Friday, 27 April 2012

Opposite Reaction

The TARDIS Eruditorum blog recently took the opportunity to connect 'The Caves of Androzani' with the 1984-85 Miner's Strike.  In the process, Philip Sandifer (the author of the blog) writes:

...Arthur Scargill, head of the NUM, made an egregious political miscalculation. Faced with an accelerated schedule for closing the pits and afraid that he’d lose the vote, Scargill declined to submit the strike to a national vote. This was against NUM rules and allowed Thatcher to delegitimize the strike, which she wasted no time doing, comparing striking miners to Argentina in the Falklands. 

The propaganda war, combined with Scargill’s inept politicking, kept the strike from gaining broad support with the public, and it ended in failure a year later, leaving the mining industry and union a shadow of its former self. 

Sandifer mentions police savagery and also the wholesale media propaganda assault against the NUM (though he talks about the 'redtops', as though it was a purely tabloid phenomenon).  Ultimately, however, he seems to imply a plague upon both Thatcher's and Scargill's houses.

In the various permutations that this view takes, the heroic resistance of 150,000 workers and their families over a year of struggle is always deemed to have been overshadowed by the lack of a formal vote on it.  Here's a vital corrective to such apparently reasonable 'even-handedness', courtesy of Paul Foot in The Vote: How It was Won and How it Was Undermined:

Scargill had failed to win three strike ballots because of the divisions among miners caused by the incentive agreements that had been pushed through by the employers in spite of a ballot vote against them.  The ballot results left NUM leadership with the agonizing prospect that pits could be closed piecemeal, one by one, or two by two, and that the union would be prevented by hostile ballot results from responding.  This was the background to the confrontation that was started by the closure, without consultation, and in defiance of all agreements, of Cottonwood colliery in Yorkshire.  Encouraged by the executive, and by a wave of flying pickets from the threatened pits, strike after strike led very quickly to a massive national confrontation, in which pretty well all the pits in Yorkshire, Scotland, Wales and most of the Midlands were on strike, leaving only traditionally less militant areas, Nottinghamshire and Leicesterhsire, at work. 
To those who bleated, 'I wish Scargill had had a ballot', there was a prompt reply: 'Suppose he had had a ballot and lost it - what then?'  Were the miners leaders expected to stand aside while the Government and its newly appointed Coal Board laid waste to the British coal industry?  The truth was that actions spoke louder than ballots.  The sheer size and breathtaking solidarity of the mass strike was the fact, and the suggestion that the action should have been put at risk by a ballot was an argument that could be sustained only by the enemies of the miners' union.  Very soon, moreover, the democratic potential of the miners' strike was every bit as obvious as it had been in 1921 and 1926, if not more so.  Anyone who visited any of the areas affected by the strike was struck by the extraordinary changes that took place in the strikers and their supporters.  The traditional insularity of the pit villages was shattered by the need to seek support, including financial support, across the country.  Miners and their families travelled far more widely than in the strikes of the 1970s - both inside Britain and outside.  Even more than in the conflicts of the past, the women in the miner's areas emancipated almost overnight.  Technically, they had been emancipated in 1918 and 1928 by the granting of the suffrage.  But the emancipation of women in the mining areas in 1984 and 1985 far outstripped the emancipation of the suffrage.  Ideas of women's liberation, about male chauvinism and the role of women in the household flourished in the mining areas that spring and summer of 1984 as never before.

In the 'waaaaah waaaah, they didn't have a ballot!' version, all this is minimized, if not entirely forgotten.  The explosion of democracy 'from below' is written-off, as is the specious falsity of democracy 'from above'.  The government conducting this war against the miners had been elected in 1983 with under 43% of the total votes cast, in an election in which under 73% of the electorate turned out.  This same government had no mandate to destroy the British coal industry but nevertheless set an unelected Coal Board onto the task.  The aim was the destruction of the most militant and powerful union, one which had humiliated the Tories in the past (a story well worth remembering these days).  The entirely foreseeable result was the decimation of the lives, livelihoods and communities of hundreds of thousands of working people.

On the ballot question, Scargill gives his side of the story - replete with details that contextualise the matter - here.  To quote:

The NUM's rules permitted areas to take official strike action if authorised by our national executive committee in accordance with Rule 41. If the NEC [National Executive Committee] gave Scotland and Yorkshire authorisation under this rule, it could galvanise other areas to seek similar support for action against closures.
On 6 March, at a consultative meeting at NCB [National Coal Board] London headquarters, the coal board chairman, Ian MacGregor, not only confirmed what we had been expecting, but announced that in addition to the five pits already earmarked for immediate closure, a further 20 would be closed during the coming year, with the loss of more than 20,000 jobs. This, he said, was being done to take four million tonnes of "unwanted" capacity out of the industry, and bring supply into line with demand. 
The Scotland and Yorkshire NUM areas did vote to seek endorsement from the NEC for strike action, and at the NEC meeting on 8 March were given authorisation under Rule 41. South Wales and Kent then also asked for authorisation. The NEC agreed, and confirmed that other areas could, if they wished, do the same. We realised that the NCB announcement on 6 March had amounted to a declaration of war. We could either surrender right now, or stand and fight. 
A question that has been raised time and time again over the past 25 years is: why did the union not hold a national strike ballot? Those who attack our struggle by vilifying me usually say: "Scargill rejected calls for a ballot." 
The real reason that NUM areas such as Nottinghamshire, South Derbyshire and Leicestershire wanted a national strike ballot was that they wanted the strike called off, believing naively that their pits were safe. 
Three years earlier, in 1981, there had been no ballot when miners' unofficial strike action - involving Notts miners - had caused Thatcher to retreat from mass closures (nor in 1972 when more than a million workers went on strike in support of the Pentonville Five dockers who had been jailed for defying government anti-union legislation). 
McGahey argued that the union should not be "constitutionalised" out of taking action, while the South Wales area president, Emlyn Williams, told the NEC on 12 April 1984: "To hide behind a ballot is an act of cowardice. I tell you this now ... decide what you like about a ballot but our coalfield will be on strike and stay on strike." 
However, NUM areas had a right to ask the NEC to convene a special national delegate conference (as we had when calling the overtime ban) to determine whether delegates mandated by their areas should vote for a national individual ballot or reaffirm the decision of the NEC to permit areas such as Scotland, Yorkshire, South Wales and Kent to take strike action in accordance with Rule 41. 
Our special conference was held on 19 April. McGahey, Heathfield and I were aware from feedback that a slight majority of areas favoured the demand for a national strike ballot; therefore, we were expecting and had prepared for that course of action with posters, ballot papers and leaflets. A major campaign was ready to go for a "Yes" vote in a national strike ballot. 
At the conference, Heathfield told delegates in his opening address: "I hope that we are sincere and honest enough to recognise that a ballot should not be used and exercised as a veto to prevent people in other areas defending their jobs." His succinct reminder of the situation we were in opened up an emotional debate to which speaker after speaker made passionate and fiercely argued contributions.
Replying to that debate, I said: "This battle is certainly about more than the miners' union. It is for the right to work. It is for the right to preserve our pits. It is for the right to preserve this industry ... We can all make speeches, but at the end of the day we have got to stand up and be counted ... We have got to come out and say not only what we feel should be done, but do it because if we don't do that, then we fail." 
McGahey, Heathfield and I had done the arithmetic beforehand, and were truly surprised that when the vote was taken, delegates rejected calls for a national strike ballot and decided instead to call on all miners to refuse to cross picket lines - and join the 140,000 already on strike. We later learned that members of one area delegation had been so moved by the arguments put forward in the debate that they'd held an impromptu meeting and switched their vote in support of the area strikes in accordance with Rule 41.

Of course, Sandifer is right to say that the decision not to take a ballot handed the Tories and their compliant media a stick with which to beat the strikers.  But, as Paul Foot pointed out, it was either that or give up before the start of the fight.  The government wasn't playing nicely by any rule book.  They weren't letting an absence of democracy impede them in their ferocious prosecution of class war.  And can anyone really be naive enough to think that the government and the media wouldn't have found some other equally-effective pretext for declaring the illegitimacy of the strike and its leadership?  Indeed, a glance at the media coverage of the time shows that they could and did.  The media constantly harped on about false and unverified reports from the Coal Board about a 'drift back to work'.  Coal Board figures turned out to have been artificially inflated... with Murdoch's Sun simply adding numbers itself.  Stories about police brutality were consistently ignored or downplayed.  This was a media environment in which BBC television news could reverse the order of filmed events in their report of a clash between miners and police at Orgreave, making it appear that the miners had attacked the coppers (when in fact it was the other way round), and never apologise, passing the lie off as a mistake made during editing.  They didn't do that, or get away with it, because Scargill didn't hold a ballot.

Undoubtedly, some used the lack of a ballot as an excuse to weasel out of supporting the strikers.  The Labour Party under that cowardly windbag Kinnock basically allowed the miners to sink or swim on their own, showing an utterly shameful refusal to support a mass working-class action that had created its own legitimacy.  Scargill may not have balloted NUM members, but he was the elected president of the NUM (by a majority of more than 100,000), his decision to call the strike was ratified by a national conference, and the majority of the NUM members responded to his call with awesome determination and solidarity.  The call for action was only ignored in areas (like Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire - see above) where the miners thought (wrongly) that their jobs were safe.  Scargill was widely derided at the time for his predictions of the scale of Tory plans to close pits... predictions that were eventually proved optimistic.  To put the blame upon his "inept politicking" is a classic example of blaming the victim.  In this view, he should have made every effort to play by rules that the other side was ignoring, and tried to placate a media establishment ferociously hostile to him.

And the supposed failure of the strike to win the support of the country obscures just how much support was forthcoming.  In one instance, the print workers at the Sun refused to print a proposed front page featuring a picture in which Scargill had been photographed to look as though he was giving a Nazi salute.  The planned headline was 'MINE FUHRER'.  The Sun journalists didn't think that way because Scargill hadn't held a ballot.  The printers didn't let the lack of a ballot stop them putting their foot down to stop it.  A bit more of that kind of thinking, and a bit less victim-blaming, and maybe things could've been different.

But it wasn't just a "propaganda war" anyway.  To quote Seumas Milne, in his explosive book The Enemy Within - The Secret War Against the Miners, the Thatcher government launched

the single most ambitious 'counter-subversion' operation ever mounted in Britain.  This was a covert campaign which reached its apogee during the 1984-5 strike, but continued long afterwards.  In its breach of  what had long been seen as the established rules of the political game, it went beyond even the propaganda, policing and industrial effort openly deployed by the government to destroy the country's most powerful trade union.  As far as the Thatcherite faction in the Cabinet and their supporters in the security services were concerned, the NUM under Scargill's stewardship was the most serious domestic threat to state security in modern times.  And they showed themselves prepared to encourage any and every method available - from the secret financing of strikebreakers to mass electronic surveillance, from the manipulation of agents provocateurs to attempts to 'fit up' the miners officials - in order to undermine or discredit the union and its leaders.  It is a record of the abuse of unaccountable power which is only now returning to haunt those who pulled the strings and those who carried out the orders.

Given the forces ranged against them, I think Scargill, the NUM leadership (with the exception of those members who were spooks) and the miners can be congratulated on doing as well as they did.

However, there is something to be said about mistakes made by the union leadership.  It wasn't their failure to be well-behaved boys and surrender in advance, thus staying in the good books of the media.  It was their failure to take the fight further.  To quote Paul Foot again, the Government's victory was by no means inevitable, but it had been

assisted at least in part by the consistent failure of the NUM leaders to use the power at their disposal - the involvement of mass pickets.  In area after area, even in Yorkshire, the management of the strike was left to the leadership.  Again and again, too, there were opportunities for other unions, notably in the docks and railways, to invigorate the strike by solidarity action.  That these opportunities were not taken was largely due to the passive reaction of the TUC, whose officers, like the Labour Party leaders, intervened again and again to discourage such action.

Maybe the people in the Labour Party or the TUC who sold out the miners were worried about the lack of a ballot.  Maybe that was why leaders of other unions (like the EETPU or the Engineers and Managers Association) instructed their members to cross picket lines.  If so, it was a grotesque failure of proper priorities.

Speaking of which... Sandifer goes on to say:

In more fundamental terms, of course, the strike is a classic example of the false opposition. Of course closure of collieries had to happen. The coal industry was increasingly unprofitable, and even in 1984 it was clear that in the medium to long term a transition away from coal mining and towards other forms of energy was necessary. Equally, however, closing the pits devastated local economies and communities. The unexamined assumption here, however, is that economic progress and development has to carry a human price. Thatcher’s government was never going to seriously consider coupling the pit closures with efforts to provide new economic stimulus to the affected regions, and Scargill opted to defend the moribund coal industry in the general case. In the end, every side was mercenary and aiming primarily to protect their own wealth.

Sandifer here makes his own unexamined assumptions: that profitability is how one decides if an industry is worth preserving; that Scargill must take all the responsibilities for decisions made by his union; that his choice was to defend "the moribund coal industry" rather than, say, the lives of working people.

But Scargill was part of a leadership that took a decision that was ratified by conference... and then overwhelmingly supported, with great courage and grit, by the membership.  They were fighting to keep their jobs, to stop their communities being laid waste.  To call this "mercenary" is, frankly, as bizarre as it is offensive.  The other side were the ones concerned about profits... and, even more, about the power of the miners.

That's called the class struggle.  It's not a "false opposition".  And it doesn't go away if you play nice.  This is the biggest "unexamined assumption" in the paragraph: that there was some way in which the whole thing could just have been sorted out sensibly, with no fuss and no suffering and plenty of economic hard-headedness ameliorated with compassion... if only the two warring parties had just been sensible.  Well yes... except that the irreconcilibility of the two sides was not a folie à deux.  Their interests and priorities were - are - fundamentally opposed.  In a panglossian world where the rulers of society might base their decisions on anything other than naked self interest and shoring up their own power, maybe the workers of society could sit back and wait for their mining jobs to be smoothly and gradually replaced by new jobs at wind farms... but that ain't the world we live in.

Sandifer realises that Thatcher was "never" going to take the nobler course.  But still, there seems to be an idea lurking beneath this paragraph: that, if only people like Thatcher and Scargill did realise that "economic progress and development" doesn't have to "carry a human price" then, hey presto, it wouldn't have to.  But that isn't how capitalism works.  Capitalist 'progress' is built on the exploitation of labour.  That is its inbuilt "human price".  Capitalism sucks 'progress' out of the people it exploits.  It can't be changed by people examining their assumptions, unless it's the people who are being sucked from.  They can realise that they don't have to lie back and let 'progress' steamroller them.  And when that happens, you get explosions of resistance like... the miners' strike!

And then there's that word: "wealth"!

In his recent book Chavs - The Demonization of the Working Class, Owen Jones writes:

Unlike most Nottinghamshire miners, Adrian Gilfoyle went on strike until the bitter end.  Above all, he remembers the comradeship of working down the pit.  'The strike were important because of saving jobs,' he says.  'I've got two lads - obviously I wouldn't have wanted them to go down pit if they could get another job, but at least, when they grew up, there was that opportunity if there weren't any other jobs, to go there, and it was a good apprenticeship.  It was worth fighting for.'

This guy wasn't fighting for the "moribund coal industry".  He was fighting for his kids' right to have a chance at a job when they grew up.  You can equate that kind of self-interest with the self-interest of people like Margaret Thatcher, Nicolas Ridley and Ian MacGregor if you like.  You can call what they have "wealth" and use the same term to apply to the chance for a working person to toil underground... if you like.  But I think the elision obscures more than it reveals.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Victory of the Icon 2

Winston Churchill was the British Secretary of State for War in 1920.  As such, he was the British politician most directly and personally responsible for the Black and Tans, the notorious 'special policemen' (paramilitaries really) sent in to help the Royal Irish Constabulary put down the revolt against British rule.  The Irish people had rejected Home Rule in a referendum... only to find that the British were going to try to impose it by force.  This triggered the conflict - a nationalist revolt met by imperial repression - that is known as the 'Anglo-Irish War'.

The Black and Tans went on a rampage of violence, targeting civilians alongside anyone suspected of involvement in the revolt.  Indiscriminate reprisals and revenge killings were the order of the day.  Many whole towns and villages were besieged and sacked, often simply as collective punishment for the killings of RIC officers.  They beat, shot, starved and tortured people.  They tore out people's fingernails in front of their families.  'Murder squads' disguised in civilian clothes roamed the streets.  The Tans sacked Cork and left the city centre in smoking ruins.  The RIC murdered the Mayor in front of his wife and son.

All this horror on the authority of Lloyd George and Winston.  An officer veteran of the Cork 'campaign', the man later to become famous as Field Marshall Montgomery, wrote later that it "never bothered me a bit how many houses were burnt."

Churchill was once challenged about the behaviour of the Tans by Sir Henry Wilson.  Wilson recorded a conversation between himself, Churchill and Major General Henry Tudor (who was running murder squads) on 23rd September 1920:

Tudor made it very clear that the Police and the Black and Tans and the 100 Intelligence officers are all carrying out reprisal murders. … At Balbriggan, Thurles and Galway yesterday, the local Police marked down certain SFs (Sinn Feiners) as in their opinion the actual murderers or instigators and then coolly went and shot them without question or trial. Winston saw very little harm in this but it horrifies me.

Wilson was later assassinated by the IRA... but before we weep for him, we should bear in mind that he wasn't against shooting people just for being in a political party opposed to British rule... he just thought it should be done 'officially'.

In Ireland, 1920 was known as the 'year of terror'.

Mind you, some of the atrocities often attributed to the Black and Tans were actually the work of the regular RIC, or of a different force of British paramilitary terrorists known as the Auxiliaries.  The idea of the 'Auxies' seems to trace back to Churchill.  He proposed the idea to a conference of ministers in May 1920.

The Auxies were smaller in their numbers than the Tans but were generally considered cleverer, more ruthless and more violent.  They were involved in the infamous 'Bloody Sunday' massacre at Croke Park in November 1920.  RIC men, aided by Auxies, indiscriminately sprayed bullets into the crowd at a football game, fatally wounding 14 civilians.  This was a reprisal massacre in response to the IRA's killing of 15 British intelligence operatives.  In other words, in response to the killing of spies during a war, the British-run police forces opened fire on a crowd of non-combatants.

This is one reason why, when people say things like: "Say what you like about Churchill, he was the man we needed during the war", I tend to ask: "Which war?"

Saturday, 14 April 2012

How Curses Work 3.5: Mythoimperialismo

Imperialism lies not just in the physical violence of invasion, domination, exploitation and subjugation, but also in the cultural violence of the appropriation and representation of the subjugated.

This is how exploitation and domination always works.  Patriarchy's domination of women is expressed in the marginalization, infantilization and suffocating sexualization of the female image in culture, the relentless portrayal of the woman as secondary, as an adjunct, as a commodity, as a servant or helpmate, as a source of male pleasure and satisfaction.  So the violence of imperialism is also expressed in the representation of the subjugated peoples as inferior and/or dangerous, by the plundering of their stories, histories, images, ideas, practices, customs, languages, discourses, art, architecture, etc., and their transformation into aspects of the dominant culture of the imperialist.

The subject culture is usually thus shown to be inherently deserving of domination, inherently savage, childlike, irrational and sinister.  If the subject culture is not demonized, it is usually infantilized, fanaticized (even their bravery is not real bravery but rather fanatical zeal from savages who do not feel pain or fear death the way we civilized people do), or shown as shambolic, idiotic and comic.  Needless to say, any resistance to imperial domination, or violent reaction against it, is generalised and used as evidence of the fanaticism and savagery of the dominated.

The imperialism of the modern age - beyond the brutal reality of bullets and plunder, and beyond the underlying system of states competing globally when their geopolitical priorities converge with those of their national concentrations of capital - is a system of myths.  It is as important to promulgate myths among the people of the imperial nation as it is to foist them on the victims.  One of the most enduring myths of imperialism is that the victims are to blame for their own plight.  This, together with a whole raft of inferiority complexes, is internalized by colonized people.  But it is also internalized by the colonizing nation.  This manifests itself in various versions.  There is, for instance, the 'it's for their own good' version, which says that the colonized benefit from colonialism, because colonialism brings them the benefits of 'civilization' (i.e. white Anglo-Saxon Christianity or modern secular liberal democracy, depending on which era the ideology comes from) to people who desperately need it.  This is closely related to the demonizing of the colonized.  The dual nature of the 'native' in all colonialist ideology is that they are "half-devil and half-child".

Our imperialism needs its ideological myths, just as much as the imperialism of the past... the really scary thing is that we keep coming up with the same myths about the same people... probably because we keep needing those myths as a cultural blindfold to stop ourselves seeing imperialism for what it is.

These are the merest banalities.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Grinding Engines

The mechanical sciences attained to a degree of perfection which, though obscurely foreseen by Lord Bacon, it had been accounted madness to have prophesied in a preceding age. Commerce was pursued with a perpetually increasing vigour, and the same area of the Earth was perpetually compelled to furnish more and more subsistence. The means and sources of knowledge were thus increased together with knowledge itself, and the instruments of knowledge. The benefit of this increase of the powers of man became, in consequence of the inartificial forms into which mankind was distributed, an instrument of his additional evil. The capabilities of happiness were increased, and applied to the augmentation of misery. Modern society is thus an engine assumed to be for useful purposes, whose force is by a system of subtle mechanism augmented to the highest pitch, but which, instead of grinding corn or raising water acts against itself and is perpetually wearing away or breaking to pieces the wheels of which it is composed.
- Percy Bysshe Shelley, A Philosophical View of Reform, 1819-1820 

Silence. It flashed from the woodwork and the walls; it smote him with an awful, total power, as if generated by a vast mill. It rose from the floor, up out of the tattered gray wall-to-wall carpeting. It unleashed itself from the broken and semi-broken appliances in the kitchen, the dead machines which hadn't worked in all the time Isidore had lived here. From the useless pole lamp in the living room it oozed out, meshing with the empty and wordless descent of itself from the fly-specked ceiling. It managed in fact to emerge from every object within his range of vision, as if it — the silence meant to supplant all things tangible. Hence it assailed not only his ears but his eyes; as he stood by the inert TV set he experienced the silence as visible and, in its own way, alive. Alive! He had often felt its austere approach before; when it came it burst in without subtlety, evidently unable to wait. The silence of the world could not rein back its greed. Not any longer. Not when it had virtually won. 
He wondered, then, if the others who had remained on Earth experienced the void this way. Or was it peculiar to his peculiar biological identity, a freak generated by his inept sensory apparatus? Interesting question, Isidore thought. But whom could he compare notes with? He lived alone in this deteriorating, blind building of a thousand uninhabited apartments, which like all its counterparts, fell, day by day, into greater entropic ruin.  Eventually everything within the building would merge, would be faceless and identical, mere pudding-like kipple piled to the ceiling of each apartment. And, after that, the uncared-for building itself would settle into shapelessness, buried under the ubiquity of the dust. By then, naturally, he himself would be dead, another interesting event to anticipate as he stood here in his stricken living room atone with the lungless, all-penetrating, masterful world-silence.
- Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Entropy is a concern of science-fiction as a whole.

SF - with its concentration upon imagined future history, the elision of past technology with future technology, encounters with alien species further down the road of technological advancement than us and, last but not least, time travel - seems especially concerned with historical transformation, particularly with regards to technology.

Humans seem to have a tendency to imagine future disaster, or at least future decay, as a way of expressing our perception that our own world is winding down and wobbling on the brink.  This may be an inherent human feeling (like the seemingly inevitable perception that younger generations are worse than our own, which Plato was banging on about thousands of years ago).

We’re all time travellers, in a way. We all travel from ‘the old days’ into uncertain futures. This feeling has become especially acute for humans living in the modern era, when the forces of production unleashed by the capitalist mode have achieved things which previous generations would have considered to be impossible except through sorcery. As Marx and Engels put it in The Communist Manifesto, as they attempted to express the way the emerging capitalist system was changing all human experience:

Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real condition of life and his relations with his kind.

Capitalism began to revolutionise human life to an unprecedented degree, in unprecedented ways and at unprecedented speed, through the arrival of mass production, the factory system, technology, etc. The level and speed at which things changed massively increased.  Technology is a platform from which more sophisticated levels of technology may be attained, just as every scientific advance stems from earlier discoveries… moreover, since the economic basis of the technological revolution was industry, i.e. capitalism, the constant need to revolutionise the system was built into the system. Capitalists must always increase production, invest in new techniques and methods of production, pioneer new products, lower production costs, expand into new markets, etc. Capital breeds capital… and capital must be fed back into the process of expanding the productive forces. Every capitalist does this, for fear of being outstripped and put out of business.

Nevertheless, despite the dynamism of the system and the incredible material progress that it has brought, capitalism is inherently entropic.

Capitalism gave rise to the concept of entropy in the first place.   Thermodynamics (of which entropy is, as we know, the 'second law') - and with it much of modern physics -  was a scientific notion arrived at because of the Industrial Revolution, because the engineers wanted to know how their engines worked, why they didn't work, why they wound down, how they could be stopped from winding down and how they could be made to work better, stronger, faster, harder, longer. The connection continues: the application of entropy to Information Theory came from within the Rand Corporation.

Capitalism generates technological commodities which gradually run down, either in relative terms (i.e. becoming less efficient than new technology) or in absolute terms (i.e. in that they gradually get worn and used and tired) or in both.

This process generates wastage of technology. We’ve all been to the tip and seen those piles of old TVs, cookers, microwaves, freezers, etc. These are phenomena of modernity. I don’t mean that nothing decayed or fell apart in the Middle Ages or the Ancient world (of course it did), but the speed at which we produce more and more technology also increases the speed at which our world fills with technology that has become obsolete, decrepit, malfunctioning and abandoned.  The lives of humans in pre-modern, pre-technological societies are/were fundamentally dominated by endlessly repeating cycles embedded in nature.  The lives of humans in modern, technological society have many of the same cycles, but are increasingly dominated by the onward rush of change that comes with the continual revolutionizing of the productive forces.

Modernity has fundamentally reversed the old relationship humanity used to have with its creations, tools and machines.  For most of human history, the technological creations outlived the creators, both in general and often in particular.  The concept of the waterwheel would outlive the miller; often the particular wheel with which he worked would outlast him.  Now, humans outlive almost all their technological creations, except the most basic and/or monumental, like buildings... and even they have been changed, in both design practices and materials, almost beyond recognition.  The surgeon outlives successive generations of up-to-the-minute surgical tools, the web-designer outlives the most advanced hardware and software every year or so.  They even live to see the fundamental principles revolutionised.

The world that Plato died in was more or less the world he was born in, at least in terms of technology, and at least compared to us. To him, computers would have seemed like magic.  In 1980, Christopher H. Bidmead was able to write a script in which the Doctor expresses surprise that a computer retains information even when switched off. When the people who watched that episode as children (i.e. people like me) die… well, who knows?  Computers themselves may be obsolete by then.  But the undreamt-of advances of the future will leave the increasingly rickety state-of-the-art-circa-2012 standing... or more likely rotting.  Every new mp3 player or mobile phone or digital camera entails older models thrown in the scrap. DVD and Blu-Ray entailed piles of discarded old VHS tapes.  Every newly-purchased gadget means another of those little plastic-coated wire things that tie the brand new cables and leads into a neat bow.  Every DVD or CD bought means adding to the mountains of cellophane in which they come wrapped.

This is just the tip of the shitberg. From the earliest days of the industrial revolution – long before what we know as the green movement - people had been noticing the way that industrial technology generates wastage, pollution and rubbish as by-products. The railways were themselves the result of a staggering development of the productive forces of society, and their effects fed dialectically back into the system, contributing to yet more staggering development. But the combustion engine produced an enormous need to tear energy from the earth in the form of coal, it belched smoke, produced grease and dirt… and all its component parts were subject to all the wear and tear of shoe leather or flint hammers or any other tool. The gears and wheels and tracks wore away, stopped functioning properly, needed replacing, were torn out and discarded when superior innovations came along.

Time has always been, as Ovid put it, “the devourer of all things”, but it is only in the modern era – the era of capitalist industry and mass technology – that we humans have seen such impermeable and ubiquitous evidence of decay, wear and tear, abrasion, clutter and accelerating obsolescence. It surrounds us now. It demonstrates the impermanence of the things we make.  It lurks behind the latest innovations, waiting for their time to come.  And it is our creation.

It was one thing to see the natural world wither every autumn and regenerate itself every spring… these days we watch our own wondrous creations fall apart all around us, all the time, everywhere, no matter what we do. And unlike dead leaves, spent batteries don’t pass back into the soil from which they came. They sit on rubbish heaps. They engorge landfills. They float in canals. If we don’t trouble to do anything about it, they fill our drawers. And every time we open the drawer, they’re still there. Pooled in entropic uselessness. Production and consumption culminating in static malfunction. Recycling is an attempt to fend off industrial entropy as well as environmental devastation… but even the recycling collection vans belch out fumes; even the engines and crushers and pulpers and sievers of the recycling plant eventually run down.

That other great product of the modern age - world-scale, technological, industrial warfare - also creates entropy in massive doses.  All the machinery of modern war is industrially produced and industrially used.  The tanks, the machine guns, the planes, the bombs, the drones, the smart missiles, the body armour, the computer guidance systems, the depleted uranium-coated shells, the armour piercing rounds... they're all subject to the same pressures as all other industrial commodities.  Just like the mp3 players, the war machines are mass produced for profit.  Just like all machines, the military hardware wears down.  The newer model is designed and produced and sold.  A new missile system is bought by a government and all the old warheads are obsolete.  The unused weapons degrade and become useless.  The weapons that are used get bashed and battered, get sprayed with bullets or blown up (like the men who are sent to fire them).  Either that, or their gears grind and shread as the desert sand gets into their innards.  War is often said to lead to technological innovation, what with necessity being the mother of invention.  We might want to wonder how we define "necessity" in this context.

 And we might want to remember, alongside all the innovation, how much destruction war creates.  It leaves not only piles of expended and exhausted weapons, but cities reduced to rubble, the technological commodities that filled them turned to so many smithereens.  The wars that smash the wonders of the modern age to fragments are themselves products of the modern age.

The system that created the drive for hegemony, control of resources and markets which lead to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, also created the materiel which made the invasion possible... much of which was smashed, pulverised and incinerated in the process (to say nothing of the people who were turned to mincemeat or vapour).

But the loss of materiel simply refreshed the market for their products.  The debris piles grow, constantly refreshed by the engines of modernity.  In this sense, warfare is just the fastest, most extreme manifestation of the tendency inherent in capitalism towards the creation, circulation and consumption of commodities.

Modern warfare is industrial, technological... and it is like a frenzied, violent dramatization of the boom and slump cycle - the irresolvable and unreformable contradiction at the heart of capitalism.

This is where we loop back to the start and find the most basic reasons and ways in which capitalism is entropic.

It is the very necessity of accumulation to capitalists that causes crises.  In order to win in the market, the capitalist must invest in productivity.  He must produce his goods or services better, faster, cheaper.  He must drive down prices.  The primary way he can do this while continuing to turn a profit is to make workers more productive by investing in the machinery and techniques they use in the workplace.  But, in doing this, the capitalist changes the ratios.  The worker becomes more and more swamped by, integrated in and subordinate to machinery and systems.

The labour power of the worker is the source of exchange value, which appears in the market as price.  Human labour power is the only commodity that creates new value.  A worker spends only part of each working day creating the amount of value needed to perpetuate their own existence, the rest of the day is spent producing surplus value which goes to the capitalist.  The machinery used in the production process transmits some of the value embedded in it to the products, but cannot produce new value.  By itself, it can do nothing.  It must be set in motion and controlled by human labour power.  And even the value that the machinery does transmit (depreciating all the while) was itself created by the human labour power that created the machine.  When the capitalist pours surplus value back into the system, when he invests in machinery, he invests in that part of the production process that cannot create new value.  This is, ultimately, why prices drop: because the value (i.e. labour time) embedded in the product decreases.  This is all fine and dandy for the first capitalist to make the technical innovation, buy the better machine, automate more of the factory, develop the new and better software, etc... and, in the first instance, it helps him succeed against his competition.  But, over time, more capitalists invest in the same or better innovations, techniques and machines... they must, in order to accumulate in order to compete... and the level of profit across the entire system falls.

This is a tendency that asserts itself over time.  There are, as Marx readily allowed, countervailing tendencies than can retard or offset the falling rate of profit.  But, overall and over time, the tendency shows.  This analysis has been controversial but is readily and convincingly defencible.  Moreover, empirical data bears it out.  The current global recession was caused, at the most fundamental level, by just such a long term decline and stagnation of profitability.

Capitalism drives itself into chaos and crisis even as it accumulates.... because it accumulates.  It’s an inherent aspect of the system, to grind the engines until they burst apart.

Crisis leads to the wastage and destruction of excess capital.  Firms go bust.  Factories and offices close.  People are laid off.  Warehouses stagnate filled with unsold and unsaleable goods.  Town centres empty of going concerns.  Increasingly penurious ex-consumers walk past vacated shops and stare through the dirty windows - the 'Everything Must Go' posters growing faded and tatty; the sellotape holding them up turning yellow and dry - into haunted rooms occupied by nothing but worn carpet and unopened mail.  Empty facilities sit rusting in stasis.  This decay and waste reduces the amount of capital in the system, thus opening up the possibility of a restoration of profit to the average.  It was the accumulation of capital that lead to the fall, remember.

Eventually, the limping casualties that are still viable are gobbled up by the predators big enough to survive the recession.  These leviathans heave the system back out of crisis and the cycle begins again.  But capital becomes ever more concentrated and centralized into the hands of the great predators.  Their power becomes so great that their interests merge with that of the nation state.  Competition and accumulation are played out at the level of global imperialist competition.  Nation states squabble over access to, shares of, control over resources and markets.  They squabble because their existence is ever more bound up with increasingly concentrated and centralized capital.

The system generates entropy at every level.

It even generates entropy of different kinds at different levels of the concept.

Slump generates stasis and dereliction.

Boom generates depreciation and the proliferation of technological clutter and decay.

War generates massive destruction and wastage.

Peace generates the hegemony of huge capitals that standardize and homogenize everything into a vast stream of indistinguishable, banal, bland cultural porridge.  Even without the hyper-consumerism in which we now live, photography and mass production created the stripping away of the aura of the individual work of art, the vertigo of endless reproduction.

If capitalism manages to raise the productive forces as far as some think it will... if it one day creates nanotechnology that will alter matter at the ceullular, or even molecular level... there is a mooted possibility that such technology will result in the reduction of all matter into an undifferentiated mass of shuffled, randomized, unpredictable, informationless, apocalyptic unstuff.

This is the ecophagic apocalypse of the 'grey goo' scenario.  It has fascinated writers of science fiction more than it has genuinely worried scientists.  This is because it ties directly into something that we all know and feel and see about the world of technology, industry and modernity (of capitalism): that it has entropy woven into its fabric.

The world of the machine is - from certain angles - a world of monsters; monsters that champ and chew and digest and excrete human experience.

We live in the shit of Moloch.  And nothing is more entropic than shit.


To recap:

Modernity, which is the age of mass industrial technology, is thus also the age of science, whence comes the concept of entropy.  The scientific concept of entropy, besides addressing concerns of industry and science, also expresses - or lends itself to analogies which express - longstanding human anxieties about time, decay, death, etc.  In the modern age, which is the age of capitalism (and hence of mass production and overproduction of commodities), such anxieties are ramped up beyond any level before known in human culture because the modern age is an age of omnipresent wastage, rubbish, obsolescence, clutter, malfunction and destruction.

To expand a bit:

In the past, anxieties about time and decay were not exacerbated by technology and industrial production (for the simple reason that they did not yet exist, or predominate).  Such anxieties were about age and illness and death.  They were treated in myths, legends, fairytales, etc., with their seemingly endless concern with young girls and crones, fertility of land linked to human fertility, death and rebirth, imprisonment, eternal guardianship, etc.  Myths and legends and fairytales endlessly riff on order turned to chaos, chaos turned to order, potential wasted, youth lost, age consuming youth, youth banishing age, fertility banishing barrenness, and so on.

Science fiction is, I think, the reiteration of myth and legend in the age of modernity, hence in the idioms of technology.  There's a definition of sci-fi as being "about the relationship between man and his tools"... yet the "tools" that concern sci-fi are robots, spaceships, computers, etc... all of which are recognisably projections of trends or possibilities within modern industrial technology.  That's why it isn't sci-fi when ancient legends tell of magic swords, but it is sci-fi when writers in the 19th-21st centuries tell of advanced machines that can fly people between the stars.

Therefore, the preoccupation of science fiction - or at least certain strands of science fiction - with entropy is hardly surprising.  SF is the literary/cultural form that is more a product of modernity than any other.  It might be the said to be the adaptation of the most basic forms of storytelling to the landscape (or culturescape) of a world dominated by modern capitalism.  SF is the mythic expression of frenzied technological innovation, general commodity production, overproduction, overaccumulation, obsolescence, re-investment and re-innovation, more production, more obsolescence, more rubbish tips, and so on.

Entropy might just be a key link in this chain.  It is an idea that arose from, and is of great utility to, modernity.  It is an idea expressed in and by the industrial machine, the technologeme.  It expresses something inherent and unavoidable within all technology.  It refers to something that is more visible and intense in all our lives because of mass production.  It also provides a link to older forms of discourse that express ancient human concerns.  After all, anxieties about age, illness, infertility and death have not gone away... they have just been supplemented by anxieties about the aging, malfunctioning, failure and threatening behaviour of technology and industrial products.

Entropy might just be the missing link between myth and science-fiction.

It might just be why the quintessential modern literary/cultural genre of the machine age also became - so often and on so many levels - a reiteration of myth.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

How Curses Work 3: That Whole Rabbits/Tennis Connection There

I always dimly assumed that Stephen Harris - whatever combination of real people he may pseudonymically represent - got the idea for a story about pyramids on Mars from all that guff about there supposedly being pyramids and giant monkey faces on Mars.

However, I learn that the 'face' and 'pyramids' on Mars were not 'discovered' until the NASA Viking missions, which didn't snap pictures of the region of Mars known as Cydonia (where all the pyramids, town squares and giant useless chimp portraits are said to be) until after 'Pyramids of Mars' was broadcast.

The whole pyramids / Mars thing is alive and well today, beyond Who-dom.  Viz, this species of utter balls:

This kind of drivel has not been stopped - or even slowed - by better and more detailed images taken by NASA since.

Here, for instance is an image of the 'pyramid', taken by Mars Global Surveyor in 2001:

Self-evidently NOT an artificial, architectural structure, I'm sure you'll agree.  (If you don't, you have no business reading this blog.  Go away immediately.)

Here, is the spooky 'simian' 'face' on Mars, imaged by Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2007:

Looks exactly like Roddy McDowell in Planet of Apes, doesn't it?

And yet, despite the fact that we now have very detailed images of this LUMP OF ROCK clearly showing it to NOT be a sculpted face, a brief (and depressing) googling session will turn up wonders such as this...

Sometimes, scientists must wonder why they bloody bloody bloody-well bloody bother.

But, yet again it seems, good old Who may claim to have 'got there first'.  Hinchcliffe and Holmes did the pyramids / Mars thing before anybody thought there were any Martian pyramids.  That's almost as good as predicting a woman Prime Minister and the existence of Jim'll Fix It... and it tops Bob Holmes' previous best of satirising Star Trek: The Next Generation before most British people had even seen Kirk and Spock.

Back before Viking, if Mars had structures (an idea which the Mariner missions had already dented), they were supposed to be canals... even though the guy who first talked about Martian canals was being metaphorical.  In Italian.

Of course, most of 'Pyramids of Mars' is a concentrated rip-off of Hammer's The Mummy with some von Daniken-esque seasoning... but still, it seems to have done something original.  "Egyptology and Mars", as Lawrence Scarman put it, before such a connection had appeared elsewhere.

(If anyone knows of previous connections, please do let me know.)

Even some of those who take the pyramid/face stuff seriously seem happily aware of Doctor Who's prior claim:

So - without wanting to become like one of those pompous bumholes like David Aaronovitch (yes, a relation) who write smug, chin-scratchy things about conspiracy theorists and homeopaths - what does this all mean?

After a cursory glance at many of the sites where people pick over photos of Mars looking for evidence of alien buildings, I'm very tempted to wonder about the readiness of our culture to associate Mars with the motifs of the ancient East.

Much of this stuff is just turgid von Danikenism.  But von Daniken was himself a practitioner (at the wacky end) of a patronising attitude towards ancient, non-European cultures... all of it based on the implicit assumption that there is something inherently puzzling about the idea that 'primitives' in Africa, Asia and pre-Columbian America could possibly create great art or architecture or technology out of their own culture without the intervention of alien astronauts.

This is strangely mirrored in the Nigel Knealey way in which 'Pyramids of Mars' essentially obviates the claim of ancient Egyptians to having created their own culture.  Apparently, they just copied all their gods and stuff from... you guessed it... from alien astronauts.

This sort of thing pops up again and again.  'Death to the Daleks' invokes the Exxilons to explain how Peruvians could possibly have built their own temples.  In 'City of Death', Scaroth claims that he "caused the pyramids to be built".  Meanwhile, he never claims that he gave Leonardo any ideas... apparently the white European fella from the early modern period can achieve his feats of cultural greatness without any help from old wormface.

Of course, there are an awful lot of social scientists who harbour Eurocentric assumptions that are, in their way, hardly a million miles away from such stuff... so I think I'll stop laying into soft targets like people who really think there are monkey faces on Mars, or dead TV script writers.