Friday, May 6, 2016

Junk Shopping (2007)

The Pathfinders column from the February 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard
Just on the off-chance that any of its readers retained the dimmest flicker of enthusiasm for the annual cash-orgy known as Christmas, the Independent determined to render it even more pointless and masochistic by itemising with Scrooge-like malice the stupendous waste involved in the whole exercise (23 December, 2006). Thus we learned that six million trees, enough to form a line from London to the North Pole and back again, would be dumped or incinerated, ditto a billion greetings cards, enough to go round the world five times, 83 km2 wrapping paper, and 125,000 tonnes of plastic packaging. 40 percent of all festive food would go in the bin, and 41 percent of all children's toys would end up broken in landfill within 3 months.
Britain is, of course, triumphantly at the top of the household waste European league tables, disposing of more than 27m tonnes each year, 7m tonnes more than Italy, and a whopping 17m tonnes ahead of Germany, which has a population 25 percent larger (BBC Online, 9 October 2006). An area the size of Warwickshire - 109 square miles - is already landfill and landfill space is expected to be used up by 2016. According to a survey by the Energy Saving Trust, Britain also comes gratifyingly top in energy wastage, apparently because we leave our lights on, our TVs on standby and our phone chargers plugged in (BBC Online, 23 October 2006).
Pursuant on the popular media theme that we are all feckless children who need strong governance, even New Scientist can't resist having a dig at us, with talk of our 'adulterous' consumption - endlessly deserting our possessions for the novelty of younger, flashier models (6 January). The average domestic power tool, we are told, has an active lifetime of only ten minutes before spending thousands of years rotting underground. To be sure, they dig a little deeper and expose, without ever using the word, the alienation at the heart of production and consumption, blaming mass-production for the fact that we have no personal relationship with made goods, they have no history for us, they embody no 'narrative'.
Paradoxically, we don't care about these goods, but we depend on possessing them to give us our sense of identity. They have the power to remake us which we ourselves lack.
Socialists know this syndrome by the infelicitous term 'commodity fetishism', yet even Marx could surely not have imagined the stupendous energy that capitalism was destined to pour into this large-scale Junk Production. With our eyes glued always on the latest model, we ignore the rising range of waste as it towers behind us to the far horizon.
Of course there is nothing wrong with encouraging individuals to take more responsibility over what they waste, but one can't help feeling there is an agenda of misdirection behind much of what the media tells us about ourselves, focussing as they do on the relatively minor waste output of the domestic household and ignoring or downplaying the staggering waste produced by the capitalist system of production as a whole. Statistics from the UK Department of Food, Agriculture and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) reveal the true picture for total waste in Britain in 2004. Of a total 335m tonnes of waste produced annually, 32 percent is construction and demolition, 29 percent mining and quarrying, 13 percent industrial, 12 percent  commercial, and just 9 percent domestic (www.defra.gov.uk/environment/statistics/waste/index.htm). So while you're being guilt-tripped into staggering down to the rainswept recycling bins with your bags of bottles, you'll be pleased to reflect that the real giants of junk production are clinking glasses in Downing Street.
It wouldn't be so bad if the waste produced by capitalism was simply accidental, an unfortunate by-product of a less than optimal method of doing things. Defenders of capitalism might argue that a certain amount of waste is inevitable in any society of mass production, given that the huge economy of scale, together with the normal operations of a competitive market, can sometimes lead to goods becoming so cheap as to be literally disposable. Thus we find that it is often cheaper to buy a new computer printer than to buy a replacement ink cartridge for the old one, that new battery-powered toys and gizmos can be cheaper than the batteries in them, and that as far as clothes go, Huxley's injunction from Brave New World still applies: spending is better than mending. Even more worryingly, the nature of mass-production enforces a uniformity of taste on the consumer, which in turn creates the 'need' for aggressive marketing. Arguably, if society didn't produce mountains of crap in the first place, it wouldn't need to work so hard to make us buy it all.
What is particularly hard to take for a socialist, or indeed anyone who dislikes pointless waste of time, effort and resources, is the way much of this can be described quite reasonably as deliberate. A friend relates how he was taken on a tour of the R&D laboratory of a famous plastic biro manufacturer, there to discover company technicians destruction testing the pen shafts. The idea, he was told, was not to make the shafts shatter-proof, but to make them shatter at the nib end after a predicted period of use, thus allowing the manufacturer to put less ink in the reservoir tube and thus save money, as well as forcing the consumer to buy at a faster rate. Planned or built-in obsolescence of this sort is one of the most iniquitous features of capitalist production, a true crime against society and against the environment, and it is rife wherever manufacturers can obtain either a monopoly or a cartel agreement to avoid the competitive pressure to improve rather than degrade quality. In the PC world, chip manufacturers regularly change motherboard configurations for spurious reasons, ensuring that upgrades or replacements are impossible, while software giants like Microsoft deliberately remove support for older operating systems. Mobile phones, now the must-have streetcred accessory, ape the fashion industry with new styles and features every year while only 10 to 15 percent of old phones are recycled. The media likes to upbraid us as individuals for our shallow consumerist habits, but the fact is that the manufacturing industries are doing everything they can to make us buy, again and again and again, fearing as they do that our natural tendency is to be conservative and make do with what we've got.
It's not hard to imagine, in a social system designed around production for use instead of sale, how common sense would be applied to the mountainous problem of waste. In the first place, people in socialism, having to work voluntarily to produce, would be hardly likely to design faults and short lifespans into their goods. Nor would they need to produce a vast array of 'brands' of varying quality. Many 'comfort goods', gadgets, gewgaws, gimmicks, fads, fashions and fripperies would just not be made, nor the need for them felt. Most packaging would go, and there would be no point in advertising materials. Some mass-production would of course be maintained, but many more things would be likely to devolve to local production, thus reducing the phenomenal amount of transportation presently required, and re-imbuing goods with that personal 'narrative' which makes us value and care for them. Production would continue to be led by technological advance, but not by novelty for its own sake, and the design and costing process would take into account both durability, reparability, and the disposal process at lifetime end as part of the overall production footprint. In fact, socialism would aim for zero-waste by converting every waste stream into a recycled resource stream. Most importantly, a key feature of a use-led society would be that consumption is a shared process, and many things which we now consider personal domestic items might actually be used more communally, either through more communal living habits or through an extension of the library system to include things like power tools, films, jewellery, kid's toys, even clothes, thus reducing the overall need for production in the first place.
Capitalism can of course address the problem of waste to some extent, but it doesn't have the power to stop trying to sell, sell, sell. We however have the power to switch off capitalism and its power-hungry display of commercialism. Socialism is still on stand-by. We just need to press the button.

In Europe or Out? Do You Care? (2016)

The Greasy Pole column from the May 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard
The events of this not-so-merry month of May have filled quite a few pages in quite a few diaries. There was the opportunity to juggle with the names of a ragbag of claimants to be Representatives of the People about the varying styles of organising local councils. Which led on to The Big One – the June Referendum to decide would British capitalism grope more fluently as part of a European combine – calling itself a Union even when unity is clearly absent from the relationships within it. This dispute has been bubbling along for some time, fertilising a number of groups such as Remain (for the Union) or Leave (against).
Pamphlet
In time for the Referendum the government produced a 14-page pamphlet which, apart from its absorbing photographs of things like a full supermarket basket and an untidy kitchen table, set out a case for Britain remaining within the EU (which Cameron is always careful to insist will be a ‘reformed’ Union). This was an official publication, carrying the government crest and it was delivered to every household in the country at a cost of 34p each and some might have thought that this was a very reasonable price to pay for so comprehensive an exercise in falsehood. The official excuse for the cost and the work involved was that the leaflet was in response to the results of a recent survey in which some 85 percent of the public expressed a need for the full facts about the Referendum. On the other side of the argument Boris Johnson blabbered a protest much as expected from him: it was, he said, ‘crazy’ that the government should spend such a lot of money in such a cause: ‘Given that I think it’s very likely it will be very biased and hysterical and warning unnecessarily about the risks of leaving the EU, I think it’s a complete waste of money’. Which might have been more convincing except that Johnson is always liable to promote his political ambitions by speeches which can most suitably be pigeonholed as biased, hysterical and a waste of valuable resources. In any case the leaflet states a case which in many respects he should agree with: Britain will not join the Euro; will keep its own border controls; will impose tough new restrictions on migrants’ access to the welfare system.
Leak
Meanwhile a well-publicised example of the propaganda style and tactics at work in the current dispute emerged from the other side – the so-called Brexit camp. This was in the form of an email from one Cleo Watson which saw the light of day through being leaked by, it was rumoured, Michael Gove, close ally and friend of David Cameron who once consoled him by naming him Lord Chancellor and Minister of Justice. But now Gove is opposing Cameron, he is among the Vote Leave camp and notoriously alert to involve himself in any act of ungrateful subversion. Cleo Watson asked senior NHS staff to support a letter, to be published a few days later, which argued that while the NHS is ‘a great British institution that families rely on …it is being asked to make huge cuts at a time of rising demand. Patients are having to wait longer for treatment, hospital deficits are increasing and doctors are on strike after being told they must take a pay cut …’ To stay in the EU would be incentive for the government to ‘starve the NHS of its necessary financial support’ – as Cameron and Hunt have done in the past. There is in this episode more than a suggestion of irony. But it cannot be ignored that members of the Vote Leave group who rely on the current NHS crisis for ammunition were recently on the other side, arguing that a sustainable Health Service demanded deeper cuts, restricted service, fewer doctors and nurses and longer waiting lists.
PFI
Cleo Watson presents herself as having skills in Strategic Communications in political campaigns which she has applied in jobs such as her recent – very brief – period as an intern for Michael Gove (whether that included responsibility for leaking documents is not known). Her boss at the Vote Leave campaign is Matthew Elliott, a regular advocate of cutting government spending, including those which he agrees would entail ‘…a painful process for public service workers’. A previous practitioner of this policy was the Blair government which applied the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) policy of encouraging private investment in, among other concerns, the NHS. In 2001 Jon Sussex of the Office of Health Economics recalled that in May 1997 the Blair government ‘enthusiastically advanced PFI in all parts of the public sector’. Between then and 2001 some 85 percent of the funding of major NHS capital projects came from private sources , with PFI expanding from new hospital buildings to services such as information technology, scanners and so on. This policy was carried on by the Tory government under the 2012 Health and Social Care Act, so that in April 2015 the Minister of Health Jeremy Hunt signed a deal worth an estimated £780 million with a number of private firms to take over work done previously by the NHS. But there were serious questions to be asked about some of those firms. Vanguard had been in trouble over a programme of ‘rushed’ operations with serious complications for the patients. In one of the last PFI decisions by Labour’s Health Secretary Andy Burnham the Hinchinbrooke Hospital in Cambridgeshire was handed over to Circle Healthcare, which in January 2015 was trying to withdraw after being assessed as ‘inadequate’ and itself rating the deal as ‘no longer financially viable’.
The present Referendum about European Union is not the first. In 1975 the Wilson government organised one which resulted in a 67 percent vote in favour of membership of the European Economic Community. But since then enough problems have accumulated to cause another vote. Which should encourage all who participate to reflect on the mass of evidence about the persistent chaos of capitalism in Europe and across the world and to consider some response other than obediently opting for one side or the other in a contest between two disasters.
Ivan.