Thursday, June 30, 2016

Pathfinders: How would socialism deal with waste and pollution? (2005)

The Pathfinders Column from the March 2005 issue of the Socialist Standard

How would socialism deal with waste and pollution?

Profit-driven production in capitalism generates huge quantities of waste while recycling technologies have been slow to get started and the financial advantage of ignoring the problem continues to inform every level of production from car-plants to Kyoto. The rational capitalist calculation includes costs for energy (electricity, labour etc) and storage but not for waste and environmental damage nor for longer term sustainability. Usage-driven production in a socialist society would prioritise best quality production over cheap competitive rollout since by extending the lifetime and durability of goods this would minimize the environmental footprint. In addition it would inevitably set far greater store on minimizing or eliminating useless or dangerous by-products, because these would also represent longer-term energy costs.

The effort to control pollution levels in capitalism is a game in which by far the best  individual strategy is to continue polluting, while collective responsibility is a financially damaging option. Moreover, with oil companies increasingly struggling to find new oil reserves to replace those used up and ominous pressure mounting on those oil states not yet colonized by the USA, the perfect solution would be to find a way to turn waste into oil.

And that’s just what they’re doing in Carthage, Missouri (Focus, Aug 2004). Cars, houses and factories in Carthage are being fuelled from a clean oil that is produced by the Thermal Conversion Process, a huge waste-gobbler that can take any type of carbon waste including animal remains, car tyres, old computers and human sewage and within half an hour turn it into useful fertilizer minerals, carbon charcoal and oil. And unlike many energy-producing methods which use more energy than they produce, the TCP uses just 15 units of energy to 85 produced. Since the process only reuses already above-ground carbon it does not add permanently to existing carbon levels.

So what’s the catch? Lack of an obvious profit, of course. Says Dr Paul Horsnell, Head of Energy Research at investment bank Barclays Capital: “To transport and process all the waste, pay the energy costs, provide for the capital costs and still make a profit does look difficult at first sight. By comparison, fossil fuel oil is actually pretty cheap.” Despite this, its supporters are enthusiastic, claiming that processing all agricultural waste alone would remove the need for the USA to import any oil at all. Europe has shown interest and there are plans for new plants in Colorado and Italy. However the likelihood is that, unmoved by its clear environmental advantages, capitalism will only resort to this technology once it has run out of cheap and dirty options. For a socialist society bent on recycling waste and reducing oil dependency, things might be very different, with small TCP plants (presently too expensive to build) on the outskirts of every settlement.

How do you know people will cooperate?

Socialist theory relies on cooperation to work, but although capitalism is ostensibly a game of competition, the very act of playing the game involves a huge measure of cooperation over rules, so the ability of people to cooperate is beyond dispute. What is disputed is the nature of the circumstances determining one strategy or the other. Game theory has always been a controversial encroachment of mathematics into psychology. Its inventor, John von Neumann (also inventor of the computer CPU), infamously concluded from his test studies that the logical strategy of the West in the Cold War was a pre-emptive strike. Happily for us, even capitalist politicians weren’t that barking mad. Older versions (like Neumann’s Cold War example) tended to rely on simple two-player models with limited play duration, which criteria often produced aggressive or antisocial strategies. Later versions have added to the number of players, the level of complexity and the duration of play. Nowadays, among other curious approaches (see Out on a Limbic) game theory is being used increasingly as a way of understanding the complex and unpredictable behaviour of economic systems. In a new study (Economist, Jan 22, p.72) scientists call into question the underlying assumption of economics that people always rationally calculate their individual material outcomes, and suggest that human behaviour is actually governed by evolutionary stable ‘social’ strategies.  In this kind of game, players can adopt one of three strategies: cooperation at the risk of being betrayed, betrayal at the risk of gaining nothing, or reciprocation, warily cooperating but not trusting evidence of betrayal. Of 84 participants, 13% were cooperators, 20% betrayers and 63% reciprocators.

Although obviously not conclusive, this is suggestive of the received wisdom that most people are inclined to cooperate provided other people play fair. This finding ought to encourage doubters about socialist society’s long-term stability. People behave much as one would expect: they are not generally crooks, but they’re not suckers either.

Will socialism make us all happy?

Obviously not, if your mum has just died or your foot has just been run over. The tendency to see socialism as some kind of utopia must be resisted with every effort, although the sheer weight of misery pressing on people in capitalism does explain why socialists can be forgiven for sometimes overstating the case. Happiness cannot be bought, as everybody knows, but neoclassical economists, not being aware of this, have always relied on what people have ‘got’ and what they do as a measure of happiness. Unfortunately for the economists, this doesn’t explain why incomes have doubled in rich countries in the last 50 years but the number of people claiming to be ‘happy’ has stayed level at about 30% (Economist, Jan 15, p.73). In addition, studies of Harvard students showed that Marx’s notion of relative poverty (the huts and the palace story) was probably correct. The students preferred a lower income to a higher one provided nobody else was earning more. Income inequality is a ‘psychic wound’, says Richard Layard, author of Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, and the game of competition for money and status, being zero-sum,  can only ever confer wellbeing by taking it from somebody else. Thinking safely within the box of course, Layard proposes heavy income tax burdens to cancel out the superior well-being of the upper echelons.

Meanwhile researchers at Rotterdam’s Erasmus University are busy compiling something called the World Happiness Database (Time, Feb 7). According to this, poverty does not necessarily make you miserable, as the Latin Americans qualify as very happy people (for possible explanation, see above), while the Japanese, Chinese and Koreans are crying into their dollar bills. One surprising discovery is that Europe and especially Switzerland score so highly because people tend to be happier the more opportunities they have to vote. Says Bruno Frey of the University of Zurich and co-author of Happiness and Economics, speaking of Switzerland’s system of direct democracy involving several referenda a year: “People feel they have self-determination and a say in the political process, and that’s a big contributing factor to overall happiness.” Move over psychedelic drugs. If more democracy really equals more happiness, socialist society could be the ultimate kick.

Out on a Limbic

The fad for cross-disciplinary studies continues with psychology which, having been invaded by mathematics, itself turns to invading economics (Economist, Jan 15, p.68). The new ‘science’ of neuroeconomics is having a stab at explaining economic behaviour by studying the brain directly. Well, they’ve tried everything else. So far researchers using MRI brain-scanning equipment have established that the reason people find it hard to save money is because long-term plans involving deferred gratification activate the boringly intellectual pre-frontal cortex while blowing your stash on a big night out activates the infinitely sexier emotional centres of the limbic system. Their conclusion, that governments should force people to save, is not the conclusion a socialist would reach. Workers don’t get much immediate gratification. Let’s hear it for the limbic system.
Paddy Shannon

Exhibition Review: 'Imitation of Life' (2016)

Michael Armitage, Campus Divas
Exhibition Review from the June 2016 issue of the Socialist Standard

Imitation of Life was a 1959 film, directed by Douglas Sirk, that dealt with issues of ‘race’ and gender in the US. One of its characters was a black woman whose daughter had a light-enough skin to pass as white, and the film looked at how successful she was in making her way in the world. The film was controversial at the time, and remains so, in terms of the extent to which it questioned or reinforced stereotypes about black people.

Now an exhibition of the same title is on at the Home arts centre in Manchester. Its sub-title is Melodrama and Race in the 21st Century, with ‘melodrama’ meaning something which is exaggerated and appeals to the emotions. Works by twelve artists are displayed.

Photos by Sophia Al-Maria deal with facial whitening creams, which are produced to be sold in South Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Many people in India are obsessed with having lighter-coloured skin. The packaging of the products is distorted in these shots, presumably echoing the faces to which these creams are applied.

Martine Syms looks at American situation comedies. The Cosby Show, which ran from 1984 to 1992, was attractive to a black audience as it showed black people as just like anyone else, but it erased ideas of black struggle.

Jayson Musson provides a video, using his alter ego Hennessy Youngman, on ‘How to be a successful black artist’ (it is available on YouTube). Success involves, for instance, being angry, which can be achieved by looking at a photo of Emmett Till in his coffin (Till was beaten and shot in Mississippi in 1955 at the age of fourteen after speaking to a married white woman). If all else fails, fall back on slavery, as white people lack a comparable shared cultural experience. White people, he claims, do not want to understand black artists, as this would mean the artists being just like the white spectator. This is clearly satirical, but its aim is to comment on power relationships and hierarchies within the art world, since black artists (and women) are under-represented in galleries.

So an exhibition that different visitors will quite likely react to in different ways. But whether it is quite as significant as the curators claim is another question.  
Paul Bennett

Why not here? (1967)

A Short Story from the June 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard

Two observers from Outer Space peer at the earth through the porthole of their orbiting space craft.

The younger one turns to his companion. 

“How many times have you made this trip?”

“I can’t remember”.

“Have they visited us?”

“Not yet. They haven’t yet developed a ship that can penetrate deep space”.

The younger man glances at a spent booster in close orbit.

“Is that what they are trying to do now?”

“No, they are merely concerned with getting to their dead satellite which they call the Moon.”

“Isn’t that rather a waste of time?” 

“Not as they see it. Technically it could be used as a launching base for longer trips, but they are also concerned about exploiting its mineral deposits for use on earth”.

“I suppose they are running out of natural resources”.

“The earth isn’t seriously short but the rival factions are individually concerned about getting their supplies cheaper”. 

“What do you mean—cheaper?”

The older astronaut leaned against the cabin wall and smiled.

“Down there on earth they have a system of society known as capitalism in which a small minority owns and controls the earth’s resources and they are enabled to continue in this state by the fact that the non-property owning class are quite ignorant of the fact”.

“How can a large number of people be ignorant of such an obvious fact?” 

“Because they are conditioned to accept the proposition that they live in the best of all possible worlds and that their leaders are much more capable than they of deciding which course they should follow”.

“Why do they need leaders? Are they blind, or imbeciles?”

“They need leaders for two reasons. Firstly that they suffer from the delusion that capitalism can be made to run in everyone’s interests, and secondly because they can’t visualise any other system. They vote for one set of rulers and when they don’t get what they had hoped for they vote for another set. The irony of the situation is that whichever set they return to power the ownership of the wealth remains the property of the same class”.

“It seems incredible. I can hardly believe you are serious. How long has this been going on?”

“Years and years. Now they are at a stage where they have solved the problems of production but they can’t distribute the wealth they produce”.

“Why not?”

“Because they operate an exchange system in which metal discs or pieces of coloured paper represent the value of the objects to be exchanged. The slave class receives a certain amount of discs and notes according to the number of hours worked.

“Different types of worker are paid different amounts. Basically it is decided by the amount necessary to keep a worker and his family and to produce more workers. After all, the owning class must never be short of slaves, who are also employed to protect their masters’ property”.

“How do they do that?”

“Every few years various sections of the earth population go to war. That is to say they don uniforms according to whichever interests they are protecting and they proceed to kill one another”.

“Whatever for?”

“To eliminate the opposition. They kill and maim their fellow beings, male and female, young and old, and destroy any form of wealth that could be used against them”.

“How ridiculous”.

“They don’t think so. They allow themselves to be duped into believing that their opponents will perpetrate all sorts of cruel acts against them if they are captured and by these means their masters keep the slaughter going”.

“How revolting”.

“Revolting or not, that is how private ownership works”.

The younger astronaut turned pale.

“We don’t have to land, do we? I wouldn’t like to go too close to that lot”.

“No, we are just seeing how they are getting on and who is destroying whom this time”.

“Are they all as savage as one another?”

“No. As a matter of fact they are highly civilised but they haven’t yet reached the stage of political development where they realise that there is a solution.

“There are political parties in various parts of the globe that want to overthrow the present system and introduce another called Socialism in which all wealth and resources will be owned by the whole community. Where everyone will help to produce what society needs and take from society whatever they need as individuals”.

“Exactly what we’ve got, in fact”.


“It’s all so simple that I can’t understand why they haven’t thought of it a long time ago but the forces of capitalism are so powerful that the majority are still trying to make capitalism work in the interests of everyone”.

“But how can they do that?”

“They can’t, but they don’t know that yet.”