Monday, January 7, 2019

Against capitalism (2019)

Book Review from the January 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

The Machine and its Discontents: A Fredy Perlman Anthology’ (Theory and Practice and Active Distribution, 2018). Available from Active Distribution

Fredy Perlman (1934—85) is perhaps best remembered in connection with the publishing cooperative Black & Red. His life story, lovingly told by his wife Lorraine in her memoir Having Little Being Much (1989), is a complex one: born in Czechoslovakia and raised in the US, he lived several years in France and Yugoslavia before settling in the Midwest. Equally complex was his development as a radical thinker, influenced at various periods by anarchism, Marxism, situationism and primitivism. However, he never fully identified with any particular school of thought: the only self-descriptor ending in -ist that he accepted was cellist.

Darren Poynton has brought together, edited and introduced a selection of Perlman’s writings that had become difficult to find. They are organised in five parts under the headings: worker-student uprisings, critique of political economy, critique of leaders, critique of nationalism, critique of ‘progress’. The book is illustrated with several of Perlman’s eloquent photo montages.

The writings in Part One pertain to the social upheavals that took place in France and Yugoslavia in 1968. There is a lengthy excerpt from a text co-authored by Perlman and Roger Gregoire describing and assessing their experiences in Paris in May and June 1968 while members of a ‘worker-student action committee’. The detailed account reveals the sorts of things that really happened – and did not happen – in the course of the ‘Paris Spring’. The authors discuss why a more fruitful interaction did not occur between student protestors and striking workers at the Citroen car factory. The crucial obstacle, they conclude, was the fact that the ideas of most participants in the events, students as well as workers, remained within the confines of capitalist reality. In particular, they aspired at most to turn the factory into the collective or group property of its current workforce rather than into social property.

Part One also includes an account of the student protests that broke out in Yugoslavia in 1968 and the reaction of the Yugoslav authorities to them. Perlman exposes the chasm that existed between the ideological fa├žade of ‘self-managing socialism’ and the real functioning of the power structure.

Part Two consists of two excellent essays that in a clear and vivid style explain key concepts in the Marxian critique of capitalism, with special emphasis on capital, alienation and the ‘commodity fetishism’ that makes relations between people appear as relations between things. The second essay, originally published in 1971 as an introduction to the English translation of I.I. Rubin’s Essays on Marx’s Theory of Value, contrasts Marx with Paul Samuelson, author of the standard economics textbook used in American colleges. Perlman demonstrates that Marx and Samuelson do not give different answers to the same questions; they are concerned with quite different questions. This is because Marx belongs to the old school of ‘political economy’, which studied conflicting class interests, while Samuelson represents the new discipline of ‘economics’ that displaced political economy early in the 20th century. ‘Economics’ focuses on technical issues of resource allocation and is therefore better suited to the justification of capitalism.

In Part Three we find excerpts from a text entitled ‘The Seizure of State Power’. This text, which marshals quotations from Lenin, Mao and Machiavelli, purports to be a guide for would-be ‘revolutionary leaders’ intent upon seizing power. It is really a satire designed to highlight the contrast between the seizure of power by an elite and a genuine popular revolution. Some critics did not realise that it was a satire and took it at face value.

The essay in Part Four exposes the class interests behind movements for ‘national liberation’ and argues that nationalism cannot play a progressive role in the contemporary world. Perlman’s views on this subject fully coincide with those of the World Socialist Movement.

In the last few years of his life Perlman went beyond the Marxian critique of capitalism to assail modern concepts of ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’. Some have accused him of rejecting technology as such – see, for instance, the review of his book Against His-story, Against Leviathan! (1983) in Aufheben. The short article on ‘progress and nuclear power’ that makes up Part Five does not suffice to assess his views at this period.

On the whole, the new Perlman anthology is a very welcome addition to socialist literature.

After Greece, Italy? (2019)

From the January 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

On 23 October the European Commission asked the Italian government to revisit its budget plan. This is unprecedented as no EU member state had been asked to do this before. The Italian coalition government, constituted by the populist Five-Star Movement and the Lega, had proposed a 2.4 percent deficit of Gross Domestic Product, and a structural deficit of 1.7 percent which was far beyond what the member states had agreed back in 2012 under the ‘fiscal compact’. The EU believes that the deficit is more likely to be 2.9 percent. The EU has threatened Italy with sanctions, which may result in concessions by the populist leaders.

The fiscal compact, (not agreed upon by Britain and the Czech Republic) set the limit for a general deficit not exceeding 3 percent of GDP, and a structural deficit (the part of the deficit due to spending programmes and not to how the economy is doing) not exceeding 0.5 percent of the GDP for countries with large debts such as Italy. This is nothing more than an austerity measure mirroring the debt brake model adopted by Switzerland in 2003 and by Germany in 2009. This consists of separating the structural deficit from the cyclical deficit, where the latter takes into account the fluctuations in economic growth. In simple words, the state was to not allow deficits when the economy is growing but only when the economy is shrinking. By doing so it would reduce the public debt across the business cycle.

Although this austerity measure has so far worked in Switzerland and Germany, it may have worked because of lucky circumstances, namely strong economic growth at the right time, but this may not be sustainable in countries where the GDP is consistently low. Not allowing for deficits or allowing minimal deficits in a struggling economy may be a recipe for strangulation.

Annual government budget deficits in a country with a huge historic national debt like Italy (138 percent of GDP) are, on average, more likely to be greater than in a country with a smaller national debt (for example, 57 percent of GDP for the Netherlands). For the record, the UK has a national debt equal to 88 percent of GDP. It should be noted that Japan has an even higher national debt than Italy (199 percent of GDP), yet only 11 percent of it is to foreign creditors, while in Italy’s case one third of it is owned by them.

The total annual deficit takes into account not only government spending being higher than tax revenues, but also debt interest payments. Thus, it would be unfair to judge the Italian or other governments in a similar situation as necessarily being extravagant. They are, in part, working to pay off the interest on the debt. As we know, government spending does not just supposedly benefit public infrastructures (see the bridges falling down), or education, health and pension systems. Italian spending on those services is in line with, if lower than, the other EU countries. Yet, Italy is stuck with this huge debt. Why?

Out of control
According to many, the Italian national debt spun out of control in the early 80s when the Bank of Italy and the Treasury ‘divorced’. Basically, the first stopped buying Italian bonds that were not sold.  State bonds are the way the government borrows money to finance its spending and to pay back its previous debt plus interest. Unsold state bonds triggered a steep rise in the interest rate. As with loan sharks, the Italian state found itself having to pay out more to borrow money, which in turn increased the accumulated national debt payments.

This ‘divorce’ was a defensive measure and, although it did mitigate the fleeing of savings and some argued that it helped reduce inflation, it did not help slowdown debt issuance. Yet, if we were to plot Italian public debt over the decades no particularly steep increase is to be seen after the 1981 divorce either. The oil crises in the 70s, political nepotism, which created an inflated state infrastructure, and a money-wasting corrupt administration, are probably more obvious original sins. Nevertheless, the real problem with Italy is the lack of economic growth. If we were to plot Italian GDP over time we can see that after crisis of 2007-8, this has struggled to increase and actually decreased by 10 percent (UK GDP decreased by 7 percent in the slump). Government spending on research and new technologies has also been neglected.

The official version of events for the M5S and Lega is that things started to go wrong in 1981 and that the EU limits and restriction did not help the ever-growing national debt problem. Both M5S and Lega had an anti-EU, anti-Merkel electoral campaign. Now they are continuing to play this card in view of the European elections later this year. However, it is fair to believe that the Italian government is not doing this only for the sake of going against the EU and being successful at the next elections. They do believe that an anti-austerity policy will help to boost the economy and will promote 1.5 percent economic growth (real GDP). The EU, on the other hand, do not trust this plan and are interested only in what Italy can pay back to their creditors. The EU’s doubts about this seem to have some validity as the spread, that is the ‘gap between Italian and German bond yields which the Italian media follow obsessively’ (Economist, October), is up to 3.2 percentage points.

Past experience shows that the type of ‘pump-priming’ Keynesian policy as proposed by M5S and Lega does not work. It will not reduce the public debt, and it will not promote research and development of new technologies. As with the Greeks (who the EU and the IMF forced the government there to squeezed), the Italian workers will be portrayed as lazy extravagant tax-evading people. This does not reflect the reality, but benefits the ruling class. We workers should look beyond national borders and opt for a society where meeting people’s needs is not subordinated to meeting interest payments to international loan sharks.

Pathfinders: Missionary Positions (2019)

The Pathfinders Column from the January 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

“Lord, is this island Satan’s last stronghold where none have heard or even had the chance to hear your name?” So wrote John Allen Chau, the 26-year-old Christian missionary, just before his last visit to North Sentinel Island in the Andaman chain in November last year. His death at the hands of the Sentineli islanders made world headlines, largely because it was like something out of the eighteenth century. The pious missionary rows his canoe to the shore, brandishes a Bible and starts singing hymns, and the Stone Age natives shoot him full of arrows.

Interestingly, all the media blame for this fateful encounter fell on Chau himself, who was visiting illegally and in defiance of the island’s special protection status. The Sentineli have a history of killing intruders, and Chau himself had already been shot at with arrows on a previous visit, so he knew very well what might happen. The Indian police arrested seven fishermen who had helped Chau get to the island, though no arrests on the island itself were made or even mooted. Some blame should also fall on the organisation that sent him, the All Nations Church of St Louis, Missouri, whose stated mission ‘to do whatever it takes so as many people as possible can see Jesus’ is what got Chau killed. The fact that imported viral or bacterial diseases are the number one killer among newly-contacted tribes does not seem to have occurred to the moronic bible-bashers. What’s worrying is the thought that other church groups will now view the Sentineli as the ultimate challenge.

Billed as ‘the last uncontacted tribe on Earth’, the Sentineli have in fact been contacted off and on since 1867, and received tools and cooking implements as gifts, but encounters have frequently gone badly. Not much is known about them except that they use fire and know how to rework scavenged iron for arrowheads. What can be speculated is that, like most ‘isolated’ tribes the world over, they know far more about the outside world than the outside world suspects. Their hostility is almost certainly due to fear than to some supposed innate aggression.

Inverting the usual colonial assumptions about what such people could gain from the modern world, the BBC instead approached various anthropologists to ask what we might learn from the tribes (BBC Online, 24 November). Apart, that is, from stealing their local medicinal plants and patenting them for the pharmaceutical industry.

Thus we learn that the 14,000-strong Piaroa of Venezuela are egalitarians who practise individualistic autonomy without hierarchies or private ownership. They see competition as evil and don’t play any competitive sports, and anyone who gets above themselves is treated with pity as being immature. Wikipedia also attests to this ‘functioning anarchist society’ and notes that they are ‘opposed to the hoarding of resources, which they see as giving members the power to constrain their freedom.’

Well quite, and what we’ve been saying all along. Not that every remote tribe is so enlightened, of course, and the BBC article warns us not to ‘over-romanticise’ how they live. But socialists can easily relate to groups like the Piaroa, who seem to have hit on the principles of common ownership and equality as a successful survival strategy and would presumably look askance at modern capitalism and its habit of pursuing the exact opposite of a successful survival strategy. Maybe the Piaroa should send out missionaries to the capitalist world. But the world would probably tell them their society is logically impossible because of human nature. Or shoot them full of arrows.

What’s cooking?
‘When we’re confronted with abundance, we’re hardwired to take what we can, and it’s difficult to overcome that impulse’, says the founder of a UK food-waste reduction organisation in a recent article about how to reduce the approximately 30 percent of food that is wasted every year (New Scientist, 8 December). The blame for this apparently lies with supermarkets, which pile high and sell cheap, leading to runaway overconsumption and waste in fresh perishable goods. But this makes it sound as if consumers are mindlessly greedy, when the reality is they’re having to pay for all this waste and many are hard-pressed to afford it. The more likely explanation for such waste is that, despite endless food-porn TV shows, people are not very good at managing the business of domestic cooking. It’s not taught effectively in schools because they don’t have the time or the facilities to achieve more than a tokenistic effort. And parents who can’t cook are not going to pass the skills on either. No wonder poor people resort to expensive and environmentally wasteful takeaways and TV dinners.

The article discusses a new business model which aims to supply meal ‘kits’, comprising the exact proportions of ingredients in compostable packaging, however the take-up rate is slow and the value for money questionable. What has not occurred to anyone is the idea of socialising the process. In socialism it would be deemed sheer lunacy for each individual to do their own cooking in their own kitchen with their own larders and fridges full of their own food stores, when most people would be happy to share the job communally and thereby only need to help cook once a month or so. Think of the savings in space, storage, waste, time, effort, and indeed safety, given the huge potential for burns, cuts and fires. You might call that plain old common sense, but capitalism doesn’t have an abundance of that.

Brave New CRISPR World
In December a Chinese researcher achieved a historic landmark but earned general condemnation including from Chinese regulators by announcing the world’s first IVF twins born after modification with the CRISPR gene-editing process (New Scientist, 8 December). The researcher is widely considered a renegade for ignoring international ethical standards, employing an experimental technique for no valid medical reason, and including clauses in his test agreement that compelled participants to continue or else pay a large forfeiture. The targeted gene coded for HIV resistance, however it would only ever be partially effective at best. Meanwhile nobody can tell what side-effect damage may have been caused, and it will be years before this can be known. Ethical oversight aside, designer babies are where the smart capitalist money is. Huxley’s famous dystopia just came a step closer.
Paddy Shannon