Tag Archives: communism

Fairtrade Fortnight

The fortnight of Fairtrade is very much upon us, and if you happen to be at Imperial, well, you’ve already missed a bunch of events followed by free coffee and tea. Sucks to be you. Never fear though, there’s a Cheese and Wine evening from 7pm on Thursday the 5th, to be held in Huxley 344, and you can buy your ticket online.

I have to say I’ve personally started to get interested in the whole Fairtrade thing, because quite frankly, global capitalism has done a damned good job of screwing things up, and something needs to be done. As anybody who regularly reads my blog (all 5 of you!) will know, I’ve recently been reading Marx & Engel’s Communist Manifesto, and so my mind has been bent on these kind of thoughts for a while and the same patterns show through.

The exploitation of the Have-nots by the Haves continues as ever, on a greater scale than ever before.  It’s sick crap legitimised by a squalid ideology: the mythology of the invisible hand of the market, turning individual greed into collective benefit;  terrible wishful thinking which props up this corrupt system.

The theory is supply and demand – if the price drops too low to make something economical to produce, people will stop making that product, supply will drop, and the price will increase until a stable equilibrium is reached; notionally a fair price for everyone concerned.

The fault in this is pointed out by Marx in the Manifesto; this equilibrium, in our era of mass production and global movement of goods, in which another producer will always be desperate enough to sell for less, will be the absolute minimum price at which it is possible for the producer to continue to be alive.

Let me stress this; not healthy, not educated, not able to provide healthcare, nor support relatives – simply alive. How these people are expected to be able to lift themselves out of poverty and improve their lot is utterly beyond me.

This is neglecting the other distorting influences and things stacked against the producers in the third world – farming subsidies in the developed world, the conglomerate power of the multinationals, the fact that the very poorest are unable to switch their production easily from one thing to another because they don’t have the capital necessary to do so. Nor can they do what the oppressed have done for centuries, and simply burn their oppressors out. This isn’t 18th Century France we’re talking about here – the oppressor is the entire Western capitalist system. It’s an enemy, an oppressor, of incalculable power.

Fairtrade isn’t a complete solution to this problem, nor could it be. Social change on the sort of scale needed is… well, big. Huge. But even the longest journey begins with a single step, and paying farmers a bit more than the absolute minimum so they can start to afford to send their kids to school is a damned good start.

Philosophy is fun

So lately I’ve been ploughing my way through an introduction to Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto. It’s an introduction to the philosophy and beliefs that informed the Manifesto, with Marx’s adoption and then rejection of earlier ideas by philosophers like Hegel. Eventually when I’m finished with that I’ll get to read the Manifesto itself, which may or may not be the satisfying pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We’ll see.

What I’ve been enjoying about it is that reading philosophy is kind of like food for the mind – well, sort of. It’s not a great simile, because philosophy is satisfying and sustaining even if you don’t really like (or fully understand!) the views you’re reading. For instance, for my taste a lot of philosophy is far too concerned with religion for my tastes; religion is very orthogonal to my particular world outlook, I’m far more interested in political economy, for instance, and these two issues just weren’t orthogonal for writers of that era.

Even so though, it’s mentally nourished me in that it’s made me realise that we each bring our particular baggage with us – we interpret the world around us entirely in terms of what we know. Marx and his contemporaries lived in an era (and location) of (Protestant) Christian domination, and their world-view is unavoidably slanted by their immersion in that environment. Personally, my world view is contaminated by my training, and my knowledge – I’m a physical scientist right down to the bones of me.

So I find some of the ideas of “spirit” and “essence” and “being” utterly alienating in the work – their attempts to understand Man will always seem to me to be fundamentally flawed. I understand Man as being nothing more than a complicated assemblage of physical, chemical and biological components, working in accordance with natural laws: Conservation of Energy, Conservation of Mass, Causality, Evolution, etc. and that we are best understood as being essentially a complex and chaotic system that can be best understood through scientific and statistical methods. There’s no need for some awkward dualist notion of a separate “Mind” or “Soul” that’s in some way external from the body, what appears to be a mind is just the internal perception of a chaotic electrochemical process. What frees us from rigid determinism is not some inherent freedom of a “Soul” from natural law, but just plain old quantum uncertainty – you can’t perfectly predict the future because you can’t know the initial conditions.

That’s my bias, and it’s what gives me dissatisfaction with Marx.

For all his claims to being “scientific” there’s no robust theory, no testable predictions, just blind philosophical assertions. Certainly no mathematics!

Anyways, like I said, I haven’t actually gotten into the meat of the Manifesto yet; maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised. Either way, it’s an refreshing just to get mentally engaged with such things.

The Last Month (in 30 Minutes)

Right, so I’ve not blogged for a while. The last post I’ve made was the 18th of December, which was the day before the end of term. So, what have I been doing since then? Oh, and I’m trying to do it in less than half an hour, because that’s how long I have until my washing needs drying.

The next day was spent mostly trying to hurry and get my computing project ready to hand in, which kinda necessitated missing a few lectures, but never mind. Then, once that was all done, the Physics crew met up in the common room to exchange Secret Santa gifts. I think we were all pleasantly surprised at the quality of the presents we’d got each other. Emily in particular was very happy with her present, which was a book about 101 things an old-fashioned housewife could do.

Went home, and the house did Secret Santa, which was also great fun, although exactly what some of those gifts were eludes me slightly.

Then we had a few drinks, people came over, had a few more drinks, then headed down to the Union for the Christmas ball. In hindsight, going to the Union might not have been the best plan, but heck, it wasn’t too bad. Bloody freezing walking back, though.

The next day I got the train back home – only £3.30, which completely didn’t suck.

Pretty much as soon as I got back, got a lift from Beccy’s dad to head down to Shell’s place in Bromsgrove, and we had drinks and takeaway with friends, and that was all pretty good.

Did the usual home-stuff after that, hanging around the house, sleeping, reading, playing games, visiting family, etc.

Met up with friends once more (although a slightly different set of friends) in a pub, and that was pretty great too.

Finished Mirror’s Edge in a single day, and played a lot of the drums in Rock Band. Watched the Dark Knight on Blu-Ray. It’s so high-def it’s almost painful to watch. Awesome.

Christmas rolled round, presents got opened. Didn’t get anything spectacular, but it was all nice and good. My Nan came over for Christmas dinner, and we played Trivial Pursuit as a family. I won, because I’m awesome.

Few days later, I rang in the New Year playing Rock Band with my Mom and sister. My mother is honestly terrible on the drums, even on easy mode. It was fun, anyway.

Then on the 2nd of January, I got on a train back to London. Got a £17.50 first-class ticket back, so there was coffee and sandwiches available for free, which was nice. Being asked if you want tea or coffee before you can even sit down is pretty nice indeed.

House was freezing, so I borrowed Matt’s heater, otherwise I would have frozen to death, and I bought my own from Argos ASAP.

Then in theory spent time revising for the Computational Physics test, in practice I spent rather too much time playing Fallout 3.

Anyways, the test did eventually roll round, with more and more people coming back into the house as it came closer to term-time. I was as prepared as I could have been, but I think I made some pretty silly mistakes in the exam. Never mind.

Then for the rest of this week have been general introductory lectures. Other people are stressing about philosophy and politics essays, or lab reports, etc. etc. but I’ve mostly just kinda been chilling, watching TV, playing Left 4 Dead.

That’s pretty much everything, more or less. I mean, there’s a lot omitted, but you don’t need to know every detail, you anonymous internet people. Heck, this is already probably too much!

Anyways, hopefully I should be able to keep to posting more regular-like in the future. I’ve recently finished reading Y: The Last Man, so I might write something about that, and I’m planning to have a crack at The Communist Manifesto in the near future.

Greedy Bankers: A Critque on the Shortcomings of Neoliberal Capitalism and the Thatcher Legacy

Hopefully I at least win points for the most pretentious title.

The recent history of the world has been one of a struggle between two predominant economic theories – Capitalism, and Communism / Socialism.

Capitalism is a system in which the means of production and the capital (hence the name) required to finance such things are held by a small sub-set of the population, whilst the rest of the population are employed by this sub-set to work the means of production for profit – i.e. for the benefit of the holder of the means of production. The various elements of this sub-set compete amongst each other on the free market to produce the most profit.

Socialism is a system in which the means of production are owned by everyone, worked by everyone, and the profits of the labour are owned by everyone.

For a good proportion of the 20th century the world was engaged in a grand experiment to see which of these two opposing ideals would win out, and ostensibly Capitalism came out victorious. Purists would argue that the “Communism” on display was false, and was essentially Capitalism in disguise – the subset owning the means of production was now the Party, not the Rich, but in almost all essentials it was exactly the same as the Capitalist system, apart from the lack of the anarchic effects of the free market having a detrimental effect upon the Soviet economy.

Along with the fall of Communism and the Iron Curtain came the rise of Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the US, who eliminated every vestige of socialist thought and ideology wherever it could be found, and raised the Cult of the Free Market in their place. In this country, Thatcher presided over the castration of the unions and the dismantling of British state industries; replaced with private companies, they are now bound to deliver profit to their shareholders, instead of delivering the best for the British public.

This tendency has followed through all contemporary Anglo-American policy, on both sides of the Left/Right divide. The Cult of the Free Market is everywhere – an absolute belief that if the market will always find the right way, the most efficient way, the best way; if only government cuts out red tape, if only the government kept out of the market’s affairs. To some degree, this liberalising tendency (hence the name neoliberal) has worked over the past two decades. As bonuses of the bankers in the City of London have inflated, so has the prosperity of the country. The bankers’ benefit was our benefit, so it seemed.

It doesn’t take much of an analysis to see that the myth of the free market is essentially unsound; it’s based upon a simplistic application of the idea that local optimisation leads to global optimisation. In short, the hypothesis of the free market is: if everybody does what is best for themselves, then the outcome will be what is best for society. This can be shown trivially to not necessarily be true for all cases with a simple counter-example.

Consider panic buying of some finite resource, say, petrol. Assume for the sake of this argument that there is enough petrol for everyone’s needs for a week, after which the petrol is replenished. It is in the interest of society that each individual continue to buy exactly how much they need, then everyone will have enough for their purposes. However, in a condition where future replenishment becomes uncertain, or is perceived to be uncertain, it becomes in the interest of the individual to buy as much petrol as they can; to stockpile it. This means that some people will now potentially not have enough if they do not also panic buy. The best strategy in this situation is obviously for everyone to continue buying normally, then everyone will have enough for at least the week. Panic buying will ensure a lot of people have to little or none, whilst the others have too much. The natural “market”, if you will, behaviour creates a sub-optimal situation.

It’s a metastable equilibrium situation, i.e. there are two equilibrium states, and the system can easily decay from one to the other. The perfect scenario can exist under the system, but it requires only a small perturbation to throw it into a very undesirable state. This isn’t a particularly contrived example – a very similar one could be constructed that approximates the credit crunch, where the metastable state is economic prosperity, and the stable state is economic depression.

Essentially, the individual greed of the bankers creates something approximating a successful economy only under carefully controlled conditions, inside their little metastable box. Perturb the economic parameters too far, and all hell breaks loose as each of them tries to save their own skin, dropping the system into the stable state.

This is ignoring the other poisonous effects that such an accumulation of wealth has on society. It’s like throwing fertiliser into a lake; you get huge explosive growth that covers the surface of the water and starves the plants below of light and oxygen. Wealthy London bankers go out and buy second homes in the country, causing a property boom that prices people out of the towns and villages they’ve lived all their lives. These second homes that lie empty most of the year, choking the life out of these places. Wealth that can afford the best education for their children – practically a guarantee of a good university place, statistically speaking – and all the money and support needed to set their children up in anything. There is gradual ghettoisation as those who can afford to move out of “poor” areas into “rich” areas do. I could go on, and on, and on.

The sums that these kinds of people receive are phenomenal, but are they of any more value to society than teachers, nurses, police, doctors, or scientists? I would say they’re worth a great deal less, but because they handle the capital, the dominant force in our society, they are elevated above the more socially worthwhile professions.

The really sad part is that these greedy banks cannot be allowed to fall, as the misery inflicted on the general public would be too great. So these bankers must be rescued from their own folly by the governments who condoned, allowed, and supported their actions.

It’s a damned shame that a government that calls itself Labour is committed to helping these scum prosper, not wiping them from our nation entirely.

However much I may have condemned it above, there will always be a place for the free market, this is true. It does encourage many positive competitive instincts, but it must be viewed for what it is; one tool in the box for solving a complex problem, the principal-agent problem; that is, making it so that one body (the agent) working on behalf of another (the principal) does what the principal wants them to. Turns out it’s pretty hard to solve in a general manner. The free market is not the be all and end all.

As an example, take the principal to be a bank offering mortgages, and the agent to be a mortgage salesperson. The bank wants to sell a lot of mortgages, so they offer the salesperson a commission on each mortgage sold. The salesperson’s interest is not in the general health or wellbeing of the bank – he’s not here to debate about if selling a mortgage to Mr & Mrs Redneck is a good idea – he just wants his commission, so he’ll shift as many dodgy mortgages as he can. This is, excuse the pun, a pretty sub-prime solution to what the bank was looking for.

Idolising free-market capitalism is a mistake. There are roles to be played by socialist thinking instead – obviously the scope of what could be done is well beyond this blog post! Mostly because this is really long already, I’m not an economist, and I don’t have the real world to compare it to like I can with the vast free-market experiment. The alternatives include democratic control of institutions, for instance I would posit that transport in London has been improved since being under the control of a democratically elected Mayor. It’s so much better than the rest of the country, it’s really not even funny.

Anyways, I’m sure that many of you reading will think I’m wrong. That’s cool. I mean, you’re the ones who are wrong, but we can’t all be right, can we? Feel free to make your case heard in the comments, though.