The foolish man built his house upon the sand, as the adage goes. And the capitalist system is a foolish creation indeed. We are currently entering the height of stupidity stage. Firstly, the System has an existential threat in the form of climate change and appears unable to do anything to combat it anywhere near fast enough. Second, we now have that frankly incredible event of a recession/maybe depression, an unbelievable time where millions of people who want to buy food/goods aren’t able to do so and millions who produce these things aren’t able to sell them.
Until just recently, when food prices fell a bit, we saw the tragic spectacle of millions of people in the third world starving while food was effectively poured into the tanks of western cars, or else accumulated in warehouses because the rising food prices meant that it was far more profitable for speculators to hoard the food until the price increased still further. The main things causing the recent price fall were the recession reducing peoples’ incomes and, worryingly, the opening up of virgin areas including the Amazon rainforest as a response to the original price rise. This is very likely to increase as the capitalists pursue the largely false “solution” of biofuels.
This is a case in point for why “market solutions” to the climate crisis simply don’t solve things, and simply act as tools for corporations to squeeze money out of governments. Biofuels were a major factor in the food price increases last year; for the most part this is due to the USA, formerly the world’s bread basket, devoting as much as a third of its grains production to biofuels. We have already seen how the response to this was the first increase in the destruction of the Amazon rainforest in several years, for example. Or why not cut out the middle man and directly slash and burn the worlds greatest carbon sink to produce biofuels to “save the planet”. This is the situation with palm oil plantations in south east Asia in particular, where the rich vegetation is razed to the ground, annihilating all sorts of wildlife in one of the most diverse habitats on Earth, the peaty soil, also a carbon sink , is mostly washed away, and the whole area is replaced with a poorly suited monoculture. Studies have shown that when these embedded emissions and non-capture of CO2 are taken into account, burning a gallon of palm oil-derived biofuel in a car emits up to 13 times as much CO2 as burning a gallon of petrol in the same car! Why should we trust these profit seekers to look after our planet simply because they are capable of looking after their own obscene piles of gold and plunder?
So to the recession. Why are we where we are now? What is collapsing is effectively an enormous pyramid scheme, built on piles of imaginary money, secured on more piles of imaginary money, secured on – yes, you guessed it – more piles of imaginary money. The whole edifice of debt and imaginary money is tumbling like a house of cards as people lose confidence. The minutae of the pyramid scheme are laid out very well in “A House of Cards” – Feldman & Gould. And in this crisis of confidence lies the truth. Money isn’t like resources. Resources – food, wood, iron etc. are tangible and finite, and they are valuable because we can use them. Money is entirely different: it is just bits of paper and metal that we imbue with value. If confidence completely collapsed tomorrow, and money became worthless (and it did come close to that in late 1920s – early 1930s Germany) the £2 coins would be worth more than the £50 notes! And the notes would be used for tinder in firelighting.
Clearly, like a children’s game, the whole illusion only stands up so long as everyone believes in it. As soon as the children become sufficiently grown up to convince the others that the game is all make-believe, they stop believing and move on. So why do we keep believing in money? Historically, there was a scarcity economy, where the productive forces were so primitive that there wasn’t enough to go around. So if someone reared 10 sheep, they were his/her property and he/she could exchange them for something of the same value. Money was invented because it made these transactions easier. But later, when machinery arrived, things changed completely. Suddenly, the products that the workers made were the property of the factory owner, who paid each worker less than the value of the goods that he had produced. Here’s where surplus value comes in; the capitalist pockets the difference. He can then pay for workers to get more and more resources, such as coal to burn at the factory, build more factories, and use more resources including labour. In this way the means of production, and the exploitation of people and the environment, both increase drastically. Right now, we have the technology and means of production for a post-scarcity economy, in the rich countries at least (and this isn’t going to trickle down while the money and capitalists are mostly in the western world). Society could just do away with the artificial construct of money, and things would improve for the majority of people. I don’t know any figures on the UK, but the Socialist Party in the Republic of Ireland have calculated that 90% of the work done in Ireland is unnecessary; basically it involves advertising, moving money around and various other things that don’t do anything to improve the population’s quality of life. So even if 90% of people stayed at home and slouched back on their sofas once money was abolished, as the tabloids will undoubtedly predict, they would still have the same standard of living as they do now!
Why is this an environmental as well as a social issue? Because the primary motivator for destroying the environment is money, usually crumbs. If people destroying the rainforest for instance weren’t starving, they wouldn’t want to do it. Its because they get given only a few pounds for felling a mahogany tree worth thousands that they have to carry on. Money is an enslaving device that starves people, degrades people and forces them to destroy the planet, all to fill the pockets of the super-rich. This is a system that hurts the vast majority of people to please an elite few. It also forces people in the rich countries to make environmentally unsound decisions. For instance, people are less inclined to use public transport if they have to keep to a strict timetable or risk losing their livelihood. Simply raising the taxes on cars will not solve this fundamental point, it will just make the poor poorer, and create resentment.
So what are the chances of capitalism solving its latest problem, the impending environmental crisis that will wipe out huge amounts of productive capacity, huge numbers of people and most of the fertile land, putting an end to the market economy as we know it? As you may have gathered, I estimate the chances to be somewhere around zero. Capitalism won’t do anything if it won’t make a profit out of it in the short term. Its environmental externalites, the unintended consequences of the economic activity, aren’t reflected at all in the goods that are bought, so it makes little sense to clean things up. CO2 emissions are of little consequence; reductions will hurt the bottom line in the short term so corporations simply play the blame game, try to spread contradictory information about the effects of their business, and sign up to inadequate targets and red herrings. The whole biofuels issue sums up how corporations pretend to be cutting CO2 emissions, while in reality emissions stay stable or even increase. The usual agent for saving capitalism from itself used to be the state, who once upon a time would use Keynesian techniques to support the economy, subsidise businesses to tide them over, and grant some of the proletariat’s demands to avoid a revolution. Today, state policy here and across the world is effectively dictated by the large corporations, the state is weaker than it has been in the recent past, and looks unlikely to deliver the drastic regulation that would be required to stop a global warming effect of more than 2C, at which point the planet is set to pay us all back for the immorality of the bourgeoisie.
So, what for the future? In the short term we have a recession, which some estimate could turn into a depression.For people across the world, this represents a serious drop in their incomes. As the production slows hugely, the poorer countries in particular will be hit hard, through export markets drying up. Those states in particular will have far less money for education, healthcare and subsidised food than the paltry amounts that they spend already, and personal incomes will drop into the bargain. This will produce mass starvation, disease and other unpleasant things. Even in Britain, the government is attempting to force people off state benefits, at a time when unemployment is rising very fast, suggesting the crisis within the government. The Brown government has suggested lots of state spending as a “solution” (partial) to the unemployment, but it involves roads, airports and nuclear power rather than railways and renewable energy. The government’s whole programme is to benefit business not people. Far from being a change, Brown is passionately devoted to this disastrous system of exploitation and greed. The recession is clearly a good excuse to put these things through while environmental campaigners are distracted by dismal prospects. Bush II is the prime example, using the last days of his presidency to allow business to basically disregard the wildlife protection laws. Mining companies can mine where they want and tip the waste into rivers, for example. SO the crisis of capitalism increases the environmental crisis.
In the longer term, we the people have to rise up and get rid of this system once and for all. I don’t pretend to know how, so I’m not going to prescribe a blueprint, and I don’t really believe in blueprints either. As the famous left communist Rosa Luxembourg predicted, capitalism will have run its course when there are no more people or resources left outside the system to be exploited. What she didn’t predict (as far as I know) is that when capitalism dies in this manner it will pull everyone else down with it.
Capitalism has always been a horrible, evil, exploitative system that thoroughly deserves to be abolished. Even if there wasn’t an environmental crisis, or, rather, several, in the making, we would still need to struggle to rid ourselves and the world of the chains of capitalism. As it is, the crisis makes it more urgent. This is near our final chance to take the future into our own hands. Beyond here, the alternative is mass death and suffering through rising sea levels and changing weather patterns. Huge numbers of people dead, millions of climate refugees, most of the fertile land, cities and productive forces flooded, not enough water to go round, and much much more. Quite possibly, history will run backwards in a way and we will be reduced to fairly Mesolithic levels, grazing sheep on the poor barren upland soils. In which case those of us who survived will be making a living by barter!
Enough of the doom and gloom now, lets try to do something about it. By all means we should campaign for the transitional demands: peace, health&education, fair-trade, CO2 cuts, habitat protection etc. But we shouldn’t forget the bigger picture; we need to try our hardest to bring down the system that causes all the problems that we are campaigning against.