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

No comments :

DreamHost Promotional Codes