Sunday, January 28, 2024

Cooking the Books: The myth of magic money (2008)

The Cooking the Books column from the December 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

One thing that the current banking crisis has done is to explode the myth about banks being able to create credit, i.e. money to lend out at interest, by a mere stroke of the pen. Events have clearly confirmed that banks are financial intermediaries which can only lend out either what has been deposited with them or what they have themselves borrowed or their own reserves. As the US Federal Reserve put it in one of its educational documents:
“Banks borrow funds from their depositors (those with savings) and in turn lend those funds to the banks’ borrowers (those in need of funds). Banks make money by charging borrowers more for a loan (a higher percentage interest rate) than is paid to depositors for use of their money.” (Dead Link. p. 57)
Actually, banks don’t just borrow from individual depositors, or “retail”. They also borrow “wholesale” from the money market. It is in fact the difficulties they have experienced here that has revealed that they cannot create credit out of nothing.

Because some banks had burnt their fingers by buying securities based on sub-prime mortgages in America, other banks were reluctant to lend on the money market for fear that the borrowing bank might turn out to be insolvent. Which meant that one source of money for the banks to re-lend to their customers had shrunk. Or at least had become too expensive as interest rates had risen too high compared with the rate banks could charge their borrowers to allow them to make a profit or enough profit. So, deprived of this source of money, the banks had less to lend out themselves. Which of course wouldn’t have been a problem if they really did have the power to create money to lend out of nothing.

But at least one person was unable to see what should have been obvious. On 15 October the Times printed a letter from a Malcolm Parkin, in which he wrote:
“Only 3 per cent of money exists as cash. Therefore the rest is magic money conjured into existence, and issued as debt by banks, at a ratio of about 33 magic pounds to 1 real pound, by the quite legal means of fractional reserve banking. In a rising market, it follows that anybody able to create such money, at such a ratio, can soon get rich.”
The “fractional reserve” he mentions is the proportion of retail deposits that a bank keeps as cash to handle likely withdrawals. Fifty years ago in Britain it was 8 percent. But, as banks resorted more and more to the wholesale money market to get money to relend, the percentage of cash to loans became almost irrelevant. Parkin’s figure of 3 percent is the percentage of cash banks hold compared to total loans, including those based on money borrowed from the money market (which even on his definition is not “magic money“).

What a “fractional reserve”, or “cash ratio”, of say, 10 percent means, is that if £100 is deposited in a bank that bank has to keep £10 as cash and can lend out £90. Parkin has misunderstood this to mean that a bank can lend out £900 – and charge interest on it. Easy money, as he says, if it were true. But it isn’t.

The theory of “fractional reserve banking” is that an initial deposit of £100 can lead to the whole banking system, but not a single bank, being able to make loans totalling £900. The argument is that the initial £90 will eventually be re-deposited in some bank (not necessarily the bank that made the loan), which can then lend out 90 percent of this, i.e. £81, which in turn will be re-deposited, and so on, until in the end a total of £900 has been loaned out.

This is theoretically the case as one of the key features of capitalism is that money circulates, but what the theorists never emphasise is that this is based on the assumption that the same money is used and re-used to create new deposits. If this does not happen then the process cannot work or continue. So, the banking system has not created any “magic money” out of nothing. It is still dependent on individual banks only being able to lend out what has been deposited with them or what they themselves have borrowed – they cannot magically lend out vast multiples of this, as poor Malcolm Parkin assumed.

Cooking the Books: Keynes rides again (2008)

The Cooking the Books column from the December 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

It is not just the ideas of Marx that the current crisis is getting people to look at again. It’s also those of Keynes. In fact it now seems to be official government policy. In October the Chancellor Alistair Darling declared that “much of what Keynes wrote still makes sense” (Sunday Telegraph, 19 October). Then last month Gordon Brown himself, in America for a summit of the G20, “invoked the memory of John Maynard Keynes”, according to the Financial Times (15/16 November), proposing a typically Keynesian approach to the current crisis, right down to exactly the same terminology:
“Gordon Brown yesterday heralded an anti-recession strategy founded on tax cuts for low earners and further cuts in interest rates, in the hope that Britain will spend its way out of the downturn. Mr Brown . . . suggested that the government would use tax credits to help poor families since they were more likely to spend any money handed out. People on low income had ‘a higher propensity to spend if their credits are higher’, Mr. Brown said.”
Keynes was an inter-war years economist who was at one time credited with having saved capitalism. He argued that capitalism did not automatically tend towards full employment and that government intervention to increase spending was needed to ensure this. He was himself a Liberal, but his ideas were embraced by all three main parties in Britain. He was particularly liked in Labour Party circles as his theories seems to justify their reformist attempt to redistribute income from the rich to the poor with their “higher propensity to spend”.

As it happened, post-war Britain did have more or less full employment for twenty or so years after the war, but this was more due to the expansion of world markets than to Keynesian “demand management” policies. When, in the mid-1970s, world market conditions changed, Keynes’s policies were shown not to work. Instead of stimulating a revival of industrial production they added a new problem – rising prices through currency inflation, which in turn led to periodic devaluations of the pound. In all previous slumps prices had fallen, but the implementation of Keynesian policies in the 1970s meant that they continued to rise. A new word was invented to describe the result: “stagflation”.

In Britain the funeral oration on Keynesianism (Keynes himself had died in 1946) was delivered by the then Labour Party Prime Minister, James Callaghan, at the 1976 Labour Party Conference:
“We used to think that you could just spend your way out of a recession and increase employment by cutting taxes and boosting government spending. I tell you, in all candour, that that option no longer exists and that in so far as it ever did exist, it only worked on each occasion since the war by injecting bigger doses of inflation into the economy, followed by higher levels of unemployment” (Times, 29 September 1976).
Or, as Keynes’s biographer Lord Skidelsky put it, “Then Keynesian policies suddenly became obsolete and the theory that backed it was condemned to history’s dustbin” (Times, 23 October).

It is a sign of the desperation of Brown and his government that they have been forced to rummage through the dustbin of history for a policy to deal with the current financial crisis and coming depression. Spending your way out of a crisis was tried by the last Labour government and, as Callaghan was forced to admit, it didn’t work. There’s no reason to believe it will this time either.

Cooking the Books: Cameron’s hindquarters (2007)

The Cooking the Books column from the December 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Last month Tory leader David Cameron was in Manchester. His speech-writer reminded him of that city’s past associations:
“Manchester became great in the 19th century when the words ‘Manchester liberalism’ stood for free trade and capitalism. And of course the city inspired another idea – Friedrich Engels lived here for many years and he wrote about the dark side of the industrial revolution”.
Cameron was there to launch what some might regard as a contradiction in terms: the Conservative Co-operative Movement. After saying he thought it was a shame that the co-op movement had been associated with the political left, he explained:
“there have always been people on the centre-right concerned about the effects of capitalism on the social fabric. Men like Carlyle and Disraeli, following the tradition of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith himself, who recognised at the outset of the industrial revolution that profit was not the only organising principle of a healthy society” (
He also repudiated one of Thatcher’s most notorious sayings by admitting that “there is such a thing as society – it’s just not the same thing as the state”.

The free-marketers at the Adam Smith Institute must be cringing and “to the right of Genghis Khan” might be a more accurate description of the views of Thomas Carlyle than “centre right”.

Carlyle (who invented the term “the cash nexus” to describe how capitalism was reducing the relations between people to money ones) and Disraeli (who wrote a novel about there being “two nations” in England) were prominent members in the 1840s of a group of Tories who called themselves “Young England”. Engels did not just write about the dark side of the industrial revolution. He also wrote about “Young England”, in the Communist Manifesto he drafted with Marx:
“Owing to their historical position, it became the vocation of the aristocracies of France and England to write pamphlets against modern bourgeois society . . . In order to arouse sympathy, the aristocracy were obliged to lose sight, apparently, of their own interests, and to formulate their indictment against the bourgeoisie in the interest of the exploited working class alone. Thus the aristocracy took their revenge by singing lampoons on their new master, and whispering in his ears sinister prophecies of coming catastrophe. . . The aristocracy, in order to rally the people to them, waved the proletarian alms-bag in front for a banner. But the people, so often as it joined them, saw on their hindquarters the old feudal coats of arms, and deserted with loud and irreverent laughter. One section of the French Legitimists and ‘Young England’ exhibited this spectacle”.
No doubt, as a Tory Toff who went to Eton, there will be a feudal coat of arms somewhere on Cameron’s hindquarters, but much more prominently displayed will be the words “Opportunist Professional Politician” – which workers should equally greet with loud and irreverent laughter.

Cooking the Books: Buying to leave empty (2007)

The Cooking the Books column from the December 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

In the 1970s Centre Point, a 32-storey office block in the centre of London at the junction between Oxford Street and Tottenham Court Road, was the centre of a scandal. It had been built with money put up by a notorious property tycoon of the time, Harry Hyams. Once built Hyams kept it empty for many years because, with a boom in the property market, its value rose constantly – but only as long as it remained empty; if it had been let the rent, and so its value, would have been fixed for 10-15 years. A classic case of property speculation.

At the same time homelessness was becoming a problem and people, quite rightly, asked why was a building with the amount of space that Centre Point had being kept empty when more and more people had to sleep on the streets or in hostels. It became a symbol of what Edward Heath, the Prime Minister of the time, called in another context “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. There is still a housing charity pointedly called “Centrepoint”.

Today the same problem has arisen again, though not in such a spectacular fashion. According to an article in the Bricks and Mortar section of the Times (19 October) there are over a “million vacant homes” in the UK, made up, according to the Empty Homes Agency, of 840,000 actual homes (houses and flats) and 420,000 homes that could be provided in disused commercial property.

One reason is that some owners can’t afford to repair them. But there’s another reason:
“Another factor is speculation, where a buyer has bought a property for its investment potential but does not wish to find tenants. David Ireland, chief executive of the Empty Homes Agency, says that this is a growing problem, especially in the new-build market, which has attracted ‘buy-to-leave’ investors who take the view that keeping the property empty will extend its new-build premium. House prices in recent years have made this worse, as generous capital appreciation has reduced the need of some buyers to secure rental income.”
So, once again, there is homelessness alongside empty homes because market conditions make it more beneficial for the owners to keep them empty rather than let them.

This is par for the course under capitalism where houses are not built primarily for people to live in, but are commodities produced for sale with a view to profit. This is why people have to buy or rent their homes, so realising a profit for the building firms or the landlord – and the middlemen such as banks, building societies and estate agencies.

Houses are different from other commodities in one important respect: they last a long time and are fixed on land. It was in fact the price of the land on which Centre Point was built that went up, not that of the building itself. It’s the same with the buy-to-leave-empty houses. And it is this that allows owners, big and small, to speculate on rising land values.

The price of land is “irrational” in the sense that, land, not being the product of labour, has no value in the Marxian sense. Its price depends purely on supply and demand, a pure monopoly price which an owner is able to extract from the rest of society simply because they happen to have a legal right to a piece of the Earth’s surface. But then, as a system geared to making profits instead of satisfying needs, the whole capitalist system is irrational from the human point of view.

Cooking the Books: Who’s to blame for carbon emissions? (2007)

The Cooking the Books column from the January 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

In 2004 the Office for National Statistics published a report on “The impact of UK households on the environment through direct and indirect generation of greenhouse gases”. It concluded that of the 718.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted in the UK in 2001 “households were directly or indirectly responsible for 612.4 million”. That’s 85 percent. Can this be right? Is it possible that industry is only responsible for at the very most 15 percent? How can this be?

To arrive at this figure, the government’s statisticians first calculated how much households directly emitted through burning gas, oil, petrol and coal to heat their homes, cook their food, drive their cars, etc and reached a figure of 155.8 million tonnes. To this a further 2.4 million was added to take account of the emission of other greenhouse gases from households’ using aerosols, fridges and air conditioning equipment, giving a total of 158.2 million, or only 21.6 percent of the total.

But the statisticians didn’t stop there. They then proceeded to calculate how much households were responsible for “indirectly”, explaining:
“Indirect greenhouse gas emissions are those arising through household demand for electricity, public transportation and demand for goods and services. Indirect emissions are considered to be embedded in the product purchased. Electricity contains the embedded emissions from the combustion of coal, gas, oil, etc used in its generation. Similarly, food products contain indirect emissions from the use of pesticides and fertilisers as well as enteric emissions from livestock”.
Some might consider it reasonable to include the emissions resulting from the generation of the electricity used by households for lighting, heating, cooking, TV, computer, music centres, etc, but one consequence of this is that responsibility for the emissions is thereby shifted from the power station companies to households. Still, at least the power stations will be held responsible for the emissions resulting from the generation of the electricity supplied to industry, won’t they? No. Read the passage above again: “indirect emissions are considered to be embedded in the product purchased”. What this means is that the electricity consumed in the production of some product purchased by a household is not attributed to the industry that produced it, but to the household that purchased it.

It’s the same with transport. The emissions caused by bus companies, train companies and airlines are not attributed to them, but to their passengers. And, as the above quote specifically says, the emissions from food production – and agriculture contributes quite a bit to greenhouse gas emissions as methane – are to be attributed to us who buy the food.

When all these dubious calculations are done, the government statisticians saddle households with responsibility for a further 456.6 million tonnes of emissions.

But what, on this logic, is left as industry’s responsibility? 15 percent perhaps. No, again. The government is also a final consumer of electricity and products and, on the report’s logic, is to be blamed for the emissions resulting from their production. Though the report does not calculate this, from other statistics it will be more than half of the remaining 15 percent. In the end, industry and agriculture are going to be held responsible only for the emissions generated by what they accumulate as new capital, or about 7 percent. Which is ridiculous.

There is another way of looking at the matter. From the point of view of Marxian economics, wage and salary workers are not final consumers. What we spend on heating, lighting, cooking, travelling, food, recreation, entertainment, etc is expenditure on what we must consume to reproduce our labour power; which we sell to our employer, who in using it is the real final consumer.

So, it’s the other way round. Instead of the emissions caused by capitalist industry being attributed to us, even that from our direct heating, cooking, driving, etc should be “indirectly” attributed to them. They rather than us are responsible for the great bulk of carbon emissions, even if this is in response to the pressure of the competitive struggle for profits that is built into capitalism. So, in the end, it’s the whole capitalist system that’s to blame.

Cooking the Books: Global turbulence (2007)

The Cooking the Books column from the January 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Around 1973 the post-war boom came to an end. Various explanations were advanced. At the time one of the more popular was that profits had been squeezed because the working class had been able to take advantage of full employment to push up wages, as put forward by Andrew Glyn and Bob Sutcliffe in British Capitalism, Workers and the Profit Squeeze.

It was also the view, at the other end of the political spectrum, of Mrs Thatcher, who determined to destroy this supposed power of the unions. Which her government did after 1979. But this didn’t bring about a return to pre-1973 boom times. Which shows, argues Robert Brenner in The Economics of Global Turbulence, that it wasn’t increased wages that caused the fall in the rate of profit that precipitated what he calls “the long downturn” that is still with us.

So what did? His explanation is that the unplanned and competitive nature of capitalism led to world overproduction and overcapacity in manufacturing industry. The expansion of American manufacturing industry led the post-war boom but, in time, the same productive methods it employed were applied by its competitors in Germany and Japan, so increasing – over-increasing in fact (in relation to paying demand, not real need of course) – world manufacturing capacity.

“Normally” this would be rectified by a world slump in which the high-cost, inefficient producers would be eliminated but this didn’t happen, argues Brenner, or at least not sufficiently, because of government intervention and because some of the inefficient producers were prepared to carry on with reduced profits. And it still hasn’t happened as, although world paying demand (world trade) has expanded, world manufacturing capacity has expanded more, with the arrival, first, of Korea and Taiwan and, now, of China. As a result since 1973 the world economy as a whole has only been limping along.

The motor of capitalism has always been industry, which transforms material things into other material things. It is the renewal and expansion of such industries, and the repercussions this has on the rest of the economy, that has resulted in the accumulation of productive capital that is the essence of capitalism. But in Western countries today, with their stagnant or declining manufacturing sectors, this no longer appears to be the case. Judging by the commentaries on the financial pages, this role of motor would seem to have been taken over by “consumption”.

Capitalism has of course always satisfied paying consumer demand but this has been generated as a by-product of the accumulation of capital. Keynesianism was an attempt to go beyond this and artificially stimulate consumer demand through government spending.

Brenner argues that governments are still trying to stimulate and manipulate demand, by deliberately engineering an illusory increase in wealth by lowering short-term interest rates. This has the effect of increasing the price of stocks and shares and houses; people feel richer and, once a stock exchange or housing bubble develops, can get more money to spend through cashing in their capital gains. Brenner calls this “asset-price Keynesianism” and argues that in the end it is just as impossible to sustain as classical Keynesianism. Not only does it lead to “stop-go” as the artificially inflated demand draws in imports and creates balance of payments problems, but it also leads to stock exchange and/or housing booms and busts.

He says that the current apparent expansion in the US will sooner or later come to an end (as it now seems to be) “but, whether the reversal takes place with a whimper or a bang, economic slowdown and new turbulence still seem much more likely than a leap into a new long upturn”. So capitalism will just stagger on from mini-boom to mini-slump and back as it has done since 1973.

Cooking the Books: Stating the obvious (2006)

The Cooking the Books column from the December 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

Edmund Phelps won the 2006 Nobel prize for economics for research into the interplay between prices, unemployment and inflation expectations. A press release gave the reasons:
“Phelps suggested that in setting prices and negotiating wages, employers and workers make judgements about future inflation that in turn influence the inflation outcome. As a consequence, the long-run rate of unemployment is not affected by inflation but only determined by the functioning of the labour market. The academy said the theoretical framework Phelps developed in the late 1960s helped economists understand the causes of soaring prices and unemployment in the 1970s. Phelps’s work has fundamentally altered our views on how the macroeconomy operates.” (MoneyCNN: Dead Link.)
Phelps’s explanation for inflation amounts to the circular argument that rising prices cause rising prices. This doesn’t really explain anything about contemporary capitalism and it doesn’t explain those periods of capitalist history when the general price level (including the price known as a wage or salary) was stable or falling.

The real explanation is to be found outside the circle of rising prices, in the government issuing more currency than is needed for economic transactions to take place. Whenever and wherever currency inflation has taken place, rising prices have been the result. It is of course true that once the psychology of inflationary expectations is established, employers and unions will want to take into account future inflation rates when determining wage levels. But the real underlying explanation (currency inflation) is radically different from Phelps’s superficial view that rising prices cause rising prices.

Up to the 1970s the ruling theory in economics was the Phillips Curve. This basically said that there was a trade-off between inflation and unemployment: we could have higher inflation and lower unemployment or lower inflation and higher unemployment. Until the 1970s, that is, when we had both rising inflation and rising unemployment. That discredited the Phillips Curve. But what would economists tell the ruling class now? According to Phelps, the message is: “unemployment is not affected by inflation.” Brilliant! Give that man a Nobel prize! But even this isn’t quite right, since it is possible for inflation to get seriously out of control, causing economic dislocation and rising unemployment as in Weimar Germany in the 1920s.

Phelps is right to say that the long-run rate of unemployment is determined by the functioning of the labour market. But this is something we have said for many years — well before Phelps. Can we have our Nobel prize now?

Cooking the Books: Poor Woman’s banker (2006)

The Cooking the Books column from the December 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to Muhammad Yunus, an economics lecturer and banker from Bangladesh. The spread of “micro-banking”, which he thought up and put into practice, was judged to have contributed to world peace.

Leaving aside whether he should have got the Economics rather than the Peace prize, what is micro-banking? Actually, it is not all that different from ordinary banking in that it is still based on a bank lending out money that has been previously deposited with it. The difference lies in who the money is lent to. The Grameen bank, which Yunus set up in 1976, lends to poor self-employed people.

The established banks in Bangladesh had shunned such people because, being so poor, they had nothing to offer as collateral for any loan and so were not considered credit-worthy. In order to start up or keep themselves in activity, poor self-employed people had to resort to local money-lenders who charged usurious rates of interest. A typical example would be the woman in the story about how bank got set up:
“In the village of Jobra, Dr Yunus met a woman who made bamboo stools. Because she had no assets and was unable to borrow from conventional sources, she had to resort to the money lenders. For each stool, she borrowed the equivalent of 15p to buy the raw bamboo. After repaying at extortionate rates of interest she made barely 1p on each stool. This woman was hard-working and talented but was being held back by a lack of access to finance. Inspired by her story, Dr Yunus started a series of experiments and lent tiny sums of his own money to villagers. They used the money to set up small businesses such as basket weaving and raising chickens. He found that his borrowers — mainly women — repaid in full and on time” (Times, 1 September).
What Yunus had shown was that the poor self-employed can be credit-worthy. Banks based on his principles lend out very small sums for a year which have to be repaid, with interest (at just above the ordinary banks’ rate), from current sales. While a means of freeing the self-employed in countries like Bangladesh from the clutches of the money-lenders, micro-banking is not a solution to global poverty. Not only because not everybody in such countries could become a basket weaver or a chicken farmer or a maker of bamboo stools, but because those the bank lends to remain poor and dependant on the vagaries of the market.

Nor is there anything anti-capitalist about the scheme. The Times described Yunus in an editorial (14 October) as “the Adam Smith of the Poor” and their correspondent in Dhaka reported:
“Professor Yunus insisted that he was not against the free market, but that he wanted the market to be free for everyone. ‘I am a free-market guy and even the poor should be part of the free market’, he said. ‘Two thirds of the population of the world are not able to participate, so it is not free’”.
The way the Grameen bank works also confirms the Marxian view that banks cannot create credit out of nothing. Like other banks it can only lend what has been deposited with it. If certain banking theories were correct — that if you deposit £1 in a bank, it can then lend out £9 rather than only 90p — then Professor Yunus would have been able to help the poor self-employed of Bangladesh by a mere stroke of the pen. But if he had tried to run his bank on this theory it would have rapidly gone bankrupt, and the only prize he would have got would have been a booby prize for either stupidity or naivety.

Material World: Famine in the Horn of Africa… Again (2011)

The Material World Column from the September 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Although the current drought conditions are affecting a wide area in the Horn of Africa including Kenya and Ethiopia, the main media focus has once again fallen on Somalia, a country with a complicated and turbulent colonial history. The story is always the same: following a devastating drought there is a famine; the problem is not lack of food but lack of the ability to pay for food or lack of access to land to grow it. The world is stockpiled with food but giving it away would negatively affect the market.

This time around we hear that 3.5 million Somalis and 12 million Ethiopians within the drought region are under threat of starvation. Droughts are not new to the region, they are a regularly occurring phenomenon, but with the UN Famine Early Warning System in place for a number of years now, expectations would surely have increased for improved handling of the situation. Warnings did go out early this year predicting starving millions in the south of Ethiopia but the regime continued with its policy of selling and leasing great swathes of land to other countries to grow crops for foreign consumption. Last year 10,000 tons of rice were exported to Saudi Arabia alone.

Thomas Mountain, a US journalist who has lived in Eritrea since 2006, comments that while southern Ethiopians are suffering the worst drought and famine for 60 years those in the north are hungry because of ‘near record high food prices.’ This he contrasts with what is happening in neighbouring Eritrea, which is a result of totally different governmental policies. Here, within a handful of years, a move from rain-fed crops to a micro dam-fed irrigation system has led to better, more secure crops and dramatically falling prices of staple grains. According to the World Bank, life-expectancy improvements are ‘dramatic’ and Eritrea is one of the countries which will meet the Millennium Development Goals especially in the areas of children’s health, malaria mortality prevention and AIDS reduction. (

News coverage of unfolding events in the area is patchy and can be biased according to allegiances or contracts of employment. Reports of facts on the ground are often distorted, depending on who’s pulling the strings. Currently Eritrea is a ‘state sponsor of terror’ according to Hillary Clinton who claims it supplies weapons to Al-Shabaab in Somalia. As a result, the media can say nothing positive about it.

Without doubt, the ongoing civil war in Somalia is exacerbating the crisis affecting so many of its people. The most problematic areas of Somalia for needy recipients of food aid are controlled by Al-Shabaab, a ‘rebel organisation with links to Al Qaeda’, which is unwilling to allow a number of food-aid agencies access for fear they are infiltrated by the CIA. The CIA is working closely with the official Somalian central government in Mogadishu, a government widely recognised to be in control of only a portion of the country. 

The whole of this region has suffered long and hard throughout its colonial history and is continuing to suffer as colonial powers attempt to subjugate regimes or leaders of regimes in pursuit of profit through the exploitation of natural resources and land accumulation. As explained succinctly in the article ‘Africa, starvation and speculation’ in last month’s Socialist Standard, the small elites in control of natural resources are only too happy to profit personally while exposing millions to penury and starvation by driving them from their land through international land deals. Different regions of the Horn of Africa are affected in different ways by the diverse conditions on the ground – but whichever way the story is spun, the competition for profit and accumulation underlies the neglect of the population’s needs.

Droughts are a well-known fact of life in a number of regions of the world and will continue to affect this region of Africa. Forecasts predict they will become more severe as problems with climate change increase. But it is not inevitable that there should be famine after drought. Famine results from the denial of land, placing restrictions of the free movement of populations, treating food as commodities and the growing commercialisation of agriculture, especially for export. All this is compounded by bad planning, inadequate water storage and management, poor infrastructure and logistical organisation. Socialism could not prevent natural events such as lack of rainfall (but it could prevent droughts by an adequate infrastructure) but in those circumstances, no one would starve as food would simply be released from warehouses or transported from other parts of the world.
Janet Surman

Material World: The End Of National Sovereignty? (2008)

The Material World Column from the October 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Globalization versus National Capitalism
In 1648 the first modern diplomatic congress established a new political order in Europe, based for the first time on the principle of “national sovereignty.” This principle drew a sharp dividing line between foreign and domestic affairs. Each “national sovereign” was given free rein within the internationally recognized borders of his state. No outsider had any right to interfere. Recognized borders were inviolable. The “sovereign” was originally simply a prince; later the term was applied to any effective government.

National sovereignty facilitated the undisturbed development of separate national capitalisms – British, French, German, American, and so on. Interstate boundaries were stabilized. Governments were able to take protectionist measures to defend home manufacturers against foreign competition.

Even today the principle of national sovereignty is far from dead. It is enshrined in the United Nations Charter: Chapter VII authorizes the Security Council to impose sanctions or use armed force only in the event of a “threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression.”

National sovereignty undermined
But in practice national sovereignty has been deeply undermined – first of all, by the emergence of a global economy dominated by huge transnational corporations. International financial institutions such as the World Trade Organization and IMF have largely taken over economic policy making. Indebtedness leaves many states with merely the formal husk of independence.

Some groups of states have “pooled” part of their sovereignty in supranational regional institutions. The prime example is the European Union.

The old interstate system has also been destabilised by the breakup of Yugoslavia and the USSR into 26 new states, four of which lack international recognition. The decision of the West to recognize the independence of Kosovo from Serbia has set a precedent that makes it easier to carve up other states. Of course, the “independence” of Kosovo – occupied by NATO forces, governed by officials from the European Union, its constitution drafted at the US State Department – is purely notional. Russia has now retaliated by recognizing Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Although this will encourage secessionist movements inside Russia, blocking Georgia’s accession to NATO is evidently a higher priority (see September’s Material World).

Legitimising aggression
National sovereignty is not only undermined in practice, but also contested in theory.

Thus, in recent years the United States and its closest allies have sought to legitimise their military attacks on other states. True, such attacks are nothing new. What is new is open advocacy of the principle of aggression. The main rationales used are the prevention of nuclear proliferation, counter-terrorism and humanitarian intervention (see August’s Material World).

It is instructive to compare the Gulf War of 1991 with the current war against Iraq. The Gulf War, at least ostensibly, was launched in defence of the principle of national sovereignty, violated by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. The elder Bush resisted pressure to “finish the job” – occupy Iraq and throw out the Ba’athist regime – out of concern that it would lead to the breakup of Iraq and, in particular, a new Kurdish state that would destabilise the whole region. Such considerations have not deterred his son.

Globalisation of capital, fragmentation of states
Paradoxically, the fragmentation of states is a natural corollary of the globalisation of capital. From the point of view of the transnational corporations, states no longer have important policy-making functions. It is enough if they enforce property rights and maintain basic infrastructure in areas important for business. Small states can do these jobs as well as large ones. In fact, they have definite advantages. They are more easily controlled, less likely to develop the will or capacity to challenge the prerogatives of global capital.

Global versus national capitalism
All the same, there is nothing inevitable about globalisation. It has lost impetus recently, and may even have passed its zenith. One sign is the disarray within the WTO. Another is Russia’s change of direction: in contrast to the Yeltsin administration, which was politically submissive and kept the country wide open to global capital, the Putin regime reasserted national sovereignty, expelled foreign firms from strategic sectors of the economy, and ensured the dominant position of national (state and private) capital.

Global versus national capitalism has emerged as an important divide in world politics. This divide exists, first of all, within the capitalist class of individual countries. Thus, even in the US, the citadel of globalisation, some capitalists – currently excluded from power – are oriented toward the home market and favour national capitalism. And even in Russia some capitalists support globalisation.

Nevertheless, the pattern of political forces differs from country to country, and as a result the global/national divide is reflected in international relations. Here the “globalisers,” led by the US, confront in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (Russia, China and the Central Asian states) an embryonic alliance of national capitals bent on restoring the principle of national sovereignty to its former place in the interstate system.

A different perspective
This context clarifies the difference between our perspective as socialists and the attitude of anti-globalisation activists. Being against capitalist globalisation is not the same as being against capitalism in general. We have ample past experience of a world of competing national capitalisms – quite enough to demonstrate that there is no good reason for preferring such a world to a world under the sway of global capital. The main problem with the movement against globalisation is that it can be mobilized so easily in the interests of national capital, whatever the intentions of its supporters.

To be fair, some anti-globalisation activists are aware of this danger. Acknowledging that humanity faces urgent problems that can only be tackled effectively at the global level, they emphasize that they are not against globalisation as such: they are only against the sort of globalisation that serves the interests of the transnational corporations. This then leads them to explore ideas of globalisation of an “alternative” kind. These ideas at least point in the right direction. Socialism is also an alternative form of globalisation – a globalisation of human community that abolishes capital.

Pathfinders: No Man is an Island . . . (2011)

The Pathfinders Column from the September 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard

Socialism won’t be got by evolution but by intelligent design, though it would be nice to think there was an easier way. The political shortcuts turned out to be circular, but some people never give up hope that technology might open up some fast track to the Promised Land.

It was always so. Probably when the plough was first invented there was some Neolithic version of futurist Ray Kurzweil running around the Fertile Crescent gibbering about the Coming of the Singularity, while autodidactic peasants sat around in the smoke-filled back rooms of tribal longhouses discussing the revolutionary implications of the social democratisation of agriculture. Much to their chagrin what they ended up with was kings, wars, plagues and a lousy diet. With the later invention of the printing press some people no doubt foresaw a new flowering of subversive thought and the imminent rising of the masses, just prior to being drowned in a tidal wave of pulp fiction and religious junk mail.

Of course there has been huge progress, but behind each screaming wave-front of optimism trails the long, Doppler-shifted whine of hindsight. For all the smart phones and sushi bars we’re still slaves chained to the day job, compared to whom the playboys and girls of the Neolithic seem to have enjoyed great diet and health, endless holidays and free art classes.

The plough and the printing press were key technological developments in two of the most essential human activities of all, production of material goods and distribution of information. The whole trajectory of capitalism has been towards the efficiency and economy of scale of mass production and distribution, together with their correlates, state-imposed mass ideologies. When the horrors of Nazism and Soviet Communism turned people off ‘mass’ concepts, and rising affluence meant people couldn’t be fobbed off with production-line uniformity, a new cult of the individual was born.

At first this ‘lifestyle’ capitalism was little more than a marketing scam. We could ‘individually’ commute to our individual replica jobs, eat our individual replica food in our individual replica residential boxes, while watching mass-entertainment on our individual idiot-boxes. Advertisers called us princely consumers and we bought the flattery along with the products. The more we acquired a bit of individual ‘class’, the more we forgot the collective power of class consciousness. The more the notion of individualism was fostered, the more sheep-like we became. We didn’t mature into a society of individuals, we fractured into an atomised mass, our former commonality too vulgar to preserve.

Technology is embedding the illusion. Under Soviet rule dissidents were forced to resort to self-publishing their own material, a difficult and risky business known as samizdat, or self-made. The desktop publishing and internet revolutions have given us all the technology for this kind of independent self-expression. But people forget we are all products of society and therefore not so very different, so the upshot of all this self-publishing, blogging, Facebook and supposedly interactive Web 2.0 is that we have ended up with infinite versions of uniformity. Homogenous variety, samizdat become same-as-that.

If we don’t see the illusion it’s because we don’t have the attention-span to look at the big picture but only into a mirror. Instead of opening the doors to infinity we are mostly using the internet to create a narcissistic bubble around ourselves, a self-promoting solipsism which closes out every fact or idea which contradicts our own world-view. And the advertisers are slavering to make it more so. People now get different results for the same Google search due to ‘personality’ filters they don’t even know about (New Scientist, 23 July). Each person’s information environment is determined not only by their own conscious likes and dislikes but also by automated trackers deciding what is good for them.

Astoundingly, a similar thing could happen in the world of production, with the development of individual 3D printing, now being called by some the second Industrial Revolution. When the Socialist Standard first reported on this (August 2005) it was at an early stage, able to turn out fragile trinkets. Now it is possible to ‘print’ sophisticated equipment using composite materials with complex circuitry. The first 3D-printed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle has just been successfully flown (New Scientist, 30 July) and enthusiasts predict that in the future robots will walk out of printers, fully functional with batteries included.

If they were only foreseeing a revolution in new research and development at the lab-bench, the optimists could well be right. The lag between plan and prototype is certain to decrease by at least an order of magnitude. But no, they are talking about nothing less than the ‘democratisation’ of production, just as the digerati talked about the democratisation of knowledge through the internet. Even supposing 3D printers one day become as cheap as computers, this is still to confuse democracy, where people act together, with the cult of the individual, where people act alone en masse.

While the new parochialism of the internet involves huge waste of heat and storage in order to deliver infinitely slight variations of the same thing, so each person under the illusion of personal choice may end up printing separately what they could have produced collectively. This would be like boiling a single serving of rice in separate pots, one grain at a time. Capitalism is quite capable of this sort of stupidity if there’s money in it.

Most of the benefits of progress have historically percolated up like champagne bubbles to the rich, instead of downwards like loam deposits on the poor. If the rich can afford to print whatever they want, it follows that whatever mass-production still remains must exist only to cater for the poor, with all the quality and variety that implies. The poverty gap could then become unimaginably wide. In response to this, the poor majority might use the technology, with ‘hacked’ designs to get round regulations, to print their own guns and ammunition.

The most significant aspect of 3D printers is that they can ‘print’ themselves. They can’t print food or organic compounds though, or things larger than themselves. If 3D printing is the second industrial revolution, then nanotechnology is potentially the third. Eric Drexler is famous for his inspirational writing about the possibilities of nanotech, but even he overlooked the obvious political implication of a means of production that can reproduce itself. Not only would it abolish material scarcity (which has already effectively been done) but also any possible artificial barrier to individual abundance (which certainly has not). What worker would consent to slavery when they had the means to provide all their material needs through a domestic replicating device, which itself could be infinitely replicated? Capitalism would collapse, practically overnight.

No need to get too excited though. Nobody has come close to creating a self-replicating nano device, and like nuclear fusion it may remain permanently years away. Even if it could be done, such a replicator could run away with itself and convert the entire Earth into ‘grey goo’. Even if it were made safe, the ruling class would have every reason to ensure that the technology was never developed. Even if they couldn’t suppress it, material abundance does not imply socialist consciousness any more than knowledge implies wisdom. It’s no use to live as a king in an empty palace. One way or another, socialists have still got work to do.
Paddy Shannon

Pathfinders: Future al Fresco, or the House of Cards that Jacque built (2008)

The Pathfinders Column from the December 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard

Anyone watching the online documentary film Zeitgeist (2007) would be advised to borrow Occam’s razor for some editorial cutting. A well-made and interesting film, Zeitgeist nonetheless makes history more mysterious than it needs to be. You can explain what goes on in capitalism quite easily without making a giant secret conspiracy of it. So, when the sequel, Zeitgeist Addendum, came out in October of this year, socialists were expecting more conspiracy stuff and dodgy bank-credit economics.

Addendum turns out to be a surprise. To be sure, it does reiterate the dodgy economics, overlooking the fact that when banks do try to create money out of nothing, they crash and burn, as has been happening recently. But then the film gets really interesting, because it proposes, as an alternative to capitalism, a global resource-based society of common ownership, without governments, hierarchies, markets, trading or money. Were the makers explicitly to use the term ‘world socialism’ most socialists would scarcely blink.

Not that there’s any such reference, or indication of Marxian antecedents. Clearly the intention is to avoid triggering any knee-jerk reflexes from audiences schooled in the evils of soviet ‘socialism’. Instead, they’re offered the sci-fi version, with supersonic mag-lev trains, floating intelligent cities, nanotechnology and megamachines. The future is bigger, better and brighter, even if it does look a bit like Thunderbirds Are Go. The point being drummed in is that it’s steam-age capitalism that’s holding back technology, as well as creating a social and environmental hell-hole. Without capitalism, we can reach for the stars.

This is the Venus Project, futuristic creation of Jacque Fresco, engineer, architect and designer, a man on a laudable mission to persuade the world to ditch capitalism and create a practical cooperative alternative. For socialists to come across such a well-worked model which accords so closely with their own is a rare thing, so it seems almost churlish to suggest that the technology may be a bit over-done. It’s not only that this kind of chrome-plated futurism looks paradoxically dated, like rocket ship stories of the 1950’s, or that it may be off-putting to those yearning for William Morris-like rural idylls. More troublesome is the heavy emphasis placed on science and technology as the source of progress, for instance, as here: “The application of scientific principles… accounts for every single advance that has improved people’s lives” (Designing the Future, at Trust a techie to say that. But what about the role of workers, in unions or campaign groups, to raise wages and working conditions, or reduce the working day, or demand civil rights? Did technology have anything to do with recognition of race or gender equality, or gay liberation, or legislation against slavery or child-labour? Instead of recognising that workers won those rights by organised force, Fresco seems to think all improvements in civil rights were ‘privileges’ which have been ‘granted’ by the ruling elite (p.4).

This gives a clue to Fresco’s attitude to ‘responsibility’ and ‘democracy’. Technology, he thinks, will obviate the need for these. Laws against drink-driving, for example, can be abolished if cars drive themselves. True enough. But can one find a technological fix for every situation requiring humans to have an awareness of their own social responsibility, and even if we could, would we want to? Responsibility is not a burden, after all, it is empowerment, it is personal growth. Make humans responsible, and they become mature adults. Instead, Fresco would let this human quality atrophy.

Similarly, Fresco seems wedded to the strange idea that humans don’t want to make decisions. Thus he envisages a ‘global neural network’ that does our thinking for us, a marriage of automation and cybernetic intelligence called ‘cybernation’. This column has recently referred to self-adjusting production systems (Sept 08), but running an entire social system that way is surely a leap too far. In answer to the question: Who makes the decisions in a resource-based economy? Fresco gives the bizarre response: No one does. Apparently the cybernation system will decide what we want to produce, as well as how to produce it, because we humans just aren’t up to the job.

What emerges sounds less like a socialist society of responsible adults and more like a Tracey Island playground for hedonistic infants with no tough decisions to make and no responsibilities to shoulder. Socialists place participatory democracy at the very core of our social model, irrespective of the technology. For Fresco, it seems to be the other way round. In answer to the question, would there be a government? Fresco answers that there would be a transitional administration of expert technicians, before the process of ‘cybernation’ is complete. He adds that “They will not dictate the policies or have any more advantage than other people.” But how does he know that? What mechanisms would prevent a technocracy maintaining power in perpetuity? Fresco is leaving the matter to trust. Worse still, in avoiding the whole issue of democratic organisation and class action, Fresco has no way to address the even more pressing question, how to overcome the certain opposition of the ruling class. So he dodges it by arguing that there will be no need to, since capitalism will collapse of its own accord. Leaving aside the extreme improbability of this, it begs the question: what should we do then, while we’re waiting for that to happen? Spread the ideas perhaps, as socialists advocate? Apparently not! “True social change is not brought about by men and women of reason and good will on a personal level. The notion that one can sit and talk to individuals and alter their values is highly improbable” (www.venusproject. com/intro_main /essay.htm). Ever the technophile, Fresco has his eye on something more worthy of an engineer, the building of an experimental city in South America, in order to show his society in action. Thus, we have a future, non-market, non-money society with no human decision-making, existing as a sealed bubble inside capitalism, and on a continent famous for its CIA-backed counter-revolutionary guerrilla forces. Well, lots of luck, but this ain’t a horse we would back.

Socialists rarely have anything good to say about post-modernism, but Fresco’s starry-eyed fixation with technology reminds us what was wrong with modernity in the first place. It was enlightenment thinking gone light-headed, before the hangover set in and we realised that, actually, science can’t save us from ourselves, in fact science and technology have got bugger all to do with it. Mass consciousness and democratic organisation are what it takes, not fantastical gadgets and optimistic faith in the imminent and obliging demise of capitalism. If you’re wrong about that, you’ve got nothing. Without class action, there’s no foundation, no plan, no clear road. It’s a house of cards floating in the air.

Fresco and his friends deserve huge credit for the work they have done in setting out a vision of post-capitalist common ownership, and if nothing else, the Venus Project should remind us that such ideas are not unique to us. But visions born of conspiracy theories tend to preclude the idea of democratic mass action, and that is a weakness. For socialists, not only is mass action possible, it is essential. Capitalism will not collapse. It has to be pulled down. And machines won’t do that for us.
Paddy Shannon

Pathfinders: Christmas Crackers (2007)

The Pathfinders Column from the December 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

Two of the biggest science news stories of the year, and possibly of the decade, broke in late November. One was the derivation of multi-purpose or ‘pluripotent’ human cells from simple skin (BBC Online, 20 November). Until now, the only known way to extract stem cells, cells which have the capability to turn into any of the 220 cell-types in the human body and thus potentially grow or repair any bodily organ or tissue, was from aborted human embryos. The moral issues around this have mired the science in controversy and, especially in the United States, have all but throttled research. Already a small culture of former skin cells has been grown into heart tissue which has begun beating. The consequences, if this technique works, are hard to exaggerate for many otherwise untreatable conditions, or for those people with little chance of a life-saving transplant, or for those with a successful transplant but facing a lifetime of immuno-suppressants and at risk from the mildest infection.

Of course, it might not work, but if does, it would take the worst kind of Christmas Scrooge to point out that this is rich-country technology to cure rich-country people, and which doesn’t do a whole lot for the several million kids who die every year because their mostly corrupt governments won’t spend one lousy dollar on their healthcare.

The other story concerns a Californian surfer and part-time snowboarding instructor, named Garrett Lisi, whose curious hobby just might make him as famous as Einstein (New Scientist, 17 November). For Garrett, when not surfing in Hawaii, moonlights as a theoretical physicist, and has just come up with an idea that might, from a physicist’s point of view, be the answer to life, the universe, and everything. The ‘standard model’ of physics has for the last thirty years or so made reliably accurate predictions about everything from the minutest particle to the largest galaxies, using its two main propositions, quantum mechanics and Einstein’s general relativity. The problem has been that these two propositions have never fitted together. While quantum mechanics describes three of the four fundamental forces in nature, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces, gravity is the odd one out, and can only be understood using relativity. Logic dictates that there must be an underlying law which unites the behaviour of these four forces, and intuition suggests they might even be aspects of the same thing, but despite all kinds of highly elaborate ideas, such as string theory and loop quantum gravity, nobody has managed to connect them.

What Garrett has done is to take a known, 8-dimensional mathematical pattern with 248 points, and map all the 40 known particles in their various ‘identities’ to one or other of those points, uniquely including particles representing gravity. Rotating the pattern then gives known and observed relationships between these particles, but also throws light on new unsuspected relationships. In addition, having 20 points left with no particles to put in them, Lisi has posited the existence of 20 new particles which, tantalisingly, might be found next year when the Large Hadron Collider comes online at CERN in Switzerland. If the LHC finds the missing particles, physics will have found its holy grail, a theory of everything, the greatest advance for thirty years, and Lisi, at the very least, will surf his way to the Nobel Prize. Lisi has even devised a curious video animation which you can watch here: It doesn’t explain anything very well, but it’s quite fun to watch.

Of course, the theory still might be wrong, but if it isn’t, it would take the most miserable seasonal grouch to point out that the greatest advance in physics for three hundred years still wouldn’t mean a damn thing if we’ve killed our planet off because of our collective inability to spend one lousy brain-cell on our social and planetary healthcare. And several YouTube cynics, after watching Lisi’s bizarre ‘confetti’ video, make precisely this point. One particularly concise offering sums them up: “All I want to do is figure out how to make a living without having to go to work. Is that too much to ask?” Well, too much for theoretical physicists, anyway. Pity they aren’t asking socialists that question.

However, 2007 hasn’t been groundbreaking in every department, and there have been a fair collection of silly stories around this year. Two now sadly untraceable stories seen this year involve, on the one hand, the invention of ‘space money’ for all those space tourists of whom the likes of Richard Branson are rubbing their greedy hands together in anticipation, and the intriguing suggestion that NASA’s proposed crewed moon-base, due to be ready in 2020, won’t use money because internal trading would be seen as divisive in the colony. Extreme efforts to locate this story have turned up nothing, so perhaps it was, after all, a figment of a fevered mind.

On firmer ground, there is the continuing argument over online copyright issues. On the progressive side, the band Radiohead recently released an album online with an invitation to ‘pay what you like’. With some paying nothing, but many paying approximately a ‘fair price’ and one clearly disturbed enthusiast paying over £700, other bands are likely to follow this innovation. As this column has previously noted, the fight to preserve copyright online is viewed by many as a lost cause, and many entertainers now seek to recoup through live appearances and promotions instead of through the music. Elsewhere, a wonderful initiative by a Canadian student resulted in thousands of previously unobtainable and out of copyright musical scores being placed online, for any budding pianist to have a go at. But, like the proverbial turd on a bowling green, an Austrian company has appeared on the scene with an international, and unprecedented lawsuit which, on the mere suspicion that there might somewhere be one manuscript still under copyright, has succeeded in closing down this free resource and depriving musicians everywhere of harmless fun (Link.).

Anyone who has ever sworn at a Satnav device will be interested in two conflicting stories, one of which asserts that Satnav is better and safer than using maps (New Scientist, 4 August), the other reporting a litany of building damage and road bridge demolitions resulting from large lorries being sent down totally unsuitable roads by their ‘eye in the sky’ (Link.). It might be wise to see in this perspective the breathless predictions of one robot engineer that humans will be marrying robots within the next 40 years (David Levy, Love and Sex with Robots, publishing date 6 November). Jaded socialists will conclude from the above stories that the human race is going off track in more ways than one.

Lastly, of more interest to those socialists interested in the science/religion debate, the second Beyond Belief conference of concerned scientists has just taken place at La Jolla, California. New Scientist (10 November) takes a surprisingly disparaging view of scientists like Richard Dawkins who refuse to accord respect to religion, and this may of course be due to their high-minded moral impartiality. Or it may be the fact that they have started taking two-page advertisements from the religious Templeton Foundation, that organisation which, as Dawkins has noted, are prepared to pay huge amounts of money to ‘any scientist willing to say something nice about religion’. New Scientist would presumably have no comment to make on what must be the oddest news story of the year (BBC Online, 14 September), in which, after huge protests, the Indian Government withdrew a report to the Supreme Court which dared to claim that a rocky formation lying between the Indian coast and Sri Lanka was not in fact a bridge built by the god Ram and his army of monkeys but was a natural geological feature. Work on the shipping canal project was disrupted for months and the Interior Minister’s resignation was demanded. Who said there’s no fun in fundamentalism?
Paddy Shannon

Pathfinders: Bonobo Fides (2007)

The Pathfinders Column from the January 2007 issue of the Socialist Standard

When the human genome was first effectively sequenced in April 2003 and the surprise discovery made that humans have only 30,000 genes, scarcely more than other primates, some people were encouraged to suppose that the nagging debate between nature and nurture might be solved once and for all. Humans could not be genetically disposed toward all the multitude of obnoxious acts they committed,  because they had no stock of extra genes with which to be so disposed. The seductive conclusion is that any human behaviour not found among primates must therefore be a simple matter of environment.

Not necessarily. As the developing field of epigenetics has begun to demonstrate, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. Combinations of genes can produce phenomena that could not be predicted by analysis of the characteristics of the  individual genes. A piano in the hands of a baboon or a human still has 88 keys, but the baboon will give us a cacophony whereas the human may give us a concerto. The discovery, last month, that humans are more genetically diverse than anyone expected, has done even more to throw the ‘nurturists’ back into turmoil, and given the bio-determinists extra room for manoeuvre.

Reading the language of the genes may help us stamp out certain inherited illnesses for good, but it is debatable whether it can ever say anything meaningful about who we are. Studies of identical twins separated at birth show interesting variations in behaviour, yet the results remain essentially random and open to interpretation, because it is not possible, or ethical, to raise one twin in a strictly controlled and sealed environment.

Why this matters so much is of course to do with humanity’s perception of its own potential for a better world. If men were really savage rapists held under control only by the repressive laws of a coercive hierarchical state, one could hardly expect women to support the socialist case for abolishing such coercive machinery. Similarly, if warlike aggression is built into us, as some anthropologists have claimed, the case for cooperation and common ownership suffers a major and possibly fatal reverse.

Some paleoanthropologists, and many Marxists, take the view that war did not exist before the development of agriculture, because the conditions giving rise to war did not exist. It is true to say that there is no hard evidence of war before settled communities began to defend their land from predation, but as Carl Sagan was fond of saying, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. We are not able to point with certainty to 200,000 years of harmonious and peaceful human behaviour and say ‘there, that is our real nature.’ We can only look at this vast period of human activity, twenty times longer than all of recorded history, and say ‘they had no landed property, so it’s hard to see what they could have found to fight about.’

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) democratic elections have recently drawn to a close an appalling civil war that claimed four million lives. Ironically, in the dense forest of DRC, new studies have emerged which have done something to swing the nature-nurture pendulum back in the direction of the nurturists. Chimpanzees, once the lovable rogues of Tarzan films, have lately been receiving a rather bad press, with documentaries concentrating on their brutal behaviour both within and between tribes, including rape, murder and cannibalism. A genetically very close relative and Congolese next-door neighbour is the Bonobo or pygmy chimp, and this primate has always been something of a curiosity. When chimp troops meet, we are told, war and murder are invariably the result. When bonobo troops meet, a love-fest takes place, with the females of one troop running off into the bushes with the males of the other. There is no male hierarchical organisation among bonobos, plenty of casual sex of both hetero and same-sex varieties, and if any male exhibits any rare violent behaviour this is swiftly stamped out by the combined females.

This startling difference in behaviour between the two primates has led some anthropologists to a depressing conclusion. Human females, argue Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson in their book Demonic Males (Houghton Mifflin, 1997), need to emulate the bonobo and take a more active political role in order to offset the male killing instinct. This is Thomas Hobbes territory again, and the same assumptions about nasty and brutish male violence which the authors use to argue for greater female political participation can of course also be used to justify the continuation or even extension of state repression.

What was deemed peculiar about the bonobo was that they inhabited the same forest as chimpanzees, albeit in a naturally secluded area which arguably protected them from the nasty and brutish chimps. On the face of it, bonobos seemed to lead a peaceful and communally supportive lifestyle simply because they liked it that way. Now it turns out that not all jungles are equal, and food supply has a lot more to do with it than was previously thought. The bonobo habitat just so happens to contain all the right vegetable nutrients to allow them to live largely as vegetarians and spend very little effort acquiring food. Chimp forests conversely offer much leaner pickings, with low-nutrient vegetation, high tannin content which requires much peeling and shelling, and a competition over resources which necessitates the organisation of meat hunting and aggressive defence of territory. As New Scientist observes: “Put bluntly, bonobos are nice because the environment they live in is nice” (December 2, 06). Not all anthropologists agree, citing the fact that in identical captive environments, bonobos and chimps continue to exhibit different behaviour. Nonetheless, give them long enough, and behaviour is likely to change. It is well known that primates can learn new behaviour and pass it on to descendants, as in the famous case of the Japanese macaques, who all learned to wash potatoes in the sea after watching one juvenile female do it first. In a chimpanzee environment, bonobos would begin to exhibit chimpanzee behaviour, and vice-versa.

The emphasis on the division between the bonobo ‘good guys’ and the chimpanzee ‘bad guys’ does chimpanzees a disservice, however. Little attention has been focussed in the TV documentaries on the fact that supposedly ‘inevitable’ violent behaviour is uncommon among young chimps and even among adult chimps in other locations in the Congo. Indeed, studies undertaken by anthropologists at the University of Saint Andrews in Edinburgh show that, even without ecologically explicable circumstances, there is more variation in chimp behaviour, no less than 39 different cultural patterns, than in any other animal studied in Africa.

The debate about primate behaviour informs the debate about human behaviour, and is not likely to be settled just yet. But humans, in displaying the most amazing array of behaviour patterns found in nature, can take comfort from the fact that, whatever the genes say or don’t say, there is one talent we have developed to a greater degree than any other animal, and which opens the door to a new form of society. Primates can learn to be different, and none better than us.
Paddy Shannon

Pathfinders: Hot Air Emissions (2006)

The Pathfinders Column from the December 2006 issue of the Socialist Standard

“It is now plain that the emission of greenhouse gases… is causing global warming at a rate that is unsustainable”, writes Tony Blair in the preface to the UK government report which concludes that “there is only a small chance of greenhouse gas emissions being kept below dangerous levels.” When questioned about this report on Radio 4 Margaret Beckett, environment minister, states “we could come to a tipping point where change could be irreversible.”

This is not the much-publicised Stern Report of October, but an earlier report, Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change, published by the UK government in January of this year, based on research presented by speakers at a conference held by the UK Meteorological Office in February 2005. (BBC Online, 30 January).

Since then the heat and emissions released by politicians of all persuasions has increased to dangerous and unsustainable proportions. A summit in Monterrey in Mexico in October was hailed by the 20 biggest global polluters as ‘very positive’, then more noise over the Stern report later that month, which tended to be taken more seriously by politicians since they listen to economists with infinitely greater attention than they ever listen to scientists. But then in November the politicians were complaining that the politicians weren’t doing anything, as Kofi Annan despaired at the UN climate summit in Nairobi that global warming was as “grave a threat as conflict, poverty and the spread of weapons.” Sceptics, he added, with a politician’s ear for the ringing soundbite, were “out of step, out of arguments and out of time”.

The only politician in Britain in recent weeks to actually do anything, as opposed to making speeches and going to junkets in Mexico for Important High-Level Talks, has been dear old Red Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London, who has infuriated the Kensington and Mayfair set by announcing a punishing £25 per day congestion charge for Band G motor vehicles, which is effectively the SUV-class 4×4 ‘Chelsea tractor’, emitters of carbon roughly double that of any other car. Many of these can be seen outside school gates during the school run, and are apparently second family cars used for kids, shopping and round-town errands, themselves the most carbon-inefficient types of journey. Ken observes,correctly, that people who can afford these monsters can afford any mainstream car so their decision to buy these heavy polluters and stick two fingers up at the world is clearly deliberate.

Most people who have even the mildest concern over capitalism’s damage to the planet must surely have the most searing contempt for anti-social yahoos in bull-bar Mitsubishi tankettes, so it was not surprising that this measure was greeted with ecstatic cheers, even though it won’t come in until 2009.

What a pity Ken went and spoiled it all immediately by getting himself into trouble over a freebie junket (by carbon reckless air travel, of course) to Venezuela to visit his soulmate Chavez, at the council taxpayer’s expense. Never mind, the thought is what counts.

And the thought, in government circles, is all about counting at the moment, carbon counting. The UK government has announced, through the annual speech made by its velvet glove puppet the Queen, that its target of reducing carbon emissions by 60 percent by 2050 will now be enshrined in law, with a Carbon Committee set up to make sure it happens (BBC Online, 15 November).

They’ll check every five years or so and make a speech, or an excuse, depending on where they’re up to. So, lots of noise again for now, and leisure enough not to worry for the next five years, until everybody’s forgotten about the targets. And what if the targets haven’t been met then? Well, they can just hold over publishing the report until a useful ‘bad news day’ comes along.

Everyone’s showing willing, and that’s nice. The Nairobi conference was held, not to do anything, but to agree a timetable to discuss globally binding emissions targets in time for the expiry of the Kyoto Protocol in 2012. Nobody stuck to the Kyoto Protocol in the first place, but nevertheless it is very important to hold talks to establish agreement over the next generation of agreements that nobody will stick to either.

The European Union has set itself the pious goal, not of reducing total carbon emissions, but of containing the increase to levels which will push the average temperature up by ‘only’ 2 degrees. An increase of 2 degrees centigrade is enough to melt all the ice in Greenland, but this is considered acceptable considering the dire consequences if they go even higher than that.

To keep to this target, atmospheric carbon – originally 227 parts per million (ppm) at pre-industrial levels and now at 380 ppm – needs to be stabilised at around 450 ppm. Speaking on the same programme as Margaret Beckett in January, the UK government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, called this ‘unlikely’. “We’re going to be at 400 ppm in 10 years’ time”, he said. “To aim for 450 would, I am afraid, seem unfeasible.” So why set such a target then? Well, they’ve got to say something, haven’t they?

It’s all a question of motivation.The ugly truth is probably that Europe is hoping to trade its problem away with the new carbon emissions trading system, whereby they get to smoke and Africa gets the cancer. Russia didn’t even turn up to Monterrey, presumably because global warming doesn’t seem so bad when you’ve got frostbite in Irkutsk, and it’s a very chill wind that blows nobody any good. The Chinese, meanwhile, on being invited to join in huge emissions reductions at a time when they are the fastest industrialising nation on Earth, smile politely at this blatant imperialist attempt to clip their dragon’s wings, and carry on about their filthy business, supremely confident that the greedy foreign investment will continue unabated in the free-for-all of their boomtown economy.

The people who are most worried are not the Europeans or the Americans or the Russians or the Chinese, it is the so-called developing countries who in fact are never allowed to develop and who occupy the equatorial belt which is soon likely to become an incineration zone. That they are less guilty of pollution than anyone, but are going to more punished than everyone, is yet another example of the sort of ‘justice’ meted out by an economic system in which nice guys finish last and rich guys fix all the races. Their coastal infrastructures are going to be flooded out, their wetlands will dry out, their crops will die, and wars and migrations will escalate. The Nairobi conference, the first climate change conference to be held in that continent, aimed to bring another dimension to the debate,that of human rights. It was, said Kofi Annan and other delegates, a human right not to be killed by the callous self-serving vandalism of other people’s behaviour. Perhaps this is true in some moral sense. But capitalism is a blind process of profit accumulation. It doesn’t understand morals. The administrators of capitalism serve a supremely ignorant master.

For all their hot air, they are never going to challenge the thing they most believe in. They will still be making speeches while the world burns.
Paddy Shannon