Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Disabled or not enabled? (2010)

From the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard
Capitalism sees the unproductive disabled as a drain on profits. Socialism will promote the good life and society for all, regardless of health condition.
In feudal society, disabled people faced widespread superstition and persecution. However, the rural production process and the extended nature of the feudal family allowed many of the disabled to contribute to economic life. Extended families were able to provide networks of care for their mentally or physically disabled members. But this way of life, which had lasted many thousands of years, was about to change.

The Industrial Revolution
The rise of capitalism forced people off the land. Production for the market began on a scale small enough to be carried out in the home, and therefore disabled people could still play a role. But this gradually became harder. Larger scale machinery concentrated in factories increasingly destroyed the old cottage industries and family structures. People had to find work away from the home or patch of land.

The new factory workers could not have any impairment which would present them from operating the machinery. The profit-seeking need to have efficient machines established being able-bodied as the norm for workers. This undermined the position of physically impaired people within the family and community.

Poor Law officials and an expanding medical profession invented names for the poor who were unfit for employment: the sick, the insane, defectives, the aged and infirm. Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries most of the disabled were segregated into workhouses, asylums, prisons and special schools. According to Colin Barnes, this had several advantages over outdoor relief: “it was efficient, it acted as a major deterrent to the able-bodied malingerers, and it could instil good work habits into the inmates” (Disabled People in Britain and Discrimination, 1994).

The recent past
Two world wars saw disabled people, who were previously considered incapable of factory work, play a substantial part in wartime production. Large numbers of wounded servicemen prompted legislation to encourage training and employment for disabled people. In practice this largely meant the expansion of sheltered workshops paying below minimum wages.

Medical advances led to disabled people living longer and some to carry out activities of which they were previously incapable. The disabled began to reject their labelling as deviants or patients and to speak out against discrimination. The Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS) argued that disability was a social relationship of oppression, rather than a biologically determined condition:
“In our view, it is society which disables physically impaired people. Disability is something imposed on top of our impairments by the way we are unnecessarily isolated and excluded from full participation in society” (Fundamental Principles of Disability, 1976).
Contemporary capitalism, with its ageing population and technological advances is very different from its Victorian counterpart. Today the workforce is as likely to suffer from mental stress or depression as from other workplace injuries. People with mental health problems have the lowest employment rates of all impairment categories, at only 21 percent. Over one third of the total disabled population of working age is unemployed and on state benefits.

The public spending cuts include further attacks on the living standards of pensioners, who comprise the biggest proportion of the disabled, population.

The replacement of a society based on production for profit by one based on production for needs will not of course mean the disappearance of disabled people, but it will certainly change for the better the way they are treated.

Whether someone enjoys perfect health or suffers slightly or severely from an ailment of some kind will make no difference to the free and equal access they will have to the goods and services society is able to produce.

Men and women in difference states of health will be able to contribute to the work of society in different ways. They will be in a position to balance the needs of themselves, others, the community and world society with their own physical and mental abilities and tastes.

It may be that a few diehard supporters of capitalism will suffer withdrawal symptoms and even go a bit loony in the new circumstances. Their plight will be treated with care and compassion.

Stan Parker

Planning for plenty (2010)

Book Review from the November 2010 issue of the Socialist Standard

Red Plenty by Francis Spufford (Faber 2010)

This book proclaims itself to be a novel about an idea: the idea of effectively administering communist plenty. More specifically, the idea of plenty as it manifested in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s when politicians, mathematicians, cyberneticists and economists all took the idea of surpassing American affluence seriously.

The novel unfolds through a series of sympathetic vignettes, in which people living in the USSR deal with the mundane every day pressures of totalitarian government and the failures of the economic system: a woman giving birth without drugs, the poverty of a collective farm, a fixer wheeling and dealing his way through a world of business favours, the cramped living conditions that were nevertheless a step up from the old communalkas of rooms partitioned by curtains. The highly skilful prose leads us into the minds of the various actors, from Nikita Khrushchev down to a couple living in a Moscow apartment, and shares their aspirations and frustrations. The same skill is applied to the technical details of the workings of a Soviet built computer, scaling down to the electrons racing around in a pentode, up to an explanation of what a pentode is, and how they worked in computers.

Everything is backed up by footnotes. In fact, though, the footnotes are themselves as much a part of the novel as the main text, as they explain the ways in which the author has confabulated characters, contracted time and re-jigged events to make a more convenient narrative. They also give citations and inform the reader of what really happened, and give links to websites for further information. Not only, therefore, is the burden of interpreting the text thrown onto the reader in contradistinction to the normal fictional practice of drawing the reader into the text world and allow them to swallow its reality but also the reader has to decide how to integrate these footnotes into their reading – look up after each page? Read them all at the end? Read them after each chapter? This makes the text into a critical exercise, appropriate for a novel about ideas and critical thinking.

The story fluctuates around the person of Leonid Kantorovich, a genuine mathematical genius who developed linear algebra solutions while working for a plywood firm. The problem was finding the most efficient way of assigning work to various machines in order to produce outputs in the correct ratios to fulfil the planned targets of finished goods. Although the text does not go into much detail of the precise maths (it does cite various sources that no doubt would) it does illustrate, roughly, his approach to resolving simultaneous equations with unknown variables. From which, he developed an idea of using ‘objectively determined valuations’ in effect opportunity costs, to improve and rationalise on planning. These valuations would be used to derive planned prices. Together with cyberneticist colleagues, Kantorovich tries to get this method applied to Soviet planning to supplant the complicated system of guesswork employed by the planners at the time (which is also depicted in detail).

The story shows the subtle games played between the planners and the managers of plants – up to and including cunning acts of sabotage to get the latest machinery. It also shows how the system, despite its claims to be placing the economy under rational control, in fact made it even more ad hoc and chaotic – Khrushchev ends his days fulminating over his lack of control of the political machine. It is, though, the illusion of control that means the apparatchiks eventually decide they do not want to cede control of planning to a cybernetic machine, and the project is quietly shelved, and the Soviet computer programme is closed down and the decision taken to just buy in US IBMs.

The novel repeatedly returns to the idea that even amidst the Soviet hell there was a utopian core of humane ideas that were continually thwarted by the shortages and chaos of production, the kernel of the idea of abundance. What it helps portray is the immense task of consciously planning a complex economy, and the serious and rational attempts of practical minds to make it work. It is enough to make any socialist think. Helpfully, the exhaustive footnotes and bibliography provide an excellent resource for any socialist who wants to delve in-depth into the question. This includes writings by modern day western cyberneticists who continue to see Kantorovich’s methods as a means to even surpass pricing and have an economy in kind, and continue the debate.
Pik Smeet