Transcript published on the George Mason University Cultural Studies website. Audio downloadable from the Internet Archive. Original interview on 31 January 2019.
Leigh Phillips: If something isn’t sufficiently profitable, no matter how beneficial, it just won’t be produced. And so when we talk about the climate crisis, fundamentally, we’re faced with these two aspects of the market system: if something is profitable, but harmful —in this case fossil fuels —it requires planning to overcome that.
And again, if we want something in the case of climate change —say clean infrastructure, something like that —it is simply insufficiently profitable and it will have to take a much more social democratic approach, potentially even democratic socialism.
Richard Todd Stafford: That was the voice of Leigh Phillips, who was interviewed in January 2019 by me, Richard Todd Stafford, in conjunction with the Cultural Studies Colloquium at George Mason University.
The Cultural Studies department at George Mason University focuses on interdisciplinary research and doctoral training. This year’s colloquium series examines capitalism, climate change, and culture. The fall colloquium posed the question, “how did we get into this mess?” while the spring 2019 colloquium poses the question “Where do we go from here?”
Today we’re glad to welcome Leigh Phillips science and politics writer whose work has appeared in Nature, Scientific American, The Guardian, Jacobin, and elsewhere. He’s the author of the provocative 2015 book Austerity Ecology and the Collapse Porn Addicts and the upcoming and much anticipated book The People’s Republic of Walmart with Mihaeil Rozworksi.
Just after our podcast interview today, Leigh will be giving a talk entitled “Planning the good anthropocene,” which is also the title of a widely shared article he co-wrote for Jacobin and the penultimate chapter of the upcoming book. So let’s start by talking about the title of your talk: “planning the good anthropocene.”
This term “anthropocene” has entered common parlance after taking its initial meeting from debates among geologists and climatologists about how we might signify the dominant role that humans are taking in shaping the Earth and by extension the geological record. But generally this has been understood in terms of the negative and accidental impacts of humans on the earth.
What then do you mean by planning the good anthropocene?
Leigh Phillips: The Earth itself is actually —and life on Earth —is actually quite robust. It’s probably —it’s probably almost impossible to sterilize the Earth outside of maybe a local supernova or something like that and or in a few billion years when the when the sun expands.
I mean, I think Stephen Jay Gould, the late evolutionary biologists put it quite well when he said that it’s not a life is fragile: it’s us humans that are fragile. That’s what makes environmentalism important. It’s not about saving the planet or that there’s some sort of balance of nature that up until humans came along everything was pristine and then and we screwed it up. Its that we are endangering the very unusual conditions —geologically unsual, that is, over the history of the planet, the last 10,000 years, yeah: sort of Goldilocks temperature, like it’s not too hot, not too cold, it’s just right for us, and the spread of biodiversity that the produces the ecosystem services upon which human flourishing depends.
That’s what we need to hold onto; thats why this is important. And so when it comes to planning the good anthropocene, the challenge fundamentally, is that the cause of any environmental disruption within within the anthropocene that is human caused —any anthropogenic ecological disruption —the fundamental cause is a problem within the market, in that if something is profitable, no matter how harmful it is to humans, it will continue to be produced in the absence of some non-market intervention to prevent that from being produced. We can think of regulation, but we could also think of, you know, trade union struggle in terms of the establishment of conditions in mines or whatever. it happens to be. It all of these different mechanisms: regulation, class struggle —those are non-market mechanisms. They’re planning, basically.
And the converse of this is also true, in that no matter how beneficial something might be —a commodity or service or whatever it happens to be —if it isn’t profitable or even not sufficiently profitable, then it will not be produced, again in the absence of some non-market intervention. And in this case, that would be public funding or mutual aid societies or or charities or NGOs or something like that. Anyway, in any case, you require some non-market entity to provide that.
So a really good example of that at the moment even outside of the climate space or environmental space would be —and I’ve written about this a fair bit —is new classes of antibiotics. We face another really civilizationally challenging, existentially challenging problem in the fact that within maybe as little as 20 to 25 years, we’re going to run out of antibiotics that are that are effective. And all of modern medicine depends upon a background of antimicrobial protection. If that’s gone, we can’t do surgeries. We can’t do anything, really, other than the simplest of medical interventions. And that would be tremendously disruptive. And the reason for this is that the pharmaceutical companies, if they’re going to spend a billion dollars developing some new molecular entities —some new drug, basically — it’s just insufficiently profitable to to spend that money developing something like an antibiotic where an individual with an infection will take that drug for a few weeks, maybe a few months at the outside — six seven months if it’s maybe something like tuberculosis —but then that’s it: done. No more.
They’re not going to sell that. Whereas if an individual needs to take a particular drug every day for the rest of their life, that’s much more profitable. So everyone, from the head of the CDC on down, recognizes that the fundamental problem here is the market: that if something isn’t sufficiently profitable, no matter how beneficial, it just won’t be produced.
And so when we talk about the climate crisis or biocrisis in general, fundamentally were faced with these two aspects of the market system: if something is profitable, but harmful —in this case fossil fuels, or historically that’s a chlorofluorocarbons with respect to the ozone layer –, it requires planning to overcome that. And again, if we want something —in the case of climate change, say clean infrastructure, electrified rail outside of urban areas, something like that — it is simply insufficiently profitable or even unprofitable and it will have to take public investment —infrastructure, the Green New Deal sort of approach to resolve this. And so this poses a bit of a challenge to a range of different responses to the climate crisis or the wider biocrisis, in that it’s a socialist response. It’s basically saying that the challenge is the market, not growth, not individual responsibility, ethical consumerism or you know, localism. It’s it’s a high-technology pro-science approach, but does require at a very minimum social democracy and a much more social democratic approach, potentially even democratic socialism.
Richard Todd Stafford: So I want to pull on two threads in what I just heard. One, is that by invoking the “anthropocene,” you’re invoking something of global scale geographically, but also over extraordinarily long time periods, much longer than the time periods that our political and social structures are sort of designed to address.
Which is to say this emphasis on planning involves a kind of centralization that runs right into that sort of “small as beautiful” localism that informs a lot of popular environmental thought and that you critiqued in Austerity Ecology. And so will you share with our audience what some of the issues with this “small as beautiful” localism are and how does it lead us astray?
Leigh Phillips: Very easily: the simplest response there would be that the climate challenge is is a global challenge. It doesn’t make any difference if some particular locale, let’s say here, Fairfax, decides. they’re going to do everything, absolutely everything that needs to be done in terms of decarbonizing the local economy. It doesn’t make any difference if India and China continue to use fossil fuels to drive their development pathway.
So it has to be a globally coordinated response and not just with respect to climate change, but again, the the rest of the the issues with respect to the wider biocrisis. The problem that we face is that we don’t have a global democracy. We have a series of undemocratic or subdemocratic international governance structures such as the the UN Security Council or the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change or the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank.
All of these are structures of global governance that are, fundamentally, unaccountable, undemocratic, and what do they have in common with a raft of other structures that we see, such as the European Union or even at a certain more local level the the removal of decision-making from democratically accountable structures,that we have seen throughout the neoliberal period that is the ne plus ultra of a Clintonian, Blairite, Macron approach of technocracy — of “let the experts do this” and that we can’t trust the ordinary people: the ordinary people, working people, if we leave the decision up to them, they will vote themselves into massive debt and it’ll just be a disaster. And they don’t know what’s best for them.
Well, we see with the the advent of things like des gilets jaunes in France, “the yellow jackets,” where this this very technocratic, anti-democratic approach is running up against people who are sick to death of other people making decisions for them. And particularly in a way that is deeply unfair, where dozens of billionaires who flew their private jets to Davos for the World Economic Forum a few days ago to discuss, you know, what must be done with climate change and carbon taxation doesn’t really affect them.
Whereas the the little fuel tax that Emmanuel Macron, the French. President, wanted to impose, really had such a profound impact on the day-to-day lives of working people, particularly in the periurban and rural areas, for whom —these are these are locations where deindustrialization, there’s been a gutting of Social Services, and public transport infrastructure, and they have no choice but to drive their cars. And so they are thinking about, as they say, you know, there are people at Davos who think about the end of the world, we just think about the end of the month. And, so we have to have some way of developing some sort of global governance because these are global problems but in a way that is genuinely democratic.
That’s a big ask, because that we’re talking about global democracy and my argument within the People’s Republic of Walmart, which takes the argument from the first book a little bit further and is much more broad in terms of discussion of economic planning: what would those structures look like? How could we have global planning? We talk about how, in many cases a lot of those planning mechanisms are already in place, in place that we don’t even notice like Walmart, but are hierarchical and undemocratic. And it’s about capturing those and transforming them into a way where we can deliver a world of prosperity for all in an egalitarian world that is genuinely democratic and has solved all of the biocrises.
Richard Todd Stafford: Well, I want to pick up on that thread about the, for lack of a better way to say it, the prefigurative promise of existing large institutions in a moment.
But before we do that, I there there’s sort of another dangling thread here, and it was implicit in your both of your last two answers, which is: besides the sort of explicitly neoliberal answer there is also this environmental answer, that either expresses itself as sort of cultural apocalypticism or alternatively as this “degrowth” ideology. But you have taken those views to task and I wanted to invite you to elaborate on that thread, because I heard you nudging towards it and I think the audience would appreciate to hear where you’re coming from.
Leigh Phillips: Sure. So, I mean it’s a terribly middle class approach to impose this demand,—and I sort of hinted there with des gilet jaunes in France —that working people in the western world —North America, Western Europe, and Japan —for the last 40 years have had basically no —by different measures stagnating wages. For four decades.
It’s imposed by the the neoliberal Thatcherite, Reaganite “revolution.” So when environmentalists —and it’s not all environmentalist, but the sort of “deep greens,” let’s say —when they say “we all consume too much,” I wonder who exactly they’re talking about here. We haven’t had any sort of real improvement in our standard of living —working people haven’t — and in many cases have seen significant declines, you know with recent figures in the United States about suicide rates amongst working people have skyrocketed, the opioid crisis, all these different things, the very election of Trump is fundamentally inseparable from a economic dislocation of millions of working people.
And you know, I come from a working-class family myself. So I mean, my parents ultimately have in recent years done a little bit better, but I come from a working-class family from from from the Midlands in the UK, you know coal mining country, and to ask us to cut back even more — it takes a certain level of middle class arrogance to not notice how working people are suffering. And to ask us to consume even less. I remember when I was at university, there was the “Buy Nothing Day” movement. And this was around the time of the the anti-globalization movement, in the late 90s early 2000s. And you know, and they were handing out leaflets on campus and I was like, you know, my family the time was really hurting, and I was like, what I could really do is some “finally able to buy some more things” days not some “buy nothing” days.
Branko Milanovic, the former World Bank researcher, and you know, he’s a bit of a bit of a lefty, or a keynesian, and he’s written quite extensively on the growth of inequality. He’s probably one of the world’s leading experts on inequality and he did a rough calculation, back of the envelope calculation as to what it would require to just do steady-state. Nevermind degrowth. Just hold the economy flat, in an egalitarian fashion. So distribute money completely equally around, you know, the close to 7 billion people on the Earth. Annual income: what would that look like with the current amount of wealth in the world? Well annual income for every individual—those 7 billion people —would be $5,500 U.S.
So we’re asking for that level of reduction in standards. Imagine what it would be like to live on $5,500 a year now. Yeah, you can quibble around purchasing power and stuff like that, but nevertheless you do get a real sense of what they’re actually —what the deep green folks are demanding when they talk about degrowth.
$5,500 a year: that’s a scale of reduction of standard of living that even Thatcher and Reagan couldn’t have dreamed of.
Richard Todd Stafford: And so, how do you think that connects to this sort of apocalyptic — the catastrophic imaginary that it seems to often go hand in glove with?
Leigh Phillips: Absolutely. Now what we should absolutely not be saying is that there are real enormous challenges that we face: the climate crisis, it really is quite scary and a potential mass extinction event in terms of biodiversity loss.
If we really end up going down those roads, it is truly frightening and so, I do want to preface what I’m about to say, by saying I do take those issues very, very, very seriously. My fundamental problem is that the degrowth approach just doesn’t come close to resolving this, never mind the injustice of it.
So yes, when I say what I’m about to say, that you know, we should avoid this apocalypticism, it doesn’t mean to say we shouldn’t take these issues very, very seriously. But just because we’re not looking at the end of the world doesn’t mean that everything’s tickety-boo, basically. But this end of the world narrative, the apocalypticism, it really does fit within a —well, there’s a debate as to whether it was Fredric Jameson, the political theorist or Slavoj Zizek, the philosopher and lacanian psychologist, who said this —but the famous phrase is “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world and it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” And the very fact that the sort of thing that I was just talking about in terms of global democratic planning, basically global socialism really, is so unbelievably unimaginable. Whereas, you know for the bulk of the 20th century, that’s exactly what the left talked about all the time as something not merely achievable, but achievable in the short term: that we were going to do this. That’s so off the scale of what can not be imagined. I think Zizek puts it that, the horizons of —the limits of our imagination of foreclosed by neoliberalism. And Mark Fisher, the late British philosopher, he describes this process as a “capitalist realism.” That is not merely the Thatcherite “there is no alternative” epigram. It’s not merely that they are expressly saying that there can be no alternative other than neoliberalism or capitalism, but, even subconsciously, they basically accept there can be no alternative other than capitalism. And so even the Deep Green degrowth folks often, they’re very critical of capitalism. Yet, the ultimately aren’t. Whenever I have these discussions with them, they laugh, they chortle, they chuckle: “oh, it’s so cute that you think that there could be socialism.” It really is down to the fact that there is you know, they are literally captured by Thatcher’s imagination.
Richard Todd Stafford: So I want to talk a little bit about the philosophical underpinnings, because I think that will give us a way to pivot to the prefigurative potential of existing large institutions.
So let’s sort of accept your argument that meaningfully addressing significant environmental problems requires wide-scale coordination, that it requires significant and ongoing growth. I think we should think about where these counter arguments that appear in popular formats as Thatcherism and as Reaganism came from so, you know, ever since socialists and the sort of right-wing Austrian School economists faced off in the early 20th century, some people have framed the challenge of central planning in terms of: what kinds of sort of information gathering, retrieval, processing, and communication can we really achieve. And in some ways the rights’ argument that markets efficiently coordinate production and consumption and that, conversely, centrally planned economy simply just can’t make sense of all of the variables, has prevailed as the common sense of capitalist realism. So, what might we learn from firms like Walmart or Amazon that speaks to this?
Leigh Phillips: So you’ve hit the nail on the head there. That was the that was probably the strongest critique that the right ever mounted against socialism.
It’s a really bloody good critique.
The price signal in the marketplace is a very good mechanism of capturing a great deal of information in a way that would have to be replicated by an army of bureaucrats. And this was basically the argument in what was called the economic calculation debate or socialist calculation debate in from the 1920s through to roughly the 1950s. And it was a really really really strong argument. And then of course with the the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seems so that side had won.
But there’s there’s a problem here, in that Walmart, just to take one example, there’s many other ones —Amazon any other major multinational corporation —so but let’s just look at Walmart as just one example. It is the largest company in the world. It has the largest number of employees of any entity in the world, other than the People’s Liberation Army in China and and the Pentagon. And it has an economy that would put it at —it’s not quite in the G20 but about the size of a Switzerland —38th or so largest economy in the world, if it were its own country. And its revenues in 2017, the last year for which we have data, put it roughly on the scale of the the Soviet Union at its height before economic stagnation set in in the 70s and 80s. Not exactly the same, the Soviet Union was still slightly larger, but the ratio is about 1 to 1.3.
So, we’re talking about a very, very large entity that manages and internally, it’s entirely planned. The the the managers don’t say two different individuals, “who will bid the lowest price for you to move that box of widgets from this shelf over to this shelf.” They just —they’re told to do this. And it’s basically entirely planned, but it’s hierarchically planned. But it is it is planned. Internal to Walmart is a non-market entity.
So if the if the socialist calculation debate or the economic calculation debate, the right of that, if the argument was correct, then Walmart shouldn’t work. None of these these corporations should work.
Yet, they do.
So the book, People’s Republic of Walmart, what we do is we explore what are the reasons for that that success? We have we take a similar look Amazon and then the history of Gosplan, the the Soviet planning agency basically, Cybersyn —the attempted cybernetic planning apparatus that was constructed under Salvador Allende the Democratic Socialist President of Chile, ultimately that was crushed by the right-wing coup, by US backed coup of General Pinochet in 1973. So we didn’t get to see how far it could have could have gone. But these are all very tantalizing ideas and about, as you say, you know, prefigurative possibility within pre existing institutions.
I think one of the reasons that we wanted to choose the Walmarts and the Amazons of the world to look at not just because of their size but also because, to some extent the the right has at least conceded an argument that saying “okay, well maybe planning could work for like things like steel production or coal production or you know infrastructure —like big beasts of infrastructure where there’s just a few inputs, but it would never be able to deal with the scale of variables, the volume of variables required for consumer items” —the Barbie dolls, the sneakers, the dresses, and so on and so forth. Well, of course, this is the the bread-and-butter, let’s say of the Walmarts and the Amazons of the world. We want to explore supposedly the most difficult thing to plan —consumer items — and it turns out actually these are, internally at least, entirely planned entities.
Richard Todd Stafford: So there’s this one phrase in the book that I think really points at something that you’ve gestured at several times, which is to say that although these large organizations give the lie to the economic calculation debate, like —clearly we accept planning in most of our life, right? You know when I’m at my job, I’m sort of doing what the boss says. The economy is comprised of these giant firms that do exchange with each other but are in fact coordinated through giant, you know institutions, you know equity funds and financial institutions, like there’s all different kinds of planning going on. We sort of know that there’s planning going on.
And so you half-jokingly refer to Jeff Bezos as “the bald mustache-less Stalin of online retail.” And I think the comparison you’re making between the rigidly hierarchical sites of capitalist firms and Stalinist command economy points towards the suggestion that although these firms demonstrate conclusively that we can plan at scale, democratic planning would look quite different than authoritarianism.
And so in the context of “planning the good anthropocene,” I think this is particularly salient because, as you gestured earlier those institutions that we have to address the climate crisis,—and indeed a lot of political scientists looking at this suggests that it’s sort of what we need –is some sort of form of a “Climate Leviathan,” you know, some sort of sovereign power, that’s almost stalinist in its reach, right? You know, they’re sort of not democratic institutions.
And so how is it that authoritarianism ends up undermining planning? Because I think that’s one of the really important points that you’re making in the new book.
Leigh Phillips: Right. Lots of dig into there, but it’s so the right side within the economic calculation debate, one of the arguments that they made particular with respect to the Soviet Union was that the planning leads to authoritarianism. That because of the being simply too many variables, this results in deterioration of information in the system, which in turn results inevitably into a chaos that is only resolveable through authoritarianism.
But if you actually look at the history of the Stalinification of the Soviet Union, the Stalin counter-revolution against basically this, you know mass uprising of workers, a democratic uprising of workers and peasants —the internal crushing of that revolution by Stalin.
It’s the other way around. It’s that authoritarianism resulted in a deterioration of the information in the system. The reason for that: it’s not that planning —planning didn’t lead to authoritarianism, authoritarianism undermined planning. And the very simple reason for that is that, if you are utterly petrified on pain of death of not meeting your your quota, your production target, you will misreport to your superior that you had actually met the target. In fact, you’ve superseded your target! And if everybody’s doing this, that fundamentally destroys the the quality of information in the system, like on a radical level. And the other thing that happened in the Soviet Union was just when people were honest about reporting production results, they would be killed or imprisoned and attacked as “wreckers.”
And so there was not merely a sort of self-censorship on the part of the the people who are doing the tallying of production results, but also an act of destruction of that information by stalinism destroying —you know, literally killing or imprisoning the the most capable accountants or whoever it happens to be. So that’s basically what the fundamental problem with planning in the Soviet Union was.
But what’s interesting here and what’s really quite tantalizing is —so the argument could be, but okay so Walmart is also hierarchically planned and it’s also authoritarian. Why does it work? And there of course, our argument would be well, yes, that’s absolutely true. So there is a reduction in the quality of information there. But nobody’s being threatened with death. So it’s not going to be exactly the same level of disruption or destruction of information the system.
But here’s a absolutely cool thing about this: the socialist promise here. is that no, no, that’s actually quite right. There is a deterioration of information within Walmart because of that authoritarianism, so there will still be a tendency for people, out of fear of losing their job or a desire to climb the greasy pole to misreport.
Again, and so the socialist promise is: if you eliminate that authoritarianism, in principle, there should be an improvement in the quality of the information in the system. So, ironically democratically planning should be more efficient, not less efficient than then capitalist hierarchy.
Richard Todd Stafford: I think there’s another distinction —and you draw it in the book — one of them is about the consequences or the the nature of the incentives built into the system. But I think that there’s an important role for technology and computerization in the account that you’re giving: like, there’s a fundamental way that Walmart and Amazon are depending on capabilities that simply weren’t available to you know, Stalinism for instance. Can you speak a little bit about that? And maybe this would be a good time for you to elaborate on the gesture you made earlier to Project Cybersyn.
Leigh Phillips: Right, yeah. So within the history of socialist economics, one of the the arguments that historically was made by Marxists, and I would say Keynesian is as well, would be that in order to deliver an egalitarian society, there did have to be a certain level of development of the what are called “the forces of production”: basically, the tools and techniques machines and labor and knowledge within a society.
It’s no good for —a feudal society was simply insufficiently technologically advanced to deliver the egalitarian society: we did have to pass through capitalism, to deliver this level of advance. Well, we’re sort of saying here —and well I suppose we aren’t the first people to say this —is that one of the things that probably was necessary to deliver planning on the scale that we’re now imagining, beyond just the big beasts of steel production or coal production or major infrastructure projects or going to the Moon, let’s say under under NASA. But yeah, the consumer products that sort of thing —the right does make the argument that there are so many more variables. It is you know, it’s a compelling argument and so it probably did require a level of computerization, big data wrangling, that we now have, in order to deliver planning at that scale.
And what’s fascinating about Cybersyn is this was the real the first real attempt to to develop [computerized] planning on a economy-wide scale. Well, it wasn’t the entirety of the economy: it was major sectors of the economy, because it was just still —we never got to see the full development of it, because of course as I mentioned earlier, the Pinochet coup. Nevertheless, very like large swaths of the economy —the first real time that we were able to see this within the computer age. Soviet Union never really developed a computer ization properly, ironically partly because some of the leadership were beginning to be so demoralized and sort of had given up the ghost on the idea of the socialist project.
And also to some extent, you know, I fundamentally don’t believe that the Soviet Union was socialist. Ironically, computerization in the Soviet Union never really took off partly because they try to use some market mechanisms to to develop it. And the irony of course is that the development of computerization, all the major technologies involved —with miniaturization and micro processing etc. etc. — it was almost entirely developed within a highly centralized planned entity known as the Pentagon, you know, DARPA. It’s quite the irony that at the internet revolution and computerization was developed effectively through American socialism, of a strange sort.
Richard Todd Stafford: So one of the things that stands out in Eden Medina’s account of Project Cybersyn, and it’s one of the threads that you picked up in your summary in the book is when the trucker strike happens and the way that this is one of the sort of prefigurative moments in the Project where the computerized infrastructure facilitates a kind of more demotic or democratic bottom-up decision-making and planning than we might see if we were to for instance, you know, nationalize Amazon or nationalize Walmart.
So, can you speak a little bit about that? Like what’s the difference between just nationalizing a giant corporation and something that is in fact more democratic?
Leigh Phillips: So we were very, very careful with in the book to to try to avoid the the charge of “statism” or the suggestion that nationalization is enough.
And so one of the the entities that we look at in terms of examples of —existing examples of —mass planning using many, many different. variables is the National Health Service in the UK, which is public. It’s probably the most state-oriented, most socialist-oriented of all of the Public Health Care Systems in Western Europe and Canada, in that it is almost entirely run by the state or was until some of the so-called reforms of Thatcher and then certainly Tony Blair in the 1990s and.early 2000s.
What we do there is we look at how it really was very top-down. There was insufficient levels of participation of communities that were using this. They really had a sense of a serve technocratic or “the doctor knows best” approach. And many people felt deeply alienated from the the NHS which itself was one of the things that assisted, ideologically, Thatcherite and Blairite project of dismantlement.
So we want to be very, very clear that that nationalization is not on its own democratic socialism. It has to be has to be bottom-up.
What’s fascinating about the the Cybersyn Project? And again, I really want to stress that we lean very heavily for our particular chapter looking at Cybersyn on the wonderful work of Edina Medina whose fantastic book Cybernetic Revolutionaries everybody should go and pick up, which is the first real thorough-going history of the Cybersyn project. You know, she mentions —she’s very clear, even though she sees this as a very very utopian project a very, very progressive. optimistic entity —she does note how it really was to a great extent developed in a top-down way, that it was Allende’s ministers and Stafford Beer, the cyberneticist who developed the the system, and it was in the process of developing that they themselves sort of had a sort of learning about how just because the the managers of the system know something doesn’t mean that they are in full cognizance of the detail that people on the ground, on the shop floor have an understanding of what’s being produced.
But what was fascinating about the trucker strike —now it’s called a trucker strike, but it really was a lockout by employers. That’s a more accurate way to describe it, that produced bottlenecks all over the country, that disrupted transmission of goods throughout the country. It really was the employers mounting an offensive against the democratic socialist government of Salvador Allende.
But what’s fascinating really that that Eden Medina shows is that, overcoming the trucker strike these “cordones industriales” — excuse my Spanish accent, there: it’s terrible, appalling. But the cordones industriales, these were the serve local community groups or councils.
Richard Todd Stafford: Soviets?
Leigh Phillips: So, basically soviets, yes —very reminiscent of soviets or the Commune de Paris in French socialist social uprising history, or the shoras that emerged in 1979 in the first very progressive phase of the Iranian Revolution, before it was taken over by the mullahs. It does really seem to be the case that within great social upheavals ,these workers councils or community councils just seemed to be a very natural, organic, automatic process of of self-coordination.
And rather than them —these cordones industriales —being directed by Cybersyn as to what to do in order to get around the bottle necks of the the trucker strike. These cordones discovered Cybersyn and put it to use to coordinate with other communities to be able to figure out: “Now, okay, so what kind of stuff do youhave? Okay, we’ve got this and let’s make sure we get it to you…” And using this as a communications network,—not merely Communications network —but a mechanism of planning of distribution, production, and exchange when everything else was breaking down.
So what’s fascinating about this for me is the the potential challenge from —and an understandable challenge that me and my co-author imagined — would be that “Ah, well you’re just talking about the algorithm telling us what to do.” Like, no, no: it’s actually the other way around. We’re telling the algorithm what to do.
Not merely from a political sensibility of like we have to do this, but actually it seems as though, in a very organic way that was what was beginning to happen with Cybersyn in Allende’s Chile.
Again as I said, this is a hypothesis. We don’t know what what sort of thing would would happen, because after three years they did the Pinochet coup and destroyed everything — literally destroyed the mechanism, the machines used to to do the coordination.
So we don’t know what would have happened. But again, These are very tantalizing very, very interesting indications of what could happen. And I mean we should never, as progressives, as democratic socialists, say this is the way things will happen.
But what’s fascinating about all these different things from Walmart to Cybersyn to the problems with the NHS. It really does suggest that there’s all sorts of examples of democratic planning or non hierarchical planning. And we got lots of lovely hypotheses here about what things could look like. We don’t need to wait to you know, as some people on the left would say, we don’t need to wait for to the revolution.
We actually have some great things right in front of us that can hint at the better world that we could be building.
Richard Todd Stafford: So I don’t pretend to demand from you a road map from here to that better world, but I do want to do my best to end this conversation on as positive of a point as I can and it strikes me that as you tell the story of Cybersyn, it’s very much a story about an existing infrastructure that had its origins in a very sort of top-down decision-making process, that then is appropriated to a different structure, a different set of social relations.
And this morning on my way into work, I read this article with Jerry Taylor, who is sort of a famed climate denier who went through a conversion experience and now sort of advocates on the side of science at a local think tank. And he describes one of his conversion experiences in the interview that I read as meeting with someone who works with risk management for Goldman Sachs. And this risk management fellow reframed climate risks for him in terms of planning for a range of possible financial futures.
And it seems that this resonates in some ways with your observation that we’re sort of already planning. But what are the things that we can do right now? Like what are the political projects right now where we can take existing infrastructures and start creating bridges to a more democratic, more planned, and more sort of globally conscious long-term society that might be able to address the kind of environmental crisis that that you’ve drawn our attention to?
Leigh Phillips: I think that people should be getting very excited about the framing of the this course around climate change the people like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez have been talking about with respect to the Green New Deal. What I think is really important about that is that it, crucially, it is talking about mass build-out plan, build up public sector, built out of infrastructure, of clean infrastructure, clean electricity, electrified rail, plan decarbonization of transport, you know a Norway style —
Norway at the moment has more than 50 percent of all new vehicles are electric. Which is incredible! Now, how did they do that? It wasn’t through market mechanisms. It was through very careful regulatory mechanisms, public sector incentives. So for example, and you know, there’s a lot of fjords in Norway famously. So a lot of people have to take ferries on a daily basis.
Well, if you had an electric car, you could get on the ferries for free. Parking throughout the country is free, if you have an electric car. But also, crucially they recognize that because of the difficult geography in Norway, it would probably not be feasible to leave it to the market to build out fast charging infrastructure. So the government just did it. So all of these things that have resulted in a very, very rapid transformation of personal vehicle transportation in Norway. Which is on the scale of th rapid decarbonization that we do actually need, that’s in line with recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports. And it’s the public sector approach, fundamentally.
So things like the Green New Deal really are crucial in terms of framing because of this public sector approach, but also crucially — and again the line with what I’ve been talking about —it promises prosperity. It’s not hair shirt. It’s not telling people they need to go “back to the land” that they need to give up on their way of life.
If anything, there will be good high-paying jobs that are interesting, intellectually engaging, creative long-lasting —like in the original New Deal. And that’s something that everybody can get behind, particularly working people. If we’re constantly telling working people know you have to give up something, it is never gonna fly. We’re just not going to solve the climate change problem.
But if we can do this in a way that people say, “oh wow life’s going to better? Here sign me up.” So that’s those are the two crucial aspects of that.
One thing that I would challenge AOC and other folks on it’s still very, very vague. It’s a lot of slogans. And there does need to be a real concrete policy-forward filling in the gaps there. And I think people like Matt Bruenig at the People’s Policy Project are doing a really good job of trying to fill in those gaps concretely: what would a Democratic Socialist Green New Deallook like in the United States today?
And I mean, he just came out with a new report. I haven’t read it completely yet, but it seems very exciting.
Richard Todd Stafford: This is the Green TVA report?
Leigh Phillips: Yeah, exactly. I mean it just gives me goosebumps. That’s exactly the sort of stuff that we should be talking about. Already in this country, we have a quasi-democratic socialist entity called the Tennessee Valley Authority.
And what we need to be doing there is overhauling its mandate —change its mandate to to cover the entirety of the United States, that its purpose is to build out clean energy infrastructure. And the reason this is so exciting is because it’s already here, in large part. It’s just about extending something that already exists, transforming it in a more clean direction.
But yeah, it’s it’s sort of already here.
A lot of the things that we need to do, really are just lying in front of us, ready to be —these are tools ready to be taken up. But what we need for this is to overcome this capitalist realism this this capture of the horizons of our imagination to think that it can’t be done, that democratic socialism: “but, it can’t be! It’s impossible. You’re dreaming.” Well actually, you know, it’s it laying out there ready to be taken.
Richard Todd Stafford: Well, thank you Leigh. This has been a very provocative conversation.
Leigh Phillips: No, it’s been great. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.
Richard Todd Stafford: Thanks again for listening to this interview with Leigh Phillips, which is a production of the Cultural Studies colloquium hosted by the George Mason University Cultural Studies Department with support from the Department of Communications, Global Affairs program, the Department of History and Art History, the Interdisciplinary Curriculum Collaborative, the Department of Philosophy, the School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution, the Schar School of Policy and Government, the Women and Gender Studies Program, and University Life. We thank WGMU for the use of their recording studio.
This interview was produced and conducted by me, Richard Todd Stafford, a candidate for the PHD in cultural studies. The colloquium Series has been organized by Professor Roger Lancaster.
References in this podcast
Phillips, Leigh Austerity Ecology and Collapse Porn Addicts: A Defense of Growth, Industry, and Stuff Zero Books, 2015.
Phillips, Leigh and Michal Rozworksi The People’s Republic of Walmart: How the World’s Biggest Corporations are Laying the Foundations for Socialism Verso, 2019.
Medina, Eden Cybernetic Revolutionaries: Technology and Politics in Allende’s Chile MIT University Press, 2013
Fisher, Mark Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? Zero Books, 2009
Music: Kevin MacLeod “Acid Trumpet,” used under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License
Interview, Audio Production, and Transcription: Richard Todd Stafford
Promotions and marketing: Severin Mueller
Colloquium Organizer: Roger Lancaster