Another plea for postcapitalism: Richard Smith in Truthout

Published online 17 January 2014.

The next individual to step forward to promote postcapitalism is an economic historian, Richard Smith.  His piece in Wednesday’s Truthout is called “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism?”  The question for Smith is a simple one: how is the world economy to avoid creating the conditions for catastrophic global warming?  The answer is also a simple one: capitalism won’t do the trick because it’s dependent upon economic growth, so we need to try something else.  Smith suggests, in his conclusion:

Jonathon Porrit says that “like it or not” we have to try to find sustainability within a “capitalist framework” and forget about alternatives. But if the engine of capitalist growth and consumption can’t be stopped, or even throttled back, and if the logic of capitalist efficiency and capitalist rationality is killing us, what choice to we have but to rethink the theory? Like it or not Jonathon, it’s time to abandon the fantasy of a steady-state capitalism, go back to the drawing boards and come up with a real “new macro-economic model,” a practical, workable post-capitalist ecological economy, an economy by the people, for the people that is geared to production for need, not for profit.

Now, here I would argue that, if anything, Smith’s argument is understated.  His main vehicle for this argument is to criticize Herman Daly’s assumption that we can have capitalism without destructive economic growth.  (This is, in the literature, called the “steady-state economy.”)  Let’s take a look at one of the previous arguments of his conclusion:

(The steady-state capitalists — Daly and others) call for an environmentally rational economy that conserves nature and resources for the benefit of our children and theirs instead of consuming the whole planet right now. And they call for a redistribution of wealth to those in need and for the construction of a society that is not centered on possessive individualism but is based on a decent material sufficiency for everyone on the planet together with a moral and spiritual transformation of our values away from materialism. These are admirable goals. But we can’t do any of those things under capitalism, because under capitalism, we’re all just rats racing in Paul Krugman’s cages.  We can’t stop consuming more and more, because if we stop racing, we’re all out of work.

Now, I find Smith’s attacks on the throw-away society of capitalism to be quite admirable.  But I think his whole point can be fortified greatly if we consider that it isn’t the consumers who are in control of capitalism’s wasteful properties.  Consumers aren’t driving economic growth.  Rather, capital (embodied as the corporate representatives of production) is in control, and it has to ignore nature-as-nature if it is to continue doing what it does — making nature (both human and extra-human) into something for sale.  As Jason W. Moore points out in an essay called “Ecology, Capital, and the Origins of Our Times”:

The logic of capital compels it to ignore nature as historically variant webs of life; the history of the capitalist era reveals the dynamism and degradations inscribed in this logic as it reorganizes human- and extra human nature, liberating and limiting accumulation in successive eras.  Capital’s dynamism turns on the exhaustion of the webs of life necessary to sustain accumulation; the history of capitalism has been one of recurrent frontier movements to overcome that exhaustion, through the appropriation of nature’s free gifts hitherto beyond capital’s reach.

Capital, the raison d’etre of the capitalist system, grows because it continually uses up nature.   That’s what it does.  If after two centuries of capitalist history we’re at a point where those of us who are awake are saying “omigod ecological crisis,” well that’s why.  Such a way of looking at capital, and at capitalism, should give you an idea of why “green capitalism” is not going to happen.  Oh, sure, it’s not going to happen under a Soviet-style command economy, either — but if we outfitted the state to be a commodity-producing corporation like what they did in Russia, in competition with the capitalist world, we’d get the same result as we otherwise got with corporate domination here in the US.Simply put, the capitalists are not going to turn a portion of the world into a pristine nature preserve, so a few of us can live like Bambi while they grow at cancerous rates through their capital accumulation business.  Nature will not turn out peachy if the capitalists say, “oh, never mind us as we profit off of the hard work of working people elsewhere, while they strip-mine the planet or spray it with Round-Up or whatever it is they’re doing on any particular day for an inadequate wage. Just go about your business as cute cuddly marginal green entrepreneurs in Santa Cruz or Vermont.”  Turning the world’s nice stuff into an assortment of commodities for sale is the Godzilla-like business of capitalists, or at least the big ones.  This video should give you a symbolic notion of what’s happening in the world:

So it’s as Richard Smith says in a key point of his essay, blockquoted below.  Corporations have a primary responsibility, and that is to be capital, consume nature, and produce profit.  They will embrace environmental reform as a hobby only insofar as, and as long as, it’s profitable.  But generally, they follow the logic given in Thucydides’ Melian dialogue: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”  This maxim has been updated to wit: “the strong profit and the weak are natural resources.”

I contend that both these strategies were misguided and doomed from the start because, as Milton Friedman used to say, “Corporations are in business to make money, not to save the world.” Saving the world would require that corporations subordinate profit maximizing to ecological concerns. But how can they do this? Companies can embrace environmental reforms (recycling, green products and the like) so long as this saves or makes them money. But they can’t sacrifice earnings, let alone put themselves out of business, just to save the humans, because they’re not responsible to the humans, to society. They’re responsible to their shareholders.

Sometimes we are told that we can both make a profit and save the Earth.  What this usually means is that we will become artisans of some sort or other, making a small-time living while the real investor class contributes to accelerating carbon emissions.  (As the son of artisans, I have some sympathy with this perspective).  We can, however, pursue our artisan careers with humility, knowing full well that we are not saving the Earth.  Everyone, after all, has to earn a living under capitalism.In short, “green businesses” do indeed exist.  But, because capital exists to appropriate nature and labor, “green businesses” are marginal to the aggregate enterprise of the capitalist system as a whole.  “Green consumers” do indeed exist as well — but the point of “green consumerism” is really to consume as little as possible, and that doesn’t help the capitalist system.  Moreover, we can say with certainty (as do Foster, Clark, and York in their book The Metabolic Rift) that even the damage to the environment done by “un-green consumers” is dwarfed by the damage done to the environment by capitalist production.

To summarize: what needs to be put to an end is capitalist production if anything serious is to be done about global warming/ climate change/ climate chaos.  This, then, is why Smith advocates “a practical, workable post-capitalist ecological economy, an economy by the people, for the people that is geared to production for need, not for profit.”

Smith and I, then, agree: nothing else will save you, so we must move away from the profits system and bring the whole of the working class and the planet with us.  Green consumer consciousness won’t save you.  Mainstream environmentalism won’t save you.  Your solar power business won’t save you.  Don’t count on meditation, yoga, or therapy to bring a halt to global warming.  It’s got to be postcapitalism.


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