Friday, January 22, 2016

Oxfam report: AN ECONOMY FOR THE 1%

This is my summary of Oxfam's summary. I haven't included their "solutions" since they depend on the collective good will of the wealthy, which is unrealistic. I have read their summary (12pp) but not their full report.
  • 62 individuals have the same wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people of the world (This figure is reduced from 388 individuals as recently as 2010.)
  • $542 billion – the increase in wealth of the richest 62 individuals since 2010
  • 50% the amount of the global wealth increase since 2000 received by the top 1%
  • $1 trillion – the fall in wealth of the poorest 3.6 billion people since 2010 (a drop of 41%)
  • Since 2000, the poorest half of the global population received only 1% of the increase in global wealth
  • $3 rise in the average annual income of the poorest 10% of people in the world

1) Apologists for the status quo claim that concern about inequality is driven by ‘politics of envy’. They often cite the reduction in the number of people living in extreme poverty as proof that inequality is not a major problem. But this is to miss the point. As an organization that exists to tackle poverty, Oxfam is unequivocal in welcoming the fantastic progress that has helped to halve the number of people living below the extreme poverty line between 1990 and 2010. Yet had inequality within countries not grown during that period, an extra 200 million people would have escaped poverty. That could have risen to 700 million had poor people benefited more than the rich from economic growth.

2) Rising economic inequality also compounds existing inequalities. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently found that countries with higher income inequality also tend to have larger gaps between women and men in terms of health, education, labour market participation, and representation in institutions like parliaments. The gender pay gap was also found to be higher in more unequal societies. It is worth noting that 53 of the world’s richest 62 people are men.

3) One of the key trends underlying this huge concentration of wealth and incomes is the increasing return to capital versus labour. In almost all rich countries and in most developing countries, the share of national income going to workers has been falling. This means workers are capturing less and less of the gains from growth. In contrast, the owners of capital have seen their capital consistently grow (through interest payments, dividends, or retained profits) faster than the rate the economy has been growing. Tax avoidance by the owners of capital, and governments reducing taxes on capital gains have further added to these returns. As Warren Buffett famously said, he pays a lower rate of tax than anyone in his office – including his cleaner and his secretary.

4) Oxfam’s experience with women workers around the world, from Myanmar to Morocco, is that they are barely scraping by on poverty wages. Women make up the majority of the world’s low-paid workers and are concentrated in the most precarious jobs. Meanwhile, chief executive salaries have rocketed. CEOs at the top US firms have seen their salaries increase by more than half (by 54.3%) since 2009, while ordinary wages have barely moved. The CEO of India’s top information technology firm makes 416 times the salary of a typical employee there. Women hold just 24 of the CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies.

5) A powerful example of an economic system that is rigged to work in the interests of the powerful is the global spider’s web of tax havens and the industry of tax avoidance, which has blossomed over recent decades. It has been given intellectual legitimacy by the dominant market fundamentalist world view that low taxes for rich individuals and companies are necessary to spur economic growth and are somehow good news for us all. The system is maintained by a highly paid, industrious bevy of professionals in the private banking, legal, accounting and investment industries. 6It is the wealthiest individuals and companies – those who should be paying the most tax – who can afford to use these services and this global architecture to avoid paying what they owe. It also indirectly leads to governments outside tax havens lowering taxes on businesses and on the rich themselves in a relentless ‘race to the bottom’.

6) In the garment sector, firms are consistently using their dominant position to insist on poverty wages. Between 2001 and 2011, wages for garment workers in most of the world’s 15 leading apparel-exporting countries fell in real terms. The acceptability of paying women lower wages has been cited as a key factor in increasing profitability. The world turned its attention to the plight of workers in garment factories in Bangladesh in April 2013, when 1,134 workers were killed when the Rana Plaza factory collapsed. People are losing their lives as companies seek to maximize profits by avoiding necessary safety practices. Despite all the attention and rhetoric, buyers’ short-term financial interests still dominate activities in this sector, as reports of inadequate fire and safety standards persist.

7) Inequality is also compounded by the power of companies to use monopoly and intellectual property to skew the market in their favour, forcing out competitors and driving up prices for ordinary people. Pharmaceutical companies spent more than $228m in 2014 on lobbying in Washington. When Thailand decided to issue a compulsory licence on a number of key medicines – a provision that gives governments the flexibility to produce drugs locally at a far lower price without the permission of the international patent holder – pharma successfully lobbied the US government to put Thailand on a list of countries that could be subject to trade sanctions.

Full Oxfam reports here includes full report, summary and methodology

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The commodity perspective of value

(updated Jan 21)
The commodity perspective of value: use value, exchange-value and value

Marx begins his mature analysis of capitalism (A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy, 1859) with the commodity as a simple thing or abstraction which contained the germ of the capitalist contradiction between use value and value on which the whole of his argument could be built. See notes at the end which outlines the timeline of this evolution in Marx's thought.

A commodity is a useful thing (a use value) for others (not the producer), a social use value, which is the product of labour (which creates value) and is transferred to another person by exchange in a marketplace (it also has an exchange value)

Use value is a natural form. In any society (capitalist or pre capitalist) labour is used to make useful things, starting from natural raw materials. Use values are independent of the amount of labour. They are realised only by consumption. They constitute the source of all wealth.

But value or exchange value is not natural, it is a creature of capitalism. It is just that we are so used to shopping that it feels natural. Exchange is a total abstraction from use value.

Value is measured by the quantity of human labour added to the commodity. If productivity increases due to improved technology then the value or cost of the product should decline proportionately. eg. Power looms in England in Marx's time doubled productivity and so the cost of cloth produced by yarn should have halved.

Marx talks about embedded crystals of labour or embedded abstract labour adding value to a commodity.

But a commodity cannot be dissected to find the elements that makes it exchangeable. Exchange values do not contain one atom of use value. Value is a social reality.

Value and exchange value are more like a mirror. A commodity has to see another commodity (or money) before an exchange can take place. This is a social process. Socially necessary labour time can't be measured at the point of production. If a commodity is not sold or exchanged then it doesn't have value.

But the mirror metaphor makes the embedded crystals of labour approach seem contradictory or absurd. How can value be added to a commodity, through labour, on the one hand and yet only be discerned through comparison with another commodity on the other? The commodity has a dual nature. We have to adapt our thinking to incorporate this dialectic, to hold contradictory images of a concept in our minds. The source of this is Hegelian dialectics which is used extensively in Marx's method.

Some people have tried to imagine life without money. Can you imagine life without commodities? There is a difference between commodities and products! Products are things made for use in any society. Commodities are made for sale. They are part of capitalist society. It could be said that commodities create capitalism. As such they have both a use value and an exchange-value. To us they are as normal as going shopping. But the contradiction between use value and exchange-value has enormous implications. Marx had the imagination to grasp this.

In primitive society people produce mainly for their own needs and not for others. There is very little exchange. From a historical perspective you could say that a use value slowly struggles to achieve a recognition of value (which is seen as exchange-value in the exchange process and which is theorised to be abstract human labour by Marx). At that point historically, as the market develops, the use value becomes a commodity. Commodity production arrives big time when products are produced in bulk for the purpose of exchange. The producer has no personal need for those products, s/he produces them to sell them.

What a commodity is not

When a peasant produced quit-rent-corn for a feudal lord he is make a product but not a commodity because exchange is not involved. To become a commodity a product must be transferred to another, whom it will serve as a use-value, by means of exchange. This commodity definition was inserted by Engels into the 4th German edition of Capital (at the end of Chapter 1, section 1) due to this misunderstanding: not everything produced by or consumed by another is a commodity.

A thing can be a use value without having value.

This can happens whenever its utility (usefulness) is not due to labour. eg. air, virgin soil. Land is a major capitalist category. Many forms of production require land. From the point of view of the average worker buying a house and the land it sits on is a major purchase. But land is part of nature, it exists without labour inputs, and so strictly speaking is not a commodity.

It also happens when personal, private production produce use values without producing value. eg. building a cubby for your child or mowing the lawn at home requires labour and produces use values but is not part of the capitalist marketplace.

Stolen goods are intended commodities which are not paid for and if they are not subsequently sold, by the thief, do not have their value realised. This introduces the case of goods that are produced but not sold due to overproduction, which leads to an economic recession. Are they commodities? By my reading they are commodities in waiting but not true commodities until they are sold and their value is realised.

The difference between exchange-value and value

Early on the distinction between exchange-value and value was not clear to me. I later discovered that Marx did not distinguish between them himself in his earlier important introductory work, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. See Simon Clarke's Reading Notes on Capital in his Publications. Finally, I found a place where he did spell it out in an Appendix he added to the first German edition of Capital at the request of Engels.

In Section 4 of that Appendix Marx says that a commodities “existence as value is revealed by the exchangeability of the body of another commodity” and that “exchange-value is the independent form of appearance of commodity-value”

My understanding of this is that exchange is what we see on the surface (“form of appearance” ) and that value is an underlying category. It was another piece of what felt like a jigsaw puzzle, put into place.

Note on Marx's timeline about starting with the commodity

1857- Marx began Grundrisse (Rough Draft). This wasn't published until 1939-41 in German (limited edition), then 1953 (German fuller version) and 1973 in English (Martin Nicolaus translation)

In Grundrisse the sequence goes like this: money → Capital → Surplus value → Circulation process of Capital → theories of surplus value → profit → Value (this section to be brought forward)

1859 In A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy (published), Marx does begin with the commodity

1861-5 Capital volume one was written and then published in 1867

(part 3, to be continued)

Monday, January 18, 2016

unpacking the value suitcase

Clarifying the meaning of and distinguishing between the words: value, wealth, quality and money

Suitcase words: Marvin Minsky (The Emotion Machine) has coined this marvellous term to describe words that are not clearly defined and mean different things to different people. For example, Consciousness is a suitcase word. It can mean unifier, self awareness, identity, animator of the mind, provider of meaning, detector of feelings. It refers to many different mental activities that don’t have a single cause or origin. In part Minsky’s book is about the need to create a new vocabulary in order to discuss the workings of the mind.

So, let us discuss the value suitcase. Over the years it has become a very large suitcase with many thousands of words devoted to different interpretations of value theory resulting in a tangled mass of incoherent vocabulary.

I start with the folk perspective because what we pick up as the everyday background noise of the meaning of words does influence our understanding when we get around to analysing those words in more detail. We cannot properly acquire new understandings without first subjecting our old understandings to critical scrutiny. No construction, without destruction.

Here are some popular uses of the word value:
  1. Tom is good value, ask him to do the job
  2. That car is good value for money
  3. Gold increases in value during economic recessions
  4. Steve Jobs adds value to Apple shares
  5. The role of a teacher is to add value to their students
  6. It was a valuable experience to attend that Noel Pearson lecture
So, in folk use, value might be used to describe an attribute of a person, a commodity (two examples, car and gold), a business, a process or an experience. In some cases there is a close connection between value and money (sentences 2 and 4) but in other cases it refers to the ability of certain people to successfully transfer their skill to a job of work or to other people. It can also refer to a learning experience. In all of these cases value is a good thing and the more value there is the better.

In Capital, Marx doesn’t start with value. He starts with the commodity and then splits the commodity into something which possesses both use value and exchange value. It turns out later that exchange-value is the form of appearance of value. Exchange value is “observable” in a transaction. For example, one 32GB USB stick = 16 litres of Pura full cream milk. We can equate these values in real life but more realistically in our imagination and it does not have to involve money. Value is the underlying category, an abstraction, a theoretical underpinning of exchange-value.

In Marx’s terms value has a form, a substance and a magnitude. The form of value is its capacity to be exchanged. The substance of value is embedded abstract labour. The magnitude of value is the amount of embedded labour or socially necessary labour time. This thumbnail needs to be discussed in more detail later.

Marx clearly distinguishes between value and use value. For Marx value is a social product (or in his language, a social form). It only exists in a commodity society, a society where products are produced and sold to others. For Marx value does not exist, or only exists in embryonic form, in primitive society where hunters and gatherers are mainly working for themselves. For Marx value is historically contingent whereas use value is not. Use value refers to the properties of products that make them useful. For example, a car is useful for transportation. This is true irrespective of whether it is bought and sold in the marketplace. Marx makes a radical separation between the usefulness of products (true for all social systems) and their value, which is only true for products which are made to be sold in the marketplace. Such products are defined as commodities.

What is the difference between the folk perspective of value and the Marx perspective of value?

Well, Marx mercilessly dissects or interrogates the commodity and teases out a variety of meanings and distinctions (use value, exchange-value, value). For Marx value becomes a central theoretical concept which is complex in its own right, having social form, substance and magnitude. But for Marx a line is drawn between value and use value.

So, looking again at the starting sentences and adding some annotations about what the folk use of value means in each case:
  1. Tom is good value, ask him to do the job (Tom is useful at work of an unspecified character)
  2. That car is good value for money (I am prepared to exchange my money to buy that car)
  3. Gold increases in value during economic recessions (Gold is special for unstated reasons because it is always valuable, even in economic crises)
  4. Steve Jobs adds value to Apple shares (some individuals excel at their value interventions in the capitalist system because of their creative design and marketing skills)
  5. The role of a teacher is to add value to their students (in the “knowledge economy” value can refer to added knowledge too; the teacher transfers their knowledge to their students)
  6. It was a valuable experience to attend that Noel Pearson lecture (an experience can be valuable or personally enriching in its own right)
The folk usage of the word value does either mean or imply the similar concepts which Marx discovers in the commodity (usefulness, exchangeability), adds on a few more (creativity, knowledge transfer, enrichment) and then fuzzily blurs them all together. In folk usage value is a suitcase word. Folks are using the word value as a suitcase whereas Marx is starting with the commodity and meticulously teasing out various meanings in his analysis.

The folk perspective on value and Marx’s perspective also deviate when it comes to labour saving or productivity increasing technology. With technological progress the value of manufactured products decreases. They become cheaper to buy in the marketplace.

I said above in relation to the six introductory sentences which illustrate a variety of usages of value, that:
In all of these cases value is a good thing and the more value there is the better
But now I am pointing out that as technological productivity increases then the value of the manufactured products decreases. That experience is part of popular consciousness. We all know that we possess more products than our parents generation. We possess them because we can afford them since comparable items are cheaper relative to our wages than they used to be. But does the concept of declining value universally enter the popular consciousness?
7) Commodities are cheaper for my generation than previous generations. We’ve never had it so good!
There may be some awareness of this truth but it is not general folk wisdom. Why not?

Well, often prices don’t go down. Rather you buy a fancier equivalent of the commodity you want for the same price. You are getting more value for money but not getting the feeling that things are cheaper in an absolute sense. Windows 10 replaces Windows 9. It really doesn’t do anything different but has a few extra bells and whistles so you end up paying a similar price. In reality, absolutely free alternative operating systems such as Ubuntu are equivalent and better in some ways (no viruses).

Some prices do go up. For example, land, petrol, electricity, internet access in Australia.

It is cheaper to build a house now than previously, due to technological and organisational development. The house is cheaper but the land is often more expensive due to supply and demand for good location.

Petrol prices are subject to the control of a cartel (OPEC)

The price of electricity goes up due to lack of forward planning by governments who don’t build surplus capacity in good time.

The National Broadband Network (NBN) is potentially a good idea but due to government incompetence it is rolled out in a more expensive fashion than is needed.

Environmental costs contribute to rising prices. Once again, governments are generally incompetent in managing these issues,

It is hard to accurately compare our generation with previous generations. This arises from the nature of capitalist development. We have more things but in the main they are different things to our parents possessions. When I grew up we did not own a flush toilet, an electric frig, a TV, a microwave or a computer. They were either invented or became affordable consumer items later. Even the items that are common to both generations differ substantially. Houses and cars are far more sophisticated today, they possess added gadgets and functionality which was not present previously. This rough comparison makes it obvious that the current generation has far more material possessions than previous generations. The value of producing equivalent and / or better commodities has declined over time mainly due to productivity improvements.

What is the difference between value and wealth?

In folk usage wealth may refer to:
8 ) There are a wealth of ideas in the mind of that intellectual
9) James Packer is wealthy (aka filthy rich)
10) Capitalism increases the wealth of society but that wealth is distributed unevenly
If you substitute wealth for value in my original sentences it doesn’t work out. You wouldn’t say:
1′) Tom is good wealth, ask him to do the job
2′) That car is good wealth for money
5′) The role of a teacher is to add wealth to their students
but you could say:
4′) Steve Jobs adds wealth to Apple shares
This is because value means more than the finished product or money. It also means or implies productive labour. Wealth doesn’t fit in those sentences because it usually refers more to the end product or the market value of the end product than the productive labour required to obtain that product.

Marx and his predecessors also distinguished between value and wealth. Wealth is the sum of all use values irrespective of whether they require labour. Hence unadorned natural products, eg. virgin land, are part of wealth but not part of value. In Marx’s terms nature is not a source of value. Marx approved of his predecessor William Petty in distinguishing between labour and nature as sources of wealth:
“Labour is … not the only source of material wealth, ie of the use-values it produces. As William Petty says, labour is the father of material wealth, the earth is its mother.” (Marx, vol 1)
Wealth is the sum of all use values, which are concrete and particular. Wealth originates in both nature and labour. This applies to any society. Value is a creature of capitalism or a society where commodities are exchanged in the market place and display their exchange-value there.

What is the difference between value and quality?

In Marx’s terms value is not metaphysical. By metaphysical I mean broad trans historical concepts which attempt to define meaning in a permanent or grandiose sense. Marx’s analysis is relevant to capitalism, not all of history. Marx is not writing a theory of everything to last for all time but is doing a specific critique of capitalism and classical political economy, the partly correct then existing theories of his predecessors Adam Smith, David Ricardo and others.

It is a different approach to my memory of the sense in which Quality is discussed at length in Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance. I had the sense there that if only the slippery concept of Quality could be grasped then that would be similar to solving the riddle of life itself.

However, folk usage does not always embrace metaphysical texts. In folk usage there is not a clear distinction made between value and quality. If you take the sentences I began with:
1) Tom is good quality, ask him to do the job
2) That car is good quality for money
3) Gold increases in quality during economic recessions
4) Steve Jobs adds quality to Apple shares
5) The role of a teacher is to add quality to their students
6) It was a quality experience to attend that Noel Pearson lecture
For most of them you could substitute the word quality for the word value. It is only in sentence (3) that this substitution does not work. This is because the phenomenon of gold increasing in value during economic recession requires a detailed economic theory to explain it. Even though the sentence is part of folk usage the explanation of that sentence is not.

What is the difference between value and money?

From the original sentences value is measured in money terms in sentences 2 and 4 or at least the connection is clear:
2) That car is good value for money
4) Steve Jobs adds value to Apple shares
In folk terms the value suitcase is much broader than money and encompasses usefulness, creativity and experiences as well.

For Marx value originates from labour and evolves into a universal equivalent, gold money, which further evolves into paper money. But for Marx value is in motion. The capitalist uses money or credit to buy labour and means of production, proceeds to a production process, sells the resultant commodities and finally invests more into the production process in a continual cycle. Value moves through this whole process dynamically.

So value is far more than money in both folk and Marx’s usage but in different ways.

The folk connotation of value is that it is a good thing, that valuable things (people, commodities, experiences) are worth having. This is different from the Marxist understanding, that value is a creature of capitalism an underlying theoretical concept which is the starting point to explain the motion of the whole capitalist system. For Marx, value is the starting point for further analysis and understanding of capitalism.

(part 2, to be continued)

marx and the domains of ignorance

The domains of ignorance:
  • Known unknowns: All the things you know you don't know
  • Unknown unknowns: All the things you don't know you don't know
  • Errors: All the things you think you know but don't
  • Unknown knowns: All the things you don't know you know
  • Taboos: Dangerous, polluting or forbidden knowledge
  • Denials: All the things too painful to know, so you don't
The domains of ignorance are relevant to Marx. Some people don't read him because it is taboo. Some people read him and think they understand but they don't. Some people have a superficial knowledge of Marx and think that is good enough. But none of that really explains the extent of the marginalisation of Marx. I think the main issue is that he is difficult to understand. The thing missing from the domains of ignorance is contradictory knowledge.

Isaac Deutscher provides an anecdote about the knowledge of Marx in that era (the 1930s):
"Capital is a tough nut to crack, opined Ignacy Daszyński, one of the best known socialist "people's tribunes" around the turn of the 20th century, but anyhow he had not read it. But, he said, Karl Kautsky had read it, and written a popular summary of the first volume. He hadn't read this either, but Kazimierz Kelles-Krauz, the party theoretician, had read Kautsky's pamphlet and summarised it. He also had not read Kelles-Krauz's text, but the financial expert of the party, Hermann Diamand, had read it and had told him, i.e. Daszynski, everything about it"
Marx's critique of political economy is old knowledge, forbidden or marginalised knowledge and difficult to understand knowledge. Because it was written 150 years ago many think it is no longer relevant. Because communism is believed to have been tried and found wanting many who want change think it could not provide the answers we want. Because Marxism is an insignificant part of mainstream education and in particular often not taught in the economics faculty then it is only going to be accessed by those who think outside of the mainstream. Finally, the many volumes of Capital are difficult to understand for a variety of reasons.

Conceptually the work is very rich and it is difficult to keep the whole of fit in your head. Marx uses a method of investigation (his adaptation of Hegelian dialectics) that is unfamiliar to moderns. Much of the language he uses is unfamiliar and this issue is exacerbated through a variety of translations. The prose is dense. Marx established a precise, strict terminology, eg. use value, exchange value, value, relative and absolute surplus value and then uses it rigorously for hundreds of pages. Therefore you must pay close attention, otherwise you are lost. He frequently uses French and Latin quotations. He also employs fascinating, tangential footnotes, which must be read.

The economic crisis which began in 2007 created an intellectual crisis, which did already exist, but was not so obvious as before the crisis. For much of time following WW2 economic crisis was absent, the capitalists had appeared to work out how to stabilise an unstable system. That assumption has know been shown to be false.

My contention is that to understand the inner workings of capitalism you have to understand Marx. Although this will not provide any magic solution to the current issues of ongoing economic crisis it will provide a deep appreciation of the inner contradictions of capitalism that make it forever an unstable and unpredictable system.

To understand value theory you have to read the original Marx. My goal here is to describe some of the hurdles I encountered along the way and answers I found to those problems. I called these AHA moments. I'm writing it as a series of confusions or sticking points followed by breakthroughs which were then followed by more confusions, etc.

The Value concept is central to Marx's whole argument. To understand capitalism, how it works from the inside, requires an understanding of Value. It is this broad view that has motivated me to persevere in reading Marx, whose writings are difficult, and various interpretations.

(part one, to be continued)

Friday, January 15, 2016

marx on alienation

What did Marx mean by alienation and is it still relevant?

When using the word alienation, Marx was talking about the fundamental social structures of the capitalist system. He was not talking about psychological alienation. In saying that I would not discount the concept of psychological alienation in connection with Marx's analysis. Rather, it is not the starting point of comprehension of what Marx was on about.

Marx regarded the contradiction between private property (the social class who owns the means of production) and alienated labour (the social class who has no option but to work to earn money to maintain themselves) as the fundamental issue of the capitalist era. Fundamental here means the main underlying contradiction, the one that can't be resolved by capitalism. It is not the same as the principal contradiction. The principal contradiction is the one which manifests itself most sharply in any particular era. I won't attempt to say what the principal contradiction is in the world today but I will say that if the post 2008 economic situation continues to deteriorate then the principal contradiction may become aligned with the fundamental contradiction.

In this essay I'm focusing on Marx's 1844 writings (Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, particularly the section on Estranged Labour)

Christopher Arthur summarises Marx's 1844 writings as follows:
“Because the worker has no property in the means of production his labour-power is excluded from the instrument and object of production owned by another; his labour realizes itself therefore only through the wage-contract whereby it is alienated to the master and works in his behalf.”
- dialectics-of-labour/chapter-01
Marx discusses the nature of alienated work under capitalism, from a four fold perspective:(1) alienation from the products of labour; (2) alienation from his own labour; (3) alienation from fellow men and (4) alienation from his own species.

Capitalism has been around for 150 years since Marx wrote and has adapted in that time. Workers have struggled successfully to improve their working conditions through trade union and other struggles. The productive forces have developed tremendously and many of the most difficult jobs are now less difficult because of machines assisting the work. The education system has developed and expanded world wide to keep up with the requirements of the more developed productive forces. Many of the worst jobs have been exported to the developing countries. Knowledge industry and service industry type jobs have replaced many jobs in the industrial and agricultural sectors. A useful book, which I read years ago discussing the shift from industrial to service industry work was Sleepers, Wake! Technology and the Future of Work by Barry Jones, but obviously that analysis needs to be updated and developed.

It seems that Marx didn't anticipate the resilience and longevity of capitalism. I feel that in some places he exaggerates how bad things are for the worker. Capitalism has been adaptable in order to survive. Capitalism is a flexible and adaptable system but within limits. The bottom line is that it must continue to find a way to extract surplus value. Capitalism can't compromise on that issue.

Given these changes I will make some qualifying comments on Christopher Arthur's summary of Marx's 1844 document about the nature of work:
“The labourer treats his labour as a commodity; as a consequence he has no interest in the work itself but only in the wage; labour does not belong to itself but to private property.”
It is true that most people are driven to work to earn money. However, given Marx's general attitude to the central importance of work (aka labour, activity) in human development it is strange that he asserts that the worker has no interest in the work itself

This is too extreme. In another place (Critique of the Gotha Program, 1875) Marx, anticipating communism, describes labour as life's prime want. IMO it is simply not possible for the boss-worker alienated relationship to comprehensively destroy all interest in the work itself. Marx's ironic statement that capitalism creates it own grave diggers (Communist Manifesto, 1848), a proletariat that has learnt to run the system by building it, is far closer to the mark.
“... the worker ... executes plans he does not form; he objectifies himself in his product only to have it taken from him”
This is correct for most factory work and low skill jobs but when it comes to the knowledge industry (eg. engineers, computer programmers, some aspects of teaching) the workers are significantly involved in the planning
“he produces palaces but lives in hovels; his labour creates beauty but deforms himself ...”
Today, many workers live in nice homes. Home ownership is a problematic aspiration of the capitalist system. Nice if you can get it but it is going to take a significant proportion of your working life to attain it.

Does the worker deform himself? In the physical or bodily sense this is another exaggeration, although true in the cases where difficult manual work and industrial accidents still occur. In the mental sense it is true in the sense that workers have to adapt their lives to the needs of their jobs – eg. long hours, division of labour – but there are other aspects of work that are enjoyable and enriching. I think the key issue here in interpreting Marx about division of labour is that even for relatively good jobs the emphasis in training is on technical skills and the education system is not designed to develop critical, broad ranging thinkers.
“ … the more intelligence is embodied in the design of the factory system the more machine-like and stupefying the routine of work, so much so that the labourer faces machinery as a competitor for his place”
It is true that the dead labour in machines (aka fixed capital) progressively replaces living labour. This is part of the evolutionary dynamic of capitalism. Marx anticipated this, see this passage from the Grundrisse (1857-61) [“The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it” source]. The intelligence also becomes part of the skilled workforce (managers, scientists, engineers, computer programmers). It remains a living thing, not just embodied in the design of the factory system.
“at work he does not feel at home; he feels himself only when he is not working; his work is not voluntary therefore, but is forced labour; in it the worker belongs not to himself but to another”
Many workers will testify that they would rather be at home than at work but nevertheless many workers also feel that being at work broadens and enriches them in significant ways.

If we focus on factory work (not knowledge work) for a minute it is relatively easy to see that in such work the worker is alienated from the product he makes but does not own. Marx goes onto argue that since the product is alien then the labour process which made the product must also be alien. He calls this self-estrangement. Marx sees labour or work or activity, when it is not alienated, as life itself, since productive activity between man and nature is human essence.

So, the factory worker feels external or outside or not at home with this labour process. What would it take for this feeling to be reversed? Well, say the worker is at home doing home improvements or building a cubby for their child or researching a favourite topic on the internet. This is more like life activity being internal to the worker. I would argue that this is an experience that knowledge workers obtain sometimes at work, which leads to the “I like my job” feeling.

The main thing I liked about my teaching job was that ability to research different innovative approaches that helped me teach concepts I felt were useful more effectively to my students. When doing that I felt inside the work. This approach to internalisation of development was expressed through the constructionist learning theory developed by Seymour Papert. He even described the turtle in turtle geometry as an object to think with, conveying the internalisation of the learning process. But this bottom up learning is only happening in a few classrooms controlled by innovative teachers. It hasn't been taken up by the education system as a whole, which favours more structured top down approaches, which have a legitimate place in learning theory and practice, as well.

Capitalism leads to the dominance of things over people. Things develop personalities and workers lose their personalities, become mere wage plugs. Capital and capitalists (Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, James Packer, Twiggy Forest) have individuality, their wealth or things enables them to express it (the personification of capital), whilst the worker is always struggling to keep afloat, pay off the mortage. Veblen pointed out the phenomenon of conspicuous consumption. Dead labour dominates living labour. The worker becomes an abstract individual (impoverished, pared down). The world of objects (property) becomes massive and powerful relative to the worker's world. In the face of the massive development of productive forces it is easy for workers to feel powerless. But it is the labour of the working class which has created this massive world of things.

Marx wants to transform the whole work experience so that all workers can become fully alive at work. If the worker feels at one with society, rather then having to compete to earn money to stay alive, then even mundane or banal jobs, jobs which have to be done, would feel useful rather than alienating.

It follows on from product ownership (previous section) that workers will have anxious, insecure, alien and hostile relations with the capitalist and landlord. The capitalist is powerful and alien compared to the worker.

Our self conscious species life is potentially rich. We produce a great range of things including beautiful things and things which can be used later. But the potential to live to the full extent of our species being is destroyed because capitalists appropriate the product of our labour.

Capitalism dissolves the world into competitive atomistic individuals rather than the cooperative, harmonious and joyful species that we could be.

Capitalists are alienated too! They cannot have normal human relations with the worker. They are dominated by the social conditions of the system, including competition. They are driven by the desire to amass profits. They are not directly involved in productive activity themselves. They become greedy (for money because they don't produce themselves), cruel and hypocritical.


Taking a step back we can view work as a mediation between man and nature. Christopher Arthur puts it like this:
“(Marx) ... speaks of nature as 'man's inorganic body' and says that 'he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die ... for man is a part of nature'. On the other hand, he says that 'it is in his fashioning of the objective world that man really proves himself; through such productive activity 'nature appears as his work and his reality . . . and he can therefore contemplate himself in a world he himself created'; this process is characterized as 'objectification' (Vergegenständlichung) ...

(objectification means the making of a product or object)

In truth, man is neither passively dependent upon nature, nor is he able to create his world from nothing. It is rather the case that through industry, productive activity, a dynamic relationship between man and nature is established in which both poles are transformed ...”
The word mediation is used in the sense of an extended process between man and nature which determines the nature of change of man and society. Contrast mediation with immediate. The view that man is in some sort of passive, contemplative relationship with nature or, the opposite view that man can somehow overthrow nature both suggest an immediate, short term connection rather than a mutually transforming mediation. Rather, man transforms nature, a process which requires both struggle and unity, and in the process transforms himself.

This establishes Marx's fundamental ontology, that human essence arises, is created, through the process of productive activity which mediates between man and nature. This provides a thematic starting point for the outlook of historical materialism, that historical development can be understood through the working through of this process of productive activity which mediates between man and nature.

Christopher Arthur refers to Istávan Mészáros's analysis of first order and second order mediations. The mediation of productive activity between man and nature is a fundamental first order mediation which applies historically to all societies. Compare this with capitalist society where:
“... in the present economic conditions we find that productive activity itself is mediated through the division of labour, private property, exchange, wages, in sum a system of estrangement in which productive activity loses itself and falls under the sway of an alien power. Istávan Mészáros has termed this 'a set of second-order mediations . . . i.e. a historically specific mediation of the ontologically fundamental self-mediation of man with nature” (emphasis added)

I have explained what Marx meant by alienation, a fourfold analysis [(1) alienation from the products of labour; (2) alienation from his own labour; (3) alienation from fellow men and (4) alienation from his own species] and contrasted his meaning with the more fashionable interpretation today of psychological alienation. Marx's meaning of alienation needs to be contrasted with his vision of communism where the mediation of productive activity between man and nature (human essence) is not contaminated by the social forms of capitalism (division of labour, private property, exchange, wages).

I have touched on technological change and the changing nature of work and how that requires Marx's class analysis to be updated but by no means negates its fundamental importance.

I'll return to these topics in subsequent blogs.

update (Jan 16):
Marx's solution to the problems of capitalism is for the proletariat to seize political power, through revolution, and to proceed to create communism, through a transitional period of socialism, or dictatorship of the proletariat over the capitalist class.

Now, obviously the proletariat, the 99%, could achieve this against the capitalist class, the 1%, if there was clarity, unity and good leadership to attain such a goal. The reason we don't have socialism is for various reasons the proletariat doesn't strongly desire socialism.

What I will do here is attempt a rough preliminary analysis, in terms of the ideas discussed by Marx, of the push factors from capitalism to communism and contrast them with the pull factors which prevent the proletariat from embracing that change.

In favour of the transition from capitalism to communism: The iniquitous social forms of wage labour, private property, division of labour and exchange would be eliminated and replaced with a not alienated mediation of productive activity between man and nature.

Factors impeding the transition from capitalism to communism: In order to support the Marxist revolution you need to understand what it is. That requires some slow, deep thinking, reading and analysis. Most workers are too busy working long hours to pay off the mortgage, keeping afloat in a competitive system. Our education system trains specialists (a division of labour) and not whole people who reflect on wide ranging social issues. Overall, the education system is designed to reproduce existing class relations rather than overthrow them. Capitalist culture tends to distract or entertain people in a whole range of ways (from David Bowie to Buddhism to Foxtel to drugs). The disenfranchised are given welfare, enough to survive, which keeps them distracted and so that threat to the system has been manageable up until now.

Alternatively, it could be argued that Marx was wrong. I'm interested in those arguments and have at times adopted them myself. But I now suspect it is more the case that Marx has not been understood or only partially understood or that some "Marxist" leaders have been too dogmatic, one sided and have ended up offering bad leadership.


Arthur, Christopher. Dialectics of Labour: Marx and his Relation to Hegel, Ch 1

Jones, Barry. Sleepers, Wake! Technology and the Future of Work

Marx, Karl
Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, particularly the section on Estranged Labour,

Communist Manifesto

Critique of the Gotha Programme

Grundrisse (section)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

marx's moral theory


If there is such as thing as human essence and we can discover what it is then that will go a long way towards developing a moral theory.

Human nature is part biological, part social and not religious. Religion is something to be explained rather than believed. This includes modern religions such as Nature worship (currently popular) and Marx worship (currently marginalised).

Humans have both needs and powers. Obviously, it follows that we are both needy and powerful and both of these aspects of being human need to be explored further.

The biological and social parts are connected or interact dialectically. It would be an error to see them in isolation from each other.

Fundamental biological needs include eating, drinking, habitation, clothing, sexuality ...

Biological and Social. Humans produce their own existence / material life through social labour. Our biology allows this, eg. Opposable thumb, upright posture frees the hand, large brain. This separates us from other animals. Compared to other animals we are self conscious and wilful to a qualitatively different degree. Although we originate as part of nature, with our social labour we oppose nature. Our productivity is also imaginative. We imaginatively and self consciously transform nature and in that process also transform ourselves. This is a teleological process. Humans imagine new forms of the material and self and then through social labour bring that imagination into reality. This is human essence.


The guiding moral principle is to do whatever is required for the human flourishing of rich individuals, to dynamically expand human powers for all humans. Human flourishing is not original to Marx but Marx built on the best available ideas that came before him, those of Aristotle.

Marx and Engels were more aware than Aristotle about the role of social labour in this enrichment process. After all, Aristotle lived in a slave society. Refer Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man. In communist society there would not be a division of labour based around the supply and demand of the labour market. In a world where production for the needs of all is established then each individual would be free to pursue their own perceived interests.


The philosophical stance here is to investigate what is distinctive about humans (biologically and socially) and from that basis to articulate what a good or rich life is.


Be clear about where our moral principles come from. Being determines consciousness. Matter is philosophically prior to ideas.

The theory is philosophically materialist. It starts from real people and real conditions. It ascends from earth to heaven, not descends from heaven to earth.

But, once we are in heaven how do we get back down to earth again? The only way is to make a detailed study of society in all its aspects. Mode of production, division of labour, social classes, Is there a surplus and who controls it?, the history of knowledge, current issues, individual self knowledge. There is a lot to know! The desirable actions that promote the best human nature at any point in history depends on the depth and perspicacity of such an analysis.


Capitalist limitations. For the capitalist, because they own the means of production, the workers life activity becomes a mere use value. In general, workers have no direct stake in the products they produce. Temporary niche solutions may be possible for individual workers but overall work loses it human character. In class society, the economy operates as a thing more or less outside of human control. If there is no profit to be made then production grinds to a halt. There maybe poorly understood economic laws. But the best that could be said of capitalism is that it is a highly unstable system in which the future well being of the workers who make it is uncertain and problematic.

Capitalism gives labour a bad feel (alienation) and production a bad name. Under capitalism humans are alienated from their essence, their living social labour, since the capitalists own the means of production and determines which products are made and who owns those products.

The capitalist economy is an unstable monster, poorly understood, difficult to manage and continually spinning out of control. Workers are alienated from the products they produce. Creative people who produce things of beauty (some artists, some writers, some teachers etc) are often not seen or appreciated as typical workers, rather they are marginalised workers looking for a niche to survive in a system that systematically undermines them. Or a handful may become megastar celebrities who play a significant role in entertaining the masses. Moreover, many believe today that capitalist production is despoiling the environment at an alarming rate. I think there is some truth to this latter charge, although I also see talk of environmental Armageddon as exaggerated and a distraction from the main wrongs of our society.

These issues in combination (production for profit not human need) give production itself a bad name. Human essence, social labour, life's prime want, is reduced to being a wage plug, without a real say in the overall progression of society.

Rather than saving the planet (the current “left” mainstream zeitgeist) we need to focus more on how to liberate the social productive forces, human essence, in all their real power and beauty. A power and beauty which is obscured by the ugliness of capitalism.


The natural world is the world created by humans, who are part of nature, as well as the world that existed before humans. The natural world is not “green” insofar as that suggests a world not touched by humans. Such a world no longer really exists on Earth. In a post natural world (aka the anthropocene) our needs will be created more by what we make than the natural world that exists independently of what we make.

As society evolves our tastes, including our basic biological tastes, become more sophisticated: “the forming of the 5 senses is a labour of the entire history of the world” (source)


A moral theory has to somehow account for all human moral thinking, good and bad, angelic and evil, noble and perverse, optimistic and pessimistic. But Marx's moral theory is (intentionally?) thin. It does not claim or suggest that humans are any of essentially selfish, altruistic, competitive, fallen, vicious etc. Is this a feature or a bug? In my view Marx is right about the essentials but there is a lot of stuff that is not covered. Marx analyses the deep structure of capitalist society but there are important issues that lie more on the surface (eg. the dark and deep emotions such as love, grief, anger) that strongly motivate individual actions but are left hanging. Hence, many people find that other moral philosophers and novelists address their needs more directly.


Utopians make the error of promoting general moral principles in the abstract, without regard to the current real state of society, without assessing the social forces at play. They are not realistic. Mere moral persuasion in favour of a better society is inadequate / doesn't work.

There are many alternative moral theories. For example Plato (Iris Murdoch provides a modern interpretation), Stoic, Christian (various branches), Kantian, Utilitarian (Bentham and JS Mill provide different interpretations), feminism / women's liberation, Buddhism (meditation and mindfulness are currently popular), existentialism, libertarianism, animal liberation, Sufism (adopted by Doris Lessing after her disillusion with communism), pragmatism (Dewey, Putnam), the liberal Capabilities approach of Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum.

All of these need to be critically examined since what is correct only emerges clearly from a critique of such alternatives. At this stage I would say that none of these alternatives share with Marx the view that human essence is the conscious production of our existence / material life through social labour. Moreover, they tend to be indifferent to the analysis that the main current problems are generated by capitalism.


Humans are self conscious, intelligent, purposive, active, self directed. But this doesn't mean we can negate the so called "external world" (only external to humans, who are a part of nature, so not really external to nature in that broader sense of the word) or history.

Human individuality (as distinct from herd or tribal mentality) emerges historically from the bourgeois revolution against feudal relations (when it was “natural” to obey a preordained superior such as a lord or king). Herds are not good at shopping, whereas individuals are. But just as individuality emerges strongly in the capitalist era, you would expect it to also change dramatically in a post capitalist society.

In class society, social class is a more important determiner of who we are than individuality as such. Individuals pick their personalities, interests, work etc. from what is available socially (including the cutting edge, futuristic and off beat, quirky trends) at the time. The idea that we are free, autonomous individuals is more part of capitalist mythology or ideology than reality.


Morality is historically contingent. What is moral in one historical period becomes immoral in another. The central issue is doing whatever is required to maximise the human flourishing of rich individuals in the given time and place.

For example, in the French revolution the rising bourgeois class overthrew feudal relations, got rid of divine rule by the King etc. In that historical period bourgeois right coincided with the needs of the proletariat as well. But at a later date the bourgeois class held things back, became reactionary, used social labour for their own ends, promoted an economic system which went through periodic crises and still does. At that point the revolution to continue human liberation and the liberation of the productive forces must be picked up by the proletariat, sooner or later.

Given the views expressed here about ontology (materialists need to deeply investigate reality) and history (morality is historically contingent) it follows that to work out the best moral - political actions requires some hard work. No one said it would be easy.


The productive forces developing within bourgeois society create the material conditions (preconditions?) for the solution to the problem of the antagonism of the individuals social conditions of existence. Big is beautiful, not small is beautiful (the latter from EF Schumacher). Not because capitalism is beautiful but because big, centralised production prepares the way for socialism.


Marx is grounded, not utopian. In The German Ideology, Marx rejects the idea of communism as "an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself", rather he sees it as "the real movement which abolishes the present state of things”

This is pretty much the opposite of what most people today believe about communism, that it is idealistic and unrealistic.

From a moral perspective the aim is to bring together social being (human existence as it is) with social essence (human existence as it ought to be). As the contradiction between the individual and the social diminishes then the need for morality to maintain social cohesion would also diminish. All the conditions for rich individuality would be met by society. Eventually, morality might disappear altogether. If everyone's needs were being met through the basic social structure then wouldn't concepts such as selfishness or altruism lose their meaning?


There are many important issues missing from both the theory and practice of Marxism in this account. I have a preliminary list but will leave that to another time. No doubt if you have read this far you are both interested in this topic and will have your own unanswered questions. This will require far more discussion.


I have done a lot of reading on this topic but won't attempt a detailed bibliography at this stage. But I will mention one reference which to me is a stand out, a PhD thesis by Vanessa Wills titled Marx and Morality (pdf 269pp) who has read and understood all of Marx IMHO.

Monday, December 14, 2015

life's prime want, 1875-2015

"In ... communist society ... labour has become ... life's prime want ... only then can ... society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs!"
- Karl Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme (1875)
As soon as he died, Juan found himself in a gorgeous place, surrounded by all the comfort and beauty he had dreamed of.

A fellow dressed in white approached him and said, “You have the right to have whatever you want; any food, pleasure or amusement.”

Charmed, Juan did everything he dreamed of doing during his life. After many years of pleasures, he sought the fellow in white and asked, “I have already experienced everything I wanted. Now I need to work in order to feel useful.”

“I am sorry,” said the fellow in white, “but that is the only thing I am unable to give you. There is no work here.”

“How terrible,” Juan said annoyed, “I will spend eternity dying of boredom! I’d much rather be in hell!”

The man in white approached him and said in a low voice:

“And where do you think you are?”
- Paulo Coelho (2015)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Nicolas Henin: the main problem in Syria is Assad

(Video 6.5 minutes.)

Nicolas Henin (French journalist who was held hostage by Isis for 10 months).
Core issues:
(1) Assad repressed the democratic revolution.
(2) International communities response was passivity.

Chemical weapons are still being used by Assad. Assad’s barrel bombs are the current main cause of death for Syrian civilians. The Syrian regime kills 7-10 times more civilians than ISIS. Western policies are driving recruits to ISIS. Air strikes just focused on ISIS are counterproductive.

Refugees, insofar as they were welcomed to Europe was a blow for ISIS since it undermined their mythology that the West hates Muslims. Paris attack was aimed to reverse European good will to refugees. They hope that we will “close our borders, more importantly close our minds”.

Ultimately to win a war is not decided by weaponry but by whoever wins the minds of the people. Once the people can see a political solution then the Islamic State will collapse. At the end he calls for a no fly zone which excludes everyone, not very logical since there has to be someone to enforce the no fly zone, but his overall message is strong.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Climate change: R&D breakthrough, at last

Any real progress on de carbonisation of the energy economy has been stuck for some years by the economics of renewables. They are more expense than fossil fuels and so the developing world in particular can't afford to go down that path. See the graph which shows that the CO2 emissions of China and India in particular have increased dramatically in the past 20 years.

In Australia we have the Green Party and the Labour Party who are in denial about the high cost of renewables. The Greens have called for a 90 per cent renewable energy target by 2030 (source). Labour has called for a carbon reduc­tion target of 45 per cent by 2030 (source). Greenpeace activists demand 100% renewables.

The problem with these policies is that they imply that renewables in their current state of development can do the job. From my reading of the evidence of those who have studied this in detail, they can't.

Let's assume for a minute that there are people who are neither alarmists, nor deniers, that there are people who actually want to think more deeply about these issues than the latest media headline about the Paris summit or how it's going to be very hot this summer. For those people here are some articles which provide a starting point:
Has Renewable Energy Finally Ended the Great Clean Energy Stagnation? by Jesse Jenkins
A Look at Wind and Solar Part 1: How Far We've Come by Alex Trembath
A Look at Wind and Solar Part 2: Is There An Upper Limit To Intermittent Renewables? by Alex Trembath

Nevertheless, it seems that something quite significant has at least coincided with the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. It follows that if de-carbonisation of the energy supply is a good thing and that renewables or nuclear for that matter can't currently replace fossil fuels (due to cost in the case of nuclear) then what is required is more research and development in order to lower the price of these alternatives.

From this perspective the dual announcement of the government based Mission Initiative and the entrepreneurial based Breakthrough Energy Coalition which focus on the need for more R&D is a very good thing.

Bill Gates has been pushing for more R&D for a while, see American Innovation Energy Council and TerraPower. I guess more wealthy people are coming on board now and even Obama, from the government perspective, now sees the need for more R&D.

Under capitalism the benefits of more R&D tend to go to all capitalists since once a breakthrough is made it is hard to stop competitors finding a way to copy it. In cases of energy development with long time lines and massive expenditure requirements it can only happen this way with big government - big capitalists seeing the need and combining efforts. Historically, massive R&D has happened before due to huge rivalry between different big powers. One example, was the Manhattan Project when America feared that the Nazis would develop the first nuclear weapon. Another example was the crisis caused by the USSR putting the Sputnik into space. This quickly led to funding for massive science research in the USA which created the moon landings, the internet, etc. I guess an issue has to be perceived as urgent before that happens. So my guess is that this dual announcement does represent a significant change.

Could this be the beginning of the end of a futile argument between global warming alarmists and deniers that has distorted our political landscape for the last 20 years?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

the environment, capitalism, modernity and marx

Capitalism does harm the environment in some ways because it is a system that pursues profit before anything else. For instance, coal and other carbon based fuels will continue to be used by capitalism in general and developing countries (China, India, etc.) in particular as long as they remain cheaper than non carbon based alternatives.

It is difficult to work out the real state of the environment. This requires more scientific investigation by unbiased experts. They do exist but their voices tend to be drowned out by alarmists and deniers on global warming and other issues. It has become very difficult to sort out the reality since environmental issues have become heavily politicised. There is a litany of issues which require scientific investigation: climate system, ocean-acidification, ozone depletion, phosphorous levels, land use change, biodiversity loss, nitrogen levels, freshwater use, aerosol loading and chemical pollution. Nevertheless, there is no real option but to continue to make the effort.

As well as sometimes harming the environment, capitalism also improves the environment. eg. It is a huge environmental advance for humans to live in big cities with all that they offer compared with previous regimes such as hunter gatherer society. The built environment, planned and developed by humans, is a beautiful part of our modern environment. It seems reasonable to assume that even the latte drinking, dog walking Adam Bandt supporters in Fitzroy agree with this, in their actions at least, since they haven't moved to remote areas off the grid, yet.

Some authors make the distinction between modernity (good) and capitalism (bad or not so good): An Ecomodernist Manifesto. Modernity is all the great things developed by scientific – technological humans that enhance our lives. Civilisation, electricity, transport, cities, the internet etc.

The distinction between modernity and capitalism is a good one. But can they be decoupled so easily? We do live in a capitalist system and so more often than not the capitalist dog wags the modernity tail. This severely limits the ability of us moderns to do all sort of things, including improving and appreciating the environment. We would make a lot more progress if we replaced capitalism with a system not based on profit (Socialism → Communism)

But given that there is currently no mass movement in support of a socialist revolution it is far, far better to embrace capitalist creative destruction, warts and all, than the Deep Green alternative of throttling back on development in general to a zero growth state. This futile idealism would condemn the developing world to ongoing poverty and the developed world to intellectual poverty. The whole idea that we should cautiously huddle on the earth (light footprint) is a denial of what humans are, a social, tool making species who has progressively made scientific and technological breakthroughs which enable us to understand and control the natural world more and more. Certainly, we should not overestimate our knowledge. There are many things about nature that we don't understand. But the Deep Green philosophical stance that we should worship nature is looking backwards. Nature is powerful and magnificent. We should embrace that and strive to emulate it, not humbly worship it. See Tale of a Doomed Galaxy:
The civilization I’m imagining was smart enough not to stick around. They decided to simply leave the galaxy.

After all, they could tell the disaster was coming, at least a million years in advance. Some may have decided to stay and rough it out, or die a noble death. But most left.

And then what?

It takes a long time to reach another galaxy. Right now, travelling at 1% the speed of light, it would take 250 million years to reach Andromeda from here.

But they wouldn’t have to go to another galaxy. They could just back off, wait for the fireworks to die down, and move back in.

So don’t feel bad for them. I imagine they’re doing fine.
Forms of Green ideology and policies exist that totally distort the better ways to look at these questions. As a corrective it needs to be pointed out that the earth and humans are incredibly robust, not fragile. Humans are part of nature. We are social, tool making, future planning (teleological) animals. That is how we differ from other animals and in fact it makes us superior to other animals. There is no static balance in nature. Irreversible change has always been the real state of the natural world. See Alston Chase's In a Dark Wood: The Fight over Forests and the Myths of Nature where he critiques the biocentric viewpoints that "There is a balance of nature", 'that nature can be "healthy' or "unhealthy" ' in a similar sense to the human body being healthy or unhealthy, that "in the beginning all was perfect" (a Garden of Eden or Golden Age) and that "Nature is sacred".

It would be a huge error to follow some sections of Green ideology down an anti development or zero growth pathway. Technological risk taking, what we have always done, is an essential way for the human race to proceed: the proactionary principle:
The Proactionary Principle emerged out of a critical discussion of the widely used “precautionary principle” during Extropy Institute’s Vital Progress Summit I in 2004. The precautionary principle has been used as a means of deciding whether to allow an activity (typically involving corporate activity and technological innovation) that might have undesirable side-effects on human health or the environment. In practice, that principle is strongly biased against the technological progress so vital to the continued survival and well-being of humanity.

Understanding that we need to develop and deploy new technologies to feed billions more people over the coming decades, to counter natural threats from pathogens to environmental changes, and to alleviate human suffering from disease, damage, and the ravages of aging, those involved in the VP Summit recognized two things: The importance of critically analyzing the precautionary principle, and the formation of an alternative, more sophisticated principle that incorporates more extensive and accurate assessment of options while protecting our fundamental responsibility and liberty to experiment and innovate.

The precautionary principle, while well-intended by many of its proponents, inherently biases decision making institutions toward the status quo, and reflects a reactive, excessively pessimistic view of technological progress. By contrast, the Proactionary Principle urges all parties to actively take into account all the consequences of an activity—good as well as bad—while apportioning precautionary measures to the real threats we face, in the context of an appreciation of the crucial role played by technological innovation and humanity’s evolving ability to adapt to and remedy any undesirable side-effects.

While precaution itself implies using foresight to anticipate and prepare for possible threats, the principle that has formed around it threatens human well-being. The precautionary principle has become enshrined in many international environmental treaties and regulations, making it urgent to offer an alternative principle and set of criteria. The need for the Proactionary Principle will become clear if we understand the flaws of the precautionary principle.
In Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) Thomas Malthus claimed that exponential population growth was produced by God so that human beings would be forced to learn such virtues as abstinence and restraint. According to him, it would always be the case that population growth would outstrip the resources available to satisfy the needs of society, and thus it was not possible to improve society by increasing production, since the population would always increase to catch up with and eventually outstrip it. (Reference: Marx and Morality by Vanessa Wills, pp. 139-51 and 227)

Marx's criticisms of Malthus were (1) that Malthus blamed the poor for their poverty and recommended them to abstain from procreation, rather than blaming the real culprit, capitalism (2) Malthus believed that the productive forces would reach a ceiling beyond which they would not further increase.

The modern Green Malthusians also preach catastrophe arising from population increasing beyond what the Earth can support (see the litany above). Those who have challenged this Green orthodoxy such as Julian Simon (who won a bet against Paul Ehrlich) or Bjorn Lomborg (in The Skeptical Environmentalist) are often written off as right wingers because they support capitalist development. But we need to remember that Marx also supported capitalist development insofar as it liberated the productive forces which provided the potential for the needs of everyone to be met. His criticism of capitalism was that in the course of its development it shut down the productive forces due to periodic economic crisis arising from its internal dynamics. The argument to develop productivity to the maximum is a Marxist argument, not a right wing argument. The other part of Marx, which is not identified with right wing, is that distribution ought to occur by work under socialism or by need under communism.

Saturday, November 07, 2015

All along the watchtower by Michael Hyde

This week I read Mike Hyde's "All Along the Watchtower: Memoir of a sixties revolutionary". I know Michael and bought his book at the launch a few years ago but delayed reading it. I suppose I thought I'd lived it, at least in part, and so didn't have to read it.

Those times were marked by dramatic events: the Ronald Ryan hanging, widespread rejection of religion, the Vietnam war, conscription by a ridiculous process of birthday marbles being drawn from a box, China's Cultural Revolution launched by Mao Tsetung, feminism, drugs, sex and rock n roll.

In part of the book Michael comes across as an angry, justice seeking, sex obsessed political activist, almost a cardboard cut out. Nothing wrong with that at all, but I'm looking for a deeper insight into the human condition. The dark side. So what I liked even more was that he interleaves this with a graphic description of the fear (panic attacks) of what might happen to him, his conflicting friendships including one with a friend who went to fight in Vietnam, the tension between his activism and his family (his father was a preacher but ended up supporting Michael) as well as the dysfunctional communist party that some of us joined. I was impressed that he included the dark, difficult and conflicted personal side as well as the excitement and optimism of the hard fought struggle which eventually changed public opinion from apathy to fierce opposition to this disgusting, unjust war. This is a warts and all account which captures the spirit of the times of a section of the radical youth.

The political stance in the book is about supporting the "enemy", ie. raising money for the Vietnamese National Liberation Front (NLF) and the case for why that was the right thing to do. We used to chant at demos, "One side right, one side wrong. Victory to the Viet Cong". A lot of things flowed from that, too numerous to mention but he covers them all in the book.

I can personally identify with this book. Thank you, Michael. For many years I wanted the 60s to repeat themselves. One day they will but in a different form.

The title is from a Dylan song but apparently the Jimi Hendrix version is more popular.

Critical review by Ken Mansell

Thursday, October 22, 2015

rationale for a computer literate society (Mark Guzdial)

Requirements for a Computing Literate Society slides by Mark Guzdial. Mark's blog is here. I particularly liked slides 6, 7, 8 (rationale for teaching of abstract processing), 9, 13, 14 (Lake Wobegon effect: we don't know as much as we think we do), 23, 25, 27 (media computation as a motivating path to learning computer science) and 45 (conclusion)

Alan Perlis argued that all students should learn to program because:
  • Computer Science is the study of process. Automated execution of process changes everything including how we think about things we already know (slide 6)
  • The purpose of a course in programming is to teach people how to construct and analyze processes ... A course in programming is concerned with abstraction: the abstraction of constructing, analysing and describing processes ... The point is to make students construct complex processes out of simpler ones ... A properly designed programming course will develop these abilities better than any other course. (slide 7)
The Power and Fear of Algorithms. The Economist (Sept., 2007) spoke to the algorithms that control us, yet we don’t understand: Credit Ratings, Adjustable Rate Mortgages, Search Rankings. C.P. Snow foresaw this in 1961. Those who don’t understand algorithms, can’t understand how the decisions are made:
“A handful of people, having no relation to the will of society, having no communication with the rest of society, will be taking decisions in secret which are going to affect our lives in the deepest sense.”

Saturday, September 19, 2015

how syrians can return

Go to the above link to sign the petition. 
I’m writing this to you from a refugee camp in Germany. All the Syrians here are so grateful for the welcome people have given us but we want to live in Syria, not Germany.

I was 22 when the fighting started in 2011. I was living in a neighbourhood called Ghouta, a short drive from Damascus. A year after the uprising the regime of Bashar al-Assad placed Ghouta under siege - this means nothing comes in or out - no food, no medicine, nothing. A year after that the regime attacked us with chemical weapons and more than a thousand were gassed to death. For years they have also dropped barrel bombs and missiles on us from regime aircraft. Normally we got struck eight times a day. How could we continue to survive that hell on earth?

I had to cross twenty checkpoints on fake documents to make it out of Syria. Each time your heart stops as you know that there is a chance you will be arrested and taken away. I made it out and survived a death boat. I have survived so many ways a human being can be killed.

At home I was a medical student. We had so many attacks I assisted more surgeries than most surgeons do by the time they retire. My dream is to only have to perform ‘normal surgeries’, what I trained for, not picking shrapnel from bombs out of children's limbs.

We cannot go back while the war continues which is why we are asking for you to do everything you can to stop the war. All your governments agree there needs to be a political transition in Syria but no amount of words have made it happen. The Assad regime is still in power, killing seven times more civilians than Isis.

World leaders have to act to stop the bombs from the sky. We can survive sniper fire, chemicals but the barrel bombs are unbearable. A no-fly zone or creation of safe zones would save lives instantly. And I would be the first person on the plane home.

Right now everybody in Europe is talking about us refugees. But not many are listening to us. Please sign this petition to Europe’s leaders asking them to do more to stop the bombs and help us return home.

Abo Adnan

Sunday, August 30, 2015

syria needs a no fly zone

Syria needs a no fly zone

Here are 5 things everyone should know about what is happening in Syria today:
  1. The Assad regime is killing 7 times more civilians than ISIS.
  2. More than 11,000 barrel bombs made of scrap metal and high explosive have been rolled out of regime helicopters onto hospitals, homes and schools since the UN banned them. They are the biggest killer of civilians. They drive extremism.
  3. These barrel bombs are the leading cause of displacement, forcing refugees to cross the Mediterranean and other borders.
  4. Many of the barrel bombs are dropped on areas under siege. More than half a million people in Syria live in areas with no access to food, water or medicine since 2013, including the areas of Ghouta that were targeted by the sarin gas attacks in the same year.
  5. The international anti-Isis coalition is flying in the same airspace where many of these barrel bombs are dropped, choosing to look the other way.
  6. There is no military solution to the fighting in Syria. But like in Bosnia, a no-fly zone can help protect civilians from the worst of the violence and encourage the fighting parties to come to the negotiating table.
Too many Syrians spend their days looking up at the sky, wondering when the next barrel bomb will drop and what it will hit. Today we look up in solidarity with all those who continue on, and call on all those with a conscience to join the call to #clearthesky.

Join 100+ non-violent Syrian groups in asking for the international community to enforce the UN ban on barrel bombs with a Bosnia-style no-fly zone.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Ursula Le Guin: "We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable ..."

Ursula Le Guin, author of my favourite novel, The Dispossessed.
“We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words.”

Monday, July 20, 2015

human existence produces human consciousness

or, a gritty materialist view of our all too human consciousness

Typical stereotype of Marx's view of human consciousness:
“Marx was a materialist. He believed that nothing exists but matter. He had no interest in the spiritual aspects of humanity, and saw human consciousness as just a reflex of the material world. He was brutally dismissive of religion, and regarded morality simply as a question of the end justifying the means. Marxism drains humanity of all that is most precious about it, reducing us to inert lumps of material stuff determined by our environment. There is an obvious route from this dreary, soulless vision of humanity to the atrocities of Stalin and other disciples of Marx.”
- Eagleton, p. 128, goes onto refute this stereotype.
Something closer to the real Marx:
Human consciousness is developed or shaped through our bodily, material needs and very real desires (eg. food, shelter, companionship, sex, love, freedom from fear and violence). We are intelligent (sometimes), active, practical (makers and doers), grounded, self directed, unfinished beings. We are always becoming and never quite finished, until death.

Our social development requires both co-operation and struggle with other humans (there are often disagreements) and natural things to develop our productive capacity in order to overcome material scarcity. In the course of self development other humans and nature resist, as well as enable, our immediate goals. This creates self awareness and above all, awareness of others. In view of our drives we can't help but work together socially to transform the natural and human synthetic world to better meet our needs. “All for one and one for all” is a desirable goal even if we never attain it. At root our economic life represents a bridge between our biological needs and our social life.

Our bodies, our senses and our reasoning abilities are closely connected. There is no basis in reality for a separate development of our material beings and our ideas. Hence idealist philosophy, the approach that ideas come before or are more important than our practical life, is fundamentally wrong. We are not intelligent robots; we are embodied, mortal humans. Our bodies, meanings, values, purposes and intentions are all interconnected.

Over time, everything changes as humans evolve and society develops. We are strung out in time. Since our consciousness is corporeal or embodied then it lags behind the physical or material development of the world. Our consciousness is belated, there is a lag between practice and theory.

“It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness” (Marx ). Our ideas, concepts and consciousness are tightly interwoven with our material activity and language of real life which has developed from our life and death struggle to make nature serve our needs.

Life and death struggle. It follows therefore that there is a dark side, which has to be faced, a shadowy and not so secret underside to civilisation. At the root of our most lofty conceptions lie violence, lack, desire, appetite, scarcity and aggression, “the horror teeming under the stone of culture” (Theodor Adorno)

Humans, as active and practical beings, strive for the freedom to shape their own narrative. In creating civilisation we have turned Nature, albeit imperfectly, into an extension of ourselves. But for nearly all of us, our freedom is restricted by class society. We are wage labourers forced to work in order to put food on the table and pay off the mortgage.

Social being has the edge over consciousness. This is because the understanding that sticks arises from what we actually do. Tacit knowledge (experience, competence, deed, commitment) trumps explicit knowledge (book learning).

It follows that to change our consciousness we need to change our activity. Talk may well lead to action but talk alone is not enough. We swim in a world of social relations, of social class. “We don't know who discovered water, but we know it wasn't the fish” (Marshall McLuhan). Only by breaking the mould through self conscious practical activity can we make the transition from passive acceptance of social norms to active resistance. But what practical activity will do the job in a world dominated by bourgeois social relations? That is a hard question. If we grow up brainwashed in an alien system then how is it possible to find an effective way to rebel and overthrow that alien system?

Can our knowledge be objective? Yes and no. Our knowledge is historically and socially determined. Before Copernicus, in the minds of men and women, the Sun revolved around the Earth. According to nearly all reports from capitalist media, socialism has been tried and failed. Yet we have found successful, although far from perfect, ways to wrestle knowledge from nature and society. This is called science but the nature of the diversity of the sciences, including Marxism as a science, needs to be further clarified.

Marxists tend to be millenial optimists. Is this justified or whistling in the dark? “The future is bright, the road is tortuous”. Is that a boring cliche or a deep truth? The reality is that progress always happens more slowly than is hoped for by revolutionary radicals. In my view the world does progress but very slowly in real terms most of the time. We don't live long enough! In real life tragedy is often the norm. The Arab Spring was followed by the tragedy in Syria and elsewhere. As noted above, our (revolutionary) consciousness is belated.

Did Marx denounce moral thinking? What he denounced was historical inquiry which ignored material factors in favour of moral ones, the abstraction of moral values from their historical context and then pronouncing them as absolute moral judgements. We could call that approach utopian or moralising. A better approach to moral analysis is to investigate all aspects of a society – its facts and values, it's science and morality; the historical and social context. The error here would be to separate out morality from the total social analysis.

There is an extensive modern literature on the nature of human consciousness and theory of mind. Presumably, some of this would build positively on the broad outline provided by Marx. I would like to hear more about modern authors who have contributed to such an approach, that our consciousness is grounded in our bodily, material needs and our social desires.


Eagleton, Terry. Why Marx Was Right, Ch 6 (my essay is, in the main, but not entirely, a summary of this chapter)

Marx, Karl. A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Preface)

Adorno, Theodor. Prisms (I haven't read Adorno but liked the quote)