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Pathfinders

Is Socialist Theory Scientific?

"Nobody has yet proven that this experiment was safe," says Marina Bay's lawyer Alexander Molokhov, in the first day's Moscow hearing of the amateur astrologist's £170m lawsuit against Nasa, launched hours after the successful collision of the probe Deep Impact into the comet Tempel 1. Bay's claim that such cosmological 'vandalism' has altered the world's horoscope towards possible disaster can also not be proved false, and such lack of proof is clearly enough in the eyes of some lawyers to start proceedings these days, notwithstanding Nasa mission engineer Shadan Ardalan's curt dismissal: "The analogy is a mosquito hitting the front of an airliner in flight. The effect is negligible." (BBC News Online, 4 July).

The Moscow court is unlikely to be bamboozled by such chancers, but the attack on science is common enough: don’t do it unless you can prove it is safe.The problem is that science, with the usual exception of mathematics, can never actually prove anything, an apparent loophole exploited by everyone from 9/11 conspiracy theorists to neo-creationist Intelligent Design advocates. Now the law is being asked to test the assertion that astronomers can't prove while astrologers don't have to.

Socialists have every sympathy with scientists who find themselves under attack from unscientific prejudice and blatant opportunism, since this is not very dissimilar from our own experience. For a theory to be valid it should accord well with the facts, and offer one a way to disprove it. Thus religion and creationism are not valid scientific theories, whereas evolution and gravity are.

Socialist theory fits the first criterion, but what about the second? Is it possible to disprove it? Perhaps. If capitalism fed, clothed and looked after its people in peace and without coercion, socialism would not be disproved but it would be unnecessary. If genetic research uncovers an irreducible aggression or profit-seeking gene, socialism could be said to have been disproved. But nobody has yet found this gene, or shown any other evidence that would make socialism unviable.
 
 Meanwhile, like Marina Bay and her enterprising lawyer, our opponents expect us to prove everything we say while they are not obliged to provide any evidence in support of their argument, and indeed airily dismiss the very large volume of evidence against themselves.

The End of Mass Production?

A big question for socialist theorists is the matter of parts and supplies. While much of food production is likely to be localised, some highly specialised parts and accessories are not going to be generally available in the region. Global transportation would be a last and expensive resort, but what if many specialist machine components could simply be … emailed?

A new generation of 3D printers is making it possible to recreate perfect three dimensional objects from a software template which can be posted through an ordinary email server. At present the 'ink' is confined to wax and plaster powder so the finished models have limited durability, but work is already proceeding with fine grain steel using micro-heat welding instead of glue to hold the finished article together, and laser and water-jet cutters using emailed plans can work on heavy durable materials to make components as good as traditionally machined parts.In fact, with the rise of fabrication laboratories, or 'fab labs', individuals can have their own designs and specifications custommade on the spot (Scientific American, June 2005).

Once the labs have shrunk from roomsize to suitcases, we may be looking at the democratization - for a price - of the production process, or in fact, the reclaiming - within limits -of the means of production. The idea that mass production may be on its way out is not new:
"Mass production, the defining characteristic of the Second Wave economy, becomes increasingly obsolete, as firms install information intensive,often robotised manufacturing systems capable of endless, cheap variation, even customisation. The revolutionary result is, in effect, the de-massification of mass production."  War and Anti-War - Alvin & Heidi Toffler (1993,Little, Brown and Co).

Being toffs who hang around with generals, politicians, think-tank drivers and other assorted toffs, the Tofflers are never overly concerned with how their capitalist utopia will impact on the lower orders, so they describe in perfect equanimity a Third Wave capitalism which even by today’s standards would be a catastrophe for workers, with widespread 'oceans of poverty' around 'hitech  archipelagos' such as California, Hong Kong or the Rhineland.

Capitalism’s development of customised production could hardly be expected to benefit the toiling masses for whom mass-production is both a treadmill and a treat factory. They would never be able to afford the luxury of individual consumer targetting. Nonetheless, the ability to micro-produce with minimal waste and distribution costs remains one of the most exciting innovations socialist society could possibly inherit, and one which it could put to very good use.