Thursday, June 30, 2022

Life and Times: the climate campaigner (2022)

The Life and Times column from the June 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

‘Climate Chaos’ was the title of a leaflet I was handed in the main shopping centre of the town I live in. I was given it by a young woman who was also keen to engage me in conversation and let me know about the purpose of the leaflet and the group of people she was part of who were using a loudhailer to put their point across to passers-by.

She told me that fossil fuels were polluting the environment and were the main cause of climate change and the best thing I could do was to get involved in her group’s cause and spread their arguments among the local community. The group was Extinction Rebellion (XR) Cymru.

Barclays and the government
I said I found it admirable that a group of young people cared enough about the state of the world to dedicate their time and energy in trying and improve it, but I wondered whether they were on quite the right track. She asked me what I meant and I pointed to a couple of the things I’d seen in the leaflet, in particular the statement that ‘government and Barclays are both criminally responsible for destroying our future’. I asked her how she thought that different policies by either could really make a significant difference to pollution and climate change.

This could happen in two ways, she said. Firstly Barclays could stop investing in fossil fuels, since they were, in the words of the leaflet, ‘knowingly destroying the world that we depend on’. Secondly the government could ‘use our taxes to create a sustainable future’ and get HMRC to ‘stop banking with Barclays and use an ethical bank’.

I told her I understood the group’s objectives and appreciated their determination to get XR’s message across in such a public way. But I also asked her whether she didn’t think that, even if they succeeded in putting enough pressure on the government and Barclays to get them to change their environmental policies, it would be more than just a drop on the ocean and do much to change the basic situation of ever increasing degradation of the eco-system.

A different take
I could tell by the look on her face that this didn’t please her and her rather sharp response was to ask me what I was doing about it. This was unexpectedly good for me, because it gave me the opportunity to say what I wanted to say but was worried that, if I simply came out with it unsolicited, it might seem preachy or dismissive of her efforts. And I didn’t want to have that effect, since then she probably wouldn’t listen to me seriously.

So as briefly and in as broad brush a way as possible, I tried to outline the position that the Socialist Party takes on the environment and climate change. I suggested that it wasn’t a freestanding problem but one of a whole range of problems that the profit-driven society we live in creates, meaning that even if we managed to alleviate one of those problems piecemeal, we would not actually solve it (since the need for economic expansion and profit would remain key) and anyway all the other problems implicit in the system (eg poverty, inequality, war, alienation) would remain and continue to torment us. I went on to say that I do my best to communicate to my fellow-workers, people just like herself, instead of trying to change bits of the current system, to unite together to bring in a completely different kind of world society, based on voluntary work, democratic decision-making and free access to all goods and services – so no money or wages, no buying and selling, no leaders or led, no borders or frontiers. And with a final flourish, I announced that this would only be possible once a majority of us wanted it and were prepared to take democratic action to bring it about.

Baby steps
I didn’t know quite what to expect as a response, so I was relieved to find her nodding and saying something like ‘sounds good, but… but it’s a long way off and we’ve got to do something in the meantime’. So, though I was pleased that any hostility seemed to have melted away, her stock ‘in the meantime’ response was still a barrier which I knew I wasn’t going to be able to overcome in a short discussion, especially as she was now going to want to give out more leaflets and speak to more people. It didn’t seem right to try to detain her either, but I could at least hope that, having implanted a new idea in her mind, once the day’s leafleting and campaigning had finished, she might reflect on that idea and wonder whether it wasn’t worth considering further.

I would have liked to have had a Socialist Standard with me to give her but I didn’t. However, I’d mentioned the name of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, so that might stick in her mind and maybe, who knows, bring her to the Party’s website? And I was encouraged that her parting shot was that she understood what I was saying and realised that what XR were advocating was only ‘baby steps’, but it was surely better than nothing and she didn’t see that their aims and the Socialist Party’s were incompatible. I didn’t think it was a good idea to disagree with that, even though what I would have liked to say was that it was worth thinking about whether XR’s aims, even in the unlikely event they were fulfilled within the current system, would bring us any nearer to the establishment of a socialist world which was the only feasible way to ensure the survival and indeed the flourishing of the natural environment and of all its living creatures.
Howard Moss

Pathfinders: AI: the last invention we ever need to make . . . (2022)

The Pathfinders Column from the June 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard

In this issue we spotlight the rise and rise of Artificial Intelligence, a hot topic that raises fundamental questions about how it should be used, and what happens if it develops in ways we don’t expect and don’t want.

Currently AI is strictly horses for courses, confined within rule-based parameters and master of just one thing at a time, rather than becoming a super-jack of all trades. So, like numerical engines before the era of programmable general-purpose computing, it has been of limited use. But artificial general intelligence (AGI) is without doubt the ultimate goal, and the race is on to achieve it.

With this in mind, and with a chequered history of failed AI winters behind them, developers are concentrating on the ‘can we do it?’ question rather than the bigger ‘should we do it?’ question. Even less ethically distracted are investors whose only question is ‘can we make money out of it?’ This is not encouraging, given capitalism’s track record.

One problem with AI is that the more advanced it gets, the less we understand it. AI is increasingly a ‘black-box’ phenomenon, whose inner workings are a mystery to us and whose results are often inexplicable and unverifiable by other means. We can’t just treat it like a Delphic oracle, because it’s already clocked up embarrassing gaffes such as building racism and sexism into its staff-hiring rationales, or factorising income instead of health conditions into its medical outcomes estimates. And there have been several public relations disasters, with AIs answering enquiries with profanities after reading the online Urban Dictionary, Facebook chatbots creepily inventing their own language that no human can understand, and Amazon’s Alexa laughing demonically at its own joke: ‘Why did the chicken cross the road? Answer – because humans are a fragile species who have no idea what’s coming next’ (

Then there is the lack of internationally agreed definitions, paradigms and developmental standards, in the absence of which each developer is left to make up their own rules. Can we expect global agreement when we can’t get states to agree on climate change? In the absence of such a framework, it’s no wonder that people fear the worst.

Frankenstein-anxiety is nothing new in the history of technology, of course, and if we banned every advance that might go wrong we would never have stopped wearing animal skins and woad. It’s uncontroversial to say that the possible advantages to capitalism are huge, and indeed we’re already seeing AI in everything from YouTube preference algorithms to self-drive tractors and military drone swarms. And that’s small potatoes next to the quest for the holy grail of AGI. But while all this promises big profits for capitalists, what are the pros and cons in human terms? What is the long-term effect of the automation of work, for example? Tech pundits including Tesla boss Elon Musk take it for granted that most of us will have no jobs and that the only solution is a Universal Basic Income, a solution we argue is unworkable.

That’s not the worst of it. In 1950 Alan Turing wrote, ‘[T]he machine thinking method […] would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers. At some stage therefore we should have to expect the machines to take control’. IJ Good, Turing’s colleague at Bletchley Park, helpfully added, ‘The first ultra-intelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control’ ( The last thing we ever need, or the last thing we ever do, this side of a Singularity that wipes humans from the Earth?

It’s not so much a question of a Terminator-style Armageddon with machines bent on our annihilation. Even in capitalism it’s hard to imagine anyone investing in developing such a capability, at least not on purpose. But the fear is that it could happen by accident, as in the proposed ‘paperclip apocalypse’, in which a poorly considered instruction to make as many paperclips as possible results in the AI dutifully embarking on the destruction of the entire globe in order to turn everything into paperclips. Musk has similarly argued that AI does not have to be evil to destroy humanity: ‘It’s just like, if we’re building a road and an anthill just happens to be in the way, we don’t hate ants, we’re just building a road, and so, goodbye anthill’ (

Stuart Russell, in his excellent 2021 Reith lectures on AI (see our summary here), makes a telling observation about capitalist corporations like the fossil fuel industry, arguing that they operate as uncontrolled superintelligent AIs with fixed objectives which ignore externalities. But why only certain industries? We would go one further and argue that capitalism as a whole works like this. It doesn’t hate humans or the planet, but is currently destroying both in the blind and disinterested quest to build ever greater profits, so goodbye world, to paraphrase its richest beneficiary, one Elon Musk.

Musk is right about one thing, saying ‘the least scary future I can think of is one where we have at least democratized AI because if one company or small group of people manages to develop godlike digital superintelligence, they could take over the world’. It’s rather ironic that, once again, Musk sees himself as part of the solution, not part of the problem.

To democratise AI you would first need to democratise social production, because in capitalism science and tech are sequestered behind barriers of ownership by private investors anxious to avoid any uncontrolled release of potentially profitable knowledge into the environment. AI needs to belong to all humanity, just like all other forms of wealth, which is why socialists advocate post-capitalist common ownership. In such circumstances, a global standardisation of AI development rules becomes genuinely feasible, and as Russell argues, it wouldn’t be that difficult to program AIs not to kill us all in the quest for more paperclips: you simply build in an uncertainty principle, so that the AI understands that the solution it has devised may not be the one humans really want or need. It’s a sensible approach. If only humans used a bit of natural intelligence and adopted it, they’d get rid of capitalism tomorrow.
Paddy Shannon

Artificial Intelligence (2022)

From the June 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard 

We have always been intrigued by mechanical efforts to imitate us. Our technology ostensibly exists to enhance and improve our lives by imitating the labours needed for our existence. As such there’s always an element of emulation in the appearance or behaviour of our technology. From 18th century automata to the robots of today we delight in their ability to imitate us. But, as ever, there’s a flip side to this as illustrated by the Luddites of the past and the techno-sceptics and environmentalists of today. Many films and novels feature a dystopia caused by technology and AI in particular (Blade Runner and Terminator come to mind) where the computer becomes ‘self-aware’ or conscious and perceives humanity as a threat to its needs and even its very existence. Quite apart from the reactionary fear that robots will take away all our jobs does the possibility that Artificial Intelligence may achieve self-awareness present either a threat or the hope of a better life for us both (humans and AI entities)?

Most thought works on the principle of dualities – we define something by what it is not as well as by its innate qualities. The term ‘artificial’ is used to describe something that is not ‘natural’ and is often associated with negative characteristics. This is irrational in some respects since all the components we use in the manufacture of technology are taken from nature. We don’t refer to the intricate structures of a termite mound or a beaver’s dam as ‘unnatural’. We have become alienated from the products of our own labour which can lead us to be suspicious of technology – sometimes with good reason. All labour under capitalism has been alienated from its producers and even the most advanced technology will not escape the iron laws of production for profit for long. Artificial is also a term used for the inauthentic and the fake so when combined with the equally problematic concept of intelligence we have a ready-made topic for intense debate. People have unsuccessfully tried to define intelligence for centuries and possibly the best we can do is compare outcome with intention with the proximity of the two as being some measure of intelligence. Intention, of course, implies some level of purpose and self-awareness that we can call consciousness. At the moment, for computers, this is supplied by human programmers but can there ever arise a possibility that AI might provide its own purposes and intentions? Some see this as the great divide between our type of intelligence and that of AI. However, as so often happens, if we use our technology as a metaphor to understand ourselves in terms of complex machinery we may ask: who or what programs us?

Socialists, like all materialists, are believers in cause and effect as the universal determinant of all observed phenomena. For us then intelligence is determined by the evolution of the brain due to natural selection. As humans have always been a social species our ability to communicate and act communally led to the success of our species. Gradually the complexity of our technology demanded that our childhood would last ever longer so that we might learn from those with experience, and this quality began to replace genetic determinism as a measure of individual success and therefore intelligence. We are ‘programmed’ by the culture into which we are born with the genetic element becoming ever less important. Nurture rather than nature has become responsible for what we are. Ideology has become a dominant feature of our education and it is this that determines our activity in terms of to what degree we reject or embrace the dominant value system into which we are born. Whatever we are we are certainly not capable of ‘free will’ and the concept of the transcendental self is a myth. So if we are also programmed by forces outside of our control, what separates our consciousness from that of AI – could it be that the concept of an artificial intelligence is itself artificial?

In trying to develop technology that possesses intelligence we have inadvertently discovered more about the nature of our own intellect. There still remains, however, a profound distinction between our intelligence and that of a machine in that we are ‘alive’ and a machine is not. The dialectical distinction between life and death and the organic and inorganic remains important and instructive. Although our intelligence is primarily a cultural construct our biological inheritance still provides us with certain drives and instincts such as the need to survive and to procreate. These drives affect the intellect through our emotions which can clash with our intellect and cause irrational behaviour. Although most of us would happily do without anger, greed, jealousy and hate few of us would want to live without love, aesthetic pleasure and empathy. Such feelings are identified with being ‘alive’. Their effect on our ability to reason may be dubious but the effect on our imagination and creativity is indisputable. Can machines ever replicate such a synthesis of reason, logic, anxiety and imagination? We might be tempted to program emotion in but it would be extremely dangerous to create a powerful technology with an inbuilt possibility of irrational behaviour! But without the fear and anxiety that comes with knowledge of death how can machines replicate our intelligence?

If you look up the scientific definition of ‘life’ you’ll see that it runs to several paragraphs and may or may not be dependent on the long chain molecules identified with carbon and its derivatives. Perhaps someone somewhere is attempting to develop an organic computer but there remains the possibility that intelligence may not be dependent on life and that a machine may develop a different type of intelligence than the one we seek to create. It may become conscious but not organically ‘alive’. Such an entity may strike us with horror because of the probability that it will lack any moral values or empathy with which we seek to mitigate the fear and suffering of living with pain and death.

Alan Turing , one of the ‘founding fathers’ of AI, provided us with a test which he thought might help to define the transformation between mere mechanical computing and a semblance of human type intelligence by putting a computer and a human on one side and a human tester on the other side. If the tester couldn’t recognize which candidate was human and which candidate was a computer after a series of questions, then the computer successfully passed the Turing test. To date no computer has passed this test. John von Neumann, another of the giants in the field, was optimistic that a self-replicating machine would be developed that would help to enable a technological singularity which would change human life and culture forever. We can only speculate if this ‘paradigm shift’ would be beneficial or otherwise for our species. Would such an event aid us in the struggle for socialism? We take pride in the coherence and logic of our case for revolutionary change and so would hope that any such event would not oppose this. But we note that intelligence alone doesn’t seem to be enough as many of the world’s greatest intellects do indeed oppose the establishment of socialism. The emotional strength and ability needed to conceive of alternatives to the organisation of the world into which we’re born seems to be dependent on other factors which, for the moment, appear exclusively human. Older readers may recall a TV series called The Prisoner and one scene in particular in which a super computer is developed by our hero’s interrogators, which they are confident will finally crack the defiance of ‘Number Six’. Such is their hubris that they allow their adversary to ask one question of this device which, he insists, it will not be able to answer. This question then proceeds to cause the computer to self-destruct. When the shocked interrogators ask as to the nature of the question, Number Six replies that it was simply a one word enquiry: ‘Why?’ Science and its technologies can provide us with many answers to the questions it continually creates but there are some that may be best left to old fashioned philosophy and politics.

AI – It's your move (2022)

From the June 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard 

Last year’s World Chess Championship in Dubai saw reigning Champion Magnus Carlsen and his challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi draw one game in what has been billed as the most accurate game of championship chess in history. That is, according to the best available computer analysis neither player made a move that appreciably lost nor gave any advantage. An article on the event noted that the analysis suggests that chess games at the top level have been getting progressively accurate, and more so since advanced computer analysis became truly available to players (

This is an instructive example of computers and humans interacting to provide increasing accuracy and effectiveness. The event which saw then World Champion Gary Kasparov defeated by a computer, in 1997, has been seen as a landmark in the progress of the development of machine thinking, and the point at which computers became better than humans (even if, at the event, the computer required human adjustment to its programming between matches to achieve the feat). In 2016, a computer programme called AlphaGo defeated one of the best human minds at the complex Japanese game of Go. Go is considered harder for machines to play, since it is much more intuitive and probabilistic than chess, but AlphaGo was trained to play it through machine learning. Again, the expectation is that the best Go players will now improve through using computers to analyse their games for flaws and plan their strategies.

It is now a commonplace in chess circles to talk about ‘computer moves’ that appear utterly unintelligible to the human mind, but which the computer proves make sense, about 14 moves down the line. The computer can now see lines that the human mind just wouldn’t be able to begin to consider (because they often violate the general principles of play in the immediate instance).

Researchers are now trying to train computers to play more like humans. They have trained a neural net to be able to identify players just by their moves and playing style, which will, in the future, enable computers to offer a more bespoke approach to using computer assistance. ‘Chess engines play almost an “alien style” that isn’t very instructive for those seeking to learn or improve their skills. They’d do better to tailor their advice to individual players. But first, they’d need to capture a player’s unique form’ ( Or, as the paper’s abstract puts it: ‘The advent of machine learning models that surpass human decision-making ability in complex domains has initiated a movement towards building AI systems that interact with humans’ ( There are considerable commercial applications for such capacity, not to mention the police and security implications of such stylometric analysis that goes beyond the chess board.

In the field of sport, we’ve seen technology appear to improve umpiring decisions, particularly the ever-controversial leg-before-wicket rule in cricket. The introduction of ball tracking technology (alongside Hotspot and ‘Snicko’) has not only improved the accuracy of decisions finally taken, but they have also influenced the umpires’ decision-making in the first place. What they previously, to the naked eye, might have considered not out has been empirically proven to be a legal dismissal. Umpires have learned to adapt and reduce the chance of themselves being overruled by the machine.

Perhaps the most extreme manifestation of this human-computer interaction was announced in December last year: human brain cells in a Petri dish were trained to play a computer game ( That they learnt faster than computer AI is itself intriguing, and is indicative of the issues that have been around development of AI for a long time. While computers have promised a general adaptive intelligence since they were first conceived of, a great deal of research has yet to produce tangible results beyond the very restricted rules-based situations in chess or Go.

The dream of driverless cars, for example, has taken a great deal of a knock. In practice the cars tend not to respond well to the chaotic environment of a real road (which has led to a number of fatalities during the testing of these machines. The fact that their sensors can be fooled by something resembling the white lines of a road (or even worse, actually spoofed into thinking something is a road by malicious actors) has seriously dented the idea that there will be a general roll-out of driverless vehicles on our roads any time soon.

This ignores the possibility of even more dangerous things such as hackers gaining control of automated driving systems and using them to make the car do what they want.

This is itself alarming, as military applications of AI are being increasingly deployed in the real world (and form part of the current military competition between the US and China. Last year, the British government announced that its forces had deployed AI in combat manoeuvres:

‘Through the development of significant automation and smart analytics, the engine is able to rapidly cut through masses of complex data. Providing efficient information regarding the environment and terrain, it enables the Army to plan its appropriate activity and outputs […] In future, the UK armed forces will increasingly use AI to predict adversaries’ behaviour, perform reconnaissance and relay real-time intelligence from the battlefield’ (

Of course, some of this is puffery to promote the armed forces but the AI competition between powers is real. It isn’t just in the development labs, though. In the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, the Azerbaijanis used AI-assisted drones to considerable effect:

‘Relatively small Azerbaijani mobile groups of crack infantry with light armor and some Israeli-modernized tanks were supported by Turkish Bayraktar TB2 attack drones, Israeli-produced loitering munitions, and long-range artillery and missiles, […] Their targeting information was supplied by Israeli- and Turkish-made drones, which also provided the Azerbaijani military command with a real-time, accurate picture of the constantly changing battlefield situation’ (

Wikipedia defines a loitering munition as: ‘a weapon system category in which the munition loiters around the target area for some time, searches for targets, and attacks once a target is located’ (

The applications are still limited, but given that drone swarm displays have become as common and spectacular as fireworks, it’s clear that the technology exists for serious damage to be done on a wide scale with these devices, and some of the finest minds in the world are looking to make them even more lethal and autonomous to combat potential threats to communication lines.

Tellingly, in parliamentary answers, the British government refuses to back a moratorium on autonomous killing devices: ‘the UK will continue to play an active role[…], working with the international community to agree norms and positive obligations to ensure the safe and responsible use of autonomy’ (

The fact is that no-one quite knows where this will end. Futurologists talk of an event called ‘the Singularity’, a point in time beyond which we cannot make meaningful predictions and after which is a completely unrecognisable world. The likeliest cause of an imminent singularity, they claim, is the invention of superhuman intelligence, capable of redesigning and improving itself. This would in turn lead, so they claim, to new innovations coming so fast that they would be obsolete by the time they were implemented.

At present, this remains theoretical, and decades of research into artificial intelligence and machine learning still has not provided even a theoretical route to a machine capable of general intelligence, as opposed to a specific task-focused capability.

‘The common shortcoming across all AI algorithms is the need for predefined representations[…]. Once we discover a problem and can represent it in a computable way, we can create AI algorithms that can solve it, often more efficiently than ourselves. It is, however, the undiscovered and unrepresentable problems that continue to elude us’ (

Computers can work very effectively at what they do, but they lack intention or volition. At computer engines tirelessly and sterilely play each other at chess, endlessly making moves with no love for the game nor pleasure in victory.

We can look forward to the impact of AI on our lives being a co-operative effort between humans and machines. This article, for instance, was written with the assistance of Google’s searching algorithms to bring up relevant articles at a moment’s notice, replacing hours of research in a physical library.

Stuart Russell’s 2021 Reith Lectures on ‘Living with Artificial Intelligence’ (2022)

From the June 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard 

The 4 lectures are online here but here’s a quick and sketchy summary.

Lecture 1: The biggest event in human history

Machines don’t have objectives, so the ‘standard model’ of AI is to feed objectives in and let the machine figure out the method. But if the objectives are ill-considered, the machine won’t know that. Machine ‘consciousness’ is an anthropocentric irrelevance.

Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) could herald a Golden Age, in which we could ‘raise the living standard of everyone on Earth in a sustainable way to a respectable level.’

Corporations have been called ‘profit-maximising algorithms’. It’s silly to blame them, because ‘we’re the ones who wrote the rules.’ Russell says we should change the rules.

Lecture 2: AI in warfare

AI features in drone swarms, supersonic missile fighters, self-drive tanks and submarines, and robotics, but he is mainly concerned with Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS) – weapons which locate, select and engage (kill) human targets without human supervision. The entire AI industry is opposed to LAWS on ethical and practical grounds. The biggest drawback is the eventual availability to all actors of cheap LAWS, making conflict and escalation more likely. In 2017 Russell and some students made a scary YouTube video called Slaughterbot to demonstrate the future potential of LAWS. Russian commentators dismissed the technology as 30 years away. A Turkish firm built one 3 weeks later.

Nonetheless he is optimistic about a comprehensive LAWS ban, citing treaties on nuclear, chemical and biological weapons as well as land mines, blinding laser weapons, etc.

Lecture 3: AI in the economy

Most experts think AGI is a ‘plausible outcome within the next few decades’. JM Keynes postulated ‘technological unemployment’, but classical economists dismissed this as a Luddite fantasy. Russell disagrees, illustrating why with an ingenious paintbrush analogy. He describes the ‘wealth effect’ as automation makes things cheaper, but sees AGI pushing ‘virtually all sectors into decreased employment’. He acknowledges that wealth percolates up and doesn’t trickle down, increasing inequality: ‘I don’t know any near-term solution other than redistribution’.

Lecture 4: AI – A Future for Humans

The EU asked him if Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics could be made into law. He said they are illogical and unworkable. Instead he proposes three design principles:

The sole objective of any AI system must be the realisation of human preferences.
The machine can never assume that those preferences are fixed and known, it needs to ask (the uncertainty principle). It must always allow itself to be switched off, in case it is the problem.
Machines should rely not just on what some humans say (they may be mistaken, or bad actors) but also on general human behaviour, and written records.
Russell thinks businesses will have a strong financial interest in following these principles, to avoid bad press and payouts after a disaster. But they also have a ‘first mover’ incentive, hence the need for defining codes of conduct.

The Economics of AI (2022)

From the June 2022 issue of the Socialist Standard 

AI involves the use of machines to take, on their own, a continuing series of certain ‘intelligent’ decisions currently made by humans but in principle is no different from the use of other machines in production. AI is a further extension of the continual mechanisation that has been going on since capitalism started. Competition drives capitalist firms to mechanise in order to reduce their cost of production and stay in the battle of competition for profits. The same economic laws that govern the introduction of machinery under capitalism apply to the application of AI.

These economic laws are not what they might at first be assumed to be – that machines are introduced to reduce the amount of past and present human labour involved in producing something. This is because under capitalism there is a difference between the total amount of human labour required from start to finish to produce something and what it costs a capitalist firm to have it produced.

The total labour required to produce an item of wealth is not just that expended in the last stage of its production, as in the factory from which it emerges as a finished product, but also that expended on the production of the materials re-worked, the energy consumed and the wear and tear of the machines and buildings.

Only the labour expended at the last stage adds new labour and value. Under capitalism this is divided into wages (corresponding to the labour embodied in the workers’ labour-power) and unpaid surplus labour (the source of profit). The past labour embodied in the materials, energy, machines and buildings is transferred to the product without increasing. In the case of machines this is transferred gradually in the form of wear and tear (depreciation) until they need to be replaced. So while machines transfer value to the product it is their own pre-existing value. They do not add any new value and so do not produce surplus value; it is only the labour of those who use them that does.

Productivity can be said to increase when less labour (past and present) is required to produce an item of wealth. A machine only increases productivity to the extent that it displaces more labour than needed to produce it. Unless it does this there is no point, as far as increasing productivity is concerned, in installing it.

Under capitalism there is another limit. Machines are only installed to the extent that they replace the paid part of newly-added labour. This places the bar higher than it would be in a society, such as socialism will be, where there was no division of newly-added labour into paid and unpaid parts. It means that machines that could be installed are not, because it is not profitable to do so even though they would increase productivity.

What is relevant for a capitalist firm when considering whether to mechanise some work is the level of wages, the price of labour-power, compared to the price of the machine. The lower the wages the less the incentive to install machinery but wages can vary from place to place and from industry to industry. Marx, writing in the 1860s, gave some interesting historical examples:

‘Hence the invention nowadays in England of machines that are employed only in North America; just as in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries machines were invented in Germany for use exclusively in Holland, and just as many French inventions of the eighteenth century were exploited only in England… The Yankees have invented a stone-breaking machine. The English do not make use of it because the “wretch” who does this work gets paid for such a small portion of his labour that machinery would increase the cost of production to the capitalist’ (Capital, Vol 1, chapter 15, section 2. Penguin translation).

The same considerations apply to AI machines. AI will only be applied under capitalism when and where it will displace more paid labour than its machines cost, not when it will reduce the total amount of labour expended. Together with the high cost of producing AI machines, this will slow down and limit the extent to which AI will be applied under capitalism. In industries and countries where the labour-power to be replaced is relatively cheaper it won’t be applied at all.

Futurologists who see a more or less rapid spread of AI fail to take this into account. As do those who, following their lead, think that AI will quickly lead to mass unemployment and so to a drastic fall in paying demand which they propose to remedy by paying everyone a ‘universal basic income’. To compensate for the fall in paying demand this payment, financed out of profits, would have to be at a level that would be incompatible with capitalism. Any lesser amount would have the perverse result of reducing money wages.

The idea of the whole working class being replaced by intelligent robots is also a fantasy. AI equipment, like all machines, does not create any new value (transfer any new labour to the product) and so no surplus value; it just transfers gradually the labour expended from start to finish to make it. If production were fully automated, no surplus value would be produced, so there would be no profits and capitalism would no longer exist. Not that there is any chance of capitalism evolving into a ‘fully automated’ economy. This could only come into being if, at some point in the future after the abolition of capitalism, socialist society were to decide to go down that route (not an evident decision) and establish ‘fully automated luxury communism’. At the present time, given the low level of productivity compared to what it would need to be for that, this is science fiction. Humans are still going to have to have a substantial direct input into production for a long time to come, even after socialism has been established,

A ‘lights-out’ sector of the capitalist economy is another matter. A factory requiring no input of living human labour is not inconceivable, and a few are indeed operational. Although no surplus value would be produced in it, the capital invested there would make a profit due to the averaging of the rate of profit. This is brought about by capitals competing to invest in the most profitable sectors, with the result that all capitals, irrespective of their composition (into past and present labour), tend to get the same rate of return. The source of the profit of a lights-out factory would be a share of the surplus value created in the rest of the capitalist economy.

Given capitalism, AI will only be introduced gradually as it becomes profitable (replaces more paid labour than its own considerable cost) and much slower than would be technologically possible to increase productivity. The robots are not going to take over any time soon.
Adam Buick

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

A Land Fit for Heroes - 1999 (1999)

From the November 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

Twenty-five percent of homeless men sleeping on the streets of London are ex-servicemen (Times, 3 August). The smelly, aggressive drunk on Hungerford Bridge was once a hero! A survey carried out in 1993 concluded that the main cause of homelessness and its consequences is the breakdown of relationships and alcoholism, and these develop during military service. So there it is—the even more important question is: “Are these heroes fit for the land?”, and the worrying answer is “apparently not”. It is not just the so-called positive side of the Armed Forces, teaching discipline and how to feel you’re doing a great job killing fellow workers you’ve never seen before and who’ve done you no harm, but the side-effects of living in these conditions. Only recently has there been an admission that life in the Forces can easily make you unfit for life outside.

Major Colin Crawford of Combat Stress, which provides counselling to 5,000 ex-service personnel (of whom five percent are women) says that military culture and rituals act as a support for members who’ve had traumatic experiences. When they return to civilian life that support is missing and relationships fall apart under the strain. The Forces concentrate on bonding among personnel and life is lived to a strict pattern of parades, drills and uniforms, but they receive no training or advice on how to cope with a return to civilian life. Officers are not taught that the Forces’ way is not acceptable in “Civvy Street” and that, for example, an order to an office junior to get them a cup of tea will receive a dusty answer, or even simple things like the meaning of “cash-back” in a supermarket. In the Forces you are taught to hide and discipline your feelings and traumas and stresses of what they may have seen or suffered cannot be discussed leading to further isolation or heavy drinking. The latter, the major leisure occupation in the Forces is, at worst, encouraged and at best ignored.

The problem is not confined to this country. In the USA twice as many ex-servicemen committed suicide after the Vietnam war than were killed during it. At last the problem has been recognised and self-help groups are being formed to assist in the transition back to civilian life. However, Soldiers to be (Part 1, BBC1, 10 August) showing the training and discipline expected before men and women are even accepted into the Forces, depressingly illustrates how much work needs to be done (and undone) to give ex-members a chance of successfully returning to civilian life. After “serving their country” they may have escaped death or physical mutilation but their experience has left them scarred for life. What made them part of an effective fighting machine has made them incapable of maintaining normal relationships within the family and friends or coping with the different stresses of working under capitalism.
Eva Goodman

Chechen war (Part II) (1999)

From the November 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
For too long now, the Chechen people have held that second-class status was often afforded South Africa’s black population. Indeed, in Moscow they are disparagingly referred to as “blacks” and the prejudice can be traced back over 150 years to the time when Tsarists conquered the area.

Stalin’s hate for them was such that he had the entire population deported to Central Asia in 1944, citing charges of Nazi collaboration—a venture that would wipe out some 60 percent of the Chechen population.

In recent years they have been blamed for every social ill facing Russia, from drug trafficking and kidnapping to black-marketeering. It was therefore not really surprising that the latest Moscow bomb attacks got blamed on Chechenya’s aspiring islamist secessionists—in spite of no evidence existing to suggest this—while providing the Russian rulers with another opportunity to send troops into the tiny republic.

Ostensibly, the present Chechen conflict was sparked by the seizing of border villages by islamic militants—the fundamentalist Wahhabi muslims, intent on creating an independent islamic republic made up of Daghestan and Chechenya. In the Chechen republic Wahhabi support has increased recently, chiefly because of high unemployment, despair at a corrupt local elite, frustration with the slow pace of market reforms and at the little effort Russia has made to rebuild the republic after the bungled Chechen war of 1994-6.

The Russian rulers, however, didn’t need much of an excuse to send troops into Chechenya at the end of September. They still feel the humiliation of Russia’s venture into Chechenya in the mid-90s, when 6,500 Russian troops lost their lives fighting Chechen guerrillas and the consequent pull-out sparked by public outcry at home. Moreover, here was a former superpower being whipped by a tiny band of poorly-trained fighters.

In the wake of that particular conflict, though still claiming Chechenya was breaching laws laid down in the Russian Federation constitution, Moscow was embarrassingly forced to accept the republic’s de-facto independence, but not formally.

More importantly, the Russian rulers are all too aware of Chechenya’s real significance. In spite of its size (7,350 square miles compared with the 8.64 million of the former Soviet Union) Chechenya is a veritable goldmine, and all the more important considering that previous successful secessionists—Georgia and Azerbaijan—took with them a wealth of mineral resources.

Chechenya, landlocked on three sides by Russia, includes fertile farmland that straddles the wheat fields of southern Russia. It has key transport assets—rail/road routes that link the Black and Caspian seas and trade routes to other trans-Caucasus republics. Most importantly, Chechenya controls vital oil pipelines that connect the Black and Caspian seas, as well as vital oilfields and refineries. We can add to this Chechenya’s chemical and engineering industries as well as its supply of building materials. All said, Chechenya equals roubles equals profits.

But one wonders why Russia, in recent weeks, has concentrated air strikes on oil terminals, bridges and dams. The strategy seems to be one of destroying Chechenya’s infrastructure and raw material supplies and to seal it off from the outside world. Sounds familiar? By all accounts Moscow has modelled the attack on the NATO strategy in Kosovo, hoping to bring Chechenya to its knees in as short a space of time as possible and with minimum loss of Russian life.

Nine years after the Chechen nationalists first informed Moscow of its secessionist ambitions, and with hundreds of thousands of Chechens now living the meagre life of the refugee in neighbouring republics, stability looks a long way off, and with President Aslan Maskhadov now enlisting the help of the region’s most prominent warlords—such as Shamil Basayev, a veteran commander of the first Chechen war that Maskhadov initially disowned—the conflict looks set to be long and protracted.

With so much mineral wealth at stake, wealth they are afforded no real share in, the Chechens should at least realise that whichever elite—Russian or Chechen, Russian Orthodox or Muslim—calls the shots, they will always come a poor second to the lure of the rouble and the profits that await the real victors. The 80-100,00 who lost their lives in the first Chechen war is a poignant reminder of this fact.
John Bissett

Greasy Pole: Tories In Trouble (1999)

The Greasy Pole column from the November 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

There was once a young Conservative MP who, when he arrived to take his seat, was taken aside by an elder statesman and advised never to forget that the party had a secret weapon, which was loyalty. For a very long time the Tories have traded on that impression—that they are a party which prizes loyalty and unity above all else. There is very little evidence to support this. Even when that new Member was being given that advice the Tory record on the issue was anything but unblemished. In fact their history is studded with examples of splits, intrigues, back-stabbing and manoeuvring to unseat the leader.

For example the 1922 Committee got its name from a rebellious meeting in that year at the Carlton Club which was responsible for toppling Austen Chamberlain from the leadership and thereby bringing down the coalition government under Lloyd George. In 1958 a huge rift opened up in the Macmillan government when all the Treasury Ministers, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, resigned—an event which Macmillan famously brushed aside as “a little local difficulty”. A few years later Macmillan showed what he thought about loyalty and unity when, in a panic about a little local difficulty at some by-elections he sacked a chunk of his Cabinet including his ever loyal, never complaining Chancellor Selwyn Lloyd who had always made it clear that he was ready and willing to any job, no matter how distasteful, required of him by the government of British capitalism. In more recent times there was the ruthless business of Michael Heseltine and the men in grey suits toppling Margaret Thatcher.

This fractious tradition is still going strong. It is arguable that the Conservative Party has never experienced such disunity and disarray as it does today. What is more it has had no compunction about revealing its splits to the voters at large.

Consider the matter of the ex-ministers’ memoirs. These are very often a welcome source of income and consolation for those who are no longer in the seats of power and who pine for their chauffeur-driven cars, the media attention and the other trappings of office. One difficulty is that the higher sales usually go to the more revealing—the more bitter, scurrilous and bilious—memoirs. If there was ever such a thing as a united government it would be unlikely that its ministers could write their account of life in the Cabinet with the desirable degree of titillation. Of course this is not a problem for the people who so gruesomely ran the government when Thatcher and Major were in Number Ten.

John Major has had his say about Margaret Thatcher, writing her off as a bossy, overbearing and stubborn obstacle to proper government. This is not an example of what is meant by Tory loyalty because Major was Thatcher’s favourite son—the man she wanted to succeed her in 1990. The same might be said about his criticisms of Norman Lamont, who managed Major’s 1990 campaign to succeed Thatcher as Tory leader. Lamont’s reward for this was the job of Chancellor of the Exchequer but unluckily for him this coincided with the kind of financial crisis which Chancellors are supposed to be able to cure but which are beyond them. The so-called Black Wednesday in September 1992 when the Bank Rate went soaring and Sterling was removed from the Exchange Rate Mechanism illuminated how powerless are the experts and the politicians in the face of capitalism’s crises. The decision to take sterling out of the ERM was in stark contrast to Major’s assurance that this would not happen because the solution to British capitalism’s problems was to be a member of it. So Lamont had good cause to be aggrieved, and even more after Major sacked him and now that Major is largely putting the blame for the crisis on his shoulders.

Black Wednesday
Lamont clearly thought that his efforts to get Major into the premiership deserved a more grateful response. Of course had he been practising that Tory loyalty he should have held his tongue, accepted his downfall and given his all in supporting the government, even if that did mean rewriting history a bit. In fact he has been busily engaged ever since in attacks on Major, of varying degrees of subtlety. The version of Black Wednesday in his memoirs differs from that of Major and, as might be expected, does not take the blame for it on himself. Cynical and bitter, Lamont is now a pathetic figure—exiled to the Lords, penning the odd newspaper article, trying to persuade us that Pinochet saved Chile for civilisation and that all those people who disappeared there at the time have gone missing of their own accord.

A lot of this disunity came bubbling sulphurously to the surface at this year’s Tory conference. Naturally they gave William Hague the customary standing ovation but this did not obscure the fact that his grasp on the party leadership is as precarious as ever. Almost as soon as he got the job Hague was under fire, as if the MPs who had voted for him suddenly woke up to the fact that they had made a terrible mistake. Hague has done all kinds of things to win a few friends—married a pretty blonde who smiles nicely for the cameras, eaten spicy Caribbean food in the street at the Notting Hill Carnival, been seen in public wearing a baseball cap, had a skinhead hair cut. No man could do more. But none of this has done him any good.

While attention has been diverted by these distasteful antics Hague has silkily got rid of most of the leading Tories from the days of Thatcher and Major. Clarke and Heseltine more or less deselected themselves and are now standing critics on the issue of Europe. Lilley was sacked after a typically clumsy attempt to discard his past reputation as the scourge of single mothers and benefit claimants. Michael Howard was persuaded that he should spend more time with his prejudices. The only remnants of those former days of power are Redwood and Widdecombe, neither of them completely in touch with the reality of vote winning.

No doubt there are some fascinating reminiscences now burgeoning in the embryo memoirs of the likes of Lilley and Howard. Meanwhile Hague has a Shadow Cabinet whose public presence is—well, shadowy. They are unrecognised, almost anonymous. Hague will have a hard job to convince the working class that these are the leaders who should be trusted to run British capitalism, swamp world markets with British made goods, progressively enrich the British capitalist class while bludgeoning the workers into a docile acceptance of their role as the exploited wealth-producers. In this he will endure for as long as he may be seen as a vote winner. If that changes he will be ruthlessly discarded by this party which likes to boast of its unity and loyalty. If—or perhaps when—that happens it will be his turn to write his memoirs, to complain about an ungrateful party and of how he was, in effect, hoisted with his own petard.

Voice From The Back: “Planets rule capitalism” (1999)

The Voice From The Back Column from the October 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

“Planets rule capitalism” 

Astrologers have come up with an alternative explanation for the latest market losses: the solar eclipse. According to Jane Bowles, a financial astrologer, eclipses are often associated with share losses—the 1987 crash occurred just 12 days after an eclipse. Ms Bowles, writing with co-author Graham Bates, predicted in 1994 that this August would prove difficult for investors. She said: “This eclipse promises to be one of the worst of the century.” Times, 11 August.

Nice work! 

Union bosses have clocked on for record salaries after inflation-busting wage rises of more than five times those won for their members. The biggest pay rise went to Derek Hodgson, hard-Left leader of the Communication Workers Union representing postal and telephone workers. His pay and perks package rocketed by nearly 30 percent to £92,000, compared with an average 4.5 percent increase for most workers. Hodgson was closely followed by Lew Adams, outgoing chief of rail union ASLEF, who received a 23 percent rise. Adams, who was ousted by a member of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, saw his basic wage rise from £52,980 to £65,073. Pension and perks bumped the package to £105,489. The increases are revealed in figures compiled and realised by the Certification Office, which regulates trade unions. Mail on Sunday, 18 July.

Life in the capitalist class

Her monthly florist’s bills are more than $5,000 alone. And her frock habit is legendary: she is the one who is said to have paid £350,000 for a single outfit from Chanel. But who’s counting when your jewellery collection includes a single 30.34 carat diamond worth more than $2 million? Observer Magazine, 8 August.

Life on the scrap heap 

Last winter, 20,000 older people died from cold-related illnesses—with adequate insulation in their homes many of them would have lived. Even the mildest winters can be lethal to vulnerable older people. As soon as the temperature drops, many have to choose whether to keep their heating on—or eat. They simply can’t afford to do both . . . Elsie’s home is so poorly insulated that heating it adequately is almost impossible-—and certainly more than her pension allows for. “I’m frightened to put my heating on for very long because I’m on Income Support. When it gets really cold I stay in bed to keep warm.” With your help, we can insulate homes like Elsie’s to make them more energy efficient and reduce fuel bills. Leaflet from Help the Aged and Scottish Gas.

Feudalism lives on 

There are tens of thousands of bonded labourers living in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province, despite a 1992 law outlawing the practice, according to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. The group has freed 7,500 people since 1995, when it started raids on plantations so remote that few people ever venture there . . . A video the group secretly made in 1996 shows dozens of male labourers in leg irons, while at work cutting cane on a farm near Hyderabad. The group estimates that there are roughly 50,000 bonded labourers in Southern Sindh. Most are low-caste Hindus from the nearby Thar Desert, a group that remained in the area when Britain’s Indian colony split in 1947 into primarily Muslim Pakistan and Hindu India. Because most labourers come from traditional nomadic communities and are illiterate, they are helpless to defend their rights. Boston Sunday Globe, 18 July.

Owing space 

News that the private company SpaceDev plans to claim the near-Earth asteroid Nereus as its own property is an exciting boost for the belief that the Solar System will be colonised by private industry. Space-Dev’s chief executive, James Benson, doesn’t know whether his proposed take-over of Nereus will prove legal, but nobody else does either. Space treaties prohibit nations from owning celestial bodies, but say nothing about private companies . . . industrial chemists in space will be able to make and sell virtually anything. They will create a trading economy that will be entirely self-sufficient. But since it will require very long term investment—although there will be short term profits—there will be no room up there for terrestrial politicians with their five-year attention span. In space, the capitalist will be king. Astronomy Now, 11 August.

New Labour copies Old Labour 

In an unusually direct intervention, Mr Howarth said the government “fully supports the employers”, regards fire-fighters conditions as “outmoded and unjustified” and believes strike action would be a “relic of an old and discredited confrontational approach to industrial relations”. Tony Blair is understood to have discussed proposals by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, for the government to outlaw industrial action in the fire service and impose binding arbitration, but decided not to act until a national strike is called . . . And with a shortage of military fire engines and the armed forces overstretched in the Balkans, ministers have been warned against being drawn into a showdown with a popular group of public service workers. Guardian, 7 August.

Letters: More on socialism (1999)

Letters to the Editors from the October 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard

More on socialism

Dear Editors,

It’s been good to see the lively debate over the directions we should take as revolutionaries, in the recent letters on the “S” word question.

Although I am in favour of keeping “Socialism” in our party name, we shouldn’t let ourselves get too hung up about words—any word can become abused and misused; indeed you only need to think how the term “democracy” has been rendered almost meaningless through its use by state and corporate mouthpieces. Descriptions such as socialism, communism, anarchist-communism, Free Access and Common Wealth are all valid, if used meaningfully, for the sort of society we dearly wish to see. There is nothing to stop us using a multitude of words and descriptions for what we stand for in our propaganda (another word that has become distorted!). What’s important is that we get our ideas over as effectively as possible. There is no reason why we should constantly shout “Socialism” from the material we produce and distribute, and anyway, much of the time we don’t.

However, for many many people the words “socialism”, “socialist” hold the sort of vision of an alternative, free society that we stand for. This makes it a strength, and something that will attract people who consider themselves politically aware or socialist to the World Socialism Movement. The title “socialist” connects us to the long tradition of revolutionary ideas and movements of which we are a part in a way that Free Access, for all its merits, probably doesn’t.

The important thing would seem to be that socialists take an open-minded and non-dogmatic approach to the way we present and develop our ideas. Discussions like this should hopefully stimulate us to think how best to spread the message of self-emancipation and common ownership.
Ben Malcolm, 

And unfortunately, socialism must be near the top of the list of words that have been abused—.- Editors

. . . And more

Dear Editors,

I agree that it is imperative for the Socialist Party now to hold more firmly than ever to its name. The end of the century has at last seen the demise of the big con, Leninism, and has also seen the self-unmasking of that other confidence trick, Labourite “socialism” (both of which equated socialism with nationalisation ). It would be too easy now, and a mistake, for the Socialist Party to let itself be seduced by the present lack of interest in the word socialism, by abandoning the name to which the Socialist Party alone has a right. As the one party truly representing the working class, we should know better than to give in to the pessimism of the moment. Wasn’t it a Socialist Party speaker recently who said, “The next century belongs to us”? We can’t afford to throw away our name, now that the name-stealers are at last tired of playing with it at our expense.

The Socialist Party is the one party (together with our companion parties of the World Socialist Movement) which stands, and has always stood, for socialism: a stateless, moneyless, classless world community, democratically controlled by the whole of society and with free access to the goods and services people need to live as true human beings. The Socialist Party must be proud of its name and now, more than ever before, must stand by it.

I see nothing wrong, however, with extending the name, logically, to World Socialist Party: full title, World Socialist Party (Britain), a party of the World Socialist Movement.
Anthony Walker, 
Christchurch, Dorset

Seeing red

Dear Editors,

Ivan’s article, “Keeping Their Hair On”, in the July Socialist Standard made some interesting points about party colours and the image of politicians. But why are certain organisations or institutions associated with particular colours?

For example, royalty has traditionally been represented by the colour blue and yet there is no certainty as to how or why this originated. I am not even sure if there is a reason for the left being traditionally represented by the colour red.

Whatever the reason for the association of the left with red, why does the Socialist Party still use this colour too—at least for its publicity and stationery? The Socialist Party is not left-wing (or any “wing”, for that matter) as it is advocating an entirely different system. Red, in the context of socialism smacks of Commies, Reds, Lefties, Militant, “Keep the Red Flag Flying” and all that other nonsense we are trying to distance ourselves from. Think of the old Soviet Union or China and what comes to mind? Red flags!

If we are to change people’s stereotypical perception of socialism and socialists—which is difficult enough as it is—then we need to change how people view us rather than reinforcing what they already believe. It is a question of image.

Sadly, capitalism has made image a more important quality than substance but as long as we have to operate within capitalism we will be judged on petty points such as our Party colour, just as much as we can be judged on our ethos. Perhaps we should use the colour blue (or a strain of it) ourselves; that would really give people something to think about!
Simon Montfalcon, 
Romsey, Hampshire

The red flag was first used as a revolutionary emblem in the French Revolution, in 1792 when the monarchy was overthrown. Apparently, up till then it had signified that martial law was in force and of course is still a danger signal (for the ruling class?). In the following century it became the flag of those in France who wanted a social as well as a political revolution.

Thus, in one of his articles on the revolutionary events in France in 1848 (Class Struggles in France 1848-1850) Marx referred to the red flag as being the flag of “the most extreme subversive party”. So too, the first English translation of the Communist Manifesto appeared in an extreme Chartist paper, the Red Republican. The Paris Commune of 1871 adopted the red flag as its official flag, so again Marx wrote about “the Red Flag, symbol of the Republic of Labour, flying over the Hotel de Ville” (Civil War in France).

The words of the song The Red Flag (which used to be sung at pre-WWI Socialist Party meetings such as those to commemorate the Paris Commune, before the song got hijacked by the Labour Party) were written by James Connell in 1889. One line reads “we must not change its colour now”– Editors

Why we need global change (1999)

Book Review from the October 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
To solve the many problems confronting humanity what is needed is a change in the basis of world society from existing class ownership to a world in which the Earth’s resources have become the common heritage of all.
Think globally, act locally, say the Greens. Anyone who follows the news cannot help but think globally. World hunger, financial crises, currency fluctuations, global warming, the hole in the ozone layer, world poverty, trade disputes, war and the threat of war—all these are global problems. But act locally to deal with them?

Local action may be appropriate to protect some local tree or stop rubbish being dumped in some local back yard, but LETS schemes as the answer to world financial turmoil, buying Third World honey as the answer to world poverty, cycle lanes as the answer to global warming? That’s either a joke or a cop-out. Clearly, all these problems can only be solved by global action. We are up against a global system which can only be effectively and lastingly dealt with at that level.

Global capitalism
Globalisation is not just a recent phenomenon; it has been going on since the beginning of capitalism. Historian Immanuel Wallerstein has argued that capitalism has always been a “world-system” in the sense of being a network of many countries producing for a single world market, none of them powerful enough to dominate it and all of them having to submit to its pressures. In this sense capitalism is the world market and the history of capitalism is the history of the development and spread of the world market since it came into being in the 1500s.

What subordination to the world market means for capitalist producers in individual countries is that they are under non-stop pressure to produce ever more cheaply by introducing ever more efficient machinery and techniques of production. The result has been continuous technical and technological advance, a continuous development of the world’s capacity to produce wealth such that by the turn of the century it could be said that a sufficient plenty for all people on Earth could have been produced had global capitalism then been replaced by a society of common ownership and production to meet human needs not profit. But it wasn’t.

Capitalism continued. So did the growth of the world’s wealth producing capacity but in the century that is now coming to an end global capitalism also engendered two world wars and several world slumps, and still today millions of people on the planet go to sleep hungry or lack access to clean water or medical care or decent housing or education. All of which is a damning indictment of global capitalism.

As the American journalist William Greider has put it in a recent book:
For several decades the world’s capacity to produce food, for instance, has far exceeded the entire human population’s need for nourishment. Yet the stockpiles of unused foodstuffs pile up unsold each year in producing nations while somewhere else in the world hundreds of millions of others are malnourished, if not actually starving to death. The paradox is explained away easily enough in market terms. Indeed, the market insists that feeding impoverished people would be harmful to them, indulging their backwardness and postponing their eventual self-sufficiency. That answer may satisfy the marketplace, but for humanity it constitutes another great, unanswered question. Capitalism, for all its wondrous creativity and wealth, has not yet found a way to clothe the poor and feed the hungry unless they can pay for it (p. 468).
The title of his book—One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism—neatly sums up the socialist case against capitalism. Capitalism has brought into being “one world” as far as the production and distribution of wealth is concerned, but humanity is not ready to cope with this since it has not yet created the appropriate social arrangements and institutions; instead, the one world that has come into being is governed by the manic logic of production for profit rather than the human logic of production to meet people’s needs, with disastrous results.

Greider does not write as a socialist but he does employ, perhaps unknowingly, a quasi-Marxist approach. Here is how he presents the effects of what defenders of capitalism see as its most positive side—the non-stop technological development it brings about:
There is another dimension to the technological revolution, however, that is seldom discussed in the business books: the gathering vulnerability of an industrial system that is ruled by persistent excess supply. The same technological imperative that continuously reduces costs and improves quality has also generated a seemingly permanent and expanding surplus in the productive capacity of the world. Crudely stated, the technology competition leads companies to invest in more output of goods than the global marketplace of consumers can possibly absorb. New factories, designed to produce more from less, naturally increase the capacity for production, but the output potential expands faster than older less efficient factories are being closed. This underlying imbalance is compounded by the accelerating drive for globalization, as firms both modernize and rush to build new production in the developing markets. A perverse syllogism is thus at work, company by company, sector by sector: the burdensome presence of overcapacity quickens the price competition and threatens market shares, but the only obvious response is to create more new capacity—that is, to build new factories that will be more cost-efficient than one’s rivals . . . From a managers’ point of view, the challenge is to make sure that the market’s overcapacity becomes the other guy’s problem, that some other firm will be compelled to swallow losses in sales and close down its factories (pp. 103-4).
Marx, too, noted capitalism’s tendency to develop productive capacity without regard for the fact that consumption under it was limited by what people could afford to pay for; that, under the competitive pressures of the world market, capitalist firms were obliged to develop productive capacity irrespective of whether or not market demand was growing at the same pace, with the inevitable result that sooner or later one industry would overproduce in relation to its market triggering off a slump during which the least efficient firms were eliminated, so bringing market demand and productive capacity back into line.

But what sort of system is it where potential plenty represents a problem? And where there can be talk of “excess supply” when so many humans’ basic needs, let alone proper facilities for a decent life for all, remain unmet? Answer: a system which has solved the technical problem of how to produce plenty for all but which is incapable of delivering it because production is tied not to people’s needs but only to what they can afford to pay for.

Financial mania
Capitalism is not just industrial capitalism. In fact capital is not interested in producing things as such; it is only interested in profit expressed in money terms. Investing in the production of goods and services is an inconvenience which it has to go through in order to achieve its aim of ending up with a greater financial worth than it started with. Thus the purest form of capital is finance capital and, from the capitalist point of view, the most convenient way to make more money is to do so by financial dealings of one sort or another. It’s an illusion of course. It’s production, not finance, that makes the world go round. The financial world cannot go on feeding off rising paper asset values for ever. Reality must intrude at some point. But capitalism without finance capital is inconceivable; so too, therefore, is capitalism without financial crashes.

As Greider describes it:
Across many centuries, this story of finance capital’s capacity to become deranged in pursuit of higher returns has played out again and again in different forms of manias and crashes. Eventually, as history informs us, the disorders may be corrected in a grim, violent manner—a great war or a great depression. These events will destroy financial capital on a massive scale and thereby restore a balance between the demands of old wealth and the needs of new productive enterprises. This sort of resolution produces vast human suffering and political upheavals, of course, but also clears the way for capitalism’s next expansive era (p. 227).
Greider thinks that the world is now heading for another such financial crash but he is not writing as an opponent of capitalism. He quotes the British Labour MP Denis MacShane (“For years, socialists used to argue among ourselves about what kind of socialism we wanted. The choice of the left is no longer what kind of socialism it wants, but what kind of capitalism it can support”) and seems to agree with him. In any event, he describes himself as a “global Keynesian”; in other words, as someone who wants to employ failed Keynesian techniques of “market demand management” on a global scale so as to try to avoid global capitalism plunging the world into another global depression or war or both.

If you haven’t considered properly the socialist alternative of abolishing the world market and its manic logic, and setting up non-market institutions, at world, regional and local levels, to co-ordinate the production and distribution of what people all over the world want, this might well appear to be the only solution. After all, if global capitalism ignores the hungry, the homeless and the needy because, not having any money, they don’t constitute a market and so don’t count, why not just to pump more money into the system so that such people can come to count for capitalism? The winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Economics, Amartya Sen, who has written very clearly on the cause of famines (collapse of purchasing power not of production), also describes himself as a global Keynesian.

Global Keynesians are more advanced than those Greens who advocate local action in the face of global problems. They at least realise that the solution requires action at world level. Their mistake is that the global action they propose is not up to it. The global inflation that would result would probably make matters worse; certainly the financial speculators would love it.

The answer to the problems that global capitalism has engendered is not a policy, even if pursued at global level, that would still leave intact the basic structures and mechanisms of capitalism. It is something much more far-reaching: a rapid and radical change in the basis of world society that will make the Earth’s resources the common heritage of all humanity so that they can be used to further the common human interest.
Adam Buick

The Poverty of the Greens (1999)

From the October 1999 issue of the Socialist Standard
The Green Party has recently made significant strides forward—attaining its first seat in a UK Parliament in Scotland, winning numerous seats at local levels, and getting two MEPs in June’s Euro elections, and is currently choosing its candidate for the Mayor of London. But their policies for making things better are doomed to fail to make things better.
The Greens form a part of the rising “left alternative”, political groups moving in to fill in the gaps left by Labour’s lurch rightwards. Indeed, they present a potent radical package, eschewing the political institutional demands for a leader, instead having two “Principal Speakers”; and presenting a platform replete with sweeping reforms to improve society.

That’s just it though. They are reformists, and for all their alleged radicalism, that’s all they will ever be; endlessly promoting their brand of radical Liberalism warmed-up; attempts to breath life into the mummified remains of the two hundred year old political corpse our current political system is built upon. Their campaigning is not based on changing minds, but on appealing to the values of those who feel abandoned by the traditional parties—promising this time they will get it to work.

A simple examination of their policies suffices to show their misguided muddleheadedness, and the doomed, inevitable failure of their programme. For example, their industrial relations policy:
We know that most collective organisation is in trade unions, and value that. (Manifesto for a Sustainable Society, WR104).
This is hardly a ringing endorsement of workers’ militancy, support for workers in their union struggles. It is simply recognition from afar, a nice idea to be viewed from a distance, and valued like an old pet dog. Then again, however, at least it makes a change from the rabid anti-unionism of the “grey parties” (as the Greens call them). It remains though, a very passive support.

Is there, then, a more radical element to it? Of course there is, our Green friends would tell us:
The Green Party is committed to workplace democracy . . . whereby undertakings shall be managed co-operatively through the involvement of those who work in them and the communities they serve (WR105).
This is excellent, they must mean socialising the production process, handing the reigns of power to the people—we socialists should support them! Well, no, actually:
Worker participation improves the industrial process, increases personal satisfaction and gives the community a bigger stake. Workers’ Councils should be set up along the lines of the successful German model (IN617).
Then we must institutionalise yet more corporatist policies in order to be even and fair about removing people’s right to strike.

But, despite their bureaucratic wishy-washiness, surely the Greens have some truly momentous social policies? Erm . . .
A Citizens’ Income scheme, eventually sufficient to cover basic needs, will be introduced in stages as an integrated taxation and benefit system to replace most present social benefits and tax allowances (EC705).
A basic income for every citizen! Of course, how this is to be squared with the wages system is anyone’s guess. As the 18th century agricultural Speenhamland system showed, when people can get a better income without having to work, they (quite sensibly) take it. The policy would be brought in within the lifetime of one Parliament, and over that time there would be a mass exodus of people from shite jobs (the Greens may like that, but I doubt the employers would enjoy it).
Sustainable industrial activity tends to be more labour intensive . . . the introduction of Citizens’ Income would reduce the cost of labour to industry without pushing people into poverty (IN605).
That’s more like it—it’s a pay-off. With this scheme employers could cut wages, and thus industry would be able to become more profitable. Exactly how, then, this would leave workers better off, is up for debate since at most the basic income could only cover the basic cost of living (or less), their real wage wouldn’t actually change.

This agenda continues:
Land Value Taxation. A system of land taxation, to be known as Land Value Taxation (LVT), will be introduced, this will be a tax on the annual value of land (i.e. excluding buildings, machinery etc.). An initial levy of LVT will be made at a fraction of the annual value as determined by preliminary assessment, according to permitted use. Ultimately the full annual value of land will accrue to the community (EC725).
The hobby-horse of the followers of the 19th century American economist Henry George, and an idea that has an old pedigree (back to the 18th century artisan radical Thomas Spence in his journal Pig’s Meat): profit from land is unearned and so is taxable, leaving the true and “fair” earnings duly accrued to Capital and Labour untouched.

Of course, such radicals as Thomas Spence were around at the birth of the idea of the small-holder market economy, which lives on in the minds of the Greens:

Smaller and more democratically structured enterprises are more open to community regulation, ensuring that greater care is taken both of the people who work in them, and of the concerns and needs of the local community and the environment.

There is the myth of Mom & Pop businesses, as if being small makes a business any less dominated by the overriding imperative for profits. With small companies we are to return to the dream of fair economics, freed from the distortions caused by big-business. the one true market redeemed from its despoilers.

Of course, the real enemy of the small capitalist, the banks, will get theirs too:
Under the current banking system, money is created predominantly as interest-bearing debt by commercial banks and the financial institutions. This will gradually be replaced by one in which money is created interest-free for the benefit of the community. The place of the commercial banks in financing enterprise will gradually be taken by mediating, non-profit local community banks providing low-cost finance, both at district and regional levels (EC512).
Pardon me, pray, please, do excuse me, it’s so very hard to type while laughing this hard. So the Greens believe that when a bank wants to make a loan it just creates the money by magicking it out of thin air! And a Green government is going to take over this magical power and use it to make loans free from that evil interest! Actually, to return from the world of Paul Daniels for a moment, only the central government not banks can create money; banks are already what the Greens say they want them to become—”mediating” institutions between lenders and borrowers, making a profit (if only to offset losses from bad loans) out of the difference between the rate of interest they pay to those who lend them money and the rate they charge borrowers.

The Greens have strong convictions, a sense of justice, and a need to care for the environment and the future. However, their policies fail to live up to their values—or even begin to meet the necessary conditions for bringing them about. So long as they remain committed to a generalised community and humanity, neglecting and ignoring class interests in favour of consensus, then effectively they are propping up the capitalist order. Without backing the liberation of the working class, they are continuing our routine enslavement.

The Greens in Germany show us that these reformers will go the way of all reformers, forced by the electoral system, and the dictates of staying in power, to turn their backs on the Party’s pacifism, and support the NATO Balkans war.

The Greens are just the new face of an old Liberalism (“Whigs Astray” as William Morris called it in the 1880s), lost in a wilderness of trying to finally making the market work, failing to meet the real needs of the community, so long as they fail to address ownership of property and the abolition of class.
Pik Smeet