CHANGING THE WORLD, NOT MERELY UNDERSTANDING IT

The collapse of the class-based, slave -owning society of late antiquity might appear on casual reflection to hold few lessons about the future of capitalist society in the first quarter of the 21st Century, but a recent book by Professor Kyle Harper of the University of Oklahoma (The Fall of Rome – Climate, Disease and the End of an Empire, Princeton University Press) can give us pause for thought.

Professor Harper is no Marxist, but his approach is evidence-based, scientific and socio-economic. He does not directly address, as a Marxist might, whether the collapse of the social structures of Late Antiquity  arose from a failure of those structures to protect and grow the economy, but his findings can readily be considered from this perspective. The fundamental cause of the collapse of the Roman Empire, according to Professor Harper, was not, as has often been suggested, the growth of Christianity within its borders or Islam beyond its crumbling eastern edge; nor was it some intrinsic fault that only worked itself out in the fullness of time, suggestions for which have included contested imperial succession and the abandonment of the short sword and armour by Roman infantry. Drawing on both the latest archaeological and paleo-genetic evidence and on classical sources including judiciously assessed eye witness reports, Professor Harper convincingly demonstrates that the collapse was caused by climate change and pandemic disease: first the Antonine Plague in the mid-second century (probably a voracious smallpox pandemic), then the hammer blow of bubonic plague from 558 until 749. The way in which the consequences of disease and climate change interacted and undermined the economy of the Roman Empire, including its tax and fiscal structures, is dealt with in an admirably dialectical way; and the resulting class struggle– especially the efforts of the Roman land owning class to cling on and even expand their estates at a time of economic crisis and population decline is not ignored.

Professor Harper concludes his book with a muted but cautionary warning to the 21st Century reader. This concerns the recent discovery of the speed with which history’s great pathogens have evolved. This evolutionary facility to exploit opportunities opened up as society changes represents a threat to us today although it is one that Professor Harper only hints at. He is even more reticent about the threat today of climate change due to CO2 emissions even though the effect could be far greater than that which contributed so significantly to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire following the Antonine Plague.

We are indebted to Professor  Harper for an excellent book which helps us understand why the Roman Empire fell. We, his readers, need, however, to bear in mind Marx’s advice: it is not enough to understand the world – what we have to do is change it.

 

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The Anthropocene

Commenting on progress in the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) of the International Commission on Stratigraphy in recognising the Anthropocene as a distinct geological epoch, one in which human activity is having a dominant impact, the eminent geologist Steve Drury points out (see link below) that, while it is essentially a political, not a scientific statement, it is nevertheless to be welcomed, coinciding as it does with the rapidly escalating efforts, mainly by young people, to end massive threats to the Earth System. The only way, according to Professor Drury, to erase the “exponentially growing human buttock print on our home world” is for growth-dependent economics to be removed. If that social revolution doesn’t happen, there will, he argues, be a mass extinction to join the ‘Big Five’ previous ones (the most recent one being 65 million years ago) and society in all its personifications will collapse.

The growth-dependent economics to which Steve Drury refers is capitalism. Capitalism is the social system based on the accumulation of capital through economic growth and it cannot function in a world where that growth is curtailed. Previous and, in China, on-going attempts to build an alternative to capitalism, i.e. socialism leading to communism, may not always have prioritised sustainable growth and the welfare of future generations. Lack of scientific understanding resulted in some serious ecological mistakes in the USSR such as the draining of the Ural Sea, but at least the potential to plan the economy for the benefit of future generations exists under socialism. No such potential exists under capitalism. Under capitalism there is one objective: capital must accumulate; and one criterion for judging this – the market, which means net present value arrived at by discounting the future at a rate which reflects the required rate of capital accumulation. Capitalism is incapable of valuing the welfare of future generations without applying this savage discounting. It is therefore only to be expected that our government is seeking to placate climate change protestors with its tentative commitment to “zero carbon emissions” by 2050 while ignoring the carbon content in our imports – about to soar if British Steel is closed – and from aviation – similarly about to be boosted by Heathrow expansion.

 

https://wileyearthpages.wordpress.com/2019/06/12/anthropocene-edging-closer-to-being-official/

BREXIT and TAX

VAT was introduced in the UK in 1973 as a condition of joining the then European Economic Community, the predecessor of the EU. Changes to the VAT rules require the unanimous agreement of all 28 EU countries. Originally introduced in the UK at 10%, these rules now require a minimum standard rate of 15% with one or two reduced rates, no lower than 5%, for certain specified goods on a pre-approved list. Further reduction in the VAT rate, including the use of a zero rate, is only allowed under EU rules for goods that have been taxed at that lower rate continuously since 1991. It is, therefore, under continued EU membership, a highly inflexible tax, but one not without merits. By requiring firms to deduct VAT paid on purchases from suppliers, it avoids the double taxation problem that arose with its UK predecessor, Purchase Tax. It is, nevertheless, highly ‘regressive’, i.e. it falls disproportionately on those on low incomes and leaves capital essentially untaxed. It is therefore unsurprising that, following the financial crash in 2008, the government relied on VAT to bail out the banks under its austerity strategy. VAT now contributes 21% of all the tax raised, up from 18% in 2009, and the amount raised has increased by 60% since then[i]. VAT has also made no contribution to reducing carbon emissions to help halt global warming.

In its 2017 General Election manifesto, the Labour Party called for VAT to be restricted to its current range of goods and services. However, according to the Communist Party pamphlet on The EU and Brexit – questions and answers [ii] , even this very modest proposal would breach EU rules. The potential for a progressive tax policy after we leave the EU would, however, be considerable and VAT could play a useful part in this. As was argued in From Each According to Their Means[iii], free from the EU we could vary VAT rates to meet policy objectives and give workers rebates paid through National Insurance. VAT could thus be adapted to incorporate a carbon tax along the lines of the fee and dividend model proposed by James Hansen and endorsed by the Communist University on South London in its discussion paper on Global Warming.[iv].

The people have spoken in the EU Referendum. The only vote we need now is a General Election so that the opportunities it opens up, including the reform of VAT, can be seized.

 

Footnotes

[i] according to UHY Hacker Young, quoted in Economia, February 2019

[ii] Available from the Communist Party for £1 plus postage. http://www.communist-party.org.uk.

[iii] Available from the Communist Party for £2 plus postage https://www.communist-party.org.uk/shop/pamphlets/2025-from-each-according-to-their-means.

[iv] https://communistuniversity.wordpress.com

Socialism or death

The Paris Agreement (COP21) in December 2016 is intended to encourage fuel efficiency and develop non-fossil fuels so as to limit global warming to 1.50C above pre-industrial levels. Will it?

The USA has given notice that it will withdraw from COP21 by 2020. This will not help, but the strategy itself is flawed. As the discussion paper on Global Warming from the Communist University in South London (CUiSL), currently in the proof reading stage, argues, catastrophic climate change will only be avoided if fossil fuels are left in the ground. There is, however, no indication that this is happening. According to a forecast from the International Energy Agency, annual fossil fuel consumption is set to increase by the equivalent of 82 trillion barrels of oil by 2040[i]. This is 14% more than at present and is forecast despite a forecast increase in renewable and nuclear energy of 67% by 2040. These will still be contributing less than a quarter of our energy by 2040.

This failure to act to halt global warming should not surprise us. As the CUiSL discussion paper also argues, capitalism is simply incapable of addressing global warming. Its rationale is the accumulation of capital by generating profits. Due to market-based discounting, its time horizons are too near, leading it to under-estimate catastrophe in coming decades; there is simply too much profit to be made today and in future from fossil fuel extraction to leave it in the ground; and there is too much capital tied up in fossil fuel extraction to see it written off. Whether or not every apologist for capitalism recognises it, their mantra is “Pump, baby pump”. Ours should be borrowed from the Cubans: Socialismo o muerte (Socialism or death). Cubans use it to affirm their willingness to die to defend their system. We need to adopt it in recognition that our system, capitalism, will kill our grandchildren if we don’t begin to take steps now to replace it with socialism.

[i] https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=26212

 

 

 

The Long Term View

In the final paragraph of his book, Stepping Stones, the making of our Home World, Steve Drury concludes that:

a mere 10 thousand years of human history has created economic chains that stifle such potential and increasingly endanger its survival. It seems to me that if history is to continue being recorded and sifted through, the next stepping stone is consciously to break those chains.

As communists we heartily endorse this conclusion, but we may not all be fully aware of how we got here. Marxists tend to study history and pre-history back to the end of the last Ice Age, but Steve Dury takes us from when our planet was formed some four and a half billion years ago and, drawing on the latest scientific evidence, explains everything with stunning clarity and insight. You can still find copies of the original hardback first edition  (Oxford University Press, 1999, ISBN 0 19 850271 0) if you hunt round for them but he has now generously published a revised, second edition as an e-book  here . Both this and the revised second e-edition cannot be recommended highly enough. Day to day political and economic analysis and knockabout is all very well, but, in addition, we all need to be aware of the long term view..

Work ’til you drop? I don’t think so!

It’s worth reminding ourselves from time to time that, contrary to the establishment view, capitalism is not the permanent and definitive form of society, it is merely a transitionary phase in human development with a finite shelf life. There are a number of developments in the 21st Century that will make its survival into the 22nd highly problematical. These include:

  1. global warming and capitalism’s inability to deal with the cause – society’s dependence on fossil fuels;
  2. as predicted by Marxist economic theory (and largely ignored by non-Marxists), increasingly severe economic crises due to the over-accumulation of capital and a long-term tendency for the rate of profit to decline;
  3. increasing inequality and the failure of more humane variants of capitalism such as the Swedish social democratic model to survive; and
  4. demographics.

The last item is frequently overlooked. Growing world population clearly represents a threat to humanity’s survival but the greater threat to capitalism’s survival may come from its relative success in extending the average life of ordinary working people – assuming that is that the profits driven pharmaceutical industry doesn’t botch its response to the next pandemic or the equally profit greedy food manufacturers don’t kill us with obesity and diabetes generating food. Data published last week by the Office for National Statistics predict that a girl born between 2010 and 2012 can now expect to live until 82.8 while a boy is expected to live until 79. The previous predictions in 2005 were 80.6 and 76 respectively. The immediate response from the so-called pension ‘industry’ was that the state pension age will have to rise much faster than currently anticipated by the government “almost inevitably reaching at least 70 by the middle of the century”. Their motive, of course, is the huge profits they make peddling ‘personal pensions’, but there can be little doubt that the government will comply with their wishes.

What are we to make of this? By the middle of the century capitalism will have created an immensely wealthy 1% who own practically everything (where we live, the land beneath our feet, the services on which we rely) and who, apart from an ambitious, competitive minority, will neither wish nor have to work. For the remaining 99%, we will be required to work (or claim survival level ‘benefits’) well beyond any age at which we might be considered competent. Nonagenarian bus drivers? I don’t think so. Old people on jobseekers allowance? Much more likely!

The alternative is, of course, socialism which, in its fully developed form, has been described by Marx as from each according to their means, to each according to their need. While it will become immensely attractive to the exploited majority, it won’t, however, happen by itself. It will take organisation and effort. That’s where we in the Croydon CP and socialists and communists across the county and worldwide come in.

LOOKING THE OTHER WAY AGAIN

Sir Howard Davies’ long-awaited report from the Airports Commission was finally published last week. Predictably, he delivered what Big Business wanted: a recommendation to build a new runway, ideally at Heathrow, and silence on the impact it would have on the UK’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions by 2050. Howard Davies is, however, an expert at looking the other way when needed. He was the founding Chairman of the Financial Services Authority, luckily standing down sufficiently prior to the financial crash in 2006-7 to escape the criticism heaped on the head of his hapless successor. No matter – he had delivered for his political masters the ‘light touch’ self regulatory regime they wanted. How could he be blamed that it was totally unfit for purpose? His subsequent career as Director of the LSE did come unstuck following its acceptance of money from Gaddafi  – looking the wrong way again but this time a self-confessed “error of judgment”. Just the man then the government needed as Chairman of the Airports Commission!

As Greenpeace commented, the topic of carbon emissions is largely absent from Howard Davies’ report. Where it is addressed, it is with calls for marginal improvements such as increasing airport charges for older aircraft and mandating “green slots” under which less polluting aircraft take up the new capacity. No doubt aware of this deficiency, Davies wrote to Lord Deben of the Climate Change Committee when the report was published, pointing to the need for “a more significant package of measures” than appeared in his report. His ideas for these? A huge increase in the carbon price, which would presumably obviate the need for a new runway in the first place, and the pipe dream of bio fuels to replace aviation oil. It cannot be produced without reducing food production and starving the poorITS .

Frequent flyers are predominately drawn from the wealthiest 10% of the population. 15% of the British population who flew three or more times last year accounted for 70% of all flights. More than half the UK population took no flights at all. We don’t need a new runway – we need the wealthy to fly less frequently. Building more runways at Heathrow or Gatwick is not the way to go about this.