Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Serbia - 10 years on

A decade on from the Nato bombing campaign, more than 90,000 Serbs are still in danger from unexploded cluster munitions, according to a recent report funded by the Norwegian foreign ministry. The report says they face a daily threat and estimates that there are some 2,500 unexploded devices in 15 areas of Serbia. In the capital, Belgrade, and elsewhere in Serbia you can still see the impact of the bombing.

"The 10th anniversary of the air strikes will lead people to think about the bombing campaign, which they saw as unjust, unfair and illegal action carried out by Nato," says Serbian political analyst Bratislav Grubacic.

Some 2,500 civilians were killed, among them 89 children, while 12,500
were injured.

US Ambassador Richard Holbrooke said that NATO's air attack on former Yugoslavia a decade ago was "the right thing to do" .

Holbrooke when questioned by Charlie Rose during the bombing of Yugoslavia as to why the Serbs didn't agree to the terms of the Rambouillet text, Holbrooke, who delivered the final ultimatum to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, stated that Serbs claimed that signing the Rambouillet text would amount to agreeing to a NATO occupation of their country. Holbrooke told Rose he insisted this 'isn't an occupation.' In fact, an examination of the Rambouillet text shows that it did fundamentally call for an occupation of Yugoslavia.

David N. Gibbs an associate professor of history and political science at the University of Arizona said:

"The 1999 Kosovo war is often remembered as the 'good' war which shows that American power can be used in a morally positive way and can alleviate humanitarian emergencies. In fact, the NATO air strikes failed to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Kosovo; instead the strikes worsened the atrocities and heightened the scale of human suffering.

The NATO states could have achieved a negotiated settlement of the Kosovo problem and resolved the humanitarian crisis -- without war. However, the Clinton administration blocked a negotiated settlement at the Rambouillet conference, leading directly to the NATO bombing campaign. The U.S. government sought to use the Kosovo war as a means to reaffirm NATO's function in the post-Cold War era. It was this NATO factor -- rather than human rights -- that was the main reason for the war.

The Kosovo war had many features in common with George Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq. In both Kosovo and Iraq, American presidents avoided diplomatic avenues that might have settled the disputes without war, went to war by circumventing the UN Security Council, and engaged in extensive public deception.

What we said 10 years ago was that:-"Faced with this latest manifestation of capitalist barbarity and cynicism we once again place on record our abhorrence of all war and call upon workers everywhere to unite to bring the war-prone capitalist system to a speedy end."

Monday, March 23, 2009

Food Business

Eat Your Heart Out. Felicity Lawrence. Penguin.

Following on from Not on the Label, this is another book by Felicity Lawrence that exposes much that’s wrong with the food we eat and the way it’s produced and, therefore, much that’s wrong with capitalism as a way of running the world.

Lawrence describes conventional farming as ‘a system for turning oil into food’. There is simply more profit in industrial food production than in plain healthy food like fruit and veg. Consequently consumers’ food choices are manipulated, so that we ‘want’ what the food industry sells at the biggest profit and we buy what we have been persuaded to buy. This is mainly achieved by advertising, but also by more insidious means: adding massive amounts of sugar to baby food gets babies, and therefore children and adults, hooked on sweetness.

Let’s take a couple of case studies. Processed cereals, for instance, represent ‘a triumph of marketing’. And agricultural subsidies from government help to keep companies’ costs down and profits up. The nutritious part of cornflakes is deliberately removed because it gets in the way of a long shelf life. As a result of this and the addition of sugar, breakfast cereals fatten you up but provide little by way of nutrition. Since relatively few countries eat much cereal, there is plenty of scope for global expansion, with Kellogg’s targeting a potential 1.5 billion new customers, and prepared to spend massively to attract them.

The globalised pork and bacon industry has based its enormous profits on two elements: factory farming with little or no regard to the environmental impact, and low wages mostly paid to migrant workers. The farmers who contract to raise pigs for the processing companies make just enough to get by, and the buildings they invest in are likely to put them in debt to the bank. Meanwhile the big corporations enjoy enormous profits with relatively little capital investment.

As the cereal example shows, food produced with an eye to profit is not good for you, and may be positively dangerous. Sugar, for instance, has been described as being as harmful and addictive as tobacco. The evidence is not conclusive, but arguably the extent of cardiovascular diseases in developed countries is in part due to an imbalance of fatty acids (too much omega-6, not enough omega-3). Cancers, too, are in part caused by our diet. Soya is seen as a miracle health food, but it is in fact a key ingredient in the fried and oiled junk food market.

Lawrence has provided a graphic description of profit-driven food production. We can’t agree with her claim that what’s needed is ‘a fairer distribution of the profits’, since that would leave the profit motive intact. But we have more sympathy with her conclusion that it’s necessary to examine ‘the power structures that control food supply’, as long as this goes along with overturning the structure of all production and distribution.


Monday, March 16, 2009

Marx and Engels on The Origin of Species

Marx and Engels on The Origin of Species

Engels bought a copy of Darwin’s The Origin of Species as soon as it was published.

Two books of importance were published in 1859, one in June and the other in November. Each one stands at the opposite pole of popularity at the time they were published. And this contrast has persisted up to the present day. One hundred and fifty years after their publication, one is being celebrated as one of the most significant and audacious books ever to be published; the other is virtually forgotten.

Both were written with some degree of reluctance by their authors, requiring pressure from theirs friends and supporters. Great things were expected of both. However, only one of them fulfilled them.

The first book, published in German, was by Karl Marx: A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. This was to be the first instalment of a series of pamphlets, presenting what was to be a withering assault on the ideological foundations of capitalist society. But the beginnings were not good. Marx even had to write to his publisher to find out whether it had been published or not. And then there were the reviews, or rather their absence. Writing to Lassalle on the 6th of November 1859, Marx wrote: “I expected to be attacked or criticised but not to be utterly ignored, which, moreover, is bound to have a serious effect on sales.” But even his followers were disappointed.

The contrast with the other book could not be greater. Charles Darwin, spurred into action by a letter he received the year before from fellow naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, had produced what he called an abstract of his work of the past twenty years. He had brought before the public gaze what he would have preferred to keep hidden, anxious as to how it would be received. But Wallace's letter had forced his hand, and he had to publish.
The Origin of Species was brought out on the 24 November in a print run of 1250 copies. Earlier that month, Marx had written of the total silence that his book had received. The reception for Darwin's book could not have been different. Within 24 hours all the copies had been sold. The Darwinian Age had began. As the modest Darwin would not have said: Apr├Ęs moi, le deluge!"

First Response

It was Engels who was the first to respond to The Origin. He had always taken a keen interest in developments in the natural sciences and their relationship to his and Marx's materialist conception (some commentators have seen this interest in science as an importation of positivism, and as incompatible with Marx' view). Engels had bought one of the copies of the first edition, and within the month, he wrote to Marx on the 12 December:

“Darwin, by the way, whom I'm reading just now, is absolutely splendid. There was one aspect of teleology that has yet to be demolished, and that has how been done. Never before has so grandiose an attempt been made to demonstrate historical evolution in Nature, and certainly never to such good effect. One does, of course, have to put up with the crude English method.”

Darwin, Darwin, Darwin

On the publication of The Origin, Marx was involved in other work. But when he had a chance to read it a year later, his assessment of it was similar to that of Engels, to whom he wrote on the 19 December, 1860:

“In my times of trial [illness] during the last four weeks -I have read all sorts of things. Among others, Darwin's book on Natural Selection. Although it is developed in a crude English way, this is the book that contains the natural-history foundation of our view point.”

A month later on the 16 January, 1861 he wrote to Lassalle in similar terms:

“Darwin's work is most important and suits my purpose in that it provides a basis in natural science for the historical class struggle. One does, of course, have to put up with the clumsy English style of argument. Despite all its shortcomings, it is here that, for the first time, 'teleology' in natural science is not only dealt a mortal blow but its rational meaning is empirically explained.”

What is significant about the assessment of Marx on Darwin, compared to that of Engels, is that it is Marx who is the first to relate Darwin's theory with his and Engels' materialist conception. For Engels it is only the anti-teleological content of The Origin that is noted.
That Marx took more than a passing interest in the Darwin phenomenon is revealed in the recollections of his German supporter, Wilhelm Liebknecht. In his Karl Marx: Biographical Memoirs (1896; English translation 1901, pp. 91-92) he wrote:

“Marx was one of the first to comprehend the importance of Darwin's investigations. Even before 1859 ... Marx had recognized the epochal importance of Darwin .... And when Darwin drew the consequences of his investigations and presented them to the public we spoke for months of nothing else but Darwin and the revolutionizing power of his scientific conquests. I emphasize this, because 'radical enemies' have spread the idea that Marx, from a certain jealousy, acknowledged the merit of Darwin very reluctantly and in a very limited degree.”

In addition, he states that Marx attended the Popular Lectures of Liebig, Moleschott and Huxley and that these "were names mentioned in our circle as often as Ricardo, Adam Smith, McCullock and the Scotch and Irish economists" (p.91). In the autumn of 1862, Marx also attended a series of six lectures on Darwin by T.H. Huxley.

Darwin's OK, but....

For both Marx and Engels, the most significant feature of Darwin's work was the way in which it dealt a death-blow to theFrederick Engels theological teleology which had blighted almost all forms of thinking about the human and non-human world. There was no divine plan which gave direction to human action and nature was not a set of fixed entities. There was a history of human development and a history of natural development, and neither was directed by a divine purpose.

But the rejection of religious teleology did not imply that there was no order or development in the human and natural domains, where everything was just a series of random accidents. Rather, the explanation of the order and development was now put down to processes within each domain, without the need to refer to the outside influence of a divine being. For Darwin, the explanation for the evolution of species was primarily, but not exclusively, to do with the process of natural selection.

While Marx was happy to accept the anti-theological implications of Darwin's work, he could not fully accept everything. It must be remembered that Marx was thoroughly educated in the philosophy of Aristotle and the post-Aristotelians, and had completed his doctoral thesis in this area. The influence of naturalistic Greek philosophy was to remain with him, and he did not reject Aristotle in the way that the 17th century British atomistic materialists did in their rejection of medieval Aristotelianism (the adaptation of Aristotle to Christian theology).

The importance of Marx's Aristotelianism is seen in what he saw as a limitation of Darwin's work. On the 7 August 1866, Marx wrote to Engels:

“A very important work which I will send you (but on condition that you return it, as it is not my property) as soon as I have made the necessary notes, is: P. Tremaux, Origine et Transformations de l'Homme et des autres Etres (Paris, 1865). In spite all the shortcomings that I have noted, it represents a very significant advance over Darwin. . . . Progress, which Darwin regards as purely accidental, is essential here .... In its historical and political applications far more significant and pregnant than Darwin.”

The relevant notion here is that of "essential". For Marx, any scientific explanation had to include elements of both the "essential" and the "accidental". But for the majority of scientists in the 19n century, any element of Aristotle was unacceptable.

Despite the fulsome praise which Marx heaped on Tremaux's work, it did not have any impact on the scientific world, and it sank without trace (a reassessment of this work can be found at philsci-archive.pitt.edu/archive/00003806/01/tremaux-on-species.pdf). And Engels, too, tore it to shreds (Engels to Marx, 2 October 1866). Marx tried one more time to persuade Engels of the importance of Tremaux's work: "an idea which needs only to be formulated to acquire permanent scientific status" (Marx to Engels, 3rd October 1866).

Malthus and Darwin

Although the initial response of both Marx and Engels to Darwin's work was positive, further reading brought out criticisms. For Marx, Darwin relied too much on the "accidental" in his explanation (see above), but it is not clear whether Engels shared this Aristotelian criticism. Both, however, were in agreement when it came to Darwin's use of the population theories of the Reverend Thomas Malthus. Both despised Malthus. As early as 1844, Engels had called Malthus's theory, which he saw as the "keystone of the liberal system of free trade", as "this vile, infamous theory, this hideous blasphemy against nature and mankind" (“Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy”, 1844).

Writing to Engels on 18 June 1862, Marx commented:

“I'm amused that Darwin, at whom I've been taking another look, should say that he also applies the 'Malthusian' theory to plants and animals, as though in Mr Malthus's case the whole thing didn't lie in its not being applied to plants and animals, but only - with its geometric progression - to humans as against plants and animals. It is remarkable how Darwin rediscovers, among the beasts and plants, the society of England with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, 'inventions' and Malthusian 'struggle for existence'. It is Hobbes' bellum omnium contra omnes and is reminiscent of Hegel's Phenomenology, in which civil society figures as an 'intellectual animal kingdom', whereas, in Darwin, the animal kingdom figures as civil society.”

Darwin's theory, then, was compromised by the importation of ideological capitalist theory. This did not imply that what Darwin said was wholly invalidated; only that the Malthusian justification had to be jettisoned. This was essential, as the Malthusian justification of the struggle for existence in nature could be used to justify the same principle in society as capitalist social relations. This was seen by Engels:

“When this conjurer's trick has been performed.. .the same theories are transferred back again from organic nature into history and it is now claimed that their validity as eternal laws of human society has been proved. The puerility of this procedure is so obvious that not a word need be said about it. (Engels to Pyotr Lavrov, 12-17 November, 1875)

Engels went on to discuss the relationship of Malthus and Darwin to Marxism at greater length in Part 1 (especially section VII, Natural Philosophy. The Organic World) of Anti-Duhring (1878, English edition 1894), and to explore the evolution of the human species in the posthumously published Dialectics of Nature, in particular the section “The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man”, originally written in 1876.

In the work published during his lifetime, Marx refers to Darwin only in Capital, volume 1, and here only in two footnotes (Penguin edition, pages 461 and 493-494). He talks of the "epoch-making work" of Darwin and of how it directed his attention to the "history of natural technology, i.e., the formation of the organs of plants and animals which serve as the instruments of production for sustaining their life."

Against Darwinian Marxism

For Marx and Engels, there is no doubt that they saw Darwin's work as a significant step forward in the understanding of the natural world, especially in its eviction of theological teleology as a form of scientific explanation. But there was no plan to produce some grand Darwinian-Marxist synthesis, using natural selection as a justification for the Marxian analysis of Karl Marxsociety. Both nature and society were part of natural history. However, this did not mean that society could be reduced to nature. The attempt by German socialists in particular to ground socialism in natural selection was vehemently opposed by both Marx and Engels and by Darwin. Writing to Scherzer on 26 December, 1879, Darwin wrote:

“What foolish idea seems to prevail in Germany on the connection between Socialism and Evolution through Natural Selection.”

In a similar vein, but more sarcastically, Marx wrote to Ludwig Kugelman on 27 June, 1870:

“Mr Lange [a German economist], you see has made a great discovery. All history may be subsumed in one single great natural law. This natural law is the phrase (- the Darwinian expression becomes, in this application, just a phrase -) 'struggle for life', and the content of this phrase is the Malthusian law of population, or rather over-population. Thus, instead of analysing this 'struggle for life' as it manifests itself historically in various forms of society, all that need be done is to transpose every given struggle into the phrase 'struggle for life', and then this phrase into the Malthusian 'population fantasy'. It must be admitted that this is a very rewarding method - for stilted, mock-scientific, highfaluting ignorance and intellectual laziness.”

Marx is Marx and Darwin is Darwin. There is no Marx-Darwin. At his funeral in 1883, Engels was justified in comparing the importance of Marx with that of Darwin, but in doing so he recognised that their theories covered different terrains. There could be no marriage of Marx and Darwin any more than there could be with Marx and Newton. Many have tried to arrange the Marx-Darwin marriage over the last 150 years, but it always results in unhappiness.


Sunday, March 8, 2009

Opium wars, old and new

The phrase “opium wars” usually refers to the British military assaults of 1839-42 and 1856-60 that forced the Chinese emperor to allow British merchants to sell his subjects opium. The opium was grown in India, where the tax revenue from its sale maintained the colonial administration.

In 1839, imperial commissioner Lin Zexu wrote to Queen Victoria: “By what right do the barbarians use the poisonous drug to injure the Chinese people? Although they may not intend to do us harm, in coveting profit to an extreme they have no regard for injuring others. Let us ask, where is your conscience?”

He never received an answer.

Poisoning “their own people”

Not only the Chinese suffered at the hands of the profit-coveting barbarians, who derived equal satisfaction from poisoning “their own people.” Britain imported 200,000 pounds of opium from India in 1840. It was consumed, quite legally, mostly mixed with alcohol in a flavoured concoction called laudanum, as an all-purpose painkiller, tranquilliser and sleeping potion. Society ladies used it to acquire the then-fashionable pallid complexion associated with tuberculosis, while the neglected and undernourished babies of the working class were dosed with it to keep them quiet while their mothers toiled long hours in the mills.

Nowadays trading in opium is illegal. That, of course, does not prevent its large-scale production, sale and consumption, mostly as heroin. It merely raises prices and makes the business even more lucrative, though some “drug lords” perhaps envy the respectability enjoyed by their Victorian predecessors – and by pushers of currently legal poisons.

Opium and Afghanistan

At present the global centre of opium production is Afghanistan (accounting for 93 percent of opiates sold worldwide in 2007). To be more precise, production is concentrated in three border zones of Afghanistan: in the northeast, supplying the post-Soviet region through Tajikistan; in the west, for export through Iran; and above all in the south, for export through Pakistan. Sales within the country have also grown rapidly.

Afghanistan’s annual earnings from opium exports are estimated at $4 billion. This is some 15 times larger than earnings from all legal exports combined (nuts, wool, cotton, carpets, etc.). Thus opium has greater dominance over the Afghan economy than oil, for instance, has over the economies of most oil-exporting states. The farmers who grow the poppies get about a quarter of the money, $1 billion. The rest goes to traffickers and to the politicians, officials and military commanders who control the territory and protect the traffic (where they do not organize it directly).

As we know, Afghanistan and adjoining areas of northwest Pakistan are at war. This is Obama’s favourite war, so we can expect it to intensify. On one side: the US and NATO, their client regime under President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, their allies in Pakistan’s governing elite. On the other side: the Taliban and their Islamist allies in Pakistan. In between, fluctuating in their allegiance (depending on who pays more): the local bosses or “warlords.”

What is the relationship between the war and the opium trade?

First of all, the predominance of opium in the Afghan economy is largely a product of prolonged warfare. The many years of war disrupted long-established patterns of food production and distribution. Unlike food crops, poppies do not require much tending and so are better suited to unpredictable and chaotic conditions.

A new opium war

All players, except possibly the US and NATO, are closely involved in the opium trade. This applies equally to the Taliban, the warlords, and the regimes in Kabul and Islamabad. One of the biggest traffickers, for example, is Karzai’s brother. All, to varying degrees, are financially dependent on opium. Pakistan receives US aid and has other sources of revenue, but it too depends on opium money: the trucks that carry supplies over the border for NATO forces in Afghanistan return loaded with opium.
Thus to a large extent opium funds the war. It pays for weapons and hires fighters. And, in turn, the fighting is not only for control over territory, but also and especially for the control over opium production and exports that goes with territorial control. As in Congo, war is simultaneously a means and an end in the struggle to control a valuable resource – metallic ores in Congo, opium in Afghanistan. If Congo is a “mobile war”, then Afghanistan, to some extent at least, is a new opium war.

Opium and the US role

The role of opium in US policy regarding Afghanistan is more difficult to assess. The illegal status of the trade prevents opium interests from exerting open influence on the US government, although secret influence – through links between politicians, officials and illegal business (“organized crime”) – may be significant. However, the US market in illegal drugs is supplied primarily from other parts of the Americas, not from Afghanistan.

Officially, the US government conducts a “counternarcotics strategy” in Afghanistan. Farmers have been offered assistance in switching from poppies to wheat. In practice, even if the intentions behind such programs are genuine and even if they were to be adequately financed, the conditions of war and the reliance of US allies on opium money would still militate against their success. It may be worth noting that the CIA, which has traditionally been quite willing to cooperate with foreign drug interests (for so long as they served its purposes) and even sell drugs itself to raise additional funds, plays no part in anti-opium measures.