The world on the eve of an environmental catastrophe: Who is responsible?

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In the first part of this series on the question of the environment, published in International Review n° 135, we looked at the current state of affairs and tried to show the nature of the threat facing the whole of humanity with the development on a planetary scale of phenomena such as:

  • the growth of the greenhouse effect;
  • the massive production of waste and the problem of dealing with it;
  • the increasing dissemination of toxic products and the growing process of bio-concentration of toxins in the food chain;
  • the exhaustion of natural resources and/or the fact that they are menaced by pollution.

We continue this series with a second article in which we will try to show that the problems of the environment are not the fault of a few individuals or enterprises which don't respect the law - even though, of course, particular individuals and enterprises do bear a level of responsibility - but that it is capitalism, with its logic of maximum profit, which is really responsible.

We will thus try to show, through a series of examples, how it is the specific mechanisms of capitalism which generate the most decisive ecological problems, independent of the will of this or that capitalist. Furthermore, the widely held idea that scientific developments will shield us from natural catastrophes and help us avoid environmental problems will be firmly opposed. In this article, we will show, by quoting at length from Bordiga, how modern capitalist technology is not really synonymous with safety and how the development of the sciences and of scientific research is not motivated by the satisfaction of human need but are subordinated to the capitalist imperative of realising the maximum profit; that they are subjected to the demands of capital and competition on the market and, when necessary, in the field of war. In a third and final article we will analyse the responses given by the different "Green" movements in order to demonstrate their total ineffectiveness, despite the good intentions of many of those who are active inside these movements, and to show that the only possible solution is the world communist revolution.

The identification of the problem and its causes

Who is responsible for the various environmental problems? The answer to this question is of the greatest importance, not only from the ethical or moral point of view, but also and above all because the correct or erroneous identification of the origin of the problem will lead either to the correct solution of the problem or into an impasse. We are first going to comment on a series of commonplaces, false responses or partial truths, none of which really succeed in identifying the origin of and responsibility for the growing degradation of the environment that we are facing every day, with the aim of showing how this process is the consequence, neither conscious nor willed, but objective, of the capitalist system.

"The problem is not as serious as they would have us believe"

Today as each government tries to be greener than the next, this idea, which was the prevailing one for many decades, is no longer the most common one to come from the mouths of the politicians. It nevertheless remains a classic position in the world of business, which, faced with the threat to workers, the population, or the environment posed by a particular form of economic activity, tends to minimise the gravity of the problem, quite simply because ensuring the safety of labour means spending more and extracting less profit from the workers. We see this every day with the hundreds of deaths at work, something that employers generally see as the result of Fate, when in fact it is a real product of the capitalist exploitation of labour power

"The problem exists but its origins are controversial"

For some, the huge quantity of waste produced by today's society is the fruit of "our" frenzy to consume. But the real issue here is an economic policy which, in order to make commodities more competitive, has for decades tried to minimise costs by using non-biodegradable packaging (see the previous article in this series).

Again, for some, the pollution of the planet is the result of a lack of civic responsibility, so the answer is to promote campaigns for cleaning up beaches, parks, etc, and for educating the population. In the same vein, governments are criticised for their inability to ensure that the laws of marine transport and so on are properly enforced. Or the problem is the mafia and its dangerous traffic in waste, as though it was the mafia which produced the waste and not the world of industry which, in order to reduce the costs of production, uses the mafia to do its dirty work. But then we are told: the responsibility may lie with industrialists, but only with the bad ones....

When, finally, we are faced with an episode like the fire at Thyssen Krupp in December 2007 in Turin, which cost the lives of 7 workers because of the total neglect of the norms of fire safety rules, there was a considerable wave of solidarity, but the dominant idea that arose was that if there are disasters, it's simply because there are unscrupulous businesses which try to enrich themselves at others' expense. But is this really the case? Are there, on the one side, nasty capitalists and on the other side those who are responsible capitalists who manage their enterprises well?

The system of capitalist production is responsible for the environmental catastrophe

All the societies based on exploitation, which came before capitalism, have made their contribution to the pollution of the planet, generally in relation to the process of production. Certain societies have exploited the resources at their disposal so excessively that they disappeared when the point of exhaustion was reached, as is probably the case with Easter Island (see the first article in this series). However, the damage cause by these societies could never put the very survival of life on the planet into question, as is the case today with capitalism. One reason for this is that having conquered the entire planet, the damage inflicted by capitalism now affects the entire globe. But this isn't an explanation in itself because the development of the productive forces does not necessarily mean that they have to escape human control. The key question here is how these productive forces are used and managed by society. Now, capitalism appears as the culmination of the historic development of the commodity, to the point where it constitutes a system of universal commodity production where everything is for sale. If society is plunged into chaos by the domination of commodity relations, which involves not just the phenomenon of pollution but also the accelerating impoverishment of the planet's resources, a growing vulnerability to "natural" disasters etc, then it's for a whole number of reasons which can be briefly summarised here:

  • the division of labour and, even more, the reign of money and capital over production, which divides humanity into an infinity of competing units;
  • the fact that the goal of production is not use value, but exchange value, commodities which must at all cost be sold, whatever the consequences for humanity and the planet, in order to realise a profit.

It is this necessity which, irrespective of the greater or lesser moral rectitude of this or that capitalist, forces them to adapt their enterprises to the logic of the maximum exploitation of the working class.

This leads to a vast waste and spoliation of human labour power and of the planet's resources, as Marx already showed in Capital Volume 1, chapter 15, section 10: "Modern Industry and Agriculture":

"In agriculture as in manufacture, the transformation of production under the sway of capital, means, at the same time, the martyrdom of the producer; the instrument of labour becomes the means of enslaving, exploiting, and impoverishing the labourer; the social combination and organisation of labour-processes is turned into an organised mode of crushing out the workman's individual vitality, freedom, and independence. The dispersion of the rural labourers over larger areas breaks their power of resistance while concentration increases that of the town operatives. In modern agriculture, as in the urban industries, the increased productiveness and quantity of the labour set in motion are bought at the cost of laying waste and consuming by disease labour-power itself. Moreover, all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility. The more a country starts its development on the foundation of modern industry, like the United States, for example, the more rapid is this process of destruction. Capitalist production, therefore, develops technology, and the combining together of various processes into a social whole, only by sapping the original sources of all wealth - the soil and the labourer."

The irrationality and absurdity of production under capitalism is shown by the fact that you can often find enterprises which make highly polluting chemical products and systems for purifying the soil and water of these same pollutants; others who make cigarettes and products that help you give up smoking; and others who control armaments sectors while at the same time turning out pharmaceuticals and medicines.

These are peaks which were not reached by previous societies, where goods were essentially produced for their use value - useful either for the producers, the exploited, or for enhancing the splendour of the ruling class.

The real nature of commodity production prevents the capitalists from being interested in the usefulness, the type or the composition of the goods produced. The only real interest is how to make money from them. This mechanism explains why so many commodities only have a limited usefulness, when they are not altogether useless.

Capitalist society is essentially based on competition; even when capitalists come to circumstantial agreements, they remain fundamentally and ferociously in competition with each other. The logic of the market implies that the good fortune of one means the bad fortune of another. This means that each capitalist produces for himself, that each one is the rival to all the rest and that there cannot be a real planning by all the capitalists locally or internationally, but only a permanent competition with winners and losers. And in this war, one of the losers is precisely nature.

In fact, in the choice of a site for a new industrial installation, or land for agricultural production, the enterprise only take its immediate interests into account and no place is reserved for ecological considerations. There is no organ centralised at the international level with the authority to give an orientation or impose limits and criteria to be respected. Under capitalism, decisions are taken solely with a view to realising the maximum profit, so that a particular capitalist can produce and sell in the most profitable manner or in the greatest quantities, or so that the state can impose norms which correspond to the interests of the national capital and thus of the totality of national capitalists.

Of course at the level of each country there is legislation which imposes certain constraints. When they become too restrictive, it is not uncommon for businesses to export part of its production to countries where the rules are less severe and where it can make a bigger profit. Thus, Union Carbide, an American multinational chemical firm, implanted one of its enterprises in Bhopal in India, without equipping itself with a refrigerating system. In 1984, this factory allowed a cloud of toxic chemicals of 40 tons of pesticides which either immediately or in the years that followed killed 16,000 people and caused irreversible damage to a million others (see previous article). As for regions and seas in the third world, they often constitute a cheap dumping ground, legal or not, for established companies in the more advanced countries, who use them to get rid of their dangerous or toxic waste, because it would cost them much more to dispose of the waste in their own countries.

As long as there is no industrial and agricultural planning, coordinated and centralised on an international scale, able to harmonise the needs of today with safeguarding the environment of tomorrow, then the mechanisms of capitalism will continue to destroy nature with all the dramatic consequences we have seen.

It is widely held that the responsibility for this state of affairs lies with the multinationals or a particular sector of industry, or it is simply attributed to the anonymous mechanisms of the free market.

But could the state put an end to this madness by being more interventionist? No, because the state can do no more than "regulate" this anarchy. By defending national interests, the state serves to strengthen competition. Contrary to the demands of the NGOs or the "anti-capitalist" movement, increased intervention by the state - something which in any case has never really let up despite appearances in the hey-day of "neo-liberalism", and which is now being shown by all the state interventionism we've seen in response to the current acceleration of the economic crisis - is not capable of overcoming the problem of capitalist anarchy.

Quantity against quality

The only concern of the capitalists is, as we have seen, to sell at a maximum profit. But the issue here is not the egoism of this or that capitalist but a law of the system from which no enterprise, large or small, can withdraw. The growing weight of the cost of industrial equipment means that the huge investments involved can only be made profitable by very widespread sales.

For example, Airbus, which makes planes, has to sell at least 600 of its gigantic A380 models before making a profit. Similarly, the car industry has to sell hundreds of thousands of cars to make up for the amount spent on the equipment needed to build them. In short, each capitalist has to sell as much as possible and is constantly on the hunt for new markets. But to make use of them he has to outdo his rivals on a glutted market, which means spending huge amounts on advertising, an enormous waste of human labour and of natural resources, for example the number of trees used to make millions of tons of sales brochures and leaflets.

These laws of the economy (which, by enforcing the reduction of costs, imply a diminution of the quality of products) mean that the capitalist is not at all concerned about the composition of his products and whether or not they may be dangerous. So although the risk of fossil fuels to health (as a cause of cancer for example) have been known for a long time, industry takes no real measures to palliate them. The risks associated with asbestos have also been known about for a long time. But only the illness and deaths of thousands of workers finally compelled the industry to react. Many foods are stuffed full of sugar, salt and monosodium glutamate in order to increase sales, with considerable consequences for health. An incredible quantity of additives have been put in food without any real understanding of the risk for consumers, even though many cancers can be attributed to diet.

Some notable irrationalities in production and marketing

One of the most irrational elements of the present system of production is the fact that commodities travel all round the planet before arriving on the market as a finished product. This is not linked to the nature of the commodities or a demand of production, but simply to the fact that it's cheaper to apply certain processes in particular countries. A well-known example is that of yoghurt: the milk is transported across the Alps, from Germany to Italy, where it is transformed into yoghurt and then transported back from Italy to Germany. Another example is the car, where very often each separate component comes from a different country in the world before it is actually assembled. Prior to being put on the market, its components have often travelled for thousands of miles by various means. In the same way, electronic goods or domestic appliances are made in China because the wages there are very low and because there is hardly any environmental protection, even when, from a technological point of view, it would have been easy to have made them in the countries where they are being sold. Often, the production process begins in the countries where they are going to be consumed before being relocated to other countries where the costs of production, above all wages, are lower.

We also have the example of wines that are produced in Chile, Australia or California and sold on European markets while grapes grown in Europe rot on the vine as a result of overproduction; or again there is the example of apples imported from Africa when European cultivators don't know what to do with their excess apple crop.

Thus, as a result of the logic of maximum profit to the detriment of rationality and the minimum expenditure of human energy and natural resources, commodities are made somewhere on the planet and then transported to another part in order to be sold. So there's nothing surprising about the fact that commodities with the same technological efficiency, like cars, are made in Europe to then be exported to Japan and the USA, while others cars are being made in Japan or Korea to be sold on the European market. This network of transporting commodities which are very often very similar to each other and which go from one country to another simply to obey the logic of profit, of competition and the laws of the market, is a total aberration and has disastrous consequences for the environment.

A rational planning of production and distribution would be able to make these goods available without going through these irrational journeys, expressions of the folly of capitalist production.

The basic antagonism between town and country

The destruction of the environment resulting from the pollution caused by the hypertrophy of transport is not a merely contingent phenomenon because it has its deepest roots in the antagonism between town and country. Originally, the division of labour within nations separated industry and commerce from agricultural labour. From this was born the opposition between town and country with the resulting conflicts of interests. Under capitalism this opposition has reached a paroxysm[1].

In the period of the agricultural exploitations of the Middle Ages, devoted to subsistence production, there was little necessity to transport commodities over long distances. At the beginning of the 19th century, when workers often lived close to the factory or mine, it was possible to go there on foot. Since then, however, the distance between your workplace and your home has increased. Furthermore, the concentration of capital in certain localities (as in the case of enterprises implanted in certain industrial zones or other inhabited areas, in order to take advantage of financial exemptions or low land prices), as well as deindustrialisation and the explosion of unemployment linked to the suppression of many kinds of jobs, have profoundly altered the whole physiognomy of transport.

Now, every day, hundreds of millions of workers have to travel long distances to get to work. Many of them have to use a car because public transport can't get them there.

But it's worse than that: the concentration of a vast mass of individuals in the same place has a series of consequences for public health and for the environment. Concentrations of 10-20 million people presuppose an accumulation of waste (faecal matter, household waste, emissions from vehicles, from industry and from heating) in a space which, however wide it is, is till going to be too small to really digest all this.

The nightmare of food and water shortages

With the development of capitalism, agriculture has been through the most profound changes in its 10,000 year history. This has come about because, under capitalism, contrary to previous modes of production where agriculture responded directly to needs, now agricultural producers have to submit to the laws of the world market, which means producing at a lower cost. The necessity to increase profitability has catastrophic consequences for the quality of the soil.

These consequences, which are inseparably linked to the appearance of a strong antagonism between town and country, were already being denounced by the workers' movement in the 19th century. We can see in the quote that follows how Marx pointed to the direct link between the exploitation of the working class and the pillaging of the soil:

"On the other hand, large landed property reduces the agricultural population to a constantly falling minimum, and confronts it with a constantly growing industrial population crowded together in large cities. It thereby creates conditions which cause an irreparable break in the coherence of social interchange prescribed by the natural laws of life. As a result, the vitality of the soil is squandered, and this prodigality is carried by commerce far beyond the borders of a particular state."[2]

Agriculture has had to constantly increase the use of chemical products in order to intensify the exploitation of the soil and to extend the area under cultivation. Thus, in most parts of the planet, peasants practice ways of cultivating which would be impossible without the import of large quantities of pesticides and fertilisers, or without irrigation, whereas in the past they could do without them or at least have less need for them. Planting medicinal herbs in California, citrus fruit in Israel, cotton around the Aral Sea in the former USSR, wheat in Saudi Arabia or Yemen, i.e. planting crops in regions which don't offer the natural conditions for growing them, leads to a huge waste of water. The list of examples is truly endless since today around 40% of agricultural products depend on irrigation, with the result that 75% of the world's drinkable water is used for agriculture.

For example, Saudi Arabia has spent a fortune on pumping water from an underground spring in order to make a million hectares of the desert capable of growing what. For each ton of what grown, the government supplies 3,000 cubic meters of water, more than three times what is actually necessary to grow this cereal. And the water comes from sources which are not fed by the rain. A third of all irrigation works on the planet use the water from underground springs. And even though these non-renewable sources are often drying up, the cultivators of the region of Gujarat, in India, for example, deprived of rainwater, persist in the raising of milk cows, which requires 2,000 litres of water to produce just one litre of milk! In certain regions of the Earth, the production of one kilo of rice requires up to 3,000 litres of water. The consequences of irrigation and the generalised use of chemical products are disastrous: the land is inundated with salt, or overdosed with fertilisers; desertification, soil erosion, major falls in the water levels in springs and consequent reduction in reserves of drinking water.

Waste, urbanisation, drought and pollution are sharpening the worldwide water crisis. Millions and millions of litres of water are evaporating by being transported in open irrigation canals. The zones around the mega-cities, above all, but also whole regions of the planet, are seeing their water reserves falling rapidly and irreversibly.

In the past, China was the country of hydrology. Its economy and civilisation developed thanks to its capacity to irrigate arid lands and to build barrages that could protect flood regions. But in today's China, the waters of the mighty Yellow River, the great artery of the North, don't reach the sea for several months of the year. 400-600 cities in China are short of water. A third of China's wells have run dry. In India, 30% of cultivable land is threatened with turning into salt. In the whole world, around 25% of agricultural land faces the same threat.

But the cultivation of agricultural products in regions which are not adapted to it because of their climate or the dryness of their soil is not the only absurdity of today's agriculture. In particular, because of the shortage of water, the control of rivers and dykes has become a basic strategic question, leading national states to intervene heavy-handedly with no regard for the impact on nature.

More than 80 countries have already expressed their concerns about water shortages. According to a UN forecast, the number of people facing water shortages will reach 5.4 billion in the next 25 years. Despite the availability of agricultural land, the really cultivatable areas are constantly diminishing as a result of salinity and other factors. In earlier societies, nomadic tribes had to move on when water became scarce. Under capitalism, the most basic foodstuffs are in short supply at the same time as we have overproduction. Thus, as a result of the enormous damage done by modern agriculture, food shortages are inevitable. After 1984, for example, the worldwide production of cereals did not keep up with the growth of the world population. In the space of 20 years, this production has fallen further from 343 kg per person per year to 303.

Thus the spectre that has always accompanied humanity since its origins, the nightmare of hunger, seems to be returning in force, not through lack of cultivable land or lack of tools and methods at the service of agriculture, but because of the totally irrational use of the planet's resources.

More advanced technology is no guarantee of greater safety

While it's true that the development of science and technology puts at humanity's disposal instruments which were unimaginable in the past and which make it possible to foresee natural disasters and prevent accidents, it's also true that the use of these technologies is expensive and is only put into effect when here is an economic benefit. We want to stress once again that it's not the wanton egoism of this or that enterprise which is the issue here, but a necessity imposed on any enterprise or country to reduce the cost of producing goods and services to a minimum in order to cope with global competition.

In our press, we have often raised this problem, showing how so-called natural disasters are not due to chance or Fate, but are the logical result of the reduction of preventative and safety measures in order to make cost savings. This is what we wrote for example about the catastrophe brought about by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005:

"The argument that this disaster was unanticipated is equally nonsense. For nearly 100 years, scientists, engineers and politicians have debated how to cope with New Orleans' vulnerability to hurricanes and flooding. In the mid-1990s, several rival plans were developed by different groups of scientists and engineers, which finally led to a 1998 proposal (during the Clinton administration) called Coast 2050. This plan called for strengthening and reengineering the existing levees, constructing a system of floodgates, and the digging of new channels that bring sediment-bearing water to restore the depleted wetland buffer zones in the delta, and had a price tag of $14 billion dollars to be invested over a ten year period. It failed to win approval in Washington, on Clinton's watch, not Bush's.  Last year, the Army Corps requested $105 million for hurricane and flood programs in New Orleans, but the government approved only $42 million.  Yet at the same time, Congress approved $231 million for the construction of a bridge to a small, uninhabited island in Alaska."[3]

We also denounced the cynicism and responsibility of the bourgeoisie in the case of the 160,000 deaths that followed the tsunami on 26 December 2004.

In fact, it is clearly and officially recognised today that the tsunami alert was not sent out for fear of ...damaging the tourist industry! In other words: tens of thousand of human lives were sacrificed to defend sordid economic and financial interests.

The irresponsibility of governments in these situations is a new illustration of the mode of life of this class of sharks which runs the productive activity of society. Bourgeois states are ready to sacrifice as many human lives as is necessary to preserve capitalist exploitation and profit.

It is always capitalist interests which dictate the policy of the ruling class, and under capitalism prevention is not a profitable activity, as the media now recognise: "Countries in the region have so far turned a deaf ear to installing a warning system given the enormous financial cost. According to the experts, a warning system would cost millions of dollars, but it would make it possible to save thousands of human lives."[4]

We could also take the example of the oil that is spilled into the sea every year (both intentionally and accidentally); we are talking about 3 to 4 million tons of oil a year. According to a report by Legambiente: "In analysing the causes of these incidents, it is possible to estimate that 64% of these cases can be put down to human error, 16% to mechanical breakdown and 10% to the problem of the structure of boats, while 10% cannot be put down to a definite cause."[5]

We can easily understand that when human error is cited - as for example in the case of railway accidents attributed to train drivers - they are talking about errors made by an operative because he is working in conditions of exhaustion and stress. Furthermore, the oil companies have the habit of using old and decrepit tankers to carry oil because, if they sink, they will only incur the cost of a penalty, whereas acquiring a new boat would cost a lot more. This is why the spectacle of tankers which break up very near coastlines and spill their whole cargo has become a regular occurrence. We can say, taking all this into account, that at least 90% of "black seas" are the result of a total lack if vigilance by the oil companies, and that this, once again, is the result of their interest in keeping costs to the minimum and profits to the maximum.

We are indebted to Amadeo Bordiga[6], writing in the period following World War Two, for a systematic, incisive, profound and well-argued condemnation of the disasters caused by capitalism. In the preface to the book Drammi gialli e sinistri della moderna decadenza sociale, a collection of articles by Bordiga, we read: "as capitalism develops then rots on its feet, it more and more prostitutes techniques which could have a liberating role to its need for exploitation, domination and imperialist plunder, to the point where it transmits its own rottenness into them and turns them against the species. In all areas of daily life, in the ‘peaceful' phases between two imperialist massacres or in between two operations of repression, capitalism, ceaselessly spurred on by the search for a better rate of profit, crowds together, poisons, asphyxiates, mutilates and massacres human individuals through such prostituted technology...Neither is capitalism innocent of the so-called ‘natural' catastrophes. Without ignoring the existence of natural forces beyond human control, marxism shows that many disasters have been indirectly provoked or aggravated by social causes.... Not only does bourgeois civilisation directly provoke these catastrophes through its thirst for profit and the domination of business interests over the administrative also shows itself incapable of organising effective protection to the extent that prevention is not a profitable activity".[7]

Bordiga demystifies the legend that "contemporary capitalist society, with the joint development of sciences, technique and production will put the human species in an excellent position for struggling against the difficulties of the natural milieu."[8] In fact, as Bordiga adds "while it is true that the industrial and economic potential of the capitalist world is growing and not declining, it is also true that the greater its strength, the worse are the living conditions of masses of human beings in the face of natural and historical cataclysms"[9]. To demonstrate his argument, Bordiga analyses a whole series of disasters around the world, showing each time that they were not the result of chance or Fate, but of capitalism's intrinsic tendency to draw the maximum profit by investing as little as possible, as in the case of the sinking of the Flying Enterprise

"The brand new luxury boat made by Carlsen to shine like a mirror, and supposedly ultra-safe, had a flat was it that the very modern Flying Enterprise was constructed with a flat keel, like a lake-going barge? A newspaper put it succinctly: to reduce the costs of production...Here is the key to all modern applied science. Its studies, its research, its calculations, its innovations have one goal: to reduce costs and increase income. Hence the splendid salons with their mirrors and hangings to attract the better off customer, and the rotten stinginess of the mechanical structures in their weight and dimensions. This tendency characterises all modern engineering, from building to machinery, i.e. the key thing is to look rich, to ‘ape the bourgeois', using finishing touches and additions that any idiot can admire (given that he has a cheap culture acquired in the cinema or glossy magazines), while indecently skimping on the solidity of the basic structures which are invisible and incomprehensible to the profane".[10]  

The fact that the disasters analysed by Bordiga did not have ecological consequences doesn't change anything. Through this example, and others referred to in the preface to his articles in Espèce humaine et croût terretre which we will come to, we can easily imagine the effects of the same capitalist logic when they operate in an area that has a direct impact on the environment, as for example in the maintenance of nuclear reactors:

"In the 1960s, several British Comet aircraft, the last word in sophisticated technology, exploded in mid-air, killing everyone on board: the long inquiry eventually revealed that the explosions were due to metal fatigue in the frame - the metal had been too thin because it was necessary to economise on metal, the effectiveness of reactors and production costs in general in order to increase profit. In 1974, the explosion of a DC10 over Ermenoville left more than 300 dead: it was known that the system for closing the baggage hold was defective but re-doing it would have cost money...but the most astonishing things was reported by the British journal The Economist (24.9.77): after the discovery of cracks in the metal of six Trident planes and the inexplicable explosion of a Boeing: according to the ‘new thinking' presiding over construction of transport planes, these were no longer taken in for a complete check-up after a certain number of flying hours but were marked ‘safe'...until the appearance of the first cracks resulting from metal fatigue. They could therefore be used to the maximum, whereas calling them in for a check-up would have meant the companies losing money."[11]   

In the previous article in this series we have already referred to the case of the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in 1986. In essence, we're dealing with the same problem, and this also applies to the Three Mile Island disaster in the USA in 1979.

Science in the service of the development of capitalist society

Understanding the role played by technology and science within capitalist society is of the greatest importance when it comes to answering whether they can constitute a starting point for preventing the advance of the ecological catastrophe we are facing and for struggling against some of the consequences that are already with us.

If, as we have seen, technology has been prostituted by the demands of the market, does the same go for science and scientific research? Is it possible for the latter to remain outside of any kind of partisan interest?

To reply to this question, we have to begin from the recognition that science is a productive force, that its development allows society as a whole to develop more rapidly, to increase its resources. The control of the development of the sciences is not and cannot be a matter of indifference to those who manage the economy, at the level both of the state and of business. This is why scientific research, and certain areas of it in particular, receives important financial backing. Science is not - and could never be in a class society like capitalism - a neutral terrain where there is freedom of research without interference by economic interests, for the simple reason that the ruling class has everything to gain from subjecting science to its own interests. We can really say that the development of science and of knowledge in the capitalist epoch did not come about as a result of an autonomous, independent dynamic but from the start has been subordinated to the objective of realising maximum profits.

This has very important consequences that only rarely emerge clearly. Let's take the development of modern medicine for example. The medical study and treatment of the human being has been fragmented into dozens of different specialisms, without any vision of the functioning of the human organism as a whole. Why have we come to this? Because the main goal of medicine in the capitalist world is not that each person lives well, but to repair the "human machine" when it breaks down and to fix it as quickly as possible so it can be sent back to work. In this framework, we can understand very well the massive resort to antibiotics and to diagnoses which always look for the causes of illnesses in specific factors rather than in the general conditions of life of the person being examined.

Another consequence of the dependence of scientific development on the logic of capital is that research is constantly pushed towards the production of new materials (more resistant, less expensive) whose impact from the toxicological point of view has never been seen as a big problem...for now, which means that little or nothing is spent on trying to eliminate or render harmless whatever is dangerous in these products. But then decades later the bill has to be paid, most often in damage to human beings.

The strongest link is the one between scientific research and the needs of the military sector and war. Here we can look at a few concrete examples of different scientific domains, in particular the one which might seem to be the "purest" scientifically speaking - mathematics

In the quotations that follow, we can see just how far scientific development has been subordinated to the control of the state and to military needs, to the point where, in the post-war period, we saw a whole blossoming of "commissions" of scientists who were working in secret for the military complex by giving a major part of their time to it, while other scientists knew nothing about the real aim of their research.

"The importance of mathematics for the offices of the war fleet and artillery required a specific education in mathematics; thus, from the 17th century on, the most important group that could claim a knowledge of mathematics, at least in its basics, was the army officers...In the Great War, many new weapons were created and perfected during the course of the war - planes, submarines, sonar equipment to combat the latter, chemical weapons. After some hesitation on the part of the military apparatuses, numerous scientists were employed to try to develop the military sphere, even if it was not to do research but to act as creative engineers at the highest level...In 1944, too late to be effective during the Second War, the Matematisches Forschunginstitut Oberwolfach was created in Germany. This was not set up for the pleasure of German mathematicians, but it was a very well thought-out structure, whose aim was to make the whole mathematics sector a ‘useful' one: the nucleus was made up of a small group of mathematicians who were completely up-to-date with the problems facing the military, and thus in a position to detect problems that could be solved mathematically. Around this nucleus, other mathematicians, very competent and very knowledgeable about the milieu of mathematics, had to translate these problems into mathematical ones and in this form pass them on to specialised mathematicians (who didn't need to understand the military problem behind it, or even to know about it). Afterwards, the result obtained, the solution would be passed back through the network.

"In the USA, a similar structure, even if it was somewhat improvised, was already operating around Marston Morse during the war. In the post-war period, an analogous structure, this time not improvised, was formed by the Wisconsin Army Mathematics Research Centre.

"The advantage of such structures is that they allow the military machine to exploit the abilities of many mathematicians without needing to ‘have them at home', with all that this implies: contracts, necessity for consensus and subordination, etc"[12] 

In 1943, in the USA, research groups were set up, specifically focused on areas such as submarine warfare, the protection of naval convoys, the choice of air raid targets, or the tracking and intercepting of enemy aircraft. During the Second World War more than 700 mathematicians were employed in the UK, Canada and the US:

"Compared to British research, American research has from the beginning been characterised by a more sophisticated use of mathematics and, in particular, the calculation of probabilities and the more frequent recourse to modelling...operations research (which in the 1950s became an autonomous branch of applied mathematics) thus took its first steps through examining strategic difficulties and ways of optimising military resources. What are the best aerial combat tactics? What is the best way of deploying a certain number of soldiers at certain points of attack? How can we distribute rations to soldiers with the least possible waste?"[13]

"The Manhattan Project was the signal for a major turn-around, not only because it concentrated the work of thousands of scientists and technicians from numerous areas around a single project, directed and controlled by the military, but also because it represented an enormous leap for fundamental research, inaugurating what was thereafter known as Big Science...The enrolment of the scientific community for work on a precise project under the direct control of the military, had been an emergency measure, but couldn't last forever, for a number of reasons (the least of which was ‘freedom of research' claimed by the scientists). But the Pentagon could not afford to give up on this precious and indispensable cooperation of the scientific community, nor renounce a form of control over its activity: by the force of events, it was necessary to put forward a different strategy and change the terms of the problem...In 1959, on the initiative of a number of recognised scientists, consultants to the US government, a semi-permanent group of experts was created, a group which held regular study meetings. This group was given the name ‘The Jason Division', from the hero of Greek mythology who went with the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece. This was an elite group of 50 eminent scientists, among them several Nobel Prize winners, who met every summer for several weeks to examine in complete liberty problems linked to security, defence and arms control. This was arranged by the Pentagon, the Department of Energy and other Federal agencies; they supplied detailed reports, to a large extent secret, which directly influenced national policy. The Jason Division played a key role, along with Defence Secretary Robert McNamara, during the Vietnam war, furnishing three particularly important reports which had an impact on US concepts and strategy: on the effectiveness of strategic bombing in cutting off Vietcong supply routes, on the construction of an electronic barrier across Vietnam, and on tactical nuclear weapons".[14]   

These long quotations should help us understand that science today is one of the foundation stones for maintaining the status quo of the capitalist system. The important role it played during the Second World War, as we have just seen, has only grown with time, however much the bourgeoisie tries to hide it.

In conclusion, what we have tried to show is how ecological catastrophes, even if they can be unleashed by natural phenomena, are descending ferociously on the populations of the world, above all the most deprived ones; and that this comes from a conscious choice of the ruling class with regard to sharing out resources and using scientific research itself. The idea that modernisation, the development of science and technology are automatically associated with the degradation of the environment and the greater exploitation of man must therefore be categorically rejected. On the contrary, there is a huge potential for the development of human resources, not only at the level of producing goods but, and this is what counts, as regards the possibility of producing in another way, in harmony with the environment and the welfare of the ecosystem that man belongs to. The perspective is therefore not one of returning to the past by invoking a futile and impossible return to an original state where the environment was much less affected by human activity. On the contrary, it is one of going forward in a different way, of developing in a way that is really in harmony with the planet Earth.

Ezechiele 5 April 2009  

[1]. The 20th century saw an explosion of mega-cities. At the beginning of the century, there were only six cities with more than a million inhabitants; in the middle of the century, there were only four cities with over five million inhabitants. Before the Second World War, the mega-cities were a phenomenon seen only in the industrialised countries. Today the majority of these mega-cities are concentrated in the peripheral countries. In some of them, the population has multiplied tenfold in a few decades. Today, half of the world's population lives in cities: in 2020, it will be two thirds. But none of these huge cities, which may have an influx of immigrants of more than 5,000 a day, is really capable of dealing with this increase in population, which means that the immigrants, who can't really be integrated into the social tissue of the city, end up swelling the slums on the outskirts, where there is a total lack of infrastructure and services.

[2]. Capital, Volume III, Chapter 47, Section V.

[3]. "Hurricane Katrina: Capitalism is responsible for the social disaster", International Review n° 123.

[4]. Les Échos, 30.12 - see "Raz-de-marée meutriers en Asie du Sud-est; la vrai catastrophe sociale, c'est le capitalisme!" Révolution Internationale n° 353.



[6]. Bordiga: leader of the left wing of the Communist Party of Italy, who contributed a great deal to its foundation in 1921 and who was expelled in 1930 after the process of Stalinisation. Participated actively in the foundation of the Internationalist Communist Party in 1945.

[7]. (Anonymous) Preface to Drammi gialli e sinistri dell moderna decadenza sociale by Amadeo Bordiga, Iskra editions, pp 6-9. In French in the preface to Espèce humaine et croûte terestre, Petite Bibliotehque Payot 1978, pp 7, 9 and 10. An English version of some of Bordiga's writings on disasters can be found in Murdering the Dead, Amadeo Bordiga on capitalism and other disasters, Antagonism Press 2001.

[8]. Battaglia Comunista n° 23, 1951 and also on p.19 of Drammi gialli.

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Bordiga, "Politica e ‘construzione'", published in Prometeo series II, n° 304 and again in Drammi gialli, pp 62-63

[11]. Preface to Espèce humaine....

[12]. Jens Hoyrup, University of Roskilde, Denmark. "Mathematics and war", Palermo Conference 15 May 2003. Cahiers de la recherche en didactique, n°13, GRIM (Department of Mathematics, University of Palermo, Italy) http//

[13]. Annaratone, http//

[14]. Angelo Baracca, "Fisica fondamentale, ricerca e realizzazione di nuove armi nucleari.".

See also :