Avoiding the Capitalist Apocalypse

Published on ZNet, by Paul Street, April 12, 2014.

… The Marxist Apocalypse That Wasn’t: … //

… The Capitalist Apocalypse That Is: … //

… The Common Ruin of the Contending Classes:  

Put all that aside for a moment, if you can, and reflect on the growing environmental catastrophe that now poses a genuine threat of human extinction in the not-so-distant historical future. Marx suggested a different and actually apocalyptic alternative to proletarian revolution in the Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”[4]

Can there by any serious doubt that “the modern economic growth” that Piketty praises for having kept “the Marxist apocalypse” at bay threatens to bring about “the common ruin of the contending classes” – indeed the ever-increasing degradation and final destruction of life on Earth – precisely because it is taking place under the command of capital? More than merely dangerous, uncomfortable, and expensive, the new weather patterns threaten the world’s food and water supplies. They raise the real specter of human extinction if and when terrible “tipping points” like the large-scale release of Arctic methane (a potential near-term context for truly “runaway global warming”) are passed. The related problem of ocean acidification (a change in the ocean’s chemistry resulting from excessive human carbon emissions) is attacking the very building blocks of life under the world’s great and polluted seas. Thanks to climate change and other forms of toxic human intervention in global ecosystems, we most add drastically declining biodiversity – a technical phrase for the massive dying off of other species – to the list of “ecological rifts”[5]facing humanity and other living and sentient beings in the 21stcentury.

The findings and judgments of the best contemporary earth science are crystal clear. As the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (UK) concluded last year: “Today, in 2013, we face an unavoidably radical future…We either continue with rising emissions and reap the radical repercussions of severe climate change, or we acknowledge that we have a choice and pursue radical emission reductions: No longer is there a non-radical option. Moreover, low-carbon supply technologies cannot deliver the necessary rate of emission reductions – they need to be complemented with rapid, deep and early reductions in energy consumption.”[6]

Sadly, however, the Tyndall scientists failed to raise the question of the deeper social-systemic cancer behind the spreading disease of human-generated climate change. The disease is capitalism[7], for whose masters and apologists the answer to the venerable popular demand for equality has long been “more.” The answer is based on the theory that growth creates “a rising tide that lifts all boats” in ways that make us forget about the fact that a wealthy few are sailing luxuriantly in giant yachts while most of us are struggling to keep afloat in modest motorboats and rickety dinghies.

As Le Monde’s ecological editor Herve Kempf noted in his aptly titled book The Rich Are Destroying the Earth(2007), “the oligarchy” sees the pursuit of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment,” and the “only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them. . . . Growth,” Kempf explained, “would allow the overall level of wealth to arise and consequently improve the lot of the poor without—and this part is never spelled out [by the economic elite]—any need to modify the distribution of wealth.”[8]

“Growth,” the liberal economist Henry Wallich explained (approvingly) in 1972, “is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.”[9]

Of course, growth is more than an ideology under the profit system. It is also a material, economic imperative for investors, managers, workers, and policymakers caught up in the disastrous competitive world-capitalist logic of what John Bellamy Foster calls “the global ‘treadmill of production.” Capitalism demands constant growth to meet the competitive accumulation requirements of capital, the employment needs of an ever-expanding global class or proletarians (workers dependent on wages), the sales needs of corporations, and governing officials’ need to legitimize their power by appearing to advance national economic development and security.[10] This system can no more forego growth and survive than a person can stop breathing and live. It is, as Joel Kovel notes, a system based on the “eternal expansion of the economic product,” and the “conver [sion of] everything possible [including the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil and plants] into monetary [exchange] value.”

“The Earth we live on,” Kovel notes, “is finite, and its ecosystems have evolved to accommodate to that finitude. Therefore, a system built on endless growth is going to destroy the integrity of the ecosystems upon which life depends for food, energy, and other resources.”[11]

Consistent with this harsh reality, the system’s leading investors have invested massively in highly wasteful advertising, marketing, packaging and built-in-obsolescence. The commitment has penetrated into core processes of capitalist production, so that millions toil the world over in the making of complex electronic (and other) products designed to lose material and social value (and thus to be dumped in landfills) in short periods of time.[12]

Along the way, U.S. capital has invested huge amounts of fixed capital in the existing fossil fuel-addicted energy system – “sunk” capital investments that make giant and powerful petrochemical corporations and utilities all too “rationally” (from a profit perspective) resistant to a much needed clean energy conversion. As leading environmental author and activist Bill McKibben explained in his 2010 book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet:

“Sunk costs…it’s a phrase we need to know if want to understand why all the big companies are not jumping aboard the clean energy train. The journalist Paul Roberts figured earlier in the decade that ‘the existing fossil fuel infrastructure, from power plants and supertankers to oil furnaces and SUVs,’ is worth at least $10 trillion, and scheduled to operate anywhere from ten to fifty more years before its capital costs can be paid off. If we shut it down early, merely to save the planet, someone will have to eat that cost. Given such ‘serious asset inertia,’ no owner or investor in a power plant is likely to accept the write-down without a ‘nasty political fight’” (emphasis added).[13]

Everything Else We’re Talking About: … //

… (full text and endnotes).

(Paul Street is the author of many book. His latest: They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy, Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2014).


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