Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Sting in the Tail: Open Letter (1992)

The Sting in the Tail column from the February 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

Open Letter

The Scorpion's Nest, 
52 Clapham High Street 
1 February 1991

Botanist and TV Personality 

Dear David,

We read how you told the annual conference of the CBI that, instead of cutting their profits, environmental care could, by using "new technologies", bring them new profits.

Bet this went down well with the manufacturers of the necessary equipment (Mr Heseltine told the conference that the market for this could be worth billions) but possibly the companies you hope will buy it weren’t quite so enthusiastic.

You see, David, capitalism is a very competitive system and every company must keep its costs down even at the expense of the environment. That's why we have pollution but maybe you knew that?

And those profits you spoke so approvingly of, they are the unpaid labour of the useful class In society. It's legal robbery, David, but perhaps you didn’t know that?

Anyway, although we enjoy your TV programmes it's obvious to us that you know more about the environment than you do about the economic laws of capitalism which make such a mess of It.

Words of Wisdom
  "The 1960s were good years for liberalism; a fair amount of money was spent on poverty programs and relatively nothing happened. Enter new leaders and new priorities. Why didn't earlier programs work? Two possibilities are open:
1. We didn't spend enough money, we didn't make sufficient creative efforts, or (and this makes any established leader jittery) we cannot solve these problems without a fundamental social and economic transformation of society; or 2. the programs failed because their recipients are inherently what they are — blaming the victims."
(Stephen Jay Gould in Ever Since Darwin Page 47.)

Dismal Johnny

The press made great play of the different style of government we could expect with the demise of Margaret Thatcher and the advent of John Major.

Mrs Thatcher, it was said, was the hard-edged, no-nonsense type of prime minister while Mr Major would prove to be a decent, compassionate man with a social conscience.

A couple of years ago Mrs Thatcher in one of her photo opportunity visits to the depressed North East of England reprimanded demonstrators and branded the unemployed as "Moaning Minnies". In January Mr Major claimed that such problems as rising unemployment and evictions were being exaggerated by "Dismal Jimmies".

His speech to Newcastle businessmen was made on 8 January. Next morning It was announced that the Ravenscraig Steel Mill In Lanarkshire was to close with the loss of 1,200 Jobs.

Doubtlessly there will be some Moaning Minnies and Dismal Jimmies among the ungrateful families of steel workers who will fall to appreciate the different styles of Thatcher and Major.

Bitter Harvest

George Bush began the year with a visit down-under during which he extolled the "warm kinship" between Americans and Australians.

But when angry Australian farmers demonstrated against US subsidies to American farmers which they claim costs them 1 billion dollars a year in lost overseas markets, the "warm kinship"rapidly cooled.

Bush told the demonstrators:
  While I don't like having to use these remedies, I will safeguard the Interests of American farmers.
The Guardian 3 January 
So free-marketeer Bush defends subsidies to American farmers while at the same time he is bitterly denouncing the EEC for subsidising Its farmers

1992 will provide the usual bumper crop of bare-faced, hypocritical politicians. That is one harvest that never falls!

Hard to Credit

The news that Canada's Labourites, the New Democratic Party, had won the provincial elections In British Columbia was interesting only because the party they ousted was the Social Credit Party.

Social Credit was a 1930's movement whose case was built around the notion that banks "create credit" by lending money they do not have. Why, they argued, shouldn't governments do the same? The resulting increase in purchasing power would bring prosperity, banish slumps, etc.

Parties holding this view sprang up all over the world but although most of them have vanished some modern books on banking and economics still peddle the nonsense that banks lend more than they have, so this unsound theory is still around and not only In Canada.

Still Clueless

Channel Four's "A Week In Politics" (22 December) had four Labour ex-cabinet ministers discussing the problems a Labour government will face if elected. Present were Tony Benn, Denis Healey, Barbara Castle and Merlyn Rees and they went at it with typical sound and fury.

Benn said Labour must "face-down" International finance and not the unions but Healey replied that "excessive union demands" must be resisted and cited some left-wing councils who wore currently doing that.

"Labour should spend its way out of recession" said Benn, but Healey rubbished this and warned that people might have to "make sacrifices". Castle claimed Labour could finance extra spending by cutting ’Tory waste" while Rees urged a return to Keynesian intervention.

So despite the lessons of decades in cabinet and over 100 years as MPs between them, the four still believe, whatever their differences, that Labour can solve capitalism's contradictions. Some people never learn.

Happy Families

The new statistical bulletin Homicide In Scotland 1986 - 90 reveals that of the 589 people accused of killing in Scotland during that period only 193 were strangers to the victims.

A further 271 were lovers, friends or acquaintances of those killed, but the other 125 comprised 45 husbands or wives, 32 sons or daughters, 23 parents, 4 brothers or sisters and 21 other relatives!

So our own families are among the most dangerous people we know and yet capitalism's apologists tell us that the nuclear family "holds together the fabric of society".

What Do We Stand For? (1992)

From the February 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialists advocate state ownership and state control, don't they?

No. The word "socialist" has been badly distorted in the last 75 years. The main culprit was Lenin — followed by the Bolsheviks and their admirers all over the world. The Socialist Party pointed out from 1917 onwards that Russia wasn't socialist and could not be at that stage of its development. The other main advocates of state control in this country are, of course, the Labour Party.

When it suits them, they call themselves socialist; when they think it will lose them votes, they don't. One of their politicians in the past defined socialism as "whatever the Labour Party happens to be doing at the moment". In fact, there is nothing socialist about what they do.

What do socialists like yourself stand for, then?

Socialism for us is the next stage in social evolution — a far more free and ecologically responsible society which will succeed this one — if we are quick enough. Our present political/economic system threatens to ruin the planet in lire way it is going at present.

The majority of the world's population need to bring about radical democratic change without delay if we are to meet human needs, preserve the Earth's ecological balance and avoid the large-scale use of nuclear and biological weapons.

What is it that you think needs changing?

We contend that it is urgently necessary to move on to a more advanced way of organising production and distribution in society: one in keeping with the tremendous strides made by science and technology. At the moment we tend to regard "the economy" rather in the way we regard the weather; as beyond control, with its booms and slumps like summers and winters. And. as long as we leave things as they are, that’s how it operates — out of control. But it is a human-made system, a social construct. And it is now far too crude and erratic to serve a modern society's needs.

What makes you say that the economic system is crude?

Its price structure is a poor, one-dimensional tally system which ought long ago to have been superseded by much more complex and sensitive social control. Modern information systems and computing power make it feasible for anyone, anywhere in the world, to know far more about any aspect of the world's production and distribution than was even imaginable fifty years ago — and to find it out within a few minutes. This makes possible a highly sensitive and complex global network of all the production and distribution processes. And it would mean that, in place of the enormous financial structure of present society, we should have a much more qualitatively rich and socially widespread system of information and control. Everyone in a socialist society would be involved in the control, as they would in the supplying and receiving of information.

But why should you want to change an economic system that has proved itself, and been refined over two hundred years or more?

The system we live under is not simply a way of organising society's production and distribution. It is a system of accumulating wealth — in the form of land, roads, bridges, tunnels, mines, oil refineries, factories, farms, office blocks, ships — all the paraphernalia of modern high-tech society.

The significant social fact about this wealth is that it is not owned by the great majority of the population. The result is that they have little or no say in how all this wealth is used, either from a human or an ecological point of view.

One of the most worrying things is that there is little deliberate human control at all. because the accumulation of wealth — its expansion through profit and reinvestment — is the overriding force driving society. Those who try to divert it or go against it get swept aside. Most people, about 90 per cent of the population, have no means of living of their own. They have no choice but to offer themselves for work to those who do own the factories, farms, offices and so on. for wages or salaries. For about fifty of the best years of their lives this work, under someone else's control, takes the bulk of their waking hours, with perhaps another hour or two commuting to and from work. This is not freedom, but economic bondage, and cannot be anything else under the ruthless drive for profit.

Freedom to stop doing a boss's bidding and become destitute and a social outcast is not freedom at all. It is compulsion. Moreover, the fact they we offer ourselves for jobs does not mean that we shall always get them or keep them. We live the whole of our adult lives under this pressure, this insecurity.

But surely the present system provides steadily rising living standards for most people?

This ignores that the insecurity is made far worse by the fact that, periodically and inevitably, the spiral process of reinvesting profits to make yet more profits overreaches itself — the productivity of factories and farms cannot be increased fast enough to keep ahead of the increased demand for profit.

Throughout the economy, profit ceases to be sufficient to expand production and then, as has happened throughout the last two centuries and is happening now, we have what is called a recession /slump /depression/ crisis. Then wage and salary earners are thrown out of work, production is cut back; companies and individuals go bankrupt in their thousands; many of those with mortgage or hire purchase debts are unable to maintain their payments and have their homes and belongings repossessed.

Millions are prevented from working at all, while those still in work are often driven to the point of exhaustion every day. If production were cut back because people did not want or need the goods and services, that would make some sense, but that is far from being the ease. Production is cut (and must be cut in this economic system, regardless of whether people need the food or medicines or whatever) because production has ceased to be profitable.

But if state control of the economy is not the answer, what is?

We agree that attempts at state control or interference in this process usually makes it worse, as has happened in Russia and the Eastern Bloc. But, left to itself, the economic system has become hopelessly inadequate for what should be a modern, highly developed, global society.

It's like an old steam tram carried over into the age of supersonic flight. People still resist the increasing pressure to make a radical change in society, but socialists believe that until that change is made, symptoms of the incongruity will get worse; the increase in crime, the decay of inner cities, the degradation of the environment, the impoverishment of Third World countries, the recurrence of famines and disease outbreaks, the outbreaks of armed conflicts around the world, the increase in the power of states and the harshness of their regimes.

Although there is nearly always state involvement, underlying all these are economic causes. They can only be improved when we decide to dispense with economics altogether and take full social control of our production and distribution. And that will be socialism.

Socialist election campaign (1992)

Party News from the February 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

Plans to contest the Holborn and St Pancras constituency in London in the coming election are going ahead. Our comrade Richard Headicar has been appointed the candidate and a Socialist Standard sales campaign has been launched in the constituency. Further details of the campaign can be obtained from: Michael Ghebre, 169 Royal College St, London NW1 OSG (tel: 071-482 XXXX).

Meanwhile, thanks to further gratefully-received contributions from readers and collections, the amount in the Election Fund has reached £1157, well on the way towards our target of £2000 set to mount a credible campaign. Any further contributions should be sent to: Election Fund, the Socialist Party, 52 Clapham High St. London SW4 7UN.

Uncommon Tragedy (1992)

From the February 1992 issue of the Socialist Standard

In 1968 the journal Science published an article by an American biologist, Garrett Hardin, entitled “The Tragedy of the Commons”. Its central argument, that common property leads to ecological ruin, has since become “part of the conventional wisdom in environmental studies, resource science and policy, economics, ecology and political science” (Human Ecology, No 1,1990).

Hardin did not exactly break new ground. Others had already elaborated a theory of the commons along similar lines. Nevertheless the publication of his article struck a chord at a time of growing environmental concern. It echoed the prevailing ethos of ecological pessimism articulated by the emerging environmental lobby and, more particularly, by the authoritarian anti-humanism of its neo-Malthusian wing.

Hardin set out to demonstrate the implications that different systems of property rights had for the sustainable use of natural resources. As the title of his article suggests, his main concern was with a system in which these resources were held in common (in the sense of not being monopolised by anyone).

Unrealistic model

He gave the example of a rangeland on which a population of herdsmen were able to graze their cattle without restriction. While the benefits of adding a head of cattle to his herd would accrue to the individual herdsman alone, the environmental costs of this decision would be shared by all the herdsmen. Thus, from the individual’s viewpoint, these costs would be largely “externalised”. That would encourage him as a rational economic actor to increase his herd still further—and thereby become richer—since the benefits would outweigh the private costs this entailed.

The problem, according to Hardin, was that every other herdsman would be inclined to do the same and thus, ultimately, the combined effect of their actions would be to increase the number of cattle on the commons beyond its carrying capacity. In short, common ownership of the rangeland will lead to tragedy. That the private ownership of the cattle might be equally implicated in his scenario was a point that appears to have escaped Hardin’s notice.

Some economists have tended to see the solution to this problem as something to be imposed from outside or above: leave the existing system of property rights intact but introduce measures such as cattle taxes or quotas to force herdsmen to reduce their stocking rates. An alternative approach, favoured by Hardin, is to enclose, or privatise, the commons. Private ownership, goes the argument, would compel the individual herdsman to bear the full costs of any decision to increase his herd and thus persuade him to maintain a stocking rate compatible with the sustainable use of grazing land. It would also provide the necessary incentive to upgrade pasture because the benefits of doing so would be similarly “internalised”.

Both these approaches concur on one fundamental point: there is no possibility of an internal solution to the “tragedy of the commons”. After all, if there was, there would be no reason to expect a tragedy. Yet it is precisely on this point that the theory is coming under fire.

Wherever a commons has existed it has been associated with a complex pattern of institutional rules governing a distinct community of users; unregulated open access regimes are more typical of sparsely populated frontier zones. As John Reader puts it:
  access to the commons was restricted by entitlement; use was regulated to ensure that no individual could pursue his own interest to the detriment of others. Far from bringing ruin to all, the true commons functioned to keep its exploitation within sustainable limits. (New Scientist, 8 September 1988).
There are numerous examples that bear this out, from the traditional Japanese village to Pacific island communities. Some have emerged only recently, such as the case of a number of Turkish coastal fisheries, but many contemporary examples have been in existence for hundreds of years. Indeed, it is the very persistence of the commons as an institution which testifies, in the view of some, to its inherent stability.

Carlisle Ford Runge has presented a cogent critique of Hardin’s theory (American Journal of Agricultural Economics, November 1981), in which he argues that it is not the existence of a commons that is the problem but uncertainty in the context of interdependent decision-making. Hardin assumes that the decisions reached by his herdsmen are made in isolation from one another. A more appropriate model, Runge suggests, permits communication between the parties concerned. In this way a compromise could be struck between them which results in a better outcome than would otherwise be possible.

Within actually existing pastoral societies such mutual assurance is secured through the institutionalisation of rules that allow herders to adapt their behaviour in the light of the expected behaviour of others. Once established, herders have a vested interest in maintaining such rules through the exercise of moral sanctions because of the high opportunity costs involved in finding an alternative. Group size may be an important consideration insofar as it affects the transmission of information within, and the cohesiveness of, the group.

Significantly, Hardin felt compelled to qualify his theory in his response to Reader’s article when he explained that the title of his article should have been “The tragedy of the unmanaged commons” (New Scientist, 22 October 1988). But since the commons as a rule are not unmanaged, this made the whole relevance of his theory questionable.

Land enclosures

When we look at the historical development of private property it is abundantly clear that what characterises this process above all is its coercive nature. The gradual demise of the commons in Britain from the 15th century onwards was not the result of their decline into ecological ruin. It was the deliberate result of the state’s policy of land enclosure to meet the agricultural capitalists’ demand for more land.

This same process of land enclosure is still going on in many parts of the Third World today. In the colonial era, conservationist arguments were often used to justify the appropriation of other people’s land. Communal tenure was dismissed as “primitive” and “unscientific”, and conducive to poor economic performance as well as environmental deterioration. By and large, these same attitudes continue to inform the policies of many post-colonial regimes. As Vink and Kassier point out, there are “numerous examples of livestock development projects in sub-Saharan Africa which have, implicitly or explicitly, been based on the tragedy of the commons hypothesis” (South African Journal of Economics, No 2, 1987). Such projects have sought to substitute private for communal tenure but have been “characterised by a pervading sense of failure”.

There is scant evidence to show that environmental management of rangelands has improved as a result of introducing private ownership. On the contrary, the undermining of communal institutions in the Sahel and Southern Africa has led to increased overgrazing. Land enclosures in drought-prone semi-arid areas preclude the application of traditional risk-avoidance grazing strategies involving the movement of cattle to less vulnerable areas. Moreover, the commercialisation of agriculture accompanying the spread of private tenure tends to make the private rancher vulnerable to the vagaries of the market. So, while, in theory, private tenure may induce them to maintain sustainable stocking rates by internalising their environmental costs, economic pressures often force them to disregard these costs to ensure short-term viability.

The social consequences of land enclosures have almost invariably proved calamitous. While some may benefit—usually government officials and multinational corporations—the high transaction and enforcement costs (such as stock-proof fencing) preclude most from participation in such schemes. This results in large-scale land eviction, increased inequality and rising discontent.

The small yeoman farmers evicted by the Enclosure Acts in Britain had little option but to migrate to the towns were some prospect of employment awaited them. In much of the Third World today, however, urban employment opportunities are few and far between and are declining still further under the current fad for “structural adjustment”. Many of those displaced by land enclosures tend to end up in the more ecologically marginal areas which are subsequently degraded under this strain.

Property and pollution

Despite his advocacy of private property, Hardin had to recognise its limitations where it concerned other kinds of natural resources to which—unlike his example of a rangeland—it was difficult, if not impossible, to prevent open access. As he put it. “the air and the waters surrounding us cannot be so readily fenced”.

But he saw the tragedy of the commons reappearing here in another form, as pollution, when a “rational man finds that his share of the costs of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them”. Even where privatisation on a limited scale could be introduced the basic problem would remain:
  The owner of a factory on the bank of a stream—whose property extends to the middle of the stream—often has difficulty seeing why it is not his natural right to muddy the waters flowing past his door.
For Hardin, the solution to this problem necessarily entailed some infringement of the rights of property owners. In this regard, he saw a role for the state. However, the difficulty with this approach is that, though the state may have more room for manoeuvre, it is subject to the same competitive pressures that face industry on which it depends for its tax revenue. Ironically, state enterprises are often among the worst transgressors when it comes to pollution.

Hardin’s theory of the commons is basically an attempt to vindicate the principle of private property in respect of the Earth’s resources. As such it can be shown to be both empirically suspect and theoretically unsound. In the counter-arguments it has provoked, we can glimpse the potential of a sustainable alternative to the imposed monopoly on what should be our common heritage.
Robin Cox