Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Grains of Truth (2017)

Book Review from the January 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard

'The Great Climate Robbery'. New Internationalist, £9.99.

This volume has been produced by GRAIN, ‘a small international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems’ ( It consists primarily of excerpts from or summaries of reports issued by them, focussing on how global warming is in part caused by current methods of food production, but also dealing with a number of other topics.

It is claimed that ‘the industrial food system is a major driver of climate change’, with around half of greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the food system. This covers deforestation, food waste, refrigeration, transport, processing and packaging. Farming practices contribute as well, in the form of petrol to run machinery and the use of chemical fertilisers. A small number of giant fertiliser companies are the major users of shale gas from fracking, and, once applied to the soil, fertilisers result in large amounts of nitrous oxide, which is far more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Cutting out the use of chemical fertilisers could reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to ten percent, it is argued, and would allow farmers to rebuild organic matter in the soil and so increase fertility. Of course profit is the force behind these industrial farming methods.

Different kinds of food make different contributions to climate change. The worst are red meat, cheese, fish and poultry, with lentils, fruit, milk and vegetables having the least impact. Processed foods, which use soybeans and palm oil among other products, are big greenhouse gas emitters and are being consumed more and more. Cutting down on meat and dairy production – which does not imply everyone becoming vegan – could make a major change in emissions.

If industrial agriculture is the main enemy, small farmers are seen as very much part of the solution. Peasants occupy only a quarter of the world’s agricultural land but, it is claimed, produce most of the world’s food. A brief discussion is given of what counts as a family farm, since some large industrial farms are ‘family-owned’, but there is no consistent definition of what is a small farm (it varies from one country to another), and it is not even clear from the text whether a small farmer is the same as a peasant. About half of all small farms are in China and India, but small farms have in general been getting smaller. Small farms are more productive than really large ones, and contribute much less to climate change.

The reader is told that ‘global food production could be doubled within a decade’ if better policies towards small farmers were adopted. But also, ‘the world produces plenty of food to feed everyone, year after year’, with hunger being caused by poverty and exclusion, not a lack of food. Some further discussion of these points would have been a very good idea.

A couple of chapters contain some interesting material that does not relate very directly to the book’s main theme. One deals with restrictions on the use of seeds, which further penalise, and indeed criminalise, small farmers. Another covers aspects of the control of the global food system; for instance, the Gates Foundation has spent $3bn in agricultural grants, but little of this money actually goes to farmers.

It is not possible now to say definitively how food production will be organised in socialism, but considerations such as those raised here will certainly be central. 
Paul Bennett

World at work (1971)

From the January 1971 issue of the Socialist Standard

Private property utilises every aid in upholding its rights. Armies in the field, policemen in the streets and detectives in the stories, each armed with the marvels of modern technology, are obvious examples of this. All this is necessary in a society in conflict where every man's interests seem to be in opposition. The struggle is world wide and is carried into every sphere of human activity — even London Underground, where one of the latest technical innovations, automation, is being used to protect the property rights of London Transport against the encroachment of an army of fare-dodging passengers.

The exact amount of income which London Transport loses through this phenomenon is unknown although they put the figure for buses and Underground combined at around 1 per cent of receipts, which were £112 million in 1969. So by their own reckoning it is costing them over £1 million yearly, and since it is harder to dodge paying on the buses, especially with the introduction of pay-as-you-enter, then it can be safely assumed that most of this is lost on the Underground. London Transport have tried to fight back as convictions for dishonest travelling on the Underground show — an average of 6,000 yearly, but still the cash is lost and they must continue the fight.

The answer as London Transport sees it is to ensure that correct fares are paid. Today, thousands simply buy no ticket at all and just hand the collector a shilling at the exit. This disinclination to pay full fare was best seen during the 1965 strike of booking clerks when “honesty buckets” were placed inside stations for passengers to put the cost of their journey into. The response prompted a London Transport official at Victoria to complain that “so far as I can gather over the weekend thousands of people must have moved to within a sixpenny travelling distance of Victoria". (The Times, 16 March 1965). Therefore, a way has been devised whereby passengers must have paid full fare before being allowed to leave the station. The solution is automated ticket issuing and collecting.

This entails selling chemically coated tickets on which the details of the journey are magnetically encoded. To gain access to the trains the passenger feeds the ticket into the entrance gate which scans it before letting him through. The ticket is again electronically read by the exit gate which opens only if the code is correct. If not, the passenger is “attended” to by one of the station staff. This system is already in wide use on the new Victoria Line and double the normal excess fares have been collected at some stations during the first year. The signs are that London Transport’s figure of £1 million lost due to fare-dodging will be shown to be hopelessly under estimated.

How much of society’s resources will it cost to introduce automated ticketing throughout London Underground? Anthony Bull, London Transport’s Vice-Chairman, stated in 1966 that it would cost, at a very rough estimate, £10 million at 1966 prices. Obviously the final figure will be much higher, but Bull sugared the pill by adding that the capital expenditure of designing and installing the system was of a once-and-for-all character. (Modern Railways, June 1966). We shall return to this.

Of course fare-dodging isn't the only reason for installing automation. London Transport expects to save £1 million a year by dispensing with surplus staff who, as we have seen, are liable to take costly strike action. This saving, together with the money at present being lost, would go a long way towards solving London Transport’s financial plight. It is currently losing £10 million a year—£7½ million on interest on loans and the rest on running losses. Accordingly, vast amounts of highly skilled human time and energy are to be wasted in order to prevent workers freely utilising the transportation which their brain and muscle power alone created . . . but which they do not own. And this is something which is happening all over the world. The growth of private motoring is forcing authorities in countries like America, Germany, Japan, Holland, to turn to Rapid Transit Systems as a means of maintaining communications in large cities and automated ticket issuing and collecting is being almost universally adopted.

But there is even more waste involved than meets the eye, because London Transport’s Mr. Bull was reckoning without human ingenuity when he made his “once-and-for-all” claim. When Milan’s Underground opened in 1964 it used an admittedly simple automated ticket system. A few minutes after the Archbishop and Mayor had cut the riband and the Milanese discovered that a holy picture cut to the correct size would operate the electronic turnstiles very well. So it was back to the drawing-board in order to produce an even more sophisticated machine. And in America change-giving machines, which are a “must” in the new systems, were withdrawn for modification a few years ago because workers were getting the change by inserting copies of banknotes run-off on office photocopy equipment. Obviously today’s ticket machines will cope with these simple ruses and no effort is being spared in ironing out the snags. In two American cities passengers have been invited to try and beat the system any way they can without retribution —for a trial — period — and if successful to confess their secret afterwards. No one can say with certainty that new methods of beating the machines won’t be developed. For example, if currency notes can be forged or stolen then why not special extended-travel tickets valued at, say, £5?

Reporting the Milan episode the Guardian correspondent cited it as proof of “man's answer to the tyranny of machines” (4 November 1964). The fallacy is that it is machines which dominate men when what actually happens is that some men, through their ownership of capital, use machines in the production and realisation of surplus value from other men — the workers, who sometimes hit back in whatever way they can, usually at the machines.

Nor is the situation any different in “communist” Russia. Moscow Metro is considering introducing automated ticketing and change-giving machines in the hope of dispensing with 300 booking clerks. Already Leningrad Metro employs a simple light-ray device which is placed just behind the coin-slot on the gate. If the intending passengers breaks the ray without first inserting the required coin then, just as in avowedly capitalist Britain or America, the gate remains closed. The Russian government claims that all public transport will eventually be free of charge as a social service (Modern Railways, April 1967). We have heard promises like this before, but even if it is realised it has nothing to do with Socialism when carried out within the context of an exchange relationship society such as Russia. The Expo 67 railway in Montreal was free “because of its importance in distributing visitors”. Substitute “workers” for “visitors” in state capitalist Russia and you have another reason why free transport can be such an attractive proposition to exploiters the world over.

Capitalism can easily provide us with better examples of its wastefulness and divisiveness and the contest between London Transport and the fare-dodgers is really only a sideshow. But it is part of the overall picture of how capitalism, in attempting to solve its problems, not only increases the productive forces and technical know-how but also glaringly exposes itself as the cause of the accompanying social conflict. In a society where all the goods and services man needs, including transport, were freely available themselves with brilliant thoughts of how to cancel out each other’s inventiveness would be impossible.
Vic Vanni