A Predator of Information

Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.

Against Reactionary Anti-Indutrialism

20 July 2019 7:59 PM (society | politics)

I'm occasionally tempted to write about a parallel world of syndicates and voluntarism where there's a global warming crisis and none of the syndicates will move quickly to change their practices, each pointing fingers at the other, having the Congress of Syndicates talk a lot about how something needs to be done and any concrete proposal shouted down as Authoritarian. Up until someone named Pleasant Small writes a book called All is Transformed by These where they outline that, in the past, less drastic action may have been possible, but now the only way to address global warming is by a complete societal transformation, instituting the discipline of a capitalist market and enacting a carbon tax so that everyone is compelled by the coercive law of competition to lower carbon emissions and save the environment.

This isn't because I don't care about global warming nor because I don't favor world socialism and the deconstruction of private property. It's because there's no obvious reason to believe that enacting world socialism will provide a near-term remediation of climate change. (And we need a near-term remediation.) If you have a problem you have to address quickly, an obvious First Step is not “Upend and reconstruct the social and economic order.” This kind of rhetoric seems to flow from the Continental pathology that infects much of the left and is hostile to the notion of orthogonality: if socialism is good and addressing climate change is good, then each must imply the other. It's a mindset that doesn't recognize competing goods.

Reading an article by Peter Gelderloos put me in mind of these things by virtue of how bad it is. I haven't read anything else by this author and now I don't really have any intention to. The entire article has a weird appeal to naturalness, ignorance, and a romance for the mythical past that I usually associate with conservatism.

[…]and many anarchists refuse to offer any proposal at all, arguing that if society liberates itself from State and capitalism, it will change organically, not on the lines of any blueprint. Besides, the attitude of policy, seeing the world from above and imposing changes, is inextricable from the culture that is responsible for destroying the planet and oppressing its inhabitants.

Sums up my disdain for many currents in Marxism and Anarchism. I like Syndicalists; syndicalists have the distinct advantage of having a detailed, well-conceived idea about how the world they want should work. Others seem to have the prescription of “Well, if you would only break everything I dislike with no thought for what should replace it, everything will take care of itself!” I am not a fan. Any social theory that does not contain a whole book of receipts for the cookshops of the future is bankrupt, doubly so for any that philosophically rejects the notion that they might be desirable.

Fortunately, Gelderloos provides some. Unfortunately, they aren't any good. I won't go line by line, but rather theme-by-theme. Since the question of what people eat is pretty important on the hierarchy of needs, let's start with that. For all their faults, Marx loved industry. They were able to see some things that capitalism did well and wanted to preserve them into the future. Gelderloos knows they don't want ‘industrial’ agriculture. Especially agriculture that uses ‘chemicals’ and ‘genetic engineering’. There's a good bit of forced technological regression in this world. In our world even owners of small farms (or large lawns, but death to lawns!) use industrial farming equipment; Gelderloos allows that several farms together might share one plow or tractor.

There's a case to be made that in a post-property society we wouldn't need as many tractors as we do now, that collective holdings of property would reduce the amount of idle capacity, and that the resources used to construct and maintain them could be used for some other purpose. This is an example of one of the internal contradictions in capitalism: that the market drives toward greater efficiencies, that larger scales allow better planning and logistics and less waste, but that the construction of such monopolies ultimately destroys the market and competition. For me, the point of deconstructing private property has always been to intensify these kinds of large-scale efficiencies by integrating them across the economy, pursuing good over a larger domain, and removing the perversity of short-term profits awarded by executives to themselves.

Gelderloos, on the other hand, just seems to have an æsthetic of what they imagine ‘natural’ and ‘healthy’ to look like. They seem to forget just how immiserating un-industrialized agricultural labor is (a point that primitivists will happily make when comparing early agriculture to hunter-gatherer societies). I also have certain questions about how we plan to feed the earth's population in a sustainable way while throwing out the Green Revolution. Are there mass graves somewhere off-screen from all the people who starved to death? Is that why everyone in this population is armed and trained in self-defense? So their mutualist society could fight off all the starving people trying to get food? Or did the Revolution, as Revolutions tend to, produce a few Stalins and Maos that killed off a few billion people?

There are, actually, good points to be made for local food production and polyculture: like resilience in the face of natural disasters. (Your food supply doesn't get wiped out by a flood or drought in one area if it's spread all over.), and disease resistance. There are arguments against, like that we end up using more land. I would, currently, tend to favor large, intensive, industrial agricultural projects scattered around and between cities connected up via high speed rail, with different plots favoring different strains of similar plants and rotating through them to avoid accumulating disease and pest burdens, but that's just a hunch. What would actually determine it is research and analysis of costs and benefits, optimizing for a large, stable food supply with low risk and environmental impact. Except!… except… did you know that quantitative value and the mindset of policy and analysis on the macro-scale are themselves engines of oppression and ecological destruction? Either that or calling them that is a convenient way to preserve one's æsthetic social order from analysis.

Medicine, we're told, remediates symptoms well, but inherently hates the body. Instead our anarchist utopia will have homeopathy, herbalism, accupuncture, and massage. (I don't have anything against massage, and some herbs can be a least-bad alternative if you can't get actual purified medicines.) They no longer have the 'super-viruses created under capitalism'(Huh‽ Is this a conspiracy theory about AIDS or do they not know that antibiotic resistance is a property of bacteria?) I find myself wondering if Gelderloos is anti-vaccine, given the support for homeopathy. One interesting thing is the idea that people will be less exposed to disease. Global travel does bring disease from the four corners of the earth, but what creates those diseases is humans living in close quarters with livestock. That's why civilizations with widespread domestication of livestock developed and exported diseases to the rest of the world. That's why the occasional outbreaks of Ebola and the origination of AIDS are traced to bushmeat. That's why the Great Influenza of World War I likely came from soldiers and animals crowding together near the front lines and most influenzas now come from the keeping of pigs and poultry in dense human populations.

In this future, we are told, most energy will come from burning agricultural waste (might I mention that genetic engineering has already been used to create plants that produce less agricultural waste and impoverish the soil less-per-calorie due to not producing as much stalk?), supplemented with solar and wind energy. Most buildings simply won't have continuous power. Is this because Gelderloos has reason to think that solar and wind are insufficient to meet even the modest domestic demands they envision? There are problem with wind and solar, of course: the wind doesn't blow and the sun doesn't shine in all places as consistently as we'd like. This is why people with an actual interest in climate change are working on energy storage solutions. I live in place where we have an abundance of water, and so when we have excess power we pump it uphill, then when we need power we let it flow back downhill through turbines. We also have nuclear power plants. Stupid places, like Germany, close all their nuclear power plants and burn coal. Stupider places burn agricultural waste. High temperature industrial incineration can produce energy without destroying your air quality. Small scale residential burning of wood and agricultural waste will both destroy your air quality and have a good chance of burning your house down due to all the burning embers that go up the chimney. (This is why you should never burn your Christmas tree in a fire. Air quality concerns are the real reason why even rural areas try to prevent people from burning trash in backyard fire pits.)

I also find myself wondering how the local electricity guilds decide who gets power when? Are they like the Homeowner's Association of the city? Gelderloos talks a lot about Shaming to enforce social norms, and people who violate them being denied food and non-essential medical care (which, given that it's homeopathy, would be ‘all of it’). Does the Electricity Guild cut your power if they don't like what you're doing? If the communal theaters show films that the Electricity Guild thinks are counter-revolutionary do the lights go out? This could go down an entire rabbit-hole of why I don't trust any ‘anarchist’ society that claims to enforce norms by ‘voluntary’, ‘individual’ action that is defined not to be coercion (because coercion is something other people do), but instead I'll point out that I would want solutions like how to distribute scarce power to be made by a democratically backed technocracy on the local level, with all its decisions and rationales transparent and the understanding that cutting off someone's power is a coercive act done against them. Of course in a really sane world, the problems of renewable energy would be ameliorated by means like nuclear, energy storage, and a continent-scale supergrid. Supergrids don't imply anything about centralization, being ultimately a tool of collective action. Freed from a profit motive, long distance power shipping under a congress of local guilds or utilities would work quite well. (Also, while Gelderloos talks a lot about variations in life, what happens if people start trying to get a nuclear power plant working? Do people come from all around to surround their city shouting 'Shame!' at them and ‘noncoercively’ blocking the ways in and out?)

Gelderloos seems to lack a grasp of how machines work. They talk a lot about scavenging shopping malls for parts, but just as a trivial example, when you're building power generating equipment, you want really good magnets. Of the sort not in consumer goods because they're not needed and also they would destroy your credit cards and have a good chance of destroying your hand if you got it between two of them. Even small, powerful magnets were removed from the consumer supply because they kept getting swallowed and crushing together disparate parts of children's intestines, choking off the blood supply. You want this because otherwise you're throwing away much of the power that your wind vanes capture, and putting carbon (and smog) into the air from your agricultural waste that doesn't get turned into electric power. I might add that making solar panels is non-trivial as a thing you can your friend can just up and decide to do without a robust industrial base. Even for manufacturing relatively low-tech goods like bicycles you'd really like to have carbide drills, high performance alloys for cutting steel, …actually good steel come to that. They imagine computers (perhaps more than one per neighborhood!) and industrial controllers made from the surplus microchips of the generations past. What happens when they run out?

They mention 'slower but cleaner' production. Do they mean vacuum tubes? Are we going to set up the capitalist past as a golden age of wonders whose artifacts we're hoarding and whose knowledge of manufacture has been lost? Either that or you'll have to bite the bullet and do silicon fabrication of some sort. A PDP-11 drew 700 watts and has laughably little computational power compared to a modern machine drawing a fraction of that, and that's assuming you manage to get all the way up to TTL integrated circuits instead of all-transistors or (heaven defend us) tubes. Are all the buses made locally? The rails for all the trains? At a certain point you're either going to have to jettison the localist dogma and have manufacturing centers that specialize in things in bulk (and the more bulk the better) and export them, or have the unused capacity and environmental impact of solar panel manufacture, silicon fabrication, steel-making, and the like be a cost everyone has to absorb. Of course I can imagine technological centers that build interesting things and have an intellectual research community pulling the best and brightest away, until the anti-industrial, localist conservative anarchist traditionalists decide to declare the whole thing ‘unnatural’ and come up with some critique equating technology to ‘fascism’ and engage in some good, old-fashioned ‘community self-defense’.

The real problem here is that flavors of anarchism (or other political thought, for that matter. Just look at the train-wreck of Continental Capitalism that is the Austrian school) that grows in the soil of the Continental tradition tend to be…bad. Everything comes down to the æsthetic and narrative and symbolic and the factual is made to fit. Gelderloos doesn't like the ‘industrial’ but they think that ‘local’ is pretty. Since MRI machines and X-Rays and large-scale drug manufacture don't fit in that model, it's a good thing that they all come from a the body-hating notion of 'medicine' and that homeopathy is how you actually heal people. All the details of how power generation and manufacture actually work get swept under the rug for a romantic ideal of local self-sufficiency and mining an infinite wealth of capitalist overproduction.

I often wonder if the focus on alternative medicine one sees on the Continental left, the anti-technology sentiments, and the occasional burst of anti-science privileging of subjectivity has its roots in a similar impulse as Fundamentalist Christianity. For the Fundamentalist Christian, the Spirit is the teacher and studying texts in the original language and learning history well enough to interpret them in context are elitist and authoritarian. This causes Fundamentalist denominations to fracture into a collection of micro-traditions who shun and feud with each other (after all, if the spirit is the teacher and two groups disagree, at least one of them must be out of communion with the spirit, or worse.)

I often see something similar on the Continental left. Medical or other external, objective knowledge means that you can be objectively wrong. To one way of thinking, there's a natural 'power' that people who know things that makes people uncomfortable. On the other hand in the kind of socialist, egalitarian society we hope to create, this kind of 'power' is evenly distributed. Everyone would have the means and resources to learn about the world, challenge what is known, and discover knew things, which makes the anti-objective attitude the real anachronistic remnant of capitalism. Similarly, the Continental tradition fractures into numerous micro-traditions, each tracing lineages back to one author or another, existing as a commentary on them, feuding with other commentaries. Nobody (except historians) cares about the true interpretation of Keynes's, Gödel's, or Newton's original texts; the truth is assumed to be Out There and whatever they wrote is challenged, adopted, verified, changed, rejected, and sometimes people will revisit a footnote to see if they had a good idea that had been neglected. While people spill barrels of ink on the subject of the True Reading of Marx or Hegel and attempt to reinterpret Adorno's views on Jazz in ways that make them not quite as laughable. It reminds me of the way the Catholic church treats scripture and early church fathers as an original Revelation that must be studied and commented on, reinterpreted, but never rejected and always returned to. Nobody would tell you “Oh, you can't understand macroeconomic until you read Keynes!”, but people are repeatedly told that they have to read Marx's Capital. That Marx and Engels haven't been rendered superfluous as the introduction to communism has always struck me as a sign of fatuity in the Continental left. (Ironically, I like reading original source texts, but this is more from literary and historical interest than domain interest. Reading Adam Smith didn't teach me anything I didn't know before about economics, but taught me a lot about the development of the theory of economics; the first volume of Capital is actually a legitimately well-constructed work of prose, and it's interesting to see how Marx positions themself relative to other economists.)

I also get the distinct impression that if we were to find a high output, reliable source of clean energy (fusion, say), that Gelderloos would be a bit unhappy about that, and perhaps try to come up with some reason why it was bad and shouldn't be used. The idea of many areas simply being 'not worth living in' absent large amounts of energy and this naturally leading to rewilding with environmentally beneficial consequences hints that way. I also sense it in their description of travel being slow and infrequent and ocean vessels limited to sail. It reminds me of other anarchists I've spoken to who almost seem to view global warming as a positive: lack of available energy will take machines out of manufacturing and make more jobs for people, and since we simply won't have the ability to make more stuff, people will be just have to develop a more community oriented, less materialistic way of life. Gelderloos seems to have picked up a reactionary notion of utopia that I'm tempted to describe as Hobbiton with trains where even urban life is heavily agrarian and fudged the world so nobody can go beyond that. (But they can be hunter-gatherers instead, if they want.) Compare this to the much more appealing left-utopia of Shulamith Firestone where, freed from capitalism, we push automation even further to create in the world a leisure class of ludic scholars and artists, re-engineer biology to free women of the unwanted and uncompensated labor of procreation, and emancipate children (and everyone else!) from the nuclear family.

Of course it doesn't have to be that way. You could have a socialist, communist, or anarchist society that doesn't hold rejection of quantitative, macroscale analysis as a founding principle or cherish a dogmatic fetishism of anti-industrial localism. We can have a pharmaceutical industry that does a better job of making and keeping people well, when we treat wellness as a social good to be supported rather than giving people every incentive to game an artificial intellectual property regime. We can have a continental supergrid with renewable energy backed by fission and possibly even fusion. Instead of a reactionary regress, we can continue to pursue basic research, genetically engineer crops to feed the world with less work, less water, and less environmental impact. We can even have a space program and send people to Mars.

The contrast of the factory and workshop is an interesting one to me. Gelderloos talks about people in workshops making things in a slower, more dignified way. A way that they would say is doubtless more ‘natural’. One of my parents was a journeyman tool and die maker who, before working for the auto industry, worked in various machine shops including a floating machine shop in the navy. I was an inquisitive child and asked lots of questions and they told me many things about it, and one thing I absorbed is that making one screw may be entertaining; having to make lots of screws is not. Having to spend hours hand-turning multiple pieces because they're an unusual pitch or gauge and you simply don't have any before you can go back to what you're actually trying to do is infuriating. The kind of deindustrialization that is proposed here seems to force all of our workshops to devote much more time than they would want to the equivalent of hand-turning screws. There is a tremendous advantage to the worker in having a ready base of industrially provided identical components.

And, again, it doesn't have to be this way. To me the workshop will become an important part of the future (perhaps collective or public ones derived from the hackerspaces of today), supported by automation and industry. Small-scale manufacturing could support the individual workman in ways never before imagined. In a future not all that distant from ours (and one that is saved from the regime of stultifying intellectual property that ours is headed for), designers and inventors could make individual or small-batch runs of fantastically complicated machines that would be incredibly labor intensive and time-consuming (if feasible at all) to make by hand and uneconomical to build outside of scale in a factory setting. Workspaces and tools of trade could be build one-off and individually tailored to individual body shape and dimension for everyone (improving the posture of generations to come).

I have had people complain that this is just the apotheosis of consumerism. That all I care about is everybody being able to have stuff. I wouldn't be the first person to have the means of production as a primary concern, and I'm a lot more interested in trying to minimize involuntary labor and remove material constraints than trying to use either for social goals. However, there are reasons to think people will be much less stuff-obsessed than in current capitalist society. We won't have a huge portion of our economic might going to the advertising industry and paying them to wage unceasing psychological warfare on all humankind, for one. For another, many of the economic factors underlying planned obsolescence, the 'model year' treadmill, and forced obsolescence won't exist. Also, an egalitarian economy will flatten out positional goods to the extent possible, destroy Veblen goods, and really take a hatchet to conspicuous consumption.

So, how do I think we should set up socialist or communist (I won't address anarchist, not be an anarchist myself) society that addresses global climate change? I think we should…enact a carbon tax to address the immediate problem of climate change. Then go about reforming our collective decision frameworks to allow us to start dismantling private property, starting with the most harmful and obvious parts of the regime. I could go on about Azure's Guide to Socialism, but this post is already getting long, and my basic point is that while we certainly want to have environmentalist concerns in place when enacting socialism, we let motivated reasoning drive us neither to economic changes under the aegis of environmentalism that fail to address environmental problems, nor to environmental assumptions that reshape our economy in harmful and unnecessary ways.

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