Dust or Magic, Wednesday, December 12 2007

Capitalism "innovative"?!! Some mistake, surely.

In his Guardian column last week (5/12/2007), Jonathan Freedland says:

"We would be fools to banish global business from the great climate battle":

Dear Jonathan -

I was quite surprised last week, in the Guardian, to find you repeating the myth that innovation is "what [capitalism] does best". Actually, innovation is not only *not* what capitalism does best, it is precisely what it does not do at all, if it can possibly help it. I see little hope of reversing climate change while this myth continues to go unchallenged.

To take a salient example: computers and electronics; these technologies were produced almost entirely outside capitalism, by scientists, engineers and amateurs working for relatively modest academic or government salaries, or just for the pleasure of the work itself. This is still the case to a remarkable extent. Capitalism more or less had to be spoon-fed computers, with all kinds of inducements, till the 1980s, and its subsequent enthusiasm for them has not been particularly beneficial to their development - evidenced in the massive loss of diversity and increased complexity in the designs of digital electronic systems, and unprecedented, completely unnecessary waste, duplication and obsolescence. Instead of reducing humanity's environmental impact (as everyone assumed they would) computers have ended up increasing it: for example, embedded electronics in cars and "consumer durables" have allowed the range and pace of obsolescence to be ramped up to a degree previously inconceivable.

At the same time the deadening hand of Intellectual Property has closed over the whole endeavour. Donald Knuth, one of the pioneers of computer programming, has pointed out that it would have been impossible to do the work he did "nor would I probably have ever thought of doing it" under current IP regime (Letter to the US Patent Commission, Feb 1994; Programming Freedom - February 1995 - Number 11). Which is echoed in the current controversy between academia and a government which wants it to be more accountable to industry's needs. Apart from the tacit admission that capitalist industry is unable to come up with its own ideas, we have regular warnings from pioneers, like the pharmacologist Sir Philip Cohen (Times Higher 10/8/2007 - in the wake of the Warry report on research funding) who, like Knuth, say their work "would not be funded" under today's regime.

Yet even left-wing writers like Nigel Harris (in the new issue of Red Pepper - Dec/Jan 2008) talk about "the great technical triumphs of capitalism - from the steam engine and electricity to the worldwide [sic] web, air travel and astronauts".

The World Wide Web and the Internet owe almost nothing to capitalism (unless you count war as a product of capitalism) and, what is more, their continued vitality has only been possible because capital has been forced to accept that some things are best left out of its clutches: the World Wide Web consortium, for example, is now allowed to get on with organising the Web without too much interference.

When capitalist industry *does* innovate, it is overwhelmingly in support of the sales effort. Research and Development is normally subservient to Marketing in modern firms. The firm's overriding need is to survive which, alas, it can *not* do by offering people commodities that don't wear out, or can be cheaply and easily fixed, or even incorporate standard parts. Consequently, we have the precise opposite of a low-impact economy, and a great deal of capitalist innovation is more like deliberate sabotage (as in, "this device contains no user-serviceable parts").

Looking at the age of steam, one can see how someone might get the impression that capitalism is creative - James Watt seems to have been a very successful and energetic entrepreneur, perhaps describable as a capitalist; ditto Hargreaves and Crompton; certainly Brunel. But aren't these people simply spectacular and misleading exceptions (and working under a very early, inchoate version of industrial capitalism)? Faraday was no capitalist, nor was Priestley, ... the list is long. Babbage was probably a more typical innovator: spending his whole life, lots of his own and government money, vainly trying to interest Capital in powerful ideas that would probably have helped it enormously.

But innovations can be red-herrings. Anything that reduces wealth-inequality would probably have a far bigger impact on carbon-emissions than any technology (a subject being looked at by Danny Dorling at Sheffield, Richard Wilkinson at Nottingham, and others - references available if you want them). There is a very good case to be made, that it is mainly the overconsumption caused by inequality that drives climate change.

Posted by Bob Hughes on Wednesday, December 12 2007

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