Saturday, December 01, 2018

Understand capitalism to understand climate change

Murray Bookchin points out in ‘Remaking Society’ that human beings are both a part and a product of nature; that humans do have a unique significance in nature since they are the only life-form capable of reflective thought and so of conscious intervention to change the environment. It is absurd to regard human intervention in nature as some outside disturbing force since humans are precisely that part of nature which has evolved that consciously intervenes in the rest of nature; it is our nature to do so. It is quite true that at the present time the form human intervention in the rest of nature takes is upsetting natural balances and cycles, but the point is that humans, unlike other life-forms, are capable of changing their behaviour.

 If humans have a "place" in nature, says Bookchin, it can only be to consciously intervene not just to meet their needs but also to ensure nature's balanced functioning; in this sense, the human species is the brain and voice of nature, nature become self-conscious. But to fulfil this role humans must change the social system which mediates their intervention in nature.

 Bookchin is explicit enough on what this change must be: a change from capitalism  to a "community where each contributes to the whole to the best of his or her ability and takes from the common fund of produce what he or she needs":

"The earth can no longer be owned; it must be shared. Its fruits, including those produced by technology and labour, can no longer be expropriated by the few; they must be rendered available to all on the basis of need. Power, no less than material things, must be freed from the control of the elites; it must be redistributed in a form that renders its use participatory."

 Bookchin goes on to say:
"To substitute words like industrial society for capitalism can thus be misleading . . . To speak of an 'industrial society' without clear reference to the new social relations introduced by capitalism, namely wage labour and a dispossessed proletariat, often wilfully endows technology with mystical powers and a degree of autonomy that it does not really have. It also creates the highly misleading notion that society can live with a market economy that is 'green', 'ecological', or 'moral', even under conditions of wage labour, exchange, competition and the like. This misuse of language imputes to technology - much of which may be very useful socially and ecologically - what should really be directed against a very distinct body of social relationships, namely, capitalistic ones."

Derek Wall, one-time a Green Party co-spokesperson in the days before they had a Party Leader, explained in ‘Getting There - Steps to a Green Society:
 "The use of what is useful and beautiful must be pursued, while exchange values must be rejected. . . . The rejection of exchange values is essential to reducing resource consumption and human alienation."

Environmentalists accepting that capitalist production should continue have diminished the credibility of their best aspirations. Worse, they are now diverting concern over desperately serious problems into a political dead-end which can only have the effect of delaying real solutions.

The underlying principle behind the changes needed to take proper account of the ecological dimension is that the productive system as a whole should be sustainable for the rest of nature. In other words, what humans take from nature, the amount and the rhythm at which they do so, as well as the way they use these materials and dispose of them after use, should all be done in such a way as to leave nature in a position to go on supplying and reabsorbing the required materials for use. In the long run, this implies stable or only slowly rising consumption and production levels, though it does not rule out carefully planned rapid growth over a period to reach a level at which consumption and production could then platform off. A society in which production, consumption and population levels are stable has been called a "steady-state economy" where production would be geared simply to meeting needs and to replacing and repairing the stock of means of production (raw materials and instruments of production) required for this.

It is obvious that today human needs are far from being met on a world scale and that fairly rapid growth in the production of food, housing, and other basic amenities would still be needed for some years even if production ceased to be governed by the economic laws of capitalism. However, it should not be forgotten that a "steady-state economy" would be a much more normal situation than an economy geared to blindly accumulating more and more means of production. After all, the only rational reason for accumulating means of production is to eventually be in a position to satisfy all reasonable consumption needs. Once the stock of means of production has reached this level, in a society with this goal, accumulation, or the further expansion of the stock of means of production, can stop and production levels be stabilised. Logically, this point would eventually be reached, since the consumption needs of a given population are finite. So if human society is to be able to organize its production in an ecologically acceptable way, then it must abolish the capitalist economic mechanism of capital accumulation and gear production instead to the direct satisfaction of needs. The function of the working class is to apply its labour power to natural resources for the object of profit and capital accumulation. Thus oil, coal, natural gas, metals, the land, seas, forests and atmosphere function economically for the object of capital accumulation. 

This is the system which many environmentalist activists want to perpetuate. The kind of world environmentalists aspires towards where society could make definite decisions about how best to provide for needs and then be free to implement those decisions outside the economic constraints imposed by capitalism can be only achieved through the success of the world socialist movement. It is inconceivable that the life of world society can achieve equilibrium with nature unless it first achieves unity and common purpose within its own organisation.

The fatal error of many greens is in thinking that an envronment-sympathetic government will enable their aspirations to be advanced. The problem does not resolve itself solely as a question of who runs capitalism. The continuation of capitalism on its blind and uncontrolled course is a gamble on the conditions of life itself and expectations of governments implementing policies that will end the destruction of the world eco-system is a losing bet. This is surely within the understanding of anyone seriously concerned about ensuring a stable balance of natural systems in which humanity can enjoy being part of nature.

1 comment:

Tim Hart said...

A great summary of capitalism's role in the destruction of the planet and how socialism would be different. But this revolutionary transition needs somehow to factor in the urgency to have practical relevance.