Thursday, November 05, 2015

For a sustainable steady-state society

Capital accumulation
The bottom line is that the major capitalist countries are unable to deal seriously with the problem of global warming. World capitalism is locked into the use of cheap fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. The problem of global warming can only be solved at a world-wide level. Humanity faces a huge problem and a real dilemma. To reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases we need to cut down on burning fossil fuels. Meaningful action would require fundamental changes in the way the economy and society works.

What is required — the rapid, far-reaching re-organisation of industry, energy, transport is simply not possible under capitalism. Huge amounts of human resources must be devoted into developing and improving the efficiency of renewables: solar, wind and sea power. It is also necessary to rid the system of all the duplication in production processes with its competition between similar companies and nation states. The way goods are distributed globally, the food industry being a prime example, is in need of radical deep re-organisation. But how is it possible to plan sustainably the world’s resources, production and distribution of goods and services when they are owned and controlled by an unaccountable minority elite? How is it possible to have a plan when the vast majority of the world’s people – who do all the producing, servicing and distributing – have no say in how the economy is run? Government whose task is to defend the capitalist economic system simply cannot put people or the planet before profits. To quote Noam Chomsky: “The chair of the board will always tell you that they spend every waking hour labouring so that people will get the best possible products at the cheapest possible price and work in the best possible conditions. But it is an institutional fact, independent of who the chairperson of the board is, that they had better be trying to maximise profit and market share, and if they aren’t doing that, they are not going to be chair of the board anymore.”

 For the moment, most people cannot see beyond the capitalist system. However, the fight to halt profit-driven global warming is the fight to replace capitalism with a world socialist system based on human solidarity and respect for the planet on which we live. Most are likely to dismiss this out of hand as utopian or mere socialist twaddle. In the end, though, facts speak for themselves. However well-intentioned, appeals to people to change their individual personal consumer habits - “Don’t drive a car” - bring trivial results when measured against the problem. If there’s no adequate public transportation, if there’s no adequate city planning that lets workers live close to jobs, schools, hospitals and recreation, how can they stop driving cars? Public transport systems, such as trams and trains, have been around since the late 1800s (the first underground railway, London’s Tube system, began operation in 1863). Yet, huge private vested interests have ensured that, for example, the vastly more wasteful, inefficient and polluting private motor vehicle has come to dominate the industrialised capitalist countries. Capitalism’s dependence on the private car could be replaced with the rapid proliferation of mass, free public transport systems. In time, cities will be no longer be designed around the private car, but around residential, community and work hubs linked by fast, efficient public transport.

Capitalism is a system driven by the single-minded need on the part of business for ever-greater accumulation of capital. This is why all schemes based on the hope of a no-growth, slow-growth or sustainable-growth form of capitalism are pipe dreams. As too are strategies based on a critical mass of individual consumers deciding to go “green” in order to reform the system. A “steady-state” capitalism is an impossibility. Investors and managers are driven by the need to accumulate wealth and to expand the scale of their operations in order to prosper within a globally competitive milieu. For the vast majority, the commitment to the treadmill is more limited and indirect: they simply need to obtain jobs at livable wages. But to retain those jobs and to maintain a given standard of living it is necessary to run faster and faster in order to stay in the same place.

Many in the environmental movement argue that with the right mix of taxes, incentives and regulations, everybody would be winners. Big business will have cheaper, more efficient production, and therefore be more profitable, and consumers will have more environment-friendly products and energy sources. In a rational society, such innovations would lower the overall environmental impact in terms of materials and energy used per unit of output, when substituted for more harmful technology. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a rational society. Capitalism approaches technology in the same way as it does everything else. What will generate the most profits? Whether it is efficient, clean, safe, environmentally benign or rational has little to do with it.

A plethora of “blueprints” for an ecologically sustainable world have been produced by the Greens containing logical and commonsense solutions to global warming and the general environmental crisis. They fail not because their proposals for a rapid conversion to renewable energy and the rational re-organisation of production and consumption are far-fetched. They fail because they do not accept that capitalism is incapable of bringing them into being. Only a society that places the “associated producers” at its head and at its heart can open the way for the building of a genuinely feasible sustainable society. Engels in Dialectics of Nature wrote to “regulate” our relationship with nature “requires something more than mere knowledge. It requires a complete revolution in our hitherto existing mode of production, and simultaneously a revolution in our whole contemporary social order.” Marx urged a social revolution that would abolish private ownership. Marx wrote in Capital that only “the associated producers [can] govern the human metabolism with nature in a rational way, bring it under their collective control instead of being dominated by it as a blind power”. Contrary to the assertions by some in the environmental movement, Marx and Engels were well aware of humanity’s interconnectedness with the environment, and they recognised that it was essential for socialism to be ecologically sustainable. Marx referred to capitalist farming as “an art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil” that sapped the everlasting sources of wealth — the soil and the worker. He argued in effect for the return to ecological sustainability, which had been destroyed by, and was not possible under, capitalism.

A society run by and for the “associated producers” — a socialist society — would allow people to think about, discuss and rationally plan the best way forward for both the planet and all its inhabitants. Profit will no longer dictate what is produced. Almost immediately, huge material and human resources would be released to begin to rapidly reverse problems like global warming as well making a start on ending the poverty, hunger and disease that affect billions. 

Right now, the technology is available to theoretically generate all the clean electricity we need. Combined with energy-efficiency targets throughout the economy, from the industrial level to house designs and household appliances, and socially organised recycling, greenhouse gas emissions could be not only slashed but reversed.

The marketing-driven over-packaging of products could end, saving entire forests, and banishing billions of tonnes of “disposable” but environmentally indigestible plastic fast-food containers and beverage bottles from the rubbish dumps. Inbuilt obsolescence could end, and the corporate creation of fads and fashions would become a thing of the past. No more “this year’s new model”. Products would be built to last for a very long time, and when they were due for replacement they would be as totally recyclable as possible. And as the “associated producers” build the new society, wants and needs will inevitable alter, and so too will consumption habits. Capitalism as a system thrives on the cultivation and celebration of the worst aspects of human behaviour; selfishness and self-interest; greed and hoarding; the dog-eat-dog mentality. Capitalism’s warped view of normal human interaction is summed by the Orwellian-titled unreality show, Survivor. In this twisted vision of the workings of society, the last person standing is the victor! But all societies survive — even capitalist societies — not by bumping each other off to get the cash, but by cooperating.

In a society that is organised first and foremost to work together to produce enough to comfortably ensure people’s physical and mental well-being and social security — abundant food, clothing, housing, furniture and appliances, cultural pursuits, and lifelong education and training, and healthcare — and in which technological advances benefit everybody without costing the environment, a new social definition of wealth will evolve. It won’t be measured by personal wealth, or by how much “stuff” you’ve got.


Social wealth — human development — will be not be measured by an ever-increasing consumption of goods and services, or expanding indices of “economic growth”, but in the shortening of the work day. In the words of Marx, “free time, disposable time, is wealth itself … free time … for the free development , intellectual and social, of the individual”.

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