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 They’ve also confused the fact that capitalism is obsolete – in the sense that the technological level of society is sufficient that a better, more efficient and humane economic system is possible – with the idea that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

Monday, July 8, 2013

Massacre in Egypt: Is Revolution Worth The Price?

As I sat down to write this post the news of a tragic massacre of at least 32 Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated protestors, and the injury of 300 more was plastered all over the internet. That much is clear, the rest is yet to be disentangled (if ever) from two completely opposing stories by the Egyptian military and people on the scene. This is now one more massacre in a two year revolutionary process in which hundreds have died, chaos has reigned and nothing has been settled. I'm sure that millions of people in Egypt and even more around the region and around the world are asking: Is this what is necessary to win democracy and freedom? Is the price worth it?

There is obviously the danger of being glib in writing a judgment on the value or danger of  revolution from the safety of my office in Toronto, Canada - a country founded on the solid business principle of avoiding the messiness of revolution; a country that hasn't seen war in any significant way in 200 years. I'll try to avoid that as much as possible.

For certain the revolutionary process in the Middle East more generally, since the launch of what has become known as the Arab Spring, has had its share of chaos and tragedy. Dozens died in Bahrain in the struggle for democracy against a US/Saudi client regime - and suffered greater repression as a reward for their efforts and aspirations. In Yemen hundreds died only to see their aspirations deflected into a shabby compromise  that suited regional power-brokers - Saudi Arabia and the US (their involvement in aborting democratic movements is a theme and not a coincidence). In Libya, the west and their backers in the Middle East, in particular the Qatari emirate, swooped in quickly to ensure that the initial explosion of grassroots opposition to the Gaddafi dictatorship was controlled using western arms and logistics to suit the ends desired by the big oil companies, the US state department and the agenda of the EU. In Syria the repression of a popular movement led to civil war and the sickening sight of various imperialist powers - all of whom have happily repressed democratic movements around the world for generations - jockeying to gain the upper hand through the cynical manipulation of the various players caught in the Syrian tragedy. As always it is at the expense of local civilians, whether man, woman or child. As a former US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, once put it when asked about US sanctions against Iraq that had killed perhaps a million children: "We think that the price is worth it."

And yet, it isn't as though the region or Egypt, in particular, is descending into tragedy from a state of pre-revolutionary bliss. The meddling of imperialism - from US financing of the military in Egypt and of the Occupation in Israel/Palestine to Russian arming of the Syrian dictatorship - has ensured a repressive and inhumane set-up in the region. And for the people of Egypt, in particular since the Camp David Peace Accords of the late 1970s, which won the compliance of the Egyptian state to the American agenda in return for billions of dollars in "aid", it has meant decades of, effectively, martial law, police repression, torture and dictatorship in all but name. The compliance of the Egyptian regime also freed Israel's hand to steal more land, kill more Palestinians and launch wars and attacks on their neighbours whenever it suited their colonialist agenda. All this was largely ignored by western media who, when they even bothered to notice, usually put the blame at the feet of "uncivilized Arabs" who needed "strong regimes" to maintain control and protect Israel, the "plucky little democracy" of the region.

What has changed in the present moment is that the masses, the tens of millions of people who have endured the tender mercies of imperialist-backed dictatorships, have attempted to force their way onto the political and historical stage. The "chaos" and "instability" that the media and governments bemoan is really the emergence of democracy in the form of the people waking up to their own power to control their destiny. In the first instance this is, by definition, chaotic as the old institutions, designed to guarantee dictatorship and the rule of both state and market capital, are destabilized and collapse. The ruling class loses many of the levers, primarily fear and quiescence, that it once had to maintain "order" and "stabillty". On the other hand, the newly awakened people haven't yet created their own institutions to replace the old. In this gap between old and new is a ferment of experimentation. Some of it involves the creation of new forms of organization - Egypt saw neighbourhood committees to defend the revolution appear and disappear, only to reappear again during the past two and a half years. There has been an explosion of independent trade unions involving millions of Egyptian workers, after decades of top-down, state controlled "unions". 

But they also attempt to use their old organizations and old institutions in new ways. Thus the Muslim Brotherhood, which has existed for almost a century as an organization that sought to alleviate the conditions in Egypt through charity and moral uplift (basically, obedience to a hierarchical and conservative interpretation of Islam) became the immediate beneficiary of a revolution that they didn't support. Similarly, the military has retained the allegiance of the masses from the reflected prestige of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who led the Free Officer's Movement that overthrew the Egyptian monarch and promoted a form of secular nationalism that challenged imperialism (before being sold off to US imperialism by his heirs) and delivered land reform and social progress. The revolution has become an intense testing ground for these institutions and organizations to see if they fit the needs of the masses.

First the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces took over the direct rule of the country after they facilitated the overthrow of the dictator Hosni Mubarak. But their habitual use of repression, torture and corruption, not to mention genetic opposition to the extension of democracy and social justice created growing anger and mobilization that forced them to surrender office to the Muslim Brotherhood. For the SCAF the conservative MB seemed an excellent vehicle to contain the aspirations of the revolution. They would allow the MB to implement their cultural agenda, a certain degree of Islamization of the Egyptian state, and in return the MB wouldn't touch the institutions of the state security apparatus, including the SCAF itself. The bourgeois led MB also happily went to the IMF for loans and imposed austerity on their own supporters at home in order to implement a neo-liberal agenda. The result was an increasingly mobilized opposition that drew up to 20 million demonstrators on June 30.

It was this "dangerous" mobilization, as with the overthrow of Mubarak, and the threat of major strikes that pushed the SCAF to remove Morsi from power and attempt to replace him with another set of faces, a grand coalition, that would be more acceptable to the masses, It was a pre-emptive attempt to prevent a deeper, more radical revolution. In this sense it was a major victory.

There are several dangers unfolding and that will continue to unfold until the revolution can be completed (and spread to other countries in the region at least, especially Saudi Arabia). Because the military facilitated the removal of Morsy it can empower and embolden them to use their renewed popularity to clampdown not only on the MB but also on the revolutionaries and the popular organizations as well. SCAF's intervention "from above" can also stop the rapid disintegration of the MB that was taking place "from below", giving them the mantle of victim of a Mubarak counter-revolution. This can draw even those skeptical of the MB leadership's intentions and abilities to rally round them in the belief that they are defending the revolution - a revolution that the MB leadership never supported and tried to abort as soon as Mubarak was gone, including supporting the SCAF at every turn (except the one that booted them out the door). This polarization of "masses against masses" as opposed to "masses against the state" opens the door to a potential civil war, on the one hand, and provides an excuse for the SCAF to elevate themselves as being above the fray and thus the legitimate vehicle to separate the two sides and impose a neutral order on the Egyptian people. 

It remains to be seen if the massacre of MB supporters outside of the Republican Guard barracks today was the result of a MB attempt to storm the facility and free former president Morsy from his arrest (with the side benefit of portraying themselves as victims of an army assault if they failed) or the army decided to raise the stakes to provide justification for declaring a state of emergency - or if it were all the result of trigger happy soldiers firing on riled up MB supporters who got too close to barricades (there is no shortage of such "accidents" of history). What is clear is that navigating this confusing terrain and clarifying the next steps in the struggle will require a clear leadership with roots amongst the Egyptian people in order to avoid the twin dangers of supporting the army against the MB or falling in behind the MB as the defenders of the revolution - either of which could lead towards a civil war and defeat of the revolution. That leadership isn't about a few brilliant individuals calling the shots, it will have to be a collective leadership of thousands and tens of thousands of revolutionaries whose collective experience will help them to navigate the chaos and work with others inside the revolution to move things forward. In other words, a revolutionary party.

That doesn't exist yet in Egypt but there are thousands attempting to build one. In the meantime, what is clear is that as in all places the people who have power have no interest in giving it up and will stoop to any depth necessary - murder, torture, conspiracies, lies - to defend what they have. The tragedy and chaos of the present moment is not the result of the revolution, it is the result of that unaccountable an unequally divided power. The solution to ending the tragedy of massacres and misery is not to surrender to the power that imposes such tragedy upon the people. It is to decisively defeat that power so that it is unable to prevent the people from living in freedom and true democracy.
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