The Bleeding Edge
Wednesday, 28 March 2018 16:41

The Bleeding Edge

Published in Science & Technology

Richard Clarke reviews The Bleeding Edge, by Bob Hughes, New Internationalist 2016

A discussion paper published by the (left-leaning) Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) at the end of last year argues that automation ‘risks reproducing and amplifying existing inequalities within the economy.’ Some 44% of all jobs, (involving almost 14 million workers) it suggests, could be automated, ‘hollowing out’ middle income occupations in industry and the service sector, creating large scale unemployment. Revealingly entitled ‘Managing Automation’ the report proposes a range of measures including a ‘Citizen’s Wealth Fund’, an expansion of employee ownership trusts and compulsory profit sharing in large companies. Coupled with the establishment of a new Authority to regulate the ethical use of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI), this will permit a ‘managed acceleration of automation’ to ‘reap the full productivity benefits and enable higher wages’ and at the same time reduce working time.

RC robotics

Most of us would reply ‘if only’ to this. And some of us at least would at the same time point out that Fabian ‘solutions’ to social challenges – advocacy which appeals to humanity and logic but which side-steps the realities of power and control within a world dominated by globalised finance capital, are unlikely to be adopted within an inherently unequal and exploitative economic system.

In this respect the IPPR report joins a pantheon of related publications such as Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s The Spirit Level, and Danny Dorling’s The Equality Effect. All argue (in different ways) that greater equality is not just morally good, but ‘good for the economy’ – and that it can be achieved without addressing the fundamental contradictions between capital and labour. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, for example, argues for ‘a social state for the twenty-first century’ funded by a ‘global tax on capital’. But there is little indication of how we might get there.

Despite its sub-title ‘Why technology turns toxic in an unequal world’, Bob Hughes’ The Bleeding Edge goes well beyond arguing for more equality. For Hughes, technologies themselves are not neutral, and the social and political context doesn’t (just) dictate their impact, it determines the content of the technologies themselves. To be fair, the IPP itself concedes that ‘Technologies are technical artefacts whose effects are powerfully shaped by the broader social, technical, and economic systems they are embedded in.’ But Hughes' strength - and, ultimately, his weakness - is that he dares to follow this up by exploring just how ‘inequality’ (read: capitalism) has distorted the world, and how it might be different.

At times Bleeding Edge gets close to an unconvincing paean in favour of craft production. The argument that making cars from steel rather than wood (pioneered by Ford motors in the 1920s) was motivated at least in part by ‘the capitalist’s ancient preference for unskilled, unorganised labor, and fear of being reliant on employees’ personal skills’ is probably true. But ‘the assumption that steel is the obvious choice for automobiles could be called a kind of ‘materialism’, a discriminatory ‘ism’ of the same family as racism and sexism’ (the implication being that wooden automobiles would somehow be ‘better’ but in an unspecified way) is unconvincing. Surely we should be positing public transport (not wooden craft-manufactured cars) as an alternative to the domination of our roads, economies and our lives, by the internal combustion engine (and perhaps in future by the equally alienating electric, possibly automated, robotic car)?

RC composite aircraft

And to extend the argument to aircraft – that monocoque aluminium airframes, a product of the cold war, could, in a less unequal world, instead be wooden or composite, with greater payloads (though travelling slower) is to miss the fundamental economic and environmental insanity of mass transit by air – whether of supermarket flowers flown in in from Kenya or of UK holidaymakers to Islamabad or Ibiza. Again, Hughes addresses this in his ‘solutions’ – but only to extol the virtues of peasant/organic agriculture (in place of intensive arable), less commuting, more bicycle lanes and horse-drawn vehicles – without any real exploration of how to get there.

At the same time there are several features which make Bleeding Edge worth reading. The first is Hughes’ attack on technofatalism – the idea that technologies are not just neutral but, somehow unstoppable and that ‘we’ must somehow learn to manage them.

Ironically, Dorling’s opening sentence in his foreword to Bleeding Edge reads ‘Technology is neutral.’ In ‘rejecting both apocalyptic pessimism and techno-optimism’ Hughes by contrast argues that technology is anything but neutral. Technologies, he argues, from the invention of agriculture onwards, are formed and forged by the interests that they serve.

The second strength is the originality and breadth of Hughes’s survey. Written with passion and drawing on an eclectic array of sources, it ranges from food and farming to IT.

RC chip resized

Delving into history, Hughes shows how capitalism refused to have anything to do with computers unless their development was underwritten by governments. The micro-chip and the digital revolution in particular were a product of military investment, their subsequent development ‘propelled by a self-reinforcing need to maintain sales.’  Most of the most significant technological innovations, he argues – from the industrial revolution to high-tech enterprises today – are not the product of research undertaken by large corporations but of initiatives by small companies and (even today) of individuals. Capitalism, he maintains, is good at taking up and propagating but not at initiating.

Hughes challenges the idea that computers are, somehow, intrinsically egalitarian – a myth fostered by Google’s creative elite in pretend utopias (communal dining facilities, sports halls, democratic meeting rooms). In fact (he argues) it is a paradox that the most competitive and profitable hi-tech industries are propagated from ‘egalitarian’ collaborative bubbles, subsequently manifest in the exploitation and impoverishment of the people who have to produce the goods, and the environment. The pretend utopias of Silicon Valley software generation contrast with the reality of degrading and dangerous work in polluting rare-earth mineral mines, the soulless, exploitative manufacturing and assembly plants of IT hardware, and starvation pay for those who survive by sorting and recycling yesterday’s high-tech junk to make way for the latest, more profitable, consumer fashion.

The analysis in Bleeding Edge makes much of ‘positional’ arguments - that once adopted by a given manufacturer competitors must follow suit, even though the technological trajectory may be an arbitrary and inefficient one. Applying this to computing in what for this reviewer is his most provoking, but shaky, thesis he claims that analogue computers failed, not because of any intrinsic limitations but simply because digital computers offered earlier profits. Is there really a future for analogue computing? In principle much more efficient at simulating biological systems they currently have to be programmed by hand (although new compilers may remove this limitation) and they have a tiny proportion of the computing power of digital computers. But Hughes’ point isn’t whether analogue computers are intrinsically ‘better’ than digital computers; it is, rather, that far from diversifying the range of technologies available ‘competitive pressure narrows all options.’ And in the process, in the pursuit of profit, it creates (and requires) inequality and impoverishes the planet.

Like Piketty, Dorling, Wilkinson & Pickett et al, Hughes is weakest when it comes to solutions. But unlike them, those that he advocates are not so much policy measures (taxation, co-operatives, worker representation on company boards) as what he himself labels ‘utopian’ thinking – ‘envisioning’ how the world might be turned the ‘right way up’; ‘rethinking’ food and work; ‘shrinking roads and expanding diversity’ and engaging with community initiatives - from the bottom up. And it is precisely Hughes’ more speculative weaknesses – from wooden cars to analogue computing — that make the book so thought provoking. Bleeding Edge deserves to head these other authors on the reading list of anyone interested in alternatives to the technological status quo.

Marxism and religion
Thursday, 15 March 2018 17:28

Marxism and religion

Published in Religion

Richard Clarke outlines how religion, like any other cultural activity, is capable of both promoting political and social liberation, and being manipulated and controlled by ruling classes who attempt – and very often succeed – in turning it into a force for conservatism.

Most Marxists would say that it is none of their business to judge or comment on any individual’s sincere and deeply-held religious beliefs, provided that these do not encourage prejudice, intolerance or result in harm to others.

Some religious groupings, notably the Quakers, have been prominent in the peace and anti-war movement. Many Jews – not just secular Jews but ultra-orthodox religious Jews as well – oppose the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories. Catholic ‘liberation theology’ has been a feature of progressive movements in South America.  Many individuals – of all faiths – have managed to combine their religious conviction with a commitment to socialism, even Marxism.

RC Keir Hardie Trafalgar Square 1908

In Britain, the fusion of Marxist theory and Christian beliefs called Christian socialism has a long and honourable tradition. Keir Hardie (1856-1915), the founder of the modern Labour Party declared that “Any system of production or exchange which sanctions the exploitation of the weak by the strong or the unscrupulous is wrong and therefore sinful.” And Hewlett Johnson (1874-1966), the ‘Red Dean’ of Canterbury (1931-1963) was a supporter of the October Revolution, a life-long friend of the Soviet Union, and a chair of the Board of the Daily Worker, the predecessor of today’s only socialist national newspaper, the Morning Star.

Religion in and of itself is no indicator of people’s political orientation or of their personal qualities. At the same time Marxists would challenge the liberal exhortation to ‘celebrate all faiths’. The ‘faiths’ that are purportedly celebrated are not, of course, just matters of individual conviction. They are institutionalised belief systems. Religion is primarily a social and historical phenomenon. As Marx observed, ‘Humanity makes religion, religion does not make humanity.’ Britain’s own Head of State is, after all, also the head of the ‘established’ Church of England.

On a philosophical level, Marxism questions the truth of any religion that assumes the existence of a supernatural being not subject to the laws of nature but who responds to the adulation and entreaties of his/her/its worshippers. In engaging with religious believers, however sympathetically, Marxists do not conceal their materialist belief that everything that exists is part of nature and subject to laws which – in principle at least - can be discovered by human action and used by humanity to shape our own future.

However, notwithstanding the gendered language of his time, Marx’s position on religion is a lot more subtle and sympathetic than is commonly thought:

Religion is, indeed, the self-consciousness and self-esteem of man who has either not yet won through to himself, or has already lost himself again. But man is no abstract being squatting outside the world. Man is the world of man, the state, society. This state and this society produce religion, an inverted world-consciousness, because they are an inverted world. Religion is the general theory of that world, its encyclopaedic compendium, its logic in a popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realisation of the human essence because the human essence has no true reality. The struggle against religion is therefore indirectly a fight against the world of which religion is the spiritual aroma.

Probably the best known observation of Marx on religion is that it is the ‘opium of the people.’ This is sometimes taken to mean that he saw it as a mechanism of control from above, prescribed by those in power to secure compliance and docility. To the extent that this is true it is only part of Marx’s analysis. The full passage from Marx makes his own meaning clear:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

As Roland Boer points out, Marx used opium himself to give some relief from a variety of ailments including toothache, ear aches and carbuncles; the opium metaphor had some meaning to him. Religion, in his view, provided at least some comfort and hope to the oppressed. In an uncertain world it promises a degree of certainty; it provides an apparently alternative authority to corrupted secular institutions, and to those suffering physical or psycho-social distress, it offers comfort. Above all, it offers hope, however illusory. Marxists understand this, which is why they don’t challenge genuine individual faith.

Marxists realise the limitations of individual good works, and question those that are driven primarily by expectations of a better life hereafter. More than a century ago, the communist organiser Joe Hill’s ballad ‘The Preacher and the Slave’ (popularised by Woodie Guthrie and Bruce Springsteen amongst others) challenged the ‘pie in the sky when you die’ of organised religion. ‘It’s a Lie’ goes the final line of each stanza.

As Marx concluded in his ‘opium of the people’ passage: ‘challenging religion as the illusory happiness of the people is to demand their real happiness.’ John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ tries to do just this ‘imagine there’s nothing to kill or die for, and no religion too; imagine all the people, living life in peace… no possessions… no need for greed or hunger…’ And of course, the Internationale declares ‘No saviour from on high delivers.’

Institutionalised religion can impose its own form of alienation on its adherents. That alienation is expressed wonderfully for one individual in Dire Straits’ song Ticket to Heaven (ironically taken by some to be an endorsement of religious faith rather than a critique of it). The ‘narrator’ of the song gives more than she can afford to ‘save the little children in a far country’ – sending money to ‘the man with the golden ring. – a reference to evangelical Baptist ministers like Billy Graham, spiritual adviser to a number of American presidents including Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon and a significant influence on Donald Trump). As a consequence she has ‘nothing left for luxuries, nothing left to pay her heating bills’ but ‘the Good Lord will provide’ – she has her ‘Ticket to Heaven’.

Religion can also be a cloak, a justification for greed and avarice. TV evangelists in the US (and elsewhere) promote the ‘prosperity gospel’ – the belief that faith can make you rich, inverting Feuerbach’s assertion that ‘only the poor man has a rich God’’ and reimagining the life of an itinerant Jew who believed that you couldn’t serve God and mammon to be ‘a poster boy for the super-rich.’

As Giles Fraser (former Canon Chancellor of St Paul's Cathedral, with special responsibility for contemporary ethics and engagement with the City of London as a financial centre) has pointed out, Donald Trump is both a product and a perpetuator of the ‘prosperity gospel’ – the belief that faith can make you rich: ‘Being “blessed” has become a moral alibi for America’s greed. It is a nauseating smile of faux-gratitude that says: God gave this to me, so it’s not about me having too much.’’

In Britain the Alpha Course, that gospel’s more restrained, English equivalent, promotes a parallel message of personal fulfilment or quiescence, devoid of any notion of collective social progress.

All religions demand a degree of submission in religious observance – attendance at mass, praying five times per day, acceptance of a higher authority than one’s own conscience. And most are accepting of the status quo – on this earth as well as the next. That lovely hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ has for its third verse:

The rich man in his castle,/ The poor man at his gate,

God made them high and lowly,/ And ordered their estate.

But religions are not ‘all the same’. Religion presents a world of contrasts and contradictions both between and within faiths. It would be difficult to conceive of an Islamic liberation theology, for instance. The prophet of Christianity – a poor single man who ‘turned the other cheek’ and gave what he had to the poor contrasts with the prophet of Islam – a trader and military leader who accumulated wealth and power through war. Pope Francis’ 2017 encounter with Donald Trump (who arrived at the Vatican in a motorcade; the Pope came in a Ford Focus) spoke volumes. The Pope had previously suggested that Trump’s threat to build a Mexican wall meant he could not be a Christian (Christians build bridges) to which Trump responded by calling the Pope ‘disgraceful’ for doubting his faith.

For some, religious conviction offers comfort, disengagement, a shelter from the world. For others, it offers a justification for greed, bigotry and even violence. And for some it is the route to social action, challenging injustice, exploitation and evil.

Marxists need to take a careful, dialectical view on religious belief. Like any other cultural activity, it is capable of promoting political and social liberation. But it is always subject to manipulation and control by ruling classes who attempt – and very often succeed – in turning it into a force for conservatism.

What can a Marxist approach tell us about science?
Monday, 27 November 2017 15:42

What can a Marxist approach tell us about science?

Published in Science & Technology

Richard Clarke considers how a dialectical methodology can help scientists ask the right questions.

‘Science’ and ‘scientific’ can mean at least three different things, including: 1) the ‘knowledge content’ of different disciplines (as in physics, chemistry, biology) about the universe; 2) the processes by which this understanding is acquired (the ‘scientific method’ and wider issues in the philosophy of science); and 3) the relationship of science to society, in particular the organisation, funding and control of research (in the laboratories of universities, by pharma companies or within the ‘military-industrial complex’) and how access to and use of that knowledge is controlled. 

All three of these are connected, and it’s easiest to take them in reverse order.

Science is often conceived as ‘pure’ knowledge or ‘facts’, independent of the way these are produced, controlled or used. Marxists would challenge this, pointing out that throughout history, the changing content of scientific knowledge - what are understood at any point in time as facts - are closely related to the social conditions of their production, though in a dialectical rather than a deterministic way. Marx, writing to Engels about Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection commented: ‘It is remarkable how among beasts and plants Darwin recognises his English society with its division of labour, competition, opening up of new markets, ‘inventions’ and Malthusian ‘struggle for existence.’’ (Letter from Marx to Engels, June 18, 1862)

In 1931 a Soviet delegation arrived unannounced at the second International Congress of the History of Science in London, where its leader, Boris Hessen delivered a paper entitled The Socio-Economic Roots of Newton's Principia. Hessen argued that Isaac Newton’s  Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica  (first published in 1687) - perhaps the single most important scientific treatise of western civilization - was intimately connected to the social conditions of its production. Newton’s Laws of Motion and his ‘discovery’ of gravity were not a gift of divine providence, not (just) the product of individual genius (or the consequence of being hit by a falling apple). They were a response to specific technical problems of early capitalism, in particular the need for improved maritime navigation, the development of new machinery and ballistic weaponry in warfare.

Sir Isaac Newtons Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica

That scientific theories are related to the social context of their production does not of course mean that they are ‘wrong’ or lacking in objectivity. But it challenges the conventional view of science and scientists as autonomous, having an impact ‘on’ society but not being influenced by society. In reality the relationship is two-way; it is dialectical. This approach - emphasising the reciprocal links between science and its social context was later popularised by the communist scientist J D Bernal in his four-volume Science in History, and it is now broadly accepted by the majority of historians of science.

Under capitalism, ‘natural science acts as a direct productive force, continuously invading and transforming all areas of human existence.’ It is one of the principal agents of technological and social change. It can be immensely liberating, but also hugely destructive. From the mid-twentieth century onwards, ‘the twin roles of science as a force of production and of social control have become both dominant and manifest, and […] this transition is linked with a change in the mode of production of scientific knowledge, from essentially craft, to industrialised production.’ (Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, The Incorporation of Science, in The Political Economy of Science.)

coalbrookdale by night

Coalbrookdale by Night, by Philip James de Loutherbourg, 1801

Science can be exciting. It is one of the things that separates humans from all other animals. But the mode of production of scientific knowledge has changed since Marx’s day, from essentially craft, to industrialised assembly. Today the daily work of most scientists is routine. Most scientific research is conducted by or funded by commercial organisations. The overwhelming majority of scientists are employees, working (often under short-term contracts) under the direction of their managers on specific problems which are part of a greater whole of which they are often unaware - a situation analogous to the Taylorism of factory work (maximising efficiency by breaking jobs down into simple routine elements) and funded either by external grants or directly by the companies for which they work. 

Scientific labour (the work of practising scientists) itself produces ‘use value’ as knowledge, much of which, through patenting or commercial secrecy, is appropriated for profit. The activities of pharmaceutical companies, agricultural research and the nuclear industry all demonstrate the subordination of science to capital, often in particularly oppressive and (socially and environmentally) destructive ways.

And capital makes profit from science not only through its technological applications (from foodstuffs and pharmaceuticals to energy technologies and software systems) but also in other, essentially unproductive ways, from restrictive patents to publishing. In 2010, Elsevier’s scientific publishing arm reported profits of £724m on just over £2bn in turnover – a 36% margin, higher than Apple, Google, or Amazon posted that year. The careers of scientists depend on publishing in ‘reputable’ journals which charge extortionate prices for access.

Marxism also has something to say about the philosophy and methodology of science. Marx and Engels both emphasised the way that science itself moves in a dialectical way from induction to deduction, from analysis to synthesis and from the concrete to the abstract, and back again. For example, induction involves making a generalisation from a set of specific observations. This results in the formulation of an hypothesis (an explanation or prediction) which, if not contradicted by further observation, becomes incorporated in a body of theory. Deduction works the other way around - start with a generalisation (a theory), produce an hypothesis about what will happen in a particular situation, then test this through further observations, sometimes involving experiments. The two processes of induction and deduction are inseparable and lead to a progressive refinement of theory as the best explanation, generally supported by the scientific community, of observations to date.

One of the most influential philosophers of science was (Sir) Karl Popper. Popper emphasised that a ‘scientific’ statement (or theory) is not one that is necessarily ‘true’, but rather one that is framed in such a way that it can be tested (or falsified). For Popper, an anti-communist liberal, Marxism is not ‘scientific’ because it is not falsifiable. However the same criticism also applies to most of the social sciences and indeed to much natural science. Darwinism (the theory of evolution through natural selection) is itself primarily inductive.

A rather different view of scientific progress was popularised by the philosopher Thomas Kuhn. In his extraordinarily influential The Structure of Scientific Revolutions Kuhn argued against the Popperian notion of science as a gradual orderly progression towards ‘truth’. Most scientists, most of the time, he argued, operate within an unchallenged conceptual framework, or paradigm, filling in bits of a jigsaw or ‘puzzle-solving’ but rarely challenging the overall picture. Periodically, however, anomalies accumulate, ‘normal science’ breaks down and a new paradigm emerges. Examples of such ‘paradigm shifts’ include the Copernican revolution (a heliocentric rather than an earth-centred universe), Darwinian evolution, and Einsteinian relativity theory. Kuhn emphasised that paradigm shifts are not confined to the internal logic of science but involve social and political factors as well.

Kuhn’s work resulted in a surge of interest on the social relations of science — including the rediscovery of Hessen’s paper on Newton a third of a century earlier and of which Kuhn appears to have been unaware. It also chimed with the ‘anti-science swing’ of the 1970s, leading some to argue that science was ‘nothing but’ social relations. Both extremes - the view of science as ‘pure’ knowledge independent of society, but also the argument that science is merely another form of ideology or culture - have always been challenged by Marxists. The questions science asks (and the answers that it gets) are closely related to the way that science is organised, who pays and who profits, as well as to the more general needs of society. But that doesn’t mean that science is necessarily lacking in objectivity (although sometimes this is the case). Scientific knowledge is a special form of knowledge. The scientific method and the knowledge it produces have a relative autonomy.

But a Marxist approach can take us still further in relation to ‘the facts’ of science. The underlying philosophical basis of Marxism, dialectical materialism , is not a magic key to provide the ‘right’ solution to any problem. There have been periods in the not-too-distant history of science where it has been abused, notably during the ‘Lysenko period’ of Soviet genetics. It is, rather, a potentially helpful approach to asking the right questions (and to examining and challenging answers which are put forward by others) – about nature as well as about human society.

The dominant mode of science is reductionist – studying individual parts of a system, isolating one variable at a time and ignoring other aspects. Reductionism is potentially a powerful procedure in science. But of itself it can only provide partial answers to relatively limited questions. Reductionism alone can never provide the whole picture. And in some areas, notably in human biology and psychology, it lends itself to (unintentional or deliberate) abuse. An example is when supposedly ‘scientific’ justifications are put forward for social inequality, discrimination and the status-quo.

This was particularly the case with what came to be known as social Darwinism, pioneered by Herbert Spencer, one of the most influential European intellectuals of the late 19th century, who coined the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ (never used by Darwin himself) and applied it to human affairs. A free market was the reflection in human society of natural law. Regulation and welfare provision, he argued, should therefore be opposed (he used the phrase ‘There Is No Alternative’ more than a century before Thatcher). Ironically, Spencer’s ashes are interred in Highgate cemetery opposite Karl Marx’s grave.

Science has been used repeatedly since in a similar way. Today sociobiology and evolutionary psychology are still used to justify inequality, racism and sexual discrimination on the basis of supposed inherited biological traits. Competition, aggression, xenophobia are (it is argued) programmed into us from our ancestral past. They are ‘in our genes’. The notion of the ‘selfish gene’ is an example of a reductionist approach which ‘naturalises’ what are essentially social phenomena and fails to look at the relations between different levels of analysis. Sometimes the biases in science are unconscious. Sometimes they are deliberate. Sir Cyril Burt was a hugely influential educational psychologist who ‘proved’ that intelligence was overwhelmingly inherited. His work was used to justify selective schooling and the subordination of black and working class people. His work was always challenged by progressives but it was only after his death in 1971 that it was found to have been fraudulent.

Good science (and major advance) needs to look critically at the evidence for any explanation of phenomena, and also to understand the limits within which those explanations are appropriate. It needs to examine the functions of each part of a complex system but also the interactions between these parts and the way they affect the behaviour of a system as a whole. A dialectical approach in science is valuable both in what Thomas Kuhn called ‘normal science’ but also in the major transformative shifts which change the way that we perceive the world. Many Marxist scientists have found such an approach helpful in their professional work.

An example in the physical sciences is the quantum physicist David Bohm, one of the most significant theoretical physicists of the 20th century. Following his early work on nuclear fission Bohm collaborated with Albert Einstein at Princeton University before being forced to leave the United States because of his links with the Young Communist League and activity in peace movements. At London’s Birkbeck College he showed how entities - from sub-atomic particles to everyday ‘objects’ - can be regarded as ‘semi-autonomous quasi-local features’ of underlying processes, later extending this to the nature of thought and consciousness.

John Desmond Bernal

J D Bernal

Other notable Marxist physicists include the crystallographer and polymath J D Bernal (also based at Birkbeck), Dorothy Hodgkin (pioneer of three dimensional protein structures such as penicillin and insulin) and the biochemist Joseph Needham (the first Head of the Natural Sciences Section of UNESCO). Perhaps unsurprisingly the most productive applications of a dialectical approach have been in biological science. One of the most prominent was J B S Haldane (originator with the Russian biochemist Alexsandr Oparin of the ‘primordial soup’ theory of the origin of life) who combined his scientific work with popularisation of science and Marxist philosophy. And other scientists (including some who would disclaim the descriptor ‘Marxist’) nevertheless see dialectical materialism as a key guide in their science. An example is Ernst Mayr, one of the most eminent biologists of the 20th century, whose 1977 essay Roots of Dialectical Materialism is a good brief introduction to the subject and its controversies. 

More recent conspicuous examples of Marxist scientists include Steven Rose in his work on the relationship between consciousness and the human brain, the evolutionary palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould (author with Niles Eldredge of the theory of punctated equilibrium), the ecologist Richard Levins (a pioneer of metapopulation theory) and the geneticist Dick Lewontin.

So: a Marxist approach can reveal a good deal about the relation of science to society, and it can also help to illuminate the process whereby scientific knowledge is produced. As far as the knowledge content of science is concerned, Marxism of itself offers no especially privileged insights into the workings of nature - that is the job of science and scientists. But a dialectical methodology is an essential complement to reductionism. And in key areas it can help us question the popular presentation of ‘facts’ which might otherwise be taken on trust. A socialist science has the potential to be a better kind of science.

An abbreviated version of this answer was published in the Morning Star in two parts on 18 September and 6 November 2017.

Os Semeadores
Saturday, 14 October 2017 16:38

What Do Marxists Have To Say About Art?

Published in Cultural Commentary

Richard Clarke introduces some of the main Marxist insights into the nature and value of art, and its links to political and economic realities.

Most Marxists would say that the value of a work of art such as a painting, or the pleasure they get from it - in its original or as a reproduction - is above all else an individual matter, not something that ‘experts’ (Marxist or otherwise) can or should pronounce upon. At the same time experts can enhance that pleasure, for example by explaining the technique and methodology of the composition of a painting. Again, this is no more the exclusive province of a Marxist than (for example) a commentary on the technical skills embodied in the design or manufacture of a washing machine.

However a Marxist approach may help to deepen the appreciation or understanding of an art work by revealing the historical context of its production and the relation of a work of art or of an artist to society. Art, just as any other human activity, is always created within a specific social and historical context, and this will impact on the art work itself. This is why Marxists argue that one can only begin fully to appreciate and understand a work of art by examining it in relation to the conditions of its creation.

Here a fruitful starting point for discussion is a materialist view – looking at the production and consumption of art, the position of artists in relation to different classes, and the conflicts embodied in a work of art and in the history of which it is a part. For example, Ernst Fischer’s seminal essay The Necessity of Art (1959) is a Marxist exposition of the central social function of art, from its origins in magic ritual through organised religion to its varied and contradictory roles within capitalism and its potential in building socialism.

The Marxist art critic John Berger in his Ways of Seeing (a 1972 four-part television series, later adapted into a book, Ways of Seeing) was hailed by many people for helping to deepen their understanding of art. Berger argued that it was impossible to view a reproduction of ‘old masters’ (generally paintings by European artists before 1800) in the way they were seen at the time of their production; that the female nude was an abstraction and distortion of reality, reflecting contemporary male ideals; that an oil painting was often a means of reflecting the status of an artist’s patron; and that contemporary advertising utilises the skills of artists and the latest artistic techniques merely to sell things for consumption in a capitalist market. 

Berger’s work remains controversial and has been revisited many times, particularly since his death in January 2017. Many have argued that he over-simplifies and that he incorporates the deeper perceptions of others such as Walter Benjamin, working at the interface between Marxism and cultural theory. Some have asked (for example) why there is no reference to feminist theorists in Berger’s chapter on the ‘male gaze’. However Berger’s work needs to be seen in context as a polemical response to the ‘great artists’ approach which characterises much establishment art history and ‘art appreciation’ typified by Kenneth Clark’s (1969) Civilisation television series.

What is clear is that cultural expression (art, lower case) is characteristic of all human societies and that while art and society are intimately connected, the former is not merely a passive reflection of the latter. The relationship is a dialectical one. As Marx declared in A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy: ‘The object of art, like any other product, creates an artistic and beauty-enjoying public. Production thus produces not only an object for the individual, but also an individual for the object’. 

A distinction is often made between the performing arts (including music, theatre, and dance) and the visual arts (such as drawing, painting, photography, film and video). Performing arts are of their nature ephemeral, and as Robert Wyatt, the communist percussionist of the ‘60s psychedelic rock group Soft Machine, declared, ‘different every time’. The performance is the initial product, although it may be recorded, reproduced and subsequently sold.

‘Art’ (as in painting, on canvas) is sometimes presented as the highest point in the development of ‘civilised’ culture. Jean Gimpel, an historian, diamond dealer, and expert in art forgery, attacked the concept of ‘high art’ in his book The Cult of Art (subtitled Against Art and Artists). He argued that the concept of Art - especially oil paintings, on transportable framed canvas - is specifically a product of capitalism, personified in the Florentine artist Giotto ‘the first bourgeois painter’ of the Renaissance and his successors.

Under the patronage of the Medici and other nouveau riche Italian patrician families, the ‘artisan’ workmanship of frescos on church walls or decorated altarpiece was superseded by the movable (and marketable) canvas. In short, it was commodified. ‘People no longer wanted a 'Madonna' or a 'Descent from the Cross' but a Leonardo da Vinci, a Michelangelo or a Bellini.’ The cult of art and the artist was born.

Yet it was not until the eighteenth century that the distinction between ‘artisan’ and ‘artist’ became fixed. Even today people can be heard asking – of everything from the Lascaux cave paintings to some suburban topiary — ‘but is it Art?’ High art of course also produced its supposed antithesis - the artist in his garret (women artists were to a degree excluded from the equation), suffering, sometimes starving in the cause of art unless they are lucky enough to be ‘discovered’, often only after death. With capitalism, for the first time the artist became a ‘free’ artist, a ‘free’ personality, free to the point of absurdity, of icy loneliness. Art became an occupation that was half-romantic, half-commercial.

Dire Straits’ ‘In The Gallery’ is a song about the conversion of use-value (the worth the artist or her audience see in an art work or the pleasure they get from it) into exchange value. Harry is an ex-miner and a sculptor, ‘ignored by all the trendy boys in London’ until after he dies, when, suddenly, he is ‘discovered’ (too late for Harry, of course) – the vultures descend to make profit from his work.

In The Gallery

Don Mclean’s ‘Starry Starry Night’ carries a similar message. The principal difference (beyond the tempo of the songs) is that Harry is politically engaged, very much of this world whereas tormented Vincent (Van Gogh) was ‘out of it’ - unlike his post-impressionist erstwhile friend, Paul Gauguin, who asked his agent what ‘the stupid buying public’ would pay most for and then adjusted his output accordingly.

Vincent (Starry Starry Night)

Irrespective of their recognition or fame, art and artists are frequently presented as apart from, sometimes above, society. For Marxists it is clear that the arts and artists are an integral part of society. In terms of aesthetics and policy however, Marxists would suggest caution - the history of art within socialism is a mixed one. The early flowering of post-revolutionary Soviet avant-garde art is well known. Constructivism strived to put art at the service of the people. The subsequent rise of socialist realism as ‘official’ art was an attempt to make art more accessible (and it existed alongside a flourishing variety of unofficial art forms).

constructivist image

Left: Gustav Klutsis – Workers, Everyone must vote in the Election of Soviets! Right: Russian Propaganda Poster

In the United States modern art was promoted as a weapon in a cultural cold war with the Soviet Union and its ‘socialist realist’ art forms. In the 1950s and 1960s, through the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the Farfield Foundation, and other covers, the CIA secretly promoted the work of American abstract expressionist artists - including Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko - in order to demonstrate the supposed intellectual freedom and cultural creativity of the US against the ideological conformity of Soviet art.

jackson pollock autumn rhythm number 30

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm (Number 30)

Even when art is oppositional, capitalism has an uncanny knack of appropriating it. The Royal Academy’s 2017 exhibition of Russian revolutionary art was accompanied by vicious and ignorant curating – presumably to disabuse any who might otherwise have been inspired by the works on display. Banksy’s graffiti, a determinedly uncommercial form of art ‘for the people’ (maybe a modern equivalent of the Lascaux cave paintings?) is now ‘in the gallery’ – decidedly a collector’s item with a price tag to match. Another (dead) graffiti artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat’s 1981 depiction of a skull was auctioned in May this year for more than $100 million. Banksy’s own comment on this is conveyed on a wall of the Barbican where a posthumous exhibition of Basquiat’s work runs until January 2018 (admission £16). City of London officials are currently considering whether (and how) this fresh graffiti might be preserved.

banksy tribute jean michel basquiat

Within capitalism, as its crisis deepens, ‘high art’ (provided it is portable, saleable, in a word, alienable) is – next to land and other property – one of the best investments that there is. A recent example is Sir Edwin Landseer’s ‘Monarch of the Glen’, ‘saved’ for the nation in March 2017 at a cost of £4 million, through a fund raising exercise to pay its owner, Diageo. This multinational drinks conglomerate (profits last year £3 billion on net sales of £10.8bn, 15% up on the previous year; CEO Ivan Menezes’ salary £4.4m) graciously agreed to accept just half of the paintings ‘estimated value’ of £8 million. More than half of this money came from the National Lottery - itself sometimes described as a ‘hidden tax on the poor’. 

The Monarch of the Glen Edwin Landseer 1851

Edwin Landseer,The Monarch of the Glen

Gaugin’s Nafea Faa Ipoipo? (‘When Will You Marry’?), painted in 1882 and, like his others, presenting a romanticised view of Tahiti, sold for $300 million in 2015 — just topped by de Kooning’s Interchange the following year. A 24ct gold bracelet, designed by Ai Weiwei, the Chinese ‘dissident’ and ‘champion of democracy’, inspired by the 2008 Sichuan earthquake (the deadliest earthquake ever, 90,000 dead, between 5 and 11 million homeless) sells for a modest £45,500 from Elisabetta Cipriani, (ElisabettaCipriani). The majority of artists and their artworks of course, never reach such dizzy heights.

The role of the artist in society remains a controversial subject. In the meantime it is clear that art and artists can and do play a vital role and that artistic freedom and license are crucial. Perhaps a good model is that followed in the former Yugoslavia and other socialist countries (as today in Cuba). Artists were not paid or employed as such by the state, although the arts in general were and are given generous state support. As in capitalist countries artists had to make their living through commissions, though these would be more likely to come from community associations, trades unions, local councils and the like, rather than from wealthy patrons or investors. Many would have to supplement their incomes by teaching, or by doing other jobs. But their social position was recognised and their social security contributions were paid so that on ill-health or retirement they would not suffer.

In both the appreciation, understanding and, indeed, production of art, and whether you love or loathe his own designs, one assertion that all socialists would surely agree with is that of the communist William Morris, who declared ‘I do not want art for a few; any more than education for a few; or freedom for a few...’, (Hopes and fears for art). What is certain is that art - of all types - can enrich our lives. It can also be galvanising, a force for social progress. But it is also clear that art that is subject to capitalist market forces involves a chronic distortion of the artistic product and process in which art works are valued for their price tag rather than their intrinsic quality. A Marxist approach can deepen our understanding of art provided that we avoid dogmatism and accept that this is an area of debate - one to which we can all contribute.

An abbreviated version of this article was first published in the Morning Star on 14 August 2017.