Wednesday, July 10, 2013

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

I was hoping to get to this sooner but life intervened (and technology in the form of a sick computer), along with the second Egyptian revolution, which has been riveting, inspiring, frightening. Nonetheless I wanted to complete my thoughts on the question of Marxism, capitalism and technological advancement – at least this portion of it. In the future I want to write something on Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity movement, which has accumulated a significant following, particularly amongst a section of the Silicon Valley types and the geek diaspora. Kurzweil’s ideas are often reduced to "mind uploading" as the ultimate goal (this side of the Singularity) but are actually more complex and philosophical than that and deserve a fuller treatment. But I digress. Thus far what I’ve argued has been that Marxists have too often denied the dynamism of capitalism, seeing only its propensity to crisis and have confused macroeconomic stagnation with the end of growth, progress and innovation under capitalism. They’ve also confused the fact that capitalism is obsolete – in the sense that the technological level of society is sufficient that a better, more efficient and humane economic system is possible – with the idea that it can no longer advance.
On the other hand, as I argued in my second piece on the subject, technological advancement under capitalism is systematically distorted by the need to generate profit, leading to a number of negative elements in its development and application. In fact, in retrospect, my analysis of capitalism’s failings in this regard was too focused on economic and political pressures and missed at least one other distorting factor: capitalist ideology. This requires a fuller discussion than I’m going to give it here but the basics are that the way that we organize production, with bosses, corporations, forced labour (did you have a choice about going to work this morning?), imperialism, oppression, etc. lead to a set of ideas about human nature, the natural world, etc. that serve to justify the present set-up. So, for instance, in its sociological form we are taught that humans are naturally greedy, violent, etc. In other words there is a certain notion of a fixed human nature. In its scientific form this leads to genetic reductionism: the search for the gene for crime or alcoholism or intelligence. While the failure of the Human Genome Project to deliver easy answers to the causes of inherited diseases (let alone complex behaviours) has led to a rethinking of the role of genetics. At least I believe that's the case amongst biologists who actually work with genetics, if not amongst ideological warriors of the evolutionary psychology ilk (such as Richard Dawkins). In fact, I just read an excellent overview of the history of genetics in the most recent issue of the International Socialism Journal by socialist scientist John Parrington. Definitely worth a read.
Yet, nonetheless, capitalism develops technological and even social advancement and innovation and this can’t be denied, as I’ve suggested previously. The rise of the steam engine and the development of computer tech that led to Moore’s law are just as real as the importance of electricity, which Lenin saw as an enabler of socialism. China has gone from no high-speed trains to something like 15,000 miles, more than the rest of the world combined, in about ten years. These are real advances. How is this possible? There are a number of elements that are worth exploring and have an impact on how we situate Marxism as an ideology and methodology for social transformation. In fact, I would argue that the ability of capitalism to continue to advance, in the face of all its distortions and inefficiencies, is one of the strongest arguments for socialism.
Let's start at the economic level and work "up" from there. The first place to start is in the very foundations of the system: competitive accumulation. This is the alpha and omega of the system, the drive for profit, and is expressed through both individual companies, regions, nation states, trading blocs, etc. The struggle to stay ahead has many effects upon the production process and upon society - not all of them, or even most of them, directed towards technological and social advancement. Competition creates pressure to pursue shortcuts, to externalize costs (like dumping carbon into the atmosphere for someone else to have to clean up), to lie, cheat, murder and steal. But it also has made capitalism the most dynamic system in history, pushing different sizes of capital to innovate, a fact that Marx started from in the Communist Manifesto in a lengthy discussion of the transformative power of capitalism. It is this competitive power that is behind recent innovations in robotics. America has lost a lot of manufacturing jobs to low wage districts and simply can't compete for those jobs on the basis of labour costs. Doing so would cause massive economic damage - and even short-sighted capitalists would be loathe to want to reduce the purchasing power of domestic workers as low as, say, Bangladesh. Better to invest in labour-saving capital that makes it cheaper to produce domestically given the unavoidable costs of shipping around the world. This has led to several developments in the area of advanced manufacturing. DARPA, the advanced research arm of the Pentagon has, for instance, a program for developing advanced 3D printing technologies to make custom manufacture cheap and scalable. In the private sector Rethink Robotics, one of several robotic manufacturing companies, founded by Professor Rodney Brooks (who previously founded iRobot) came out of stealth mode last October to launch Baxter an advanced industrial robot for light manufacturing that will cost USD$20,000 instead of hundreds of thousands - at minimum - and which doesn't require a team of engineers to program it, as most industrial robots do. An unskilled warehouse worker can "train" the robot to, for instance, pack widgets into boxes in about 15 minutes.
There's also a second reason why innovation and dynamism continues to be a central feature of capitalism. Even though the capitalist imperative demands that all production and innovation be for profit, ie. competitive accumulation, this is not without an in-built contradition. That contradiction, fundamental to capitalism, is between use-value and exchange-value. That is to say, capitalism produces use-values – things that we need like shoes or food – but does so for the purpose of exchange in the service of profit.  This suggests a number of things.
The first thing is that a large number of innovators are driven by use-value as well as exchange value (and sometimes exclusively by use-value only to reap exchange value as an initially unintended side-bonus). The discovery of antibiotics is an obvious one - pharmaceuticals make billions from the production (and over-use) of antibiotics. Yet its initial development was not for the purpose of generating profit - ie. its exchange value - it was to save people who were dying from bacterial infections like TB. But in a perhaps less obvious way I was also struck recently by a Google campaign to provide internet to Africa using high altitude balloons. Google is one of the largest and most profitable corporations on the planet and and yet there is a drive to provide for human need, whether in the form of autonomous cars or internet for the two-thirds of the planet that lacks this. I'm not one of those cynics that believes that even those who run corporations as large as Google are simply driven by profit as the alpha and omega. But at the same time, whether meeting a human need is sought (or generated with marketing), the ability to sell for a profit is what ultimately determines whether an innovation is developed further or not. I discussed this previously in relation to cancer research and whether a certain type of immunotherapy would be developed because it would be difficult to patent and, of course, if it cured cancer (as opposed to making it a manageable disease, which meant the continued sale of drugs), this would cut off future profits for the pharmaceuticals.
This further suggests the need for a concrete and specific analysis of the ways in which the drive to create use-values (literally useful things) is distorted by the pressure to meet the demands of exchange value (ie make a profit). Sometimes this is straightforward and obvious, particularly where industries are long-established (like petrochemical corporations that seek to retard cleaner competitors) or where it directly serves imperialism (such as the design of smart weapons). Other times it has a more indirect relationship such as with the internet, which the powers-that-be struggle to control. Particularly in the latter case a very specific and nuanced, concrete analysis is necessary to understand the ways in which exchange-value distorts use-value and thus how in a society based upon production for use, democratically determined (ie. socialism) certain technologies would be different or transformed. Literally, what would we retain and what would we dispose of. This isn’t always obvious. Lenin, famously, at the head of a new revolutionary republic insisted upon introducing Taylorism (modern factory methods) into Russian manufacturing, even in the face of severe criticism from radicals. He understood that until they could produce enough to meet the needs of their country there would be no possibility of socialism.
Lack of resources isn’t a problem that we face today (the reallocation of defence spending could solve illiteracy and hunger, for instance) and yet what we’ve forgotten is that technology is still something that we need to make a better world possible. I have a feeling that the isolation of Marxism has combined with the anti-modernism of the 1960s – the last period of significant and sustained social radicalization – to blur the vibrant modernism of earlier Marxist thought. In the defeat of the strongest elements of that period – the Black Panthers, French general strike of 1968, et al - we have taken on board the weakest aspects of that period’s critique, which is a rejection of modernity. Marxists ought to celebrate modernity’s advances without being seduced by them or forgetting that they are subservient to the imperatives of capital.
Back to the spaces that exist within capitalism that allow for advance we need to also account for a theory of agency within constraints. Marx wrote that "humans make history but not in circumstances of their own choosing." Typically Marxists apply this to the political struggle - for instance, in Egypt the people are fighting for liberation and are making history but they are doing it in the context of imperialism, Islamism, etc etc. However, this also applies to the economy and to technology. The economic manifestation of that is in the uneasy marriage of use-value and exchange-value as discussed above. It means that capitalism, while a "totalizing system", is not always a totalitarian system. In fact, it needs to leave open a managed space in which people can think and create more or less freely in order to keep capitalism vital. That space changes and is ultimately subordinate to both profit and political stability (in order to secure profit) but it rarely disappears entirely. Even in North Korea, perhaps one of the most repressive regimes at present, the system must allow for a certain amount of "innovation" at least in the field of rocketry and nuclear technology (and perhaps in means of repression as well - freedom for the purposes of repression?). And this was the logic behind Glasnost and Perestroika in the waning years of the USSR. It was an attempt to open up space for greater innovation to save the Soviet economy. Besides the governmental and economic limitations on this freedom there are also ideological (self-policing) limitations, for instance in the field of embryonic stem cells. But, again, that space always exists. However, the fact that it must be managed in order to be measured against an inefficient and parasitic "middleman", ie. profit or repressive ideology, is a demonstration not only of the fortitude of human creativity but also of the need to move beyond an inefficient system.
This also implies something else: human creativity always threatens to go beyond the artificially imposed limits of capitalism. Marxists have always understood this, again, in relation to political struggle. Ideology tells us that capitalism is the end of history, there is no better way to organize society - there is no alternative - and yet we see from the upheavals in Egypt, Turkey, Brazil, et al that workers resist the capitalist imperative to accept speed-ups, pay and benefit cuts, service cuts, etc. The same applies in the realm of technology (brilliantly discussed by Walter Benjamin pre-WWII in his essay "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction"). Not only are technologies invented that are problematic for capitalism in that there is no immediate way to generate profit from them but even those that are invented with profit in mind have gaps and holes in which non-profit or anti-profit uses take hold. Again, the internet is one of these. If you've read this far you'll be aware that I'm not generating any personal profit from this activity but at a more significant level the internet constantly challenges the ability to make profit from the distribution of information - piracy of films, software and music being the most obvious example. The struggle by corporations to control the internet has been going on for at least two decades without success. The attempt by Adobe, for instance, to recently launch a cloud-based version of its expensive Creative Suite software in part as a means to circumvent piracy was hacked within one day even though they spend tens of millions on digital rights management.
At a more abstract level, this suggests a theory of historical time that is polyphonic (if that's the right term). Basically, we experience time as a singular stream of events - each day has 24 hours, each year 365 days. One thing follows another all at the same time. And yet the pace of history is not uniform. Sometimes the political developments move quickly and sometimes much more slowly, and always at different paces from country to country and even region to region. Egypt is going through a period of rapid history in which the masses and their culture are changing more quickly in months than it did previously in years, perhaps decades. The Mubarak dictatorship had lasted decades and then was gone. The Muslim Brotherhood was the only domestic opposition for even longer and they are now in disrepute and have lost the support of millions of people in the space of a year. Politics is moving much more slowly in Canada at present. But there are also other layers of society - the economy, technology, sports, film - that move at their own pace. Even as they are related, of course, they have their own relative autonomy (as the old Marxist phrase goes). Technology can also develop more quickly than, say, political consciousness. We see some of this, for instance, in the rapid dominance of Chinese manufacturing in significant sectors of the North American economy, without, for a long period, the impact of this being felt in terms of political and cultural developments. All of which is to say that history has many streams that exist side-by-side, that pour into each other and then separate again or, perhaps more accurately, history moves in a way similar to fluid dynamics, involving multiple vectors and velocities within the same space. To understand history - in order to change it - we must be able to understand at each moment how these different streams interact with each other.
How does this effect Marxist propaganda? Of course the primary role of any radically oppositional ideology will be to expose the failures and weaknesses of the system. But we ought not to highlight the succeses of the system and attempt to pretend that they are failures. For instance, the generally brilliant writing of Hilary and Stephen Rose has dismissed the Human Genome Project and genomics more generally as a failure. And yet, as John Parrington points out in his article, while the naive expectations in the flush of success were unfounded, the HGP has revolutionized the field of gene research. It's also true that genomics and synthetic biology are serving industrial needs in ways that are potentially dangerous and, especially in agricutlure, really about forcing farmers to buy seeds of dubious value. But it is not the case that those sciences are in and of themselves a failure and have provided no advances. Recent work in regenerative medicine, stem cells and gene therapy (including work on improving results in heart failure recovery, fighting autoimmune diseases, HIV, Muscular Dystrophy, etc) has advanced enormously in part as a result of the insights gained by the HGP and the more recent work on epigenetics that was the focus of the ENCODE project. The problem, that this suggests, is not that capitalism doesn't provide revolutionary advances in science, technology and production. It is that it does so in a way that is inconsistent, contradictory, inhumane and often just downright destructive. To take full advantage of the gains that capitalism has wrought we need a system whose sole purpose is the satisfaction of human needs, not as an occasional and secondary by-product of profit-making.

SEE ALSO PARTS ONE & TWO IN THIS SERIES:

1) Marxism, Capitalism & Technology

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