Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 12, 2019

The Boeing 737 Max 8: a case-study in uncreative destruction

Filed under: computers,disasters,economics,unemployment,workers — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

Wreckage at the scene of an Ethiopian Airlines crash near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Monday. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

On October 29, 2018, a Boeing 737 Max 8 belonging to Lion Air in Indonesia crashed into the Java Sea 12 minutes after take-off. All 189 passengers and crew members were killed instantly. It is extremely unusual for planes to suffer such accidents in clear weather after having reached their cruising altitude. Flight experts concluded that the pilots were not adequately trained in the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), a robotics technology that lowers the nose of a plane to prevent a stall. Although there is no definitive judgement on exactly what happened, it appears to be a combination of inadequate training for the pilots and a malfunctioning MCAS.

On Sunday, another 737 Max 8 owned by Ethiopian Airlines had the same kind of accident resulting in the death of 157 passengers and crew members. In the aftermath of the tragedy, this has led to Australia, China, Germany, France, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia, Singapore, and the United Kingdom grounding the planes.

Looking at these two horrible tragedies that will make me think twice about getting on a plane again, I keep thinking of the title of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s classic “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”. In essence, the use of MCAS is akin to an experimental, driverless car owned by Uber killing a pedestrian who was jaywalking on a dark road in Tempe, Arizona on May 18, 2018. The back-up driver, who was supposed to keep a sharp eye on the road to prevent such an accident, was watching reruns of the reality TV show “The Voice” at the time.

Despite such incidents (there have been 4 fatalities already), the bourgeoisie is determined to push ahead since the savings in labor costs will make up for the collateral damage of dead pedestrians. While I am skeptical that completely driverless cars will ever become the norm for Uber or Lyft, I can see people with little driving experience being paid minimum wage just to be a back-up to the computer system—as long as they don’t watch TV on the job. (Fat chance with such a boring job.)

This morning Donald Trump tweeted about the airline crash. “Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT. I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better. Split second decisions are….”

To begin with, the issue is not planes becoming too complex. It is rather that they are becoming too simple in terms of the amount of deskilling the airlines favor. As for the issue of replacing human labor with robots, he is all for it—reflecting the priorities of a ruling class bent on driving down wages.

In a US News and World Report article titled “The Race Is On After Feds Pave Way for Driverless Trucks”, we learn:

The most optimistic analysts project that trucks with empty cabs and a computer at the wheel will travel on U.S. highways in as little as two years with no escort or safety driver in sight now that the Trump administration has signaled its willingness to let tractor-trailers to become truly driverless.

The U.S. Department of Transportation this month announced that it will “no longer assume” that the driver of a commercial truck is human, and the agency will even “adapt the definitions of ‘driver’ and ‘operator’ to recognize that such terms do not refer exclusively to a human, but may in fact include an automated system.”

Already, automated truck developers such as Embark and TuSimple have made freight deliveries where the computer takes control on the highway, overseen by a human “safety driver.” Companies have also successfully tested “platooning,” where a truck with a human driver leads a convoy of as many as five computer-driven trucks following at close distance to reduce drag and save fuel.

The technologies promise big savings, with driverless trucks potentially slashing 40 percent from the cost of long-haul freight – much of it in saved labor expenses – and platooning cutting 10 to 15 percent in fuel costs.

If it is good for cars and trucks, why not airplanes?

Two years before the Indonesian 737 crash, the Guardian published an article titled “Crash: how computers are setting us up for disaster” that it clearly anticipated. Interestingly enough, it was not even a Boeing plane that was discussed in the article. It was an Airbus 330 that had the same kind of systems as the Boeing NCAS. With pilots much more used to relying on automation than manual control of the plane, they failed to override the system that was forcing the plane to plunge into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009 at about 125 miles an hour. Everyone on board, 228 passengers and crew, died instantly.

While pilots flying to major airports will continue to be highly paid, the wages of those working for regional airlines has fallen drastically. In 2010, the Guardian reported on “A pilot’s life: exhausting hours for meagre wages”. They lead a decidedly unglamorous life:

Many are forced to fly half way around the country before they even begin work. Others sleep in trailers at the back of Los Angeles airport, in airline lounges across the country or even on the floors of their own planes. Some co-pilots, who typically take home about $20,000 (£12,500) a year, hold down second jobs to make ends meet.

All that will change when airplanes go the route of driverless cars as the NY Times reported last July in an article titled “Are You Ready to Fly Without a Human Pilot?” In the same fashion that Trump backed driverless trucks, the move toward pilotless planes seems inexorable:

Regulators are already taking steps toward downsizing the role of humans on the flight deck. The bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration included language to provide funding to study single-pilot operations for cargo planes, a move that the Air Line Pilots Association opposed. Captain Canoll said that a single-pilot aircraft must be safe to fly without anyone at the controls in case the pilot takes a bathroom break or becomes incapacitated.

At the recently concluded World Economic Forum, there was a big focus on artificial intelligence and robotics. On the website, you can find breathless articles about “Meet Stan: the robot valet that parks your car at the airport” and “US companies created a record number of robot workers in 2018”. In a Washington Post article on the WEF, the title betrayed a certain unease about the replacement of human beings by robots: The aristocrats are out of touch’: Davos elites believe the answer to inequality is ‘upskilling’. It cited Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman about how to keep the masses docile: “The lack of education in those areas in digital is absolutely shocking. That has to be changed. That will very much lessen the inequalities that people have in terms of job opportunities.”

What world are these people living in? Schwarzman has a 32-room penthouse in 740 Park Avenue and spent $5 million for his birthday party in 2017. He just made a gift of $1 billion to MIT to launch a new school for Artificial Intelligence. Is that supposed to create jobs? Maybe for someone with an MIT degree who will go to work writing software to replace the people working for Jeff Bezos’s slave labor-like warehouses with machines but what is someone out of a job at an Amazon warehouse then supposed to do? Apply to MIT?

The handwriting is on the wall. The USA is moving into a two-tiered system. In places like NYC, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, you get people working in high-tech industries that in contrast to the Fordist model of the 1930s employ far fewer bodies. Meanwhile, in Detroit, Cleveland, and other places where Fordism once held sway, the jobs are there if you are willing to work at Walmarts, at local hospitals emptying bedpans or as guards in a jail or prison. Class divisions between those with advanced technology skills and those left out will only increase, leading to the kind of showdown taking place in France between the neoliberal state and the Yellow Vests.

You get a feel for the Two Americas reading a March 7th NY Times article titled “Thousands of New Millionaires Are About to Eat San Francisco Alive”:

In cities like Oakland and Berkeley and San Francisco, millennials obsess over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter and attend Democratic Socialists of America meetings. But the socialist passion doesn’t seem to have impacted the city’s zeal for I.P.O. parties, which the party planning community says are going to surpass past booms.

Jay Siegan, a former live music club owner who now curates private entertainment and music, is gearing up. He has worked on events for many of the I.P.O. hopefuls, including Uber, Airbnb, Slack, Postmates and Lyft.

“We see multiple parties per I.P.O. for the company that is I.P.O.ing, as well as firms that are associated to them,” Mr. Siegan said. Budgets for start-up parties, he said, can easily go above $10 million. “They’re wanting to bring in A-list celebrities to perform at the dinner tables for the executives. They want ballet performers.”

The only comment I would add to this tale of two cities is that it would not be surprising if some of these high-flying technology workers might also plan to vote for Bernie Sanders. They probably don’t feel happy about living in a city where their wealth has driven up the cost of housing to the point that homelessness is an epidemic. Whether President Sanders can do much about these class divisions is open to debate.

The replacement of human labor by machinery has been described as “creative destruction”. The assumption is that the temporary pain is worth it since there will always be the growth of new jobs. As my seventh grade social studies put it, the invention of the automobile put the blacksmith out of work but it created far more jobs in a Ford plant.

On May 12, 2010, the New York Times ran an article by economics editor Catherine Rampell titled The New Poor: In Job Market Shift, Some Workers Are Left Behind that focused on the largely middle-aged unemployed who will probably never work again. For example, 52 year old administrative assistant Cynthia Norton has been working part-time at Walmart while sending resumes everywhere but nobody gets back to her. She is part of a much bigger picture:

Ms. Norton is one of 1.7 million Americans who were employed in clerical and administrative positions when the recession began, but were no longer working in that occupation by the end of last year. There have also been outsize job losses in other occupation categories that seem unlikely to be revived during the economic recovery. The number of printing machine operators, for example, was nearly halved from the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2009. The number of people employed as travel agents fell by 40 percent.

But Ms. Rampell finds the silver lining in this dark cloud:

This “creative destruction” in the job market can benefit the economy.

Pruning relatively less-efficient employees like clerks and travel agents, whose work can be done more cheaply by computers or workers abroad, makes American businesses more efficient. Year over year, productivity growth was at its highest level in over 50 years last quarter, pushing corporate profits to record highs and helping the economy grow.

The term “creative destruction” might ring a bell. It was coined by Werner Sombart in his 1913 book “War and Capitalism”. When he was young, Sombart considered himself a Marxist. His notion of creative destruction was obviously drawn from Karl Marx, who, according to some, saw capitalism in terms of the business cycle. With busts following booms, like night follows day, a new round of capital accumulation can begin. This interpretation is particularly associated with Volume Two of Capital that examines this process in great detail. Looking at this material, some Marxists like Eduard Bernstein drew the conclusion that capitalism is an infinitely self-sustaining system.

By 1913, Sombart had dumped the Marxist commitment to social revolution but still retained the idea that there was a basis in Karl Marx for upholding the need for “creative destruction”, a view buttressed by an overly positive interpretation of this passage in the Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.

By the 1930s, Sombart had adapted himself fairly well to the Nazi system although he was not gung-ho like Martin Heidegger or Carl Schmitt. The wiki on Sombart notes:

In 1934 he published Deutscher Sozialismus where he claimed a “new spirit” was beginning to “rule mankind”. The age of capitalism and proletarian socialism was over and with “German socialism” (National-Socialism) taking over.

But despite this, he remained critical. In 1938 he wrote an anthropology text that found fault with the Nazi system and many of his Jewish students remained fond of him.

I suspect, however, that Rampell is familiar with Joseph Schumpeter’s use of the term rather than Sombart since Schumpeter was an economist, her chosen discipline. In 1942, he wrote a book titled Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy that, like Sombart, retained much of Karl Marx’s methodology but without the political imperative to destroy the system that utilized “creative destruction”. He wrote:

The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation–if I may use that biological term–that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in. . . .

The wiki on Schumpeter claims that this theory is wedded to Nikolai Kondratiev’s “long wave” hypothesis that rests on the idea that there are 50 year cycles in which capitalism grows, decays and enters a crisis until a new round of capital accumulation opens up. Not only was the idea attractive to Schumpeter, it was a key part of Ernest Mandel’s economic theories. Unlike Schumpeter, Mandel was on the lookout for social agencies that could break the cycle and put development on a new footing, one based on human need rather than private profit.

Returning to Rampell’s article, there is one dimension entirely missing. She assumes that “creative destruction” will operate once again in order to foster a new upswing in the capitalist business cycle. But how exactly will that manifest itself? All the signs point to a general decline in business activity unless there is some kind of technological breakthrough equivalent to the computer revolution that fueled growth for decades. Does anybody believe that “green manufacturing” will play the same role? I don’t myself.

One thing does occur to me. Sombart’s book was written in 1913, one year before WWI and was even titled eerily enough “War and Capitalism”. One wonders if the Great War would be seen as part and parcel of “creative destruction”. War, after all, does have a knack for clearing the playing field with even more finality than layoffs. Schumpeter wrote his book in 1942, one year into WWII. My guess is that he did not theorize war as the ultimate (and necessary?) instrument of creative destruction but history will record that WWII did introduce a whole rafter of new technology, including aluminum, radar, nuclear power, etc., while bombing old modes of production into oblivion. What a great opportunity it was for capitalism to rebuild Japan, especially after firebombing and atomic bombs did their lovely work.

In my view, there’s something disgusting about this “creative destruction” business especially when it is articulated by a young, pro-capitalist Princeton graduate like Catherine Rampell who wrote for Slate, the Village Voice and other such b-list publications before crawling her way up into an editorial job at the NYT. She clearly has learned how to cater her reporting to the ideological needs of the newspaper of record, growing more and more reactionary as the crisis of capitalism deepens.

October 13, 2016

Really popular leaders

Filed under: crime,disasters,Fascism — louisproyect @ 12:45 am





Hat tip to John Oliver on this.

July 1, 2013

Apocalyptic dreams

Filed under: disasters — louisproyect @ 12:43 am

For the last 40 years at least, I have been having apocalyptic bad dreams. Sometimes they are so scary that I start shouting in my sleep, loud enough to wake my wife who then squeezes my shoulder to wake me.

Usually they involve monsters from outer space or natural disasters influenced no doubt by the movies I have seen.

Last night was a fairly typical one, differing only by the vividness of the detail. I was contacted by John Halle, an old friend who teaches composition at Bard College and a Green Party alderman in New Haven some years ago, about driving up to Bard to hear a talk by a “humanitarian intervention” figure like Samantha Power or Michael Walzer—I can’t remember who. Insofar as Halle is already up at Bard, it only made sense in dream-logic terms. We were going up the Taconic looking at Borscht Belt hotels that had mysteriously materialized along the road, a good 40 miles from their location in Sullivan County. I see these hotels in my dreams all the time. In my youth they flourished, now they are in ruins.

When we got up there, I had to procure a toothbrush and toothpaste because I had brought nothing with me. I went to the campus bookstore where such items were sold. When I asked the clerk to sell me the items, he started giving me an attitude. He was a bearded fellow with a British accent who played verbal games with me like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland. After a while I lost patience with him and demanded that he sell me the items straightaway. I was a Bard alumni, I reminded him. As I walked out, I noticed that he did not sell me toothpaste but mouthwash. I felt deeply frustrated.

I drifted in the direction of where the “humanitarian intervention” person was speaking and then found myself in the pressroom. There were twenty or so reporters with headsets on looking into cameras or video monitors. Wow, I said to myself, this is going to be big.

Then, someone shouted out that there was a flood of biblical dimensions approaching. In an instant the rain started coming down like a category five hurricane. The rain was coming down horizontally and buildings were collapsing all around me. Next, the water started coming across the campus torrentially like a scene out of “The Day After Tomorrow”. This was it. The world was coming to an end.

Once a week I have dreams just like this. They haunt me.

June 28, 2013

Scenes of Indian flooding

Filed under: disasters,india — louisproyect @ 5:06 pm

The photos below were forwarded from Yahoo by Vijay Kumar Marla, a long-time activist in India. At least a thousand people have died in Uttarakhand and many more are unaccounted for.

For an analysis of the man-made causes of the disaster, you can read an article by G. Sampath that makes some essential points:

According to media reports, when the floods struck, about 28 million tourists were visiting the state, while the local population is close to half that number. First of all, it is irresponsible to let such a huge volume of human traffic into an ecologically sensitive area, that too in the monsoon season. But once the decision had been taken to milk tourism to the maximum, you would naturally need to build infrastructure to cater to such tourist inflows. This requires planning. And given the fragile nature—of both the climate and eco-systems—of the Himalayan region, it also requires a strict adherence to building and environmental norms. The first principle of disaster management is prevention—by taking the necessary precautionary measures. But Uttarakhand, captive to local interest groups, has been doing the exact opposite: actively soliciting disaster.

As recently as February 2013, the Uttarakhand high court had passed an order asking the state government to demolish structures that had come up within 200 metres of the river banks. But the administration did not act. When the floods came, many of those illegal structures got demolished anyway.

 Such short-sightedness and flawed (or zero) planning is not unique to Uttarakhand. It is a unique Indian tradition that finds expression even in the most modern of our achievements, and in triumphs we take pride in, such as, for instance, the Delhi Metro. According to a new UN study, the Delhi Metro “ignored disaster threats during planning” as a result of which 50 stations were at high risk, leaving it susceptible to massive casualties when disaster strikes in the form of floods or earthquakes.

flood9 flood8 flood7 flood6 flood5 flood4 flood3 flood2 flood1

December 15, 2012

Stanley Kubrick on the Connecticut massacre

Filed under: disasters — louisproyect @ 8:29 pm

November 12, 2012

Belle Harbor segment on “Sixty Minutes”

Filed under: disasters — louisproyect @ 3:19 pm

The other day I posted a link to a video I did out in Belle Harbor, a mostly Irish and Italian subdivision of the Rockaways, where an old friend lives and where I have spent many pleasant weekend afternoons over the years playing chess on the beach.


Last night the lead story on “Sixty Minutes” was on Belle Harbor, including some of the same images in my video. You can watch the segment here:


November 10, 2012

From a relief worker in the Rockaways

Filed under: disasters — louisproyect @ 2:39 pm




via Jen Roesch:

(Apologies in advance for the crazy long post, but I know people are looking for information on what’s really happening in NYC after the hurricane. And I, probably like thousands of other people going through this, feel a need to talk about this experience)

“I went to volunteer in the Rockaways yesterday and I realized that it took a few hours for the full impact of what I saw and experienced to hit me. I had gone expecting the worst of the worst – especially since my initial plan had been to go door to door with medical supplies for people. I didn’t actually see the worst stories – the people completely immobilized and without food in their homes; the freezing baby saved by a volunteer nurse on SI yesterday; people completely without shelter; the people who had to swim out of their homes. I never made it to the makeshift medical clinic that I was headed for because when we went to drop off baby supplies at a church that was acting as a distribution center, it was clear that they desperately needed volunteers. They had a line waiting to get in and receive supplies and still needed help organizing things and then helping people who came. So for a few hours, I just went from person to person escorting them through the church, listening to their stories, trying to help them get what they needed – sometimes successfully, sometimes not. There were people who had literally lost everything. But most were “only” without power or heat or had had some damage but kept their home. It was hard to even think about what we were seeing and there was a way in which it quickly became almost normal or routine – rationing out to each family 2 rolls of toilet paper, 2 bars of soap, 1 pack of diapers, 1 set of wipes, 1 cereal box, 1 blanket, etc, etc. It was heartbreaking, but could feel manageable.

“It was only after we drove away that the full reality of the situation sunk in. There are literally thousands of people there who are completely cut off from the outside world. They have no power, no heat, no grocery stores, no supplies, no gas to go anywhere, no way to get to a job. They are completely dependent on the makeshift networks of volunteers that people have set up. When we ran out of baby wipes and soap and blankets, there was nothing I could do but tell them to try tomorrow or try to find another site. And given the scale of the devastation we saw, I can’t imagine basic functioning being restored sooner than a month and it could be many months. Unless something drastically changes, this is their new reality: standing in line at distribution centers, hoping there are still batteries for their flashlights, food, and other basic necessities. It is a chronic situation in which minor problems now (cold fingers or toes, slight hunger, asthma, a sick baby, an isolated senior) could easily escalate.

“And it was after this realization, that I could feel the full weight of the individual stories I had heard or things I had seen. And now I can’t get them out of my head. There was the woman who said she was starting to get depressed and didn’t want to get out of bed because all that was ahead of her was standing in line, making do, just trying to live through the day. There was the man who could barely speak as I asked him what he needed and was in an almost catatonic state. The man who kept telling me how cold his fingers and toes were who couldn’t find a pair of warm adult-size socks in a bin filled with only baby socks. The father who came in with a list that had “diaper cream” in huge big letters at the top, underlined twice and starred; we had no diaper cream and I can’t stop thinking about a crying baby with a bad case of diaper rash and an overwhelmed mother trying to cope. The mother with a three-year old at home (same age as my son) who lunged for this stuffed doll thingy in the toy box and eagerly showed it to her husband to see if he agreed that it looked enough like the one their daughter had lost in the storm that she might think it was the same.

“And then there was the last woman we helped. She was 70 years old and had come down 10 flights of stairs in the dark to get a flashlight, some food and a case of water. We walked her back to her building to carry her stuff up the stairs. The building was surrounded by rubble that we had to pick our way through to get to the front door. There was spilled food and broken glass in the pitch dark stairs. She had a nebulizer, was having trouble breathing and it took her almost half an hour to get up the stairs. On the way up, she told me that she had respiratory distress and had been intubated twice recently. I asked her if there was a social worker or visiting nurse or anyone who knew she was there. There wasn’t. Her ex-husband had come to help, but she confided in me that he was “mean” to her and that she had to tell him to go away because it was putting her in more distress. Luckily, when we got to the top of the stairs, someone from the makeshift medical clinic (our original destination) had come with her medicine. The team at the church and the team at the clinic had managed to coordinate and figure out who she was, where she was and what her needs were. But I am not sure that she can make it up and down those stairs again; the volunteers put her name and address on a list, but there is such turnover and so much need that I worry about her slipping through the cracks.

“And then I returned to upper Manhattan where everything seems normal. I got the NYT today to see a full-page story about how wonderful it is that they got the subway system restored (not really) so quickly. The media/Bloomberg message is that things are coming back to normal and that they are meeting people’s needs. This is not even close to true. There are thousands of volunteers but it’s totally make-shift, completely dependent on continued attention and donations, not fully coordinated and not nearly enough to meet the immense need. There are army trucks and national guard and police out there, but all they are doing is patrolling and sometimes assisting the volunteer relief effort. There is no independent government relief effort. And it’s painfully clear what’s needed. The people who are most in need and who are willing to leave need to be evacuated into real housing with water, heat and power and be given money, food and other necessities. They need to be assigned social workers and health professionals to follow up with them and make sure they are okay. If there are people who are staying out there, there needs to be a massive operation set up with tents, generators providing heat, a kitchen, cots/beds and a full, paid, stable staff of workers, cooks, childcare professionals, social workers, mental health professionals, nurse and doctors. There need to be outreach teams that are systematically sent door to door who establish a database of need and then set to work to meet it. And then there needs to be many thousands more workers who are hired to clean the debris, work on restoring power, clean the buildings, drain the water from basements and get the area working as quickly as possible so people can move back home. Instead, our government is leaving people to rot. Literally.

“I’ve been a socialist for 20 years and I’ve never doubted those convictions. And in that time there have been horrors on a much bigger scale than what I saw yesterday. But to see up close how easily people could be saved – and see instead how they are left alone to be forgotten, and even die – is a particular kind of experience. I know a lot of people will be out volunteering this weekend and trying to fill that gap. I will be out there again next week with them. But I am very glad that I get to spend tomorrow at the NYC Marxism Conference: A World in Crisis A World in Struggle. We desperately need to figure out how to build a movement that could demand that our government meet these needs. And it’s painfully obvious that we urgently need to build an alternative to a system that creates these horrors.”

November 8, 2012

A trip to post-Hurricane Sandy Rockaways

Filed under: disasters,Global Warming — louisproyect @ 7:45 pm

Blog at WordPress.com.