Biological Utopianism?

Biological Utopianism

Robin McKie provides an interesting insight into arguments about the value of heritage in an article about the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew (Observer, 13 July 2014, page 3). He describes a campaign led by the renowned zoologist Jane Goodall to reverse cuts to State funding for the Gardens. These cuts may lead to the loss of up to 125 professional staff members (no mention by the way of people such as cleaners, cooks, waiters and other service workers). She describes the cuts as ‘stupid’ and is backed by Sir David Attenborough, a former trustee.

The director, Richard Deverell, on the other hand, accepts that there will be job losses but believes the cuts can be managed in the long run. He believes that by next year ‘we will have found new ways to raise money’. In this regard he cites retailing, catering income, consultancy work and ‘exploiting and selling our scientific knowledge, our intellectual property and our horticultural skills’. Much of this strategy is evident on the website.

One of the campaigners, the broadcaster Anna Ford, also a former trustee, makes the interesting opposite point, stating that ‘botanical science is not a product to be sold. It is a reciprocal relationship.’ What a fascinating comment on the operations of the capitalist system!

The Gardens began as a private enterprise by Lord Capel John of Tewkesbury and quickly gained royal patronage via the Dowager Princess of Wales in 1761. Largely as a result of campaigning by the Royal Horticultural Society, the Gardens were adopted by the State around 1840. In 2003, the Gardens were given World Heritage status by UNESCO. State funding is controlled by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. It is partially managed and advertised as a tourist attraction, in much the same vein as major national museums and galleries. As such it is as vulnerable to budget cuts as any other body funded by the State or local authorities and arguably no more important or valuable than any of them.

The problem for campaigners is that their argument is, within the confines of the capitalist system, unsustainable and utopian. They argue from what is a basically sane proposition that what characterises the Gardens is their ‘use value’, their intrinsic value. However, it is the absolute demand of capitalism that all ‘use value’ be sold as a commodity in the market to realize the ‘exchange value’ and any profit thereby accruing. In this way the value of the labour expended, whether by scientists, gardeners, cleaners or catering staff, can be realised and returned to the enterprise, or its owner, as cash, re-invested or creamed off to buy yachts and apartments in Cannes. Not that that would happen in this instance: rather there would be more money to spend on things like Trident missiles or paying fat salaries to directors keen enough to do their masters’ bidding in return for an enhanced CV and who knows what eventual honours.

It could be argued that asking the State to restore £5 million of funding is asking the State to make a capital investment in producing even more surplus value than can be accrued through existing resources. That, strangely enough, would be a normal capitalist activity and not allowed to the State by free market ideologists. But that is not what the campaigners are arguing. Instead they are asking for Kew to be placed in a privileged position vis á vis other State funded enterprises, arguing a special international status. Their argument is therefore elitist, unless they make the next step of arguing that all cuts to State funding of cultural, educational and social welfare budgets should be reversed. That does not seem to be what they are saying.

Jane Goodall is right that the cuts are stupid. Anna Ford is right in her statement about the true value of the resources and work done at Kew. But this does not stop with one form of culturally and socially useful labour and their products. The logical consequence of the argument advanced by Anna Ford is an end to the insanity of the capitalist system and its infantile obsession with money as the measure of all value.

When it is argued that ‘botanical science is not a product to be sold’ it is no more and no less than a version of the statement: ‘from each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs’. That is how free creativity and exchange would occur in a sane world, not in the madness that afflicts us in 21st century globalised capitalism.

However, in the absence of real and meaningful change, the least we can do is to sign their petition, I suppose. But let’s try to move on from ‘stop the cuts’ to bringing about a more sane society, rather than tinkering with one that is ethically, and in every other respect, bankrupt.



2 thoughts on “Biological Utopianism?

  1. Thanks Martin, for drawing this to my attention. The destruction of the biosphere by global capitalism is the most important problem affecting us. The reason I am a Neo-Luddite. Amidst all the more immediate, visible suffering of people it doesn’t seem a priority to most, even on the left,

    Life, Liberty and Love Alan

    Date: Sun, 13 Jul 2014 13:55:07 +0000 To:

    • It has been a priority for me since the 1960s, when I first read about the level of ecological destruction at that time and a powerful analysis of how technological solutions do not exist (the author was Paul Ehrlich, I think). I had many an argument with ‘green reformists’ at the time that there is a deeper problem: the social relationships we are obliged to work within by capitalist society, now thoroughly globalised. That is what will have to change first, or we are all ‘bound for hell in a handcart’. I hope my article, in its perhaps clumsy use of Marxist analysis of ‘value’, gets that across. I would not describe myself as a ‘neo-Luddite’ (being wary of labels of any sort), but I do agree that the world has become lemming-like in its pursuit of technological and managerial fixes to the point of social blindness and collective insanity. We need to regain our essential humanity and I guess ‘Life, Liberty and Love’ is a good prescription of what we need!

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