Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Proper Gander: At The Movies (2020)

The Proper Gander Column from the June 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘Desperate Measures Not To Save The Planet, But To Save Our Way Of Life’

The makers of documentary film Planet Of The Humans said they wanted it to ignite discussion, but they probably weren’t expecting the backlash it received. Online articles and vlogs debunking and rebutting the movie outnumber those supporting it, while it generated some lively discussion, generally wary of accepting it at face value, on the SPGB’s Discord server after a viewing.

While being freely available to watchPlanet Of The Humans wouldn’t have been nearly as well-known if its publicity hadn’t emphasised Michael Moore being an executive producer. But its main driving force is writer, presenter, producer, director and musician Jeff Gibbs, previously a co-producer of some of Moore’s documentaries. Gibbs is concerned that ‘we humans are poised for a fall from an unimaginable height’ due to our impact on the environment, especially the amount of climate-changing carbon dioxide being pumped into the atmosphere. His view is that our preoccupation with ‘green energy’ as an antidote to this is misguided.

Much of the documentary focuses on arguing that renewable energy sources such as biomass, sunlight and the wind aren’t as environmentally friendly as we’re led to believe. The heavy industry and use of dwindling resources involved in manufacturing sails, turbines and photovoltaic cells, along with their limited lifespan are criticised as being more trouble than they’re worth. Gibbs discusses how solar energy, in particular, has been hyped up as better than it really is. Festivals such as the Earth Day event and Solar Festival in Vermont bragged about being solar powered while quietly using biodiesel generators and the main grid as backup. Exaggerating the use of solar power to disguise reliance on fossil fuels also happens on a wider scale. Coal plants in places such as Las Vegas and Kalona, Iowa were replaced by solar farms, but news reports ignored the natural gas plants built alongside them. Gibbs argues that our reassuring assumption that renewables are replacing fossil fuels is misplaced, as in reality, fossil fuel use in America is still rising.

‘Biomass’ usually means chopping down trees and burning them to generate electricity, but despite this not sounding particularly eco-friendly it still counts as renewable energy. In fact, it’s the main renewable source of electricity, producing much more than solar and wind power. Gibbs finds plenty of protesters at a climate change rally who aren’t in favour of biomass, but attitudes to it differ among environmental campaigning groups. This leads on to the film’s other main point: the links between the environmental movement and big business. The Sierra Club, which calls itself ‘the most enduring and influential grassroots environmental organisation in the United States’, ran the ‘Beyond Coal’ campaign. This supported the use of biomass, and in turn got support from timber companies and partnered with the likes of Exxon Mobil and Chevron. Environmental news website Treehugger.com was founded and funded by loggers Georgia Pacific, which is owned by the Koch brothers, likely the biggest recipients of biomass subsidies in America. There are lots of greenbacks to be made backing green energy.

According to Gibbs, ‘the takeover of the environmental movement by capitalism is now complete. Environmentalists are no longer resisting those with the profit motive but are now collaborating with them’. Latching on to and hyping up so-called green, renewable energy are ‘desperate measures not to save the planet, but to save our way of life’.

Gibbs talks with social psychologist Sheldon Solomon to explore the attitudes which led to our misuse of the environment and are stopping us from addressing it. Gibbs says that both the left and the right assume we can carry on with our culture of consumption, but while the right believes in unlimited resources and religion, the left believes in green energy and hasn’t accepted humans’ own mortality. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t go into how both left and right are misguided in that the system they both support is itself the problem. We cut away from their interesting chat too soon, and as was pointed out during the party’s discussion of the movie, its quick edits of interviews are annoying. Some quotes sound suspiciously like they’ve been taken out of context as we don’t hear what was said before and after.

The film ends with a solemn voiceover: ‘we humans must accept that infinite growth on a finite planet is suicide. We must accept that our human presence is already far beyond sustainability and all that that implies. We must take control of our environmental movement and our future from billionaires and their permanent war on planet Earth. They are not our friends. Less must be the new more and instead of climate change we must at long last accept that it’s not the carbon dioxide molecule destroying the planet, it’s us. It’s not one thing but everything we humans are doing. A human-caused apocalypse. If we get ourselves under control, all things are possible’.

But the film doesn’t suggest solutions to the problems it raises. The nearest it gets to this is when it discusses population levels, an issue which Gibbs’ interviewees feel is ‘the herd of elephants in the room’. Compared with 200 years ago, the global population is ten times larger, and our use of resources is 100 times greater. The film argues that production and consumption should be reined in, but doesn’t dwell on its implied connection between this and population control, nor dare to propose any ways of reducing numbers. By skirting the whole issue, the film ignores how population growth is slowing down overall, and countries with increasing populations tend to be poorer and have a much lower carbon footprint than America and Europe.

Planet Of The Humans’ science fictiony title hints at its fictional science, another problem with its arguments. For instance, critics have pointed out that many of the claims and footage about the efficiency of solar panels are at least ten years out of date. In that time, photovoltaic cells have generally gone from being less than 10 percent efficient to around 20 percent (LINK). When later challenged about this, executive producer and interviewee Ozzy Zehner says that it doesn’t matter, as solar energy still doesn’t have enough impact overall (LINK).

The dubious accuracy of some of Planet Of The Humans’ claims unfortunately detracts from the important points it makes about money-grabbing connections between environmentalists and businesses. Wanting our industries and lifestyles to be in harmony with nature is a laudable aim, but if you think this can be managed in capitalism, as environmentalists do, you’re bound to get sucked into capitalism’s structures and priorities, which put profit before planet. Moore said that the environmental movement’s mistake was to associate themselves with ‘corporate America’, but their greater mistake is to associate themselves with capitalism itself.
Mike Foster

End of an Epoch? (2020)

From the June 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

As the first wave of the Covid-19 crisis appears to be abating a little, some commentators have begun to speculate as to longer term consequences. That there will be marked social, economic and, therefore, political impacts is surely beyond doubt. But, how accurately can they be predicted?

One such commentator is Bruce Fenton, founder and Chief Investment Officer of Atlantic Financial. His monograph, ‘The End of an Epoch – A new beginning for capital markets in the twenty-first century’, published on 22 April, addresses sudden dramatic changes in human circumstance from the Palaeolithic to the present day and beyond, in 12 pages.

His opening sentence clearly sets out his contention: ‘We are at the end of an epoch.’ He goes on to state that those whose view is that with the end of Covid-19 things will return to ‘normal’ (his quotation marks) are greatly mistaken, ‘…where we are today will not be marked as … a recession, or even a depression, but as the end of an era.’

Fenton claims the old world has gone, that the change happened fast and is permanent. He expands on this notion by calling on recent historical examples. Every decade, he claims, is different, 1950s from the 60s, 70s distinct from the 90s. This is very neat history.

The problem is that history is not so conveniently apportioned. 1967 may have had a radically different appearance to 1957, but it was on-going changes through the 50s, development of rock and roll, for example, leading to Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock, that manifested in the 60s. 1960 had more features in common with 1959 then 1969.

There are indeed moments in history that can be identified as having a significant impact. The Black Death so devastated the population it effectively severed the peasant feudal ties to the land, transforming them into a rural proletariat.

However, this is a partial view at best, reflecting circumstances in England. The Black Death was equally devastating throughout Europe without having an effect to the same degree on social relations. It is possible that warreners, who arrived with the Normans to supply the new overlords with rabbit meat, were the origin of free labour as, being not tied to the land, they worked outside the feudal structure.

Fenton looks to the flu virus of 1918 as an illustration of how pandemic brings epoch change. ‘The Spanish Flu was immediately followed by WW1 and a world that would never be the same.’ Is this merely a proof-reading error or an illustration of an uncertain grasp of historical detail?

The report goes on in a similar broad-sweeping manner, covering human (pre-)history from 2.5 million years ago in a few paragraphs. Interesting from a Marxist point of view is that he touches briefly on how from the Palaeolithic to relatively recent times people organised themselves around family/clan structures. ‘For more than 99.9% of our history, humans functioned and operated in groups’.

As someone working in finance, Fenton gives an interesting account of present (American) government action. Covid-19 provoked a corporate bailout by government in excess of $6 trillion, about $18,000 per citizen. This equates to the government taking $18,000 from every citizen, giving $16,800 to the corporations and then returning $1,200 to the citizen. ‘This is a bad deal’ he says.

In a section entitled, ‘Bad Economics’, Fenton illustrates his own bad economics. Either that or he is literally a financial wizard. ‘One of the most beautiful things about economics (and something socialists don’t understand) is that both capital and value can be created from nothing’. Unfortunately for him, socialists do understand. The examples he goes on to give confuse value and price, as if they are one and the same. It seems Fenton does not appreciate Marx’s concept of socially necessary labour required to produce value in commodities.

While theoretically, price and value closely equate across all society and its production and exchange of commodities, this is not necessarily so regarding any specific commodity at any specific time. Fluctuations in supply and demand or other factors can mean a commodity can sell at a price above or below its value. If Fenton is banking (perhaps literally) on drawing white rabbits of value from the financial conjuror’s top hat, then he is a magician convinced by his own illusions. This is a problem for him as he states at the very top of his ‘Solutions’ the following, ‘Laissez-faire economics – good economic principles work and are needed now more than ever’. However, the solution he proposes is actually no solution at all – crisis over, it’s back to monetarism (Hayek gets a credit); capitalism that’s nasty, brutish and short-sighted, its vision transfixed by profit alone.

Fenton goes on, ‘We must avoid communism, socialism, corporatism and failed ideologies’. He gives no reasons why communism and socialism should be avoided, he must presume it is self-evident, referring to the models in popular consciousness. For communism we should read the soviet system and its variants. The difficulty here for Fenton is that communism is a system of common democratic ownership of the means of producing for need not profit, in a wageless society without states and/or national boundaries. That soviet ‘communism’ met none of those criteria means the state capitalism that was the reality offers no insight into communism, something as yet unrealised anywhere. Perhaps socialism was the path towards communism the soviet system was travelling? Except socialism is not some transitional phase, but a synonym for communism, so the same objection applies.

How, if the driving principle is to be laissez-faire, is corporatism to be avoided? Capitalism drives towards monopoly, which can only be ameliorated, this side of socialism/communism, through state intervention.

As for failed ideologies, how about beginning with the prevailing capitalist ideology of letting the market determine production. When SARS broke out in 2003, the market demand for a vaccine set pharmaceutical R&D into action. Progress was made, but that virus proved not so resilient, infection rapidly declined and with it the prospect of profits from a vaccine. Research promptly ceased. 17 years later and Covid-19, a coronavirus related to SARS, means starting to developing a vaccine once more. People are dying so the market is buoyant again.

In his conclusion Fenton says, ‘The old is gone and cannot be repaired, only rebuilt. The new world is a green field of opportunity. It is time to build something better than we ever had before’. He is absolutely correct. People can decide not to go backwards and take the uneasy easy option of settling for some version of what was.

The present pandemic and the likely prospect of others to come, the environmental threat of global warming, the increasingly crisis-ridden nature of capitalism that can only pursue profit regardless of human need requires the building of a new world. A socialist world (see above). Otherwise, it’s back to a new old and cross your fingers. Difficult if you’re sitting on your hands.
Dave Alton

Negative prices: how come? (2020)

The Cooking the Books column from the June 2020 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘US oil prices turn negative as demand dries up’, the BBC reported on 12 April. A ‘negative price’? How can that be? Why would a seller want to pay a buyer to buy their goods? Actually, something similar, though described differently, frequently occurs when supply exceeds market demand; in that case, if they want to sell their goods, sellers have to cut their price, sometimes even below the cost of production. This is what happened with oil when, as a result of governments shutting down productive activity to combat the spread of the virus, the supply came to exceed the market demand for it for delivery on certain dates. This presented the oil producers with the problem of where to store the excess oil. This (e.g. hiring oil tankers) can be expensive and explains why the oil producers were prepared to sell their oil at a lower price to someone else to buy and store; cutting their losses by in effect paying someone else to store it. It is only described as a ‘negative price’ because of the way oil is traded and its price determined on futures markets where delivery is for a fixed future date.

Marx employed a similar concept, though not the terminology, to explain the source of the profits of capitalist businesses engaged in merely buying and selling commodities (he called it ‘merchants’ capital’ but today ‘dealers’ capital’ might be better). According to the labour theory of value, only the labour employed in activities connected with the actual transformation of materials that originally came from nature into something useful to humans created value and so surplus value, the source of profits. Where, then, did the profits of capitalists whose business didn’t do this come from?

At first sight, the profits of dealers seem to come from simply increasing the price of what they buy; hence their unpopularity especially amongst small-scale producers as unproductive middlemen exploiting them. Under developed capitalism, Marx explained (in chapter 17 of Volume 3 of Capital on ‘Commercial Profit’), this is just an appearance. The ‘producers’ that the dealers would be ‘exploiting’ would then be productive capitalists (whether engaged in agriculture, mining or manufacturing), but why would these latter allow this? Why wouldn’t they avoid it by themselves selling their commodities directly to the final consumer?

Marx’s answer was that this would tie up some of their capital and not be the most profitable use of it. So what evolved, as capitalism developed, was a situation in which they in effect pay dealers to sell their commodities to the final consumer by selling them to the dealer at a price below what they could get if they did this themselves, allowing the dealers to pocket the difference. Which explains how dealers share in the surplus value produced in the productive sector of the economy without their capital being invested in any value-producing activity.

Thus dealers make their profits, not by selling a commodity above what Marx called its ‘price of production’ (cost of production plus the average rate of profit), but at it, having bought from the productive capitalists below that price. As Marx put it:
‘The merchant’s sale price is higher than his purchase price not because it is above the total value, but rather because his purchase price is below this total value’.
The price at which the productive capitalists sell their commodities to a dealer could be described as a ‘negative price’ but this is not a passing effect of the operation of the law of supply and demand when supply comes to temporarily exceed market demand as it did with oil in April. Rather it is a permanent feature of the circulation of commodities that has evolved as it has proved more profitable for there to be a division of capital between productive capital and dealers’ capital.