Kautsky parle

Greg Nowell GN842 at CNSVAX.Albany.Edu
Wed Sep 2 17:04:03 PDT 1998

Mark's comments bring to mind various thoughts and experiences. First, let me be straightforward about the methanol piece: I was paid to do it, not all opinions in it are my own, and I don't have a problem with that. In particular we debated the resource depletion question. The committee wanted it and in it went. If it were my inclination to do consulting to the highest bidder, I'd have spent the last N years working for the oil industry. In any case, my general disposition is to bother what California environmentalists call the oilies. On the "pimping front", I note that our department has recently voted undergraduate reforms which I think are detrimental to the degree program and that it has implemented reforms in the honors program, which I run, that I think are ill-advised. But I'm still sucking on the NY teat, and haven't resigned, and continue to run the honors program. That's the deal, I don't hide it. And I would write the methanol doc again, the same way.

It is true that the whole history of the development of our transportation system is one of interest groups making critical social decisions that have not been an explicit part of the political process. I think that is characteristic of the capitalist production process generally. So, when I point out that Californa's air-carrying capacity has been increased by a $300 catalyst, I am not trying to say that the entire transportation system reflects social equity and justice, or that the highway system is good, etc. Much depends on at what point you make the cut.

Arguably the Native Americans ran the continent right before it fell under yoke of capitalist development. But the "horse cultures" of the American plains represented the "contamination" of the "pure" pre-equestrian "ecological equilibrium." With a population of 200 million, the world could support a large number of practices that it cannot support at 5 billion. It is also arguable that with better distribution of revenue and resources the world could support a population of 20 billion easily. I don't have answers to questions at this level of generality.

I note, that I didn't "prove" anything nor claim to "prove" anything in my post; I claimed, in fact, that I did not know.

Any form of human civilization uses resources and exploits the environment. Some forms worse than others. The Golden Gate Bridge, which I admire as an aesthetic achievement (I have tried often to imagine the Golden Gate sans bridge), serves the automobile, which I don't admire, and facilitated the suburbanization of Marin county (for the rich) which arguably ought to have been a part of Pt Reyes National Seashore. But it was built in the 30s and constituencies for parks didn't really take off till the 60s. So there's the bridge, there's the development, there's the automobiles. Their NOx emissions, according to models, drift out of the bay and accumulate over Sacramento, adding to imported ozone. And no one's done anything about greenhouse.

I have a friend who ran a leftie rag in the 70s called "People and Energy" for a year, out of DC. He rode a bicycle to work and studiously reported on all the better ways to cut down on, and to produce, power. One day some years later I was visiting in a rented car. It was hot, he got in, and said "ooh neat" and turned the AC on full. I pointed out that we were using more energy and should roll down the windows. He said: "I decided that I could continue to crusade at People and Energy and moralize and punish myself. Then one day I realized that the reason we have all this stuff is that at some level people like it, and until we can adjust price mechanisms to make them not want it, we're stuck with it. And it doesn't matter one whit whether we use the air conditioner today."

The problem with capitalism is that sitting at our computers we "vote" for silicon chips, the toxic chemcials used to make them, and all the ancillary goods and bads, even if we denounce the capitalist system on those computers in the most strident terms. We may or may not organize a protest, but we do so over coffee brougth to us by exploited peasnat labor and we make phone calls on Chilean copper. There is, as it were, a universe of pain embedded in many of the commodities around us. But we use them anyhow.

So: aside from resource depletion issues, on which I disagree with Mark Jones, I understand the position that the "thing to do" is to scream, protest, shout, etc. But the fact of the matter is that it is impossibly to exist physically in this society, to ride a bike (perhaps made by Taiwanese labor, using petro-chemical tires, etc) or to do nothing at all (even if you don't own a car, your food is brought via the same transportation system), you are "in the system."

Each of us must make his peace with the problem of capitalism in his own way. Mark Jones' position appears to be to argue for cataclysmic consequences in the most strenuous manner possible, in the hope that the apocalyptic vision will help spur a lethargic world to much needed action. This position is rendered all the more impressive because it is based on a firm belief in an indisputable factual basis for every assertion. From this point of view, anyone who has similar insights but is not as energetic is guilty of the political sin of inaction, even accommodation; and I dare say, some of us receive the critical fury more deeply than the oil company execs or oligarchs who I doubt have ever directly received such opinions of their activities (aka sectarianism: those who are inclined to agree with some points but are not 100% on board get most of the heat). My personal position is that I teach exactly what I have written above, that "the system" produces mass quantities of mostly useless stuff and some good stuff and that there is, for those who care to look, a world of pain at the bottom of a coffee cup.

But I haven't stopped drinking coffee, nor do I urge my friends or students to. I do point out that the "ultra-activist" lifestyle is open to them. I also point out that they're not going to get true revolutionary leadership from the tenured professoriate. In fact, while teaching some "radical" writings I point out that if the authors (usually tenured academics) were truly radical they would be in jail. I also point out that students pursuring the Ph.D. for theoretically "radical" purposes (to be taken more seriously, etc.) should reconsider, since the system is geared to the production of tenured suburbanites with higher-than-average insulation from the business cycle more than it is to the production of overthrowing-the-system types. "Analysis of discourse" radicals are particularly hypocritical and nauseating in my view; so read on, this is the straight, non-apologetic, bourgeois reformist stuff!

If you're into overthrowing the system, you're probably better advised to find a niche and get to work. When I was a grad student in Cambridge, the distinction was rather clear: the PhD candidates would drink coffee, complain about reactionary professors, go buy a few books from Revolution Books, where the real radical was eking out an existence selling revolutionary literature. But of course this is also questionable, since capitalism is perfectly content to have niche market petty bourgeois bouqinists selling niche market titles to grad students and others.

All things considered, therefore, I have to wonder whether it is possible to be truly radical without also appearing insane, especially in American society.

I avoid the label problem by concluding that I probably am not a true radical. Whether that makes me a reactionary, I couldn't say; but WSJ editorials stick in my craw (as social policy), so if I am reationary there are others more reationary still. A lot more reationary. And the WSJ is progressive compared to the American Congress.

All things considered, it is my belief that such changes as occur will be incremental. Cars will be made better incrementally. But even if they become zero-emission in every conceivable sense, they will still eat up land and time (congestion, etc.) and slaughter people (drunk driving etc.). But with tens of millions of people dispersed in suburban living habits, and the distribution of foodstuffs and raw materials world wide dependent on automobiles, not even the most revolutionary government will be able to "transform the system" quickly. It is possible that some kind of cataclysmic change may occur (most notable on this score is the possibility of methane hydrate melting once sea temperatures rise). That will make for "interesting times." But I wouldn't be surprised to see massive dike building before we got a full ramp-down of the transportaiton system (which is only a fraction of global warming in any case; what is really regrettable is that the fixation on the auto leaves out other sources of global warming control: ceasing to eat, or reducing consumption of, beef would be a significant and cheap step forward).

But I do think that grinding crisis, as I have described it, is more probable. Change coupled with adaptability. I stand by my positions with regard to resource depletion and technological development. I am inclined to believe that the human technological path, for good and for ill, is irreversible. Either we make it or we don't, but the technology, and with it resource consumption and pollution, is here to stay. Within that, there are wide system variables: rail-based societies would be less wasteful, for example, but even with high taxes on gasoline Europe has gone for a US suburban style of development. This means that even with urban rent controls and high taxation there are powerful consumer preferences at work; I would like to impute all of these to the consumerist propaganda on the airwaves, but I know I can't. I lived without a car till I was 33, taking rail transport, buses, using a bike, grocery shopping and slogging home in 0 degree F weather, the pinnacle of environmental virtue. When I finally bought a car, with full knowledge of everything the oil cartel has done (or more than 99.99% of other people), fully aware of the saturation propaganda, fully aware of the car's environmental effects, guilty about the fact of doing it: all I can say is, it revolutionized my life. And it was just a goddamned 4-speed stick Toyta Tercel that gets 40 mpg, no AC. And I cannot honestly say that even if we brought a rail system to Albany tomorrow that I would be tempted to ditch the car and use it. In fact, not so, not for a second: not even knowing about the class hierarchy of petroleum-producing countries, the inequalities, the environmental consequences.

I might ditch it if I were required to do so, however. And I have no problem with mandatory higher mpg/kpl, and outlawing SUVs. Even more would I like a fuel cell vehicle. Methanol looks good--and even best, right now--but I'm open to other hydrogen carriers. Wallerstein points out that world politics is composed of A) the struggle of class against class and B) the struggle of bourgeois against bourgeois. My belief is that technological transformation raises primarily bourgeois-vs.-bourgeois issues (coals vs oil in one era, oil vs something else in our own). Backing the methanol industry as a "likely party" (for pushing technological change) is consistent with my views along these lines. I don't think we can force the adoption of a new technology without the backing of some major industrial interest group that is willing, among other things, to put resources (money) into making something happen. Regrettably, the budget of the American Methanol Institute, which is in the range of $2m/yr, does little more than maintain a staff, put out the occasional glossy, and send various people to various conferences (AMI staff, I haven't been sent anywhere). The AMI has four or five staffers. By contrast the American Petroleum Institute has dozens, keeps PhDs on the payroll, &c. And it is only a fraction of the lobbying resources, since each oil company is an empire.

But I note that the reformist solutions I support may make technology incrmentally better but they won't solve the problem of capitalism. Capitalism can generate imperialism and bloodshed over bananas and coffee beans, let alone transportation systems.

Here in the US, if I say to a waitress (outside of NYC or other areas where they might be grad students): there is bloodshed at the bottom of this coffee cup, I appear to her to be insane. If I say to my mechanic, you are the victim of the auto oligarchy, he will think the same thing. I can make the same points to some grad students and even some undergrads if I carefully prepare the terrain, using, perhaps, Hobson or Lenin or Wallerstein. The success rate of idea-penetration is about 15% at the undergrad level and about 75% at the graduate level. I think the rate at which these people come to be truly radical (which would be interesting, and stimulating, as every true radical in jail needs a liberal friend to bail him out) is about 0%. But then, by and large these people also want jobs and cars. If they're progressive and go to law school, they end up as ACLU types. If they're progressive and become academics, they end up in think tanks or academic positions (if they finish their PhDs).

Whatever all that means, it is not my mission in life to shout from the rooftops. Actually, from the bit of Kautsky I've read, I didn't think he was as bad as Lenin painted him. So I think part of the issue here is that in fact I am not a radical, as I would define the term. And if Mark Jones wishes to denounce me as a latter-day Kautskian, I'll take the knocks. I'm a tenured suburbanite, a goddamned bourgeois reformist in the belly of the beast. Too comfortable to kick, I poke. People barely listen to the pokes (Note to MJ: sales of my book have barely exceeded 500 copies, sales of Dan Yergin's celebration of the oil industry in the hundreds of thousands). I haven't the energy to kick. And of course, there's always the issue of playing with Neat Toys (like VCRs and computers) while waiting for the apocalypse. And the neat movies (do you know that no one seems to have caught--that I've read or talked to--the incredible racism in Raiders of the Lost Ark and subsequent adventure series? I point it out to anyone who listens).

I think this may help identify at least one implicit strand of contention between Mark Jones and myself. Not only am I not as sold on the proposition of apocalypse, I'm probably a good deal less intrinsically radical--by the jail criterion not radical at all--and the purely personal disposition and intellectual stances, to the extent that an intellectual stance represents a subjective interpretation of "fact," go together. Basically I write the occasional critical article (for example, Doug's LBO, and occasionally, elsewhere) for the minor venue, point out to students that there are serious structural imbalances in our form of production and distribution, shop with a Sierra Club credit card (! when not using my airline card!) and, finally, most egregiously, most sinfully, mow the damned lawn with a gas powered mower.

I also seem able to write long posts without ad hominem or foul language directed at my adversary. Call it one more superfluous, hypocritical bourgeois ethic.

-- Gregory P. Nowell Associate Professor Department of Political Science, Milne 100 State University of New York 135 Western Ave. Albany, New York 12222

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