Sunday, April 8, 2012

Selma James on Unwaged Labour

I recently noticed a new Against the grain internet radio program which was recommended by a friend of mine, which was an interview with Selma James who is a leading proponent of the campaign of wages for house work.

I have to say that wasn't that impressed myself. First, she states that the reproduction of the worker is engaged in disproportionately by women and this does not represent a capitalist social relation as the relationship with the family does not enable wome to have wages. This is clearly true, however, she presents that Marxists have not understood this and that class analysis ignores it. That is far from the case.

The idea that the family unit is responsible for the reproduction of the worker, and that inside the family relationships are pre-capitalist was recognised already by Engels, written on by Bebel, Luxemburg, De Leon, Zetkin and others. I think they were much clearer on the fact that the relation was pre-capitalist, something which was not mentioned by James. We can see quite clearly that as capitalism has advanced, women have been incorporated in an increasing way into the capitalist social relations directly. Housework is now assisted by various machines, dinners are often pre-prepared, and women now make up a very large fraction of the work-force. While there are still aspects of reproduction which are unwaged, that fraction is smaller than in the past, and it represents a failure of capitalism to encroach on some areas in which it has been resisted.

Beyond this historical confusion her class analysis is confused. She oscillates on the meaning of working class, middle class seemingly arbitrarily. Sometimes it means wage earners, sometimes it appears to mean working poor. She additionally blames unwaged systems on capitalism, despite the fact that unwaged systems in pre-capitalist areas can not be blamed on capitalism as most of the world was once like that. This confusion in her own analysis doesn't make it easy to figure out what she is proposing.

It appears to me that she is suggesting a bourgeoisification of the reproduction of the worker. If that's the case than the demand is somewhat unusual, but not necessarily wrong. It's a sort of Menshevik feminism I suppose. It is not true that the reproduction of the worker can not be commoditised. It's simply the case that it has not yet been because we have resisted its complete commodification. However, purchase of sperm, eggs, surrogates, time with companions, child care, sexual partners etc. have all been commoditised, they are simply not yet dominant.

Her relationship with the welfare state was similarly confused. It seems to me that the best accommodation that the working class has as yet come up with to mitigate the oppression of women being involved disproportionately with unwaged labour is the welfare state. Indeed, school is a huge part of this as it serves as an effective government funded day-care allowing women more easy access to wage labour. If we are demanding wages, are we demanding commodification or social welfare from the state or something else? I'm left completely unable to understand.

She sees and talks of real problems but she doesn't seem to have a way out of them that goes outside of some rather strange slogans which do not make it clear to me how they are transformative in an effective progressive direction.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Household Charges Rally

I've only lived in Ireland for seven years, but I've been to more than my fair share of protests, rallies, marches, public meetings and the like.  Ever since the financial crisis of the bankers was transmogrified into an austerity crisis for the working class I've wondered when and if people would start doing something in opposition.  Well, apparently that time is now. 

In my time in the Irish left, there is nothing which can compare to the enthusiasm which I experienced at the recent Campaign Against the Household Tax rally.  The statistical fact that government is failing to get payment combined with the level of defiance witnessed by several thousand people at a single meeting makes me think that the government is very likely to be on the losing side of this battle. This is really very important as there is nothing like success to breed success, and success is definitely something the left has been lacking for yonks.

That said, I can't help but notice a few things which I think need to be taken into account in terms of strategy to make sure we make the most of a good thing.

First, the demographic was definitely on the side of those more advanced in years.  Where are all the youth?  Of course the household tax applies only to those old enough to own property, and hits the eldest hardest, but austerity is not just being applied to the elderly, but applies across the board.  This demographic lopsidedness could prove to be a problem in the medium term.

Secondly, something like one third of the core activists appear to be anarchists.  I can't help but think about how incredibly ironic it is that all of these anarchists are acting as foot soldiers helping to build campaigns which will ultimately benefit the ULA, and more specifically the SWP and SP.  I certainly wouldn't countenance a withdraw from the campaign, and I believe success in this campaign is important for the working class generally.  However, it seems to me that if the success can not be used to gain further successes for the anarchists, then they should really swallow their pride and join the ULA, where at least they'll have some input in the course of events.

This tax campaign is simply the first salvo in a war, and there must be a attention to the full dimensions.  Several speakers put forward this point, yet I think it's not clear how it will move from this point on.  From the enthusiasm in the room I can't help but think that this campaign should be transformed into a party.  The people were clearly ready for a wider fight against austerity and financial capital.  They shouldn't be disappointed by the almost inevitable parting of ways of the various leftist sects when we arrive at success or failure.  It is not just the anarchists who should suck it up and join up for a broader fight against austerity, but also the WP, CPI, and all the rest of the remnant.

Last, there was a nearly deafening silence on the reality of the Global and European situation.  This is not Ireland's austerity.  This is a fully global attack on the working class in the advanced capitalist countries.  There was entirely too much methodological nationalism present in the rally.  The Portuguese are just after having a national strike and the Spanish are ramping up to one.  Greece has been involved in pitched battles in the streets.  It's silly to act as though this is a local problem with local solutions.  We need to be thinking big about how we are going to defeat austerity as it simply can not be success at the level of the nation state. 

The rally certainly gave a good idea of the scorching temperature of rage that people have for being screwed over yet again by the bankers, and any government official would be well advised to get out of the way lest they be burnt to cinders.  Let us not let this fire go out - instead we should be looking at how to feed it. 

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Transition

The period of transition between our current capitalist economic and social system and a socialist economy is a very controversial subject among socialists. Maintaining an active dialogue and critique of this period is absolutely critical to our strategic and tactical understanding of how to achieve a socialist society. Nothing springs from the naked void fully formed*. The process which brings our contemporary society into a new social form must be understood or it will be impossible to affect it. We need to examine the best avenues open to us for changing our current social direction into a society we would like to bring into existence.

The Juncture

Capitalism is like a hot ember placed on a flammable object - the fire consumes the body in patches and gulps, some areas taking longer to catch, some areas exploding with flame and some areas quickly charred and brought to heel. Yet capitalism smoldered for a long period before catching fire. An economic, social and political regime can appear to remain stagnant while an apparent marginal economic activity moves towards dominance and finally erupts. Capitalism, which was once a marginal approach to economic activity, exploded onto the scene of history with dynamic force; a force which in a few centuries almost completely eliminated feudalism. A theory of social change will have to take into account the conditions which allow new social systems to ignite. It must also recognise that societies can exist in an admixture of various different economic systems. For this reason studying the entrance of capitalism onto the political scene is deeply important. Its genesis can give us clues to its demise.

No period is so exemplary of the manner in which capitalism erupts onto the political scene as the French Revolution. This revolution brought France from a period of decadent and decaying absolutist monarchy into republicanism, a radical departure for the entire social system. The French revolution can give us a window into how such radical changes can take place. When the French revolution occurred, there was already a new mode of production which was threatening to become ascendant. A bureaucratic, professional or “middle” class was seeking to expand its role in society. At the same time England was already seeing rapid capitalist development and its consequent dynamism threatened to leave France far behind.

Feudalism requires direct force and coercion to obtain surplus from those who produce. The peasant can live off his or her own subsistence, so it is only through direct taxation that the ruling class can find a share. This is a very inflexible system and it has a tendency to require a large security state and a large state bureaucracy to oversee taxation and advise the use of threat by the security state. It also does not encourage innovation, since those that produce have little incentive to change their mode. Acquiring much above subsistence does them no good. For example, mechanisation of agriculture is exceedingly hard for feudalism to manage**.

By contrast, this new mode of production, capitalism, was cutting-edge and outward looking. It encouraged trade and direct investment of returns in production itself. The reinvestment of surplus into the method of production itself allowed growth that could not be duplicated by feudalism. Additionally, it did not require direct taxation or forced labour to obtain surplus. Instead, workers were paid wages and the surplus was taken from the sales of the commodities produced, significantly simplifying the relationship for the ruling class and reducing the need for primitive methods of coercion.

Because of the economic meltdown suffered by France, the question of taxation and how it should take place came into direct conflict with this new middle class. The middle class found that it was being completely stymied in its efforts to unbind itself from the feudal regime by legal means. At the same time, economic unrest led to great and periodic riots. With these factors in place, the middle class moved forward, sometimes cautiously, or in the case of the Jacobins, sometimes ferociously, to completely eliminate the fetters on this new and vastly more dynamic mode of production.

The more modern Russian revolution took a very different course. The political aim of revolutionaries in the French revolution ranged from constitutional monarchism to radical democracy, but economically the ideas of how the economy would change were dominated by an envy of England. By contrast, the masses of society in the Russian revolution took up the banner of socialism. They were not looking to replace the economic system with that of a competitor, but instead hoped to forge a new one from scratch. The complete collapse of the Tsarist regime and the incompetence, financial weakness and disorganisation of the middle classes gave a window for the exceptionally well-organised Bolsheviks to take a stab at power; a stab which they found themselves successful in gaining with the help of a very supportive mass movement of peasants and workers.

When in power, they sought to establish a new mode of production entirely ex post facto; a mode of production with which they themselves had spent far too little time imagining or experimenting, and one which came not from the activities of the general population, but instead almost entirely by state decree. Bukharin, a Bolshevik and member of the central committee, realised this problem earlier than many of the other Bolsheviks. Eventually Lenin himself realised that the Bolsheviks would have to retrench and take a longer view to the transition and reorganisation of the economy; a view which lead to the establishment of the NEP.

Milovan Djilas [Dji] has promoted a theory as to why so many problems were encountered in attempts to implement socialism. Essentially his theory states that the change in the mode of production might need to precede the revolution. Indeed, his contact with the problem was not the result of idle theorisation. Djilas was involved with an attempt to implement socialism in Yugoslavia after the success of the Yugoslav Partisans in World War II. The tremendous difficulties they encountered in changing the economic structure of society led him to look for some theoretical explanation. Djilas was steeped in Marxist theory and so he naturally looked for an explanation using Marx’s theories of historical change. The mode of production and its relationship to former revolutions therefore rose to the fore.

The Old Mode of Production

Assuming that Djilas’ thesis is correct, that indeed the new mode of production must be ready to replace the old order, and do so in a way that creates active participation of the mass of society, then what does this new mode of production look like?

To understand how we might change the mode of production, it is useful to think about capitalism itself and how it functions. The analysis of capitalism presented by the 19th century socialists and put perhaps most forcefully by Marx, describes capitalism as an economic system. This system has a class of capitalists whose major income source is the investment of their income in production with the expectation of profits. More precisely, they hope to engage their income in commodity production while paying less for labour and inputs than the sale price of the produced commodity on the market. There are also indirect capitalists, who invest in various different bodies which will administer the actual production for them as well as secondary, tertiary and so on, financial instruments, which are ever greater abstractions of the actual productive process but which rely fundamentally on profits in production itself. The wage labourer is the other major class in this system, known as the working class, involved in this production process. These workers sell their labour power in productive processes which capitalists see as enabling profits.

This mode of production leaves some individuals with a much greater income capacity than others. While it is true that wage labour can take on virtually any arbitrarily high number, it is equally true that the vast majority of the income is weighted towards some low-end peak. In fact, it follows quite nicely what is known as the Boltzmann-Gibbs distribution [Drag]. Income, is in fact, bi-modal, and the income of the capitalist class is distributed according to a different modality. It is instead pareto-distributed [Drag]. The underlying fact which may be obscured by this technical jargon is that the capitalists tend to make vastly more money than the rest of us. Wage labour does not give us the same type of access to the social product.

This inequality of access to what society produces is a tremendous problem. It leads to a very lopsided political economy which resembles plutarchy more than republicanism or democracy. The rich and profit-making interests, including corporations, control the lion’s share of all political decisions and virtually all financial decisions about the development of the economy, and what is required of investment.  Our only input is in the periodic voting for various candidates pre-approved by corporate interests and a choice of various commodities to purchase. The latter wields even less power than the former.

This inequality of access, however, is only part of the problem. Perhaps worse still is that the circuit of capital requires profit at all costs. In the schematic description given by Marx we have: M-C-(M+ΔM). That is, capitalists put forward money M, to create commodity C in order to make back their investment in addition to some profit M+ΔM.

This profit motive for the production of all goods and services has two major deleterious effects. The first is that all goods which are public goods or common goods can not be usefully integrated into the system. They do not exhibit scarcity naturally, and therefore do not naturally command a price. Digital media such as music, films, software etc., are properties that do not exhibit scarcity after the initial prototype copy is produced. One can say either the labour content of each copy approaches zero, or equivalently that the marginal cost of production approaches zero. The response capitalism has come up with to date is the imposition of state force to require public goods to mimic private ones, and the situation may be even more dire with common goods. This has huge implications for our modern information age.

The second major problem is that production with the sole view of increasing profits puts enormous force towards the externalisation of costs (which are sometimes called externalities). The health of workers and the amount of their wages, the environments of workers and consumers, the quality of the goods, and any sort of knowledge asymmetry between the consumer and the producer, all lead the capitalist to produce a great amount of dis-utility while bundling up an actual or expected utility into the commodity which still obtains price. The relationship with the consumer and the worker is tantamount to predation. However the damage to common goods such as the environment is downright anti-social.

While the second problem makes capitalism undesirable and (perhaps terminally) destructive, the first problem threatens to go beyond even this and make it entirely unworkable. The extension of the security state which is absolutely necessary for price to be attributed to public goods may come to resemble extraction of the type more familiar from feudal times.

The New Mode of Production

Socialists are often loathe to get into the exact details of what a socialist economy would look like. This is caused, perhaps in equal measure, by complete ignorance and an extensive knowledge of just how large the space of possibilities is. Indeed many proposals have been given about how a socialist economy might best be run.

The question of which system is desirable, in detail, is quite important. Unfortunately we cannot determine in abstract which system will work best and what problems will develop, though we can make guesses. To fully understand the consequences of an economic system can only be decided experimentally. This leads us to the chicken and the egg problem. How can we promote a new system without knowing what it will look like and if we don't have a new system to promote, how can we convince the broad masses that we should remove the presently existing system - however deformed our present system becomes.

The most viable solution to this Gordian knot is to attempt to create the new modes of production experimentally... now. It is the corporation which gives us the best experimental laboratory currently within reach and it is the democratically controlled corporation, or cooperative, which gives us the form most likely to succeed in a radically egalitarian programme of transformation.

This idea is not new at all. In fact, it was believed to be a necessary component of the struggle for socialism by both Marx and the Anarchists during the first international. The instructions given to delegates of the first international in 1866 which we put here gives a flavour of just how accurately the early socialists were thinking about this component:

Co-operative labour

It is the business of the International Working Men's Association to combine and generalise the spontaneous movements of the working classes, but not to dictate or impose any doctrinaire system whatever. The Congress should, therefore, proclaim no special system of co-operation, but limit itself to the enunciation of a few general principles.

(a) We acknowledge the co-operative movement as one of the transforming forces of the present society based upon class antagonism. Its great merit is to practically show, that the present pauperising, and despotic system of the subordination of labour to capital can be superseded by the republican and beneficent system of the association of free and equal producers.

(b) Restricted, however, to the dwarfish forms into which individual wages slaves can elaborate it by their private efforts, the co-operative system will never transform capitalist society. to convert social production into one large and harmonious system of free and co-operative labour, general social changes are wanted, changes of the general conditions of society, never to be realised save by the transfer of the organised forces of society, viz., the state power, from capitalists and landlords to the producers themselves.

(c) We recommend working men embark in co-operative production rather than in co-operative stores. The latter touch but the surface of the present economical system, the former attacks its groundwork.

(d) We recommend to all co-operative societies to convert one part of their joint income into a fund for propagating their principles by example as well as by precept, in other words, by promoting the establishment by teaching and preaching.

(e) In order to prevent co-operative societies from degenerating into ordinary middle-class joint stock companies (societes par actions), all workmen employed, whether shareholders or not, ought to share alike. As a mere temporary expedient, we are willing to allow shareholders a low rate of interest.

- Instructions to Delegates, First International, 1866

Lest Marxists attempt to claim this is some concession to deviations from the correct programme required for pragmatic purposes we should also quote Capital:

The co-operative factories of the labourers themselves represent within the old form the first sprouts of the new, although they naturally reproduce, and must reproduce, everywhere in their actual organisation all the shortcomings of the prevailing system. But the antithesis between capital and labour is overcome within them, if at first only by way of making the associated labourers into their own capitalist, i.e., by enabling them to use the means of production for the employment of their own labour. They show how a new mode of production naturally grows out of an old one, when the development of the material forces of production and of the corresponding forms of social production have reached a particular stage. Without the factory system arising out of the capitalist mode of production there could have been no co-operative factories. Nor could these have developed without the credit system arising out of the same mode of production. The credit system is not only the principal basis for the gradual transformation of capitalist private enterprises into capitalist stock companies, but equally offers the means for the gradual extension of co-operative enterprises on a more or less national scale. The capitalist stock companies, as much as the co-operative factories, should be considered as transitional forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one, with the only distinction that the antagonism is resolved negatively in the one and positively in the other.

- Karl Marx, Capital, Volume III, Chapter 27

In both of these quotes we see some very clear thinking regards cooperatives. Neither quotes give the view that cooperatives are unproblematic. However, both try to find ways to work with an imperfect form to maximise its capacity as a vehicle of socialist transformation.

There are at least two basic problems with cooperatives. The first is that the working class already has tremendous trouble accessing capital. This means that it is very difficult to find ways of funding the initial start-up cooperative which one might wish to create. In addition capitalism is ruthless at extinguishing those firms which are not productive and consequently, cooperative or not, the majority of firms will be bankrupt within the first five years. This presents a major pragmatic stumbling block.

However even after the cooperative starts there are dangers which are spelled out by Marx and the First International. Within capitalist society each constituent firm must attempt to sell at or below the price that other competing capitalist firms set on the market. The increase in the number of cooperative firms as a movement would not mitigate against this fact; it would simply increase the number of stars in the constellation of the capitalist system which are under worker self-management. This would not be a worthless undertaking in itself, but neither would it in itself be a threat to capitalism.

There are, however, some reasons to be hopeful. Firstly the need to form profit is not immediate for the worker-controlled firm. There are other opportunities present for the firm in terms of the use of surplus gained from production. It is always possible for workers to either make use of this surplus for new investment into their own capital or into expansion of the cooperative system. Workers can also suppress their own wages to weather periodic fluctuations in the market in a way that other small businesses generally can not.

In order to be a successful movement, however, the cooperative movement requires a very big vision: a vision of a transformed society and the attendant actions which could create it. In order to do this the cooperatives will have to attempt to make real the "Association of Producers". The association of producers was a broad vision of the integration of productive efforts of the workers on a cooperative, rather than a competitive basis. It would be production under the purposive direction of the workers themselves on a basis not driven by the profit motive.

It was a long standing problem of various cooperative movements and the Kibbutzim that whatever cooperative organisations or federations they made, they rarely found systematic ways of moving goods amongst themselves excepting for the sale of goods to each other through the market. A proper transformational movement would have to seriously experiment with a new system of internal exchange.

This is not an unthinkable idea. Indeed when a capitalist firm finds that it requires the services of another capitalist firm it has two choices. It can either pay a premium on the service which includes the profit margin required of capitalist firms to stay in business or it can acquire it outright and take the services at the cost of their production. In the latter case we see that the capitalist firm has moved the boundary at which surplus takes place from between the firms to between the two firms and the rest of the capitalist world.

Cooperatives can also avail of this fact. There is no need to charge other cooperatives surplus. The goods and services of an ever-larger association of producers should start bringing down the cost of goods within the entire network to within margins which would make capitalists jealous.

However, it is possible for cooperatives to go even further in this vertical integration to attempt to deteriorate the necessity of the wage itself. The greater number of useful goods and services that cooperatives in such a conglomeration produce, the greater number of potential goods could be given to employees "in kind". This would certainly provide a "reduced cost" to the worker in the cooperative system, but it could also potentially be used to avoid taxation. The lower the wages the less tax, and corporate tax is incredibly low. This tactic is already used widely by corporate executives. The production for production and the production for worker consumption would form a sort of "inside-outside" system in which profits were only necessary at the boundary. All other surplus would be under collective and democratic administration.

Many cooperatives have in their founding ideals that the should favour business with other cooperatives. This principle should be realised to its fullest extent. Much as in the united states, tariffs between states are illegal and all tariffs must take place at the outer-boundary of the state, so too should cooperatives look to eliminate surplus amongst themselves.

But how can we expect to find ourselves with the wide diversity of cooperatives which be necessary? This can really only happen with access to capital. In order to ensure that this occurs we will need cooperative organs of finance. The cooperatives themselves must have a privileged bank. In fact such peoples' banks were not only talked about but already Proudhon was attempting to establish one by 1849. This bank would invest only in cooperative endeavours which agreed to abide by some principles which would ensure the "inside-outside" type approach to the sale of goods and services described above.

Initially such a tactic would require some hard working and lucky activists to involve themselves in a large and long term project. It would require that they actively and politically attempt to find the largest surplus generating activity possible and that they devote the greatest amount of these surplus resources, not to themselves, but to the establishment of more cooperatives and the political movement that will be required to shield the movement from the machinations of big capital, which will certainly occur.

The Other Dimensions

Such a movement, if it were successful, will necessarily come under threat. No ruling class leaves its stage of history without being thrown off by more competent actors. Consequently it would be remiss to assume that a quiet transition to a new socialist system could be created without the ruling class impeding its progress. Any programme of transition will have to take this into account.

One of the stages on which the battle will have to be fought is the political. Currently political parties of the left are almost universally supportive of Keynesian policies and/or redistributive justice through taxation. The old centrist policy of the second internationalists such as the SPD of refusing to vote for budgets has been completely dropped. This is quite ironic indeed, considering the amount of vitriol and condemnation that the SPD come under from Leninist groups who denounce them as gradualist quietist whilst voting or themselve s promoting policies which would have looked completely alien to the vastly more Marxist SPD.

However even the SPD had too statist a view of the transition. It is in some ways mimicked by the current pragmatic orientation of the SP in Ireland (CWI) with its focus on nationalisation of major industries. This is a programme with which Hilferding et al. would have been quite comfortable.

Despite this, the active participation of political progressives in politics, indeed in the current electoral system will be a requirement. There are useful tasks which must be carried out. It is a fact that legitimacy can best be derived by attempting something through what is widely considered legitimate means first. When one is stymied by tyrannical impulses of the ruling class it simultaneously erodes the legitimacy of the institutions which stymie it and creates new avenues for legitimate action outside of the legal framework. There is no sense attempting to go straight to revolution without first holding the Estates General, before making the Tennis Court Oath.

Among the sectors of society which will be indispensable in the transitional society are the trade unions. The unions comprise a different relationship to capital and especially to productive and useful organs of the state such as health, transport and utilities. However the unions and syndicalism have a very hard time wielding much power beyond the power to obtain wage increases and better working conditions. The threat of general strike has never actually propelled forward revolutionary success, however terrified the capitalist class was of it during the early part of the 20th century.

The only successful syndicalist revolution was in Catalonia and it was incomplete and short lived, even if it has surpassed every socialist revolution since. The difficulty for syndicalism is that it requires to immediately move to extra-legal means, that is, expropriation, prior to the point at which it can go into production. In addition it must somehow do so without losing the necessary functions of the managerial and bureaucratic elements of the organisations. It is no secret that these organisations are not run with the view to ensuring that working members are in possession of all the skills necessary to run these firms. This creates a complicated power asymmetry even in the case of successful expropriation. Indeed accounts of the Catalonian situation tell of the rehire of managers who had to be chased down and forced back to work to ensure production [Gas].

How then can we enable these companies to come under the control of their workforce? How can we approach the radicalisation of the unions themselves? One possible alternative was proposed by Cockshott [Coc], in which legislation is passed which encourages such a transition. First each good would be printed with a labour value which would estimate the total labour content of goods produced. This would enable workers to clearly see the difference between the wages that they receive and the amount of surplus which is garnered by the capitalists who invest. The second stage would allow unions to sue for the full value of labour for the workforce. Such legislation, adjudicated by jury, both privileging unions and encouraging workers to form or join them, would completely suffocate the capitalist class and would quickly turn control towards the actual workers in the largest enterprises in society. It forms a much more realistic view of how democratic control of large assets could take place without having to go through a state directed nationalisation which has seldom lead to much real participation. Companies which do not see active participation by their union members would never be able to succeed in such a programme, ensuring that it would be a popular worker directed endeavour.

Of course, as always many socialists will say that this approach is naïve in viewing the capitalists as legalists. However, this charge of naïvete hardly amounts to much. Should the capitalists decide to thwart the legal process there is reason for a now activated and organised section of the working class to legitimately lock horns, and possibly with much greater popular support, on a footing more favourable.

It will not just be the unions which can useful be assisted by legislation however. It is also necessary for the continued existence of the cooperatives that they be defended politically by either blocking legislation intended to disarm them or putting forward and supporting legislation which enables them.

To do any of this, however, will require another component; that is, a party of the working class. This party will have to defend the unions and the cooperatives from attack as best as it is able and attempt to remove any impediment which can feasibly be removed to the establishment of a greater democratic movement of workers control over the means of production. The party will have the charge of promoting the historic mission of socialism; that is, the necessity of workers to take into their own hands the administration of the production and investment in society for their own interests, rather than the narrow interests of profit.

The unions and the cooperatives are those that are best able to garner surplus as they are taking part in the relations of production. It is from here that we will fund the political party and the other institutions of the working class which have atrophied in the modern era, such as workers’ media, workers’ cultural centres and whatever organs we find ourselves in need of.

The party must be constituted as a broad workers’ political party which does not adhere to any specfic sectist ideology. The tendency to define politics in terms of narrow political visions is incompatible with any approach save failure or insurrection. The need to simultaneously succeed in garnering cooperation amongst cooperatives and unions as well as those sympathetic to a more egalitarian approach necessitates a broad political approach. The traditional Leninist model of exegesis from the holy canon of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky and the anarchist approach of total disengagement with electoralism both need to be abandoned as a model for the party itself. The party will, however, have to accommodate itself to tendencies of these and other types if it is to be successful as is witnessed by the Left Bloc in Portugal, the NPA in France, the Scottish Socialist Party, the ULA in Ireland and Die Linke in Germany. It’s a curious fact that even in the contemporary period, parties which take this approach are vastly more successful than the narrowly ideological Trotskyist or anarchist parties yet this approach is still rare indeed.


Since the dominant elements of the left of the political spectrum have very little in the way of a plan for transition, the ground lies relatively barren. However, due to the capitalist crisis, Occupy Wall Street and greater general politicisation of the public, there appears to be a resurgence of interest in what a programme of transition might look like. This is clearly the time that such ideas must be put forward.

Capitalism did not ignite until the conditions were appropriate. Similarly we can expect that socialism will not burn until the fuel is dry. Our task then is to discover the conditions which will allow socialism to come about. Once these are understood then we can devote our energies to ensuring that these conditions are created.

* Unless one is talking about particles and even they spring back into nothingness shortly thereafter, baring the intervention of a neighboring black hole.

** Some might argue that the USSR under Stalin demonstrates one example of the possibility of doing so, if one first accepts that the USSR was bureaucratic absolutist, and obtained its surplus value analogously to the manner in which it is obtained under feudalism.

[Drag]Adrian A. Drǎgulescu and Victor M. Yakovenko, Statistical Mechanics of Money Income and Wealth
[Coc] Paul Cockshott, Alen Cottrell and Heinz Dieterich, Transition to 21st Century Socialism in the European Union
[Gas] Gaston Leval, "Collectives in the Spanish Revolution"
[Dji] Milovan Djilas, The New Class: Analysis of the Communist System

Friday, December 30, 2011

The War on Information

Our age is currently experiencing the most epochal change in production that has occurred since the industrial revolution. The change presents a crisis that must be resolved one way or another but which cannot allow things to progress along the same dimension as the last 50 years.

In the period leading up to the dot-com bubble the opening of the information age was widely heralded. It was going to bring new dynamism to the economy and presented huge opportunities for profit making and expansion. It did of course lead to massive profits and massive expansion. However, a large number of companies were soon viewed by investors as vastly over-valued, leading to a contraction. The fantastic nature of the new economy did not lead to steady long-term growth in the same way that the industrial revolution had. It similarly failed to demonstrate the growth that the more recent post-war boom did. Instead it lead to a credit bubble. The first credit bust was mitigated by an expansion of cheap-credit. However, this culminated in the financial crisis of 2008.

During the French revolution, the masses demanded that there be a maximum placed on the price of bread. This was a move which they required to survive as inflation was causing the price of bread to rise rapidly. However, the repercussions of this demand were tremendous. The price of bread depended on the price of everything which was used to make the bread. In order to solve the problem of bread prices they had to solve the problem of the “general maximum”. The government constructed schedules to enforce the prices of general commodities, yet the profits which could be made from avoiding these schedules was tremendous. This created a huge incentive towards illegality. In the end, to save the general maximum required the imposition of extreme fines, and finally, at the demand of the masses, execution by guillotine. In the French revolution, to stop the manifestation of price in the capitalist system required terror.

In our new economy exactly the opposite problem will be realised. Only through treat and terror will the manifestation of price be saved. Political and economic forces are already gathering to ensure that this is the case. Something deep in the organisation of the economy will have to change. The only question which remains is: which way will we change?

Knowledge Production

The information age's capacity to change the way we live is very real. In 1983 hardly anyone would have imagined that in 2011 nearly everyone in the West would carry tablets and phones that would outperform the then-existing, and quite rare, mainframes. Even in underdeveloped regions many people have phones that outstrip the best personal computers of 1983.

The production of knowledge has become increasingly important. Software is now a large industry projected to be around 457 billion USD by 2013 [2]. Two of the most well-known companies in the world are Microsoft and Google. Both have global recognition and global power. Facebook is now a household name and the number of people on social networks today exceeds the number of Internet users in 2006 [4]. China's internet growth is so explosive that it now has internet penetration to 34% of the population and gained more users in three years than the US has in total [5]. This process of an increasingly connected world is an inexorable trend.

The entertainment industry similarly is growing at breakneck pace in the third world. India expects its entertainment industry to grow by 15% in the next three years: this despite India being one of the largest producers of film in the world. China's film market has seen 64% growth in 2010.


At the same time we have seen an enormous increase in automation. Automation has always been a major factor in generating periodic crisis in capitalist economies. The famous Luddite revolt saw 19th Century English textile artisans suffering serious lack of income due to the introduction of automated looms. The increase in productive capacity from power-looms required fewer workers. So automation is no stranger to development.

However, automation is now reaching levels never before seen. From assembly lines and powered mechanical assistance has risen a new multi-purpose automating instrument: the robot. The automotive industry was one of the first enthusiastic customers of robotics and remains a major consumer. However, the number of robots being employed in diverse production is increasing at amazing rates. China is expected to see double digit growth in its robotics industry in 2011. Foxconn, the manufacturer of the iPhone and employer of almost 1 million employees, is now planning to obtain one million robots over the course of the next three years [6]. The cost of the robots is expected to be about three times the annual wage of a worker but that cost is expected to be recouped within one year. These estimates are likely to be somewhat overstated by Foxconn; however it certainly does not bode well for workers in its workforce. The entire Pearl River Delta is seeing a booming trade in automation. As workers demand higher wages and become more discerning about working conditions, investors are searching for ways to weaken labour’s negotiating hand.

Since the beginning of the twentieth century there have been fears that labour would have its place in the economy stolen. In the 1950s, Luddite ideas of anti-automation began to gain prominence amongst workers in the United States and elsewhere [7]. Yet while this automation certainly did lead to unemployment of particular classes of labour, the post-war period was one of the greatest periods of growth in history. While it was bad in an immediate sense for the workers in these industries, it was good in general for the working class as productivity was high and growing and unemployment remained low into the 1970s.

The increase in automation by itself does not necessarily lead to problems for capitalism. It can create "growing pains" when large numbers of workers are thrown out of productive employment. While the productive capacity per worker increases, the profits require that there are consumers of the goods produced. Automation can continue as long as new markets are available. If unemployment due to automation spreads generally, however, there is a crisis.


The greatest impediment to the stability of growth in the system, however, has to do with the interaction of these two elements. Modern automation is not exactly like the automation of the past. Modern automation is highly computerised and in ever-greater reliance on knowledge as a fundamental component of the means of production. Modern computerised mills, for instance, are very generic, requiring only a CAD (Computer Assisted Design) schematic in order to directly produce something as complex as a Geneva Moment (a very sophisticated gear assembly). Engines are assured to be within tolerances not by inspection by expert engineers but by robots assisted by laser assemblies capable of much greater coverage and precision. In the past cloth which was cut by hand for garments is now cut by robotically controlled lasers. For each of these, a new design requires little more than a schematic with a bit of supervision and testing. One can imagine that it is not long before this supervision recedes into irrelevance.

Automation can now spread more rapidly and more generally using the more general purpose tools of robotics and knowledge production efforts for software and patterns which radically increases its flexibility. Whereas the automated looms of the past required supervision and only created a textile, the current trend in automation threatens to take even very skilled jobs. The trend will not stop with manual labour. Indeed middle class service sector jobs are also being replaced. The bank teller used to be ubiquitous but the ATM has replaced her. Store clerks are being automated away by self-checkout. Manual stocking is being replaced by RFID tracked robotic stocking. How long is it before knowledge warehousing jobs such as tech-support will be automated by natural language query interfaces? Odds are good that this will happen within a generation.

The crux of the change is not simply the fact of automation itself. It is the flexibility of automation which allows innovation with information technologies to be immediately realised as new components to a commodity. What Marxists sometimes call “Deptartment I” production, that is production of commodities used by capitalists in production of commodities, is becoming increasingly dominated by designs and software, rather than the more concrete inputs of the past. Whereas in the 1950s a new commodity would require substantial changes to large and expensive fixed capital to automate a new process, it is now possible to simply change the software or the data which drives the software.

A fundamental contradiction

This meteoric growth in automation and the general economic dependence on knowledge production generates a calamitous contradiction. Knowledge itself is not a commodity. We are merely attempting to make it look like one.

Commodities are those goods which can be produced by the investment of capital to obtain some profit at the end of the production cycle by sale for a greater amount of money than went into the constituent input commodities and labour. This requires that the goods exhibit a scarcity which is limited by production. Air is not a commodity (yet) because its production simply requires breathing and as such it is difficult to sell*. By contrast, the light from street lamps is not charged for; not because it requires no productive effort, indeed it does, but rather because it is not scarce once produced. Such goods are called public non-rival goods.

Commodities really need to be private rival goods in order to serve their role of enabling profits. While in the past, knowledge in the form of books could simulate a commodity, if with some difficulty, by limiting the reproduction to relatively expensive printing presses. However, modern digital knowledge is almost a perfect non-commodity. A film costing 100 million to produce can be copied in a tiny amount of time for a tiny fraction of a cent. Once knowledge has been produced it is almost trivially possible to copy it.

We have been attempting to make knowledge look like a commodity with the use of copyright and patents. Both of these are legal means backed up with threats from the State of fines, or, likely soon, incarceration. Copyright is growing in influence and duration. There is an informal law known as the “Mickey Mouse” rule that copyright duration will always be extended to ensure that Disney has control of Mikey mouse. The rule has held thus far. Patents are also growing in their scope. They are now even being applied to mathematics itself [8].

However there are new legal trends emerging. Reverse engineering, the process of how something is done, even if not patented, is illegal in some circumstances. DRM, euphemistically known as Digital Rights Management, but which is really a strait jacket designed to decrease the usability of your knowledge by making it act as if it exhibits scarcity, has required that looking at how things are made is illegal. The reason for these legal changes is that it is technically impossible for those with access to general computation to be thwarted from sharing information provided for this general computation platform. This has led us to a new war: the war on general computation itself. Prophetically, Richard M. Stallman predicted this in a dystopian short story in 1997. At the time it was regarded by some as paranoid speculative fiction. Now we have seen the first shots fired in this war.

All of these legal forays have not yet deterred people from making use of what is not scarce. While a surprisingly wide demographic views so-called "piracy" with as much of a stigma as haircuts, teenagers are exceptionally tolerant. Fewer than 1 in 10 teenagers believe that music piracy is morally wrong [1]. The youth of this generation are growing up in a world where information is viewed as equally ubiquitous and undeserving of charge as air itself.

Capitalism requires that capital be invested for profit in order to produce commodities. Commodities require scarcity or it is impossible to charge for them. If things are not commodities we cannot invest money in their production. Such is our present conundrum.

The liberal and technological savvy spectrum of commentators has widely stated that piracy is not a fundamental problem for the production of software, music, films or really anywhere else. They have advocated for loose or non-existent patents, copyright or DRM laws and called for the unshackling of the internet. While I believe them to be on the clearly correct side of the information war, they are completely wrong in their analysis. The analysis of the right-wing and the major content producers such as publishers, software companies, record companies and film producers are all correct. The unshackling of information will lead to certain disaster for the profit motive in knowledge production.

There really are only two choices before us. There is one world in which we save the value of goods. In this world we will need to force knowledge to act like a commodity. We must bring down ever greater State coercion in fines, seizure, imprisonment, censorship etc. We will need to generously expand the security State apparatus in policing this. We will need to generously expand the judicial apparatus of lawyers and judges in adjudicating it. We will need to generously expand the state bureaucracy in order to recommend correctives.

There is another world where we abandon the profit motive and turn to a system of production which does not require it. In this world information is widely available and enjoyed. The production of information is instantly available to any who would enjoy its utility. Real goods grow in diversity and their accessible quantity. Creativity is no longer horded but can be shared synergistically.

The only reason that anyone could sensibly argue for the first world over the second world is if they are already tremendously wealthy, or they don't believe the second world can exist. Since there is no point in convincing the former, It would be better to challenge the notion that the second cannot exist. While I have in mind some ways in which this second "utopian" world could be constructed, I think that even if I did not, the former world is so dystopian that any sane person would need to look long and hard to find an alternative before simply accepting it.

* Unless it compressed but that requires productive effort and compressed air is scarce.

[1] The Barna Group, Ltd. Study on Music Piracy

[2] DataMonitor - Abstract from Global Software Industry Guide - 2008

[3] Chinese Film Industry Races Close to Bollywood - Times of India

[4] Mary Meeker: Web 2.0 presentation

[5] Mary Meeker says the web does not revolve around the USA any longer

[6] Twist their robot arm: Foxconn automation plan a forced gamble

[7] Forging America - Ironworkers, Adventurers, and the Industrious Revolution, 2003.

[8] Appeals court says only complicated math is patentable, Ars Technica

Friday, December 23, 2011

Insurrection and the Holiday Season - From Hanukkah to the birth of Christianity

Hanukkah is a rather well known Jewish holiday; however, it is less well known that Hanukkah is not an important religious holiday. Instead it gained prominence in Europe due to its proximity to Christmas, a holiday which similarly was promoted as an alternative to earlier pagan mid-winter solstice holidays. It does however have a lineal relationship with the Christian tradition.

Hanukkah is a celebration of a nationalist insurrection against the Seleucid Empire in around 166BC, known as the revolt of the Maccabees. The revolt started as a response to the perceived Hellenisation of Jewish culture under the Seleucid empire, a Greek-Macedonian state, and was initially quite conservative. However, it often happens in the course of revolutions that the population’s realisation of power can have lasting consequences. In the case of the Maccabees, what had started as a radical cultural conservatism led to a new Jewish anti-clerical movement known as the Pharisees.

The Pharisees were a movement, a political party, and even a schismatic church. In traditional Judaism, overseen by the Sadducees observance of the religious law and the various religious functions was carried out by a priest class. Membership of this class was inherited - supposedly populated by the sons of Aaron, a character described in Exodus. By contrast the Pharisees were the more literate exponents of the Judean proletariat and did not have official status.

The Maccabees were eventually successful in displacing Hellenic influence and establishing the Hasmonean dynasty (during which much of the codification of the Old Testament is assumed to have taken place). It is this success which is celebrated during Hanukkah, with the Menorah representing the eight nights for which a signal lamp miraculously burned with only one day’s worth of oil. This success and the need of the revolution to have broad popular support cemented the importance of the Pharisees all the way up to the early part of the first century CE, which saw the birth of Christianity.

The Pharisees were a rabbinic tradition (rabbi meaning teacher), and as such there was much interest in discourse and debate about the correct observance of the scriptures and theology in general. In addition, Hellenic culture had introduced many new theological ideas and knowledge of other social structures. The Pharisees saw themselves as existing in opposition to the Sadducees, who had a relatively simple answer to the question of correct interpretation; namely that interpretation was performed by the priestly caste. The Pharisees, however, adopted much of what had formerly only been thought to apply to the priest caste, particularly the observance of various rituals of purity and observance which before had not been adopted by the general population.

Roman Rule and Jewish Resistance

Judea became a protectorate of Rome in 63 BC. They were allowed to retain their King and religious laws restricting their administration to taxation policy and trade law. With the Pharisees opening the door to non-priestly interpretation, together with the influx of new cultural ideas from both Hellenic and Roman rule, we see the formation of many new theological and social movements. Significant among these are the Zealots and the even more radical Sicarii.

The Zealots come out of the Pharisaic tradition, but were much less tame. They were willing to employ violent means towards their aims of liberation from Roman rule. This included everything from insurrection to the expropriation of capital from the priest caste and their supporters. It is very probable that early Christianity found its supporters largely from the Zealots. In the book of Luke, for example, we hear that Simon was a Zealot. [1]

Although much of the New Testament is devoted to polemics against the Pharisees, this is not so much because the Pharisees were the greatest perceived enemy, but because they were the portion of society which was viewed as most in need of convincing by the more radical groups. It is probably more sensible to view the criticism as attempts to move the mass of society to a more radical position. In Luke we hear: "Damn you, Pharisees! You pay tithes on mint and rue and every herb, but neglect justice and the love of God. You should have attended to the last without neglecting the first.” [1]

According to the New Testament, Capernaum in Galilee was the base of operations for Jesus. This is significant as it was only several miles from Gamla, which was rife with Zealot insurgents. The belief in Messianic assistance was widespread amongst the Zealots. Many thought that some Messiah, though most often not a divine one, would assist in overthrowing Roman rule.

Perhaps the most extreme of the religious groups was known as the Sicari. The Sicarii's major base of operations was Galilee. The historian Hayim Ben-Sasson stated that the Sicarii "were fighting for a social revolution, while the Jerusalem Zealots placed less stress on the social aspect". [2] He also states that the Sicarii "never attached themselves to one particular family and never proclaimed any of their leaders king". Some scholars have contended that Judas Iscariot was himself a Sicarii although there are debates on which period the Sicarii became significant in.

The New Testament - A Contested History

The historical accuracy of portions of the New Testament is very hard to establish. It took quite a while for the New Testament canon to be assembled; dating of authorship is spread over a fairly large period and we have good evidence that some parts of the New Testament are likely to have been inserted at a later date. Many of the individuals in the New Testament might be allegorical. For instance, some scholars contend that Judas Iscariot means "Jew from the township". Suffice it to say that a conclusive determination is impossible, but some of the interpretations are interesting.

Based on the associations with the Zealots and Sicarii and some information from the New Testament itself, some scholars believe that Christianity may have been far more insurrectionary than the portrait we now find. Among the various quotes from the New Testament that point to a possible insurrectionary history is the famous quote of Jesus from Matthew 10:34: "I come not to bring peace, but to bring a sword". In Luke he says: "But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don't have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one." Also in Luke we hear Jesus proclaim: "I came to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already ablaze." [1]

Just as the Zealots were not averse to the expropriation of capital, we also see vestiges of class war in the New Testament. In Luke again we find "Damn you rich! You already have your consolation. Damn you who are well-fed now! You will know hunger. Damn you who laugh now! You will learn to weep and grieve. Damn you when everybody speaks well of you! Recall that their ancestors treated the phony prophets the same way. " [1]

Although these quotes come from the canonical gospels, they are viewed by the majority of biblical scholars as being from the Q Manuscript, which is believed to have been one of the common sources for Matthew and Luke. Q would have been a radical gospel indeed, even if it was more meek than some of the radical ideas which would have been circulating around Galilee at the time. The modern polite and obsequious versions of Christianity are at least partially the result of alterations by Hellenic and Roman Christians in later years and many of those changes would have been quite conservative.

It is clear that the religions of Christianity and modern Judaism actually arose in the crucible of insurrection, even if their current forms have been moulded to buttress established power structures. Perhaps the "reason for the season" should have less to do with pious proclamations of spirituality and financial over-extension and more to do with radical change and disruptive opposition to injustice.

[1] The complete Gospels, Robert J. Miller, Editor, Polebridge Press, 1992
[2] History of the Jewish People, Hayim Ben-Sasson, Harvard University Press, 1985

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Risks of Nuclear

The recent explosion and now likely meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant run by TEPCO has generated a lot of press and re-sparked the debate on nuclear safety. This is an especially important discussion in the present period as many countries throughout the world are currently assessing which potential alternatives to natural gas can serve as feasible replacements.

The current reactor design is a BWR-type reactor which uses light water as a coolant. While it share some basic features with the notorious Chernobyl RMBK plant, it also has important differences. In addition to the RMBK's many mis-features which lead to the famous accident, RMBK also suffered from an almost complete lack of passive safety systems. It even lacked a primary containment vessel for the reactor. When it exploded it shot flaming graphite and radioactive products into the atmosphere which spread over a wide area - a seriously catastrophic event.

Because of the existence of a primary containment vessel, under normal conditions the design at Fukushima should keep even a complete meltdown from causing a serious radiation danger to the public, much in the same way the Three Mile Island reactor was able to do. However, the conditions that the reactor has so far encountered are not particularly normal. After a 9.0 earthquake, it's very difficult to be sure if your design is going to act in the way you intended.

Which leads us to the primary difficulty which has plagued the Fukushima reactor. The reactor design relies critically on an active coolant system. I have read in several places where people have wondered why the reactor wasn't scrammed (scramming means implementing emergency shutdown procedures). In fact it was scrammed. The problem is that it takes a long time to cool down. During this entire cool-off period, one needs to be flowing coolant past the core to avoid a meltdown. Unfortunately the pump system were unable to function because of a failure to power them. Without coolant the core melts and the problem becomes much more complicated and dangerous. In the worse case a complete liquification of the core could even lead to a return to criticality. This would be similar to the reactor core turning back on, except this time without the designed geometry. Essentially an uncontrolled and very difficult to control reactor. If this happens, things become much more complicated and dangerous.

The assessment of safety for the Fukushima units was based on the idea that redundancy would provide sufficient safety. However, they neglected to calculate the risk of some event in which both causes were common - that the same cause of electrical failure would also knock out the generators.

A passive safety coolant system should likely have been a requirement for any reactor design as this event shows. Reactors such as the Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor would not have been affected by a generator failure and would have been able to provide passive cooling for the period needed to cool the core to avoid meltdown. This would presumably lead to a greater margin of safety.

However, we should still wonder whether or not if it would be safe enough. The fact that some coolant failure could lead to a meltdown and consequently a return to criticality should give pause. A worse case scenario becomes very bad indeed.

There are many questions that are necessary to contemplate in evaluating the safety of various technologies. Nuclear designs as they currently stand, are somewhat peculiar compared to most of our other fuel technologies. Nuclear designs, have, per TWh proved to be extremely safe as compares other power generation technologies such as natural Gas. In Europe, nuclear is on the order of between 10 and 1000 times safer* in count of number of deaths per TWh from all causes than natural gas.

Should we count Chernobyl into our calculations? How do we assess risk from cataclysmic events? The assessment of risk from low probability but potentially massive events is very difficult. Very low risks are very difficult to measure accurately since their frequency is so low that our estimates tend be dominated by guesses.

In addition we need to compare the safety against other replacement technologies, or the possibilities of abandoning the technologies niche itself. In the case of nuclear power, this would be a search for baseload power replacements.

When we begin to look at technologies in comparison we find that even in this tragic and improbable event in Japan natural gas has itself not been free from problems. Many people in Japan were incinerated from natural gas explosions. There were also 1800 homes washed away by a dam failure. It's not clear how many died from that, but the number is likely to be very substantial. Which energy source turns out to be more deadly under such extreme conditions will have to wait until after the scale of the nuclear threat is fully understood.

Yet the nuclear power systems continue to drive more public fear. Some of this may have to do with the difficulty of providing an accurate risk assessment leaving us to guess exactly how bad things can get. When people look to the nuclear experts for opinion the best they can seem to do is say something along the lines of: We expect it will not be as bad as Chernobyl. Such statements are hardly very reassuring.

The character of the particular technology itself is not irrelevant in our calculations. To take a rather less charged subject than nuclear power we can instead turn to the question of Hydro power. Hydro power deaths per TWh if taken in summation over the entire world turns out to be one of the worst offending technologies. Worse than even natural gas or coal. However, almost all of the problems with hydro occurred in impoverished third world countries. A single catastrophe in 1975 at the Banqiao Dam in China left over 20,000 dead directly from drowning and somewhere around 100,000 dead from famine and disease.

No such legacy haunts Europe's dams. They have proved to be both safe and stable and hydro power in Europe deaths per TWh is effectively zero if we exclude eastern Europe. A similar truth holds for nuclear power.

Now we can perhaps say that large dams in Europe should be avoided on the off chance that some Typhoon or Earthquake hits - an event that while it may seem improbable - is not impossible. Since the potential death tolls would be tremendous, it's not totally unreasonable to overestimate the probability in order to provide some buffer of safety for ourselves.

However, this same reasoning should not cause us to avoid micro hydro power, since the possibility of massive disasters from a small water turbine is impossible to imagine (though some deaths would not be impossible). Similarly, it should not be the case that we reject all nuclear power based on specific applications of the technology in specific circumstances. The evaluations of the worst case scenarios need to be made on the basis of the implementation.

In order to understand nuclear safety, or the lack thereof, it helps to go back a bit in time to the creation of the US nuclear programme to see why we have the reactors that we do.

Light water reactors are not by any means the only type of reactor. During the course of development there were a large range of reactors which were tested. The number of types now in operation is much less diverse than when nuclear power was in its infancy.

One might suppose that this was because we have settled on what are effectively the most safe and reliable nuclear reactors with the best characteristics. Unfortunately, to assume this would be to assume wrongly.

The development of nuclear power has been closely coupled with the desire to develop nuclear weapons. Without understanding this fact it's impossible to understand the direction of nuclear development.

Several designs for nuclear reactors, including one of the first, the AHR (Aqueous Homogeneous Reactor) and a later design based on similar ideas, the MSR (Molten Salt Reactor) were dropped despite the fact that they had achieved similar potential viability as a comercial reactor technology to the now popular LWR (Light Water Reactors). Some of these designs were considered so safe that universities were given licenses to operate them for the generation of isotopes or neutron flux for experiments.

These reactors had many potential advantages including intrinsic passive safety features. They allowed designs ranging from the truly tiny, around .05MW up to large scale reactors, around 1GW. These designs allowed cheaper fuel production, since they used a fuel slurry, liquid or aqueous suspension, rather than complicated metal cladded fuel pellets. Most surprisingly, they also allowed arbitrarily high burnup of the nuclear fuel.

In a standard LWR, one can expect somewhere around 5% of the fissile material to be used. In some of the most sophisticated high temperature reactors that have been operated, solid core configurations can reach 20%. The end result of these low burnups are high production of waste, and low efficiency in the use of fuel. If you can exceed 99% then you are potentially producing very little waste.

Liquid reactors are also able to evacuate Xenon 135 by bubbling it out of the core. The Chernobyl accident was exacerbated by a lack of primary containment. However, the initial instability was due to a build up a of the neutron poison, Xe-135. This element stops neutrons in the chain reaction as its absorption profile is enormous compared to anything else. Nuclear fission can cause a buildup in a solid fuel leading to a sudden drop in neutrons. However, when the Xe-135 decays one can find a sudden return to neutrons and a consequent heating of the reactor. Xe-135 is a major difficulty in the operation of solid fuel reactors, since they are not able to evacuate it, but must wait for decay.

If that weren't enough, these reactor types could also use Thorium as a fuel. Thorium is much more prevalent in the Earth's crust than Uranium and much more evenly distributed

So why didn't the Atomic Energy Commission forge ahead with these reactor designs? As Kirschenbaum, who worked on the AHR, related, the design was rejected already in 1944 when they realised it would not produce Plutonium as quickly as the AEC wanted. The use of Thorium turns out to have been scratched for similar reasons. There is no good production pathway for Plutonium from Thorium.

The AEC was dedicated, not to finding the most efficient fuel source as the "Atoms for Peace" moniker might lead one falsely to believe, but was interested in the production of weapons grade plutonium. As such it was completely dedicated to the "Plutonium economy", which included an array of LWRs and fast breeder reactors which would allow the production of large quantities for the nuclear weapons program. LWRs were to become dominant despite their lack of inherent safety features.

During the 1960s, one of the great nuclear scientists, and lifelong proponent of nuclear power, Alvin Weinberg, was asked by the AEC to do safety assessments of LWR type reactors. What Weinberg and his team found in their assessments caused them some distress. The LWR designs indeed had very serious safety deficiencies. Weinberg then began attempting to warn the industry and the AEC about the shortcomings in the designs.

Eventually, Weinberg was sidelined. US Senator Chet Holifield, a proponent of the "Plutonium Economy", famously said: "Alvin, if you are concerned about the safety of reactors, then I think it might be time for you to leave nuclear energy."

Whether or not nuclear power should take centre stage, be a bit player, or not even make the cut is a question that can't be answered easily. As for myself, I'm sympathetic towards nuclear power as a fuel source for a world that will need ever more energy. The question of course, requires a careful evaluation of the options and the associated costs of these options.

In the last analysis however, more important even than this careful analysis of our options, are the following two points:

There is only one all important factor in which energy source we use, and that is humans. It isn't how much the plant cost and it isn't about the strict conversion efficiencies of thermal energy to electric or any other such technical parameter. It simply matters if it will improve or disimprove our lives compared to not using it.

Lastly, what makes the most sense from this perspective is irrelevant if we haven't the power to make it happen. As we see clearly with the choice to develop LWR technology, those with the power call the shots. If we want the over-riding important factor to be how things impact people, the people are going to need a lot more power.

* Figures for deaths per TWh are from ExternE, and modified to include some of the most pessimistic estimates for Chernobyl

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Knowledge Production as a Public Good

Recently, I've read through a number of proposals regarding systematic attempts to allocate labour in a post-capitalist society. Most of these share the common feature that they don't attempt to look in detail at true public goods. With a knowledge economy that is becoming an extremely large part of our overall productivity, I think this is an oversight which should be corrected.

In addition, there is a belief by many that open-source approaches can directly solve the problem even within a capitalist system. However, open-source suffers from a number of deficiencies. It does not demonstrate the ability to support the labour of people involved by providing them with livelihoods. It fails at providing necessary resources in the case of more capital intensive knowledge production, for instance chemistry, genetics, hardware manufacture or even cinema. It also is weak at signaling when labour is widely desired. This leads to a tendency to be hobbyist focused, being as it is only supported as a recreation, and not focused on providing the greatest public good.

A perfect public good is non-rival and non-excludable. A non-rival good means I can use it, and you can use it and neither of us experience any loss at the others use. Television and radio are examples of perfect non-rival goods. Internet tends towards being an imperfect, as do roads etc. Non-excludable means that it's not possible to keep you from using it. Street lights [1] are good examples of something which is very hard to exclude people from using. Knowledge naturally fits into this category provided we drop things like copyright and patent. Copyright and patent are designed in order to make a non-rival good appear to be a rival good by generating exclusion through the use of legal force.

In terms of efficiency the use of exclusionary force is purely a drag on the efficiency of the entire system. The drag on efficiency is partly due to the fact that it requires labour for enforcement - a judicial system, legal teams, police, methods of tracking use, incarceration or the levying of fines, the generation of DRM technologies, including software and specialised hardware - all of which do nothing useful (in fact they have negative use-value). In addition this enforcement has the extremely deleterious effect of reducing the free spread of useful information and concepts which can make production processes more efficient. In software and hardware there are huge levels of redundancy of research and "clean-room" designs done for no other purpose than to avoid patent suits. A new more efficient process will be kept intentionally limited in application in order to derive monopoly rents. Just looking at the list puts me in awe at the absurd inefficiencies of the capitalist system.

It's much more sensible in a post-capitalist society to treat these goods very differently. Since there is no (sensible) rivalry it doesn't make sense to try and charge some price for it. Still, in the immediate future it's not going to be possible for everyone to devote all their labour time to poetry or films. If these types of knowledge production draw voluntary labour to an extent that other basic goods production is not taking place, we need some way to see that this is happening.

Even if all labour were allocated voluntarily it would be exceedingly useful to see where labour was most appreciated to society - so unless we really and truly get to a post-scarcity society - it makes sense to worry about this.

The amount of resources that should be allocated for a piece of software, film, research and development or some other information based good is insanely hard to calculate. It requires knowing its labour cost, divide total popularity over all time - which is essentially impossible. We can however guess that the labour equivalent for a Michael Jackson song should probably be a microsecond of labour devoted from each of Michael's fan base. However, at the time of production it's entirely impossible to know this, since there is no way to know the amount of labour society would eventually like to devote. Indeed as time passes Michael Jackson's music may not reduce in popularity. Perhaps even more extreme, what value would we assign towards Newton's research into forces in physics?

If we want these sorts of endeavours to be supported beyond recreational labour and easily acquired resources*, then it makes sense to fund them socially. Past performance is no guarantee of future success, but it is some indicator. Social allocation could be described by looking at such performance.

Publicly funded information production is often done in a very monolithic fashion (but then so is private funding of films and bands in the main part). However, this need not be the case. The National Science Foundation for instance gives out grants to various institutions on the basis of evaluated past performance. It is conceivable that we could structure such an arts council and software council to do likewise.

The allocation of public funding itself might not be dictated by a board of experts as done with the NSF. It might be a delegated ministry of art/software etc, or it might even be possible to have a vote style infrastructure - which would allow people to describe the amount of their socially devoted production that should be alloted to various social goods.

The output of such an enterprise would not have to be policed in terms of consumption, but would literally be free access. By doing so it should be easier to institute methods of tracking the consumption as there is little incentive to avoid doing so. A post-capitalist youtube for instance would give good information about the number and multiplicity of views of a music video. Though it's impossible to account perfectly, and there are ways at avoidance of such, there is little incentive on the part of consumers to do so.

Because resources for institutions would be in some way tied to a reputation based on consumption, there *would* be some incentive for individuals who wanted to inflate their social importance to mislead. However, since there is no longer any reason for public funding of infrastructure like cinemas, youtube, or software repositories to have any connection with the content producers themselves, it's likely that it would be institutionally difficult to do so.

It's important to remember that individuals would be seeking the resources for necessary capital infrastructure and labour time, not pursuing actual profit. The profit motive wouldn't be a driving motivation in this scenario, even if it would likely drive certain individuals towards the reproduction of their status as reliable producers.

There are many possible ways of arranging knowledge production more cooperatively that could be explored as long as we keep in mind some basic facts:

1) Public goods are very difficult to value accurately even in a system of perfect information as they require knowledge from the future. Therefor no systematic approach is going to be perfect.

2) Public goods should not be treated like other rival-goods in almost any conceivable system of accounting. We should not create rival goods from non-rival goods by wasting resources simply so that they look like other goods.

When we work with knowledge, we should keep in mind that the model needs to be cut to fit the reality rather than the reverse.

* Think of the amount of time and physical resources devoted to Avatar or Water World for instance, and you can see the difficulty of arranging some types of knowledge production on an entirely ad hoc basis.

[1] Street Lamps were mentioned as a non-excludable public good by César De Paepe in his arguments with the Proudhonists.