Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Frankenfoods, Toothpaste, & Justin Bieber: Capitalism & Technology II

In a previous post I argued that too often Marxists fail to recognize the ways in which capitalism remains dynamic and continues to advance technologically and socially. This one-sidedness distorts analyses and perspectives and threatens to give Marxism the feel of a millennial doomsday sect. Instead Marxism ought to be perceived as a powerful critical tool for explaining the contradictions of capitalism and providing strategic answers to create a better world without them. To do so means that Marxism must be flexible and dynamic. It must not fear the strengths of capitalism but rather must build itself on the ways that capitalism has made a better, more efficient and humane system both possible and necessary. That failure is a result of an ideological defensiveness and ossification arising from the isolation of Marxists from workers struggle (at least in the English-speaking world) for longer than a generation. I want to now posit some thoughts on the way that technological development takes place under capitalism, how it is distorted by the profit-motive and by the prerogatives of the capitalist state – and yet still manages to create forms of progress that are often quite dramatic.

To summarize what I previously argued, billions of people now have access to the internet (though two-thirds still do not). China and a number of other “developing nations” are growing at a rate unprecedented in modern times, at least in terms of scale. China has plans, for instance, to urbanize an additional 500 million people over the next decade or so. Private companies, most notably SpaceX, are bringing down the cost of space travel (potentially by a hundred-fold if they manage to establish reusable rocket components) or, in the case of Planetary Resources, developing business plans to mine asteroids. Regenerative medicine is working on the development of 3D printing of organs, regrowing lost teeth and even reversing male pattern baldness. Gene therapy, long shunned after some earlier false starts, is moving a number of therapies for MD, AIDS, hemophilia, blindness and even the common cold, through clinical trials. Moore’s Law has advanced computing to the point that supercomputers from the 1970s that were housed in entire buildings are now contained in a smartphone that can be bought for under $500. The world has never seemed to change as quickly in human history as it is today.

And yet there are serious problems and great dangers that face humanity from hunger, diabesity (diabetes and obesity) and poverty to war and climate change. Ice caps are melting, the economy is stagnating (though with recent signs of life in the USA) and we face challenges never before faced. How is this possible? It is fundamentally rooted in the contradictions of the way that capitalism organizes the economy, research and more. I want to argue that the problems are rooted in at least six ways that capitalism distorts research and technological development. These are as follows:

1) Capitalism only develops technologies that can generate profit, and usually only those that can generate short-term profit. This has a few results:

a. Capitalism produces technologies that we don’t need. We don’t need a new smartphone every year or a new flat screen TV or remote controlled lawn mower. More than anything capitalism uses advertising and marketing to get us to buy dumb shit. This is rooted in part in alienation from our own productive capabilities as human beings. Because our labour is forced we seek reward in consumption, literally in buying things or in our animal desires – eating, sex, etc. – rather than in what makes us human, our ability to labour (ie. Transform nature) because that ability is taken from us by forced labour (work for someone else or starve).

b. Capitalism doesn’t develop technologies that we do need. If it doesn’t produce an obvious profit, technologies are neglected. 

c. Capitalism produces stuff that is simply garbage and doesn't work but which continues to be produced because it generates profits. Think of GMOs, these are very big business. Yet, many recent studies suggest that they don't do what they say - increase crop yields. (There are also many potential dangers in relation to human consumption, et al). But GMOs have the benefit, from the point of view of capitalists, of allowing agribusinesses to dominate the agricultural production because they can patent the seeds and thereby outlaw their "illegal use" such as seed banking (which would permit farmers to avoid having to buy more seed and fertilizer every year. It also allows the corporation to generate sales of ancillary products like fertilizer and pesticide, since their seeds are designed to be used in conjunction with their specific products. Again, with no clear, uncontested evidence of the seeds being useful for producing more of anything except profit.

2) Related to that last point, capitalism is only interested in technologies that it can enclose using legal measures like copyright, patents, etc. We are all aware of the music and film industries and their struggles to stop “piracy” (much of which is actually just freely sharing, involving no money or profit) but this extends to many fields, including the recent decision by the US Supreme Court to negate the right of companies to patent naturally existing genes (as opposed to synthetic genes, such as with GMOs). While it's good that companies can't go so far as patenting, in this instance, the genes that lead to higher breast cancer risk, in the years to come patented synthetic genes will become an obstacle to research and meeting human need - just as patented pharmaceuticals have contributed to tens of thousands of deaths from AIDS in Africa, where people and governments couldn't afford the exorbitant prices.

3) Capitalism produces technological developments that achieve false, rather than true, efficiencies by externalizing as many costs as possible – on the environment, onto workers, etc. The most obvious one here is fossil fuels. There has been talk for decades, for instance, as to when solar power will achieve the same cost as coal, natural gas, oil, etc. But if we account for the future cost of cleaning the environment; the cost of extreme weather events and the melting of the polar ice caps; the cost of healthcare for children with asthma, the cost to the deterioration of buildings in cities, etc. – this point was probably already reached a while ago. The inefficiencies are hidden and offloaded to the general population. At a more "mundane" level, the recent deaths of over a thousand garment workers in Bangladesh is a stark demonstration of exactly what it means to "externalize costs" onto workers.

4) The technologies that capitalism invents that could make life better – for instance robotics and other forms of automation, etc. – instead cause dislocation through unemployment and provides a downward pressure on wages through deskilling, offshoring, etc. This is pretty straightforward – the rise of the internet has made international trade more possible, permitting the off-shoring of jobs, from low-skilled manufacturing to service jobs. Websites like and allow the hiring of freelancers in the developing world for half or less the cost of paying for those services in the first world. Foxconn, which produces the iPhone and many other high-tech items announced a plan in 2011 to utilize three million robots within a few years. This will come at the expense of jobs in China.

5) Capitalism attempts to use technology to solve problems that are created by social conditions, not lack of technology.
a. An obesity pill is a really obvious human health issue. Obesity is caused by the rise of processed foods that lack nutrition but which are craved by time and cash-strapped working families.

b. Greater crop yields – Monsanto and other companies seek to patent genetically modified crops (related to the above point about enclosing tech and bogus technology) but the problem is not production it is that people can’t afford food. There is no food shortage, there is a shortage of “effective demand” – people who can afford to buy the food.

6) Of those technologies that capitalism is interested in that don’t have immediately apparent profit opportunities, the only ones that usually get developed have benefits for the state, usually in the form of its military arm.
a. Drones – these have become widespread, first for foreign military purposes (literally to bomb people in the Middle East and places like Afghanistan). They are now being utilized by police and security services as a way to perform surveillance on domestic populations.

b. Even in healthcare, the areas that get funded are in large part that have a military component, like treating soldier’s who suffer major trauma.

These are, of course, only a small sample of technologies and technological dynamics that are distorted by capitalist dynamics. I may well have missed some and invite other to add to this list. But it nonetheless suggests that capitalism is both inefficient and destructive in the ways that it develops technology.


1) Marxism, Capitalism & Technology

2) Genes, Robots & The Internet: How Capitalism Revolutionizes The Planet

Friday, June 14, 2013

The Fall Of The House Of Ford

Taking a moment to pray for peace
You gotta admit that it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. Rob Ford is a bully and a hypocrite - quick to condemn the perceived weakness of others, to pounce on the supposed privileges of unionized workers or the effete absurdity of riding a bicycle instead of driving an SUV in our congested city. And yet he is clearly a man with many personal flaws whose (unearned) privilege as the son of a successful businessman has not only shielded him but has allowed to rise above his ability to function. Were he not the same guy who wanted to cut daycare subsidies for single mothers and wanted to close libraries, I might have had some sympathy for him. But I don't.

Nonetheless, I have to say that I honestly don't care if Ford smokes crack or performs Satanic rituals in his basement. The more I hear people - especially media commentators - talk about his personal failings the more uneasy it makes me. Most of it, frankly, just smells like nothing so much as simply snobbery and elitism. Ditto the comments about the fact that Ford's support base hasn't wavered in the face of the scandal. The Fordites are stupid and dogmatic, a cult, etc etc etc. Funny thing, I had a conversation last week with a Ford voter in a local haunt. He also smelled the snobbery of the whole thing: "the media hate him because he's a regular guy and not a slick politician." I mean, that piece in the Globe & Mail about Doug Ford selling hash in high school? Really? It might dismay the city's elite, who will drink martinis and snort cocaine but who would never stoop to something so pedestrian as hash or, god forbid selling it (it's one thing to buy the stuff, but dealers are so... so... gauche). But for most of us we probably knew people in high school who sold grass or hash or LSD, etc. It was like a higher paying, higher risk part-time job, more fun than working for McDonald's but with higher potential consequences. Very few high school dealers went on to become Scarface. If you don't like teenagers furtively selling dime bags and doobies in the school smoking area, it's pretty simple really - decriminalize it. They some big corporation can sell it and hire the former teenagers for half the pay and put them in stupid uniforms.

But I digress.
Personal attacks & mockery make Ford's base support him more

Normally, I'd say that the decimation of a (minor) right wing dynasty would be something to relish, particularly if the possibility existed to discredit the right wing more broadly. But this stuff is so apolitical that it will do nothing to advance an anti-austerity agenda, or more progressive politics in the areas of equal rights for LGBT, women, minorities, etc. The clamouring for Ford's noggin is not about creating a greener, more equal Toronto. It is a clamouring for a more effective, slicker, right wing dirtbag. As Rosie DiManno put it recently in The Star, "this is not about left or right." And that's exactly the problem. I say that if we have to have a right wing, pro-austerity, anti-equality mayor, I want an incompetent one.

The one bright light in this whole fiasco - I mean besides the sort of sports fan, voyeuristic pleasure one gets from watching a mock-Shakespearean tragicomedy unfold - is the way that it has expanded with the police drug raids to implicate Ford in a broader criminal conspiracy. Again, Rosie DiManno put it succinctly when she wrote:

"Yet this is no longer about the contents of a video that’s been seen only by three journalists. Toronto’s mayor, however peripherally, remains a character in a criminal tableau that now encompasses a sophisticated network of alleged drug trafficking, gun-running, robberies, a Dixon-turf street gang and attempted murders, and the mysterious plunge from a Fort McMurray apartment where police made an arrest three weeks ago linked to the alleged Ford crack video."

I have no doubt that the elite are only too happy to use drugs - likely something "higher class" than crack - while condemning dealers and low end users. If this at least exposes some of that hypocrisy - and the rumour is that the late Anthony Smith, of the infamous photograph, was a "dealer to the stars", then it will have been worth something. However, one of the many unfortunate sides of all this - the moral panic from the chattering classes about drug use, the snobbery, etc - is that Ford's political demise should have and could have been precipitated on a political, left wing basis if any of the leaderships of the official left or the trade union movement had ever really stood up to Ford and mobilized in a serious way to defeat him. Ford was always a shell and it was only the left's fear of his supposed invincibility that made him so. Instead of celebrating the defeat of an austerity warrior all we get is a soap opera spectacle.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Deflected Marxism: The Poison Of The Intelligentsia

I was thinking recently of an apocryphal story that was told to me many years ago as I sat in a dank basement drinking from a keg of beer. Apparently Lenin was listening to Beethoven with the Russian novelist Gorky and commented something along the lines: “ah, the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia. Sometimes they produce such beauty that one wants to reach out and pat them on the head. But you mustn’t, they must be beaten with a stick.” This also reminded me of Marx’s irreverence towards the German intellectuals, in particular the Young Hegelians, and his response to Bruno Bauer known as “A Critique of Critical Criticism” (or The Holy Family). What these recollections stirred in me was that true Marxism has at its root a disdain of the intelligentsia with their high falutin ways.

This has current relevance because the lack of working class radicalization and mobilization in the English-speaking world means that Marxism has largely become the preserve of academics. Marxism is no longer the ideology of the leading edge of the working class movement. On the one hand it is important that someone keeps alive the ideas of working class revolution and the powerful critical and theoretical tools of Marxism to analyze capitalism. On the other hand the dominance of intellectuals has a high cost.

I have seen over the years a number of arguments about how professors (and teachers) have become proletarianized, their control over their conditions of work eroded. There has been much discussion and analysis of how they face job instability and a curriculum, particularly amongst teachers in elementary and secondary education, that is more tightly controlled by the state. For sure neo-liberalism has eroded the conditions of work of teachers and professors. But, nonetheless, they continue to enjoy privileges and conditions of work that make them unique from other workers and this shapes both their consciousness and practice to the detriment of Marxism. I want to focus on professors here though a lot of this – other than ideological/theoretical production and its impact on consciousness – can also be said about teachers. The first thing that ought to be apparent is that teachers and professors are supervisors. They have a power over their students as the object of their work that is unique amongst workers. They develop a habit of speaking and being listened to, of disciplining others with deadlines, threats of punishment (even if they choose not to use that power), and grades that can determine the future success of their students. For most workers, their day-to-day work lives are about evading power, resisting discipline and even cheating the grading process. They have power over no one, except insofar as they bond together to resist their managers through implied or actual threats of strike action, workplace slowdowns, etc. To say that this doesn’t effect consciousness is to deny material reality.

It is true that the conditions of work of academics have been undermined with tenure becoming more difficult to attain as neoliberalism (and now with Massive Online Open Courses gaining popularity). But the irony of this increased competition for the privilege of a job for life is that it is likely to make academics more subservient to the more odious aspects of academic life, in particular the tendency towards splits over minutiae as well as the tendency to sycophancy towards those with tenure.

The tendency of Marxist organizations led by professors to split and fracture is a direct result of the fact that professors prove their merit at work by demonstrating the novelty of their ideas. You are expected to specialize to the point of spending your life exploring a niche discipline that is usually utterly obscure to the broader population. And you become successful insofar as you can generate some original idea that sets you apart from other academics. The easiest way to do this is not to use an existing methodology to more profoundly understand society so that the masses can more effectively win change. Rather, like the perpetual cycle of the fashion and consumer-products industry, you must come up with something unique – a fusion of this and that thinker, finding the fault in some elevated member of a canon or another professor who is respected in your own field. This leads to a pressure to seek out difference as an end in itself. Novelty sells books, gets you on panels at academic conferences and, ultimately, is how you get to be the head of your department, get tenure, junkets, sabbaticals, etc. For workers, being different and challenging the company’s methods gets you fired. In a similar vein, professors are rewarded for individual effort and work. If they can increase their output of books, papers and placement on prestigious academic panels, they are more likely to receive significant material rewards. For most workers, while some might be promoted to management, rewards accrue to the degree that workers can come together collectively to resist the discipline and conditions of the workplace. You want a raise – you go on strike or form a union. Professors want a raise – publish a book.

Professors have prestige. It may be more difficult to get a full appointment now than it was in the 1980s but the goal of every academic is that position in which people look to you for your ideas. Most workers have no illusion that doing their job well will get them listened to in anything more than the most cursory, tokenistic way (I remember well the suggestion box at Kodak Canada – you dropped in your ideas and never heard from them again). And, of course, it isn’t the sessional professors with unstable employment who, by and large, provide the modern ideological development of Marxism – it is the tenured professors with prestige and job stability.

And those professors have far more free time than do workers. Teachers get two months off every summer and professors get upwards of four months with a year off out of every five to pursue their field and publish a book. Most workers get two to three weeks off if they’re lucky. That has an impact, combined with the pressure to differentiate, in allowing academics to play a destructive role. Literally, they have more time to muck about.

Of course, I’m not the first person to notice this pattern. Besides Lenin, assuming the apocryphal story is true, Tony Cliff also wrote about the role of the intelligentsia in the context of third world revolutions as a critique and updating of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. This relatively recent article described Cliff’s argument about the intelligentsia as follows:

“The desire of this group is always to rise above society. These tendencies can be checked when the intelligentsia are involved in mass politics, but when they are free of the constraints and discipline of a wider movement, ‘they show clearer and much more extreme tendencies towards elitism, arbitrariness, as towards vacillation and splits’.”

As this quote suggests, it is not to say that professors (and teachers) can’t be useful participants and even leaders in the socialist movement. They have the luxury of developing ideas and analysis, with access to research assistants and other forms of resources, which are out of reach for the vast majority of workers. But their habits of domination and elitism, deriving from their day-to-day practice are a strong pull and leads them towards practices that are destructive to the socialist movement. They must be held to account in a profoundly sharp way. Like union officials – and the reality is that the most activist-inclined leftist or Marxist professors have a relationship to the workers movement that is mediated through the union bureaucracy – they are prone to high-handed methods and unused to democratic accountability. Challenge your professor and you’re likely to get a failing grade.

Insofar as they are allowed to hold offices of responsibility in the socialist movement they must be disciplined by the workers and not the other way around. Their habits of unquestioned authority from students who are desperate for good marks, especially grad students who hope to be the next in line for these positions, must be constantly challenged. The only real way to challenge the bad habits of intellectuals – the tendency to splitting over personal slights elevated to the level of theory, to authoritarianism and command rule, etc. – is a mobilized and confident working class with an organized leadership of worker-intellectuals, whose authority comes not from social power but from the respect of leading collective struggles. I’m often reminded of a story told to me by a postal worker militant who reminisced about my grandfather, also a militant. In the 1970s, when the postal workers were a powerful and leading edge of the Canadian working class, wildcat strikes were a regular occurrence. They would keep their bosses in line by having one of them pick a fight with a supervisor and when the supervisor lost their temper and disciplined them, the whole workplace would walk out (and go sit on a patio and drink beer). Workers who will risk their jobs to challenge people who have real social power over them will also challenge the pretensions of professors who want to provide ideological leadership to the movement.

And that brings us to the problem of today: the working class is not confident and mobilized. There are no significant rank-and-file movements in the English-speaking world, outside of a few pockets. The passivity of the working class has left Marxism to be the preserve of a few workers, students and academics, which gives the academics greater weight inside of Marxist organizations. That leads those organizations to becoming sclerotic and bureaucratized, to become inculcated in habits of deference and prestige mongering, where the brilliance of this or that individual is valued over the collective experience of the worker-members. And, of course, where individual “brilliance” and “achievement” become more highly valued, these traits tend to accrue to those from higher social classes, who have the confidence to dominate through wit and rhetoric. It isn’t an accident that few people from working class backgrounds become professors and where they do it usually is the result of “fitting in” to the predominant modes of advancement and recognition. From being the servants of the workers’ movement, giving it ideological strength and depth, they become more like a form of gout, weakening and hobbling the movement further, causing splits, acrimony and cliqueism (after all, in academia, currying favour, aka brown-nosing, is the next best thing to splitting hairs when it comes to winning personal advancement).

A quick survey of most Marxist organizations in the western world will illustrate this point. Until the working class begins to move in a serious way the tyranny of the intelligentsia will continue to make Marxism a form of career advancing rhetoric that lacks the kind of life that is necessary if it is to be a vital movement. Like my previous discussion of revolutionary bureaucracy, the lack of struggle can only lead to the dead hand of orthodoxy and cliqueism. To be a vital and revolutionary ideology, Marxism will have to smash the domination of what Lenin called the “committee men” and academics, whose experience tends to lead them towards a natural alliance. They will have to fear and revere the working class more than the dean of their department, the heads of the academic publishing houses or, indeed, the full-time leadership of revolutionary organizations.
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