Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Chain reaction

(April 1999)

From Socialist Review, No.229, April 1999.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

‘The organisation of modern capitalism means that apparently small changes of the sort much approved by Popper can have devastating consequences’

The issue of genetically modified crops made me cast my mind back to Karl Popper and Herbert Marcuse.

Popper was a noted philosopher of science. But he was also a very important ideologue for the ruling class because of two books he wrote attacking any notion of revolution: The Open Society and its Enemies, and The Poverty of Historicism. One of Popper’s central arguments was that the only way to change society in a rational, scientific way was through very limited, one at a time changes – what he called ‘piecemeal social engineering’. Any attempt to do otherwise could only lead to catastrophic ‘unintended consequences’ and to blanket, totalitarian measures in a futile effort to limit these consequences. Revolutionaries (who he denounced as ‘historicists’) refused to see this, and as a result inevitably caused catastrophes like Stalinism and Hitlerism.

Marcuse wrote a devastating review of The Poverty of Historicism. He made some elementary points. Hitlerism did not originate in some ‘utopian scheme’ to transform society, but because the German ruling class’s ‘expansionist policy of "rectifying" the peace settlements of 1919 and of gaining more Lebensraum [living space] could no longer be pursued within the framework of the democratic system and its large labour opposition’. The horrors of Stalinism did not result from the revolutionary notions of 1917, but from ‘violent collectivisation and industrialisation ... in order to withstand "the threat of capitalism" and especially of fascism’.

His central argument was, however, that the organisation of modern capitalism means that apparently small changes of the sort much approved by Popper, like those which firms make to capture markets, can have devastating consequences. ‘Industrial civilisation has at the national and international level so closely interrelated economic and political, local and large scale, particular and general processes’ that even piecemeal modifications can affect ‘the whole structures of society’ and threaten ‘a fundamental change’.

‘Basic societal institutions’ are such as to ‘threaten to obliterate the difference between war and peace, between technical and intellectual manipulation, between the rationale of business and that of society, between free and dependent enterprise, privacy and publicity, truth and propaganda’. Contemporary society, he adds, ‘progresses’ through waste and destruction, as if ‘with inexorable force of nature’.

The genetically modified crops issue shows exactly how this can happen. Over the last couple of decades studies of the ecosystems of plant and animal life in particular localities have shown how an apparently small change can have enormous consequence.

Removing or introducing just one species has an impact on every other species. Those who eat it suffer; those it feeds on or who compete with it for foodstuffs gain; the gains and losses multiply as the changing numbers of the different species affect each other; the end result can be sudden and catastrophic. Mathematicians working in the fields of chaos and complexity theory have been able to use computer simulations to chart how such results occur.

This is not a reason for never making changes to plant and animal varieties or for never eliminating harmful ones. If people had not done so in the past, the level of starvation worldwide would be much worse than it is.

But it is a reason for making changes carefully, in a piecemeal manner, in restricted localities, to test what their impact is. Most past changes did happen like this – if only because the level of technology prevented anything else. People could only change animal and plant varieties through selective breeding on a trial and error basis. The slow speed of transportation of goods and people meant that it took many years for species to move from one region to another. This did not rule out catastrophic changes (the spread of the black rat and the plague along the trade routes of the 14th century, for instance). But it did mean they were relatively few and far between.

Capitalism has created world markets and world industries. Multinational firms can only survive in competition with one another by unleashing new products across the world virtually overnight. Modern technologies provide them with the means to change species overnight as well. Given the chance, they will impose such changes on ecosystems right across the world, despite never taking the time and money to find out what the cumulative impact of these changes will be.

They will be risking all sorts of unforeseeable eventualities – the production of poisons; in previously unpoisonous crops, the transfer of genes providing immunity to herbicides from crops to weeds, or the killing off of beneficent insects like ladybirds and bees as well as genuine pests. And if any one of these eventualities comes to pass, it will be too late to turn the clock back.

Of course, there is a chance that none of these things will happen. The point, however, is that the firms pushing genetically modified crops have no idea about whether they will or not. The logic of capitalism is that they should not concern themselves with these things – any more than did the firms that pushed nuclear power right across the world before the Chernobyl disaster, the firms that ground up animal brains for cattle food, or, for that matter, the firms that agreed to solve their profitability problems in January 1933 by backing Hitler.

Marx compared bourgeois society in The Communist Manifesto of 1848 to ‘the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the power of the nether world he has called up by his spells’. The system has multiplied a thousand fold since then, and the uncontrollable forces are correspondingly more threatening.

You cannot ward off the dangers this poses to the whole of humanity by trying to do as little as possible. If you want to avoid huge, ill considered experiments with the very conditions for human life, you have somehow to dismantle a system whose logic is to engage in them. You need a revolution not to impose some utopian programme in the future, but merely in order to preserve what is worth having in the present.

Last updated on 21 December 2009