Limits to growth, Third World dependency and Consumerism: Part 2 of ‘Outline on technology and progress’ – a Marxist view (Written by Albert Langer in October 1979)

… it is no task of the “left” to support protectionism and try to retard the integration of the world capitalist market. We can only support “Free Trade”, not oppose it – but in the same revolutionary and critical spirit that Karl Marx did.

* * * *

11. c) Limits to Growth

Depletion of non-renewable resources is another fashionable attempt to find some barrier other than capital itself. The club of Rome’s project, and all derivatives, carry out exactly the same exercise as Malthus in comparing geometric growth of consumption to arithmetic growth of production and drawing tautologous conclusions.

Of course it’s true that any positive rate of growth, no matter how small, must eventually (and in fact quite quickly) exhaust any finite non-renewable resources. But if this spells doom for industrial society, then it should be added that any positive rate of consumption at all even if there is a declining rate instead of growth, must also eventually exhaust any finite non-renewable resources, though it may take longer. The issue is whether “resources” are “finite”. If they are then we are doomed, growth or no growth.

As Ehrlich points out, with any positive rate of population growth, humanity would eventually occupy a volume larger than the planet earth and expanding faster than the speed of light. But what does this actually have to do with the real and pressing problems of the world we really live in?

Again the Liberal answer to these themes is straightforward and irrefutable:

“As an historical fact, the long-term trend has been for the cost of mineral inputs to decline as a proportion of total production costs. Numerous studies of the available statistical data, spanning more than a century, have demonstrated that the tendency during this phase of unprecedented growth in the world economy and in the use of minerals has not been towards scarcity but towards abundance. In the United States the real cost of minerals output was less than one-half the average 1870-1900 level by 1929; and by 1957 it was less than one-half the 1929 level…(ibid p33)

…Such resources may be being ‘used up’, but they are also – and as an integral part of the same process- being ‘created’. It is in the twentieth century that the essential uniformity of energy and matter has been discovered, that the development of new synthetic materials has become almost commonplace, and that technological advance has become virtually continuous, each improvement creating new opportunities for further advance. The extension of knowledge about the world has not only confounded past predictions of resource scarcity but has been in directions which make such predictions less and less defensible as time goes by.” (p39)

Since such predictions are less and less defensible, why are they also more and more popular? It seems clear that the degree of rejection of this “bourgeois optimism” is not related to the degree of one’s knowledge of industrial processes, but to the degree of one’s rejection of modern society. Those who recognise there is a barrier, but do not fully understand the barrier is capital itself, look for that barrier in something else, like “Limits to Growth”.

12. d) Third World Dependency

This theme has been adequately refuted by Bill Warren, who belongs to the Social Democratic rather than purely Liberal trend. As a Social Democrat, Warren tends to defend imperialism, playing down its contradictions in a Kautskyite way opposed to Leninism, although some of this can be excused as iconoclastic shock treatment against the excesses of “dependency theory”. Warren’s refutation of the “radical” conventional wisdom about the Third World is quite crushing and no serious attempt has been made to refute him.

It is a historical fact (not emphasised by Warren) that the development of technology and economic growth has been extremely uneven, with imperialist exploitation of the poor nations by the rich (just as internally too, industrialisation has meant the exploitation of the poor by the rich and polarisation of society).

But it is equally a historical fact (denied by dependency theorists), that imperialism has meant the more rapid spread of capitalist social relations throughout the world and that far from becoming more and more dependent, the backward countries are proceeding very rapidly along the same path of commercialisation and industrialisation that Europe undertook a few hundred years ago.

The world is becoming more polarised, with even imperialist “second world” countries joining the Third World in suffering from superpower exploitation and domination, but it is doing so in the course of a rapid progressive social development – just as the internal polarisation of capitalist societies into a smaller and smaller handful of exploiters (the Rockefellers and such) against a larger and larger proletariat including the ruined middle classes, was also part of a progressive social development.

Lenin’s classic work “The Development of Capitalism in Russia” described this process, which is now taking place in most Third World countries,as it took place in the then backward agrarian and semi-feudal Tsarist Russia. Answering the Narodnik “dependency theorists” of his day: “The Russia of the wooden plough and the flail, of the water-mill and the hand loom, began rapidly to be transformed into the Russia of the iron plough and the threshing machine, of the steam-mill and the power-loom. An equally thorough transformation of technique is seen in every branch of the national economy where capitalist production predominates. This process of transformation must, by the very nature of capitalism, take place in the midst of much that is uneven and disproportionate: periods of prosperity alternate with periods of crisis, the development of one industry leads to the decline of another, there is progress in one aspect of agriculture in one area and in another aspect in another area, the growth of trade and industry outstrips the growth of agriculture, etc. A large number of errors made by Narodnik writers spring from their efforts to prove that this disproportionate, spasmodic, feverish development is not development.” (Collected Works Vol 3, p597)

Precisely because the Third World is industrialising, its importance in world affairs is greatly increasing, to an extent that has not been recognised by most Western “radicals”. This profound social change which is affecting some two thirds of the world’s people is obviously of enormous importance and cannot simply be dismissed.

We have lived through the post-war decolonisation and have only recently experienced the defeat of the USA by Vietnam, as well as the general rise of the Third World in the United Nations. It is quite clear that economic growth and technical progress has not reinforced the conditions for dependence, but has been abolishing the situation which made it possible for backward regions to become colonies or “mandated territories” of the “civilised countries” who bore the “white man’s burden”. “Countries want independence, nations want liberation, and the people want revolution”.

On an international scale, the trans-national corporations are creating and uniting an international proletariat to be their grave diggers, as earlier the bourgeoisie broke down local boundaries and created nations with a national proletariat, In defending national independence and other democratic rights, it is no task of the “left” to support protectionism and try to retard the integration of the world capitalist market. We can only support “Free Trade”, not oppose it – but in the same revolutionary and critical spirit that Karl Marx did.

13. e) Consumerism

Instead of the “old-fashioned” socialist critique, which condemned capitalism, even in England, the richest capitalist country of the time, for holding down the living standards of the masses,we have a “new” critique which condemns it for inundating us with “useless” and “wasteful” products. Although often coupled with moralising lectures about the poverty of people in Third World countries, this is really quite irrelevant to the issue and the “new” theme bears a strong resemblance to the old “barracks communism” of Weitling.

Certainly some quite useless and even harmful products are sold because of advertising and this should be opposed. But people who make “consumerism” their theme are talking about something more fundamental than that, and calling for a far reaching change in Western consumption patterns towards a “simpler” and allegedly more “wholesome” lifestyle based on “necessities” and with less emphasis on “unnecessary” consumer durables, “gadgets”, motor vehicles etc.

It is not clear whether these changes are to be compulsory, with restrictions to prevent people from buying the dishwashers, cars or electric toothbrushes that our “radicals” disapprove of, by inhibiting their production. Or is it to be voluntary, with a massive propaganda (advertising) campaign to dissuade people from buying products the “radicals” don’t like?

Either way involves an enormous elitist contempt for the common sense of ordinary people. Part of this is a reaction against the political backwardness which has led many people to accept the continuation of capitalism without revolt, in exchange for the post-war “affluence” (a mess of potage). Understandable as this is, it is still elitist.

People are entitled to want, and to be satisfied to get, access to things that used to be regarded as luxuries. There has been a very substantial improvement in mass living standards since the 1930’s and it is hardly surprising that while the post-war boom continued, the capitalist social order was relatively stable. Not only material standards, but also the “quality of life” with access to culture, education etc has improved with the rise in real wages (even if the value of wages in terms of labour time has declined, exploitation increased and the social position of workers worsened). There are even some progressive aspects to the way capitalism stimulates new “wants” to expand its markets.

The higher standards of living which have been achieved involve an increase in people’s expectations and their determination to defend the greater dignity that they have won. It is sheer arrogance to condemn all this as “consumerism”. People will revolt when they find that the existing social order cannot provide them with what they want, not when some “radical” persuades them that they shouldn’t want it. Now that living standards are again starting to decline, we will see whether the generation that was brought up on “consumerism” will put up with more or less shit from capitalism than their parents did in the last Great Depression. From general attitudes towards “authority” etc, it seems likely that the “consumerist” generation will be more ready to revolt, not less.

At least Malcolm Fraser’s proposal to reduce living standards by cutting real wages is more democratic than the “radical” attacks on consumerism. Why can’t the radicals who oppose “wasteful consumption” settle for demanding a general wage cut? This would leave people free to choose for themselves without manipulation what they regard as necessary and what “wasteful” items they could do without.

Of course I’m not saying we’ll all still have private cars after the revolution despite the various social problems that go with them. We’ll have helicopters and spaceships. (“We want bread and roses too…”)

To be continued. Next installment, Part 3, Technocratic priesthood, Centralization and Unemployment…

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