Wednesday, November 21, 2018

How about some real progress? (1969)

From the August 1969 issue of the Socialist Standard

Man on the Moon
Perhaps it would be better if, after all, we left the moon alone. It is lovely to look at and does nobody any harm, and in any case there are plenty of problems to be tackled here on earth, before we start spreading out into space. Yet even the most fervent Luddite, the most obstinate flat-earther, much feel a chill of excitement at the thought of men out in black space, circling the moon, observing it, stepping out onto its surface.

There is near-unanimity of opinion that space flights, moon landings, and the rest are a 'good thing' and anyone who has doubts on the matter is immediately classified as a neurotic, reactionary crank. It is true that space vehicles can make a valuable contribution to weather forecasting, communications, and geology, if only because of their unique position for observation. Another result of that unique position is. of course, that space vehicles have distinct, and frightening, military uses — for both observation and combat. It is no coincidence that the world’s two space powers are also the world’s two greatest nuclear powers and that the other positions in the league table of space achievements roughly correspond to the positions in the nuclear power league table.

It might seem churlish to point this out, in face of the glamour of the moon shots. But is it so bad, to try to keep calm amid the hysteria and to wonder whether all technological advance is useful, why some of it happens, whether society has its priorities in order, and whether we should all fall flat on our faces in worship of the great god Progress which is supposed to feed and succur us, which we are supposed to rely on and to be unable to deny?

Sometimes, as communities all over the world have discovered to their cost, 'Progress’ means the destruction of what was once a comparatively peaceful environment. It means an airport setting down thundering jets into once tranquil countryside, a motorway or a pylon line slashing through downland, a nuclear power station on remote, rugged coastline. In other places, green and quiet streets are turned into car parks and road ‘improvements’ bring heavy traffic pulsing constantly past bedroom windows. These are examples of that ‘Progress' which, apparently, should not and cannot be stopped. Or should it?

Basis of morals
There can be no apology if the first thing we say in answer to that question is that ‘Progress’ can no more be considered in separation from its social background than can any other facet of society. And the social background for all of them is the same. The superficial aspects of society — its laws, morals, organisation, concepts, and so on — spring from its basis and conform in their nature to that basis. Capitalist society, which we live under today, is based on the private ownership of the means of production. It is bound, therefore, to have a legal and moral code based on the rights of private property. In the same way, concepts such as ‘Progress’ are influenced, indeed fashioned, by the needs and priorities springing from private property.

What this means is that, as capitalism is a society of commodity production — of wealth produced for sale and profit — ‘Progress’ will be encouraged only if it helps towards profitable production and sale. The organs of capitalist opinion are fond of presenting examples of 'Progress’ to us — like drilling for oil and gas in the North Sea — as adventures undertaken solely for the benefit of humanity. The truth is that in cases like this the capitalist class are hoping for cheap and profitable production and that is why they enthusiastically devote considerable resources to the project.

But it is a different story, when the prospects of making a profit are less rosy. A recent issue of The Guardian (July 3, 1969) stated that the Water Resources Board has turned down a project for the large-scale production of fresh water from sea water because it would cost about twice as much as the systems used at present. The Board docs not know when desalination is likely to become ‘economic' and therefore ‘acceptable'. The point is that, at a time when water is in seriously short supply, progress in its production is being held up, not by technical or productive obstacles. but by the same old bogey of capitalism — the economics of cost and profit.

In another way. this applies to the entire boom in ‘Progress' which has recently taken capitalism by storm — automation, computers, container traffic, and all the other things which are supposed to be part of a great effort to improve our living standards. In fact the boom has been promoted by the simple fact that for a long time, with certain temporary exceptions, the advanced nations of capitalism have had to face a shortage of labour and they have applied the classical remedy of trying to reduce their labour requirements. Again, profitability and not 'Progress’ has been the decisive incentive.

One of the more unfortunate aspects of this is that, in its obsessive haste for profits, capitalism will often launch out on a bit of 'Progress’ purely because at the time it seems the quickest and cheapest method of dealing with a problem. In the long run the results can be disastrous and even, if we are to worry about the interests of the capitalist class, dearer and less profitable.

A recent example of this was the poisoning of the Rhine with a pesticide effluent. This was a much-forecast backlash of the ‘Progress’ in agricultural methods which uproots hedgerows to create a near-prairie in which heavy machinery can operate more profitably and which saturates the land in a variety of pesticides and fertilisers which wreak havoc on the natural balance of the earth and which can turn fertile lands into a dustbowl. There are plenty of informed warnings about the consequences of these policies; but farming, just like any other productive operation of capitalism, is carried on for profit, which means that all other considerations, including speculations on the safety of the future, take a back seat.

In the same way, medical science often joins in the great rush for 'Progress’ by producing medicines which have the sole usefulness of propping up sick workers more quickly than they have ever been propped up before and delivering them back for work on the production line with unheard-of speed. It is not unknown for some of these medicines — for example some antibiotics — to be exposed, after vast amounts of them have been pumped into willing and grateful workers, as of limited usefulness and, in some cases, as actually dangerous. But at the time it seemed the cheapest and quickest method of ensuring uninterrupted production . . . 

Shoddy goods
Are we, then, against Progress? The simple, hoary answer to that is that Progress cannot be stopped; indeed it is clearly desirable that man should progress in the sense that he should always be seeking to control and improve his environment. The question is, how is this to be done?

The first useful step to take would be to realise that the present social system, for all its mouthings about ‘Progress’, is in fact a fetter upon it. Capitalism holds back advances in our productive powers because it demands production for a market. This usually means production at standards well below our capabilities; it means shoddy goods aimed at capturing the market and being produced as cheaply as possible. It can also mean restricting and holding back production or a new development for fear of overstocking a market and causing a price collapse. Capitalism’s incentives are wrong; it judges everything in terms of profit. It is, therefore, bound to misuse 'Progress’, even when it allows it. Anyone who is interested in 'Progress’, then, should also be interested in the fact that it is crippled by capitalism.

Social progress must come first, to create the conditions in which our abilities can be given their head to enrich human lives. In the new society Progress will be reality instead of a word calculated to make any sensitive man release the safety catch of his pistol. 

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