these animals are exported, whether dead or alive, and consumed elsewhere, then the minerals they contain are lost to the soil of the area where they were raised.
A complementary problem arises at the other end, at the point of consumption: what to do with the human waste which, when the points of production and consumption were the same, was automatically restored to the soil and recycled by nature? Releasing it into the sea or into rivers or sewers means that it is lost to agriculture, even if not, unfortunately, to the biosphere (this contributes to water pollution by encouraging the proliferation of some life-forms - for example, algae and bacteria - to the detriment of others which the water normally supports.)
The 'solution' that has been found under capitalism, because it is the cheapest in terms of the labour content of the products, has been to use artificial fertilisers - nitrates and phosphates that have been manufactured in chemical plants. This works in the sense of allowing the land to go on producing the same amount, or more, of the same crop or animal, but at a price in terms of polluting the water in the region concerned. Artificial fertilisers, not being held by the soil in the same way that organic waste is, tend to be leached off by rain into waterways where they cause pollution.
The ecological solution to the problem is to find some way of restoring to the soil the organic waste resulting from human consumption in urban areas. Barry Commoner suggested that this might be done by means of pipelines linking the town and the countryside. A longer term solution would be that envisaged by those early socialists who looked forward to agriculture and manufacturing industry being combined,
gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country. (Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto)
Concern has been expressed that non-renewable resources will eventually run out. Still, despite some wild predictions that were made in the recent past, depletion of non-renewable resources is not an immediate problem. One advantage non-renewable materials have over most renewable ones is that they can normally be used more than once. With the important exceptions of coal, oil and natural gas when burned, they can be recycled. A proportion of some metals is lost through corrosion but all metals can in principle be recovered and re-used. It has been suggested, for instance, that most of the gold mined since Ancient times is still in use. Much of the iron, copper, tin and other metals mined since the same time is still around somewhere even if not still used as gold is. Resources can be conserved by making instruments of production easier to repair and by manufacturing goods of all kinds to last rather than to break down or become unusable after a carefully calculated period of time, as is common practice under capitalism.
Non-renewable resources can be replaced in many cases by renewable ones. Electricity generation is a case in point (Energy Production).
The techniques employed to transform materials must, if they are to avoid upsetting natural cycles which are fundamental to nature, avoid releasing into the biosphere or leaving as waste products, toxic substances or substances that cannot be assimilated by nature. In other words, a non-polluting technology should be applied. This is quite feasible from a technical point of view since non-polluting transformation techniques are known in all fields of production. However, they are not employed on any wide scale today because they would add to production costs and so are ruled out by the economic laws of capitalism.
The underlying principle behind the changes in the materials and productive methods used, which is demanded by the need to take proper account of the ecological dimension, is that the productive system as a whole should be sustainable for the rest of nature. In other words, what humans take from nature, the amount and the rhythm at which they do so, as well as the way they use these materials and dispose of them after use, should all be done in such a way as to leave nature in a position to go on supplying and reabsorbing the required materials for use.
In the long run this implies stable or only slowly rising consumption and production levels, though it does not rule out carefully planned rapid growth over a period to reach a level at which consumption and production could then platform off. A society in which production, consumption and population levels are stable has been called a "steady-state economy" where production would be geared simply to meeting needs and to replacing and repairing the stock of means of production (raw materials and instruments of production) required for this.
It is obvious that today human needs are far from being met on a world scale and that fairly rapid growth in the production of food, housing and other basic amenities would still be needed for some years even if production ceased to be governed by the economic laws of capitalism. However it should not be forgotten that a "steady-state economy" would be a much more normal situation than an economy geared to blindly accumulating more and more means of production. After all, the only rational reason for accumulating means of production is to eventually be in a position to satisfy all reasonable consumption needs.
Once the stock of means of production has reached this level, in a society with this goal, accumulation, or the further expansion of the stock of means of production, can stop and production levels be stabilised. Logically, this point would eventually be reached, since the consumption needs of a given population are finite.
So if human society is to be able to organize its production in an ecologically acceptable way, then it must abolish the capitalist economic mechanism of capital accumulation and gear production instead to the direct satisfaction of needs.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
A Star Called Henry by Roddy Doyle. Vintage paperback
All the blurbs rated it; a sobering introduction: 'Exhilarating', 'Masterpiece', 'a breathtaking act of apostasy'. With such credentials from eminent sources, this reviewer approached this book with some trepidation.
The novel's principal character, Henry Smart, is born into the torturous misery of Dublin's slumdom in 1902. Doyle paints a tangible word picture of the sheer awfulness of life for the poor in Ireland's capital city as it emerges into twentieth century capitalism. It is a well-delineated background for the characters and events which are the basis of Doyle's plot.
However his treatment of those characters and events strain credulity. Henry's Da, from whom he inherited his name - and presumably his skill as an escapologist - is a contract killer, a mass murderer who's favoured weapon is his wooden leg. The younger Henry, at fourteen years old is in the General Post Office (GPO) lighting the insurrectionary touch-paper that will blossom into a guerrilla war against British rule. The sex angle is provided by Henry taking time out to shag a rebel girl - and future mass killer - in the basement.
Doyle, accurately if somewhat enigmatically, makes the discovery that socialists made at that time: that the victory of Irish nationalism bequeathed to the working class only a change in the hand that held the whip. The pangs of hunger, the ignominy of poverty, could now be legitimately expressed in the Irish language. But if a book or play identified the source of Ireland's miseries - in Irish or English - or exposed the malignant Catholic agencies designated to 'educate' Ireland's children, what passed for democracy in the new Ireland promptly had it banned.
Doyle, in the person of Henry Smart, has pretend conversations in the GPO during the Easter Week Rising with the erstwhile socialist James Connolly, promoted from head of his union's self-defence force, the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), to Commandant-General Connolly of the Dublin Division of the Irish Republican Army. Connolly stands pure in Doyle's prose. The future Irish dramatist, Sean O'Casey, who as a one-time secretary to the ICA was closer to Connolly, took a contrary view: he saw Connolly as renouncing the cause of the international proletariat for what was effectively the armed wing of an aspiring native capitalism.
For those who enjoy the raucous writing of Roddy Doyle there will be enjoyment in this book but, unlike novels like Plunkett's Strumpet City, it will not bring that much enlightenment.
Monday, May 28, 2007
The Sick Society
These two items appeared in the same newspaper on the same day. "Patients are being denied basic operations, including treatments for varicose veins, wisdom teeth and bad backs, as hospitals try frantically to balance the books by the end of the financial year. . . . NHS trusts throughout the country are making sweeping cuts to services and delaying appointments in an attempt to address their debts before the end of March." and "Thousands of doctors qualified to become consultants could face unemployment instead, the NHS says. A leaked copy of the Government's pay and workforce strategy reveals that by 2011 there will be 3,200 more consultants than there are jobs." (Times, 4 January) What a crazy society - people left to suffer health problems while health workers are out of a job.
A Brave New World?
The World Watch Institute in Washington paints a gloomy picture of the future in its recent report. "The population of the world's slums is set to soar by more than 500 million within 25 years experts said yesterday . . . And half the extra people will be crammed into ghettoes and shanty towns, unless plans for urban renewal are speeded up, forecasters warned. . . . David Satterthwaite, of the London-based International Institute for Environment and Development, said a shake-up of urban government would be the most pressing issue over the next 20 years. "Without this, cities become among the most polluted and dangerous places, where one in four children dies before the age of five." he added." (Metro, 10 January) Even Aldous Huxley and George Orwell could not have imagined such a future, but then they were only novelists and not scientific socialists.
The Distortion Of Science (1)
The motive behind capitalism is to make a profit and to hell with all other consideration. A perfect example of this is the following news item. "Scientists and economists have been offered $10,000 each by a lobby group funded by one of the world's largest oil companies to undermine a major climate report due to be published today. Letters sent by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), an Exxon-Mobil-funded thinktank with close links to the Bush administration, offered the payments for articles that emphasise the shortcomings of a report from the UN's intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)." (Guardian, 2 February) Could anything be more obvious? Here is a couple of bucks just do as you are told.
The Distortion Of Science (2)
It is not only oil companies that seek to distort scientific research in the interests of profits, here is a recent example of the pharmaceutical industry at the same game. "According to a study published last week by accountancy group PwC, the public, doctors and health insurers believe the industry has put profits before patients, abandoning its original vision of improving health and alleviating pain. . . . All over the world, drugs companies are in an expensive race with each other to come up with new treatments and market them, sometimes aggressively, to health specialists. The public backlash comes after a number of high-profile drugs were withdrawn following allegations of dangerous side-effects." (Observer, 4 February) For a couple of bucks these companies will do anything.
The Distortion Of Art
Artists like Van Gough and Modogliani may have died in poverty and their modern equivalents may share a similar fate, but that was not a considerations at the latest Sotheby's auction. "Up to £140 million is expected to exchange hands this week in a series of sales of Impressionists, modern and contemporary works, well in excess of the £89.45 million achieved last February and the £109.3 million in June. ... Although the weak dollar may in turn have deterred some American collectors from buying last night, few expect it to dent the enthusiasm of the richest regulars such as Paul Allen, the Microsoft co-founder, Steve Winn, a Las Vegas casino owner, and Steve Cohen, the Wall Street hedge-fund billionaire who is believed to have spent about $500 million (£250 million) on art in recent years." (Times, 6 February) Artists may die in a garret, so what? It helps the rich to increase their portofolio of wealth. As someone once said - "They know the price of everything but the value of nothing."
The Distortion Of Honesty
All workers are taught at school the importance of honesty and integrity, but it is obviously a lesson that is not on the curriculum of the schools that capitalists attend, to judge from this news item about events in South Korea. "The chairman of Hyundai Motor Group, the sixth largest carmaker in the world, was sentenced yesterday to three years in jail after being convicted of embezzlement and breach of trust. . . . Chung was accused of embezzling 103.4 billion won (£56 million) from company affiliates." (Times, 6 February) The report went on to mention other chairmen that had been caught with their hands in the till. Chung Tae So, of Hanoi, sentenced to 15 years' jail for bribery. Chung Ming Hun, of Hyundai Asian, kills himself awaiting trial. Lee Kun He, of Samsung, apologises for corporate misgoverned and alleged bribery by making big charity donation. Kim Woo Choom, founder of Daewoo, receives ten-year jail term for fraud. Fellow workers, perhaps as we contemplate this week's pay packet or giro cheque we may ponder the wisdom of our old school teacher. We could ask ourselves, how many were not caught in this country and how many of them get away with it?
And Now For The Good News
Every day in the newspapers and television we are bombarded with stories of war, crime and world hunger. So after extensive research we have come across a news item that will hearten workers instead of depressing them. In 1961 there were nearly 55,000 christian churches in England and Wales. "By 2005 the number of churches had fallen to 47,600. According to the organisation Christian Research, another 4,000 are likely to go in the next 15 years. In the Church of England alone, which still has 16.000 churches, 1,700 have been made redundant since 1969." (Times, 10 February)
"The Commandments say 'Thou Shalt Not Kill' and half the world is in training to annihilate the other half. Nobody would get me in uniform and off to Aden to kill a lot of people I've never met and have nothing against anyway. I know people say they are against wars and yet they go on fighting them. Millions of marvellous young men are killed and in five minutes everybody seems to have forgotten all about it. War stems from power-mad politicians and patriots."
Except for the final comment, this could be a socialist speaking in Hyde Park. In fact, it is Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones giving his views on war and militarism. On many other questions his ideas come close to the arguments which socialists use. For example, he is outspokenly anti-religious and opposed to marriage. While he does not appear to relate any of this to the class structure of society, he does at least look upon private property as a curse.
Jagger calls himself an anarchist and, like most anarchists, his weak point is his failure to understand how capitalism works. Politicians he claims are "a dead loss" and it is they who are responsible for wars, the legal system and the rest of it.
Socialists would reply that it is not the individuals, such as Wilson, who administer capitalism who are to blame but the system of society itself. Nor would we accept that it is the "old men" who have landed the world in its present mess. Even Jagger must recognise that he is in the minority among young people; most youth are just as ardent supporters of private property as their fathers and grandparents. In fact, one has to look no further than some of the other groups competing on the pop scene to see just how committed they are to capitalism, religious superstitions and all.
Probably the most depressing case is the Beatles. An immensely talented and versatile group, politically they seem be about as wet as they come. One of them, George Harrison, is convinced, like Jagger, that is the "old men" who are the cause of the world's problems.
Confronted by this, Harrison's philosophy is to shut his eyes and pretend it isn't there. He sees an individual way out in meditation. Everything in the material world is superficial, he argues; it is only by burrowing deep inside yourself that you can find god and personal fulfilment.
This might be a comforting creed to someone with Harrison's wealth but unemployed workers in Birmingham or hungry peasants in Bengal are likely to be slightly less impressed by the miraculous powers of meditation. The Beatles' spiritual mentor, the so-called Maharishi Mahesh Yog, obviously has a shrewd understanding of this and restricts his missionary efforts to the clientele of the London Hilton and such places. The Maharishi, a sort of latter-day Rasputin with mental powers seem to be in inverse proportion to his impressive title, is at least a magnificent showman. Some his profundities have to be heard to be believed:
People who fall for this sort of rot will obviously be taken in by anything and, like Rasputin, the Maharishi seems to have a low opinion of those who provide him with a comfortable living. Interviewed recently in Bremen (West Germany) he was reported to have laughingly remarked that "no matter where I am people will find in me the commodity that they want."
As well as their hatred of the "old men", Jagger and Harrison have another trait in common - their dislike of oppression. Yet there are plenty of pop singers with other ideas - some openly racialist, others advocatíng dictatorship. P. J. Proby, for example, is fond of making half-witted generalisations about negroes - "They're always asking for handouts. They don't have any real dignity." Another singer with totalitarian sympathies is Scott Walker who, like Harold Wilson, has a passion for telling the working class what is wrong with them. According to Walker we have all gone flabby in the West and we ought to have this knocked out of us by a good dose of Stalinism.
The politics of pop are worth looking at not because pop singers are anybody in particular but because most of them are from the working class and, to a certain extent, their ideas are typical of the lines which young workers think along.
One of the most widespread of their illusions is the feeling that the fundamental division in society isbetween young and old, rather than between the working class and the propertied class. Prejudices such as his are just as dangerous as racialism because they obscure the fact that the real conflict in society is between classes - not generations. The gulf which separates a young worker from a young capitalist is immeasurably wider than that which exists between two workers of different ages.
Whatever superficial differences there might be in styles of dress or tastes in music, working men are united as a class by the fact that eachone of us has to sell his labour power to the capitalists. In the same way the capitalist class stand together, whatever generation they might identify themselves with as individuals, because collectively they live off the surplus value which they wring out of the working class. It would be nice to have a few politically conscious pop singers who recognised this but, in the end, it doesn't matter that much. After all it is not a few individuals like George Harrison or Mick Jagger who are going to win the revolution but the millions of working men and women, young and old, who make up the working class.
Let's finish by giving the floor to Jimmy Savile - one of the most successful DJ's in the pop business. Preaching in a church near Halifax just before Christmas he sent up a prayer to capitalism which would have warmed the heart of any Victorian mill owner or steel baron.
For the rest of us, who are still working down the mines, or in the factories and offices, how many of us feel like echoing Jimmy's pious gratitude? The only "golden seam" we are ever likely to hit is socialism. And that won't be thanks to any gods but just to our own revolutionary initiative.
HOW THE OTHER TENTH LIVE
The trial for fraud and tax avoidance of Lord Black threw up this insight into the parasitical nature of the owning class. "If only his wife hadn't boasted about her extravagant lifestyle in an interview, Lord Black's empire might still span three continents. It was to readers of Vogue in 2002 that Barbara Amiel showed off the size of her wardrobe, the racks of designer clothes inside, and talked of how 'her extravagance knows no bound'. She confided: 'It is always best to have two planes, because however well one plans ahead, one always finds one in the wrong continent'" (Times,10 March)
PRIMITIVE ACCUMULATION OF CAPITAL
"At least 11 people were killed and 39 injured yesterday when farmers in eastern India, angered over government plans to build an industrial park on their land, fought police with rocks, machetes and pickaxes. The clashes broke out when police tried to enter villages in Nandigram, West Bengal, where the government wants to build a petrochemical plant and a shipyard. All those killed in the clashes were farmers." (Times, 15 March) Away back in 1867 Karl Marx was describing in Capital this capitalist process that he called "the so-called primitive accumulation" in Europe from the 16th century onwards. "The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil, is the basis of the whole process."
MIND THE GAP
The gulf between rich and poor under this Labour government has become so great that even the capitalist class are warning the government about it. "Gordon Brown's closest ally in the City has warned that the gap between rich and poor in Britain is now so deep that it threatens to provoke 'violent reactions' in society. Sir Ronald Cohen, a venture capitalist, also warned on the eve of Brown's last Budget that the boom in the City was in danger of grinding to a halt. Asked whether the huge wealth flooding to an elite group of City professionals was disfiguring society, he agreed, adding: 'I think we're at the top of the cycle. I think the pendulum has swung too far'". (Observer, 18 March)
The Observer has a supplement each week called "Escape", containing articles about various holiday destinations, and, of course, many advertisements for holidays. Why do they call it "Escape"? It is targeted at all the people whose jobs are so boring or so stressful that they feel they can stand it only if they can get away for a short break in the summer. And the enormous size of the holiday industry shows that there are very many such people. But how can such a holiday be called an "escape" when it is of strictly limited duration, and all the holidaymakers know they will have to go back afterwards to the very same conditions which made them long to "escape" in the first place? "Escape" is clearly the wrong word. Whoever heard of a daring escape from prison or a prisoner-of-war camp, when the successful escapee celebrated his release by going back in two weeks' time to the main gate and asking to be re-admitted?
The previous item brings to mind the story that an old Glasgow speaker was fond of telling from the outdoor platform. An Eastern potentate was visiting a Glasgow factory when the lunch-time hooter sounded and all the workers made a bee-line for the canteen. "Look out, sir. Your slaves are escaping." "Don't worry, Omar. Wait 40 minutes." Sure enough 40 minutes later the hooter sounded and the wage slaves streamed back into the factory. "Amazing", cried the eastern visitor. "I must buy some of these magic hooters."
GETTING THINGS DONE
Supporters of the Labour Party are always telling socialists that while Labour may not be socialists "at least they get things done". Here is a recent example. "The number of children living in poverty jumped by 100,000 last year, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said, showing that the government is not on course to meet its target of halving child poverty by 2010-11. In 2005-06, 2.8 million children lived in poverty." (Times, 3 April) It would seem that what is "getting done" is the working class in Britain.
Saturday, May 26, 2007
In itself this hypothesis is unobjectionable. Insofar as psychological traits are inheritable (and some will be) then they would have a physical basis (in the brain) and so would have been subject to the same evolutionary selection as the rest of our bodies. The argument is about precisely which psychological and behavioural traits might be heritable. However, geneticists and neuroscientists are nowhere near discovering the mechanisms by which any personality traits would be inherited, let alone which are and which aren't. So any claims in this area at the moment are highly speculative.
Not that this deters Pinker and his fellow thinkers from indulging in the wildest speculation (but psychology has always been prone to this). For instance, as he repeats in his latest book The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, humans all over the world like pictures of "open grassland dotted with trees and bodies of water and inhabited by animals and flowering and fruiting plants" because they have inherited through their genes "a search image" of what was, when we first evolved, "the optimal human habitat". This of course is a claim that certain specific ideas can be inherited. It is a revival of the old idea that humans are born with certain ideas; that certain ideas are innate. Which is highly controversial.
According to Pinker, the Blank Slate is "the idea that the human mind has no inherent structure and can be inscribed at will by society or ourselves". He interprets this as meaning that there is no such thing as human nature as it implies that there are no biological limits to how humans can be taught or can learn to behave. This is "the modern denial of human nature" that he sets out to criticise.
The ignoble savage
His tactics, however, are not that honest since he claims that the Blank Slate theory has two "companion doctrines": the Noble Savage and the Ghost in the Machine. The first is associated with the 18th century French philosopher, JJ Rousseau, and holds that pre-civilised humans were innately "good". The second is the view, held by all religions, that mind and matter are two completely different things and that the mind is to be equated with the "soul" which exists in a quite different dimension from the body. This view tends to see humans as inherently sinful, i.e. "bad".
What is dishonest about Pinker's approach here is that there is no link between the theory of the Blank Slate - which, presumably, holds that human nature is neither good nor bad but dependent on external circumstances - and theories which hold either that human nature is good or that it is bad. Pinker's main enemy is in fact not so much the Blank Slate as the Noble Savage. To back up his particular speculative explanation of current human behaviour he has to defend the opposite view - that of the Ignoble Savage whose males go around seducing or raping as many females as possible and killing without compunction rival males, just so that their particular set of genes will survive.
Pinker does, however, write as an open materialist and atheist and the best part of his book is where he demolishes the dualist theory of the mind and shows that the mind is both a product and a part of the rest of the material world.
His main argument, however, is not with the Ghost in the Machine brigade but with a rival materialist school, the American Behaviorists, whose founder, JB Watson, notoriously wrote in 1924 that he would like to be able to cl..
Pinker attributes this view to Marx but only on the basis of the views of Zedong, Pol Pot and O'Brien in Orwell's 1984. He also attributes it to the school of Cultural Anthropologists, as represented by writers such as Margaret Mead, Ashley Montagu and Leslie A White, which did so much work in the 1940s and 1950s to throw light on human behaviour.
The straw man
We are not required to defend everything that Marx or the Cultural Anthropologists said or did. However, neither thought that the mind had no structure or that there was no such thing as human nature.
Both Marx and the Cultural Anthropologists rejected Blank Slatism for one of the reasons Pinker advances for knocking down his straw man who believes in it: "That the mind can't be a blank slate, because blank slates don't do anything". Precisely. The brain is not just a passive receptor of sense-impressions (experience) but plays an active role in organising these impressions so as to make sense of them (understand them). This capacity to organise sense-impressions is part of human biological nature.
Clearly, before humans could develop culture - "accumulated local wisdom: ways of fashioning artifacts, selecting food, dividing up windfalls, and so on", as Pinker defines it, which is learned and passed on by non-biological means - they had to have brains capable of learning and of using language and of thinking abstractly with symbols representing parts of the outside world. These brains had to have evolved and are just as much a part of "human nature" as walking upright and stereoscopic colour vision. So, there's no denial of human nature here.
As to Marx, of course Mao Zedong and Pol Pot as state-capitalist dictators were the opposite of everything Marx ever stood for and can in no way be considered as exponents of his point of view. Marx's views on "human nature" were mainly expressed in his philosophical writings in the 1840s. At that time, although human anatomy and physiology were fairly well understood, neither how this had evolved nor the functioning of the brain were. Darwin was still digesting the notes made during his voyage on The Beagle and some comrades of Marx and Engels in the Communist League of Germany felt there might be something in phrenology, the theory that bumps on the head were a guide to someone's personality.
So Marx's approach was inevitably philosophical. For him, human nature was the "normal" mode of behaviour and mental outlook in any given society at any given period and, being determined by external material circumstances (physical but above all social), varied over type of society, time and place.
For him, then, human nature was not fixed, but variable. Actually, what he was talking about was what we would now call rather "human behaviour". Thus, when he wrote in The Poverty of Philosophy in 1847 that "all history is nothing but the continuous transformation of human nature" he was really talking not about human nature in the biological sense but about human behaviour.
To say that human behaviour is variable is not to say that it is infinitely malleable. Nor that it is passively determined. To accuse Marx of attributing a purely passive role to the mind/brain is to demonstrate a complete ignorance of where he was coming from. Marx was brought up in the German philosophical tradition which attributed a very active role to the mind. He took this over and purged it of its idealism, while keeping an active role for the mind in ordering experiences in order to understand them. This, in fact, this is his criticism of some of his contemporary materialists such as Robert Owen who could be seen as having a passive, blank-slate theory of the mind. Here, for instance, is his 1845 criticism of "contemplative materialism" as he called it:
The defender of capitalism
Once a distinction is made between human nature (biological, and which can hardly have changed since homo sapiens evolved) and socially and culturally determined human behaviour (which has changed throughout pre-history and history), then the issue becomes clearer. It can be seen, not to be about whether or not there is such a thing as biological nature which is inherited and determined by genes (of course there is, so there's "no denial of human nature"), but about the extent of this and in particular whether or not it includes specific ideas or behaviour patterns.
Pinker, who is a specialist in the psychology of language acquisition, himself inadvertently brings out the distinction between human nature and human behaviour. He only claims that humans inherit, through the genes that govern the structure and physiology of the brain, a capacity to learn a language. He does not claim that humans inherit the ability to speak a particular language. In other words, the capacity is biologically determined ("nature" if you like) but the content arises from learned experience ("nurture" if you like). The same can be said about culture: the capacity to acquire and develop it is biological but the content is learned.
So what's the argument all about then? Basically, about how many of these various biologically inherited "capacities" there might be. Pinker wants to go much further than most neuroscientists and argue that there are separate biologically inherited capacities for a whole range of things, such as a capacity to seek social status or a capacity for aggressive behaviour or a capacity for men to seek to have as many children as possible. Even if true, their content - how they were expressed - would still be determined by learning, by culture, by the specific form of society in which humans were bought up and lived.
But is it true? In the end, this is a question about the precise nature and structure of the human brain; which is a matter of scientific research. There are two schools of thought amongst neuroscientists. Pinker writes that "many cognitive scientists believe that human reasoning is not accomplished by a single, general purpose computer in the head". The word "many" disguises the fact that just as many, if not more, take the opposite view, i.e. that the brain is "a general purpose learning device". We will have to let neuroscientists settle this themselves as their researches advance.
Pinker, however, is not really writing as a scientist. His book is a work of moral and political philosophy rather than biology. He wants the one school of neuroscientists to be right rather than the other because, otherwise, his whole case collapses for a biological human nature that does not allow human behaviour to be sufficiently flexible to allow a socialist society to work.
For Pinker is writing as a clear opponent, not just of Russian or Chinese-style state capitalism but also of socialism properly understood. On two occasions he criticises the idea that society could function on the basis of "from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs", once explicitly rejecting it in favour of Adam Smith and the profit motive. He argues that society can only function on the basis of equal exchange, which he calls "reciprocity" but which Marxists call "the law of value". In other words, he's an ordinary defender of capitalism in its present form as the best, and in fact the only possible, form of society.
Friday, May 25, 2007
Literary people often think of alienation as an experience suffered by the individual who is isolated from the community because he cannot share its attitudes and values. Certainly loneliness, and the inability of society to create a genuine community, has much to do with alienation, and writers and poets often describe this.
It is also said that alienation results from the division of labour, where the productive process is broken up in such a way that work is meaningless. As an activity in itself, repetitive work on the production line provides no satisfactions. Under economic pressure an individual might spend his life doing work which he dislikes. It is undoubtedly a common experience that workers are trapped in lives which they feel are not authentic expressions of themselves.
In 19th century Vienna, 'Alienists' were concerned with insanity. To be alienated was to be deserted by one's true self. One had become separated from one's real self and taken over by something alien. The idea that we cannot be ourselves is a difficult one which does not seem practically possible. Yet this notion of self-separation, the splitting of identity, or the idea of difference between what men truly are and what they appear to be, is the central theme of alienation. Feuerbach conceived the idea of religious alienation. He argued that when man created the idea of God, he was dreaming of all the better parts of his nature, for which he yearned in his everyday life. Man invented in the idea of God those qualities of universal love, wisdom, power, forgiveness, brotherhood and unity which were denied him in everyday reality. Thus man separated himself from his better qualities and embodied them in an abstract concept, a figment of his imagination. According to Feuerbach, the idea of God was created out of misery, and in the image of man's best hopes for himself.
The ideas of Feuerbach were highly original but Marx took the further view that religious alienation should be explained in the light of other more fundamental economic and social factors. For Marx, the experience of alienation was the product of particular productive relationships. The concept of alienation is most revealing and significant when it is understood in association with Marxian economic theory.
The alienation of man is a direct consequence of capitalist productive relationships. The inability of man to create life as the expression of his best human qualities is given by the structure and objectives of capitalism. Under capitalism, man functions as an economic object in relation to a world of economic objects. His everyday existence as an economic category is a repudiation of his essential humanity. The working class, the entire community of producers, is separated from the means of production, separated from the products of its labour, separated from each other and themselves.
This takes place in the work activity. Under capitalism, work, or social labour time, is carried on as part of an exchange of values, labour power for wages. Capital buys labour power at its value and puts it to use. In use, the object of wage labour is the generation of values over and above its own value. This is the economic function of the working class, the production of surplus value which then belongs to Capital.
As a value generating object, exchanging labour power for wages, the worker has no other connection with the product; he is immediately separated from it. The production of the commodity objectifies social labour in the form of values which are then brought into relationship with the whole world of exchange values. This is the separation of the producers from the basis of their social existence, their social labour.
In his social existence the worker is part of an economic system where he functions as a value generating object. This is the dehumanising effect of capitalism. As a seller of labour power, the worker is just another repository of exchange value, conforming to economic laws which determine the existence of values.
This is men functioning and relating not essentially as human beings but primarily as economic categories governed by economic laws, external to their own power of rational control. The worker presents himself on the labour market where he is brought into competition with other workers. He is exploited. As with commodities in general, where supply is surplus to the market requirement, his labour power is unsaleable, and the worker is unemployed. Workers are taken out of production when there is no prospect of exploiting them, when there is no prospect of them being used as value generating objects.
Under capitalism, the experience that men have of each other is generally as economic objects and mere functions. It is this experience which reduces not only the human content of relationships but also man's view of himself. Workers are the source of wealth in an acquisitive society. Human beings are the means to material ends. Human nature is seen as exploitative, self-centred and greedy. Individuality is seen as consisting of the ownership of things. Man becomes an object, relating as an object, thinking the ideology of objects.
It is against this background of insensitivity and human indifference that man's indifference to man still takes place. It is accepted that elderly people will die of cold because they cannot afford warmth. Millions of people will starve because they are not a market for food. At the same time food is stockpiled. The needs and interests of human beings are sacrificed to the economic laws of capitalism, profit is more important than people. Vast social resources are wasted on armaments and the technology of human destruction. Millions are killed in war. Nothing dramatises the alienation of man in our society more than the possibility that he might completely destroy himself. Under capitalism man is preoccupied with economic objectives alien to his needs and workers are not seen as human beings but as the material instruments of these objectives. The objectives of capitalism are class exploitation, the accumulation of capital and the maintenance of class privilege.
Alienation in its most vicious aspect lies in the fact that the accumulated product of social labour, the means of production, takes the form of Capital, which is not only separated from the producer, but then confronts him as a hostile and alien force. Labour creates Capital, and Capital exploits Labour. The separation of man from himself is seen in the way the working class creates, through its own productive labour, the economic forces of its own exploitation. Capital is the created product of the working class, yet it is Capital which lays down the economic conditions in which the working class may continue to have access to the means of life. Those conditions are that in the exchange of labour power for wages, labour will generate new values which will further accrue to Capital. And so while capitalism lasts, the process goes on. Labour creates a world which is not its own, a world beyond rational control, in which the worker feels more and more estranged.
When we think of all the reasons why men produce wealth, these go beyond mere material survival. In the productive process, men express themselves socially. Undoubtedly, the satisfaction of needs has always been a source of man's anxiety. Co-operation and a division of labour have always made for greater efficiency, yet there have been disadvantages in the fragmentation of the productive process. The division of labour can be elaborated to the point of meaninglessness. Repetitive work on a small part of a complex industrial process can be a sterile activity. But the experience of alienation has been attributed too much to the division of labour. The satisfactions that men gain from co-operating socially are due not so much to the kind of activity that takes place but more to the kind of relationships that exist between the participants. What might be thought of as unpleasant work, when carried out voluntarily by individuals, cooperating on equal terms to complete some necessary task which is in their common interest, can in fact produce a group experience which is satisfying at various levels of need. It makes for productive efficiency and provides a social situation in which individuality is meaningful and therefore enhanced. This is the opposite of alienation. The association of alienation with the division of labour is not a direct one but is more to do with the historical process where a primitive division of labour was associated with the origin of class divisions. It is the class division of society that forms the background of alienation, not the division of labour.
The experience of alienation is where the individual feels that in life he does not fulfil himself but fulfils social and economic forces external to him and beyond his control. Alienation is where the individual feels estranged in his own existence. This is a direct consequence of capitalism where workers are functioning as a source of new values, and living out the economic laws of value. In the productive process, workers reproduce the conditions of their own exploitation and their continued existence as value generating objects.
Man is a social individual, that is to say that he exists in two simultaneous dimensions; he requires equality and co-operation as a basis for the development and expression of his social individuality. Equality and co-operation are more than optional potentialities, they are the relationships that man requires as a basis for the satisfaction of all his human needs. Equality and co-operation are themselves human needs.
Socialism will eliminate alienation because its relationships and organisation will be centred on human needs and not on economic forces external to human needs. Socialism will be a society of man for himself. The whole community will relate on equal terms about the means of production and the earth's resources and co-operate to produce goods, services and amenities solely for use. This will be an association of men and women in conscious control of their own lives, living for themselves with the freedom to decide upon social projects and to organise resources to complete those projects. Socialism places man at the centre of social organisation. Equality, co-operation and democratic participation will bring productive efficiency in response to human needs. But more than that, it will do so in circumstances in which the self-directed individual will live positively, integrating his own life with the development of the whole community.
Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Book Review from the October 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard
Howard Zinn: A People's History of the United States. Harper Collins. $18.95
Originally published in 1980 and recently updated, this is the history you don't learn in schools. Zinn, a historian, playwright and social activist, set out to write this book after teaching history and 'political science' for 20 years, half of which time he was involved in the civil rights movement in the South.
Zinn chronicles the passage of time from the arrival of Columbus in 1492 up to and including the election of 2000, cramming each of the 25 chapters with indisputable evidence of man's inhumanity to man under capitalism and empire building. He spells out clearly how cleverly and craftily the ruling elite managed and manipulated their way to accumulating vast fortunes at the expense of the masses, be they indigenous Caribbean or North American Indians, black slaves or the melange of European immigrants who became today's mostly white populace.
He exposes the lies and spin and self-interest from the time of the first president right through to the current incumbent. He shows how fear, suspicion and discrimination were deliberately harnessed as tools by those with power to set sections of the population against each other in order to pre-empt them joining forces against the real tyrants. The steady march of capitalism and the two-party system, whilst promoting democracy and wealth for all, have their eyes set only on the twin goals of control at home and control of the world, i.e. democracy for none and wealth for a few.
This book is in no way pessimistic; it is factual and points out numerous examples of individuals and groups who have refused to be denied. Zinn cites heartening stories of resistance, protest and refusal to accept the status quo; so many instances where people have demonstrated their opposition to the politics of empire and their support of "people power". In fact there is much useful 'ammunition' for proactive socialists here. His final sentence of the final chapter, post-9/11. attacks, regarding the Declaration of Independence says, "Thus, the future of democracy depended on the people and their growing consciousness of what was the decent way to relate to their fellow human beings all over the world."
The signs are growing all over the world, the people are sick and tired of all forms of empire, the world is ripening for socialism. Let's be ready.
Tuesday, May 22, 2007
Mosima Gabriel ("Tokyo") Sexwale - former South African liberation fighter turned business tycoon. He was recruited to the ANC underground by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in the early 1970s, went for military training in the former Soviet Union and was infiltrated back into the country in the aftermath of the Soweto youth uprising in June 1976. Sexwale inflicted the first injuries on government forces when he threw a hand grenade at police while entering South Africa from Swaziland. He was caught, went on trial. He was sentenced to 18 years' imprisonment and dispatched to join Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners on Robben Island.
How was his cash made? - Black Economic Empowerment (BEE)
Monday, May 21, 2007
Even today, Labour Party supporters on both the left and the right of the Party will insist that Clement Attlee's administration of 1945-51 was the radical force for good that more than any Government before or since pushed forward British society in a socialist direction.
From the famous old Herbert Morrison quote of "Socialism is what a Labour Government does when it is office" to John McDonnell recent pronouncement that the Labour Party is historically the "Party of Peace", it is a myth that refuses to lie down.
This talk by Richard Headicar, and a further talk, 'How Labour Governed: 1945-51', by Steve Trott, from the same day school, that I will post later in the week, will go some way in stripping away the myth that the Labour Party was ever historically a party of socialism, peace and the working class.
SPGB pamphlet dating from 1946 Is A Labour Government The Way To Socialism?
Stop Supporting Capitalism! Start Building Socialism! by Stan Parker (Bridge Books)
What is the best medium for putting to people the case for a society of free access? Many things have been tried. The Socialist Party has been doing it through the pages of the Socialist Standard for nearly a century. Dozens of Party pamphlets - and many more leaflets and manifestoes - have been produced. Countless public meetings have been organised and addressed. But only in very recent times have we seen the case for socialism being expressed in full-length book form. If we exclude from this category Robert Barltrop's 1975 book on the Socialist Party, The Monument, on the grounds that it was as much a personal reminiscence as a exposition of the socialist idea, it is only in the twenty years or so that we have seen writers producing books which attempt to make a detailed case for socialism seen as a wageless, moneyless world system characterised by free access to all goods and services, socially co-operative work and democratic administration. This was discussed in the final chapter of State Capitalism: The Wages System under New Management by Adam Buick and John Crump in 1986 and in the chapter on the SPGB in Non-Market Socialism in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries in 1987. In 1988 and 1994 Ken Smith wrote Free is Cheaper and The Survival of the Weakest, in 1990 and 1997 Melvyn Chapman wrote Money and Survival and The Universal Impediment, in 2000 Dave Perrin wrote The Socialist Party of Great Britain: Politics, Economics and Britain's Oldest Socialist Party, and in 2001 Ron Cook wrote Yes, Utopia! We Have the Technology. Now, in 2002, the latest in this 'series' has appeared, Stan Parker's volume entitled Stop Supporting Capitalism! Start Building Socialism! (Bridge Books, Wrexham, 176pp).
Parker's approach is to divide his book into two major sections, the first subtitled 'Capitalism' the second 'Socialism', and within these to discuss what he sees as the major aspects of both systems. So in the 'Capitalism' section he first describes how early primitive communities not based on wage labour, money and exchange gradually transformed themselves into socially and economically hierarchical societies culminating in modern capitalism. He then looks at the first thorough analysis of capitalism carried out by Marx in the nineteenth century before examining various modern views of capitalism put forward both by its supporters and its opponents and assessing the effects of some of the different ways of running capitalism that have been tried (e.g. 'Free Market or State Control?'). He ends this section with comment on recent developments within capitalism, in particular so-called 'globalisation', information technology and the rise of environmental problems and 'green' politics.
In the 'Socialism' section Parker looks both backward and forward. He traces the trajectory of socialist ideas from notions of social equality that surfaced during the Peasant's Revolt and again in the 17th century with the Diggers and the Levellers, through the early 19th century practice of such figures as Robert Owen and Saint-Simon, to the fully-fledged thought of Marx and Morris at the end of that century. He then differentiates the reformism that is often called 'socialism' today from the real substance of socialism, which involves not cumulatively reforming capitalism but actually getting rid of it and is therefore by definition revolutionary. The rest of this section and of the book is devoted to chapters explaining the meaning of the various terms often used to describe how a socialist society will be organised - common ownership, production for use, democratic control, free access - and suggesting ways we can organise now in order to move towards the achievement of that society.
It is these chapters that I found most successful, in the sense that, if I were not already a socialist, I would, I think, be more persuaded to become one by what Parker has to say about how socialism will be organised and can be achieved than by the case against capitalism in the first section of his book, which, while excellently documented and referenced, is somehow not clearly and fully argued out on its own ground. What is especially attractive about the last few chapters is that they present a hard-headed yet optimistic appraisal of the benefits and the problems of organising a society based on production for need. The same can be said of the author's view on the prospects and the timescale for achieving Socialism. There is perhaps something of an irony here, for, while more than once denying the usefulness of trying to present any kind of detailed description of a socialist society, there is a certain human warmth about the author's brushstrokes which for me actually manage to paint such a picture more successfully than those who have actively attempted it in the past.
There are some aspects of Parker's book which will provoke critical discussion in the socialist movement. Some will see an over-emphasis on a 'reformist' rather than a revolutionary Marx, some will find the author too dismissive of the role new technology can play in the establishment and running of a new society, and some will criticise his apparent relegation of the trade unions in capitalism to a simple agent of reformism. However socialists will applaud most of what they read and find new information and new angles on issues they are familiar with. His analysis of what an old Socialist friend of mine used to call capitalism's "head-fixing machine" is outstanding as is his take on the "human nature" issue, where he draws on the work of a psychologist who argues that human nature is often one-sidely evoked "to explain selfishness rather than service, competition rather than cooperation, egocentricity rather than apathy" and concludes that "social structures predicated on human selfishness have no claim to inevitability". Parker's arguments about the reasons for capitalism's tenacity, based on compliance rather then active support and a "there is no alternative" view of the world, are compelling too. And, as he says, perhaps the most difficult thing to imagine about socialism is a society which will bring "not only the socialisation of the means of production but also the liberation from the millennia-long habits of dependence and submission".
Sunday, May 20, 2007
Originally posted on the page on February 20th 2006
FROM THE JANUARY 2004 SOCIALIST STANDARD
In one sense to still be in existence represents a failure since it means that socialism—our objective—has not been achieved. Had it been, there would no longer be any need for a socialist party, which would have long since been disbanded. Our aim in 1904 was to see ourselves go out of existence as soon as possible. To work ourselves out of a job. That we do still exist is therefore undeniably a sign that we have not succeeded.
It is also true that we have never won any election, but then, for us, elections are only a means not an end. We have never been interested in winning elections as such, in getting socialist bums on to the benches of the House of Commons at any price. Socialists will enter parliament when enough workers outside it want to send delegates there, mandated to formally wind up capitalism. But this situation has not yet arisen.
We have also kept alive the idea of socialism in its original sense.
At the time the Socialist Party was formed there was widespread agreement as to what socialism was—a system of society based on the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production—even though there were widely divergent views as to how to get there. Here it is those who argued, against us, that the way to socialism was to get into parliament on a programme of reforms to capitalism and then to gradually re-form capitalism into socialism, who have failed. Not just to achieve socialism, or to make any progress towards it, but even to keep alive the idea of socialism as the alternative society to capitalism. The same goes for the partisans of the regime that used to exist in Russia. They, too, came to abandon the original idea of socialism, redefining it to mean the state management of the wages system, or state capitalism.
Since socialism—common ownership instead of class monopoly; production for use instead of production for profit—remains the only practicable alternative to capitalism, and the only solution to the problems thrown up by capitalism, we continue to advocate it. But, it is fair to say, we don't want to have to still exist for another hundred years.
Those attracted by the 'buy-to-let' bonanza, turning themselves into mini-rentiers in a bid to escape wage slavery forever, are likely to get their fingers burnt.
Rarely a week goes by without the TV news reporting that house prices in the UK are at 'an all time high'. And rarely does a week go by without newspapers like the Daily Mail running stories about how rising interest rates are going to negatively affect house prices and end up bankrupting half the country. In the popular press, if house prices are rising it is a case of 'feel the wealth'; if there is a sense they might decline it is 'fear for the future' instead. You could be forgiven for thinking that the health of the entire economy rested on rising house prices.
In a sane society, of course, houses and other buildings would be wanted simply as desirable places to live in rather than as supposed generators of wealth, and it is tempting to suggest that an economy based on house prices can only come about because the generation of real wealth through industry must no longer be an attractive or viable proposition. Though superficially appealing, this would be wrong. The sphere of production is where real wealth is created, not in the realm of buying and selling houses or anything else. The inherently cyclical nature of the market economy and the various sectors within it (not all of which move in the same direction at once) means that throughout the history of capitalism 'bubbles' have developed in everything from tulip bulbs to micro-chips, based on periodic excess demand, speculation, and the psychological momentum which develops when people perceive that particular assets or commodities are increasing in value.
Since the 1970s and 80s, the way people view housing in the UK (and many other countries too) has changed. In capitalism's 'property-owning democracy' houses are seen as a store of wealth and those buying them are encouraged by an entire industry of property firms, banks, building societies and estate agents to pin their faith on ever-higher house prices. That this is peculiar never occurs to most, but it is one of the strangest facets of the modern economy. What other commodity, when subject to massive price rises, garners such a positive response - rising car prices, food, or furniture? Only houses - and precisely because, in a society where over half of all households have less than £1,500 in savings, they are now seen as the main store of wealth and, ultimately, as an investment.
Rising prices are nearly always seen as being bad, except when it comes to house prices - indeed, with annual house price increases often running between 10 and 20 per cent in recent years, this has been viewed as especially good. What makes it odd is that a house is the single biggest thing most people ever purchase, and in a great many cases it eats up a higher proportion of income than all other expenditure put together, which is one reason why falling house prices are not the one-sided disaster usually supposed (at least not for buyers).
Importantly, houses are evidently not a source of wealth for most people with huge mortgages to pay - they are a source of debt. Average household debt in the UK is currently around £45,000 and four-fifths of this is accounted for by mortgage debt. There is widespread confusion about the extent of debt involved in buying a house too, as the powers of compound interest are not always apparent - few with a typical 25-year £120,000 mortgage will realise that even at current (comparatively low) interest rates they will be paying back a total of around £270,000 in today's money.
Myths about house prices
There are problems with houses as a store of value in that they are an illiquid asset (you cannot convert them into cash easily) and, other things being equal, merely buying and selling them is what economists would call a 'zero sum game' - and not even this if costs and taxes are taken into account. This is, of course, unless you can (profitably) add value to them in other ways, are wealthy enough to own more than the one you live in and can sell at a real profit to the original price paid, or you sell up and move somewhere prices are cheaper on a like-for-like basis.
Spurred on by the popular press and relentless so-called 'property porn' programmes on television, myths about houses and UK house prices abound, the following probably being the most prevalent, and illustrative of the present speculative bubble:
? Buy-to-let is a sure-fire winner
? Renting is 'dead money'.
The idea that house prices never go down is as bizarre as the notion that stock markets never fall. And it is just as incorrect, redolent of the kind of short-sighted mania that occurs during any bubble, from the 'tulip-mania' affecting Dutch tulip bulbs of the 17th century to the recent 'dot com' crash. The United States - which has had far higher levels of home ownership than Britain over the last 150 years or so - has seen several house price crashes, including after the bubbles of the 1830s, 1880s, 1920s and 1970s. A Florida mansion, for instance, bought in 1925 during the bubble of the 'roaring twenties' would not have reached its initial buying price again until forty years later.
Since the increase in home ownership in the UK over recent decades, a similar pattern has emerged. Just as with the stock market, the overall price trend may be upwards, but with some very noticeable periods of decline. The picture is sometimes partially obscured by the effects of general inflation, but once this is stripped away, it is clear.
For instance, the property boom of the early 1970s led to an 18.1 percent fall in house prices in real terms (i.e. taking inflation in account) between 1975-77. When the recession of the early 1980s hit, real house prices fell again. As unemployment took off to the highest levels since the Second World War, between 1979-82 house prices fell 17 percent (accounting for inflation). Then, as house ownership spread among the working class under the Thatcher government and levels of indebtedness soared to pay for it, the biggest crash was the most recent one in the 1990s, plunging millions of people into 'negative equity', where their houses were worth less than their outstanding mortgages, ending with hundreds of thousands of homes being re-possessed by the banks.
On this occasion, house prices fell 37.3 percent in real terms from their peak during the 'Lawson boom' in 1989 and didn't recover fully on this measure until the beginning of 2002 (using the nominal 'headline' figures, the average UK house price in 1989 peaked at £62,782 and eventually rose above this level again in early 1998, but this doesn't take inflation into account as £62,782 was worth considerably less in 1998 than it was in 1989). The bottom of this crash was in late 1993, and after that the housing market first started to recover, and then soared, to the extent that the average UK house is now around £180,000, an increase in real terms of over 150 percent since the 1993 low (all figures supplied by, or calculated from, the Nationwide Building Society quarterly surveys). This is over three times the rate at which the UK economy as a whole grew during the same period.
As a housing bubble, it is unparalleled in the history of the UK economy. Apart from the usual cyclical upswing and the relative boom in the UK economy over the last decade, it has been fuelled by two other factors. The first is the particular, continued expansion of the financial services sector centred in London and the South-East, which has had a 'ripple effect' on house prices across the country. The second has been the 'buy-to-let' bonanza, whereby people, realising that owning just the one house isn't the best way of taking advantage of a rising market, borrow speculatively to buy two or more instead, hoping that the rental yield from the houses purchased will cover their massively increased mortgage payments. This development has, in turn, partly been sustained by the influx of migrant labour from Eastern Europe which has provided a rental market when most people in the UK have been encouraged to buy.
While historically it has often been the case that it is cheaper to take out a mortgage than rent (one of the few advantages of mortgages is that they are a cheaper form of debt than most), nevertheless this has not always been so. The over-supply of rental accommodation in many areas is such that is now cheaper to rent than to buy, and the rental yield received by the 'buy-to-let' brigade (the market rent for property divided by its price) is currently falling to around 4 percent.
How has this house price bubble been financed? Purely and simply through debt, and increasing amounts of it. The two best measurements of the growing indebtedness underpinning UK housing market rises are average incomes as a proportion of average house prices, and the average multiple of income allowed by banks and building societies when they agree mortgage levels with house buyers.
The average house price to average earnings ratio tends to increase notably during housing bubbles as prices rise at rates that far outstrip any growth in incomes. The long-term UK average has been for house prices to be around 3.5 times average earnings, though in the early-mid 1970s bubble this rose to over 4.5 times earnings, and in the late 1980s bubble to just under five times earnings. Today, it stands at nearly seven times average earnings.
The salary multiples which banks and building societies use to determine how muchthey will lend house purchasers when they grant mortgages has also increased massively. This had to happen because house prices have risen far more than wage increases. In the 1970s it was rare for financial institutions to issue mortgages that were greater than three times household income, then it went up to four times income in the 1980s until Abbey confirmed what many knew to be a reality last year when they admitted that they (and others) now lend at multiples of five times income, placing a massive financial burden on those with mortgages. What this huge indebtedness means is that the risk of default on mortgages, including mortgages for 'buy-to-let', is now significant; but this is a risk financial institutions have taken in the hope that rising house prices can be maintained forever.
Housing as an investment
Those who have been persuaded by the financial institutions and the media to get onto the 'housing ladder' largely on the grounds that it will be a good investment, might not have realised that in the popular game there are snakes as well as ladders whereby you can go down as well as up. This is largely due to the cyclical rhythm of the market economy (where it is better to buy when prices are low and sell when they are high, rather than follow the herd and buy near the peak when things have never looked better, just before it all turns to dust). Furthermore, there is a phenomenon at work behind all this that is rather revealing.
Within capitalism there's a variety of competing asset classes for those who are looking to expand their wealth (primarily capitalists and large institutions, but also anyone else with some spare cash to invest). These mainly include equities (company shares), bonds (such as government gilt-edged securities), cash in savings accounts, and property (commercial and residential). Led by financial institutions like Barclays Capital and Credit Suisse First Boston, there is quite an industry comparing the performance of these leading asset classes. Some are far more volatile than others, with equities being the most volatile, cash the least so. But property has been the next most volatile asset after equities with considerable short-to-medium term risk attached to it. While historically performing better than cash or bonds, property has performed noticeably less well than equities too (even though shares are rightly viewed as risky short-to-medium term assets by most - apart from when there's a bubble, of course).
The US sub-prime market
Such has been the rush to buy houses at almost literally any price that the fortunes of the housing market have spilled over to affect other assets. Most notably, in February and March world stock markets were adversely affected by growing problems in United States' sub-prime mortgages, caused by what are now falling house prices there.
Sub-prime mortgages are those offered in the US to customers with poor credit ratings or already high debt levels. Because they are riskier, interest rates tend to be higher than those on safer (prime) loans. But as the US housing market falters, more sub-prime loans are going bad and at an even faster rate than expected, with over an eighth of them already in arrears (Money Week, 2 March).
The bursting of America's housing bubble could have widespread impacts on US financial institutions and others who have exposure there (in the UK, this ranges from HSBC bank to construction firms like Taylor Woodrow). And it is perfectly possible that the UK housing bubble may follow suit, with similarly high prices and unsustainable levels of debt no longer being able to defy gravity. Indeed, the entire housing bubble phenomenon is wider than commonly supposed - while the US and UK economies have a particular problem with their housing markets, so do many other countries where identifiable bubbles also exist, from Ireland and Spain to New Zealand.
Past history demonstrates that sooner or later, the current housing bubble will end in tears. When asset prices become completely disengaged from what is happening in the real economy where wealth is produced and value created, and are only sustained by ever increasing amounts of indebtedness, it cannot last - capitalism just doesn't work that way. Its growth is not planned or smooth and some sectors expanding rapidly beyond that which the market can bear is a natural feature of the system. When the crash comes, it will return markets to more realistic levels that are more in line with real incomes and values, and this is what has happened on every other previous occasion.
Just as the major world stock markets (including the UK) lost a colossal 50 per cent of their value in the 'dot com' crash of 2000-2003, before beginning their more recent recovery, so - sooner or later - the housing market will follow suit. And two factors in particular could be the trigger for it when it happens.
The first of these is interest rates, which have already been moving higher, and this movement could be propelled further by the backwash from the US sub-prime mortgage problems. Increases in interest rates have been associated with housing market crashes on the majority of occasions they have happened, and for obvious reasons.
The second issue is unemployment. There is a noticeable but unsurprising correlation between movements of house prices in the UK and rising and falling unemployment. Rising unemployment in the mid 1970s helped burst that particular housing bubble, and it also played a major role in the housing market corrections of the early 80s and then of the early to mid 90s, both of which coincided with more general economic slumps. When unemployment began to rise again last year, house prices tailed off, much to popular concern, but since then unemployment has eased slightly and house prices have resumed their upward trend.
What will trigger the crash this time is impossible to tell in advance, even if rising interest rates and unemployment are the most likely causes. Interestingly for those who now see houses primarily as investments rather than places to live, competing returns on asset classes might also give us a clue.
One of the tell-tale signs of a pending stock market crash is when the earnings yield on shares - effectively the profits from capitalist enterprises in relation to share prices - falls below the yield on long-term government bonds, which gives a signal to investors and capitalists generally that the risk associated with owning shares is no longer worthwhile and that investments like gilts are more attractive, being safer and suddenly with a better comparative return. The two most significant stock market collapses since the 1929 Wall Street crash have been 1974, when the UK market, for example, lost three-quarters of its value, and the aforementioned 2000-3 tumble, when the market halved in value. On both occasions, the earnings yield on shares had fallen by some margin below the yield on long-term government bonds (on both occasions the gap was more than 1 percent).
The analogy for the housing market at present is this: if housing is now very much an asset class for investment purposes, it compares unfavourably. According to the Financial Times, the earnings yield on UK equities is currently around 7 percent and for 10 year government bonds just under 5 percent. The rental yield on residential property is now 4 percent and falling, which means that 'buy-to-let' is looking like a lot of debt and a lot of risk for a very poor reward (nowhere near enough to cover mortgage payments).
The lessons from this situation seem clear:
? the vast majority of people in society who do not own enough wealth to buy houses outright and who must effectively pay by instalments are likely to be squeezed ever harder by an uncontrollable financial system;
? those attracted by the 'buy-to-let' bonanza, turning themselves into mini-rentiers in a bid to escape wage slavery forever, are likely to get their fingers burnt.
Sooner or later the bubble will burst, and it will be wage and salary earners without 'independent means' - drowning in debt - who are likely to be hardest hit, as the market economy solves a problem it created in the only way it knows.