Why no Roman industrial revolution?

In my last post I repeated Marx’s phrase the the hand mill gave you the feudal lord the steam mill the industrial capitalist. One reader objected that this overstated the role of technology and that steam power was already known to the Romans. I concede that Marx over simplified. There were thousands of water mills in England recorded in the Domesday book. So ownership of water mills was a key part of the power of the feudal lords. A better phrase would have been that the water mill brings you the feudal lord the steam mill the industrial capitalist. But to return to the original question.

The ancient Romans already had a working steam turbine in Hero’s aeolipile. Why were they not able to turn this to use in industry, pumping water or turning millstones?

Why no industrial revolution in antiquity?

There are well known arguments about the social relations of slavery impeding the development of labour saving technology, but is this enough of an explanation?

We know that the ancients harnessed the power of water for grinding corn and other industrial uses, so they were not completely indifferent to artificial sources of power.

Could they not have used steam turbines instead of water wheels to grind corn?

There are the obvious objections that the Mediterranean basin has no coal deposits to fuel steam engines. But in due course they had conquered Northern Gaul and Britannia where they were able to extract coal. Could they have set up and industrial economy in these areas?


Figure 1: Hero’s turbine, or aeolipile reproduced from [1].

I think not. There are inherent technical limitations to the usefulness of Hero’s device, basically its low torque and inefficiency. Steam turbines are now the preferred prime mover – in use in fossil and nuclear power stations across the world, but their superiority has depended on the ability to produce high pressure steam and high rotational velocity. The actual technology that started the industrial revolution – the Watt steam engine had the virtues that it could develop very high torques at low velocity using very low steam pressures.

In order to get a functioning fossil fuel economy you had to have a prime mover and a way of providing fuel for it. The main fuel available was coal which was obtained from mines prone to flooding. The Watt engine was originally developed for pumping out mines, an application which required a lot of force but tolerated a relatively slow engine. The torque T supplied by a Hero style turbine is given by the rule

T = p × 2a × r

whee p is the steam pressure, a the area of each exhaust nozzle and r the radius of the turbine.

The torque provided by a Watt beam engine was given by a similar rule

T = p × a × l

where p is now the pressure difference between the boiler and the condenser, a the area of the cylinder and l is the beam length.

The early Watt engines were huge, with beam lengths of over 3 meters compared to the few centimeters for the length of hero turbines. This is a factor of 100 difference. In terms of diameter of bore a practical Hero turbine would not have exceeded 1 cm against half a meter for a Watt engine. This is a factor of about 2500 greater area for the Watt machine. Let us assume both operate at the same steam pressure, since the technology of boiler construction was initially the limiting factor. That means that the torque of an early Watt engine was about a quarter of a million times greater than an aeolipile.

Could you build an aeolipile that generated comparable torque?

Well yes if you had arms a couple of meters long on the turbine and nozzles a half a meter in diameter, then the torque would be comparable. But the nozzles of the aeolipile are open to the air, so a nozzle half a meter across would use up an entirely impractical quantity of steam.


Figure 2: Laval’s first turbine used to power a cream centrifuge in 1884. It used a simple modification of Hero’s turbine in concept, but relied on precision engineering and high pressure steam.

An aeolipile is only practical as a power generating device if the revolutions per second are very high. A small torque multiplied by a very high number of revs per second can generate a useful amount of power.

The aeolipile had to go through a series of of steps before it could be converted, in the 1880s into practical turbines by Laval and Parson. The first practical use of of a reaction turbine was for Laval’s cream separator. This required very rapid rotation, around 1000rpm, to centrifugally separate cream from milk, so a high speed device was desirable. Laval’s first prototype was based on the aeolipile but heavily geared down using friction gear to get it down to 1000rpm. His second prototype switched to the impulse principle – directing a jet of high pressure steam against a rotating set of turbine blades.

Rotation speeds were very high the 300hp turbine in Table 1 had a peripheral velocity of 366M/s or 1317Kmph – supersonic velocity.

Table 1: The performance of production Laval turbines of the late 19th century. Data from [1]

Horse Power Radius Revs per min of turbine Revs per min of geared output

5 5cm 30,000 3,000

30 11cm 20,000 2,000

300 35cm 10,000 750


Figure 3: Laval’s second turbine 1886 switched to the impulse principle and went into practical production.

Between the start of steam power and the first practical use of a reaction turbine over 100 years elapsed, during which many engineers came up with suggestions for turbines. But it was not until the 1880s that Parson and Laval designs actual got into use. They depended on having high pressure steam, precision engineering and high strength steels to work. None of these were available to the Romans. They did not have the blast furnaces and forges necessary to make the wrought iron for boilers, far less the Bessemer converters to produce the steel for turbine blades. Steam turbines only became practical as a source of power once industrial society was in full swing.

Well even if turbines were not practical, what stopped the Romans building something like one of Watt’s engines?


Figure 4: The demonstration of atmospheric pressure by Guericke who pumped the air out between two copper hemispheres and demonstrated that even two teams of horses could not pull them appart. This experiment was a key to the development of atmospheric engines like those of Watt.

Basically a lack of scientific knowledge. The Watt engine depended for its power stroke on atmospheric pressure. Steam was supplied at near atmospheric pressure, and then condensed to create a vacuum. That depended in turn on two key prior concepts – the discovery of atmospheric pressure by Torricelli, and the concept of heat as a quantity to be conserved developed by Watt’s supervisor at Glasgow Prof. Black.

Technologies have an order of dependence to them that can not be arbitrarily skipped over. Without the knowledge and skills associated with a particular stage of technology, you can not simply go on to develop the next.


[1]   Alexander Jude. The Theory of the Steam Turbine. Griffin and Company, 1910.

Big Data and Super-Computers: foundations of Cyber Communism

I shall be elaborating on the following theses:

  • The inability of 20th century socialism to progress to communism led to the crisis of the USSR.
  • Communism requires a definite stage of development of technology.
  • This stage was only reached at the very end of the 20th century.
  • But this problem of technical adequacy can not be understood in just humanist  terms of ‘plenty’ or in terms of ‘the realm of necessity’.

In the process I will address what I see to have been misconceptions about communism on the part of the Soviets, before going on to look at the transitional stages a modern economy would need to achieve communism.

1 What is a mode of production

Is Socialism a mode of production?
The standard account, derived from Stalin, is that a mode of production is a combination of productive forces and production relations:
Mode of production = productive forces + production relations
This was sumarised by Stalin as

the productive forces are only one aspect of production, only one aspect of the mode of production, an aspect that expresses the relation of men to the objects and forces of nature which they make use of for the production of material values. Another aspect of production, another aspect of the mode of production, is the relation of men to each other in the process of production, men’s relations of production. [19]

This has been the orthodoxy, but I think it is wrong. Another meaning of the phrase mode of production is, according to Marx, the mode of material production. This mode of production, according to Marx’s 1857 preface, conditions the social and political life. The relations of production only have to be appropriate to the productive forces.

In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life.[12]

This conception had been expressed by Marx ten years earlier in his pithy phrase :

The hand mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam mill, society with the industrial capitalist. [11]

In this conception the essential feature of capitalist production is that it is machine industry, production by means of (steam) powered machines. But this should give us pause to think, for is not socialism also characterised by machine production, by the use of artificial forms of energy?
Recall that Lenin expressed this very idea when he gave the following equation:
Socialism = Soviet power + Electrification
Since the difference between steam power and electrical power is secondary, and we know that capitalist economies also use electricity, the important point is that capitalism and socialism share the same mode of production.
We can summarize this in two equations defining the mode of production:

Capitalist mode of production = powered machine industry.
Socialist mode of production = electric machine industry.

So the socialist mode of production is a subset of the machine mode of production – that which uses nationwide electric grids. Hence the first aim of the USSR was to set up GOLERO the electricity plan.
Socialism and capitalism differ not so much in mode of production as in the social relations.

Capitalist production relations =

Commodity production +
Private ownership +
Wage labour+
Market anarchy

Socialist production relations =

Commodity form of consumer goods+
Public ownership +
Wage labour +

The significant differences are firstly that socialist production relations can restrict the commodity form to the consumer goods market. Within the publicly owned sector there is no change in ownership as means of production go from one state factory to another – hence these goods are not commodities. Secondly the socialist economy substitutes public for private ownership. Third it replaces the anarchic market with directive planning. These are differences in production relations but not in the mode of production.

2 Marx vs USSR on Communism

Marx, in Critique of the Gotha Programme presents a three stage process of transition to communism.

  1. Capitalism
  2. First stage communism No commodities or money, no private owners, payment in labour tokens according to physical work done. Public services paid for by an income tax on labour incomes.
  3. Second stage communism Payment according to need, large families etc get higher incomes.

Note that even in the first stage Marx assumes the abolition of money. There is also – contrary to the impression spread originally by Bukharin[1] – no mention in Marx of the idea that all goods will be distributed for free in a communist system. Distribution according to need is based on an objective assessment of need – life saving healthcare may be freely available to those who need it, but cosmetic surgery -no.
Now let me contrast this scheme with what became the Soviet orthodoxy derived variously from the Bukharin text mentioned earlier and from Stalin[18]. Again we have a 3 stage model

  1. Capitalism
  2. Socialism: Commodities and money are kept, state+coop ownership, payment in money wages according to work done and status of work ( male jobs paid more than female ), indirect taxes on sales not income tax provide the main state revenue.
  3. Communism: Commodity production replaced by barter, free distribution of many goods, full state ownership.

The significant differences are that the Soviets identified the first stage of communism with something much less radical : socialism. They forget that Socialism was a much wider trend than communism, and that in the Communist Manifesto a whole chapter was devoted to explaining how the Communists were different from socialists. The socialism of the USSR was essentially the 1902 socialism of the still revolutionary Karl Kautsky[17,10]. All the key elements were in that work by Kautsky. The pretence that a socialist monetary economy was the same thing as a non monetary communist one, was a misrepresentation.

3 Why did USSR not reach communism?

The material and technical basis of communism will be built up by the end of the second decade (1971-80), ensuring an abundance of material and cultural values for the whole population ; Soviet society will come close to a stage where it can introduce the principle of distribution according to needs, and there will be a gradual transition to one form of ownership-public ownership . Thus, a communist society will in the main be built in the U.S.S.R . The construction of communist society will be fully completed in the subsequent period. (Programme CPSU 1960)

The USSR in 1960 was still very ambitious. They had a very optimistic time table for overtaking US and in many key industries this goal was in fact achieved. The transition to communism was seen solely in terms of quantity of output not in terms of changed social relations. A key technical development was still seen to be electrification: Electrification, which is the pivot of the economic construction of communist society,plays a key role in the development of all economic branches and in the effecting of all modern technological progress. It is therefore important to ensure the priority development of electric power output. It is notable that no particular attention was paid to information technology as an enabling technology for communism.

How well did they actually do? Well table 1 shows that in their key goal of electricity the USSR was already by 1990 doing better than the leading European capitalist countries had achieve a quarter century later.

 Table 1: Comparison of power available to different economies converted into human labour effort equivalents per head of population. Assumption is that a manual worker could do 216 KWh per year of work.
year Gwh human labour
equiv per head
China 2014 5665000 19.2
US 2014 4331000 63.1
EU 2014 3166000 19.7
USSR 1990 1728000 27.3
USSR 1940 48000 1.2
USSR 1931 8800 0.3
Russia 1913 1300 0.0
GB 2014 338000 24.8
GB 1907 61320 7.3

Was this enough power for communism?

What about food production?
How well did the USSR achieve its goals there?
Pretty well according to Table 2.

Table 2: Comparison of late Soviet with UK, Brazil and US annual per capita output of major protein foods. Note that for all categories the late USSR had better figures. Sources [14], FAOSTAT and USDA databases.

Year Meat Milk Eggs
Kg Kg Units
USSR 1988 69 375 299
Brazil 1988 49 96 163
UK 1988 55 265 201
USA 1988 58
USA 1990 236
USA 1995 259

Was this enough food for communism?

But Soviet growth slowed down. The Kruschev era had assumed continued exponential growth and had defined communism in terms of achieving exponential growth. The assumption of exponential growth was unrealistic. Actual growth can not be exponential for long, it inevitably starts to slow down. Actual growth tends to follow a logistic curve like this.

Khrushchev s Communism downplayed social change

Under communism there will be no classes, and the socio-economic and cultural distinctions, and differences in living conditions, between town and countryside will disappear ; the countryside will rise to the level of the town in the development of the productive forces and the nature of work, the forms of production relations, living conditions and the well-being of the population. (Programme CPSU 1960)

But the concrete programme gave no measures to abolish classes or abolish money and commodities. When the impossibility of continued 10% growth made itself felt, this was seen as the failure of communism, since social change had not been at its core. If society was not moving forward, it failed to morally inspire people and by the late 1980s communists could not resist the pressures from capitalist ideology.

4 Bourgeois theorists said Communism impossible


Only money provides a rational basis for comparing costs Calculation in terms of labour time impractical because of the millions of equations that would need to be solved.


Market is like a telephone system exchanging information to tie up economy Only the market can solve problem of dispersed information

There was some limited truth in this. Marx s communism was not yet possible in 1960 due to limitations in information processing. Marx s Communism stage 1 assumed

  • No money
  • Calculation in terms of labour time and use values
  • Payment in labour credits

But to work out the labour content of every good required the solution of millions of equations. 1960s computers were not powerful enough. This had its effects in limitations of Soviet Socialism.
Money was still needed for economic calculation even in the planned sector. There was a problem of aggregation in planning which required setting monetary objectives. There was an inability to handle disaggregated plans at all Union level. Money was still needed for wage payments. But cash led to black markets, corruption and pressure to restore capitalist relations.

5 Key developments in productive forces since 1960

But since 1960 there have been a set of technical advances that allow us to remove these old objections to communist economics.


which allows real-time cybernetic planning and can solve the problem of dispersed information – Hayeks key objection


allows concentration of the information needed for planning.


can solve the millions of equations in seconds – von Mises objection

Electronic payment cards

allow replacement of cash with non transferable labour credits.

Computational complexity

How easy is it to solve the millions of equations. There are some problems that become computationally intractable even for the largest computers. Is economic planning or the use of labour accounting like that?
No it is not. In a series of papers[2,6,5,4,9,8], Allin Cottrell, Greg Michaelson and I have shown that the computational complexity of computing labour values for an entire economy with N distinct products grows as Nlog(N) This means that it is highly tractable and easily solved by modern computers

Direct Democracy

It is also possible to harness computer networks and mobile phone voting to allow direct democratic control by the mass of the population over the economy. This allows major strategic decisions taken democratically, questions like: How much labour to devote to education? How much to health, pensions, sick? How much to environmental protection? How much to national defence? How much to new investment?
All this can be done by direct voting using computers or mobile phones every year. We have prototyped software to aggregate the wishes of the public this way[7,15,16,3].


Marx s principle was that non-public goods should be distributed on the equivalence principle – you get back in goods the same amount of labour – after tax – that you perform. Hence goods are priced in labour hours. Cybernetic feedback from sales to the plan adjusts output to consumer needs as shown in Figure  1.
Figure 1: Cybernetic planning
Marx argued that calculation in terms of labour time would lead to greater efficiency. The wages system undervalues the real social cost of labour and deters the use of the most modern machinery. Transition to communist calculation will lead to the rational use of labour time, and faster growth of labour productivity.
Figure 2: The growth of labour productivity has been shrinking over the last half century in the UK. Growth rates computed as moving average over last 5 years fron ONS data for output per worker for the whole economy.
Figure 3: The decline in productivity growth is an international phenomonon. Data obtained from Extended Penn World Tables. Note that this data only goes up to the start of the 2008 recession.
Throughout the capitalist world this law is in effect, slowing down the growth of labour productivity. The capitalist class seek cheap labour, which systematically holds back technical progress. They show chronic unwillingness to invest. Orthodox economists call this secular stagnation .
You can see the effect clearly in the decline in the improvement in labour productivity shown in Figs 2,3.

6 Transition steps to first stage of communism


The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.
Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.
These measures will, of course, be different in different countries.[13]

Nevertheless, in most socialist countries, the following communist measures will be pretty generally applicable.
Immediate measures

  1. Monetary unit converted to the labour hour set at the average value created per hour.
  2. Move from state funding from profits of state enterprises to state entirely funded by progressive income tax.
  3. Legislation to give employees right -before tax to full value created in enterprise
  4. Conversion of remaining private firms to cooperatives
  5. Develop centralised internet system to track all purchases and sales.
  6. Withdraw all paper money and coins, replace with electronic cards

During the preparation commodity exchange between enterprises still exists, and monetary transactions still possible, but exploitation is eliminated. In the next stages the following measures might be appropriate:

  • Private circulation of money eliminated, and money only used by consumers to purchase final goods from public stores.
  • Commodity exchange between enterprises replaced by computerised directive planning
  • Equalisation of pay rates between men and women and between different professions and trades

Technical advance on a world scale is being held back by the wages system. There is a growing contradiction between the social relations of capitalism and the potential of the new productive forces. The new information technology permits a direct transition to communist mode of calculation. The new communist relations of production will abolish class differences and allow technical and humanitarian progress to resume.


[1] Nikola Bukharin. ABC of Communism.
[2] Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell. Labour value and socialist economic calculation. Economy and Society, 18(1):71-99, 1989.
[3] Paul Cockshott and Karen Renaud. Extending handivote to handle digital economic decisions. In Proceedings of the 2010 ACM-BCS Visions of Computer Science Conference, page 5. British Computer Society, 2010.
[4] W Paul Cockshott and Allin Cottrell. Economic planning, computers and labor values. conference Karl Marx and the Challenges of the 21st Century, Havana, Cuba, May, pages 5-8, 1999.
[5] W Paul Cockshott and Allin F Cottrell. Information and economics: a critique of Hayek. Research in Political Economy, 16:177-202, 1997.
[6] W Paul Cockshott and Allin F Cottrell. Value, markets and socialism. Science & Society, pages 330-357, 1997.
[7] WP Cockshott and K. Renaud. HandiVote: simple, anonymous, and auditable electronic voting. Journal of information Technology and Politics, 6(1):60-80, 2009.
[8] Allin Cottrell, Paul Cockshott, and Greg Michaelson. Is economic planning hypercomputational? The argument from Cantor diagonalisation. School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences (MACS), Heriot-Watt University Edinburgh, available at: www. macs. hw. ac. uk/ greg/publications/ccm. IJUC07. pdf (accessed December 10, 2008), 2007.
[9] Allin Cottrell, WP Cockshott, and Greg Michaelson. Cantor diagononlalisation and planning. Journal of Unconventional Computing, 5(3-4):223-236, 2009.
[10] Karl Kautsky. The social revolution. CH Kerr, 1902.
[11] Karl Marx. Poverty of philosophy. 1847.
[12] Karl Marx. Preface and Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy. Foreign Languages Press, 1976.
[13] Karl Marx and Friederick Engels. Manifesto of the Communist Party, trans. S. Moore. Moscow: Progress.(First published 1848.), 1977.
[14] Bertram Patrick Pockney. Soviet statistics since 1950. Aldershot (UK) Dartmouth, 1991.
[15] Karen Renaud and WP Cockshott. Electronic plebiscites. 2007.
[16] KV Renaud and WP Cockshott. Handivote: Checks, balances and threat analysis. Submitted for Review, 2009.
[17] M. Salvadori. Karl Kautsky and the socialist revolution, 1880-1938. Verso Books, 1990.
[18] Joseph Stalin. Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR. Moscow, 1952.
[19] Josif Vissarionovic Stalin. Dialectical and historical materialism. Lawrence & Wishart, 1943.

Fossil fuel and the ebbing of globalisation

n the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure. (Marx et al. [1978],Preface)

What distinguishes a utopian approach to social transformation from a materialist one is that the latter must start with the real contradictions that exist between technological imperatives and the social forms that currently exist. These specify not a future that might be desired, but what may be required.

One has therefore to start with technology complexes and demographics since all social formations combine a particular set of technologies with a particular density of human population. Only some technology complexes are compatible with a given population density. Our current population could not survive on the basis of pastoralism, so much is obvious. But nor can the present population long survive on the basis of an extractive fossil fuel economy.

Contemporary capitalism is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Almost 90% of world primary energy comes from these sources and the percentage coming from nuclear and renewable sources has if anything tended to fall slightly in recent years. Industry and commerce use about 60% of all primary energy, transport and residential use around 20% each.

The current mature alternatives to fossil fuels are nuclear energy and hydro power. The latter obviously has severe geographical limitations, the limitations to the use of nuclear power are on the one hand political opposition and on the other the fact that only a small number of countries and firms have the ability to commission nuclear plant. In terms of cost it is already competitive with coal power for electricity1.

The the two rapidly maturing alternative energy sources are solar and wind power. Prices of both of these have been falling rapidly and in the US are already competitive with coal for electricity generation when measured as levelized costs. Obviously both of these depend for their yield on the local wind and sunshine, and so will vary in yield from place to place.

Although Van Vuuren et al. [2011] lay great emphasis on carbon capture
and storage as a mechanism that will allow green house gas emission targets to be met, this is one of the least developed techniques so far. Although there is experience of injecting CO2 into oil reservoirs for enhanced recovery, there is as yet little practical experience in operating full scale coal fired power stations far from oil reservoirs, extracting the CO2, and then piping it to appropriate injection sites. The components are plausible, but the working experience that for example nuclear power has, is absent.

There are clearly hazards associated with subsequent escape of the carbon dioxide from subteranean reservoirs, as shown by the Lake Nyos disaster[3] were 1700 people were killed by a sudden escape of the gas.

However given the good progress being made in other areas it seems plausible that, at least for electricity generation, a combination of nuclear, solar and wind power could replace a large part of current dependence on coal for electricity generation.

Marx claimed that the stage of development of technology is what ultimately determines the bounds on social relations. He believed that communism was the likely future of industrial society and that coal powered steam engines were the foundation of capitalist economy. Is there anything about the transition anything about the transition to a post fossil fuel economy that would favour communism over capitalism?

The USSR depended heavily on large scale integrated production both of energy and other products. The economic regression which followed the
establishment of capitalism made it clear that capitalist property relations were incapable of sustaining this form of the productive forces. The one industry that did relatively well in the new capitalist Russia was fossil fuel extraction.



Figure 1: The Soviet Energiya launcher that was intended to put up
orbiting solar power plants. The Buran shuttle is shown attached.




Figure 2: Model of the ITER reactor. Note the human figure for scale. Photo by Stephan Mosel released under Creative Commons.


The USSR did have long term plans for non-fossil energy sources : nuclear, thermonuclear and orbiting solar power stations. All of these are post capitalist forms of energy production in the sense that their development has depended on socialist economy in the East, or in the West on state sponsored development: AEC in the US or the AEA in the UK for nuclear power.

Thermonuclear power research has been overwhelmingly state funded, and the most promising reactor design the Tokamak, was invented in the USSR and forms the basis for the international ITER experimental power reactor[2]. Orbiting solar power stations[8] were a futuristic technology much talked about in the 1970s and 80s. They would overcome the limitations of day and night and bad weather by being bathed in permanent sunlight, and would beam energy to Earth as microwaves. The ultimate Soviet space launcher, Energiya[9], was seen as the tool to build such orbiting stations.

So we could hypothesise that the energetic basis of communist economy would be orbiting solar power stations and huge tokamaks able to supply essentially limitless energy from the deuterium in sea water. This is a pair of technologies that private capital has been unable to develop because of the huge initial investment over many decades before any possible profit could be returned. It would moreover, be a highly capital intensive path and high capital intensity is associated with low profitability, which deters private firms.

The scale of development costs associated with thermonuclear power are so large that they are beyond even what individual nations can afford. The only practical project to build a thermonuclear reactor ITER is being constructed by a consortium of 35 states. ITER was started at the initiative of the USSR at the Geneva Superpower Summit in November 1985. Design work took from 1988 to 2001. In 2005 it was agreed that the site of the reactor would be in France. In 2010 construction started near Aix-en-Provence.

It will be the largest and most complex machine ever constructed. The first plasma is scheduled to be generated in 2025 but it is not anticipated to use actual deuterium/tritium plasma to generate useful power until 2035. The whole project will thus have taken 50 years to yield power. But prior to ITER being formed there had already been a 35 year history of development of the technology since Sakharov and Tamm initially proposed the design in 1950.

The development of thermonuclear plasma reactors is something that private capitalism could not have done. It required foresight based on an appreciation of future human needs that only public bodies, indeed a world public body, could undertake.

Solar and wind power, can in contrast be developed piecemeal with relatively modest capital costs. A such, private firms are quite willing to invest in them, given modest initial government incentives. We do not know yet whether these lower tech approaches to alternative energy will be enough to power future civilisation. If they are enough then – other than international political sanctions restricting fossil fuels – there will be nothing in the energy base that militates against the perpetuation of private ownership. If it turns out that the supply of energy from wind and sun is too intermittent, too dependent on the seasons, too deficient at night, then fusion power will be the most plausible way of providing base load power. If energy storage technologies, either batteries, pumped storage, compressed air storage of even flywheel storage develop fast enough, fusion may not be needed.

This possibility give rise to fantasies about self sufficiency and a society of people who are economically self sufficient, living off-grid. The idea breaks down as soon as it is examined in detail. Solar power only brings an element of self sufficiency to those with enough capital to buy the panels, and enough roof area or free land to install it on. It is not an option for urban dwellers in rented flats or for those who can not afford the initial capital.

Whilst owners of houses with big roofs will be able to reduce their electricity purchases, electric grids will still be needed for industry, telecoms, offices, electric railways etc.

But electical power generation is only part of the emissions problem.

Carbon dioxide is generated by transport and by materials processing.



Industrial society is heavily dependent on materials whose production either uses fossil fuel, or unavoidably emits carbon dioxide. In the 19th century industrial buildings and housing in industrialised nations were largely built from brick. Brick production involved the mixing of clays with ground coal which were then dried and sintered in kilns, with the coal in the mixture providing a large part of the fuel.

From the 20th century concrete became the main building material. But this too involves a lot of energy in its construction. Concrete is a mixture of sand, stones and cement powder. Cement powder is the biggest energy consumer here. The process involves heating limestone to disassociate the CaCO3 it contains to produce CaO+CO2.
This obviously involves a direct release of carbon dioxide. The process requires between 4GJ/ton and 7GJ/ton of energy[21]. This energy is currently supplied by fossil fuels with of the order of 5% of world industrial energy use going on this process. Worrell et al. [2001] estimated that in 1994 around 5% of total carbon dioxide emissions world wide came from cement production. For China something between 7% and 9% of all emissions are from cement making[14].

It is in principle possible to produce cement without carbon dioxide by a combination of solar heating to melt limestone and then electrolysis by the STEP process[13].
By choice of temperature one can obtain the electrolytic transformation CaCO3→ CaO+C+O2 with elemental carbon and oxygen being released. Assuming that the carbon produced was buried, the overall process would be carbon neutral.2
If operated in a strictly carbon neutral fashion the cost of cement produced this way would be two to three times as great as with current methods.

Steel has been the fundamental metal of industrial society, used in making machinery, ships, bridges, cars and in the construction industry. Steel production comes from two processes today, the basic oxygen process, and the electric arc process.

The basic oxygen process refines pig iron produced in blast furnaces into structural steel, though a portion of the feedstock is recycled scrap steel. Electric arc furnaces work entirely with recycled scrap. In the USA around 70% of all steel output is from recycled sources. The remaining 30% comes from the processing or iron ore. The iron oxide in the ore, is reduced to metalic iron using carbon, currently in the form of coke, though charcoal was used in the past. As such the process inevitably emits carbon dioxide, both because the coke provides the fuel to heat the furnace, and because carbon monoxide produced by burning the coke is the reducing agent.

If we assume that the world will require drastic reductions in CO2
emissions, this implies :

  • That the steel industry will have to become overwhelmingly one based on recycling, supplemented with only such small amounts of basic steel
    as can be produced from charcoal.


  • That other metals, most likely aluminimum, will have to substitute for steel in many uses. Aluminium is produced by an entirely electrolytic process, with a relatively small carbon dioxide emission from the erosion of the
    carbon electrodes.


Per ton, in 2017, aluminum cost about 5 times as much as steel.  It is also weaker than steel so aluminium structural members have  to be thicker than the corresponding steel ones.  But given its lower density these effects partially cancel out,  and the corresponding aluminium part will weigh only about 60%  of the steel part. Overall then the use of aluminium instead of  steel is about three times as expensive.

So it is likely that the two fundamental construction materials  of industrial civilisation, concrete and steel will have to be replaced by alternatives that
are around 3 times as expensive.  Cheap concrete has been the foundation of world urbanisation[5], and  cheap steel the foundation of mechanisation.

Stone, of course, will remain available as a low carbon building material when
carbon emissions restrict brick and concrete.  Smout [1986] attributes the greater overcrowding and worse slum housing conditions in  indutrial Scotland to the statutory requirement, up to the 1930s,  to use expensive stone in residential accomodation in Scotland  where cheap brick could be used in England.

Now, the old stone tenements of Glasgow are appreciated for their aesthetics,  in comparison to the brick and concrete housing that went  up in the 1950s. But if the billions of new urban  dwellers across the world will have to depend on the building of
stone housing, then over-crowding will persist much longer than  would be the case were brick and concrete to be still available.  Overcrowding itself brings exploitative landlords;  reinforces the dominance of the propertied classes.  On the other hand, once population growth slows down, the durability  of stone construction is an advantage. Over time, with a static  population, relatively high standards of housing could be achieved  using stone. In the shorter term it may be necessary for mass produced
aluminium units to stand in where 20th century urbanisation used poured  concrete flats.



As Smil [2010] says, the two engines of globalisation are the high bypass turbine and the high compression diesel. The one powers aircraft, the other: ships, trains, lorries and buses.  MAN and Wärtsilä drive the vast ships linking Asia, Europe and America. Diesel trains carry more than half of America’s goods. Turbines power all air freight. All run on oil. Without oil, most world transport stops.

Oil is not going to run out or be banned overnight, but over a  few decades either due to resource exhaustion or international  restrictions of fossil fuel use, it will become progressively less  available. How then is a transport system, and behind that, a whole global capitalist division of labour going to respond?

Looking first at shipping, it is clear that costs will rise.  Today we have diesel powered steel ships. At the end of this century what  will ships be built of and powered by?

Before steel ships we had wooden ones, and sail power hung on into the early 20th century, so international trade would still be possible by a reversion to earlier technologies. But this would mean both a severe reduction in trade volume and a rise in carrying costs.  Vessels of modern size can not be built of wood. Wooden construction implies ships of at most a couple of thousand tons, about a hundredth of the size of the largest contemporary container ships and a tenth the size of the most common bulk carrier. Costs would be much higher because of the large crews needed to handle sails.


Figure 3: The Flettner rotor ship. This was developed in the 1920s as an improved form of sail which relies on the perpendicular force generated by the wind on a spinning cylinder. The original ship is on the left with the modern experimental Eship1 on the right.


But there are obvious alternatives. Aluminium has been extensively used in warship construction, and could be used for merchant shipping were owners forced to pay the higher contruction cost.
But nobody has yet built large aluminium ships. The largest have been around 100 metres whereas current freighters run up to four times that length. They have been plauged by corrosion problems. As a highly electo-positive metal, any contact with other metals like bronze or steel sets up a battery on contact with water. The consequence is electrolytic corrosion which eats away at the aluminium.  In principle this can be avoided by using only aluminium in the hull. Designs have existed for bulk cargo ships of this type for decades, but have been uneconomic[1]. Overall, an over decades, though there seems little doubt that the technology of building such ships can be mastered. Propulsion is the bigger problem.

Batteries and solar power are ruled out. Batteries, which have long been used in submarines, do not last long enough for ocean voyages, and solar power provides too little energy for a large heavy vessel.  Wind remains the most likely alterntive. Designs do exist for  cargo ships with conventional masts and sails, but the crew  required to handle sails, even with some form of power assist  is likely to be more than would be needed for a motor vessel.
A promising alternative is the Flettner rotor.3 This relies on  the fact that the wind will exert a perpendicular force on  a spinning cylinder. It requires a modest power to rotate the  cylinder but, by harnessing the wind, yields much more propulsive power than is put in.  Such ships do not need big crews. A couple of cargo ships  using this were built in the 1920s, but at that time they proved uneconomic in comparison to diesel. Given that diesel ships have improved a lot since then,  they remain uneconomic in the absence of controls on the use  of fossil fuels.4

Another possibility is that nuclear energy, long used in  warships, might be applied to cargo vessels. There is no doubt  that it works, and can drive ships very fast. But there is a big  difference between operating it in an environment where cost  is no object and you have highly trained crews, and using it  in a commercial ship. Of the four experimental atomic cargo ships, Savanah(US),  Otto Hahn(German), Mutsu(Japanese) and Sevmorput(Soviet) only  the last was a sucess. Cost, reliability and safety considerations  have prevented a general uptake of the technology.

So the conclusion to take from this is that the end of the fossil fuel era is likely to lead to a significant increase in shipping costs. They will cost more to build, more to operate, and probably be slower.

This will tend to substantially undermine the current model of globalisation. Higher shipping costs will favour local producers compared to global ones, and land links rather than sea links.



Rail freight is still heavily dependent on diesel in many countries, but electric railways are an old and well tried technology. It is expensive to put in the wires and to buy new locomotives, but running costs subsequently are similar.
Even with the current structure of electricity generation electric trains release  less carbon than diesel[7]. As the electricity generation system moves towards renewables and nuclear, this advantage will be come more pronounced.  Electrification tends to be high in countries like China where the railways are state
owned and planned and low in countries like the USA where the infrastructure is private.

China’s rail transport volume is one of the highest in the world, having a 93 000 kilometer-long network of which 46 000 km is electrified (Ministry of Railway, China, 2012). The rate of electrification increased gradually: in 1975 it was only 5%, by now it is about 40% as a result of a conscious central planning. (Juhász et al. [2013])

In contrast, only 1% of the US network is electrified. We discussed earlier how, in capitalist economies, high capital intensive industries have a low rate of profit, which discourages investment in them. The contrast between the US and Chinese railways is a particularly stark example of this. The electrification of the railways in large countries like the US is technically feasible as China shows, but it is held back by private ownership. Thus the need to convert to electric trains will tend to favour the replacement of private with public railways.

The percentage of freight carried by train may well rise, because in the absence of of diesel engined lorries, long distance trucking is likely to be unviable. The best electric heavy lorries have a range of only 100km and take several hours to charge. The goods transport system is likely to have electric trucks being used only for final delivery within cities5

For urban transport, electric cars with lithium batteries are certainly a viable replacement for fossil fuel ones. There are questions associated with the long term availability of lithium for the batteries[12]. If the whole world were to attain the current European levels of car ownership, and these all used lithium batteries, it is questionable whether world lithium resources are sufficient, but that is a relatively extreme projection of future use. Gaines et al. [2009] on more modest projections of future car use, conclude that lithium resources are unlikely to be a big constraint.

Lithium is very geographicaly concentrated with the top 4 producing countries having 90% of world reserves. In the event of it being used in all cars, these countries would be in a position to gain rent revenues analogous to the leading oil producers today. On the whole though, these are likely to be smaller than the oil rents in the current world economy, because a) lithium can be recycled, b) unlike oil it will not be a primary energy source.

There are no serious engineering problems with converting the aviation industry to
use non fossil fuels. Liquid hydrogen is a viable alternative fuel[11,[4]. It
has a much better energy to weight ratio than existing fuels. Its main drawback is that it is much less dense, meaning that a substantial part of the fuselage volume would have to be given over to fuel tanks. Designs exist for modified Airbus and Boeing jumbo[17] jets powered by it. The Boing design had the upper deck extended the length of the fuselage and entirely filled with liquid hydrogen tanks. In 1988 Tupolev actually built a modified Tu155 that flew on hydrogen[16], the back part of the passenger cabin having to be occupied by the fuel tank.


Screenshot from 2017-04-18 10-27-30

Figure 4: Airbus design study for hydrogen fuel, from Contreras et al. [1997]


Screenshot from 2017-04-18 10-29-01


Figure 5: Tu155 modified for hydrogen use in 1988. Note that much of the passenger space is sacrificed. This was fitted with only one hydrogen engine, if all were using hydrogen then the tank would have been bigger.


Although the conversion is possible, it will come at the cost of more expensive flights.  Because the fuel is so bulky, the aircraft will be able to carry fewer passengers than  a conventional one of the same size. The fuel is also more expensive. Although photo voltaic electricity is begining to rival fossil fuel electricity in lifetime costs, this does not imply that hydrogen produced by electrolysis from solar power is as cheap as kerosene.

Producing electricity from oil proceeds thus:

a) oil(40% efficient)→ electricity

Producing hydrogen by electolysis starting with oil fuel progresses thus:

b) oil(40% efficient)→ electricity (70% efficient)→ hydrogen

Because of the thermodynamic loss in electrolysis. If we substitute this with photovoltaic we have

c) photovoltaic electricity (70% efficient)→ hydrogen

The hydrogen or kerosene aviation fuel then has to be turned into motive power

d) aviation fuel (40% efficient)→ motive power for flights

Suppose photovoltaic electricity costs the same as process a. That means that photovoltaic electricity is of the same cost as flight motive power in process (d) where the aviation fuel is kerosene. But if we have to generate hydrogen and then burn it in a turbine, the overall subsequent efficiency is 70% × 40% = 28%.
So even if photovoltaic electricity is as cheap as fossil fuel electricity, as a source of aviation fuel it will still be more than three times as expensive as kerosene.

Lower passenger capacity and lower thermodynamic efficiency mean that cost per passenger mile will rise substantially.

Overall then we have a series of changes which adversely affect transport, and which, taken together undermine the current basis of globalisation. They shift costs to favour more local production and will make the outsourcing of industry to low labour cost
areas somewhat less viable. 
If we combine this with the demographic changes which are going to slow the expansion of the world labour force, then one of the main factors which, this last half century, has worked to undermine the position of labour relative to capital will stop working.


Charles J Altenburg.
Design Considerations for aluminium hull structures.
Ship Structure Committee US Coast Guard, 1971.

[2]Englen A Azizov.
Tokamaks: from a d sakharov to the present (the 60-year history of
Physics-Uspekhi, 55 (2): 190, 2012.

[3]Peter J Baxter, M Kapila, and D Mfonfu.
Lake Nyos disaster, Cameroon, 1986: the medical effects of large
scale emission of carbon dioxide?
BMJ, 298 (6685): 1437-1441, 1989.

[4]A Contreras, S Yigit, K Özay, and TN Veziroglu.
Hydrogen as aviation fuel: a comparison with hydrocarbon fuels.
International Journal of Hydrogen Energy, 22
(10-11): 1053-1060, 1997.

[5]David Edgerton.
Shock of the old: Technology and global history since 1900.
Profile books, 2011.

[6]Linda Gaines, Paul Nelson, et al.
Lithium-ion batteries: possible materials issues.
In 13th international battery materials recycling seminar and
exhibit, Broward County Convention Center, Fort Lauderdale, Florida
page 16, 2009.

[7]Moshe Givoni, Christian Brand, and Paul Watkiss.
Are railways climate friendly?
Built environment, 35 (1): 70-86, 2009.

[8]Peter E Glaser, Owen E Maynard, JJR Mackovciak, and EI Ralph.
Feasibility study of a satellite solar power station.
Technical report, NASA, 1974.

[9]Bart Hendrickx and Bert Vis.
Energiya-Buran: the Soviet space shuttle.
Springer Science & Business Media, 2007.

[10]Mattias Juhász, Tibor Princz-Jakovics, and Tünde Vörös.
What are the real effects of rail electrification in hungary?
In European Transport Conference 2013, 2013.

[11]C Koroneos, A Dompros, G Roumbas, and N Moussiopoulos.
Advantages of the use of hydrogen fuel as compared to kerosene.
Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 44
(2): 99-113, 2005.

[12]Duncan Kushnir and Björn A Sandén.
The time dimension and lithium resource constraints for electric
Resources Policy, 37 (1): 93-103, 2012.

[13]Stuart Licht, Hongjun Wu, Chaminda Hettige, Baohui Wang, Joseph Asercion, Jason
Lau, and Jessica Stuart.
STEP cement: solar thermal electrochemical production of CaO without
CO 2 emission.
Chemical Communications, 48 (48):
6019-6021, 2012.

[14]Zhu Liu, Dabo Guan, Wei Wei, Steven J Davis, Philippe Ciais, Jin Bai, Shushi
Peng, Qiang Zhang, Klaus Hubacek, Gregg Marland, et al.
Reduced carbon emission estimates from fossil fuel combustion and
cement production in China.
Nature, 524 (7565): 335-338, 2015.

[15]Karl Marx, Salomea W Ryazanskaya, and Maurice Dobb.
A contribution to the critique of political economy.
Progress Publishers, 1978.

[16]Hans W Pohl and Valentin V Malychev.
Hydrogen in future civil aviation.
International journal of hydrogen energy, 22
(10-11): 1061-1069, 1997.

[17]Robert O Price.
Liquid hydrogen—an alternative aviation fuel?
International journal of hydrogen energy, 16
(8): 557-562, 1991.

[18]Vaclav Smil.
Two prime movers of globalization: the history and impact of
diesel engines and gas turbines
Mit Press, 2010.

[19]T Christopher Smout.
A century of the Scottish people, 1830-1950.
Collins London, 1986.

[20]Detlef P Van Vuuren, Elke Stehfest, Michel GJ den Elzen, Tom Kram, Jasper van
Vliet, Sebastiaan Deetman, Morna Isaac, Kees Klein Goldewijk, Andries Hof,
Angelica Mendoza Beltran, et al.
Rcp2. 6: exploring the possibility to keep global mean temperature
increase below 2 c.
Climatic Change, 109 (1-2): 95-116, 2011.

[21]Ernst Worrell, Lynn Price, Nathan Martin, Chris Hendriks, and Leticia Ozawa
Carbon dioxide emissions from the global cement industry 1.
Annual Review of Energy and the Environment, 26
(1): 303-329, 2001.


1Data from US Energy Information Administration, Annual Energy Outlook Report 2015.

2 Licht et al. [2012] claim that their proposed STEP process would actually be cheaper than the current method of cement production. But their costings depend on operating the process at a higher temperature at which the outputs would be CO and O2 rather than elemental carbon and oxygen. They then propose to sell the carbon monoxide as a feedstock for plastic production. But this process would not be carbon neutral, as part of the plastics would eventually end up being burned and entering the air.

3I recall my grandfather describing to me the sight of one of these ships in the
20s. At the time I could not understand how it could work.

4Restrictions on fosil fuel for ships may first come as bans on the use of high sulfur oil. The threat of this has alone been enough to spur the revived experimental work on wind power.

5 This is similar to the model of delivery that existed in the UK in the period immediately after nationalisation of the railways and road transport in 1948. Railways for long distances, small trucks for
final delivery.

The articulation of forms of economy, Causes of the sexed wage gap


1  Modes of economy

The Marxist starting point on these questions comes from three classical sources, the section in the communist manifesto on the abolition of the family, the analysis of the value of labour power in Capital[Marx(1887)], and the work of Morgan[Morgan(1907)] and Engels[Engels and Hunt(2010)] on the family. The Manifesto alludes in a very brief way to the aim of abolishing the family and creating a ‘community of women’, but the meaning of this is not immediately apparent from the text. To understand the implications one has to refer to the pre-existing communist literature of the day and to infer conclusions from the later works.

1.1  Basic concepts

The methodological premise of historical materialist investigation is set out in the preface to [Engels and Hunt(2010)].

According to the materialistic conception, the determining factor in history is, in the last resort, the production and reproduction of immediate life. But this itself is of a twofold character. On the one hand, the production of the means of subsistence, of food, clothing and shelter and the tools requisite therefore; on the other, the production of human beings themselves, the propagation of the species. The social institutions under which men of a definite historical epoch and of a definite country live are conditioned by both kinds of production: by the stage of development of labour, on the one hand, and of the family, on the other.

A key point that Engels wanted to emphasise, drawing on Morgan, was that monogamous marriage is a late historical invention. The aboriginal form of human sexual relations was general promiscuity within a band or horde. Natural selection operating at the group level then favoured groups or tribes who adopted successively more elaborate rules prohibiting consanguineous sex, since such rules against incest improved genetic fitness of the group. Promiscuous sex is replaced by various forms of group marriage: groups of ‘brothers’ marrying groups of ‘sisters’ who are not their sisters.

The development of first horticulture, and then plough agriculture then leads via forms of matriarchal marriage to patriarchal polygamous or monogamous marriage. The programmatic interest of Engels in what would otherwise seem arcane works of ethnology comes down I think, to his and Marx commitment way back in 1848 to the abolition of the family as it then exists. This is why he is so enthusiastic about Morgan’s discovery that group marriage was a general predecessor to modern marriage forms. Not only did this prove that contemporary marriage was just one of multiple possible forms; it suggested that just as society was, as the communists maintained, destined to move from primitive communism via class society to a future communism, so would marriage move from group or matriarchal family forms, via monogamy and private property, back to a future system of group sexual relations.

Morgan and Engels views have been controversial, and there has been a strong social pressure for writers to project back contemporary monogamy and patriarchy onto the distant paleolithic past. But the argument that pre-agricultural societies had much more promiscuous sexual relations than post agricultural ones can be supported by modern reseach. [Ryan and Jethá(2012)] collect data from anthropology, primate behaviour and sperm competition theory to argue that Morgan’s basic hypothesis of aboriginal promiscuity is right. But although with Engels the methodological point the importance of production and reproduction is hammered home, there are still a couple of key concepts that are missing and either developed by or made explicit by later Marxists. These are the concepts of combinations of modes of production and the concept of domestic or patriarchal economy otherwise called the domestic mode of production. [Lenin(1965)] described the modes of production or forms of economy in revolutionary Russia as follows:

Let us enumerate these elements:

(1)patriarchal, i.e., to a considerable extent natural, peasant farming;

(2)small commodity production (this includcs the majority of those peasants who sell their grain);

(3)private capitalism;

(4)state capitalism;


Lenin was concerned to chart a political strategy of political class alliances in a society characterised by several forms of economy. This concept was developed and popularised in [Rey(1973)]. Although Rey is little known to English readers, his ideas ( sometimes misattributed to Althusser ) are crucial and have had an influence on other thinkers.

[Sahlins and Economics(1972)] developed the concept of the domestic mode of production to describe early economies, and Delphy [Delphy(1980),Delphy and Leonard(1984)] develops the concept of the coexistence of the domestic mode of production with capitalism in her studies of French patriarchal families, particularly peasant families. The idea of the domestic mode of production or domestic economy is examined in greater depth by the Marxist anthropologist Claude Meillassoux[Meillassoux(1981)] who says:

Neither feudalism, nor slavery, even less capitalism, know such regulating and correcting built-in mechanisms governing the process of reproduction. On the contrary, in the last analysis, we find that all modem modes of production, all classes of societies depend, for the supply of labour-power, on the domestic community. As for capitalism, it depends both on the domestic communities of the colonised countries and on its modem transformation, the family, which still maintains its reproductive functions although deprived of its productive ones. From this point of view, the domestic relations of production can be considered as the organic basis of feudalism, slavery as well as of capitalism or bureaucratic socialism. None of these forms of social organisation can be said to represent an integrated mode of production to the extent that they are not based on homogeneous relations of production and of reproduction.[Meillassoux(1981),p. xiii]

The domestic mode of production in the feudal period was the real base of the economy. Peasant households grew food, milled grain, cooked it, spun wool, wove it and out of this fed themselves, clothed themselves and raised the next generation. Since this could typically be done in say 3 days labour a week, that left 3 other days during which they could work, unpaid, in the manorial economy. With the liberation of the peasantry in France from feudal dues, the surplus time could be devoted to producing cash crops to sell on the market. This was the incipient state of the domestic peasant economy when Lenin wrote A Tax in Kind.

Inside the domestic economy there is, Delphy argues, a class antagonism between patriarchs on the one side and on the other side wives and to an extent older children. The patriarchs exploit their wives and children. The wives and children provide labour which yields goods which are partly consumed on the farms, and partly sold on the market. The property relations ensure that the product from the sales of these commodities belong to the male head of household. In addition, the patriarchs typically did fewer hours work a week than their wives. This is not from a historical materialist standpoint women’s oppression, that it too liberal and vague. It is an exploitative class relationship built into the production and property relations.

In the stage of patriarchal commodity production, the patriarchs have a direct interest in their wives bearing children. Children, in a period before compulsory schooling, are an additional labour force to be exploited on the farm from an early age. The pro-natalist ideology of Catholicism, with its accompanying emphasis on pre-marital chastity for girls, is a pretty direct ideological expression of these production relations.

As capitalist industry developed the number of use values produced within the domestic economy started to decline. First went milling as water and wind mills replaced querns. This was well under way in the late feudal period. Next spinning and weaving as factory production of cloth took over by the mid 19th century. Home manufacture of clothes, extended by home sewing machines lasted until the mid 20th century. But production of people continued unabated. So much so that the domestic economy characteristically produced a surplus population that migrated to towns to become wage workers. This stage constituted Lenin’s second economic form : petty commodity producing peasant farms. It was also the dominant economic form over much of the US countryside at the same period.

Expanding capitalist industry required an ever greater labour force, and got it cheap. The wage rate paid did not have to be sufficient to fully recompense the cost of reproducing the next generation, since the patriarchal domestic economy was the main source of supply of labour. This is still the case in India for example.

Marx termed the supply of workers from the countryside the latent reserve army of labour. Latent, because the reserve population was hidden but present, to be called to the colours when industrial cycle goes through an expansionary phase. But this latent reserve army eventually dries up. Once the latent reserve starts to be exhausted real wages have to rise to fully cover the cost of reproducing labour power. [Kuczynski(1946)] argued that it was not until almost a century after the start of the industrial revolution in Britain tha this stage was reached in the 1870s.

2  Domestic and market economy

Working class families are a partial transformation of the old domestic economy. They still produce people, but they do no longer produce any other commodities, and the children they produce have a quite different economic significance to the family. In the rural patriarchal family the children were, within a few years, useful workers who contributed to the family income. In the first phase of industrialisation, families would hire out their children as young factory workers. But soon capitalist industry required an educated workforce. Compulsory schooling followed. Children now became a cost not an asset. The work of child rearing lasts longer, without the income in kind or cash that kids once brought.


Figure 1: Characteristic capitalist law of population. Developed capitalism suppresses fertility below reproduction requirements. Illustration is the historical trend of German birth rate. From [Michael J. Kendzia(2012)].


Children remain necessary to society, and as a future source of labour power, they are an obvious necessity for employers, but the family now raises them in what amounts more to a social duty conditioned by ideological expectations, than an internal economic necessity. The inevitable consequence of this has been a decline in family size: a falling birth rate. As Fig 1, shows for Germany, the tendancy is for birthrate to fall below reproduction levels. Similar trends exist for other developed countries. Capitalist countries like the US with substantial immigration from predominantly agricultural countries show higher fertility due to the delayed transformation of family forms.


Table 1: Time use of Canadians by sex. Note: Averaged over a seven-day week, for population 15 and older. Source: Statistics Canada, General Social Survey, 2005, Catalogue no. 12F0080XWE. Last modified: 2009-09-08.
Males Females
hours per day hours per day
total 24 24
Total work 7.8 7.9
 Paid Work and related activities 4.7 3.1
   Paid work for employer 4.2 2.8
   Commuting 0.4 0.3
 Unpaid work in domestic economy 2.7 4.2
    Household work and related activities 2.3 3.8
    Child care 0.3 0.5
Civic and voluntary activities 0.3 0.4
Education and related activities 0.5 0.6
Personal Care 10.4 10.8
  Night sleep 8.2 8.4
  Meals (excl. restaurant meals) 1 1
  Other personal activities 1.2 1.4
Free time 5.7 5.3


In patriarchal domestic economy the labour wives and children are directly exploited by the husband. Their labour contributed directly to his property. The development of capitalist society gives women equal rights to property and eliminates most of the productive activity in the household. Both sexes are now forced to sell their labour power, something that neither did in the old patriarchal family. For both sexes the working day is divided into working hours they sell to an employer, and hours that they continue to work in the domestic economy. If we take Canada as an example, because it publishes excellent statistics on time use, we can see from Table 1 that whilst total working hours for men and women are almost exactly the same, the way these hours divide between work in the domestic and market economes are in reciprocal proportions for men and women. For men it divides [3/2] in favour of the market economy, whereas for women the ratio market/domestic is only [2/3]. The important thing to note however, is that whilst we would conventionally say that Canada is a capitalist economy, the time use statistics show that it is only at most 50% capitalist. Half the work done each day is still done in the home, and a signicant part of the paid work, particularly that done by women[Morissette et al.(2013)Morissette, Picot, and Lu], is done for the state not for private firms, and as such generates no profit.


2.1  Gender pay inequality

Now let us look at how the interaction of the domestic and capitalist modes of production affects the position of women in paid employment.

In 2005, the year that Table 1 covers, average male hourly pay was $ 23.41 and average female pay was $ 19.96[Morissette et al.(2013)Morissette, Picot, and Lu].Taking into account the difference in hours worked that means that on average a Candian woman earned only a little over half as much money per day as men.

Gender Paid hours Pay rate Daily earning
per day
Female 2.8 19.96 55.89
Male 4.2 23.41 98.32

It is obvious that the biggest factor affecting daily earnings of women was the shorter number of hours for which they sold their labour power. But that left a gap in pay rates to explain. Let us take what a prominent organisations speaking for women says. The Canadian Womens’ Association1 gave the following reasons for the gap.

  1. First, traditional  women s work  pays less than traditional men s work.  As one researcher notes: ” Female-dominated job classes are often seen as not being skilled because the tasks are related to domestic jobs that women were expected to carry out for free in the home. ”
  2. Second, most women workers are employed in lower-wage occupations and lower-paid industries. Women work in a narrower range of occupations than men and have high representation in the 20 lowest-paid occupations. About two-thirds of the female work force are concentrated in teaching, nursing, and health care, office and administrative work, and sales and service industries. Women aged 25 to 54 accounted for 22% of the Canada’s minimum-wage workers in 2009, more than double the proportion of men in the same age group.
  3. Another reason for the wage gap is that more women than men work part-time. About 70% of part-time workers in 2013 were women, a proportion that has remained steady for three decades. Women working part-time or temporary jobs are much less likely to receive promotions and training than those in full-time jobs.

    Women work part-time for several reasons, including lack of affordable child care and family leave policies, along with social pressure to carry the bulk of domestic responsibilities. These factors make it more likely for women to have interruptions in employment, which has a negative effect on income.

  4. A large portion of the wage gap remains unexplained and is partly due to discrimination. An estimated 10-15% of the wage gap is attributed to gender-based wage discrimination

This appears as a good surface account of the difference but it begs some questions. Why does traditional womens work pay less?

Surely that is just using the gender wage gap to explain the gender wage gap?

The same circular reasoning is present in point 2. If there is a gender wage gap, it follows that any industry with a high portion of women will have relatively low wages compared to an industry with a high portion of men. So this is again circular and can not get to the cause of the gap.

Point 3 is the only real causal explanation, related to the role of women in the domestic economy and a reason why they have difficulty getting out of that economy. Point 4 is merely saying that there is some unexplained difference and that this must by this definition be discrimination. But what causes this discrimination. Employers would like to reduce the wages of all employees. The question is why they are more successful in holding down womens’ wages?

Figure 2: Canadian real wages for men and women. Source [Morissette et al.(2013)Morissette, Picot, and Lu]


Look at Figure 2, it is clear from this that the historical trend has been for the wage gap to decline. There was a 20 year period from the mid 1980s during which men’s wages were static and during which women’s wages rose. We need to explain first why a gap exists at all, and then why the gap has changed with time.

[Morissette et al.(2013)Morissette, Picot, and Lu,table 4] examine the change in the gap by doing multi-factorial analysis against union membership, marital status, tenure of job, education and occupation. Taking all factors into account they could explain about 38% of the decline in the wage gap. The three most significant explanatory variables were union membership, educational status and occupation. Changes in union membership by men and women accounted for 11% of the decline in the wage gap(see Table 3).

Women in Canada are now more unionised and better educated than men, reversing the previous situation. Women typically have been in their job slightly longer than men again reversing the situation that used to hold and whilst both men and women are more likely to be employed in health or government services which have been growth sectors of the economy (Table 2).


Table 2: Change in statuses for Men and Women, Canada. [Morissette et al.(2013)Morissette, Picot, and Lu,table3]
Men Women
1998 2011 Change 1998 2011 Change
Workers aged 17 to 64
Average tenure (months) 102.2 99.9 -2.3 94.2 101.3 7.1
Percent with a university degree 19.4 24.6 5.2 20.4 29.9 9.5
Percent unionized 33 29.7 -3.3 31.3 33.1 1.8
Percent in health occupations 1.5 1.9 0.3 8.9 11.7 2.8
Percent in occupations in
 social sciences, education,
 and government service 5.2 5.3 0.1 11.2 14.5 3.3

[Morissette et al.(2013)Morissette, Picot, and Lu] have as summary conclusion:

Although women today still earn relatively less than men on average, the gender hourly wage gap decreased significantly over the last three decades. Relative to men, women increased their productivity-enhancing characteristics at a faster pace than men did.


Table 3: Explanation of change in wage gap according to [Morissette et al.(2013)Morissette, Picot, and Lu]


Change Percent of gap explained
Age 0.002 -2.8
Education -0.006 10.5
Province 0.003 -4.6
Union status -0.006 11.4
Marital status -0.001 1.3
Tenure -0.004 7.3
Occupation -0.01 18
Industry 0.002 -2.8
Total portion explained -0.021 38.4
Portion unexplained -0.035 61.6

This account depends on the idea that wages are determined by productivity. That is to say it follows the textbook neo-classical idea that wages are set by the marginal product of labour and that the wage contract is an equal non-exploitative one. But even if we accept this, which obviously Marxian economists do not, they are only able to account for 38% of the change. They are left with 62% unexplained.

The statistical analysis in Table 3 focuses on things where there are only minor differences between men and women and leaves out the one big thing that differentiates them, womens’ greater participation in the domestic economy.

Now look at Figure 3 and compare it with Figure 2, and you can see that they look pretty similar. As the womens share of the workforce rises their wage rate as a percentage of mens wages rises. In fact the correlation between the two series is 90.9%. That means that only 9.1% of the change in the wage gap needs to be explained by other factors: for instance union membership.

This strongly suggests that should men and women end up working equal number of hours the wage gap will either be eliminated or slightly reversed in Canada; taking into account womens’ higher unionisation and better education.

Figure 3: Canadian employment rates of women and men, 1976 to 2009. Source Statistics Canada, Labour Force Survey, online catalogue entry 89-503-X.



3  Exploitation and the wage gap

But what are the obstacles to a higher rate of women participating in the workforce?

The key point is that a set of activities are still performed within the domestic economy, and of those women do more than men ( Table 1). The domestic economy still organises a part of the work necessary for social reproduction. This work still needs to get done. Basically there are three ways that womens’ workload in the home can be reduced: (1) a larger share of housework has to be done by men; (2) the productivity of labour in these tasks has to rise; (3) the same tasks have to move out of the domestic economy.

3.1  Division of domestic labour


Table 4: Comparison of hours housework in 1998 and 2008 in the respective editions of Time Use of Canadians.


Year Mens’ hours Womens’ hours Ratio
housework per day housework per day m/f
1998 2.4 4.1 0.58
2008 2.7 4.2 0.64

There was a previous edition of Time use of Canadians in 1998. By comparing it with the 2008 edition we can see if, over a decade there was a change in the housework done by men and women. As Table 4 shows the share of housework done by men did rise modestly over the 10 years, but this did not reduce womens’ housework, since both men and women did more of it. If women were actually doing more housework in 2008 than in 1998, how did their participation in paid work rise ?

Because they worked longer paid hours too!

So men doing more housework only frees women of it, if the total amount of housework remains constant.


Table 5: Relative rates of exploitation of Men and Women in Canada 2011. s/v indicates rate of surplus value. Data derived from Statistics Canada, Income and Expenditure Tables, Statistics Canada, Labour Force Survey, and Figure 2.


(1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7)
(2)/(1) Av Av Av Av
wages surplus s/v Male wage Female wage Both value created
$ 766B $ 497B 0.65 $ 25.03 $ 21.85 $ 23.48 $ 38.72
s/v 0.55 0.77 0.65


Christine Delphy. The main enemy. Gender Issues, 1 (1): 23-40, 1980.

[Delphy and Leonard(1984)]
Christine Delphy and Diana Leonard. Close to home: A materialist analysis of women’s oppression. Hutchinson, 1984.

[Engels and Hunt(2010)]
Friedrich Engels and Tristram Hunt. The origin of the family, private property and the state. Penguin UK, 2010.

Jürgen Kuczynski. Labour conditions in Great Britain, 1750 to the present. International Publishers, 1946.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The tax in kind. Collected Works, 32: 329-365, 1965.

K. Marx. Capital, Vol. 1. The process of production of capital. Trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling, Ed. F. Engels. Moscow: Progress Publishers. URL (accessed December 2007): Marx/Engels Internet Archive http://www. marxists. org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1, 1887.

Claude Meillassoux. Maidens, meal and money: Capitalism and the domestic community. Cambridge University Press, 1981.

[Michael J. Kendzia(2012)]
Klaus F. Zimmermann Michael J. Kendzia. Celebrating 150 Years of Analyzing Fertility Trends in Germany. Forschungsinstitut zur Zukunft der Arbeit, 2012.

Lewis Henry Morgan. Ancient society; or, researches in the lines of human progress from savagery, through barbarism to civilization. H. Holt, 1907.

[Morissette et al.(2013)Morissette, Picot, and Lu]
René Morissette, Garnett Picot, and Yuqian Lu. The Evolution of Canadian Wages over the Last Three Decades. Statistics Canada, 2013.

Pierre Philippe Rey. Les alliances de classes: Sur l’articulation des modes de production: Suivi de Matérialisme historique et luttes de classes. F. Maspero, 1973.

[Ryan and Jethá(2012)]
Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá. Sex at dawn: How we mate, why we stray, and what it means for modern relationships. Harper Collins, 2012.

[Sahlins and Economics(1972)]
Marshall Sahlins and Stone Age Economics. London, 1972.



File translated from TEX by TTH, version 4.08.

Critique of ‘the social construction of sex’

1  Introduction

There has been a controversy  on Facebook recently over whether sexual dimorphism is a conserved mamalian trait or a specific social construct in contemporary human society.

Those arguing that it is a social construct cited [Brown(2014)] as an authority. I will in what follow briefly critique the contents of the paper, but first one may ask why bother to deal with this argument at all?

Surely its basic claim is so at variance with the biological sciences that it can be ignored. That would be the case were left wing publications not taking this type of argument seriously. Misunderstandings on these issues have consequences in terms of how marxists frame long term political programmes about the future organisation of society. They also express the ideologies, social being and contemporary interests, of particular groups in in society whose social position inhibits them from being able to put forward a general programme for the progressive restructuring of family relations and family forms. So in a second section I will touch on these topics.

Another reason to deal with it though is to illustrate just how remarkably low the scientific standards of what can now pass as marxist social theory are. The contrast between the standards of evidence that Brown aduces to back a case, and those that were used by Marx, Lenin or Kautsky is striking.

2  The critique

2.1  Brown’s argument

Brown set out to critique the concept that there exists a socially constructed system of male and female gender superimposed on an underlying biological distinction between males and females. Brown wants to argue against the academic view that

Sex, on the other hand, is claimed to be innate, based on immutable biological factors. This view still upholds an essential maleness  and  femaleness  Males have penises, females have vaginas, females develop breasts and the ability to bear children, males do not, or so it goes, but it is acknowledged that gender expression may not be tied to these characteristics in a rigid way.

In evidence against this Brown says that of the methods used by the medical profession to determine sex : chromosomes, genitals, gonads, hormones and secondary sexual characteristics, all show some variation within each given sex. And that because of this variation, the distinction between male and female is, Brown claims, invalid and purely a social convention.

When we consider all five of these criteria, it becomes clear that a majority of humanity does not fit neatly into the  male  and  female  classifications.

2.2  Weaknesses of the case

Brown’s conclusion is not backed up by any statistical evidence from epidemiological or demographic papers to support this surprising claim that the majority of the population are neither male nor female. To make a valid claim Brown should have been explicit about the calculation procedure used.

The most charitable interpretation is that the conclusion is based on an underlying misunderstanding of how sex classification works. When Brown concludes that : ‘majority of humanity does not fit neatly into the male and female classifications’, the assumption is being made that to be classified as female a baby would have to have XX chromosomes, a characteristically female hormonal balance, ovaries and clearly female genitalia. Let pf be the probability that a baby fits neatly into the female classification and let ph be the probability that the hormonal test succeeds for femaleness, pg, the genital test, po the ovary test, pc the chromosome test. Brown’s hypothesis appears to be that the classification process is multiplicative thus:

pf=ph×pg×po ×pc

and that the 4 tests are statistically uncorrelated. Given the m/f sex ratio for infants is about 51/49 each of these tests would have an expected value close to [1/2] , so under these assumptions pf = [1/2]4=[1/16] and similarly for males, which would lead to the conclusion that only [1/8] of the population were clearly male or female; which would be compatible with Brown’s claim.

But of course the tests are not uncorrelated. The traits are highly correlated so it is adequate in the great majority of cases to simply carry out a genital examination.

Existing census and birth certificate data is based on nothing more elaborate than this. Using such data the literature shows that the incidence of infertility in women so classified is of the order of 10% and among men slightly less [Thonneau et al.(1991)Thonneau, Marchand, Tallec, Ferial, Ducot, Lansac, Lopes, Tabaste, and Spira]. Incidences of infertility vary geographically, for example areas where sexually transmitted diseases have a high prevalence can be significantly greater but in such areas availability of modern medicine is able to bring the rate down[Belsey(1976)]. Note that the incidence of infertility given is for all sources, genetic causes, effects of STDs, and cultural factors like the postponement of childbearing until later in life. So even on the most stringent definition of what it is to be a man or a woman : being able to either father or bear children, 90% are not only sexually differentiated but are reproductively competent.

The rest of Brown’s argument concerns the process by which male or female identity is assigned to babies with rare genetic abnormalities. XXY and XYY abnormalities occur at less than one in a thousand births[Hamerton et al.(1972)Hamerton, Ray, Abbott, Williamson, and Ducasse,Jacobs et al.(1992)Jacobs, Browne, Gregson, Joyce, and White]. It is reasonable to accept that in this, very small, congenitally reproductively incompetent population the assignment of sex as male or female is an entirely social construct. But to generalise from this clearly unrepresentative sample to the whole population would violate all normal scientific sampling procedures.

Brown’s hypothesis, that sex in humans is socially determined, although currently unsupported, is in principle testable. One could randomly select a group of neonates and perform a blinded categorisation of them as male or female. That is to say, the categoriser would be denied all knowledge of the infants’ genital morphology. They could then be brought up from birth so that they were consistently treated as belonging to their blind-assigned sex. If Brown is right, on maturity about 90% of the blind assigned females would have grown up to be reproductively competent women capable of giving birth to live offspring.

The stringent isolation and control that such an experiment would require are reminiscent of that of James IV who isolated infants on Inchkeith to see what language they would naturally speak:

The king gart tak ane dum woman and pat hir in Inchekeytht and gaif hir tua zoung bairnes in companie witht hir and gart furnische them of all necessar thingis pertening to their nurischment that is to say, meit, drink, fyre and candell, claithis, witht all wther kynds of necessaris quhilk (is) requyrit to man or woman desyrand the effect hierof to come to knaw quhat langage thir bairnes walk speik quhene they come to lauchful aige. Sum sayis they spak goode hebrew bot as to myself I knaw not bot be the authoris reherse. (Robert Lindsay cited in [Campbell and Grieve(1982)])

I do however suspect that anyone attempting to test Brown’s hypothesis would encounter difficulties with a modern scientific ethics committee.

3  The implications

Towards the end of the article Brown remarks

Readers may note that thus far, there has not been anything particularly Marxist about our analysis.

This is somewhat of an understatement. This reader noted not only that there was nothing Marxist about the analysis, there was nothing remotely scientific about it. If one looks at works of classical Marxism [Marx(1887),Engels and Hunt(2010),Lenin(1964),Lenin(1999),Kautsky(2014)] one sees clear testable propositions, explicit maths, extensive use of evidence, either original statistical ones or historical ones and scrupulous reference to these sources. These are all a standard part of scientific argument, but are missing from Brown’s paper.

Why does this matter?

First because it makes the left look silly and credulous if it accepts extraordinary propositions without strong supporting evidence. We know that humans are placentals mammals and that all such are characterised by sexual reproduction with two sexes, internal fertilisation, and lactation in females. In all placentals the same basic genetic sex determination process occurs[Ferguson-Smith(2006)]. It would be quite surprising were this to have suddenly changed in the short evolutionary span that separates us from our closest relatives. To prove this you would need a huge mass of data or a really crucial experiment.

Secondly because in the absence of scientific investigation ideology steps in instead, in this case the ideology of the transsexual community. The substitution of ideology for science is bad enough, but the substitution of the ideology of a non-reproductive group in society for Marxist analysis of gender relations is detrimental to the development of a communist programme for the transformation of family relations.


Mark A Belsey. The epidemiology of infertility: a review with particular reference to sub-saharan africa. Bulletin of the World Health Organization, 54 (3): 319, 1976.

Freya Brown. The social construction of sex, 2014. URL https://anti-imperialism.com/2014/02/24/on-the-social-construction-of-sex-part-1/.

[Campbell and Grieve(1982)]
Robin N Campbell and Robert Grieve. Royal investigations of the origin of language. Historiographia Linguistica, 9 (1-2): 43-74, 1982.

[Engels and Hunt(2010)]
Friedrich Engels and Tristram Hunt. The origin of the family, private property and the state. Penguin UK, 2010.

M Ferguson-Smith. The evolution of sex chromosomes and sex determination in vertebrates and the key role of dmrt1. Sexual Development, 1 (1): 2-11, 2006.

[Hamerton et al.(1972)Hamerton, Ray, Abbott, Williamson, and Ducasse]
John L Hamerton, Manoranjan Ray, Johanna Abbott, Christiane Williamson, and G Clement Ducasse. Chromosome studies in a neonatal population. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 106 (7): 776, 1972.

[Jacobs et al.(1992)Jacobs, Browne, Gregson, Joyce, and White]
Patricia A Jacobs, Caroline Browne, Nina Gregson, Christine Joyce, and Helen White. Estimates of the frequency of chromosome abnormalities detectable in unselected newborns using moderate levels of banding. Journal of medical genetics, 29 (2): 103-108, 1992.

Karl Kautsky. Foundations of Christianity (Routledge Revivals): A Study in Christian Origins. Routledge, 2014.

Vladimir Ilʹich Lenin. The development of capitalism in Russia, volume 3. Progress Publishers Moscow, 1964.

Vladimir Ilʹich Lenin. Imperialism: The highest stage of capitalism. Resistance Books, 1999.

K. Marx. Capital, Vol. 1. The process of production of capital. Trans. S. Moore and E. Aveling, Ed. F. Engels. Moscow: Progress Publishers. URL (accessed December 2007): Marx/Engels Internet Archive http://www. marxists. org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1, 1887.

[Thonneau et al.(1991)Thonneau, Marchand, Tallec, Ferial, Ducot, Lansac, Lopes, Tabaste, and Spira]
Patrick Thonneau, Sophie Marchand, Anne Tallec, Marie-Laure Ferial, Béatrice Ducot, Jacques Lansac, Patrice Lopes, Jean-Marie Tabaste, and Alfred Spira. Incidence and main causes of infertility in a resident population (1 850 000) of three french regions (1988-1989)*. Human Reproduction, 6 (6): 811-816, 1991.


Defence against Vault 7 attacks

In the past cyber attacks were largely carried out by amateurs or criminal gangs. Recent releases of information from Wikileaks have made it clear that a whole range of digital devices have been subverted by intelligence agencies.

More recently they have been commercialised with a market existing in the development and detection of ‘exploits’ or weaknesses. Firms advertise on their websites that they have hacks that allow them to control computers running web browsers such as the latest versions of Internet Explorer or Google Chrome.

Companies that develop these exploits then market them to NATO approved defence and intelligence agencies. In the light of the Snowden revelations it is reasonable to fear that some of the Endpoint attacks exploits in widely used products originating from big US companies like Microsoft, Apple or Google may have been developed on the basis of inside knowledge. Either they are deliberately introduced into the software, or information about the weaknesses may leak to the exploits contractors prior to their being fixed in a subsequent software release.

Government agencies like the UK GCHQ and the US NSA systematically tap communications lines and hack into Internet switches to divert data.

 Historic examples

There is of course a long history of deliberate interception of digital information by intelligence agencies. In the early 20th century the British government operated the ‘red net’, the network of British owned undersea cables connecting the world. It was labeled ‘red’ as the British Empire was marked red on the map. As telegraph and telex information passed through British territories they were systematically copied and decrypted by the intelligence service.

This control of data flows was of decisive importance to British strategic objectives. The first act of hostilities in the First World War was the dredging up and cutting of German controlled sub-sea cables. This occurred with hours of war breaking out. In consequence German diplomatic correspondence had to be encrypted and sent via neutral Holland and then through London to the rest of the world. Using this the British were able to obtain the text of the proposed secret treaty between Germany and Mexico to divide American territory in the even of war. Publication of this treaty in the American newspapers led to the USA declaring war in Germany in 1917.

Later the leaking of secret Commintern telegrams suggesting that the Commintern should support the Labour Party, were used to precipitate the fall of the first Labour Government.

Britain remains a hub for undersea cables, now fibre optic rather than electrical.

Edward Snowden has revealed that all internet communications passing from Europe to North America and on from there are systematically tapped by GCHQ. The revelation that German and other EU communications are still tapped by the UK government caused some controversy when it was revealed by Snowden.

Edward Snowden revealed that within the USA data centers and Internet hubs are linked to the NSA which carries out diversion of information flows similar to GCHQ.

The precautionary principle suggests that chat services like Facebook, Google and Skype can be assumed to be tapped at the premises of the companies running these services.

It is perhaps significant that after Microsoft took over Skype it switched the system to a server based rather than peer to peer based making it easier to tap. Peer to peer traffic does not go through a single server making tapping harder.

From the documents released by Wikileaks it has become clear that the actual encryption algorithms are still secure, but the endpoints are easily compromised. This is one of the motivations behind our proposal: if both endpoints engaging in encrypted communication are secure, it is currently impossible to decrypt the communication.

Traditional viruses  

These install themselves and then propagate copies either by email or external storage media contact ( USB sticks, SD cards, ebook readers etc ). Once installed, what they do is up to the writer of the virus.

The most sinister recent example was the Stuxnet virus, which damaged the equipment in the Iranian gas centrifuge plant. This showed evidence of having been expertly and deliberately constructed in order to produce damage, but not to the computer on which it was run, but to industrial equipment controlled by the computer.

  • The virus was transmitted via USB sticks, copying itself onto any USB sticks inserted in the machine, and copying itself from any USB stick into all machines that the stick was placed in.
  • It specifically targeted a particular type of industrial control software. If the computer it infected had no industrial control equipment it was benign.
  • If it found the equipment, the virus made equipment operate outside safe parameters. It was particularly targeted at centrifuges processing uranium hexaflouride, which were made to run slightly faster than they should, so that they would rapidly wear out.

Although it can not be proven, it is generally assumed that the virus was developed by either Israeli or US stage agencies as part of an attempt to sabotage the Iranian nuclear power programme. It is viewed by commentators as part of an ongoing covert operation that has also involved targeted assassinations of Iranian physicists.

Buffer overflow attacks  

These rely on badly written programmes running on computer A that allow messages sent from computer B to overwrite part of the subroutine linkage area in the data memory of computer A.

  • When this happens the overwriting code gains control over computer A and can install malware. The malware may be activated at some later time to produce effects similar to those due to a virus.
  • Such attacks can be launched from malicious websites.
  • Secuirty exploits in discovered popular web browsers or display programmes such as Adobe Acrobat can take this form.
  • It is important to note that a buffer overflow is a weakness even without injection of code: a buffer overflows can crash e.g. an ssh server, thus effectively resulting in Denial of Service.

Homeric Attacks  

These rely on software that is apparently benign and useful, but which may contain secret malware. They are modelled on Homer’s myth of the giant horse built by the Greeks as a gift to the King of Troy. Typically the malware then copies confidential information from the infected computer to computers controlled by the producer of the malware.

  • The most notorious source of these are freely down-loadable utilities or apparent utilities that the user is induced to deliberately run on their computer.
  • But should government A be able to obtain collaboration from major software companies, it would be possible to introduce Trojan horse software into widely used utilities such as Email readers, word processors, PDF file readers, spreadheets etc. If these were then used by countries B and C in their government offices, then government A might be privy to the confidential reports of governments B and C.
  • In principle, it is possible to guard against this type of attack by stopping the process from communicating over the network, and many firewall products have this ability. However, in practice this is difficult because many applications exchange information with their software company to check for updates, and by blocking the communication, one stops vulnerabilities from being fixed.
  • With our proposed approach however, the need for updates largely disappears as there is much less scope for exploiting vulnerabilities.


Telephone or internet switching points. These systems fail more gracefully than power networks, but a sufficiently widespread virus attack on switching points could cause significant interruptions to traffic. Air traffic control systems

The use of malware for espionage is an obvious danger, but one has to assume that the Stuxnet virus is just one currently known exemplar of a range of similar designs that have either already been, or could soon be, developed by state cyberwar departments. These would have a wide range of possible infrastructure targets:

  • Modern atomic power stations 1. The Chernobyl accident showed that operation of nuclear power stations outside their design parameters may lead to significant adverse effects.
  • National power grids. Experience in the USA has shown that accidental overloading of a few switching points can lead to cascading failure: safety cut-outs come into operation redirecting current, causing more overloading and further cut-outs. Such cutouts induced by single accident points have led to blackouts lasting hours over substantial parts of the USA and Canada.
  • Telephone or internet switching points. These systems fail more gracefully than power networks, but a sufficiently widespread virus attack on switching points could cause significant interruptions to traffic.
  • Air traffic control systems and air defence radar systems, insofar as these have been upgraded to use modern commodity brand PCs. The hazards here are obvious.

The term ‘computer virus’ is a borrowing from medical terminology. Indeed the very idea of creating computer viruses came from a deliberate copying of biological ideas. It is not surprising that the first technical fix: anti-virus software, also borrowed from biology.

This works on the model of the vertebrate acquired immune system.

Our immune system learns to recognise pathogens and then produces antibodies to them. Our immune system learns to recognise specific amino acid sequences, or motifs, in proteins as belonging to hostile organisms, and produces anti-bodies which bind to and neutralise these proteins.

On first encounter with a new virus we have no defence ( SARS, Ebola etc). Whole races can be wiped out on contact with unfamiliar new viruses: experience of New World and island tribes on exposure to Old World viruses like colds, flu, smallpox.

Likewise, antivirus software relies on the providers of the software recognising motifs in the malicious code and thus identifying it. A software motif is a sequence of bytes invariably found in the code of a particular virus.

A brand new virus will not be detected unless it shares motifs with previous versions.

Monocultures are vulnerable  

 corn_fields blight
Healthy Blighted

Figure Monocultures are vulnerable

All organisms in a monoculture have similar genetic structure if a virus can infect one it can infect all. This is why food crops, where a single species dominates, are particularly vulnerable to infection.

A natural grassland will contain dozens of species, and the ecosystem as a whole is robust against the attack of individual microbial pathogens. A giant field of corn is vulnerable.

   Computer system monocultures

Windows PCs and Android mobile phones are two examples computer system monocultures. The equivalent to the Genome of plants in the cyber environment is the machine code of the microprocessors.

Microprocessors with the same machine code and same operating software can be infected by the same malware. But binary malware for machine code X will not infect a computer with machine code Y.

An machine code is a list of numbers with special meaning to the computer for example

code meaning
0 Load
1 Store

Machines can typically recognise hundreds of such codes. Android recognises 256. All programmes run on the system rely on having a standard interpretation of these codes. The meaning of these codes is normally fixed by the electrical circuit of the computer.

In the early days of microprocessors there were many competing code schemes from different manufacturers: Intel, Motorola, Hitatchi, National Semiconductor, Zilog etc all had their own proprietary codes. The process of concentration and monopolisation in the computer industry means that now that computers, tablets and mobile phones nearly all use just two designs of machine code: the US Intel code and the code developed by the UK ARM company. Each of these software companies has licensed their codes to chip manufacturers in other countries, who in turn sell the chips to electronics manufacturers producing final consumer and industrial products.

  • Windows, Apple and Linux computers all use the Intel machine code.
  • Nearly all smartphones and tablets use the ARM machine code.

  Virtual machine codes

Not all programmes depend directly on the raw machine code. Some use a virtual machine code that is interpreted by software rather than hardware. Some widely used virtual machine codes are those from the following US companies :

the JVM into which Java programmes are translated.
the Dalvik code that is used for Android apps.
the Postscript and subsequent PDF codes used in printers and document viewers.
the Macro code used in Word documents and Excel spreadsheets.

Whilst the existence of many hardware machine codes protects the computer ecosystem against virus spread, the proliferation of popular virtual codes makes it easier for viruses to spread.

This is because a single computer can now be infected by viruses adapted to several different codes. An Intel PC with virtual machines from Oracle, Microsoft and Adobe installed provides 4 different targets for viruses to infect.

Permuted systems

The basic approach to protecting computer ecosystems should be to create a diversity of machine codes. But this runs up against the high cost of designing computers. A country could not afford to design and build hundreds of completely different microprocessor architectures. The contemporary cheapness of computers is due to millions of identical microprocessors produced by what amounts to a sophisticated printing technology.

We propose to retain this manufacturing advantage, but to introduce as part of the hardware a  permutation unit that shuffles the machine code just before it is executed.

Permuting means re-ordering or shuffling things.

If you construct an chip device with a permuted set of meanings for its machine code no software designed for a standard chip will run on it.

code meaning Permuted meaning
0 Load JUMP
1 Store ADD
2 ADD Load

Thus no malware designed for the standard chip machine code will run on it.

It is in principle relatively easy to modify the design of a processor chip so that it incorporates a permutation unit that permutes the machine code. A sensible place to put the permutation unit is between main memory and the instruction cache, meaning that the circuit delay for permutation is only met on loading the cache rather than each time an instruction is executed.


Figure Permute unit

Suppose you have a machine whose 32 bit codewords looked like this:

field Opcode r1 r2 offset
bits 8 4 4 16

One could use two alternative permutation techniques.

  1. The simplest is to permute the order of the meanings of the opcode field as shown in our previous example. The machine has 256 possible opcodes, so a 256 element permutation table would be needed. This allows 256! different possible unique designs of machine code.
  2. Alternatively one could permute or shuffle the bits in the whole instruction words. Since there are 32 bits, this would allow 32! factorial different codes.

Clearly the first alternative is much better. Each chip would have its unique permutation table stored in non-volatile memory, allowing the permutations to be loaded as a final manufacturing step on chips that were otherwise architecturally identical, and thus run unique machine codes on each of chips coming off the production line. One might allow a facility of field programmability of the permutation table.

Suppose that such chips were available and incorporated into PCs, tablets etc. For markets where there was no particular security problem one could use devices with a null permutation. These would run the native, unpermuted machine code supported by the hardware, but would run the risk of malware infestation.

Suppose the governments of countries B and C want to secure their government ecosystem against viruses, what do they need to do?

  1. Assume that they each settle upon a specific version of Linux for their machines. Country B uses Debian and Country C Ubuntu. Each country has a server for distributing approved copies of Linux to government machines.
  2. Each country maintains a secret database that associates with a identifier of every computer it uses a unique permutation table. The unique id can be conveniently calculated as a hash function of the permutation table.
  3. When the government in country C buys a new computer it sends the machine to a depot containing ServerC . Staff at this depot construct two files: a permutation table, and a boot disk image containing a permuted copy of Linux.
  4. The permutation table is burned into a ROM on the machine and the boot disk installed in the machine.

A binary to binary translator on the server would convert the raw public Linux software to a permuted version able run on a machine with a particular permuted instructionset. A similar binary translation process would be used to provide periodic software upgrades. In this case it would be necessary for the client machine to send its unique identifier when requesting a software upgrade.


  • ‘Species barriers’ prevent the spread of viruses among the machines of either country B or country C.
  • Buffer overflow attacks launched from country A against either B or C will fail as the introduced malware would not be a valid programme and so would cause an immediate crash on visiting the malicious website in country A. To guard against buffer overflow attacks that could bring down the entire system, the communication stack will be implemented in hardware.
  • Homeric attacks would only be possible if malware was introduced into the source code of the Linux images used by the servers in B and C. The governments would have to insist that software was only mounted on the servers whose source code was:
    • Openly available
    • Had been subjected to inspection to attempt to detect obfuscated malware. This route could not be completely closed, but the ease by which such homeric attacks could be carried out would be much less.
    • Did not contain interpretive code. This is harder to ensure since so many contemporary Linux utilities depend on interpretive code. The consequence would be that the range of software supported on these machines would be strictly limited to a relatively small range of essential utilities.
  • It is not difficult to envisage a similar schema being applied to a range of smart phones which could be distributed with an appropriate permuted operating system.

Why law of value really applies in socialist economies

The term law of value has exoteric and esoteric meanings. The exoteric or superficial meaning is that in capitalist type economy, relative labour values will act as an attractor for relative prices. The more esoteric meaning is that the distribution relations in all societies are constrained by the distribution of labour. In a capitalist economy the great branches of production subsist by trade and their respective revenues have at least to be roughly proportional to the populations that they support.

New Harmony Utopian community designed by Owen

New Harmony Utopian community designed by Owen

Although in a socialist economy the great bulk of the economy is publicly run, the distribution of the population accross sectors of the economy continues to exert an influence as does the fact that the population still live in households. This may seem an unexceptional observation, but communist organisations that grew up within previous class societies dispensed with the household as an institution. Think of a monastic community or Owen’s New Harmony. In such householdless communities there would be no personal property as opposed to community property. Food preparation, was communal, and childcare was either abolished as in monastic orders, or carried out communally. But if you have households then private property of the household is distinct from community property. Since the composition and consumption needs of households differ, it is impractical to give all households a uniform ration of goods. An old couple would have little need for children’s shoes or toys, for example. So a socialist economy with households has to allow some flexibilty in consumption, which they have achieved by distributing a portion of people’s income in money. In principle they could have used something other than coins and notes. They could have kept social credit accounts or labour accounts for people, but in all cases, many goods for household consumption would have something very like a price.

In a socialist society then, with households, how does the esoteric aspect of the law of value, the underlying constraint posed by the social division of labour, express itself?

1.1  Intersectoral relations

I shall divide the socialist economy into three sectors

  1. The production of means of production.
  2. The production of articles of personal consumption that are distributed for sale or charge to individual workers’ families. At this point it makes no difference whether the articles are sold for actual money, or against the debit of a labour account.
  3. The provision of uncharged services such as education, healthcare, defence, and public infrasctucture. This is not to say that being conscripted into the army is not a charge on the conscript, but that they do not individually have to pay in cash or labour credits for their military service. Similarly education costs adult society time and resources, and costs the pupils their play time, but it is assumed that there are no school fees.

I will use the subscripts 1,2,3 to denote these sectors. Sectors 1 and 2 produce physical outputs, that is to say they are materially productive in the sense of Adam Smith’s use of the term productive. I will call the output of sector 1 machines, though it also includes all other means of production, and will use the symbol m, in lowercase to indicate a flow, for the gross output of machines and the stock of machinery and equipment used in the sectors as M1,M2,M3.

Machines wear out. I assume that a fraction δ of them wear out each year. So for the sectors the flow of new machines needed to simply stand still is given as δM1,δM2,δM3. If the economy is growing there will be some surplus flow of machinery over wear and tear, set asside for growth, which I will call mg.

mg = m −( δM1+δM2+δM3)

I will assume that the working population is P divided into P1,P2,P3 working in the three sectors, and that for each year of work the government credits a person with a wage of w either by paying them cash or by recording some units into their personal consumption account in a database. The state also, for budgetary purposes has to account for the usage of machinery and equipment in different sectors right down to the individual factories, hospitals etc. The accounting unit for such charging is assumed to be the same, either money, labour hours, concievably energy, as is used for personal consumption accounts. I will use c for the charging rate for a machine. This then gives the current accounting costs Ci of each sector, assuming that the government does not charge itself interest, of






The accounting costs of each sector are made up of the charge for the use of publicly owned machinery , and the payments to the people working there. The first is a charge internal to the public sector but the government has to carry out such sectoral charging if it is to make overall budgetary decisions about the scale of the sectors. The only point at which an actual sale, with change of ownership, happens is when the output of the consumer goods industry is sold to the working population. I will call this the bread or baking industry and label the total output of the industry b and the price of bread p. If we assume for the moment that there is no mechanism by which the working population can save, then we have


where t is the income tax rate. That is to say, the price of bread times the bread output equals the after tax income that the working population gets. This is their money wage but in addition they consume a social wage of education, healthcare etc provided by public sector 3. Equation 5 gives the price of bread as a function of the money wage.

It is not so obvious how the government should set the charge for machinery used by the public sector but one obvious way is to set the charge for machines at their imputed cost of production


The tax revenue plus any profit on sales of consumer goods is then used to cover the cost of the free public services and the net accumulation of new machinery


We have 7 equations 1 to 7 with 8 unbound variables mg,c,w,t,p ,C1,C2,C3. I assume that m, b, M1,M2,M3, P1,P2,P3, δ are fixed by the actual structure of activity so in principle the government could fix either the tax rate or the wage rate, but having done that, all the other variables are constrained. Let us look at options.

I will present a simple example and compare the effect of different wage and tax policies.

Sector P M output
1 4000000 250000 100000
2 6000000 250000 1000000000
3 5000000 250000 no physical output
  1. The wage is fixed at 1, this ends up equivalent to valuing things at labour values, no profit is made on the sale of consumer goods and income taxes are adjusted to meet the cost of the public services and accumulation. We end up with
    p c t income tax rev turnover tax rev
    0.0073 53.3 51% 7666570 0
  2. In this scenario income tax is held low at 10% and the price of the consumer goods have to rise to cover the shortfall in government revenue. Given that the physical output of consumer goods stays the same, the only effect of reducing income tax is to increase prices. The net effect is that the goverment raises most of its income from what can either be viewed as a tax on consumer goods, or on the profits of nationalised industry. Wages turn out to be the same, as does the charge for means of production, but consumer goods cost almost twice as much.
    p c t income tax rev turnover tax rev
    0.0135 53.3 10% 1500000 6166666

    The relative prices of machinery and bread now diverge significantly from labour values, with bread being sold at a premium due to the tax being levied on it.

The conclusion is that the extent to which a socialist government can disregard labour values is constrained by the level of income tax that they levy. If they rely on income tax for public revenue, then sectoral prices will be proportional to labour values. If they attempt to curtail income tax to a level too low to support public services, then the price of consumer goods has to be raised in what amounts to a sales tax to prevent the accumulation of purchasing power in the hands of the public, and thus suppressed inflation.

1.2   Intra sectional constraints

Even if you assume that the number of people allocated to make consumption goods does not change, that still leaves considerable flexibility in what consumer goods are made. Asume the intention is to adjust output to consumer wants as expressed by the goods they chose to spend their social credits on. What does this imply for the relative prices of goods?

Should these relative prices correspond to relative labour values?

Yes they must, for it is only under this condition that the attempted adjustments people make in their consumption will be compatible with the pre-determined number of people working making consumer goods. Suppose that one group of goods – say furniture is systematically undervalued compared to another group of goods, let us say clothes. Suppose clothes are priced at par for labour values and furniture is sold at a 50% discount with respect to its labour value. Note that it does not matter if the social credits are measured in hours or in some arbitrary currency units, there will always be some quantity of the currency that, averaged accross all prices, represents an hour of embodied labour. Consumers then attempt to shift part of their clothes consumption to furniture. Suppose they cut clothes consumption by the equivalent of 100 million hours of credits, and switch these credits to furniture. Since the furniture is being marked at a 50% discount, these 100 million hours of credits switched from clothing appear to be enough to buy furniture that took 200 million hours to make. Even if the workers who in the past worked the 100 million hours in the clothing industry were shifted to make furniture, that would not provide enough additional labour to make 200 million hour’s worth of chairs, tables etc.

More generally, if prices are not proportional to labour values, then shifts in purchases from one good to another will lead either to patterns of demand that to big to be met with the existing workforce, or if the demand shift goes from undervalued to overvalued goods, to unemployment and short time working in the consumer goods industry.