Published online 10 April 2010.
Since neither we nor our legislators plan to do anything about it, and since our adherence to progressive ideology apparently outweighs our willingness to exercise our power, it is time to state with determination where this is all going to hit bottom. The ecological dilemma of a society dependent upon not-so-cheap and not-so-clean oil provides a starting-point for my argument that the capitalist system has reached a cul-de-sac. In this respect, predominant policy initiatives anticipate a post-capitalist world in which an elite of special interests uses government as a gatekeeper for public access to limited slots in a relatively tiny consumer society.
(Conversation continued at Docudharma)
As reported in Firedoglake last week, the progressive cave-in on “health insurance reform” anticipates a whole series of further legislative “victories” in which the corporate stranglehold upon government is tightened. The first, as Jane Hamsher admirably points out, will be “climate change legislation,” or “clean coal legislation” or whatever it will be called when the majority in Congress is finished triangulating it “so as to receive 60 votes in the Senate” or whatever the excuse du jour is at legislative crunch time.
Meanwhile, as also reported in Firedoglake, the Republican Party, the object of all that triangulation (see: “bipartisanship”), has declared its new cause: a revival of the Confederacy. So what will they imagine next, as they attempt to pull away that 5% of Republican voters with a propensity to vote Democrat now and then? Forget that war of position we’ve lost — we have demographics to think about!
Sure, practically everyone on this site wants prosperity of some sort — a revival of the old populist Keynesianism — but it’s not going to happen without some widespread, popular “pushback” against the existing momentum of the system. Firstly, you have the financial elite’s reluctance to disturb a system in which it is claiming an increasing share of the total economic pie. As John Bellamy Foster points out:
The ruling class and its state — not just in the United States but also in the entire advanced capitalist world — have no answer to economic stagnation but renewed financialization. So fast is finance growing at present while the “real economy” (i.e. production) is in shambles that fears are expressed in the financial press every day of the development of a gargantuan bubble that will burst sooner rather than later.
Moreover, a return to a populist Keynesian growth economy faces an additional hurdle. Ian Welsh adds:
It is not, and will not be possible for the US to have an actual good economy for any length of time, or even at all (as opposed to a mediocre economy) until the oil bottleneck is broken.
Of course, the established financial interests are going to claim their “due,” as Saudi Arabia did before Copenhagen. It’s hard to see, moreover, how developing “alternative energy” (but leaving the capitalist system in place) is really going to change the equation. As Foster and Magdoff point out, all of the “proposals for the ecological reformation of capitalism” (look halfway down the page) are corporate scams, which will lead us back again and again to a reconsideration of the central dynamic at work in the crisis: the contradiction between a growing capitalist system and the finite resource capacities of planet Earth.
“Alternative energy” under the conditions of the current system will postpone the day of reckoning, while the intelligentsia (acting as keepers of the flame of progressive ideology) cede the field. To quote Foster and Magdoff again:
There are some people who fully understand the ecological and social problems that capitalism brings, but think that capitalism can and should be reformed. According to Benjamin Barber: “The struggle for the soul of capitalism is…a struggle between the nation’s economic body and its civic soul: a struggle to put capitalism in its proper place, where it serves our nature and needs rather than manipulating and fabricating whims and wants. Saving capitalism means bringing it into harmony with spirit—with prudence, pluralism and those ‘things of the public’…that define our civic souls. A revolution of the spirit.” William Greider has written a book titled “The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy.” And there are books that tout the potential of “green capitalism” and the “natural capitalism” of Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins. Here, we are told that we can get rich, continue growing the economy, and increase consumption without end—and save the planet, all at the same time! How good can it get? There is a slight problem—a system that has only one goal, the maximization of profits, has no soul, can never have a soul, can never be green, and, by its very nature, it must manipulate and fabricate whims and wants.
There are a number of important “out of the box” ecological and environmental thinkers and doers. They are genuinely good and well-meaning people who are concerned with the health of the planet, and most are also concerned with issues of social justice. However, there is one box from which they cannot escape—the capitalist economic system. Even the increasing numbers of individuals who criticize the system and its “market failures” frequently end up with “solutions” aimed at a tightly controlled “humane” and non-corporate capitalism, instead of actually getting outside the box of capitalism.
It is important to look at this larger quote in context. The belief that capitalism somehow has a “soul” which has been corrupted by neoliberal hegemony over the past thirty years is probably motivated by a nostalgia for the old era of Keynesian capitalism, the ’50s and ’60s, when the capitalist system may have appeared to have gained a “soul” because of its support for government programs to alleviate poverty. Meanwhile capitalism has moved on — as I’ve said above, the attempt to resurrect Keynesian capitalism will confront elite indifference and resource limitations, while as Simon Johnson tells us:
And so, despite what the FBI has rightly called an “epidemic” of mortgage fraud, with 80% of the losses arising when industry insiders are involved in the losses, not a single senior officer of a major nonprime lender has been arrested (much less convicted) of mortgage fraud or securities fraud.
And as gjohnsit tells us:
JP Morgan and HSBC control between 85% and 100% of the futures market for gold and silver. That’s a monopoly by any definition, and it can smash down the price whenever it wants to as long as a large percentage of the traders don’t take physical delivery.
Thus at this point the capitalist system exists increasingly to facilitate Ponzi schemes, all of which will end with the domination of the perpetrators who have bought off government. Would you like to guess where it will all end up?
The mainstream intelligentsia, as I’ve pointed out above, have not envisioned post-capitalism. Instead, they long for the good old days of the 1950s and 1960s, when capitalism appeared to have a soul. At that time, the profit motive (acting in concert with the competition for “development” between nation-states) appeared to require an economy with a “middle class” of consumers. Today neither the national nor the global economy really needs to produce enough to do more than preserve the positions of national elites, for said elites profit through Ponzi schemes and by using government as a “client.” So why does capitalism today need a “soul,” i.e. consumers? Answer, it doesn’t.
Instead, it appears that the capitalist system will at some point, perhaps a couple of decades from now, replace itself, leaving the eco-capitalist intelligentsia behind. What will be the form to come? Well, neither the financial elites nor their political handmaidens will need any real economic competition, so one can expect that aspect of the economy to dwindle to nothing. What they do need, however, is privilege — and so we can expect a vast expansion in the market for Ponzi schemes, fraud, legal bullying, and other means by which a privileged class can extend its privileges to all of its “buddies” at the expense of the vast majority of the population.
They won’t need “economic growth” — the lessons of the Great Recession, with Goldman Sachs profits at record highs in a year in which the global economy contracted by 2%, will not be lost upon the financial elites in the second crash. “Economic growth,” moreover, would expose the oil bottleneck which Ian Welsh pointed out, as well as exacerbating abrupt climate change, the implosion of oceanic and rainforest ecosystems, and other ills of the capitalist system. No “economic growth,” moreover, will allow the elites to claim that “capitalism” is congruent with “decreases in fossil-fuel emissions,” which should please the eco-capitalist intelligentsia to no end.
They also don’t need education — education served the ’50s and the ’60s, the heyday of capitalism, as both a buttress to the economy and as the primary advertised means of social class advancement (besides ascending the corporate ladder) in the United States. Once upon a time, moreover, America’s vast educational systems, both in terms of public school and of college and university systems, were imagined to be the bulwark of the military-industrial complex, which continues to maintain bases around the world at great cost to the taxpayers. Today, however, in light of Federal inaction in the face of bankrupt state governments (California being the most prominent example), and in light of further Republican pushes to reduce the tax “burden” on the richest of America’s citizens, one can see for oneself the truth to which Richard D. Vogel points: “Public education is now in decline in much of the world.” At some point the capitalist system will be replaced at some point by a money-based caste system, a sort of state-capitalism-in-reverse if you will, and nobody will know — the intelligentsia having been bought off, and everyone else having lost access to education systems.
What do you want to do about it?
I suppose that what you want to do about it depends upon how much of this scenario you wish to believe. Do you really think that you can just elect “more and better Democrats” to the point where they will all suddenly renounce the “Washington Consensus” and bring back the growth economy of the 1960s? You’ve already dismissed the arguments I’ve made (see above) against the likelihood of such an occurrence?
A public readership which thought as I did would look to a multifaceted approach: candidates where they can recognize the situation for what it is, educational campaigns where they would be effective, direct action where useful. The end of such activity would be a livable post-capitalism — a world-society after capitalism in which the people-as-a-whole would have some say in the direction of the economy.
But I’m not going to put words into anyone’s mouth.