Thursday, July 27, 2017

Pathfinders: Farron, Fossils and Fire Ice (2017)

The Pathfinders Column from the July 2017 issue of the Socialist Standard
One claim that raised eyebrows during the recent general election was Tim Farron's assertion that the UK could be completely self-sufficient in renewable energy, this despite the Lib Dems' own manifesto pledge of reaching just 60 percent renewable by 2030 (Link). Team Tim promptly issued a qualifying statement (aka rebuttal) describing his claim as 'visionary as opposed to completely literal'.
Yet Farron has not completely fallen out of his chimney. The UK recently passed an important milestone with its first coal-free day since the 1880s (Link) and just last month the National Grid tweeted news of a further milestone, that on one particularly sunny and windy day in June just over half of UK energy was supplied by renewables for the first time (Link).
Things have changed in the past ten years or so, with renewables becoming steadily cheaper and more efficient, while international consensus on climate change, as well as the economic recession, have exerted a downward pressure on fossil usage. From a thirty-year flatline, renewable production has turned sharply upwards since 2010, crossing the spasmodic free-fall of coal in 2015 to reach 26 percent of the grid, more than any other source except gas (see Graph 3, Link). However, just as Germany plugs the dropouts in its renewable supply by strip-mining and burning brown coal, the UK props itself up by importing a third of its energy in the form of natural gas, mostly from Norway.
Meanwhile, the much-vaunted new nuclear renaissance has largely failed to materialise, with old power stations being kept running beyond their use-by dates and virtually all new building projects cancelled or mothballed, not just in the UK but across the world (New Scientist, 17 May). Blame the recession, and the Fukushima effect.
But it's not all green sunlit pastures for the renewable industry. Capitalist money-chasing gets in the way and renewable investment tends to founder whenever oil and gas prices plummet, as has been the case in the last few years thanks to OPEC price wars and the fracking bonanza. And renewable energy has built-in problems, notably its poor conversion ratio. UK renewable production for 2015 including wind, wave & tidal, biomass and other gas sources, hydro and solar, amounted to the equivalent of just over 7 million tonnes of oil. However conversion losses amounted to a further 6 million tonnes, giving overall a roughly 45 percent conversion loss. Why so much? Because power is rarely used where it is produced, and wastage through pipe bleed multiplies with distance. Meanwhile wind and solar, being sporadic, need buffering to smooth out the bumps, but large-scale efficient batteries do not yet exist, so power is steadily lost in storage. There are various systems which store power by converting it to something else and then reconverting it for later use, but power is lost in these bi-directional conversions. Meanwhile a plan to sell renewable power abroad when in surplus and buy it back when in deficit – known as an interconnector deal - may offset some storage losses while incurring greater transport loss, as well as being prey to the vagaries of the market and, of course, the weather. Just because the wind stops blowing in the UK doesn't mean it will obligingly start blowing in France.
Socialists have said this so often it's hardly worth repeating, but socialism would start addressing energy by looking at ways of not wasting it in the first place. For instance, instead of building extra capacity, it would be more sensible to insulate and double-glaze houses, a task at present left to cash-strapped householders. But the biggest consumer of energy in the UK is not the domestic sector, or even industry, as you might think, but transport, and much of this energy is coughed out of exhaust pipes while miserable commuters sit in twice-daily traffic jams and motorway tailbacks, forced by capitalist economics to chase jobs in other cities. In socialism, where people would only work on a voluntary basis and mostly close to home, there would be no need for regular long-distance commuting. Put freight back on rails too, and the roads may become almost empty, thus reducing energy consumption, not to mention improving air quality.
However, socialists also take a pragmatic view of energy as with other technologies. It makes no sense to come out today against a technology you might need tomorrow. If, for example, socialism were obliged to rely on frack gas deposits, then of course it would use them. A similar rationale applies to nuclear power, GM crops and others which today inspire protest among those who seem keener to oppose than propose.
One technology, though, might give us pause. If you haven't heard of methane hydrates yet, you're going to soon, and probably from the publicity of a colossal 'anti-hydrate' movement which is no doubt gestating even now. If you think fracking is bad, you're about to be horrified.
Methane hydrates, or 'fire ice', are burnable deposits of frozen methane which lie under the world's oceans, most of them close to continental shelves, and between them may offer more energy than all the world's coal, oil and gas combined, or up to 800 years' worth at current gas usage rates. Discovered in the 1960s, fire ice has largely been overlooked because of the difficulties of mining and extracting it, and because fracking is easier for now. However things have changed, and China recently announced a breakthrough in extraction technology which could lead to a new energy gold rush (, 19 May). So what's not to love? Well, it's methane for a start, like frack gas, and when you burn it, it releases carbon the same way. But it's concentrated, so a cubic metre of fire ice translates to 160m3 of airborne methane gas. There are two problems with this. One is that methane, while being relatively short-lived and in short supply compared to carbon in the atmosphere, is around 86 times more potent for global warming (Link). The other problem is that ocean floor drilling is still at the very edge of what mining companies can do, and a submarine blowout at depth would be like Deepwater Horizon all over again, except spewing millions of tonnes of the worst possible climate gas into the atmosphere. 'If all the methane gets out', said an International Energy Agency spokesman in 2014, 'we're looking at a Mad Max movie' (Link). Added to this, the proximity to continental shelves is predicted by some to cause large-scale underwater landslides which may trigger coastal tsunamis. So, not an energy technology likely to be warmly received in many quarters, especially considering capitalism's ability to promise the moon on a stick and then balls it up and stick us with the consequences.
Paddy Shannon

Aspect: The Future according to Galbraith (1967)

From the October 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the Autumn of 1966 Harvard Professor of Economics J. K. Galbraith gave a much publicised series of lectures on the B.B.C. Home Service. They were part of a book on which he had been working for many years and which he now publishes under the title The New Industrial State. (Hamish Hamilton, 42s.).

In it he describes and explains the rise of the big industrial corporations in America; tells us how they are evolving towards a planned society not foreseen by the supporters of Nineteenth Century capitalism or by socialists; and that where America leads the rest of the world will follow.

Before the era of the big corporations the individual capitalist had to compete with his rivals in a market and at prices neither of which he could control: he also had to fight the trade unions. His sole object was to make as much profit as possible. This, says Galbraith, is still true in the world of the independent retailer, the farmer and the like :
Here prices are not controlled. Here the consumer is sovereign. Here pecuniary motivation is unimpaired, (p. 395)
But according to Galbraith, it is otherwise in the “industrial system”, that is among the “mature corporations” such as General Motors, Standard Oil, Fords, Du Pont, etc. (he names ten of them). Here it is the few big corporations who determine prices and create the market by advertising. They are no longer concerned to show maximum profit because the shareholders, who do want maximum profit, have lost control to the group of technicians, sales executives, engineers, scientists, designers etc. He defines them as all who bring “specialised knowledge, talent, or experience to group decision-making” (p.71) and calls them the “Technostructure”.

The interests and aspirations of the Technostructure lie in their own jobs, their security and prestige, all of which are to be achieved by promoting the technological efficiency and expansion of the corporation to which they belong and by cultivating close relationships with the governmental authorities who regulate and stabilise the general wage and price levels and secure an approximation to full employment. He sees the big corporations possibly merging with the state apparatus. He also sees the trade unions as a declining force.

An essential point in this argument is that the big corporations are able to finance their own expansion out of undistributed profits and have thus freed themselves from dependence on the money market and the banking world through which they formerly raised capital.

He also maintains that (subject to some qualifications), the trend towards control of industrial organisations by the “Technostructure” is in evidence in Russia, and in nationalised industries everywhere.

At the end of the road, unless we are saved by the enlightened intervention of the educationalists and scientists in collaboration with the Technostructure, we shall live our disciplined and liberty-less lives in a world of corporations (private and public) narrowly devoted to the purposes of production, expansion and technological advance.

Much of this ground has been covered before though without the systematic treatment given it by Galbraith. The first name that comes to mind is James Burnham with his The Managerial Revolution published in 1942; but with a surprising indifference. Burnham saw his models of the Managerial state in Germany, Russia and America. For him the 1939 war was “the first formative war of managerial society”. It would be followed, he said, by wars for world domination between the only three possible centres, America, Europe and the Far East. (See Penguin edition 1945 pages 219 & 220). Galbraith sees the Managerial revolution producing the exact opposite, a coming together of the “free world” and the “communist world” because “it will dispose of the notion of inevitable conflict based on irreconcilable difference” (P.391).

Galbraith here makes one of several references to Marx, most of which betray an almost total failure to understand what Marx held to be the nature of capitalism. He charges Marx with not having foreseen this coming convergence: on the contrary Marx did foresee that Russia would become, as it has, a capitalist state. But Marx did not explain that the conflict between capitalist states as being due to their unlikeness but to their likeness. As he wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “The Bourgeoisie finds itself involved in a constant battle . . .  at all times, with the bourgeoisie of foreign countries”. They are in conflict over markets, raw material sources and strategic points.

Russian and American capitalism may indeed find common ground for a time (as they did in the last war) but not for the reason he gives. Then it was the need to resist German and Japanese expansion. Next time it may be the need to contain Chinese expansion.

Galbraith's confusion is the common one of supposing that socialism (or communism) in the Marxian sense means nationalisation or state capitalism. The consequence is that although he has a chapter on “Socialism” and many references to it elsewhere he nowhere even considers the possibility of the human race finding the solution to the problems he raises by going over to a classless social system without wages, prices, profits or production for sale.

The evidence Galbraith gives to support his case is in almost every instance exaggerated, or based on trends which may be reversed or is mere assumption about what may happen.

It is indeed true that a tendency in recent years in this country has been for big companies to rely more on providing capital for expansion out of undistributed profits, instead of raising capital from outside. It is however, partly the result of the method of taxing company profits, which could be altered again. Even so we have such examples as ICI raising £60 million in 1966 by loan stock, and three big companies, English Electric, Associated Electrical Industries and Rolls-Royce, which between them have outstanding loans from banks and acceptance houses of nearly £100 million. They at least have not become self-financing.

Galbraith believes that the propertied class as a whole, though its interest would be served by getting maximum dividends and by curbing the big near-monopolies, will passively allow the Technostructure to thwart it. There are, however, influential groups in political parties and business circles determined to prevent this. In the last resort it will be settled by government action one way or another.

Then there is his belief that the trade unions are declining. He bases this on the fall in the number of industrial workers (blue-collar workers in American terminology) among whom trade unionism has been strong, and that white-collar workers (clerical, technical, administrative etc.) though growing in number are “not within the reach of unions”. With growing affluence, he says, the workers in the corporations are on better terms with their employers and less militant; but at the time of writing 160,000 American workers are on strike against one of his named corporations, Ford, and other motor companies are likely to be involved.

The position of trade unionism among British white-collar workers was examined recently by George Sayers Bain in the British Journal of Industrial Relations (November 1966) and while showing a remarkable growth of white-collar unionism in recent years he reaches a conclusion rather like that of Galbraith, on the ground that so far only a small proportion are organised. But is this conclusive? At one time trade unionism was confined largely to craftsmen and it was argued then that “unskilled” workers were unorganisable.

The non-manual workers affiliated to the TUC, covering civil servants, local government staffs, draughtsmen, supervisory and technical workers, professional, clerical and entertainment workers have increased from 917,000 in 1947 to 1,679,000 in 1966: to which should be added about 300,000 teachers. Why should this trend not continue? On present evidence it will.

In support of his case that it wont continue Galbraith relies heavily on the “affluence" of workers in the industrial countries and on the ability of governments, using Keynesian techniques, to maintain nearly full employment. Millions of workers do not share his optimism on either count, not forgetting the current British unemployment of 600,000, expected to rise substantially this winter; and the “low unemployment" of about three million in USA, commonly regarded as understating the real number. Included in the unemployed in Britain are quite a lot of Galbraith’s ‘Technostructure”. They suddenly found that they were not in control after all.

If the strike of Ford workers knocks a big hole in Galbraith’s belief about trade unions, another event in USA does the same for his belief that the big corporations so dominate the market that they can fix the prices at which they sell their products. One of his ten corporations is Du Pont, the largest chemical company in the world. It was reported in the London Times (9 September) that Du Pont had announced an expected fall of twenty per cent in their profit this year. And the reason? “a sharp decline in the prices of synthetic fibres". So much for the Galbraith theory.

Among Galbraith’s misleading references to Marx are his statement (p.290) that Marx assumed "the progressive immiseration of the working class” and that as revolution was inevitable according to Marx, why was it necessary to advocate it. (p.321).

He overlooks that Mara’s statement about the lot of the worker growing worse was set in relation to the accumulation of capital and “be his payment high or low”. And Marx, who insisted that man makes his own history, never supposed that socialism could be achieved without the conscious act of the organised socialist working class.

Marx would, for example, not have subscribed to Galbraith’s despairing doctrine (p396) that the belief “that he can decide the character of his economic system" is no more than “the vanity of the modern man”.

Modern man does not have to resign himself to Galbraith’s grim new industrial state.
Edgar Hardcastle

The Labour Government: Truth Will Out! (1929)

Editorial from the August 1929 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Socialist Party of Great Britain was formed 25 years ago to work for Socialism. We found ourselves then, as now, opposed by the I.L.P. and other bodies, whose members believed that it was useless to preach Socialism. Their method was to try to win working-class support by promising and agitating for Old Age Pensions, Health Insurance and other reforms. The workers, they said, want not Socialism, but “something now.” Let us promise them what they want and thus get a Labour Government. The numerous benefits it will bestow on the workers will then win their support for the introduction of Socialism.

This theory, as we pointed out, was based on a series of misconceptions. It assumed that a Labour Government could so run Capitalism as to remove the great problems which have been, and are being, produced by Capitalism. It assumed, in other words, that unemployment, poverty and the like, are the outcome, not of the system, but of the stupidity, malevolence or incompetence, of Liberal and Tory statesmen. It overlooked the very important lesson of modern representative Government that the party which happens to be in power gets blamed by working-class electors for the evil effects of the Capitalist system on themselves.

All these years we have carried on the hard struggle to build up a party of Socialists, understanding and ready to work for Socialism. Our critics, in the meantime, have carried on their work of building up the non-Socialist Labour Party, incidentally making our work tenfold more difficult. They have succeeded to the point of being in power, the largest party in the House. But no sooner do they get to work than they discover the truth of some of the counts in our argument.

Mr. J. H. Thomas, Lord Privy Seal, is commander-in-chief of the special section devoting its energies to the problem of unemployment. On Friday, July 5th, he addressed at Southampton the Annual General Meeting of the National Union of Railwaymen. He first admitted that the Labour Government is in office to administer the Capitalist system. He said :—
  I have been entrusted with the responsibility of seeing how far within the limits of our Parliamentary traditions and our resources of the State—and accepting the present order of society —how far it is possible to mobilise, organise, institute, and get going useful works for those now unemployed. (See “ Daily Herald ” Report, 6 July.—Italics ours.)
His subsequent remarks indicated that even a few weeks of office have taught him how little difference a change of persons makes to the administration of Capitalism. He said :—
   We ask you not to expect too much, nor attempt to force from us, because we are a Labour Government, what you would not force from a Capitalist Government.
Thus we have the delightful spectacle of the workers being asked not to demand their instalment of “something now” (which they have already waited a generation to get) by the very people who have preached the doctrine of “something now" in opposition to Socialism.

The moral of this has been seen by at least one Labour opponent of the Socialist Party, Mr. Tom Kirk, alderman at West Ham. In a letter to the “New Statesman" (July 13th) he states that the Labour Government’s declarations on unemployment caused dismay among their supporters in the House. But what is most significant is Mr. Kirk’s admission that the building up of the Labour Party has been at the expense of Socialist propaganda. He writes :—
  The work, however, of building a Labour Party thrust “critical revolutionary” Socialism into the background, where it stubbornly maintained itself in the Socialist Party of Great Britain.
Mr. Kirk, one of those who helped to thrust Socialism “into the background” is now convinced that the Labour Government will prove a broken reed. "Indeed,” he writes, "unless I read things wrongly, we shall soon witness a reversion to the earlier standpoints of the old S.D.F.”

To this we need only add that the earlier standpoints of the S.D.F. are embodied in the Socialist Party of Great Britain, the only organisation which declined to abandon Socialism in order to build up the Labour Party, and the only organisation which will not be implicated in the disgust and disillusion which will follow the inevitable failure of Labour Government.