Article - "the problem is capitalism" May 9, 2019 12:57:24 GMT
Post by robinsonjeffers on May 9, 2019 12:57:24 GMT
Environmentalist writer George Monbiot has recently published an article The Problem is Capitalism.
This article is interesting in that it is simultaneously dead right and dead wrong. Monbiot points out that
First...it is the system, rather than any variant of the system, which drives us inexorably towards disaster. Second, that you do not have to produce a definitive alternative to say that capitalism is failing. The statement stands in its own right. ....Capitalism collapses without growth, yet perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity....A system based on perpetual growth cannot function without peripheries and externalities. [sic] There must always be an extraction zone, from which materials are taken without full payment, and a disposal zone, where costs are dumped in the form of waste and pollution. As the scale of economic activity increases, until capitalism affects everything from the atmosphere to the deep ocean floor, the entire planet becomes a sacrifice zone: we all inhabit the periphery of the profit-making machine.
This is entirely true. Capitalism depends on growth to sustain itself, thus it inevitably perpetuates ecological devastation. However, this is something hardly unique to capitalism. While Monbiot acknowledges that "There is no going back: the alternative to capitalism is neither feudalism nor state communism. Soviet communism had more in common with capitalism than the advocates of either system would care to admit" he massively understates the common thread of growth running through all systems - Capitalism and Soviet style Socialism are both wholly dependent on growth (indeed socialism is even more growth dependent than capitalism) but every economic model that has existed since the dawn of civilization has created economic growth. Even feudal economies grew, albeit slowly, and with a much greater proportion of that growth being in the form of population growth. Monbiot attempts to fudge the issue saying "So what does a better system look like? I don’t have a complete answer, and I don’t believe any one person does. But I think I see a rough framework emerging....I believe our task is to identify the best proposals from many different thinkers and shape them into a coherent alternative" essentially he appeals to a set of entirely untested theoretical proposals, and insists these can be implemented on a global scale in time to stop the climate crisis and other ecological emergencies.
The fundamental problem facing any possible zero growth economy however, is ensuring everyone plays fair. If one private company tries to keep production at its current level it will be out-competed by its rivals who adopt the latest technology to raise output. If one nation manages to adopt a steady sate economy, other states will leave it in the dust. (there's a reason the relatively static feudal nations of China and Japan were overrun by western powers after the industrial revolution turbo-charged the west's economy) In other words a zero growth economy would have to be imposed globally, and to ensure no-one was ever tempted to vote for greater short-term prosperity it would have to be imposed by a global dictatorship. Leaving aside the undesirability of such a scheme, there is one other problem - it wouldn't work. There is no way such a green dictatorship could come to power worldwide in the next few decades, and even if it did its leaders would soon lose interest in their "higher" goals and simply try to enrich themselves by resuming civilization's usual process of ecological destruction. Witness how soon it took for the Soviet regime to lose sight of its egalitarian ideals.
What then is the answer? Rather than place all our hopes on utopian pipe-dreams we can look to history. As documented in Ian Morris' book Why the West Rules For Now every civilization, as it has grown, has come up against a series of ecological barriers. When it has hit these, one of two things have happened. Either the civilization has developed new, more efficient means of powering itself, or it has collapsed. If the former has happened then the civilization grows past its old barrier, causes more ecological damage and eventually meets a new barrier, where the process repeats itself. If a civilization fails to push through the barrier, however, then it falls back to a less "developed" - and thus less destructive - state. Examples of this include the late Bronze age collapse, and the simultaneous fall of the Western Roman and Chinese empires. European civilization after the fall of Rome and the decline of Byzantium did not reach the same level of complexity until the seventeenth century, where it again pushed up against the same limits the Romans faced. This time however we discovered fossil fuels and broke through the limits placed upon our civilization, until we hit a new barrier, in the form of the present climate crisis and other ecological threats. If we develop the technology to see of this threat, then no matter what our economic system may be, our civilization will continue to grow, just as it has done since its inception. It will continue to grow and destroy until it meets a new crossroads, and a new, larger crisis. Since the present ecological crisis threatens a mass extinction what future damage we may be capable of scarcely bears imagining.
The problem then is not "capitalism" however bad that system may be. The problem is civilization, and the answer is not tinker with the economic system but to prepare for a collapse.