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Trotsky's Biggest Blindspot

These comments were originally posted as comments to the Online Opinion article What will disaffiliation from the Labor Party achieve for the ETU? of 1 July 2008.

daggett wrote: The free market capitalist system is an obvious failure and needs to be replaced by something else. I would still term the replacement 'socialism', although a form of socialism which takes into account the physical limitations of our badly degraded natural environment (See "Trotsky's Biggest Blindspot" by Sandy Irvine at http://candobetter.org/node/392)

Passy wrote: I've begun reading the article about Trotsky's biggest blindspot. Its crticism of Trotsky on the environment is based in part on the idea that there are limits to growth, or as the author puts it:

"Now there certainly could and should be specific advances in many aspects of modern life. The issue is the possibility of open-ended and across-the-board advancement. Contrary to Trotsky and most socialist thought, there are insuperable limits to what humans can sustainably do, with diminishing returns and increasingly negative trade-offs taking their toll."

I think the author is confusing two societies - socialist and capitalist. Certainly under capitalism there do appear to be limits. But actually the problem for capitalism is over-production.

I would contend that the grundnorm of capitalist society is the extraction of surplus value from workers and the accumulation of part of that surplus, profit, in an ongoing cycle of extraction of surplus and re-investment. It is this process, in my view, that is the fundamental cause of the environmental destruction going on. If this is correct, then to end that destruction we workers must end the profit system and replace it with a democratic society in which production occurs to satisfy human need. As Rosa Luxemburg wrote, the choice for humanity is socialism or barbarism. (And to preempt those on the right, Stalinism is not socialism, and neither was the Stalinist USSR a workers' state. It was state capitalist.)

I'd recommend a small pamphlet from Socialist Alternative (www.sa.org.au) on this. It's called Capitalism: It's Costing us the Earth. There are more sophisticated trotskyist or quasi-trotskyist analyses now available, building on Trotsky's work, thought and life, but this is a good start.

Sandy Irvine wrote: The critique of my essay on Trotsky (http://candobetter.org/node/392) seems to assume that the laws of geology, thermodynamics and ecology vary according to the relations of production. Not so! At present it is not just a matter of Peak Oil looming on the horizon but also Peak Soil and many other inherent limits to production beginning to bite. Socialists should be arguing that those with the biggest shoulders and fattest stomachs should bear the brunt of the contraction that now cannot be avoided.

References to support the above assertions can be found at:
www.sandyirvine.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk

Passy wrote: In response to Sandy maybe the relations of production have become a fetter on the further development of humanity and the task for the working class is to burst those chains and free humanity to address the environmental and other issues facing us. (I also think that we view "immutable" natural laws through the prism of the society in which we exist, crudely through the relations of production which prevail.)

...

Even under capitalism I am sceptical about peak oil, since the price mechanism creates the conditions for profitable exploitation of previously unprofitable reserves or new sources (eg oil sands in Canada) or new technologies and sources such as geothermal, wind power, solar power, tidal power and so on.

Indeed I wrote an article 25 years ago for the Nuclear Disarmament Party arguing for those alternatives and pointing out that although human need required their development it would not occur unless there was a profit to be made. This to me highlighted the conflict between profit and need.

I suspect the same argument could be made about peak soil (e.g. that heh solution is available or can be developed, but only outside the profit system). I don't know since this is the first time I have heard the phrase used. I'll do some chasing up to investigate it further (including reading Sandy's two references.)

Passy continued:
I found this browsing the net on Trotsky and the environment.

It raises some questions but does I think give an answer of sorts to Sandy's critique of Trotsky on the environment, including the quote from his Literature piece.

www.wsws.org/articles/2002/jun2002/envi-j01.shtml

Briefly for now:

As one who disputes that the former USSR and China were true socialist nations, I argue that it has neither been proven nor disproven that socialism can make possible the more efficient use of resources than the abysmally inefficient and iniquitous capitalist system. Nevertheless, if we assume that socialism can offer at least significant efficiencies over capitalism as I argue, we still should still accept that there are limitations to what the increases in efficiencies are possibilities are possible. Throughout most of the 20th and 21st centuries, most socialists have altogether denied that there are limits or have been vague and obfuscatory about what those limits are. They would have had us believe that everything, including overpopulation and rampant environmental destruction could be fixed once the attainment of socialism unleashed the claimed almost limitless creativity of humankind. What they have failed to acknowledge is that most of the apparent increase in human creativity of human history in recent centuries has directly correlated with the exploitation of non-renewable finite natural resources, particularly fossil fuels. When they are exhausted, even under a socialist system, we will, at best be struggling very hard to attain the productivity of even this capitalist society.

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James

I think capitalism is both a system of scarcity and of over-production within the paramaters of its created scarcity. This is because its driving force is production for profit. So the development of commodities occurs not to satisfy human need but to make a profit. The two are often not contiguous.

Food is on example. Enough food is produced to feed everyone adequately on the planet, now and I believe into the future. (Malthus was wrong then and he is wrong now, for the same reaons. Indeed his arguments were based on an extremely reactionary view of the world which saw the elite as the real humans and the hoi polloi as garbage.)

What stands in the way of feeding everyone now? It is not profitable to do so. Remove the profit motive and the overproduction of food (ie 3 bn people do not have enough money to buy enough food to avoid malnourishment or starvation) is removed and those in hunger can be fed.

To argue that there are immutable laws that mean we have reached our limits now is to agree with what Malthus argued. Yet the history of humanity shows in fact that food production has increased at a rate greater than population growth. To argue that we need to "think shrink" is to accept the capitalist ideas of scarcity and overproduction. It is perhaps to advocate a return to feudalism. It brings to mind Rosa Luxemburg's prophetic words that the choice for humanity is socialism or barbarism.

Removing the profit motive, with workers creating a society in which production is determined democratically to satisfy human need, means the current capitalist fetters on satisfying human need can be lifted and essential human needs like food, housing, clothing, education and medical care can be addressed for all of humanity, not just those with the money to afford it.

(This post is also a response to Passy's posts on an Online Opinion discussion forum in response to the article 'Populate or perish'? of 24 Jul 08.)

In the very broadest sense, Passy may be correct, when he wrote:

Is there any evidence we have passed our so called optimal population level? Just because it is blindingly obvious to you doesn't make it so, or correct.

No-one can definitively prove, that is, until it is too late, that the planet is over-populated to the point, where some theoretically better society than the one we have now, cannot rise to overcome all the problems that now seem intractable - exhaustion of fossil fuel reserves, exhaustion of stocks of rare metals, global warming, destruction of rainforests, extinction of other species, destruction of agricultural land, destruction of river systems, the lowering of underground water tables upon which much of the world's agriculture depends, the destruction of fish stocks, etc, etc.

However, on the basis of overwhelming data, it seems to me intuitively unlikely that even the most perfect, equitable and democratic possible form of social organisation would be sufficiently superior to capitalism as to enable to easily solution all of these problems, particularly if they were to be compounded by the addition of over two billion more to the global human population.

As I pointed out earlier, all the advances in human productivity in recent centuries have correlated very closely to our unsustainable and accelerated rate of consumption of finite non-renewable natural resources, particularly fossil fuel energy, so it seems far more likely that that, rather than advances in human knowledge, is the major driver of seemingly improved human productivity.

So, as Divergence, Ludwig, ozideas and others have suggested, it would be extremely reckless not to assume that humanity's numbers have overshot the carrying capacity of our biosphere, regardless of what form of social system we eventually adopt and and it would be extremely reckless not to begin, as a matter of utmost urgency, to stabilise human numbers without any further delay.

As I have made clear elsewhere, I agree with Passy think we can do a lot better than we are we are with the rapacious, inefficient and grotesquely iniquitous globalised system of capitalism that we now live under, but unlike Passy, I won't be placing my faith in claims of the virtually unlimited capacity of human intelligence made by most socialists as well as by neo-liberal apologists for our current economic system.