The new socialism of fools?
'Down with the big corporations' cry the environmental campaigners. That sounds fair enough, says James Heartfield, but the real object of their fury lies elsewhere
The current round of hysteria over genetically modified (GM) foods raises some interesting questions about the motives of leading environmentalists. The furore began with the reported findings of Dr Arpad Pusztai that GM potatoes caused thickening in the stomach lining of laboratory rats. This single, unrepeated experiment was taken as proof that genetically modified food could be harmful to humans.
But quite quickly, other scientists pointed out that Dr Pusztai's results were not what they seemed. There was no scientific basis to this panic. Dr Pusztai's research claimed that potatoes modified to contain a lectin poisonous to insects had more harmful effects on laboratory rats than potatoes simply injected with this lectin. The resulting speculation was that the genetic modification process itself was responsible for the more harmful effects.
Yet as other scientists pointed out, a more plausible reason for this result could have been something so simple as the different conditions under which the potatoes were grown. The lack of controls used in Pusztai's research made it impossible to tell whether genetic modification had any impact on the rats at all. In any case, anything harmful about genetically modified potatoes would have been picked up by standard checks way before the potatoes were released for consumption.
If the campaign against GM foods were motivated by rational considerations, that ought to have been the end of the matter. But it soon became clear that, for those like the Guardian journalists leading the campaign, scientific proof was not the real issue. Polly Toynbee was, in her own words, 'struck dumb by scientific ignorance', while environmental journalist George Monbiot blithely acknowledged that 'Dr Pusztai's potatoes have been all but forgotten'.
But if demonstrable risk is not the objection to the Monsanto corporation's genetically modified organisms, then what is? 'Monsanto is as good a monster of capitalism as you can find, a behemoth bestriding the world with politicians from most countries clenched in its jaws', writes Toynbee. 'Whatever the truth, Monsanto looks as if it has the power to have black declared white in virtually any legislature.' In other words, regardless of the truth of the matter, we should presume the worst of this 'monster of capitalism'.
Monbiot too appeared to dismiss any idea that concern over GM foods should be influenced by the scientific assessment of whether they are or are not a health risk: 'Food scares happen in Britain because people feel they have no control over what they eat. Our decisions are made for us by invisible and unaccountable corporations.'
One might reasonably object then, that it was irresponsible to stir up a panic over Dr Pusztai's potatoes, knowing that these were not evidence of real danger. Such opportunism on the part of the environmentalists, along with their pointedly intolerant attacks on the scientific community, explains geneticist Professor Steven Jones outburst at the Guardian's public debate about GM foods. Jones said that he had not been sure whether George Monbiot was 'a liar or a fool - now I know he is both' (the debate is reproduced at www.guardian.co.uk). But as far as George Monbiot is concerned, the specific details of genetic science are less important than the moral crusade against the big corporations.
Confronted with the lack of scientific evidence to support their dire warnings about the health risk posed by GM foods, environmentalists will quickly alter their angle of attack and point to the social risks posed by biotechnology. Here they appear to be on more sure footing. It cannot be shown that Monsanto's GM foodstuffs are a health risk. But raising agricultural productivity within the context of capitalist business must lead to a reduction in the number of farm labourers, adding to unemployment and social upheaval in India as well as Europe. Of course, Monsanto is only concerned about feeding the world in so far as that means cornering the world food markets. Inventions like the terminator gene, which cause seed to be sterile after one harvest, are solely designed to guarantee Monsanto's profits by forcing farmers to buy fresh grain each year.
The environmentalist campaign against a faceless, powerful multinational 'monster' like Monsanto can strike a chord with a large section of public opinion today because, as Monbiot rightly says, food scares are not based on science but express a sense of people losing control of their lives. But it is worth asking whether the strident denunciations of big corporations made by environmental campaigners represent an attempt to take back control over our lives. Or is this a campaign that makes a virtue of ignorance, feeding off the fear of an unknown future? The evidence suggests that the environmentalists' campaign against GM foods is part of the problem, not part of the solution.
The more fierce the rhetoric against big business from leading environmentalists, the less obvious is their alternative idea of how society should be organised. At the Guardian debate, George Monbiot made it clear that his alternative was a return to small-scale agriculture - not a programme that is immediately on the horizon. According to another Guardian writer, John Vidal, the GM food moratorium will lead to a new growth of organic farms. But so far government grants for organic farmers have only led to 30 000 hectares of organic farming, compared to 18 million under the sway of 'agribusiness'. Just £750 000 of subsidy to organic farmers has been claimed. Just as well, really. Organic farmers could only sustain a small proportion of the 60 million inhabitants of Britain.
Harking back to an imaginary land of Cockaigne where happy peasants trade their own produce at the village fayre is about as far as environmentalists get when it comes to practical initiatives - it is so much easier to tear plants out of the soil than to put them in.
Denouncing big corporations is heady language, but if the alternative is small-scale farming then it is empty rhetoric. In practice, small-scale farming is quite as exploitative as agribusiness. When peasant cultivators numbered two-thirds of the labouring population of the globe, those peasants were more susceptible to exploitation, not less. Nineteenth-century economist Richard Jones listed the numerous ways that serfs, métayers, cottiers and Indian communes were subject to the robbery of landlords and creditors (A Short Tract on Political Economy, including some accounts of the Anglo-Indian revenue system, 1830). Characteristically, the British Empire left the Indian communal farms unchanged, merely redirecting the taxes and rents from local despots to the treasury's coffers.
Consider the peasant farmers on the lands of the Ducs de Coutard in pre-Revolutionary France. Their aristocratic lords had themselves depicted in paintings as happy shepherd boys - all paid for by soaking the peasant producers with onerous taxes. In the end the burden was too great and the none-to-happy peasants deposed the Beaumont family from their Ducal lands, forcing them to flee to England. The Beaumonts even had to change the family name to Monbiot to escape the revolutionary justice of their own tenants. Recreating the small-scale peasant producer could only lead to the recreation of the parasitical elite that fed on him.
If the programme of returning to small-scale agriculture is based on a backward-looking fantasy, the campaign against big corporations takes on a distinctive flavour in the present. In India farmers' movements have led protectionist campaigns against US agribusiness like Monsanto. These Indian campaigns have been celebrated in the West as popular environmentalism. Indian activist Dr Vandana Shiva has become a potent symbol to Western greens. She argues that Indian tradition holds the means of life to be a common good that cannot be made into private property. This, she argues, is the meaning of the Indian farmers' mobilisations against Monsanto.
However, Indian leftist Jairus Banaji takes an altogether more sanguine view of the farmers' movements (see New Farmers' Movements in India, edited by Tom Brass). 'The farmers movements are essentially conservative movements that seek to reinforce the existing property rights', according to Banaji, who notes 'their neglect of, if not active hostility to landless labour' and that 'their anti-modernist ideologies...can sometimes degenerate into fascist rhetoric or "feudal violence"' (pp238-9). Far from treating food as a communal good, farmers are concerned to protect their high prices against cheap foreign imports, no matter what the cost to the landless poor. This programme of protecting indigenous capital is one that binds the farmers to the Hindu nationalist BJP party.
The weakness of the environmentalists' anti-corporate campaign is that, while they scold one or two big companies, they end up endorsing the market system at its most backward and parochial. This suggests that, despite their anti-capitalist rhetoric, the real object of their fury lies elsewhere.
A century ago, the German socialist August Bebel exposed the limitations of another one-sided and illusory criticism of the market. In his day, the 'predatory' capitalists who were singled out for special treatment were Jews. Responding to the demotic attacks on 'Jewish capitalism', Bebel denounced this as 'the socialism of fools'.
Today's socialism of fools is expressed in the anti-corporate rhetoric of the environmental movement. Whatever the environmentalists' intention, upholding such a rural idyll can only serve to justify conservative reaction. In fact the clock is never turned back - that past never existed - but in the here and now resistance to change becomes the norm. Superficially the campaign targets big corporations, but the environmentalists' underlying message is that we should see all creativity and innovation as suspect.
Once anti-capitalism was a programme of overturning the social order to build a better one. Today's anti-corporatism aims only to hold the existing society together by protecting the present against the future. Robbed of any ambition towards progressive change, the new socialism of fools reverts to the backward-looking doctrine of romantic conservatism.
Nature and the natural order features so large in the emotional arguments of the environmentalists because it seems to be emblematic of a lost harmony. The myth of a natural harmony in which genes remain static was exploded as long ago as Darwin's discovery of evolution. But the facts are less important than the sentiment. And the sentiment is that the likes of Monsanto have disturbed the natural order by messing with the gene-line.
In this fairytale version of events, the wicked corporation stands for disruption of the natural order. As they turn their fire from entirely unproven health risks to the more visible risk of social harm, it appears that environmentalists are making sense. But actually the same prejudice persists, about there being a natural and organic order that we disrupt at our peril. Only this time, it is a social Arcadia that must be preserved at all costs. What Monsanto stands for in this narrative is not so much capitalism as disruption. The precarious standpoint of the nervous environmentalist deplores change and disruption, seeing only bad coming from it.
Above all, what is masked in the environmental criticism of the corporations is a morbid hatred of ambition and inventiveness. A visitor from another planet would be amazed at the ill will-shown towards scientists and their spectacular achievements. Amid all the waffle about creative Britain, the one unchallengeably creative endeavour surely ought to be Dolly the sheep, and the other successes of Britain's biotechnology. Artist Damien Hirst succeeded in arresting a sheep in motion, the Roslin Institute under Grahame Bulfield gave a sheep life. Which is the more creative act? To create new organisms on nature's canvas ought to invite admiration, but instead it only provokes resentment at the 'arrogance' of the scientists. The fact that the scientists are getting the blame ought to suggest that the real target of criticism is not capitalist exploitation but individual innovation. What the critics resent most about Monsanto's scientists is that they are doing something original, aka 'unnatural'.
The socialism of fools finds such personal initiative inherently untrustworthy. The discovery of a connection between science minister David Sainsbury and GMO food patenting excited the critics no end. The very fact that this minister had a personal interest in food and food production was seen to be a sign of corruption. The fact that Sainsbury might actually have some knowledge of GM foods naturally disqualified him from having an opinion about them. Presumably it would be much better to have the whole thing decided by politicians (or perhaps priests) who knew nothing about GM foods (which would at least bring them down to the level of many environmental critics). The implication of the discussion was that simply having an interest was the same as being bribed.
In saner times you would have to demonstrate not only that somebody had gained directly, but also that this had influenced the decision, in order to call that person corrupt. But now you need only indicate an interest to suggest corruption. In effect, there is no longer a need to mount a proper criticism of science or industry; if you can simply suggest that something has been paid for, that is considered damning enough to end the argument.
This is where the socialism of fools meets The X-Files, laying fertile ground for persecution fantasies and conspiracy theories. When the nation's press reaches the point at which owning shares in a company is considered corruption, you have to ask whether these editors are not in the business of selling newspapers.
The environmentalists and their anti-corporate message sometimes look like a curious mirror image of the fundamentalist right-wing 'militias' in America. Where the American right complains of the Zionist Occupation Government, the environmentalists sketch a paranoid fantasy about big corporations pulling the strings behind the scenes. George Monbiot says all this expresses a sense of losing control of your everyday life. Yes, George, it expresses it very well.
Forward to the past: environmentalists set up their 'sustainable village' by Wandsworth Bridge in London
Reproduced from LM issue 119, April 1999