progress · revolution

In Defence of Vulgar Materialism

Paper to be presented at Historical Materialism Sydney Conference 2016,  November 25

I don’t think anyone would contradict me if I said that the subjective conditions for communist revolution are totally absent at the moment. In other words, there is no support for any sort of move in the direction of a classless society where the means of production are socially owned. However, what about the material or objective conditions that are required for such a transformation?

In the developed countries I think capitalism has been fairly successful in this respect. However, there are major regions of the world where it still has a very long way to go.

There are three primary ways that capitalism prepares the ground for its own departure. Firstly, it eliminates the necessity for the profit motive and the exploitation of labor power by eliminating the necessity for want and toil. This has sometimes been referred to as achieving post-scarcity. Secondly, capitalism transforms the vast majority of people into proletarians whose real interests lie with a society based on social ownership. Thirdly, it dissolves the old pre-capitalist social and cultural backwardness that if left intact represents an insurmountable obstacle to the creation of a classless society.

Let’s look at each of these processes in more detail.

Firstly we have the elimination of the necessity for want and toil. Something like this is being approached in the rich countries where the present level of development of the productive forces would allow everyone to live in what is approaching a fair degree of material comfort. We have such things as good housing, plenty of food and clothing, mobility and medical care. At the same time we are being freed from toil. Pick and shovel work and carrying heavy loads are things of the past, and robots and computers will fairly soon eliminate most routine labor. This will leave work that is mainly interesting and challenging or at least potentially so.

The elimination of poverty and toil is absolutely critical if we are going to dispense with the profit motive and exploitation. This is because it opens up the possibility of people working because they like what they are doing and they want to contribute, while at the same time being happy with an equal share of an increasing prosperity. While it is possible to imagine people sharing prosperity and enjoyable work, it is not possible to imagine people sharing poverty and toil. The Middle Ages, for example, show us that it only requires a small band of thugs who insist that they get a lot more than everybody else while not working for it and you have a very nasty class society. Also the experience of the Soviet Union, and the various regimes derived from it, shows what happens when you try to go beyond capitalism under backward economic conditions.

I am not talking here about a level of affluence where there is no longer any benefit from having a bigger share than others. Rather it is a level where there is no longer the urgency of getting more than others that would rule out a general acceptance of equality.  An equal share would be generally pretty comfortable and at the same time you would enjoy the benefits of a world of mutual regard rather than the dog eat dog world of capitalism.  The people around you would be fully functioning human beings and dealing with them would be a rewarding experience. This is definitely not always the case at the moment.

The Communist Manifesto touches on this matter quite nicely:

“In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

Now, some doubt the ability of workers to keep up with the requirements of the new more interesting and challenging work that will remain. Certainly capitalism leaves a lot of workers behind and on the scrap heap. Nevertheless, the overall level of training of workers is higher than ever and I think we can expect it to increase over time. In developed countries somewhere around a quarter to a third of young proletarians graduate from university and a similar proportion have other forms of training.

We can also expect improved ability to perform complex work in a future communist society as many of the conditions that cause stunted development are eliminated. These include lack of family support, peer pressure to under-perform and an inadequate education system. Social ownership will end the isolation of education from production and other activities, so uniting learning and doing. Workers will help each other to learn. We will also benefit from an increasing understanding of human development and what causes learning difficulties. And over the longer term we can expect to see artificial improvements through mind-enhancing drugs, brain link-ups to computers and induced evolution through genetic engineering.

The second way that capitalism prepares the ground for its own demise is by concentrating ownership of the means of production in the hands of a small class of capitalists and turning most people into proletarians who either live off a wage or salary, or are paupers dependent on government welfare handouts. Because of their dispossession this class has no vested interest in the existing system and can only repossess the means of production collectively. In developed countries they comprise about 85 per cent of the population.

Now thirdly we have the creation of the modern social conditions that have accompanied the development of capitalism in the rich countries. The less that societies are modernized the harder the task of making the transition to communism. Pre-capitalist societies are really awful and people’s heads are full of even more nonsense than modern people. They are servile and accepting of the idea that some people are superior to others, and have a right to push everyone else around. There is no conception of democracy or individual liberty. The individual is tied down by obligations and loyalties to groups such as extended family, clan and tribe. And women are completely subordinate to men. It is virtually impossible to imagine creating a classless society on the basis of this kind of culture.

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OK we can say that the objective or material conditions are fairly well developed in the rich countries. Now what about the rest of the world, where the majority of countries and people are still mired in backwardness?  What distance do they need to travel?  Assuming that the growth rates of recent times continue we can expect quite a few new countries approaching a developed level in the near future.   However, the overall picture will be skewed by the fact that the poorest region, Sub-Saharan Africa is also the one that still has high fertility rates. The population is expected to double to around two billion people mid-century.

So if the experience of development of the recent past continues we can expect mixed results. There will be a lot of development but still a lot of backwardness as we move into the second half of this century.

Of course, if we had fully functioning revolutionary governments in the developed countries by mid-century, they could do a lot to accelerate progress in the developing countries.

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Now, doubts are raised about the possibility of achieving global economic prosperity. People either say that everyone having high and increasing living standards is impossible because of environmental and resource limits to growth or because capitalism’s disregard for the environment will lead to ecological collapse and a very bleak future.

The issues here include forest and other natural destruction, CO2 emissions, pollution, our ability to feed ourselves sustainably and our ability to extract non-renewable resources. Let’s look first at limits to growth.

I think it can easily be shown that economic growth does not require the trashing of forests. Forest products can be harvested sustainably; there is the option of establishing plantations; and there are plenty of substitutes. Also we do not need to clear more forests for agriculture. Indeed as I discuss later, food production in the future will require far less land.

What about ensuring that we have an effectively limitless supply of cheap energy without CO2 emissions? This depends very much on employing the necessary research and development effort. Examples that come to mind include better ways to convert sunlight into useful energy, better energy storage options, cheaper and more efficient nuclear power, advances in carbon capture and storage, and future scientific breakthroughs opening up possibilities that we can at present scarcely imagine. Then there is the development of technologies to reduce greenhouse emissions from agriculture and increase the ability of the biosphere to store carbon.

What about pollution? Most air pollution will disappear with the elimination of fossil fuel emissions. We can expect to see industrial pollution of our waterways reduced with cleaner technologies and more effective treatment and cleanup methods. The problems with domestic waste can be overcome through better separation, treatment and disposal.

What about feeding an increasing population eating an increasingly affluent diet?  There are a range of advances that will allow us to produce more food while using less land and water, less fertilizer and pesticides and retaining soil quality. Firstly we have biotechnology breeding better plants and animals. Then we have better farm management methods including the progressive adoption of precision farming technologies with the use of drones and GPS to micro-manage every inch of farmland so as to increase yields while reducing inputs of water, fertilizer and pesticide.

We are also starting to see the manufacture of food in ways that reduce resource requirements. These include the production of milk without the cow, meat without the animal and also just tastier vegetarian meat substitutes.

What about the supplies of non-renewable resources?

Firstly, what is the situation with energy? I would suggest there are vast untapped resources that will become increasingly available with advances in technology. These include nuclear fission and fusion, geothermal and also emission free fossil fuels. These add up to virtually boundless sources of energy from the point of view of any relevant timescale.  With the next generation of nuclear power, nuclear fuel will be used 100 times more efficiently than present reactors. The fuel for fusion power is limitless. In the case of geothermal, if you drill 6 or so kilometres into the ground you get to very hot rock.

What about non-renewable mineral resources? We are nowhere near running out of metals or of phosphorous and potassium for agriculture.

Harnessing these resources will however become ever more challenging. We will certainly have to dig deeper for ore bodies and process poorer grades of ore. Indeed in some cases we will eventually need to exploit resources on the ocean floor and also the asteroid belt. These greater efforts will require increasing amounts of energy and capital equipment. However, I think we are a very long way from the situation predicted by the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth where most of our non-renewable resources will be devoted to their own extraction so that little is left for anything else including replacing worn out capital, and that would result in the economy collapsing.  I would suggest that metals and other minerals used in extraction are a tiny fraction of the total and the increased energy required for the extraction of non-renewable resources could be met from the next generation of very fuel efficient nuclear power plants.

Now is capitalism going to completely trash the environment because of its shortsighted search for profits? I think we can expect quite a lot of trashing of forests and pollution of air and water as the poorer countries develop. However, countering that is the fact that newer technologies tend to be cleaner and tidier, and as countries get richer there is increasing political pressure to reduce environmental damage and remedy past damage.

As for the effect of CO2 emissions, only time will tell. They are very unlikely to be brought down to the levels that people are talking about. We are in fact pretending to do something while achieving very little. The Europeans have made a lot of noise but are reneging on all their promises. India and China are continuing to build coal power plants at a cracking pace. China is also building quite a few in other countries. Germany and Japan are building more coal power plants because of their stupid decision to get out of nuclear power. And the Trump administration in the US is expected to remove all restrictions on fossil fuel.

I think capitalism’s main failure in this area is in not devoting a lot more resources to research and development aimed at providing energy options that greatly close the cost gap with fossil fuels. Instead we have spent big on subsidizing the role out of renewable energy that is far more expensive than fossil energy. Renewable energy still provides only a fraction of our needs and the huge expense of a heavy reliance on renewable energy or even nuclear power is not going to happen because of the cost, especially when you keep in mind that it would require massive subsidies to the less developed countries that have made it clear that they are not going to abandon much cheaper fossil fuels unless compensated. These countries are already consuming more than half the world’s energy and the percentage will soon be a lot higher.

Our response should be a movement pushing for massive research and development spending and a recognition that a heavy reliance on renewable energy is not going to work. However, even with the most optimistic scenarios in terms of major breakthroughs we would still be decades away from serious cutbacks in CO2 emissions. Nothing can be cheaper than already built fossil fuelled power plants. You have to wait for them to wear out and in China and India and many other countries that will be quite some time.

What effect will continuing CO2 emissions have on our ability to pursue the economic growth path required for a new classless society? Will it seriously retard it or rule it out? I do not intend to commit myself on this one. Views on the subject range from more bad weather to which we can adapt all the way up to a runaway greenhouse effect that would put the human race in a very sticky position.

So, on that very uncertain note I will end with this rather vulgar materialist conclusion.

If we are unable to provide affluence to 10 billion or more people because of nature’s lack of bounty or because we totally trash the planet, then we are stuck with an oppressive class society because it is simply impossible to create a classless society if it is based on shared poverty and toil. This puts me very much at odds with exponents of steady-state eco-socialism and simplicity.

 

 

 

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