Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Socialist Viewpoint's Killer App

Socialist Viewpoint is published by the Socialist Workers Organization. They describe themselves here:
After being expelled from Socialist Action in 1999, we formed Socialist Workers Organization in an attempt to carry on the project of building a nucleus of a revolutionary party true to the historic teachings and program of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.
What we have found is that our numbers are insufficient for this crucial project of party building. This problem is not ours alone; it is a problem flowing from the division and fragmentation that has plagued the revolutionary movement in capitalist America and the world since the 1980s.
In other words, they're a vanguard proto-party. The fact that they don't claim vanguard status makes their paper more eclectic, honest, and open than either Socialist Action or The Militant.

The paper is mostly an effort of the Weinstein family, along with a few of their closer friends and comrades. The patriarch is Nat Weinstein, who must be in his late 80s by now. His wife, Sylvia, sadly passed away in 2001 at the age of 75. The torch has been passed to daughter Bonnie. I have never met any of the Weinsteins, but there are other members of the collective that I know from my time in Chicago.

The reasons for the split from Socialist Action are trivial and are recounted here. (The corresponding article from Socialist Action is no longer available on the web.) My own view is the split occurred because Nat and family wanted to run their own newspaper. There's nothing wrong with that, and if Socialist Action were smart they would have let him do it under the Socialist Action umbrella. But Trotskyists are not strong on individual initiative or creativity.

The paper appears every two months. I suppose a print edition is distributed around the Bay Area (where the Weinsteins live), but you can get it for free on the web. The current edition is typical. It has a lead article from a member of the editorial staff (traditionally Nat himself), and then articles from all over the Left. In other words, it's an edited anthology, not a newspaper in the sense of The Militant or Socialist Action. Accordingly, Socialist Viewpoint is where I first encountered Gregg Shotwell, learned much about Mumia abu-Jamal, and read about Hot & Crusty. Nat and his comrades are ace editors, and that's what makes the paper successful.

I never much cared for Nat's writing--he's long winded, discursive, and ultimately boring. I rarely got through an entire article. Bonnie, on the other hand, is a very good writer, and hence I'm pleased that she authors this issue's headliner, The Last Dime On Earth. Her goal is to make the best case she can against capitalism. And she does it cogently and entertainingly, but at the end it is a very weak case.

The title comes from the lede sentence: "The commanders of capital, by the very nature of the system of capitalism that they command, will fight to the death the last person on Earth for the last dime on Earth." This is a concise statement of the core, Marxist myth, namely that wealth is a fixed quantity which capitalists obtain by stealing from the workers. Of course that's completely wrong. There is no such thing as "the last dime on earth." Capitalism is always inventing new wealth and raising everybody's standard of living.

Ms. Weinstein admits as much: 
Meanwhile, in the real world of those who create, invent, explore, research, dig, weld, chop, farm, teach, cook, clean, saw, hammer, sand and paint—for all of us that do the work—we’re advancing by leaps and bounds. We’ve thought of, designed and manufactured robots that can do our work for us. We’ve made instant communication across the globe an everyday reality. We can exchange any information and have any books or films—anything electronically available—at our fingertips in a matter of seconds.
The pronoun, "we," is interesting. If by "we" she means the human race, then of course she's quite right. Human civilization has been advancing by "leaps and bounds," especially since the advent of capitalism. And we're all part of civilization--all inventions depend on the larger culture and not just on the inventor.

But she doesn't mean the human race--instead she refers to everybody except the inventor. Exchanging information, for example, depends crucially on the achievements of Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the inventors of Google. They're billionaires, money which Ms. Weinstein believes has been "stolen" from autoworkers and the like. That is not true--far from stealing the last dime, Google has added trillions to the wealth of the world economy, from which the Google guys have extracted some small payment for themselves. Geez--80% of everything Google makes is free (including the platform I use to host this blog)! How can they possibly be stealing from us?

Ms. Weinstein describes three examples which she claims "illustrate how the capitalist profit motive—because it comes before human needs—stands in the way of human progress." Her examples are very poorly chosen, and illustrate just the opposite. The first example is that, because of criminals, "fake and poorly made antibiotics are being used to treat tuberculosis." This works only if she thinks capitalists gain from overtly criminal activity. Counterfeiting drugs is just like counterfeiting money, and neither benefits the capitalist. Besides, crooks exist in all societies, including especially socialist ones, which are notoriously corrupt. So this is not an argument against capitalism.

The second example points to poorly contained radioactive waste at the Hanford site in Washington state. Hanford, of course, is maintained by the government, and is a point the Tea Party can cite against big government. It's hard to see how this is an argument against capitalism.

The final example is most on point, and cites a farmer that wanted to plant genetically modified seeds saved from a previous harvest, but was prevented from doing so by Monsanto, claiming patent infringement. Now patent protection is a dicey deal, contentious since the early days of capitalism. On the one hand, society benefits from the free distribution of inventions, but on the other there will be no inventions if the inventor cannot prosper. Some form of limited patent protection is thus warranted. But the law is a blunt instrument and there are many cases where the protection seems unjust and cruel, as with AIDS pharmaceuticals, for example. But it costs a billion dollars to develop a new drug these days, and somebody has to pay for that. That somebody is the consumer while the drug (or plant) is still under patent. I take Lipitor--it recently went off patent and the price went down from over one hundred dollars to under fifteen. The R&D cost has been amortized.

One can always argue the details of patent and copyright law. Those discussions are on-going and often very heated. But this does not make a case against capitalism.

If Ms. Weinstein's article is supposed to be Socialist Viewpoint's killer app against capitalism, it fails. Capitalism will be around for a good while to come.

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