Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Eco-socialism

 Terminology is important to discussion and bandying words around without fully comprehending their meanings won’t be fruitful. Capitalism is the social system under which we live. Capitalism is primarily an economic system of competitive capital accumulation out of the surplus value produced by wage labour. As a system it must continually accumulate or go into crisis. Consequently, human needs and the needs of our natural environment take second place to this imperative. Capitalist investors want to end up with more money than they started out with, but why? Is it just to live in luxury? That would suggest that they aim of capitalist production was simply to produce luxuries for the rich.

Capitalism is an ever-expanding economy of capital accumulation. In other words, most of the profits are capitalised, i.e. reinvested in production, so that production, the stock of means of production, and the amount of capital, all tend to increase over time ( in fits and starts). The economic circuit is thus money - commodities - more money - more commodities, even more money. This is not the conscious choice of the owners of the means of production. It is something that is imposed on them as a condition for not losing their original investment. Competition with other capitalists forces them to re-nvest as much of their profits as they can afford to in keeping their means and methods of production up to date. As a result there is continuous technological innovation. Defenders of capitalism see this as one of its merits and in the past it was insofar as this has led to the creation of the basis for a non-capitalist society in which the technologically-developed means of production can be now—and could have been any time in the last 100 years—consciously used to satisfy people’s wants and needs. Under capitalism this whole process of capital accumulation and technical innovation is a disorganised, impersonal process which causes all sorts of problems—particularly on a world-scale where it is leading to the destruction of the environment.

The result is waste, pollution, environmental degradation and unmet needs on a global scale. The ecologist’s dream of a sustainable ‘zero growth’ within capitalism will always remain just that, a dream. 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.

CLICK READ MORE TO CONTINUE 


Capitalism differs from previous class societies in that under it production is not for direct use, not even of the ruling class, but for sale on a market. To repeat once more, competitive pressures to minimise costs and maximise sales, profit-seeking and blind economic growth, with all their destructive effects on the rest of nature, are built-in to capitalism. These make capitalism inherently environmentally unfriendly. Under capitalism, there is a very large industry devoted to creating needs. Capitalism requires consumption, whether it improves our lives or not, and drives us to consume up to, and past, our ability to pay for that consumption. In a system of capitalist competition, there is a built-in tendency to stimulate demand to a maximum extent. Firms, for example, need to persuade customers to buy their products or they go out of business. They would not otherwise spend the vast amounts they do spend on advertising.

 Endless “growth” (even if in fits and starts) – and the growing consumption of nature-given materials this involves – is built in to capitalism. However, this is not the growth of useful things as such but rather the growth of money-values .If, as a politically active environmentalist or campaigner for social justice, one’s answer to the question is that they are, indeed, mutually exclusive (that capitalism, in whichever manifestation, is in its very essence inherently unsustainable), then one’s only morally consistent response is to devote one’s political activities to the overthrow of capitalism.

But the picture of capitalism is still not complete. It is possible to envisage such an economy on paper. Marx called it “simple reproduction”, but only as a stage in the development of his argument. By “simple reproduction” he meant that the stock of means of production was simply reproduced from year to year at its previously existing level; all of the profits would be used to maintain a privileged, exploiting class in luxury. As a result the circle keep on repeating itself unchanged.

The problem for many in the Green movement is that they want to retain the market system in which goods are distributed through sales at a profit and people’s access to goods depends upon their incomes. The market, however, can only function with a constant pressure to renew its capacity for sales and if it fails to do this production breaks down, people are out of employment and suffer a reduced income. It is a fundamental flaw and an insoluble contradiction in the Greens argument that they want to retain the market system, which can only be sustained by continuous sales and continuous incomes, and at the same time they want a conservation society with reduced productive activity. These aims are totally incompatible with each other. Also what many Green thinkers advocate in their various version of a “steady-state” market economy, is that the surplus would be used not to reinvest in expanding production, nor in maintaining a privileged class in luxury but in improving public services while maintaining a sustainable balance with the natural environment. It’s the old reformist dream of a tamed capitalism.

Marx’s materialist conception of history makes the way humans are organised to meet their material needs the basis of any society. Humans meet their material needs by transforming parts of the rest of Nature into things that are useful to them; this in fact is what production is. So the basis of any society is its mode of production which, again, is the same thing as its relationship to the rest of Nature. Humans survive by interfering in the rest of Nature to change it for their own benefit. A lot of environmental activists are wrong to see this interference as inherently destructive of nature. For sure, it might do this, but there is no reason why it has to. That humans have to interfere in nature is a fact of human existence. But how humans interfere in Nature, on the other hand, depends on the kind of society they live in. 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. 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. In this sense the human species is the brain and voice of Nature ie. Nature become self-conscious. But to fulfil this role humans must change the social system which mediates their intervention in Nature.

 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. There is in capitalist society a tendency for individuals to seek to validate their sense of worth through the accumulation of possessions. Humans behave differently depending upon the conditions that they live in. Human behaviour reflects society. In a society such as capitalism, people’s needs are not met and people feel insecure. People tend to acquire and hoard because possession provides some security. People distrust others because the world is organized in a dog-eat-dog manner. It does not matter how modest one’s real needs may be or how easily they may be met, capitalism’s “consumer culture” leads one to want more than one may materially need since what the individual desires is to enhance his or her status within this hierarchal culture of consumerism and this is dependent upon acquiring more than others have got. But since others desire the same thing, the economic inequality inherent in a system of competitive capitalism must inevitably generate a pervasive sense of relative deprivation. What this amounts to is a kind of institutionalised envy and that will be unsustainable as more peoples are drawn into alienated capitalism. The notion of status based upon the conspicuous consumption of wealth would be devoid of meaning in socialism because individuals would stand in equal relation to the means of production and have free access to the goods and services.

Humans are capable of integrating themselves into a stable ecosystem. and there is nothing whatsoever that prevents this being possible today on the basis of industrial technology and methods of production, all the more so, that renewable energies exist (wind, solar, tidal, geothermal and whatever ) but, for the capitalists, these are a “cost” which penalises them in face of international competition. No agreement to limit the activities of the multinationals in their relentless quest for profits is possible. Measures in favour of the environment come up against the interests of enterprises and their shareholders because by increasing costs they decrease profits. No State is going to implement legislation which would penalise the competitiveness of its national enterprises in the face of foreign competition. States only take into account environmental questions if they can find an agreement at international level which will disadvantage none of them. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Competition for the appropriation of world profits is one of the bases of the present system. So it is not “Humans” but the capitalist economic system itself which is responsible for ecological problems. The capitalist class and their representatives they themselves are subject to the laws of profit and competition.

Socialists are seeking ultimately to establish a “steady-state economy” or “zero-growth” society which corresponds to what Marx called “simple reproduction” – a situation where human needs were in balance with the resources needed to satisfy them. Such a society would already have decided, according to its own criteria and through its own decision-making processes, on the most appropriate way to allocate resources to meet the needs of its members. This having been done, it would only need to go on repeating this continuously from production period to production period. Production would not be ever-increasing but would be stabilized at the level required to satisfy needs. All that would be produced would be products for consumption and the products needed to replace and repair the raw materials and instruments of production used up in producing these consumer goods. The point about such a situation is that there will no longer be any imperative need to develop productivity, i.e. to cut costs in the sense of using less resources; nor will there be the blind pressure to do so that is exerted under capitalism through the market.

It will also create a ecologically benign relationship with nature. In socialism we would not be bound to use the most labour efficient methods of production. We would be free to select our methods in accordance with a wide range of socially desirable criteria, in particular the vital need to protect the environment. What it means is that we should construct permanent, durable means of production which you don’t constantly innovate. We would use these to produce durable equipment and machinery and durable consumer goods designed to last for a long time, designed for minimum maintenance and made from materials which if necessary can be re-cycled. In this way we would get a minimum loss of materials; once they’ve been extracted and processed they can be used over and over again. It also means that once you’ve achieved satisfactory levels of consumer goods, you don’t insist on producing more and more. Total social production could even be reduced. This will be the opposite of to-day’s capitalist system’s cheap, shoddy, “throw-away” goods and built-in obsolescence, which results in a massive loss and destruction of resources.

In a stable society such as socialism, needs would change relatively slowly. Hence it is reasonable to surmise that an efficient system of stock control, recording what individuals actually chose to take under conditions of free access from local distribution centres over a given period, would enable the local distribution committee to estimate what the need for food, drink, clothes and household goods would be over a similar future period. Some needs would be able to be met locally: local transport, restaurants, builders, repairs and some food are examples as well as services such as street-lighting, libraries and refuse collection. The local distribution committee would then communicate needs that could not be met locally to the bodies charged with coordinating supplies to local communities.

We can set out a possible way of achieving an eventual zero growth steady state society operating in a stable and ecologically benign way. This could be achieved in three main phases.

1) there would have to be emergency action to relieve the worst problems of food shortages, health care and housing which affect billions of people throughout the world.
2) longer term action to construct means of production and infrastructures such as transport systems for the supply of permanent housing and durable consumption goods. These could be designed in line with conservation principles, which means they would be made to last for a long time, using materials that where possible could be re-cycled and would require minimum maintenance.
3) with these objectives achieved there could be an eventual fall in production, and society could move into a stable mode. This would achieve a rhythm of daily production in line with daily needs with no significant growth. On this basis, the world community could reconcile two great needs, the need to live in material well-being whilst looking after the planet

Marx was fond of quoting the 17th century writer Sir William Petty’s remark that labour is the father and nature the mother of wealth.

What would a society have to be like to be environmentally sustainable? Basically, according to Jonathon Porritt, well-known environmental writer this would be a society whose methods of providing for the needs of its members did not use up non-renewable resources quicker than renewable substitutes for them could be found; did not use up renewal resources quicker than nature could reproduce them; and did not release waste into nature quicker than the environment’s ability to absorb it. If these practices are abided by, then the relationship and interactions between human society and the rest of nature would be able to continue on a long-term basis – would be able to be “sustained” – without harming or degrading the natural environment on which humans depend.

We should construct permanent, durable means of production which you don’t constantly innovate. We would use these to produce durable equipment and machinery and durable consumer goods designed to last for a long time, designed for minimum maintenance and made from materials which if necessary can be re-cycled. In this way we would get a minimum loss of materials and once they’ve been extracted and processed they can be used over and over again. It also means that once you’ve achieved satisfactory levels of consumer goods, you don’t insist on producing more and more. Total social production could even be reduced. You achieve this “steady state” and you don’t go on expanding production. This would be the opposite of cheap, shoddy, “throw-away” goods and built-in obsolescence, which results in a massive loss and destruction of resources. This is something that socialism could do.

Socialists contend that these practices could be systematically applied only within the context of the Earth’s natural and industrial resources being the common heritage of all humanity under democratic control. In other words, we place ourselves unambiguously in the camp of those who argue that capitalism and a sustainable relationship with the rest of nature are not compatible. The excessive consumption of both renewal and non-renewable resources and the release of waste that nature can’t absorb that currently go on are not just accidental but an inevitable result of capitalism’s very nature.

This of course is not how capitalism operates. It is not a “steady state economy”. On the contrary, it is an ever-expanding economy of capital accumulation. In other words, most of the profits are capitalised, i.e. reinvested in production, so that production, the stock of means of production, and the amount of capital, all tend to increase over time (not in a smooth straight line, but only in fits and starts). The economic circuit is thus money-commodities-more money-more commodities, even more money. This is not the conscious choice of the owners of the means of production. It is something that is imposed on them as a condition for not losing their original investment. Competition with other capitalists forces them to reinvest as much of their profits as they can afford to in keeping their means and methods of production up to date. As a result there is continuous technological innovation. Defenders of capitalism see this as one of its merits and in the past it was insofar as this has led to the creation of the basis for a non-capitalist society in which the technologically-developed means of production can be now—and could have been any time in the last 100 years—consciously used to satisfy people’s wants and needs. Under capitalism this whole process of capital accumulation and technical innovation is a disorganised, impersonal process which causes all sorts of problems—particularly on a world-scale where it is leading to the destruction of the environment.

The fact is that for several decades the world’s capacity to produce food has far exceeded the entire human population’s need for nourishment has been well known and documented. The problem is to do with the whole basis of capitalis m. If you’ve got no money, or not enough money, you’re not part of the market. Food and farming policy has very little to do with meeting human needs, guaranteeing food security, providing high and consistent levels of nutrition and food safety. It’s all about profit: squeezing the maximum financial yield out of every link in the food chain to benefit a tiny number. This is no defence of the financial speculators but reminding ourselves that it is the system of buying and selling that results in food shortages. The poor simply do not constitute a market — there is no profit to be made out of selling food to the destitute, or from growing food for them. If the one dollar a day will not stretch to buying food, then too bad. Countries supposedly in the grip of famine hardly ever have an absolute food shortage, it’s just that the food available is sold to those who can afford to buy it or exported for consumption elsewhere. The answer to the problems that global capitalism has engendered is not another policy that would still leave intact the basic structures and mechanisms of capitalism. Capitalism operates according to the rules of “no profit, no production” and “can’t pay, can’t have” and, as the world market system, is what is responsible for the desperate plight of most of the world’s population. Before anything lasting and constructive can be done about this, capitalism has to go. It is something much more far-reaching that is required, a rapid and radical change in the basis of world society that will make the Earth’s resources the common heritage of all humanity. Too many try to control capitalism for the benefit of humanity, to humanise it. Like all reformers, they limit themselves to attacking features which they do not like and fail to realise that those features are integral to capitalism. What they are for is a more regulated capitalism. They merely want governments to intervene to try to control capitalism, to suppress its worst excesses.

Whether it is called “the market economy”, “free enterprise” or any other euphemism, the social system under which we live is capitalism. As a system it must continually accumulate or go into crisis. Consequently, human needs and the needs of our natural environment take second place to this imperative. The result is waste, pollution, environmental degradation and unmet needs on a global scale. The ecologist’s dream of a sustainable ‘zero growth’ within capitalism will always remain just that, a dream.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. Many Greens and ecologists have talked about “zero-growth” and a “steady-state” society and this is something we should be aiming at.

The problem for the ecologists is that they want this, but they also want to retain the market system in which goods are distributed through sales at a profit and people’s access to goods depends upon their incomes. The market, however, can only function with a constant pressure to renew its capacity for sales; and if it fails to do this production breaks down, people are out of employment and suffer a reduced income. It is a fundamental flaw and an insoluble contradiction in the Greens argument that they want to retain the market system, which can only be sustained by continuous sales and continuous incomes, and at the same time they want a conservation society with reduced productive activity. These aims are totally incompatible with each other. Also what many Green thinkers advocate in their version of a “steady-state” market economy, is that the surplus would be used not to reinvest in expanding production, nor in maintaining a privileged class in luxury but in improving public services while maintaining a sustainable balance with the natural environment. It’s the old reformist dream of a tamed capitalism, minus the controlled expansion of the means of production an earlier generation of reformists used to envisage.

Socialists start from a concern for the suffering of humans and look for a solution to this. This makes them “anthropocentric” as opposed to the “ecocentrism” – Nature first – of many ecologists and Greens. The plunder and destruction of Nature is rejected as not being in the interests of the human species, not because the interests of Nature come first. Nor is it true that humans as such are a pollutant. It is in identifying the causes of pollution and environmental degradation that Greens can in his view learn most from Marx. Present-day society, capitalism, which exists all over the globe is a class-divided society where the means of production are owned and controlled by a tiny minority of the population only. Capitalism differs from previous class societies in that under it production is not for direct use, not even of the ruling class, but for sale on a market. To repeat once more, competitive pressures to minimise costs and maximise sales, profit-seeking and blind economic growth, with all their destructive effects on the rest of nature, are built-in to capitalism. These make capitalism inherently environmentally unfriendly.

Very few environmentalists reject capitalism. Most Greens are in favour of some form of capitalism, generally small-scale capitalism involving small firms serving local markets and if they desire to be seen as progressive they call for “co-operatives”. An underlying philosophy that “small is beautiful” and a philosophy that leads to mistakenly blaming large-scale industry and modern technology as such for causing pollution and not the capitalist system per se.

 Murray Bookchin who has also exposed the “anti-humanism” of some Green activists argues that human beings are both a part and a product of nature and humans 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. 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.In this sense the human species is the brain and voice of Nature ie. Nature become self-conscious. But to fulfil this role humans must change the social system which mediates their intervention in nature. 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. Bookchin too is critical of those with the highly misleading notion that society can live with a market economy that is ‘green’, ‘ecological’, or ‘moral’, under conditions of wage labour, exchange, competition and the like. The framework within which humans can regulate their relationship with the rest of nature in an ecologically acceptable way has to be a society based on the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources, freed from the tyranny of the economic laws that operate wherever there is production for sale on a market

“Capitalism can no more be ‘persuaded’ to limit growth than a human being can be ‘persuaded’ to stop breathing. Attempts to ‘green’ capitalism, to make it ‘ecological’, are doomed by the very nature of the system as a system of endless growth. ” – Murray Bookchin

One of the ways in which Porritt suggests that governments could achieve a “a market-based model of sustainable capitalism” would be to force the competing enterprises to treat natural resources as if they were capital, subject to depreciation which had to be accounted for in monetary terms. He talks of “natural capital”, treating Nature as an economic category with a price-tag. Porritt complains that “we show nothing but contempt for the contribution from nature, valuing it at zero as some kind of free gift or subsidy” and that, as a result, “today’s dominant paradigm of capitalism” leads to the plundering of non-renewable resources (such as oil and minerals) and the over-harvesting of renewable ones (such as fish and forests).

This is true but his proposed solution – to take into account the non-renewed consumption of natural material as a negative amount when calculating GDP, as an incentive to cut back on it as a way of avoiding a reduction in GDP leaves the real world unchanged.

In the real world, which GDP attempts to measure, the competing enterprises would still only take into account as a cost what they had to pay for. As it costs no labour to produce natural materials (only to extract or harvest them, not to create them), whether or not they are renewed doesn’t enter into the calculation. If enterprises were forced to artificially take into account using up non-renewed natural resources in their business accounts, that would distort the calculation of the rate of profit which is the key economic indicator for capitalism. There is no way round this under capitalism, which simply cannot be remodelled or reformed on this point.

Porritt does concede that he could be wrong about capitalism and environmental sustainability and how bad it would be “to be committed to a reform agenda if the system one sought to reform was inherently incapable of accommodating the necessary changes in the first place”. This is precisely the case I have been trying to present and if being so his own conclusion must stand:

“If, as a politically active environmentalist or campaigner for social justice, one’s answer to the question is that they are, indeed, mutually exclusive (that capitalism, in whichever manifestation, is in its very essence inherently unsustainable), then one’s only morally consistent response is to devote one’s political activities to the overthrow of capitalism”.
[quotes from Porritt's Capitalism As if the World Matters]

Instead ‘The Rise of the Green Left: Inside the Worldwide Ecosocialist Movement’, by Derek Wall should be recommended reading.  On the question of the “commons”  Wall is much more on the right track when he says the key to successful eco-socialism lies in the concept of “the commons”(an everyday example of “the commons” is libraries, where items are borrowed and returned as the need arises.) The concept can be applied to whole economies.

“The commons overcomes many of the problems with traditional state socialism because it tends to be flexible and decentralised”, says Wall. “It has an inbuilt ecological principle based on the concept of usufruct, that is, access to a resource is granted only if the resource is left in as good a form as it was when first found. By extending this concept of usufruct, we can provide the basis of an ecological economy. By providing access, the commons enables prosperity without growth; if we have access to the resources we need, we can reduce wasteful duplication.”

Wall identifies the same weakness as perhaps the author of the article does when he states that bringing about that change will require intense political struggle but he also cautions about the dangers of reformism – “the political system has been better at transforming radicals than radicals have been at changing the political system”. Wall says in Western societies, Greens have abandoned their principles once in power and often ignore the working class as agents of change.

He insists activists must know economics. That requires a return not to Trotsky but to Marx and Engels. And again he adds the caveat. “There will never be a convincing blueprint for survival and socialism, of whatever shade, should not be constructed by a committee.”

The change required must be based on the socialist principles of common ownership and production solely for needs, and also the environmental principles of conserving the wealth of the planet. It is the waste of human and other resources used in the market system which adds to the problem and stands in the way of their solution. Some may claim that the proper use of market forces will solve the problem, but as time goes on the emerging and mounting facts of what is happening serve only to contradict those voices.

It is not simply about using a green” version of Marx but developing a system of production that is sustainable. Socialists seek a steady state, zero-growth world.

Capitalism cannot create such a society. Henry Waxman explained that “We found a pattern. Every time they had a decision to make they decided to cut corners; to do things faster than they otherwise should have been done; to do it less expensively and the consequence of this, as one independent expert told us, was horribly negligent…Time after time, it appears that BP made decisions that increased the risk of a blowout to save the company time or expense…BP chose the more risky casing option, apparently because the liner option would have cost $7 to $10 million more and taken longer…BP appears to have made multiple decisions for economic reasons that increased the danger of a catastrophic well failure.”

Capitalism, with its emphasis on profit and short-term considerations, provides fertile ground for accidents and disasters of various kinds. It also means that any accidents which do happen are likely to be more serious and harmful than would otherwise be the case. Cutting corners and ignoring safety matters is part and parcel of a profit-oriented system. Governmental regulation can affect the level of accidents, but the desire for profits favours the cutting of corners, so the possibility always remain. Capitalists must remain flexible enough to take risks that may brings greater rewards in the interest of profit. This competitive aspect of capitalism nullifies any real prospect of solving the problem through the law. Deepwater Horizon was just “an unfortunate accident” arising from the normal functioning of the system. And although one might think that it would therefore be natural to question and challenge a system that accepts this lunacy as “an unfortunate accident”, nothing could be further from the minds of the media.

The Possibilists regarded socialism as a progressive social process rather than an ‘all-at-once’ end. Those who regarded capitalism and socialism as mutually exclusive systems and refused to budge from the revolutionary position of what has become known as ‘the maximum programme’ were labelled as Impossibilists.

0 comments: