Slavery Past and Present

April 20, 2013

This a reply to this “progressive” text I found on the internet: http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/04/20

One thing about making comparisons of history is that, while obviously it’s good to learn from historical successes and mistakes, it is misleading if the present rests on a far different ground to the past. Slavery was a losing business proposition for the United States. Much of Europe had already abolished it. The free worker was simply better, and it was only in the interest of a class of slave owners that it be kept. What are the slave owners of the present age? The fossil fuel industry? They are the Bad Guys who are the only thing holding back the world from being sustainable? Somehow, I don’t think it’s all that easy.

The vast majority of people today live in an economic system called capitalism, and are dependent on wage labour. This is a pretty simple fact, but it’s in a way far from obvious – their ancestors were not. In any event, for most people, there seems to be no alternative to this arrangement – to turn a popular phrase on the head, money is everything. The analogy to slavery seems to be halting here, it is rather a more advanced slavery with no clear pretenders.

Yet, there seems to be obvious splinters in the wall. Capitalism is dependent on economic growth – to the people I’ve made this statement to, just about everyone who defends such a system agrees with this fact, but that this growth should somehow go on. In a finite world, that seems very problematic.

Perhaps they’ll go with the direct route and deny that the world is truly approaching its limits – the oil is much more plentiful than it seems to be, or the renewable energy sources much better than they appear to be. Perhaps they’ll deny that economic growth has to affect anything. Particularly in the Anglosaxon world, the idea of the postindustrial society is strong. In more crass terms, however, it is not postindustrial as much as it is deindustralised, debt levels, both public and private, ballooning. To go on to say that less energy is embedded in every GDP in such a situation is of course nothing but obscene.

Perhaps they have some sort of intellectual honesty in their spine and simply conclude that’s that and the demands of the economic system (or “what the people want” or whatever they want to call it) is going to go on until everything is dead. And that it seems to be all there is to it. Either we can hope for a better slavery that can somehow transcend its internal or external obstacles, or we’ll still have slavery no matter how bad it is. It’s slavery forever. To quote a certain Slovenian philosopher: “It’s easy to imagine the end of the world — an asteroid destroying all of life, and so on — but we cannot imagine the end of capitalism.”

The “abolitionists” of today do not desire the end of slavery, they do not in fact seem to understood what slavery is, and want to go from Slavery A to Slavery B. Or they are not abolitionists at all, but believe in the infinity of slavery. I wonder if we can’t get rid of slavery after all, or if it doesn’t just go away on its own.

Transportation Without Fuel

March 27, 2013

A comment made in response to this blog post: http://ourfiniteworld.com/2013/03/11/our-energy-predicament-in-charts/ , specifically the following part:

In order for a new alternative fuel to truly fix our current predicament, it would need the following characteristics:

  1. Abundant – Available in huge quantities, to meet society’s ever-growing needs.
  2. Direct match for current oil or electricity – Needed to avoid the huge cost of building new infrastructure. Electricity needs to be non-intermittent, to avoid the cost of mitigating intermittency. We also need an oil substitute. This oil substitute theoretically might be generated using electricity to combine carbon dioxide and water to create a liquid fuel. Such substitution would require time and investment, however.
  3. Non-polluting – No carbon dioxide or air and water pollution.
  4. Inexpensive – Ideally no more than $20 or $30 barrel for oil equivalent; 4 cents/kWh electricity. Figure 15 shows wage growth has historically occurred primarily below when oil was below $30 barrel.
  5. Big energy gain in the process, since it is additional energy that society really needs – This generally goes with low price.
  6. Uses resources very sparingly, since these are depleting.
  7. Available now or very soon
  8. Self-financing – Ideally through boot-strapping–that is, generating its own cash flow for future investment because of very favorable economics.

Well, assuming that there isn’t any fuel alternative, which I think is a rather good assumption to make, the question then becomes: can we do without fuel? While the personal transportation angle will be cause for some concern, it is rather trivial (most people know how to use a bicycle, after all) compared to how commodities are transported. Put simply, there are four modes of transportation today: Plane, ship, train and truck. To do an analysis on those:

Plane: While some cargo is transported by air, the primary function is the long-way transportation of people in a short period of time. While the lack of this option has some serious consequences in the latter sense, not so much in the former. I’d say most on here would agree that the age of the air is past, airplanes are impractical without fuel. While in a better world airships could pick up some slack, they need to be lighter than air, and the two options in that area are unfeasible: hydrogen has a nasty tendency to burn, and helium is too scarce. Let’s not even get started on vacuum…

Ship: Here’s where it gets dicey. Not only is it the only way to transport commodities across water without planes, ships are also the blood vein of the current system as it’s the far and above cheapest way to do it. While canal transportation should still be OK, and in fact very good through cheap systems like electric lines or towing the boats, for transoceanic travel it’s much more difficult. Better materials and other technological goodies should make sailing ships much better than in the past, but as anyone even slightly acquainted with boats know, sail power is hopelessly slow compared to the combustion engine. There’s also the obvious disadvantage that these ships are not even on the drawing table.

Train: Many rail lines are already electrified, so while already today many commodities travel by train, it should be able to pick up a lot of the slack left by the others. How much it costs to expand the train net will factor into how much it can be expanded, and for some countries which have the shame of not having looked after their train infrastructure very well (looking at you, US…) the cost of upgrading it will also be a factor.

Trucks: While long-distance cargoes by truck will probably be dead, they could be critical for transporting commodities “the last kilometer” as trains and ships will obviously not be able to transport things to exactly where they’re needed. Battery-driven trucks are prohibitively expensive, sharing many of the same flaws as their cousin the electric car, and are thus not much of an option. Trolley trucks, though, are a cheap option that will be fast to implement, and are even already used, mostly in the former East Block countries.

All in all I have to wonder if the transportation problem is really super-critical, sure there would be mass death if oil vanished overnight, but even in a small time frame it should possible to institute some sort of alternative, maybe not as good, but an alternative nevertheless. In some other sectors, agriculture and mining being the most obvious ones, the question of no fuel is a bit more worrying, though…

Pragmatism

February 15, 2013

“At the level at which the present development of the productive forces has reached, capitalism can only function as inverted capitalism. […] The thought that the dominant production system has already lost its fundamentals and now buys itself a last resort through transforming itself into a system of chain letters – this thought is unbearable for most people which have been socialised into commodity subjects.”
 – Robert Kurz (my translation)

The pragmatic. What is the pragmatic? Well, say you want to accomplish something. But, someone else is in the way. You cannot get through what you want directly, so you make a deal. You might not get everything you want, but at least it’s better than nothing. As time passes, however, you become far more dependent on this someone – you see this someone as the natural way to achieve your goals, even though this someone was opposed to it in the first place. When this someone finally becomes ill, you find that you have become so dependent that you cannot imagine yourself without it. You do your best to keep this someone alive, and finally you die together.

Last year, there were a couple of articles in Sweden were the argument was that low wages were good from an environmental perspective because it meant a lower ecologic footprint. This was widely criticized among left. When looking at who wrote those articles – rich people – it was of course clear for what purpose such arguments were used for. There was only one niggling thought in me, though. Namely, they were actually right. I found myself disliking a lot of the counter-arguments. “It successfully turns a left-wing perspective into a right-wing perspective”, was one Twitter comment. What sort of left is that, then?

They are the pragmatists. They have fully incorporated capitalism into their political thought. They are disgruntled with the way the bourgeois have handled the crisis, but their critique seems to be that they can do capitalism, save capitalism, far better with Keynesianism than austerity. The environmental crisis can wait until better economic times. “The jobs go before everything”, as it was recently proclaimed in the Swedish social democratic party’s manifest.

“With only 20% of the world’s population, they consume two-thirds of all metals and three-fourths of the energy produced worldwide. They have poisoned the seas and the rivers. They have polluted the air. They have weakened and perforated the ozone layer. They have saturated the atmosphere with gases, altering climatic conditions with the catastrophic effects we are already beginning to suffer.” So said Cuba’s Fidel Castro in 1992. The pragmatic of course wants that to stop, but can’t imagine that their own lifestyle should be affected much for that. This becomes very clear in the current Swedish debate (or well, as current debates can be today) on something as banal as meat. That the left can actually be so sick as to defend a meat tax on the basis that it hurts the poor most is just breath-taking. Of course it would. Without an enormous amount of subsidies, and indeed a incredibly willful blind eye towards the tremendous environmental consequences meat has compared to other sources of food. The usual line how nobody can survive without massive amount of protein was parroted, and only one half-hearted alternative, transporting legumes from the other side of the globe, was ever discussed. Don’t touch our meat, and that’s that.

The new geographic period Holocene has been discussed a lot the last couple of years. Civilization is having an even greater impact on nature, it is said. This distinction – civilization vs. nature – has never been true, though. Unlearn your inner mental images of pristine wilderness and frolicking deer. Nature is the energy and mass that makes up you and the rest of the planet, and the intricate network that ties it all together. We are reaching the limits – or, rather, they have already been reached. The amount of resources that industrial society is dependent of that are going to peak for the next half century are numerous indeed. That climate change is going to be bad is already a foregone conclusion, the only question is how bad it is. Still, see the priorities of the pragmatic. It is unfortunate that the current dominant economic system, capitalism, requires a perpetual amount of growth just to function. People will not only be unable to get to work due to a lack of gasoline (“it’s all OPEC’s fault!”), they will not have anywhere to go to work either (“it’s all the bankster’s fault!”). That will not only be the fate of the 80% the 20% are fairly apathetic towards, not only the children of the 20%, which, again, they’re fairly apathetic towards. It will happen to the 20% alive today. And that is when the tragedy of the pragmatic turns into farce.

The gargantuan task of the 21st century, then, is to desperately try to find a way to get a comfortable life after the end. If the current leaders and societal climate is still in charge, then what we will get is fascism. “Workfare” for the vast majority, a slightly comfortable life for the 1%, and concentration camps for the scapegoats. We must try to fall with grace and dignity instead. Just like with the alcoholic – which is indeed a good metaphor for the present metaphor – that starts with admitting that there is a problem. The “optimistic” response, to hope that everything will turn out alright anyway, is too depressing for words.

Some labour critique

January 25, 2013

Just a little comment I wrote.

“I’d like to comment on the previous Drumbeat’s discussion on labour, being the resident labour critic and all.

We heard the usual comment that hunter-gathering required less work than an agricultural society. This is true enough, but what’s interesting is that the next step – industrialism – also required *more* work than agriculture. The amount of work done today is one of the highest in history – only the most brutal days of early industrialism really compares. This might come to a surprise to some. The key difference is the level of material wealth, and considering that there’s a resource crisis on the horizon and more material stuff seems to fail to entice our neurons now, there’s obviously a gap in what we consider to be valuable and what actually is valuable.

Now, there’s a difference between “work” and “labour”. Work is the effort done to achieve various things (be it survival or fun) and could be considered a vital component to existence. Labour, on the other hand, is a specific relation in capitalism where a person sells their labour force in exchange for money. While nominally voluntary, it’s fairly difficult to survive without this relation unless you’re a capitalist. Historically, it was not a voluntary process either. The amount of laziness among the pre-capitalized people were infuriating. Paying someone more to do something was not an incitament to do more, but rather less, as less labour was needed to do the same. Only through violence and coercion could such a change happen. This is all fairly “well, duh”, but judging by the previous conversation people seemed to ignore these facts.

Today, then, we’re starting to see a contradiction unfolding. The robots are taking over. The reflexive urge seems to be to blame *technology*. I must ask then, why is there this tendency in capitalism to automate labour, if it is ultimately anathema to its own existence? The tendency of capital is to accumulate, and if automation is required, so be it. On a less abstract level, companies which don’t are less competitive than those who don’t.

For those who wish to save this system, then, there are a few options to pursue. The method used by developed countries from about 1982 to 2008 is that of credit. It has been fairly successful from a middle-long perspective, but it seems that nothing lasts forever. It should be noted that 2008 could have been a whole lot of worse if different policies had been pursued. Perhaps the dot-com bubble, which was fairly benign, could have looked like 2008 as well? It must be understood that capitalism is in a -predicament-, which means there aren’t any solutions, only different outcomes. A few reforms that could be tried (instead of the unimaginative austerity workfare, which seems designed to finish off capitalism as soon as possible) is lowering the 8-hour day to a 6-hour day, with the same pay. The criticism to this seems to stem from the fact that it would cause a lot of problems. One has to ask how the transition from 12 to 10 and from 10 to 8 was managed without adverse effects, and why 8 to 6 is such a difference. There’s also the more controversial Basic Income Guarantee which distributes a sum of money to everyone (even the richest) without any need for qualifications. This is offensive to those with Lutheran work ethics, but it should be noted that Brazil and India seems to be on the way to do this. Why can developing countries do this and not developed? There’s probably a lot less dogma regarding what works and what doesn’t.

One final point: A member wrote that there’s a “reverse industrialization” going on and it’s because of lack of energy. False on both points. First, while oil is getting more expensive, energy itself, in the form of coal, is still cheap. Secondly, if there was a “reverse industrialization” going on countries like China, India and Brazil etc. wouldn’t be doing such leaps and bounds in automation themselves, which is exactly what is happening. The implication that less energy leads to more labour is rather strange, anyway, considering that production and consumption are two sides of the same coin.”

I’d like to comment on the previous Drumbeat’s discussion on labour, being the resident labour critic and all.

We heard the usual comment that hunter-gathering required less work than an agricultural society. This is true enough, but what’s interesting is that the next step – industrialism – also required *more* work than agriculture. The amount of work done today is one of the highest in history – only the most brutal days of early industrialism really compares. This might come to a surprise to some. The key difference is the level of material wealth, and considering that there’s a resource crisis on the horizon and more material stuff seems to fail to entice our neurons now, there’s obviously a gap in what we consider to be valuable and what actually is valuable.

Now, there’s a difference between “work” and “labour”. Work is the effort done to achieve various things (be it survival or fun) and could be considered a vital component to existence. Labour, on the other hand, is a specific relation in capitalism where a person sells their labour force in exchange for money. While nominally voluntary, it’s fairly difficult to survive without this relation unless you’re a capitalist. Historically, it was not a voluntary process either. The amount of laziness among the pre-capitalized people were infuriating. Paying someone more to do something was not an incitament to do more, but rather less, as less labour was needed to do the same. Only through violence and coercion could such a change happen. This is all fairly “well, duh”, but judging by the previous conversation people seemed to ignore these facts.

Today, then, we’re starting to see a contradiction unfolding. The robots are taking over. The reflexive urge seems to be to blame *technology*. I must ask then, why is there this tendency in capitalism to automate labour, if it is ultimately anathema to its own existence? The tendency of capital is to accumulate, and if automation is required, so be it. On a less abstract level, companies which don’t are less competitive than those who don’t.

For those who wish to save this system, then, there are a few options to pursue. The method used by developed countries from about 1982 to 2008 is that of credit. It has been fairly successful from a middle-long perspective, but it seems that nothing lasts forever. It should be noted that 2008 could have been a whole lot of worse if different policies had been pursued. Perhaps the dot-com bubble, which was fairly benign, could have looked like 2008 as well? It must be understood that capitalism is in a -predicament-, which means there aren’t any solutions, only different outcomes. A few reforms that could be tried (instead of the unimaginative austerity workfare, which seems designed to finish off capitalism as soon as possible) is lowering the 8-hour day to a 6-hour day, with the same pay. The criticism to this seems to stem from the fact that it would cause a lot of problems. One has to ask how the transition from 12 to 10 and from 10 to 8 was managed without adverse effects, and why 8 to 6 is such a difference. There’s also the more controversial Basic Income Guarantee which distributes a sum of money to everyone (even the richest) without any need for qualifications. This is offensive to those with Lutheran work ethics, but it should be noted that Brazil and India seems to be on the way to do this. Why can developing countries do this and not developed? There’s probably a lot less dogma regarding what works and what doesn’t.

One final point: A member wrote that there’s a “reverse industrialization” going on and it’s because of lack of energy. False on both points. First, while oil is getting more expensive, energy itself, in the form of coal, is still cheap. Secondly, if there was a “reverse industrialization” going on countries like China, India and Brazil etc. wouldn’t be doing such leaps and bounds in automation themselves, which is exactly what is happening. The implication that less energy leads to more labour is rather strange, anyway, considering that production and consumption are two sides of the same coin.

2013 Will Probably Suck

September 30, 2012

Climate change is helping to change the world in many ways. Aside from the obvious natural catastrophes of millions dead, it is aiding the cutting of the thin strings that hold the world together. This stems from one of the most critical factors climate change assaults; food. Shortage of food cause humanitarian disasters, but it is also the catalyst of something more profound: revolutions. Many things have led to revolutions throughout the ages, but food is the factor that above all increases the chance of them happening, people who can’t afford, or can barely afford anything but food not surprisingly having less to lose. Therefore, I think it is likely that quite a few parts of the world could mimic the Arab Spring.

The background is that extreme weather effects give worse harvests all over the world. The US has broken the heat record from the dust bowl days of 1936, and has the worst corn harvests in six years, despite also a record amount of corn being sown. Russia and Ukraine has a similarly poor wheat harvest. India battles with low monsoon rains. Italy, Australia, Brazil, Argentina and lots of other places have similar problems. This, combined with the unscrupulous speculation on food on the financial markets will contribute to very high food prices come 2013.


Graph from this study

What countries in particular are in the risk zone? Well, as it relates to food there are two factors in particular:

  • The amount of money spent on food per household, as shown here. Risings in price will affect them more, especially since they already buy the cheapest possible food.
  • Net food importers. Food exporters can shield themselves by stopping exports, while importers are at the mercy of the global market.

This change in climate has more consequences besides food alone, of course. The hare-brained scheme of corn-to-ethanol will ensure ethanol prices rise, and other types of energy, such as shale oil, has been affected by the scarcity of water. It probably will have other, more indirect effects, which I don’t know much about. In any case, 2013 will be one hell of a year.

Let’s Play Legion Arena Index

September 15, 2012

An index for the updates of the Let’s Play Legion Arena of my other blog, Squirtle & Meowth Plays Games.

TUTORIAL

The Latium campaign – mostly for completeness sake
Roman military units – a rundown on strengths and weaknesses
Promotions – for fun and profit

ROMAN CAMPAIGN

Defiant Farmers – Scout the Etruscans
Aequi Raiders – Etruscans at Caere
Men in Black – Lingering Gauls

Why Is Doping Bad?

July 26, 2012

Let me just state that I find the Olympic Games to be on the same level of fun as listening to casette-recorded bingo games, and about as exciting as looking at the number plates on cars. I would have more stimulation doing [insert random house chore here]. As I watch Let’s Play, I keep in mind that hating OG on this basis alone is probably quite hypocritical, but the incredibly irritating sponsorships and vomiting-induced commercial jippo surrounding, as well as themes of nationalism and machoness is enough to gain my hatedom. If it weren’t for the millions watching the games it would be akin to making a post about the aesthetics of Bratz, but they do, so let’s get to it. Let’s look at the usual concerns.

I’m going to quote from an old shame of mine:

The sport events known as Olympics has had a long affair with doping. Some substances can signficantly increase the capability of athletes, at least in the short-term. These substances are banned, however. Ignoring the potentially harmful effects of certain drugs, why? If the whole point of Olympics is to be the fastest, jump the highest and so on, why wouldn’t people be able to use these substances to aid them? The answer would be something along the lines of that the athlete should derive his results through committed training and dedication, not “cheating”. In other words, it’s deemed to be too much of an unfair advantage.

Harmfulness

Pointing out the possible harms from doping is a quite valid point, yet it seems it is not the overriding concern for the Olympic committee. Nevertheless, the question should perhaps be rephrased as “If Doping Wasn’t Harmful, Why Would Doping Be Bad?” I’ll also point out that being a professional athlete is a harmful profession in the first place, due to the injuries seemingly inevitably befalling them.

Unfair Advantage

In Sweden, there is a network of non-profit clubs and associations, which contribute to churning out an awful amount of top athletes, especially if they have been instructed by an “old legend”. Being a full-time athlete requires money, and is not as available across classes and countries. Public utilities are crucial in the number of top athletes. The list goes on – obtaining performance-enhancing drugs are absurdly insignificant compared to socio-economic conditions. And, obviously, genetics. In fact, looking at the big picture, this concern is more or less absurd.

Unnaturalness

This is, I’d say, the greatest concern of the Olympic committee. Looking at this concern we might see some of the ideological underpinnings of what is considered “natural”. Consider this (paraphrased) statement from a radio programme:

It is important to have a natural body and train.

What is a natural body, and why is it natural to train? Think about this question. Why I doubt that the “natural body” even exists is due to the plethora of tools that are a part of us. The rake we us to gather leaves, the books we read, our means of transportation, the chemicals we ingest that help form our body. Why the all-natural ingredients of performance-enhancing drugs would cause a body to go from natural to unnatural is beyond me.


Some people are never AFK

BONUS: The Paralympic Games exists, and is supported by the Olympic committee. I wonder why it has more reason to exist than any of the following:

* People with average sport genes-lympic
* People with bad sport genes-lympic
* People of average socio-economic background-lympics
* People of bad socio-economic background-lympics
* Handicapped people not using unnatural implements like wheelchairs-lympics

Etc.

OPEC Numbers: A Strange Dissonance

June 14, 2012

Going to repeat my habit of reposting what others have written in forums/comment pages:

The OPEC Monthly Oil Market Report came out yesterday with the production numbers for May. (Page 45 of the PDF) OPEC, in previous years has never reported what they themselves produced. They always posted production numbers and stated they were “According to Secondary Sources”. However three months ago they started reporting both data from their Secondary Sources and just below that data they say are from “direct communication”. In other words they get data from Platts or perhaps an average of the numbers from other sources, then they poll the OPEC producers themselves and asked them how much they produced last month.

The numbers for some countries are very similar but for they are quite different. For instance Venezuela has for years claimed they are producing almost half a million barrels per day more than OPEC’s Secondary Sources say they actually produced.

OPEC production according to Secondary Sources crude only in thousand barrels per day

	 2010	 2011  Change 10 to 11	April	May    Change from April to May
Algeria	1,250	1,240	   -10		1,217	1,197	-20
Angola	1,783	1,664	  -119		1,769	1,730	-39
Ecuador	  475	  490	    15		  489	  499	 10
Iran	3,706	3,621	   -85		3,210	3,138	-72
Iraq	2,401	2,666	   265		2,994	2,952	-42
Kuwait	2,297	2,538	   241		2,789	2,858	 69
Libya	1,559	  462	-1,097		1,394	1,452	 58
Nigeria	2,061	2,111	    50		2,175	2,126	-49
Qatar	  791	  794	     3		  778	  757	-21
Saudi	8,271	9,268	   997		9,877	9,917	 40
UAE	2,304	2,517	   213		2,587	2,578	 -9
Venez	2,338	2,380	    42		2,362	2,378	 16
Total  29,236  29,751	   515	       31,640  31,582	-58

OPEC production according to Direct Communication crude only in thousand barrels per day

	 2010	 2011  Change 10 to 11	April	May    Change April to May
Algeria	1,184	1,173	   -11		1,220	1,206	-14
Angola	1,691	1,618	   -73		1,769	1,762	 -7
Ecuador	  475	  500	    25		  500	  498	 -2
Iran	3,544	3,576	    32		3,758	3,760	  2
Iraq	2,358	2,653	   295		2,942	2,915	-27
Kuwait	2,312	2,660	   348		3,007	3,000	 -7
Libya	1,487	  462	-1,025		1,504	1,552	 48
Nigeria	1,968	1,896	   -72		1,882  *1,834	-48
Qatar	  733	  734	     1		  733	  732	 -1
Saudi	8,166	9,311	 1,145	       10,102	9,807  -295
UAE	2,324	2,565	   241		2,716	2,383  -333
Venez	2,779	2,795	    16		2,831	2,826	 -5
Total  29,020  29,942	   922	       32,964  32,275  -689

*Nigeria did not report for May so I estimated their data based on the 48.5 kb/d drop that the Secondary Sources reported.

Noticed that Secondary Sources says Iran is down, in May, about half a million barrels per day from their average of 2010 and 2011. However Iran says their production is up about 200 kb/d from their 2010 and 2011 production.

But the main thing I wanted to point out is what Saudi Arabia and the UAE reported in May. OPEC’s Secondary Sources says Saudi was up 40 kb/d from April to May but Saudi themselves reported they were down 295 kb/d. And OPEC’s Secondary Sources says the UAW was down 9 kb/d April to May but the UAE themselves say they were down a whopping 333 kb/d in May.

[…]

Oil Settles Lower Ahead of OPEC Meeting

OPEC’s output decisions are influential in setting global oil and fuel prices. The group produces around a third of the world’s oil supply and holds more than 80% of global proven oil reserves.

I find this very strange. OPEC says they have 80 percent of the world’s proven reserves and everyone believes them. OPEC says they reduced production by almost 700,000 barrels per day and no one seems to believe them. Not a ripple in the mainstream media about that dramatic one month decline. Everyone believes the word of others about OPEC production rather than “Direct Communication” with OPEC about their production. Why is their word taken as truth in one instance and as a blatant lie in another case?

Capitalism Money Can’t Buy

April 17, 2012

“For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich to-day, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter-to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!” – John Maynard Keynes, Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930)

I read “Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist” over at Do The Math recently, and the comments to the blog post quite intrigue me. As shown here, the original Limits To Growth from 1972 has withstood the test of time despite attempts to discredit it. The tendency towards denial and excuses is not the focal point of this post here, but rather the tendency among some capitalist fan boys to grant that yes, we are running up against energy and resource limits, but it won’t be much of a problem; the global economy will keep trucking along fine anyway. However, it appears dangerously out of touch with the way the world works.

First up is the general observation that capitalism has always been about capital accumulation. While the plasticity of capitalism has proven to be tremendous, it has been about keeping capital accumulation going. Keynes was a liberal, after all. And this command to accumulate is universal, because if you don’t, you’re out of the game. CEOs may be nice people, but the shareholders want to see results. This command has had led to many beneficial developments, but has also led to many dubious ones (see planned obsolescence) and a callousness towards destroying commons and exploiting natural resources.

This brings us from a more general observation about the inner workings of capitalism to a more specific one: that of the vast majority of money being debt-based. I recommend watching Money As Debt for an easy to understand explanation for how fractional reserve banking works. Since money is debt, more money must be made in order to pay the debt, and so it goes on. At some point the contradiction of massive debt and increasingly shrinking growth must collide. Since the more benign, planned policy of debt forgiveness would appear to be politically impossible, it seems more likely this contradiction will be solved in the unplanned manner of bankruptcies, probably leading to extremely deleterious effects on the global economy.

This also helps explains the political priorities of countries and municipalities. Economists can claim all they want that economic growth actually isn’t about GDP growth, but something more abstract like “utility”. This is at odds with the decision-making processes of almost all countries in the world. The term “capitalist realism” captures this spirit. So-called “jobs” are becoming less and less about useful human activity and more a goal in itself. Public utilities are increasingly about putting place X on the map, with other benefits being secondary. Now, I’m unsure whether a country, or municipality for that matter embarking on a journey towards another economic paradigm would be truly that detrimental in the short term, it’s just that politicians (and their voters, for that matter) are so stuck in that paradigm that it doesn’t even exist on their mental map. Hence why I don’t think much will happen until it’s very apparent that business as usual won’t pan out very well.

We could take the USSR as an example. Achieving developed country status, had economic growth as a lynchpin, and not doing much about its internal contradictions until it was too late, it could serve as a reflection of “our” world. The Stalinist purges and Nazi invasion had produced a political consensus where, while it was a quite inhuman place to live (which I guess the current consumerist wasteland will also look like in hindsight), people were content just so long as things kept improving. And they did, but just a little bit less every year. Going a strong ten percent growth during the 50’s, slowing down to 5% during Khrushchev, 3% during Brezhnev and finally 1%. And then a plateau. Economy is a lot about psychology; if there is no faith in the economic system, it will collapse.

If people realize things aren’t going to improve, their actions will be different. Of course, it’s debatable how strong one could really compare the USSR and any developed country today. Dmitry Orlov however, Soviet-American engineer of some repute, compares the “collapse readiness” of the USSR and the US with each other (most famously here, though he has also written a book about it called Reinventing Collapse about it) and comes to the conclusion that the USSR was far more prepared.

We’re on uncharted waters here, and what worked as a solution in the past (Keynesianism being the most prominent example I can think of, especially because many on the left still embrace it) won’t work in the future. Things seen as good today could turn into a millstone around the neck tomorrow. The original Limits To Growth, written in 1972, predicted economic collapse in the first few decades of the 21st century. While laughed at then, it is increasingly looking more and more like reality.

The Grand Stagnation

August 22, 2011

It has been said that things are going very fast lately. Perhaps it can be said that, equally, there is a slowing-down effect, a stagnation. Things don’t seem to be going very well for the world economy lately, but I am nevertheless tempted to say that this one of the “happy” periods of capitalism. One of the reasons why is that a financial crisis does not necessarily weaken capitalism as a mode of production, it can indeed serve to strengthen it in the long-term. Not even individual capitalists seem to be particularly worse off – the number of millionaires just keep growing.

The primary reason I can say it is a happy period for capitalism, though, is through looking at history – and the emphasis on class struggle. World War Two is usually said to have had a knock-off effect on labour strengthening its position. But as James Heartfield writes in the article World War as Class War the war served to weaken it. The economical growth in the 50’s was tremendous, mostly due to the technological knock-off effects from the war. There was a lot of stagnation in the “social” field, though, with the glass roof ever-present and the Cold War environment hampering the development of commons.

The thing with how society worked in the West (the state capitalist USSR not deserving much of a mention) is the strong position labour nevertheless came to have, due to the craftskill of each individual worker and the general shortage of labour, giving great negotiation power. This was most visible in Sweden, which was the least effected by the privations of war. A high minimum wage and great security of the worker forced companies to constantly innovate. A turning point would perhaps be the wild strikes and general social upheaval of the ’68 revolutions.

The Oil Crisis, when the oil-producing countries of the Middle East used their oil as a political weapon could perhaps obfuscate matters here, since it happened in 1974, very close to ’68. I am not sure if they excacerbated the tendencies I shall elaborate upon next or not. The artifical oil shortage did push innovation in alternative energy sources, only for them to be mostly discarded once the crisis was over.

Anyway, this turmoil forced capital to renew itself, try to shake off the dependencies of the worker, or the strong unionized one of the West at least. Note that this way of looking at the developments of capitalism differs from how the worker is often painted as a passive subject of the reshaping of capital. Labour-saving technology was invested in – contrary to the trumpeting of technology as requiring more poly-technical skill – as part of the so-called “knowledge society” – these machines defanged the worker as it required less skill to use. Requiring less people overall to use made capital less vulnerable to labour shortage, and unemployment levels worsen the position of the working class overall.

After, and as this went on, capital also found another weapon in its struggle against labour. Letting production happen overseas, especially in Far East Asia, where labour standards are worse and the cost of production markedly lower, despite the distance. This pushed countries in the West to carry out the seemingly foolish action of disestablishing its own industrial base.

There’s a conundrum for capital here, of course, one which has been present in capitalism as a way of production from the very beginning, and which Karl Marx has written about in great detail. Overproduction. This way of breaking the position of labour through labour-saving technology and outsourcing has the obvious effect of pressing wages down, and thus leaving fewer to actually buy the products being produced. A  way to try to combat this has been the increased financialization of the economy. Simplified, the people in the West are the consumers which the global economy hinges on, and the way to try to keep their consumerism going has been through increasinly indebting these. The current crisis could be seen to be partly caused by this specific type of action. Heck, even the Eastern countries have fallen prey to this, as debt keeps increasing behind the bureaucratic walls of China.

Capitalism thus have the wheels burrowed in the mud again, and looks to be needing a push. Capitalism has the odd ability of being able to die, but to keep going as a zombie, but we need to dezombiefy it and ensure it’s actually living and… OK, I’m not sure where I’m going with these metaphors, but try to misunderstand me correctly. Commons can serve as an alternative to capitalism. Voluntary labour between free people on the basis of “from each according to ability, to each according to need” can compete directly with capitalism, mayhaps forcing it to reshape as it always has done. The thing is to try to keep pushing until it dies. And stays dead. “The shortening of the working day is its basic prerequisite”, as Karl Marx put it.


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