Technophobia & Socialism

Mark Jones jones118 at
Thu Jun 15 06:07:52 MDT 2000

John Edmundson wrote:

> The debate over global warming which has been raging on this list
> for the last week or so raises the general issue of science and the
> left's attitude to it. ...
> The key to all these issues in my view is the issue of control.

This is an interesting posting because it encapsulates what I'm coming to
call the phenomenon of 'future-blindness'. Beneath John's evident optimism
about the future lies the idea that 'control' is possible if only we will it
somehow (we as a class will the political and social means to take control
over GM, etc). This is future-blind because events are already cascading OUT
of control and that's what we have to grasp: this is no longer even the
early stages of capitalism's worst-ever crisis, and this crisis is one from
which it cannot escape, which capitalism can itself hope to control. This
issue of 'control' is therefore not one of seizing control back from
capitalism, which has already lost it in several crucial, and decisive ways.
Our importance and powerlessness is not just felt, it is real. We are living
through a moment of profound historical danger, and none of the normal
mechanisms of control work or even apply in this unprecedented situation.
The mechanisms provided by democracy and enshrined in the institutions of
civil society cannot work as long as the system itself is out of control.
Someone has torn off the steering wheel and thrown it out the window.

We have to stop hiding from the truth, we have to stop labelling those of us
who are trying to deal with it as 'apocalypticists' then turning our back on
it and trying to carry on as normal.

In the case of GM science, John sees potential advantages and is a
supporter: "On the other > hand, much genetic research is potentially of
enormous value to > society and should be pursued." The issue again is seen
as one of control. But the possibility of controlling GM simply does not
exist, anywhere: not just in the ranks of Greenpeace, but even in the
boardrooms of 'Life Sciences' corps, and even in the cabinet rooms of
government. No-one can control it. It's out of control. The examples John
Edmundson cites of pressure to close GM research brought by the New Zealand
authorities only illustrates the point: even such seemingly extreme measures
only displace the problem, they do not solve the underlying conundrum.
Actually, Edmundson is right: when authorities forbid research we are thrown
back into a kind of Inquisitorial Dark Ages, where certain kinds of
knowledge are somehow predefined as sinful and forbidden, and their
practitioners can expect to be persecuted and worse. The inability to do
research, because certain knowledges are no longer socially acceptable, is
itself symptomatic of a profound loss of control, a loss of confidence in
ourselves, and of faith in our institutes of governance. But who believes
for a moment that the research which is banned in New Zealand will not be
done somewhere else, somewhere whose government does not care about the
dangers or is indeed is actively searching for technologies which have all
kinds of menacing potential applications? Is it not simply inevitable that
if government (a) stops a line of research precisely because it is 'in
danger' of producing powerful results and applications, then government (b)
or corporation (c) for that very reason is certain to continue the work in
secret, probably with the very same scientists?

The question of control goes deeper. It strikes to the heart of the
systemwide, multiform crisis which world capitalism can neither overcome nor
adapt to: it is evident that the mechanisms and dynamics of bourgeois
renewal which have sustained capitalism in its great upsweeps of growth and
development, themselves have become rusted and inoperable, or alternatively
themselves threaten to run out of control, requiring that the capitalist
order must close down some of its own civil society, the great spaces for
social freedom and experiment which have acted like parks in a big society,
to nurture the possibility of its own renewal. Closing down the spaces of
dissent and democracy is also an expression of loss of control. The
deepening atomisation of individual life, the destruction of
spontaneously-emerging mass culture, the resulting isolation and anomie
which afflicts individuals in many areas of life, are also forms of loss of
control both of and by the individual subject. Counter-instances such as the
Internet only serve to point up the general message, and the new
historico-social space opened up by the Net in any case becomes a problem of
policing and control. Insofar as it functions effectively, for example in
altering large numbers of people to the dangers of GM, or the IMF, then the
Net is a problem, a headache and in need of control.

The reality is that world-capitalism is literally out of control at every
level: democracy is known only by its absence or dysfunctionality;
governments do not control the transnational corporations and global market
institutions which dominate all aspects of everyday life and which uniquely
control these powerful new technologies. In fact instead of serving the
interests of their electorates it is obvious to everyone that even the most
powerful governments are themselves just the playthings of corporations; and
middle-ranking states are simply paralysed and impotent; as for what goes on
in the peripheries, it is not even a crisis of governance any more; it is
the failure of states and the implosion of civil society.

In the former Soviet Union, for example, there is not simply no government;
there are no real states; just bureaucratic carcasses which serve only to
facilitate the looting and rampaging of corporations and oligarchic
robber-elites. But actually, even the corporations themselves do not control
their own destinies either. They too are driven by the imperatives of
survival in a devastatingly-deflationary international economic environment
which means that they could not exercise rational control of GM or other
technologies or allow themselves to be governed by any overriding ethical or
humanitarian concerns because if they do they will be eaten alive by their
own competitors. But even this does not begin to grasp the ways in which
capitalism as a whole, as a world-system, capitalism-in-general, is
absolutely out of control because the entire system is in the grip of huge
contradictory forces which are literally tearing apart both it and the civil
society which birthed capitalism and is now engulfed completely by
capitalism. It is the lethal combination of two factors which is driving the
system to irrevocable disaster: I mean, first the profound biosphere
transformation already set in train by both ecocidal industrialism and by
anthropogenic climate forcing; these changes are happening now, and will
continue even if human stopped burning carbon tomorrow, which they won't.
The destruction of soil fertility, desertification, flooding, raised
salinity, dieback of pampas and steppeland, clearcutting of rainforest,
collapse of ocean fisheries, catastrophic water-shortages (India, China) and
more, are happening NOW and, yes, given the facts of the case, it is
inevitable that GM foods will be massively deployed, with unknowable
consequences for whole biomes and for all of life: but nothing can now stop
or even slow down this terrifying process. So this is one set of
events/responses which have locked capitalism into a horrifying downward
spiral, a mad waltz of endlessly-expanding positive feedback loops which
constitute one of the axes of modern capitalist exterminism.

The other factor pressing down inexorably on the system is the collapse of
its energetics-base, which has been a long time maturing and is now starting
to accelerate and assume an avalanche-like life of its own. The collapse of
major hydrocarbon industries, principally oil and natural gas, but coal too,
is not news to people in southern Africa, Russia and for whom gasoline is
often completely unobtainable for long periods of time. In the USSR oil
production fell by half in the space of three years in the early 1990s;
despite Caspian finds, it will never recover. The collapse of the Soviet
energetics base led directly and without passing Go to the collapse of the
entire Soviet bloc. Nothing can prevent the same thing happening to World
Oil, and indeed the Soviet collapse was itself part of the general energy
crisis now dragging down the world system.

Inevitably, there will be many attempts by states and governments to
construct new energy-regimes, but although energy-saving (and simple
rationing) may postpone the inevitable it cannot prevent it: and what is
still more important is this simple fact. The decline of oil will not be a
smooth downsloping sine wave. Whatever measures are put in place by even the
most powerful states in order to manage the process smoothly, the
consequences of neoliberal globalisation and the deregulation of energy
markets have produced irreversible changes in the structure and functioning
of the world energy system which is now simply out of the control not merely
of individual states but of such supranational institutes of power as do
exist (including of course, OPEC, which even this week is demonstrating
again its inability to control the movement of oil prices up or down). So
what will happen?

Of course some states, in particular EuroAmerica, possess immense technical,
human and resource reserves. How will these assets be used? We are not
talking now about hypothetical events which might happen only in 10 or 50
years. There is in any case a tendency to imagine that all these terrifying
things can somehow be put off into a 'remote' future and that meanwhile we
can get on with our lives and struggles - but it should be obvious that even
if social and/or ecosphere collapse can be postponed for 10 or even 20
years, that still is not enough time to do anything to obtain more social
justice or improved life-chances or a more equitable distribution of wealth,
or more personal security, or better food supplies, in the here and now;
that is why the either/or scenarios people play with are just another form
of self-deception and whistling in the dark. It is not a question of EITHER
worrying about global warming OR doing something to save the lives of
desperate 3rd world children; this choice simply does not exist, if only
because even if crisis is postponed 10 or 20 years, this nightmare reality
will definitely form the adult futures of today's children. Think about it.

But in any case we are not talking about hypotheses, we are talking about
certainties, and we are not postponing them because they are happening right
now. So we have to think about them, stop hiding from them, stop wasting
time on false activity, or looking for alibis for inaction. We already face
the possibility of a meltdown in oil markets. Wall St is already deep into
what will surely be the biggest bear market in history; the punctuation
points which mark out the rout of the markets will be provided not by
failing dot-coms (the 'new economy' is just fantasy, or vapourware as it
used to be known) but by sky-high oil prices, a tumbling dollar, followed by
chaos in world markets which is bound to exacerbate regional tensions and
centripetal pressures. You don't have to look ahead 10 years, six months
will do it. Recession may bring oil prices down again but what is already
mirror-bright it this fact: it is already true that the limitation of oil
supplies is an absolute limitation of global capitalism; any period of
sustained growth (and this has been true since 1973) is always ended by a
crisis of energy, principally oil supply. And the underlying problem is
getting worse all the time. So we face the certainty of a protracted
recession in EuroAmerica. To kick-start inflation-ridden, stalled economies,
efforts will be made to decouple energy from GNP, as they were after 1973.
But the brute facts are worse this time than last time. We therefore face
the possibility that EuroAmerica may solve its energy-deficit by simply
smashing the global markets it has fostered, and grabbing the resource by
military means. I think this is unavoidable and will happen sooner than
anyone supposes. EuroAmerica's actions in the Middle East, the Balkans and
the fSU, have had no other rational explanation anyway, for a decade or
more. It now comes down to proving that oil is not a fungible commodity at
all, the way the mystificators of neoliberalism would have us believe. This
is the endgame already. Who controls the sealanes, and the Persian
Gulf-Caspian geolpolitical space, will dictate terms to the rest. What the
big game of globalisation has been all about was about legitimising the end
of development. For 3 decades after the second world war, development and
industrialisation of the ex-colonial were the declared goals of industrial
western society. Neoliberal globalisation under the sign of TINA and in the
name of Structural Adjustment, was about forcing the ex-colonial world to
accept that the dream of development was effectively over. Globalisation was
a figleaf, a conventional hypocrisy to mask a huge and previously
unacceptable fact: namely that the two-thirds of humankind outside the orbit
of capitalism would forever remain so *while even and simultaneously losing
their original birthright, the sustainable societies of the past, which
capitalism decisively uprooted*. Growth is a chimera: there isn't enough
energy (primarily oil) for it to happen, and the risk of climate change is
too great for it to be permitted. On the contrary, what capitalism, has
urgently to do is to eliminate a large part of the world's 'surplus
population'. And it will try: this is the real meaning of exterminism. (Of
course, John Edmundson is right when he speaks of the sanctimonious
hypocrisy of the dealers in 'low-technology sustainable development'. But
the real point, to which we must not be future-blind, is this. In the
energy-poor world of the future, the balance of value between the three
factors of production will change dramatically. When energy and material
inputs are expensive, labour is devalued. This is the real meaning of
'low-technology sustainable development': because other factors, i.e.,
capital, is scarce, labour is cheap and can be used even as a simple source
of raw energy, to work spindles, carry loads etc. But is this not also the
future in the capitalist metropoles? Today, energy in the US for instance is
amazingly cheap, cheaper that it has ever been in history. But this is a
paradox of the crisis, and when the Crash comes, the value of labour (and
incidentally, the worth of a human life) will be drastically reduced. It's
not a case of exporting high-tech to the peripheries: that cannot and will
never happen. It's a question of what kinds of low-tech sustainable
lifestyles we shall have in the metropoles. Socialism will not inherit a
cornucopia; it will inherit scorched-earth and scrapheaps of useless
machinery. (David Pimentel, on page 49 of "Food, Energy, and Society" states
that one gallon of gasoline in an engine will produce the equivalent of 97
hours of manpower, when used in such vital endeavors as the agricultural
process -- exosomatic machinery versus human labor. There is a kind of
brutal symmetry here between the price of a gallon of gasoline and the value
of labour in the peripheral world where humans and beasts of burden remain
the principal motive force).

The collapse of capitalism's energetic-base will obviously not happen
everywhere and all at once, but it will happen (and IS happening). Even to
postpone the Crash for a few years will require immense new investments in
oil production in the Perisna Gulf/Caspian region. In conditions of
EuroAmerican recession, a collapsed dollar and skyrocketing crude prices,
such a massive relocation of produictive assets from the West into the
Middle East and Central Asia cannot but be accompanied by even more massive
geopolitical turbulence, and to 'guarantee' its investments, the West will
have no choice but to assert direct military control over the whole of this
vast and crucial territory, which is the axis of the entire world system - a
territory of as much interest to China, India and the rest of Asia, as it is
to EuroAmerica.

Now we shall see a return to the undisguised use of force in the
international arean, with no attempt at justification in terms of any rights
except the right of the mighty to take what they want. Thus even the
ideological figleaf of globalisation will be torn away, and faced with a new
kind of TINA, EuroAmerica will - must - use force to secure the energy
reserves and resources that are left. This evolution of events is inevitable
and cannot be long delayed. It is the last act of the process of
inter-imperialist rivalry which Lenin correctly saw would define a whole
historical epoch, the epoch of imperialism, the last and highest stage of

When events force EuroAmerica to drop every last pretence of democratic
form, world capitalism's loss of historical legitimacy will be total and the
use of counterforce will be inevitable. We are living through the final
stages of liberal enlightenment, and the closure of the civil society, of
which the Net has become a fundamental feature, is also inevitable, for no
other form of direct political control over the working class remains. We
are already through the threshold of such events. Only through foreign war
can imperialism act to militarise its own society, but only through the
closure of civil society and the actual conscription of the workforce, can
foreign adventures be sustained. These two processes depend closely on each
other and mutually reinforce each other. When oil prices go over
$100/barrel, we shall be inside the zone of economic collapse, and at that
point the militarisation of western society and the forcible seizure of
Persian Gulf/Caspian reserves will be the only remaining options.

Mark Jones

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