Archive for August, 2010

The Human Conquest of Nature: Progress, Science & Socialism

August 20, 2010

As Socialists we spend the majority of our political time studying and campaigning around the class relationships of society, the state and the global economic system. Simply phrased we study humanities relationship with each other and our economic, cultural and sociological creations. So overwhelming are these relationships and conflicts, both to everyday life and to the task of building Socialism, that it is rare for us to consider a wider question: humanities relationship to nature and the wider world.

When I say nature, I do not just mean the environment and the ‘eco-politics’ of climate change, instead I refer to more fundamental questions which humans have instinctively striven to answer from the earliest days of our evolution. What is humanities relationship with the forces of nature, the planet, the soil, and the animals? How does mankind, in this urban age of metropolis cites and mass consumerism, relate to the natural struggle of daily survival? Has nature been conquered, and if not should it be?

While it is seldom mentioned directly our relationship to nature is a deeply political question which almost all political traditions draw from. In Europe, the Middle East and other areas historically dominated by the religions of Abraham, especially Christianity, mankind is seen as a higher form of life, separated by God from the animals and created in his image to rule over the earth. Such a view is the traditional ground of the conservative right, yet the far-right, specifically the racial theory fascists of Nazi Germany took much the opposite position. Joseph Gobbels’ propaganda machine routinely exulted species of animals which appeared to mimic traits which fitted Nazi ideas for society. In parallel with the virtues of nature, this crude social Darwinian concept of superficially applying the laws of nature to 20th century society gave ideological and pseudo-scientific backing to genocide and racially motivated mass murder of those considered ‘sub-human’.

In contrast elements of the liberal left and some of the eco-socialist tradition, that is to say the non orthodox Marxist left, argue that far from being separate from the animals, humanity should seek to live in harmony with nature and its laws, not to control it. Ecological disasters ranging from climate change to pollution, resource depletion and over population are, they claim, a result of humanities disregard for nature, our wanton attempt to control it and our failing to live in harmony with it. The solutions proposed such as curtailing economic growth or dramatically cutting carbon emissions, call for a ‘backwards’ step to a preindustrial society, heralding back philosophically to the pre-Christian nature religions of paganism where humans took their place within nature, rather than attempting to live without or outside of it.  

Marxism, as a political discipline born out of 19th century modernist Europe, also addresses these question, and while its conclusion is stark, and possibly anathema to the eco-liberals, if understood correctly it is inspiring. The very development of society and the domination of nature are intrinsically linked and are both essential preconditions for the survival and progress of mankind.

Such a position is easily misunderstood and indeed orthodox Marxists are often portrayed as being at loggerheads with the green movement, but it is a position born out of the context and historical roots of Marxism.

Marxism is a political philosophy of modernity, meaning that it is an ideology developed from the ideas of the renaissance and the enlightenment, founded on the principles of logic, reason and intellectual illumination.

The central tenant of all modernist thinking is that of ‘progress’, that as society has historically advanced a clear arc of development can be traced, from the first caveman to strike flint for fire, to the first fire engine rushing to extinguish a blaze, human history has been the story of scientific and technological progress.

This technological progress is, early Marxist reasoned, inherently linked to our relationship with nature.  While Karl Marx did not write extensively about environmental issues, he did write about mankind’s relationship with nature through technology, particularly in regard to agriculture and humanities attempt to extract and live off of nature.

In Grundrisse, Marx summarized humanities most fundamental relationship with nature, arguing that humans live both ‘in’ and ‘against’ nature. Clearly, Marx reasoned, we each live in the natural world, but from hunter gathering societies of pre-antiquity to the industrial agriculture of modern times humans have sought to use technology to transform and overcome nature in order to survive. As Marx put it, ‘technology discloses man’s mode of dealing with nature’.

To Marx, who further developed these ideas in Das Kapital, mankind’s relationship to nature is a material question. Man is driven to transform nature, to increase the yield of land or domesticate animals, as a means to survival. Indeed it is man’s ability to do this which truly separates him from wild animals. 

This understanding can be traced to the philosophy of Hegel, who said: “As soon as he has to produce, man possesses the resolve to use a part of the available natural objects directly as a means of labour and subsumes them under his activity without further process of mediation.’ And: ‘Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified.’

The view developed by modernist thinkers is clear, society will continue to develop, humanity will move forward and as society progresses we will continue to witness an uninterrupted advance of both science, technology and the domination of nature.

In the post-modern age it is fashionable to question the cherished position that science has often held in an increasingly secular society, yet for the most perfect example of ‘progress’ we need look only at health care. Our recent ancestors died of ailments which can now be cured from a simple visit to a GP or a supermarket pharmacy and no doubt our decedents will look back in wonderment that we ever suffered from the common cold, or perhaps even cancer.

Of course the progress of science and technology, even to the most fundamentalist of modernists, does not always equate to a positive outcome for humanity let alone nature. No doubt a critic would point to the advent of the Atomic bomb, a previously unimaginable leap forward for science. However, it was an advance which brought nothing but radioactive death to the residents of Hiroshima and Nagaski. Such critics would correctly point out that just as health care and our species’ ability to cure has developed, so has our capability to kill and destroy. This is of course true, but as socialists we must argue that this is not because science, technology and or the concept of progress are intrinsically harmful to either mankind or nature, but rather it is because of who and what is driving humanities push forward.  

Under our current system of capitalism progress and the conquest of nature have been achieved only at the expense of both man and nature. When discussing feminism I often say that patriarchy is a system which hurts most men and nearly all women, and so it is with capitalism and nature. So long as capitalism is maintained as the driver of progress it will always be a system where the elite minority rules to the cost of most of humanity and the entire natural world.

In Kapital Marx covered this fundamental point about man’s modern relationship to nature being determined by production, and thus capitalist exploitation, by saying:

“Progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is the process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth—the soil and the labourer.”

This is a key point for Marxists: ecological problems such as climate change, or over population, mass extinctions and resource depletion are not problems caused simply by mankind’s attempt to intervene and control nature, but are caused by specific ways of dealing with nature. Specifically the capitalist desire to put profit and the interests of capital before human wellbeing or the environment.

The very notion of mankind’s domination over nature, the so called ‘Promethean attitude’ is both contentious and unfashionable today, especially, among some sections of the ‘green’ liberal left who reject modernist thinking for the more fashionable post-modernism.   

Reiner Grundmann argued in the early 90’s: “Greens dismiss the Promethean attitude towards nature as the cause of all evil, and plead for a new, harmonious relationship with nature. They favour a re-enchantment of the world and the development of an ecological ethics.

Some extreme ecological fundamentalists even argue for a radical break with the modern approach towards nature, a return to modes of a ‘simpler life’. Even granted that such a jump backwards might be possible (which I deny) or desirable (which I leave open), it would cause considerable social tensions that might outweigh by far the hypothetical ‘gains’ of an ecologically ‘embedded’ life.”

In defense of the modernist, and thus the Marxist, position it must be said that ‘domination over nature,’ is not the same as destroying nature. Written by a 19th century pen the phrase is as misunderstood by modern readers as is that classical line “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which is so often followed with a hasty explanation any time it is mentioned.

As Grundmann also points out the phrase ‘domination over nature’ in a modernist sense ‘denotes nothing more than conscious control’. Just as ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ merely means the rule of the working class rather the rule of the capitalist elite, so ‘domination of nature’  has the innocent meaning that you may apply to describe mastering a musician instrument or a form of art. To cite Grundmann one final time: “It is in this sense that we have to understand the domination of nature. It does not mean that one behaves in a reckless fashion towards it, any more than we suggest that a masterly player dominates her instrument (say a violin) when she hits it with a hammer.”

So, it has been established that modernist thinkers, especially orthodox Marxists, understand that the domination of nature is inherently linked to the concept of progress and technological advancement. It has also been established that while capitalism’s treatment of the natural world results in ecological disaster the idea of domination over nature does not inevitably mean reckless destruction. The question to ask now is even more fundamental: Is human domination over nature desirable or even necessary in the 21st century, and how would this be realized under Socialism?

Nature, as Charles Darwin saw it, is beautiful but cruel. Each living species has evolved through many millennia of natural selection with one sole purpose: to survive. Marx wrote that the history of the world hitherto is a history of class struggle and just as truthfully we can say the history of the natural world hitherto is a history of the struggle for survival.

The key difference between mankind and animal-kind is that rather than simply evolving to compete and contest with rival species and predators in the way our primate relatives still do, we have challenged the very laws of nature itself. From the moment that humans turned away from hunter gathering towards agriculture and the primitive communist societies of pre-history we were taking the first steps towards transforming, refashioning and dominating the natural world around us.

Scientists of evolution and historians of pre-civilization can point to several reasons why early mankind made the evolutionary leap to becoming a more advanced species. These range from the increased brain capacity of the hominid species to which we belong, to the opposable thumb, but it was the manifestation of these evolutionary advantages by inventing and utilising technology to control nature which truly launched humanities march of progress.

An early example of the fundamental role of technology in early human development can be seen in recent archeological discoveries of our evolutionary ancestor the neanderthals. Neanderthals are often recognised as a sub-species of human Homo. Sapiens, although other scientists argue that while they were closely related to humans they were in fact a species in their own right. Either way neanderthals existed across much of Europe, Africa and the Middle East until 30,000 years ago when they vanished into extinction. However, while they existed they were a humanoid species running both in parallel and in competition with early humans.

While they existed in competition this is not to say it was a conscious competition, although some archeological evidence exists to suggest outbreaks of violence did take place. The overwhelming evidence suggests that Neanderthals coexisted with humans in pre-history, developing their own communities, complete with language and early forms of culture.

This suggests that until 30,000 years ago there existed, alongside humans, a separate species with similar evolutionary advantages over animals, including the opposable thumb and increased brain capacity.  The two species were so alike that the most recent research, published this year in Nature, reveals examples of mass inter-breeding between communities of humans and neanderthals.  A genetic analysis of 2000 people confirmed the traces of neanderthal DNA in humans living today and it is estimated that many modern descendants of Scandinavian or Middle Eastern communities may have a very distant ancient neanderthal relative.

The major difference between the two species was that unlike humans the neanderthals did not step beyond primitive methods of existing and did not show the ability to develop the rudimentary technology that gave ancient humans the edge in the battle for survival, ensuring that in nature’s competition humans flourished while neanderthals were eclipsed into extinction.

The neanderthals were not destroyed by conquest and they were not hunted to extinction like many species of the era. Instead they were either assimilated into the growing human population or else they were unable to adapt to the changing global climate and suffered the same fate as the Wooly Mammoth or the Saber Tooth tiger, while humans adapted, developed and flourished.  I propose that this example reveals the ability to constantly adapt, to innovate and to develop that has been the innate advantage of humanity, allowing the species to survive.

This unique ability became apparent when humans first turned away from the hunter gatherer form of subsistence survival to organised settlements built around agriculture. No other species on earth alters and develops the natural world around them in the way humans do through agriculture. As the previous quotes from Marx and Hegel acknowledged the point of agriculture is not to simply accept what is found in nature, but to increase the yield of the land through intervention and to determine which crops the land provides though systematic planting, growing and land management. Farming also allows humans to subvert animal life to human need, including the domestication of cattle or working animals such as horses and dogs, a characteristic which no other species on earth possesses.  

Coupled with the early methods of farming, which allowed man to at least master elements of nature for sustenance and survival, the establishment of human communities around fertile land drove the foundation of settlements and villages which would grow into towns and cities. Once again the building of settlements, be them villages or metropolis cities with modern infrastructure, shows the human tendency to not only dominate existing nature for sustenance, but to build our own un-natural world, a key component of the domination over the forces of nature which became the very theme of human history, from the first ancient astronomer to the first man in space.

One of the most crucial arguments to be made regarding the human ability to supersede and dominate nature and the natural laws is that it historically predates the existence of capitalism, which is a mere 500 years old. Capitalism, it is often proclaimed, is the driving force for innovation and it must be acknowledged that some of our species finest feats have been accomplished during, if not because of, the capitalist epoch. In the past 500 years the world has witnessed the industrial revolution, the invention of the car, global communications systems and the first humans to enter space. (Although it must be acknowledged that this final feat was accomplished first by the Stalinist USSR.)  Of course, as has already been mentioned the ecological costs of capitalism has been proven to be both devastating and unsustainable meaning that for the first time the mankind’s domination of nature, and the very concept of human progress, has been placed in jeopardy.

Marxists recognise that capitalism is simply a stage of human history, a stage necessary to develop society from feudalism, which in turn developed society from the ancient slave societies of Rome and Greece. However capitalism, like all stages before it, is not the final stage of human society and will be replaced once it is apparent that it can no longer drive society forward. With the ecological disasters of climate change and resource depletion now firmly in the public consciousness can it be denied that capitalism has reached this point?

For Marxists, the next stage of human development must be Socialism. Of course this is in no way inevitable; it is entirely possible that another, as yet unknown, stage could replace capitalism if the conditions for socialism are not built for. There is nothing inevitable about socialism, it requires the conscious mass will of the people. However, this is a separate debate entirely, so let us take a determined leap of faith in humanity and hypothetically say that when capitalism is replaced it will fall at the hands of mass movements of the working class who will begin to construct a new socialist society. The question is: how will the ideas of progress and the domination of nature continue under Socialism?

For Marx the creation of Socialism, or Communism as he referred to the complete accomplishment of a socialist society, will be the self-realisation of mankind.  Without the shackles which have bound mankind though the previous stages of society we will be free to realise our full potential. Marx links the concept of domination of nature to his communist project: for him communism is a state of affairs in which though human self realisation all natural and social conditions are the products of their common conscious control. Communism, therefore, is the culmination of a process of increasing mastery over nature.

The most inspirational thought is this. Consider the truly epic achievements of humans under slavery, feudalism or capitalism, from the building of the pyramids, to curing disease and becoming the first species to leave our own planet, to travel though space and land on the moon. If humans can achieve those herculean feats when bound and shackled, the potential for man’s achievements when truly set free are limitless.

Under a socialist society, which would by its very definition and creation, be the most democratic type of society ever created, the need to create profit will vanish with huge repercussions for science and nature.  In the field of agriculture, which we have demonstrated to be the most fundamental way in which man masters the natural world, a coordinated, democratic plan for production will mean that farmers are no longer economically forced to grow cash crops or manage their farms at the whim of the market. Instead a coordinated plan of sustainable farming, producing for human needs can be adopted.

Directly coupled with this the fields of scientific research will be completely revolutionised. Under capitalism scientific research is only deemed valuable and encouraged if it contributes to capitalism directly though profit or indirectly though areas such as the military. In the field of health care the finest scientific minds are forced to compete against each other by pharmaceutical corporations who, striving to be the first to bring a product to the market, refuse to share research.

Aside from the technological marvels such as flight or the agricultural advancements allowing mankind to sustain itself, the field of healthcare represents the supreme accomplishments of humanity and symbolises the most significant conquest over nature itself.  Diseases and ailments which ravage species in the wild have been vanquished and as society has developed so has our ability to defend ourselves from disease and prolong life itself.  Under socialism scientists would not be forced to compete for profit, but would be able to share research and collaborate in the most open fashion possible, freeing limitless potential to continue to vanquish diseases.

The establishment of socialism will herald the self-realisation of man, unlocking the potential to allow our species to realise total mastery over the forces of nature. Accomplishing this final stage of human society will complete a journey begun the moment we first turned our backs on the dank caves of animalistic pre-history and through endeavor, initiative and the cruel luck of natural selection did the one thing no other species could do, transform our surroundings and challenge nature itself rather than exist at its mercy.

The history of humanity hitherto is a history of progress and scientific discovery, and while we live within nature’s laws we have proven our ability to overcome them, and when our mastery of nature need no longer be at the expense of the majority or ecological disaster, the inspirational possibilities are truly endless.  

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Ben Norman is the Secretary of the Portsmouth branch of the Socialist Party. He is also a professional science writer in the field of Life Science.

Socialists Brutally Attacked After Environment Protest

August 9, 2010

CWI, Moscow, 8 August 2010

Following a week of intensive actions against the attempts of the French company Vinci, supported by the Russian government, to cut down a section of an important forest providing vital green cover for Moscow, particularly in the current heat wave and smog, a group of 15 thugs, at least one of whom was armed with a baseball bat, has attacked three Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) members in Moscow.

[for background reading see also: Hot summer in Moscow – warm autumn likely to follow]

One has had his eyes damaged, another ended up with stitches. The third, Igor Yasin, a leading member of the CWI, has been badly hurt with a broken skull. At the time of writing he had spent an uncomfortable night in hospital where doctors were unable to stop the bleeding and he is currently undergoing an operation.

The attack took place in a most cowardly manner. A successful protest had been held in the centre of Moscow against the attempts to rip out the forest. But the fascists obviously did not want to attack a large group of people. It was two hours later that the three suddenly found their way blocked by these thugs and although Gosha and Ivan managed to get to the nearby Metro for cover, Igor was viscously attacked.

Afterwards the thugs run off shouting “Russia – vpered” – “forward Russia”.

Witnesses report that the thugs were dressed like football fans, in much the same way as those that attacked the camp of the environmentalists defending the Khimkinskii forest at the beginning of the week. Once again the ultra-right thugs have demonstrated that despite all their words about fighting the regime, in reality they are just pathetic marionettes used by the regime and its big business backers to try and frighten political and social activists. They will not succeed.

The Vinci company is a major French construction company, whose website carries several news stories presenting it as a caring and socially responsible company concerned about the safety of its personnel and the environment. Yet it is quite happy to stand by while the Putin’s police regime and these fascist thugs are used to protect their business interests in Russia.

This attack comes at the end of a week of wide scale attacks on Russia’s opposition. At the beginning of the week, the environmentalist camp in Khininskii forest was broken up by a similar group of thugs, during which police looked the other way commenting ‘this is what you get for attacking Putin’. Fifty people were later arrested as they tried to join the environmentalists in solidarity. In St Petersburg over 90 were arrested, and in Moscow another 50 for their attempts to take part in protests to protests at further restrictions, on democratic rights. Individual arrests have also taken place on framed up charges of two young anti fascists and the leader of the environmentalists.

But such attacks will not succeed in stemming the flow of protests that is expected to grow in the autumn as budget cuts begin to bite.

On the contrary, they just show that activists have to step up their struggle.

The CWI in Russia is demanding:

An end to the persecution of protesters and anti fascists

An end to the use by the state and big business of violent thugs against peaceful protesters

An end to the destruction of Russia’s forests and green belts in the interests of big business and the elite

For an open conference of environmental groups, workers’ organisations and residents to draw up a proper plan to tackle the environmental and transport crises in the interests of ordinary people and not big business.

For an end to the Putin-Medvedev police state, to be replaced by a democratically elected government of working people with a socialist programme.

Vestas workers get the last laugh a year later

August 5, 2010

This report was written by Louise Nousratpour and was published in The Morning Star on Sunday 25 July 2010

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Workers who occupied a wind turbine factory which closed with the loss of hundreds of jobs are to open their own business just yards from the site of their former employers.

More than 400 workers on the Isle of Wight lost their jobs when Vestas closed its doors a year ago, sparking an 18-day sit-in at the factory in Newport.

Former Vestas worker Sean McDonagh, who helped organise the protest, has launched the Sureblades company, which will start producing wind turbine blades in September.

Mr McDonagh said on Sunday that he hoped to employ more than 40 ex-Vestas workers within two years and boasted that Sureblades already had a “significant order book.”

He said: “It has been hard work but I always knew it was the right thing to do because it was crazy to lose jobs in the renewable energy industry.”

Mr McDonagh added that unemployment on the Isle of Wight was over 3,500 but there are fewer than 200 job vacancies on the island.

Workers in the new company are members of the RMT union, which has helped with the venture.

The union’s general secretary Bob Crow hailed the initiative, which he said had blown apart the “bogus grounds” put forward by the company at the time of closure that there was no market for British-manufactured turbine blades.

“They have also shown that it is far too easy for companies in the UK to soak up government grants and then just cut and run when it suits them without any meaningful consultation, never mind a ballot of the workforce,” he said.

“The real credit lies with the determination and solidarity of the workers who refused to accept that they were beaten. They are an inspiration.”

With the assistance of RMT officials, Mr McDonagh and his colleagues set up meetings with government officials and development agencies to put together the Sureblades business plan in tandem with local businessman Keith Hounsell.

Micro-turbine blades will be built at the new factory on the same industrial estate as the former Vestas site, with the first order going to a wind energy firm in Ireland