Tuesday, September 18, 2018

3025. Nervous System-Like Signaling in Plant Defense

By JoAnn Klein, The New York Times, September 13, 2018

Caterpillar bites triggers defense signals.

Plants have no eyes, no ears, no mouth and no hands. They do not have a brain or a nervous system. Muscles? Forget them. They’re stuck where they started, soaking up the sun and sucking up nutrients from the soil. And yet, when something comes around to eat them, they sense it.

And they fight back.

How is this possible?

“You’ve got to think like a vegetable now,” says Simon Gilroy, a botanist who studies how plants sense and respond to their environments at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Plants are not green animals,” Dr. Gilroy says. “Plants are different, but sometimes they’re remarkably similar to how animals operate.”

To reveal the secret workings of a plant’s threat communication system for a study published Thursday in ScienceMasatsugu Toyota (now a professor at Saitama University in Japan) and other researchers in Dr. Gilroy’s lab sent in munching caterpillars like in the video above. They also slashed leaves with scissors.

Calcium spreads to distant leaves when another leaf on the plant is cut.

They applied glutamate, an important neurotransmitter that helps neurons communicate in animals.

How a plant responded when glutamate was applied to one of its leaves.

In these and about a dozen other videos, they used a glowing, green protein to trace calcium and accompanying chemical and electrical messages in the plant. And they watched beneath a microscope as warnings transited through the leafy green appendages, revealing that plants aren’t as passive as they seem.

The messages start at the point of attack, where glutamate initiates a wave of calcium that propagates through the plant’s veins, or plumbing system. The deluge turns on stress hormones and genetic switches that open plant arsenals and prepare the plant to ward off attackers — with no thought or movement.

Like animals, plants are eukaryotes — multicellular organisms — that split from a common ancestor called Luca billions of years ago. To survive, we all sense threats, relay messages about them within our bodies or tissues and respond to these challenges. Our actions vary, adapted for the lifestyles we maintain in different environments, but much of our basic cellular machinery is the same. Biology kept it that way: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

One mechanism our cells share is fluctuating levels of calcium ions, which carry an electrical charge. In humans, this charge assists in controlling when your neurons fire messages. Changes in calcium ions make your heart beat or your muscles contract so you can get up and leave when something threatens you.

Plants, obviously, can’t run away. But researchers knew that genes that make receptors kind of like those for glutamate initiate electrical signals that travel through plants after being wounded. They turn on genes elsewhere in the plant, allowing them to respond.

With the help of glutamate, calcium ions can flow, carrying their signal through channels that open like floodgates when glutamate fits into these special receptor spaces, like keys in locks. These channels aren’t quite the same as those in the mammalian nervous system, but they look very similar and probably worked similarly. They led Dr. Gilroy and his team to look into calcium ion flow.

To make the action visible, the researchers engineered Arabidopsis plants, botany’s lab rat, to make a protein originally from jellyfish that glows green under a microscope. This sensor, in this case, shines brighter when calcium levels increase.

They also made plants that lack the glutamate-like receptor. In these, the fluorescent signal was weak:

When plants were engineered to lack glutamate receptors, they barely registered any calcium waves.

The real surprise was the speed. The plant reacted within a few seconds and transferred information from leaf to leaf in a couple of minutes — as long as they were connected through the vascular system. This is slower than your nervous system, but “for a plant biologist, that is booking it,” Dr. Gilroy said.

The plant also seemed to be able to sense the amount of damage, because when they crushed a leaf, the plant responded all over.:

Wherever the calcium touched, the plant produced jasmonic acid, a defense and stress hormone, which they believe turns on genes that somehow activate a plant’s chemical and physical defenses.

Methyl-jasmonate, a product of jasmonic acid, for instance, floats through the air like a jasmine-scented perfume. But for insects, it can be unappealing or disrupt digestion and deter diners from return visits. Physical defenses may harden a plant’s cell walls, too, making them tough to eat.

“The authors add many pieces to the puzzle of how a localized wound triggers widespread defenses in distal leaves,” said Ted Farmer, a botanist at University of Lausanne in Switzerland who described the electrical wound signal in plants.

But much is still a mystery.

“We’re trying to understand what the machinery is that makes the whole system work,” Dr. Gilroy said.

What isn’t so mysterious is that plants and animals have a lot of the same problems. And while humans can deal with threats, plants can too.

“They may even have to be better than us at sensing the environment because they don’t have the luxury of getting up and leaving,” Dr. Gilroy said.

3024. More on the So-Called Marx's Transformation Problem

By Fred Moseley, Solidarity, September-October 2018

Thanks very much to Paul Burkett for writing an excellent review of my recent book Money and Totality (with a long subtitle: A Macro-Monetary Interpretation of Marx’s Logic in Capital and the End of the Transformation Problem) and also to Barry Finger for writing a substantial comment on Burkett’s review and my book.

I will reply to three of Finger’s points. It’s hard to tell sometimes if he is criticizing Marx’s theory or my interpretation of Marx’s theory; it seems to me that he is mostly criticizing Marx’s theory and me for following Marx.

Finger’s first criticism is that I uncritically accept Marx’s theory that surplus-value-flows between sectors“ in the transformation of values into prices of production, as if surplus-value is some kind of liquid that can be poured from one industry to the next.

In order to clarify Marx’s theory of the distribution of surplus-value across industries, we must first understand that there are two main levels of abstraction in Marx’s economic theory: a macro theory of the production of surplus-value in Capital Volumes 1 and 2, in which the main question is the determination of the total surplus-value produced in the economy as a whole, and a micro theory of the distribution of surplus-value in Volume 3, in which the main question is the division of the total surplus-value into individual parts (first the equalization of profit rates across industries in Part 2, and then the further division of the total surplus-value into commercial profit, interest and rent in Parts 4, 5 and 6).

The key point about this logical method is that the production of surplus-value is theorized prior to the distribution of surplus-value, i.e. the total surplus-value produced in the economy as a whole is determined logically prior to the division of the total surplus-value into individual parts (the whole before the parts). The total surplus-value is determined in the first level of abstraction (the production of surplus-value), and then this total surplus-value is presupposed in the second level of abstraction (the distribution of surplus-value or the subsequent division of the total surplus-value into its individual parts).

This logical progression from the total surplus-value to the individual parts of surplus-value follows directly from Marx’s labor theory of value and surplus-value, according to which all the individual parts of surplus-value come from the same source — the surplus labor of production workers. Therefore, the total surplus-value must be determined first — by surplus labor — and then this total surplus-value is divided into the individual parts, which also depend on other factors besides surplus labor, such as competition among capitalists which tends to equalize the rate of profit.

Marx referred to these two levels of abstraction in quasi-Hegelian terms of capital in general and many capitals (or competition).

“Flow” of Surplus Value
In order to equalize the rate of profit across industries, individual commodities exchange at their prices of production that differ from their values, and as a result some of the surplus-value produced in industries with a higher than average proportion of labor is appropriated in other industries with a lower than average proportion of labor. So in this logical sense surplus-value does indeed “flow” between industries; surplus-value that is produced in some industries is appropriated in other industries.

There is nothing mysterious about this; it is based on Marx’s logical method of the two levels of abstraction of the production and distributrion of surplus-value, and it happens through the price mechanism of individual prices of production differing from values. The total surplus-value is not a liquid but a quantity of money, ∇M in Marx’s symbol, which is determined by the total hours of surplus labor (SL) in the economy as a whole multiplied by the money-value produced per hour of labor (m).

Written algebraically: ∇M = m (SL). This total amount of money is divided up among individual industries (according to the capital invested in each industry) by commodities exchanging at prices of production.

Finger’s second point is that he interprets the transformation of values into prices of production to be an actual process over successive periods, in which commodities first exchange at their values which results in unequal rates of profit, and then there are transfers of capital from industries with lower than average rate of profit to industries with higher than average rate of profit, which in turn results in changing quantities of output produced and changing prices that gravitate toward prices of production.

But I argue that Marx’s theory of prices of production is about the end result of this equalization process, not about the equalization process itself. Marx’s theory assumes that the equalization of the profit rates has taken place and thus the economy is as­sumed to be in long-run equilibrium, and the prices of production determined under this abstract assumption are long-run equilibrium prices.

Marx’s theory of the production and distribution of surplus-value is in terms of a single period (e.g. a year); first the total amount of surplus-value produced in that period is determined and then the division of the total surplus-value across industries in that same period is determined, in such a way that all industries receive the same rate of profit (as in Marx’s single period tables in Chapter 9 of Volume 3).

This is not to say that the equalization process itself is not important. But Marx abstracted from the process in order to explain the end results of this process — prices of production as long-run equilibrium prices, with equal rates of profit.

The main purpose of Marx’s theory of prices of production was to answer the main criticism of Ricardo’s labor theory of value — that the labor theory of value was contradicted by equal rates of profit across industries and was unable to explain long-run equilibrium prices with equal rates of profit. Marx answered this main criticism of the labor theory of value on its own terms and showed how long-run equilibrium prices could be explained on the basis of the labor theory of value.

Marx’s main purpose was not to explain the adjustment process. Indeed, Marx was of the opinion that Adam Smith had already explained this process pretty well (transfer of capitals in response to unequal profit rates, etc., much as Finger describes). But Marx emphasized that neither Smith nor Ricardo was able to explain long-run equilibrium prices with equal rates of profit that are the end result of this adjustment process, and that was Marx’s decisive advance.

Rates of Exploitation and Profit
Finger’s third criticism is that I follow Marx and assume equal rates of surplus-value across industries, and there are two problems with this assumption. First, Finger asserts, equal rates of surplus-value (rates of exploitation) are not compatible with equal rates of profit; it is not possible to have both equalities in the same price system.

The answer to this criticism is based again on the two levels of abstraction in Marx’s theory — the production and distribution of surplus-value.

The assumption of equal rates of surplus-value applies to the first level of the production of surplus-value, and the assumption of equal rates of profit applies to the second level of the distribution of surplus-value. Equal rates of surplus-value at the level of production is entirely compatible with equal rates of profit at the level of distribution.

In this criticism, Finger interprets the transformation problem in the standard way — as being about two sets of micro prices of individual commodities, where the transformation is from one set of micro prices (values) to another set of micro prices (prices of production).
But I argue — with substantial textual evidence; see Chapter 3 (80 pages) of my book — that the transformation problem is not about two sets of micro prices, but is instead about the transformation from macro total value and total surplus-value to micro prices of individual commodities. The transformation problem is really a disaggregation problem — how a predetermined total is divided up into individual parts.hanism to achieve the equalization of the rate of surplus-value (like the transfer ot capitals to achieve equal rates of profit). I agree with this point, but I argue that the assumption of equal rates of surplus-value is not meant to be a realistic assumption in Marx’s theory, but is instead a simplifying assumption that could be relaxed without changing anything fundamental.

The amounts of surplus-value produced in each industry would be different (from the amounts if equal rates of surplus-value is assumed), but these different individual amounts of surplus-value would still be added up in order to determine the total surplus-value, and this total surplus-value would still be used to determine the general rate of profit and prices of production in the same way as Marx did in Chapter 9 of Volume 3.

I discovered recently in volumes of the German Marx-Engels Collected Works that Marx relaxed the simplifying assumption of equal rates of profit in a few pages in two manuscripts that were written after Volume 3 in 1868 and 1875. (I would be happy to provide references.)
Thanks again to Barry Finger for his substantial and stimulating comments. I hope I have understood his comments correctly and that my reply has helped to clarify the issues, especially the two levels of abstraction in Marx’s theory. And I would be happy to continue the discussion by email: (fmoseley@mtholyoke.edu).

3023. On Fred Moseley's "Money and Totality"

By Barry Finger, Solidarity, September-October 2018

Paul Burkett's review of Fred Moseley’s Money and Totality well captures the logic of Moseley’s refutation of the standard critiques of Marx’s “transformation” problem. This can also be approached somewhat differently.

The price of any given good, and the sum total of goods, is the outcome of the manifold intersections of two schedules: demand and supply, which reflect the intersection of quantities of output and price. Let me emphasize: price not labor-time. So in order to understand the relationship of price to labor-time, there must be an intermediary link — money — the pricing unit, which is reducible to a given quantity of time.

In any given period, say one year, the price of the annual product ($V + $S) is the monetary expression of a sum total of productive labor time worked. From this relationship, the monetary value of an hour, a day or a year of labor-time can be calculated.

If we assume, as does Moseley, that an hour of labor-time has a fixed expression in monetary units over the course of many years (which is an empirical unlikelihood, even if a handy simplifying assumption), then the M in the formula M-C-M’ or M-C-(M+ ?M)has the same value at the end of the years it takes to recoup the initial outlay as it did in the beginning.

Thus the value of inputs can be treated as fixed data and not as moving variables. That’s exactly what Moseley does. In that sense alone, the value of the money capital invested in wages and means of production is invariant and does not need to be “transformed.” M amount of dollars invested in year one with an assumed expression of Y units of labor-time still represents Y units of labor-time in, say, year 10 when the useful life of the machinery has been totally recouped by M dollars.

This is the first problem with Moseley’s solution: the “transformation problem” that he so neatly finesses really only occurs over the course of the years. From a capitalist standpoint, and from Marx’s viewpoint, changes in the labor content of the monetary unit over time have to be reflected in the final M through an inflation premium. Otherwise the value of the dead labor incorporated in the constant capital cannot be preserved. In practical terms this means that capitalists need to recoup an investment commensurate with the purchasing power that the initial M stood for.

Again, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with how Moseley approaches this aspect of the problem. It is a perfectly acceptable heuristic device that allows him to sidestep the unnecessary complication that would result from changes in the value content of the monetary unit. At the same time, as I hope to show. It gets us no closer to an answer to the problem.

Profit Rate Equalization
The real problem comes in with Moseley’s treatment of profit-rate equalization. Here he accepts unreflectively the belief, inconsistently presented by Marx, that surplus value flows among sectors according to the proportional weight that the individual branch’s capital occupies with respect to aggregate investment.

An application of that principle is this: capitals of the same size, but of differing organic composition — that is, made up of different proportions of constant and variable capital — earn the same profit in the same time period.

This is the seeming contradiction at the heart of the “transformation problem:” namely, that profits are no longer proportional to the living labor that variable capital sets in motion.
Surplus value is then treated by Moseley as a social relationship having the quality of a liquid that can spill over from one sector to another. But in fact, surplus value is not what moves when profit rates are unequal. Investment does. Capital withdraws from spheres that underperform and expands spheres that are relatively more lucrative.

This incessant movement changes the production structure of the economy: it shifts sectoral supply (and demand) schedules, changes the value of money, the level of employment and wages until market-clearing prices begin to emerge reflecting a uniform rate of profit.

But this means that the physical structure of the economy, the prices of replacement inputs and final output, the rates at which labor is exploited, are all recruited into the process of profit-rate leveling.
When the competitive dust settles, part of the surplus labor time worked in sectors with proportionally higher labor inputs cannot be totally realized in the form of surplus-value; it cannot take a price form. That which can be is profit. Labor here is effectively exploited at a lower rate than average.
Conversely, the surplus labor time worked in sectors with a lower than average labor component is realized at a premium in price form. It is effectively mobilized at a higher than average rate of exploitation.

Marx, and by extension Moseley, treat a uniform rate of exploitation (and therefore the average rate of exploitation) as data. And for certain purposes that assumption can be employed illustratively. But the closer we approach the surface, the further that simplifying assumption is from reality.
There is no market mechanism that could bring about this uniformity. Neither Marx nor Moseley make any attempt to identify one. Instead, the average rate of exploitation is a function of the many sectorally divergent rates of exploitation. The average rate of exploitation is not data and cannot be treated as such. It is the outcome of capitalist competition and the incessant ebb and flow of investment among sectors of the economy.

Profit rate equalization, in the absence of secondary deductions for merchants’ profit, interest and rent — that is, at the level of abstraction at which Marx introduces the problem — does not involve a transfer of surplus values. To interpret it differently is to be beguiled by averages. From the process of averaging, no redistribution of substance can be implied. If the average height of people in a room is 5’10”, those who are 5’8″ do not transfer two inches to those who are 6′.

Rates of Profit and Exploitation
Moseley is so devoted to the letter of Marx’s presentation that he fails to see the central problem. The same economic structure that yields prices having a uniform rate of profit cannot also be consistent with one that reflects a uniform rate of exploitation, unless capital to labor ratios are themselves uniform throughout the economy. Even then, the various sectoral outputs have to stand in proper proportion to support market-clearing prices that have this attribute.

The problem is that both he and Marx arbitrarily define value as prices that reflect profits that are uniformly proportional to wages. Prices of production are incompatible with values defined in that way and can only be reconciled by tying logic into a pretzel — the pretzel being the redistribution of surplus values.

The secondary knots are the insistence on a series of supposed invariant postulates: the sum of prices equals the sum of values; the sum of profits equals the sum of surplus values; the invariance of input prices, etc. that have become the hallmarks of Marxist orthodoxy. 

The “transformation problem” as Marx poses it cannot be resolved. Neither can it be resolved by means of his neo-Ricardian critics, such as Bortkiewicz, since they work under the same framework: an invariant production structure.

One cannot at the same time argue that capital movements create a uniform rate of profit, and treat that structure-in-motion as values evolve into prices of production as a given rather than an unfolding outcome. One set of price characteristics is incompatible with the economic structure of prices with differing characteristics.

All that is necessary to solve the “transformation” (non) problem is provided by Marx at the outset. Price is value in the form of money — all prices, whatever their characteristics. Once the relationship between labor time and money has been established, prices have been effectively explained. No part of that explanation entails secondary assumptions about a uniform rate of exploitation or, for that matter, a uniform rate of profit.

The singular significance of the average rate of profit is that it functions as a track changer, a spontaneous market regulator adjusting the manifold movements of capital among various sectors of the economy.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

3022. Why Humans Came to Dominate the Planet

By Yuval Noah Harari, TED, June 2015

3021. How Long Have Humans Dominated the Planet?

By David Biello, Scientific American, December 6, 2013


Want to know when the Anthropocene started exactly? It will only cost an entirely revamped scientific effort in archaeology, ecology and paleontology, among other disciplines, at an unprecedented planetary scale, according to a new paper calling for such a scheme.

The putative start date for what scientists have begun to call the Anthropocene—a newly defined epoch in which humanity is the dominant force on the planet—ranges widely. Some argue that humans began changing the global environment about 50,000 years back, in the Pleistocene epoch, helping along if not outright causing the mass extinctions of megafauna, from mammoths to giant kangaroos, on most continents. Others date it to the emergence of agriculture some 7,000 years ago. The most definitive cases to be made coincide with the start of the industrial revolution and the dawn of the atomic age. The beginnings of burning fossil fuels to power machines in the 19th century initiated a change in the mix of atmospheric gases, and the first nuclear weapon test on July 16, 1945, spread unique isotopes across the globe.

There is little doubt from the archaeological record that humans have been altering ecosystems on a local scale for at least 50,000 years if not longer, but the extent of that alteration remains unknown. Recent work by ecologist Erle Ellis of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and others suggests that for at least 3,000 years hunting, farming and burning have shaped most landscapes on the planet, based on computer models.

To definitively prove that with field evidence would require the kind of archaeological and ecological effort the world has never seen, a scheme Ellis and co-authors layout in a paper in the inaugural issue of the new open-access journal Elementadevoted to the Anthropocene. That plan, they say, would have to be global in scale—to eliminate the bias in current research toward the most accessible archaeological sites—as well as unusually open. Few scientific disciplines are as secretive as archaeology, paleontology and paleoecology, given that careers are made (or not) based on access to specimens.

The payoff would be a true historical baseline for what is "natural" for the first time, complementing efforts like the Long Term Ecological Research Network and the new National Ecological Observatory Network, among others. "What is a natural system has a cultural history as part of its constitution," says archaeologist Dorian Fuller of University College London, a co-author of the paper and a supporter of "Big Archaeology," who notes that the ecosystems of Amazonia, Europe, and even the western U.S. are all products of at least millennia of human activity.

Prospects for such a global effort are, admittedly, dim, not least because it is unclear who would fund such work. But a global, synthetic effort is the only way to answer the question: How long have humans been terraforming? "This is great scientific work that can be done and needs to be done," Ellis argues. "It will help us define the role of humans in shaping the Anthropocene and will mark a scientific triumph for humanity: a full empirical account of our rise to global stewardship of the biosphere."

3020. The Air-Conditioning Debate Isn’t Really About Air-Conditioning

By Stan Cox, Green Social Thought, September 7, 2018

Jacobin recently published an article calling for a national and worldwide expansion of air-conditioning usage. In it the writer, Leigh Phillips, used the suffering of economically and ecologically stressed people and communities during heat waves as a rationale for doubling down on a technology that, at the same time it’s cooling the indoors today, is heating up the outdoors of tomorrow. So to assuage such climate concerns, he went on to call for a far-reaching expansion of nuclear power. I suggest that we go back and try to follow this trail of illogic.
Vulnerability can’t be fixed with technology
In the piece, Phillips acknowledges the long-observed fact that people die during heat waves primarily because they live alone and/or suffer from a chronic physical or mental illness and/or are poor and/or are very old or very young. Heat victims also tend to live in inadequate housing in economically forgotten, concrete-rich, vegetation-free neighborhoods of urban heat islands.
Given that, and given that heat waves are going to become even more frequent and intense, the need for universal free healthcare, economic democracy, and guaranteed basic income, good affordable housing, high-quality care for children and the elderly, greening of cities, and greater social cohesion will become more and more urgent.  
Further declaring, as Phillips suggests, a “right to air-conditioning” would also contribute to life and health preservation during heat waves, but it would not address the root causes and consequences of poverty and exclusion that lead to deaths every day—not just when it’s hot outside.
Consider the horrific 1995 heat emergency in Chicago that killed more than 550 people despite the wide availability of air-conditioning. Longer, more intense heat waves had struck the city in 1931 and 1936, but the number of deaths per 100,000 population was higher in 1995 than it was during those two heat waves of the pre-AC era.
Researchers have concluded that despite the hardship then being wreaked by the Great Depression, there were factors that provided some degree of protection to Chicago residents of the 1930s. Neighborhoods saw more social interaction and fewer people lived in isolation than in the 1990s. Fear of crime was much less, so people felt freer to keep windows open or sleep out on porches and rooftops. And homes were surrounded by less concrete mass, which concentrates heat and releases it throughout the night.
Two different problems with different solutions are. . .
No one is saying that anyone threatened by heat exposure should be denied air-conditioning. Until life circumstances for today’s marginalized people and communities are dramatically improved, there will be no option but to use air-conditioning when it’s required as a public health measure.
But that is an issue wholly apart from the damage being done to the Earth and its inhabitants by the routine, extravagant deployment of air-conditioning throughout much of America and other parts of the affluent world. That superfluous cooling is not serving as a life- or health-saving measure. Businesses and upper-middle to upper-class households are primarily responsible for this colossal waste of energy and the resulting greenhouse emissions. That waste, not health preservation, is what air-conditioning’s critics are attacking.
Phillips, like many AC fans before him, falls back on the sly trope that all “attacks” on air-conditioning are motivated by an “obsession with individual asceticism.” No, they’re not. The opposition is all about emissions of carbon dioxide and refrigerants.
Greenhouse emissions caused by cooling buildings and vehicles in this country alone amount to half a billion metric tons carbon dioxide equivalent per year. World air-conditioning use will triple by 2050 according to Phillips, but that’s a lowball estimate. Researchers have projected a tenfold increase; with that, unrestrained provision of refrigerated air will consume electricity equal to half of today’s total worldwide generation. And even in that projection, billions of heat-vulnerable people still wouldn’t have access to air-conditioning.
Green energy can never sustain the huge increases in air-conditioning use that are being projected. Proposed scenarios for displacing even today’s levels of fossil-fueled energy consumption, nationally or globally, with renewable sources have been shown to be fatally flawed. Piling trillions of kilowatt-hours’ worth of additional AC demand on top of current and growing overall demand would put the 100%-renewable dream even farther out of reach.
Renewable energy will not be able to support high and ever-increasing energy demand. In calling for air conditioners of the future to be run on nuclear-generated electricity,  Phillips is implicitly (and rightly) accepting that fact. But if 100%-renewable energy for unrestrained, growing demand is a dead end, the path to a nuclear-powered world is the road to ruin.
Among the many good reasons to stay off the nuclear road is the fact that it would rapidly increase emissions during the very decades when we need to be slashing them. The enormous quantities of fossil energy that must be spent in advance to build enough nuclear power plants to run a high-energy world economy would require us first to go into deficit carbon spending for decades. One study showed that in a global 100%-nuclear scenario, all emissions reductions achieved up to 2050 by displacement of fossil fuels would be cannibalized by growing emissions from nuclear-plant construction, supply, and operation.
. . . part of a much bigger problem
Limiting atmospheric warming even to 2 degrees C (and it needs to be less) will require a hard and fast ceiling on greenhouse emissions that is put in place ASAP and declines over time. That means decommissioning coal- and gas-fired power plants and slashing production of vehicle fuel long before enough renewable energy capacity can be built up as a substitute.
The world’s affluent must then face the steepest decline in energy consumption, because billions around the world will still need an increase in energy supply. That, as Phillips points out, will require vast North-to-South transfers of wealth and resources. So there won’t be enough energy left after that to support the kind of lavish energy use we see today, including the heavy use of space-cooling .
Slashing energy demand will require retaining the essential and cutting the optional throughout society. Examples of needed cuts that would reduce energy demand not only by air-conditioning but also much more would include
Ending the central cooling of big houses. Every year in America, from May through August and beyond, countless 3,000+ square-foot detached houses, sit thoroughly chilled and empty for hours a day, often all day, with the sun beating down and the AC compressor roaring.
Stopping the over-refrigeration of office workers. In buildings throughout the country, employees bring sweaters or even space heaters to work to ward off the cold, their bosses operating under the mistaken assumption that workers, like computer chips, work faster when chilled.
Putting an end to America’s personal car/truck economy. That would spare the more than 10 billion gallons of fuel that go to run vehicle air-conditioners (which also use refrigerants with especially high global warming potential), end commuter misery, and tear out many square miles of urban concrete and asphalt to reduce the heat island effect. It would also accomplish myriad other social and environmental goals. AC can be saved for public transportation.
Among energy uses that we will need to retain, there will always be a time and place for cooling technology. But the Earth can’t handle the aggressive deployment that Phillips wants. Here is his definition of the “right to air-conditioning”: It “should be to have free or cheap, reliable access to the thermal conditions optimal for human metabolism (air temperatures of between 18 degrees C and 24 degrees C, according to the World Health Organization).” That’s an admirably specific but wholly wrongheaded goal.
In declaring that “for all of us, there is a pretty narrow range of temperature within which we are comfortable, most productive, cozy” and prescribing for us a universal, severely restricted temperature range of 64 to 75 degrees F, Phillips is ignoring a couple of decades of research on how real humans adapt to warmer temperature.
Those studies find that the indoor temperature range within which people feel comfortable is not fixed; rather, it depends on the temperatures that have been experienced in recent days and weeks. We feel best within a lower temperature range in winter and a higher range in summer. If it’s in the low to mid-90s outside, for example, subjects are OK with indoor temperatures as high as 88, while a 72-degree room is likely to feel too cool.  
Confining humans within a tight zone of coolth is not only a profligate use of energy; it also undermines our heat tolerance. For people not compromised by health problems, the experience of normal warm/hot weather, research has found, enhances acclimatization to heat; conversely, living mostly in air-conditioned spaces is poor preparation for being outdoors or in a naturally ventilated building in the summer. And while air-conditioning has saved lives during heat emergencies, it has led to a variety of health problems during more routine use.
* * *
The debate over air-conditioning isn’t so much about air-conditioning as it is about the kind of future that our past and present failure to mitigate climate change has made necessary. The Phillips AC piece, as did the infamous festival of ecomodernist thought published as the summer 2017 issue of Jacobin, attempts to address the global ecological crisis by merging a mildly left agenda with technological fixes.
These arguments fail to recognize that there can be no adequate or just solution to the climate emergency that does not ensure sufficiency for all with excess for none by putting a halt to overproduction for, and overconsumption by, the affluent world. Because capitalism is incapable of surviving in a world like that, the necessity for deep restraint is being widely ignored for now. That has to change, and soon.     
* * *

Saturday, September 15, 2018

3019. The DSA, Julia Salazar and the Future of the Left

By Louis Proyect, The Unrepentant Marxist, September 15, 2018


About six months ago I went to the DSA website and became a member. That amounted to making a $5 contribution and nothing else. My main interest was being apprised of their goings on and as such my $5 was worth it since I get emails from Maria Svart, their elected leader, a subscription to their membership forum and their print newsletters.

In a FB conversation with long-time Marxist Democratic Party activist Carl Davidson about whether DSA’s membership figures were inflated based on an interloper like me being included as a member, Carl assured me that I really wasn’t a member. Well, just a couple of days ago I got snail mail indicating that I was one of the 50,000 members for real. My only question is how many others are only paper members like me.
Obviously not all since they were largely responsible for ringing the doorbells that helped get Julia Salazar elected, who by their reckoning is tantamount to the Bolshevik Party having a party member elected to the Duma. As it happens, there was one–Roman Malinovsky who turned out to be a Czarist spy. Now I don’t want to equate Julia Salazar but she appeared to be living a double life as well. To her comrades, she was a working-class immigrant and Sephardic Jew from Colombia who was radicalized by her experience working as a domestic and by the treatment of Palestinians. The creeps at Tablet magazine looked into her background and discovered that none of this was true. She came from a wealthy family with no Jews in their past and enjoys a $685,000 trust fund from her deceased father. Also, she had a rightwing past that included defending Israel on Glenn Beck’s talk show. I suppose DSA’ers accepted all that like in the final scene of “Some Like it Hot” when Jack Lemmon pulls off his wig and confesses to Joe E. Brown: “We can’t get married because I am a man” (the reality of the period). Whereupon, Brown answers: “Nobody’s Perfect”.

I’ll accept that she has made a legitimate political and religious conversions even though some cynics might have concluded that being self-identified as a Jew and a leftist is a good way to get elected in New York. My only question is why she did not disclose her past to her comrades. Unless, of course, that would have triggered suspicions that they were dealing with an opportunist. But, on second thought, that doesn’t hurt when you are running as a Democrat. Opportunism probably is a good way to get higher up in the DP machinery just like downing 20 Jello Shots when applying to become a member of a fraternity or sorority.
Over on Jacobin, there’s an article by DSA member and trade union steward Ben Beckett ebulliently titled “We’re On a Winning Streak” that offers up-to-date thinking among the young Marxist Democratic Party activists who will become the next generation’s Carl Davidson.

Showing a bit of buyer’s remorse, Beckett explained Nixon’s loss to Cuomo as a result of her lack of interest in working class issues. Of course, in the unlikely event that she had bested Cuomo, I am sure that Jacobin and DSA would have been basking in her glory. That’s how that kind of politics based on pragmatism works.

Beckett drew attention to the bourgeois press’s putting her past under a microscope, something that does not customarily take place when a candidate is running for a relatively minor post like State Senator. This could have only meant that the real estate industry was out to get her. That undoubtedly was true but it was also true that the democratic socialists have been getting more press than the marriage of Prince Harry & Meghan Markle so what else would you expect? It sells newspapers and is clickbait supremo.

Finally Beckett gets down to brass tacks and deals with the questions of dinosaurs like me blasting DSA for its Democratic Party orientation. Well, not me exactly. More like the ISO’ers who have benefited from exposure in Jacobin even if they help give it credibility on its left flank.

Here is Beckett’s excuse for supporting the Democratic Party:

However, any prospects of forming a working-class party in the future will also fail if that party cannot gain the support of a large number of people who currently identify as Democrats. By running in Democratic primaries now, socialists can sharpen the contradictions between voters and party heads and help accelerate the process by which founding an independent party will become feasible.

If you apply this formula to the last great collision between reaction and revolution in the USA, you’d have to conclude that it was a mistake to form the Free Soil or Liberty Parties. It would have been better to stay in the Whig Party since that was where most of the gradualist opponents of slavery could be found. Of course, it is difficult to reconcile your abolitionist beliefs with membership in such a party but even more so today when you are dealing with a party that has a vast funding base and propaganda machine rooted in wage slavery rather than chattel slavery.

Recognizing the swamp-like nature of the DP, Beckett advises:

To avoid…potential pitfalls, the Left must follow Salazar’s lead and work to cohere a distinct and consistent collective political identity based on a material analysis of society, the centrality of working-class solidarity and struggle against the capitalist class, and simple-to-understand, class-wide reforms that bring concrete benefits to voters at the expense of capitalists.

The problem is that a “materialist analysis of society” would in of itself dictate against running as a candidate in the oldest, still functioning capitalist party in the world. Formed by Andrew Jackson’s supporters in 1828, it was supposed to be the party of the “common man” even though commoners of the Cherokee nation and chattel slaves were not included.
He was succeeded by his protégé James Polk who launched a war against Mexico in 1846 that Ulysses S. Grant described as “as one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation” and “an instance of a republic following the bad example of European monarchies, in not considering justice in their desire to acquire additional territory.”

The next two Democrats to occupy the White House were white supremacists who make Donald Trump look like Ralph Nader. Franklin Pierce signed the Fugitive Slave Act and Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed those living in the two states to decide whether they wanted slavery or not. After him, it got even worse with James Buchanan backing the Dred Scott decision that denied the right of a slave taken to a free state by his owner to sue for his freedom.

Grover Cleveland was a Democrat who embodied imperialism. There’s not much else to say.
Woodrow Wilson, the first Democrat to supposedly fight for progressive economic policies, showed “Birth of the Nation” in the White House and had Eugene V. Debs charged with ten counts of sedition.

After a century of these kinds of Democratic Party administrations, we had FDR, Truman and LBJ who were idealized by social democrats and Stalinists as our equivalent of European social democrats even though they were warmongers who dropped atomic bombs, used biological warfare in Korea and killed millions of Vietnamese. Notwithstanding this monstrous history, Bernie Sanders demonstrates a certain affinity:

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To understand what the Sandernista movement and its offshoot in the DSA represents, you have to step back and look at the broader developments in the Democratic Party since the New Deal. Every so often, a significant portion of American society becomes deeply alienated by conditions naturally occurring under the capitalist system and the DP serves the ruling class by containing the discontent through reforms and/or promises of reform.
Under FDR, it was the working class that was ready to break with the system. It was up to the Communist Party and New Deal liberals to sustain the illusion that things would be set right.

With LBJ, it was Black America that was in open revolt. Thus, it was necessary to open the doors to Black politicians like DSA member John Conyers to bring working class Blacks back into the fold.

Today it is young people who are angry. A college or high school degree do not guarantee steady work and it is becoming more and more difficult to afford the necessities of a middle-class life like home ownership and raising a family. So Bernie Sanders comes along to fight for a return to New Deal glory when economic conditions militate against that. We are in a long-term decline of American capitalism and no amount of tariffs, Keynesian gimmickry or winning State Senate offices will reverse that trend.

Even though the idea of revolution might come to the average American as a cure worse than the disease, that is what is needed. You got a glimmer of that being understood during the Occupy movement but the anarchist leadership (sorry for the contradiction in terms) could not see beyond the “prefigurative” nonsense that was swept away by Obama’s cops.
Starting in the early 1980s, I began working with Peter Camejo to promote the idea of a non-sectarian left. As you might have noticed, the North Star website that was dedicated to this goal is hibernating right now. Whether it wakes up or something else comes along to replace it, there is still a crying need for left unity but on a revolutionary basis.

The democratic socialists or social democrats or Marxist Democratic Party activists—whatever you want to call them—are opposed to revolutionary politics. Despite the lip-service they pay to changing the system, they are basically America’s Mensheviks. Despite the hoary character of Lenin’s polemics, we are dealing with the same issues with the Democratic Party seducing the DSA leaders and Jacobin editors in the same way the Constitutional Democrats (Cadets) seduced Julius Martov. Socialists have to support socialist parties, or at the very least “petty-bourgeois” parties that Lenin blocked with such as the SR’s. We have the equivalent of such parties today in the Greens. We should only be so lucky to see them as having the same weight. Maybe we’ll be lucky enough to see a radical working-class party come along before long. After all, the conditions are rotten-ripe for it.