Capitalism: It’s costing us the earth
These are the notes a comrade of mine, Liz Ross from Socialist Alternative, (www.sa.org.au), did for a talk in November last year. So it needs a little updating but the general points are timeless. And of course it was written before the current economic crisis which is seeing business urging Government not to introduce an emissions trading scheme. The pressure from the bosses to protect profits, not the environment, will be immense. Liz is the author of Capitalism: How it’s costing us the earth, available from Socialist Alternative.
WHY CAPITALISM IS NOT THE ANSWER
If I were to sum up this talk, a quote from the American environmental scientist Robert Newman perhaps fits the bill: “You can either have capitalism or a habitable planet. One or the other, not both.”
But just taken on its own it leaves us in limbo. We have to then ask – and answer – the question: how do we get to have a habitable planet? All kinds of proposals have been put forward by different groups – everything from “Live simply, so that others may simply live”, some sort of return to an imagined pre-capitalist heaven on earth, through radical reform of capitalism itself, which, despite what Newman says, many believe is enough to save the environment. Then to the solution we in Socialist Alternative propose – a revolutionary overthrow of the current system and its replacement by socialism, a society run by the working class in the interests of the majority. A society that by its very nature can put in place the processes that begin to address restoring the earth to sustainability.
Despite the handful of vocal dissenters – and I see just today Andrew Bolt in the Herald Sun promoting one such person – that we face an environmental crisis is beyond question. Whether it’s global warming, pollution, plundering the forests and oceans, just to mention a few issues, the earth is in a dire state. And things are only getting worse. As the damning IPCC report out this week suggests it’s coming sooner – much sooner – than previously predicted. And our rulers – to paraphrase a famous saying, “fiddle while the planet burns”. Australia’s environmental performance, despite all the hype that Turnbull and Howard mouth, is now ranked as third worst on environmental issues of the world’s twenty-one richest nations. Rather than closing the gap on greenhouse gas emissions, Australia (along with the rest of the world – the developed countries in particular) is racing in the opposite direction, pumping out more and more every year as yesterday’s news noted.
But surely this isn’t the whole story. What about all those companies which are “going green” or those new firms producing renewable energy equipment, water tanks, or environment-friendly household products? Billionaires such as media giant Rupert Murdoch proclaims he’s convinced of the risk of climate change and has embraced a ‘carbon neutral’ stance for his company. Environmental groups are teaming up with those in the retail and hospitality industries for a greener world. Wal-Mart is working closely with Conservation International on its efforts to cut energy usage and switch to renewable sources of power and McDonald’s has teamed up with Greenpeace to discourage deforestation caused by the growth of soybean farming in Brazil. And the other day I heard that Friends of the Earth has teamed up with one of the retailers here.
Even the oil companies are jumping on the bandwagon, with British Petroleum (BP) rebadging itself as Beyond Petroleum with a gleaming gold and green sun logo and promises of developing renewable energy sources, weaning them – and us – off oil.
And there’s no shortage of money for ‘green’ businesses. As the New York Times pointed out earlier this year, “venture capitalists have begun pouring billions into energy-related start-ups,” with “lawyers, accountants, recruiters and publicists all developing energy-oriented practices to cater to the causes of transforming the trillion dollar US domestic energy market while [so they say] saving the planet.”
Doesn’t all this mean that capitalism is capable of fundamentally reforming itself? After all it’s not hard to see that this society is one of history’s most innovative and productive systems ever. Just as a small example, look at the booming computer industry and how it has transformed the way we live – at least in the wealthy West. As well, as British socialist Chris Harman recently pointed out, governments and businesses do have a genuine interest in stopping climate change. Not in our interests certainly but, as he adds “just as their predecessors a century and a half ago had a genuine interest in dealing with typhoid and cholera in slum working class districts in order to stop the diseases affecting upper class districts as well.” He continues “What is at stake for them – the people running governments and business – now is greater. Not just their lives are threatened, but the stability of global capitalism.”
And while concern for their own survival is no doubt important to today’s ruling class, it’s the continuation of their system – global capitalism that is the critical factor for them. So, for example, climate change was certainly on the collective minds of the world’s richest and most powerful individuals, companies and countries at the World Economic Forum in Davos this year. But the debate was not pitched at saving the planet – rather as the backdrop signs spelt out, it was – “Make Green Pay”.
Henry Ford’s great-grandson Bill, a “passionate environmentalist” apparently, sees his mission in life as getting rid of the internal combustion engine, that powers today’s cars. But again it’s the survival of business that matters as he explains: “There is a rising tide of environmental awareness. Smart companies will get ahead of the wave. Those that don’t will be wiped out.”
But isn’t that just the way the system works? For some companies there are profits, while others will go to the wall, but overall the system survives and we’ve seen a massive improvement in the quality of life for so many people – healthier and longer lives coupled with higher standard of living. The cleaning up of environmental problems such as the London smogs which peaked in the notorious December 1952 Great Smog that killed around 4000 people, acid rain, CFCs and the insecticide DDT to name just the most well known. And if Bill Ford does get rid of the internal combustion engine, won’t that be great?
We can even point to the fact that capitalism has overseen the greatest productive bonanza the world has ever seen, making it possible for the first time in human history to feed, clothe, house and provide education, leisure time and the like for every single person on the planet. [Though of course that there is still homelessness, starvation, illiteracy does raise questions about the system.]
But to go on with the benefits. It’s also made it possible to devise the technology to clean up the planet, stop the global warming threat, use renewable energy – and so on.
Also, as many point out, haven’t earlier systems been just as destructive as capitalism is today? It’s claimed the collapse of the Maya in Central America was due to over-farming, Roman and Greek societies certainly took their toll on the environment, probably contributing to their downfall. It’s also argued that humanity played a huge role in the extinction of many of the large animals of earlier times, including the big flightless birds of New Zealand.
So why do we argue that capitalism – more than any other human social system – not only cannot solve the environmental problems of today, but also, in and of itself, is the cause of the world’s ecological nightmares. Nightmares that we can only awake from by replacing capitalism itself.
We have to go back to the basics of how the system works. Capitalism divides society into two main classes, the ruling class (eg, factory owner, banker – the employer) and the working class. Under the rule of the employers and the state forces that back them up, capital combines its two sources of wealth – the mass “socialised” labour power of workers in the factories, farms, offices and the like, associated with the necessary machinery (the computers, trucks, etc) with the second source – the world’s natural resources, to produce goods at a level never seen before.
These goods that are produced, however, do not belong to the workers who have made them – either for their own use or even to trade for other useful items. Nor do they have a say in what is produced. Instead they are the property of the employer, who then proceeds to sell these items for more than it cost to produce them – in other words, at a profit. A money profit that is pocketed by the employer rather than shared equally with all. And because the system runs on making profit – without it the company will collapse – this sets up a highly competitive world system as companies battle it out for market share and more profits.
So the result is that what drives this system forward, is not how these goods satisfy human needs for a living – though of course it must do that to a certain extent otherwise there will be no workers – but the driver is the money profit a capitalist can make from the sale of products. So if there’s a choice between human need and profit, profit will win out. This is when you see the obscenity of food being dumped rather than sent to feed the malnourished or starving peoples of the world, who are too poor to buy them at the price that would deliver a profit. Or the case of James Hardie which continued to make asbestos products because it was profitable, despite the fact that they knew asbestos could – and would – kill many of those who came into contact with it.
Money profit has another property – apart from enriching the ruling class – that is crucial in its destructive potential. Unlike natural resources which can completely run out and cannot be accumulated, the goal of money profit is quantitatively unlimited, and it can continue to accumulate for so long as there is anything left standing. Hence the quote from Paul Burkett in our pamphlet: “We may not like it, but the fact is that capitalism can survive any ecological catastrophe short of the extinction of human life.”
And the capitalists will continue to try to “improve” their productive processes to gain ever more profit.
As Karl Marx put it, “The division of labor [a highly efficient way of organising work] is necessarily followed by greater division of labor, the application of machinery by still greater application of machinery, works on a large scale by works on a still larger scale. That is the law [driven by competition] which again and again throws bourgeois production out of its old course and which compels capital to intensify the productive forces of labor, [and] because it has intensified them . . . [this] law gives capital no rest continually whispering in its ear ‘Go on! Go on!’”
Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg explains in more detail how this drive for profit leads to environmental crises as the world is plundered. She writes “Capital, impelled to appropriate productive forces for the purposes of exploitation, ransacks the whole world; it procures its means of production from all corners of the earth, seizing them, if necessary by force, from all levels of civilisation and from all forms of society.”
Today we just have to look at the US in Iraq and Afghanistan – the murder of millions and the environmental trashing that comes from non-stop warfare to secure the oil and other resources to maintain US world domination – ie the domination of American capital. Then there’s the competition for the riches of Africa, where the companies grow fat and the people starve and the local land is devastated; the wide-scale destruction of forests to grow corn for biofuel; or as global warming melts the ice around the Arctic, resource companies rush to lay claim to Greenland’s previously inaccessible oil, diamonds and gold. Or in Australia where we see the latest invasion of Aboriginal land to gouge out the uranium and other mineral resources for private profit.
Or Capital creates commodities that can be sold out of resources that once were free. As one commentator noted, carbon credits – part of the carbon trading process – “are a triumph of capitalism, creating a commodity from nothing – clean pockets of air – that gain value through being certified. They have created a market now worth between $10 and $30 billion.” This set The Economist – the British magazine for the bosses – to rubbing its hands with glee over such wealth creation adding its hope that, “perhaps soon, the best things in life will not be free.”
But crazy as this system may seem, a system that can never stand still, is forever expanding, what underpins the capitalist dilemma is that because of the constant innovation and improvement, as more and more workers are replaced by machinery, the system’s rate of profit actually declines. This leads the world’s capitalists to ever greater frenzies of production – especially arms production as occurred in the aftermath of World War II – as they try to counteract the system’s downward spiral.
So we get the economic crises that capitalism cannot escape. A drive for money profit that forces ever greater production until there are market gluts and then the falling prices, plummeting profits and financial collapse of the system. While every other human society faced crises of scarcity, capitalism is the only one that has crises of over-production. And as well, crises that can only be resolved by mass destruction of productive forces (the factories, farms, etc) and emiseration of millions of people either through wars or economic Depressions.
With immediate profit as the driver of the system, not the real needs of humanity or a sustainable planet, capitalism is, in fact, indifferent to the fate of humanity and the world we live in. Marx wrote that Capital is “moved as much and as little by the sight of the coming degradation and final depopulation of the human race, as by the probable fall of the earth into the sun.” So for example, former US Secretary of State Madeline Albright, when asked whether the death of an estimated half million children in Iraq as result of the sanctions imposed in the 1990s, was a price worth paying, she replied “…the price – we think the price is worth it.”
So to sum up what we’ve gone through so far. Capitalism – a system whose driver is profit rather than human needs – must plunder and degrade the planet to feed its continuous expansion as it tries to counteract its inbuilt faultline – the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Consequently, we argue, capitalism is directly responsible for the scale of destruction and if left to continue, will drive us ever closer to annihilation.
WHY THE WORKING CLASS?
Now I’ve detailed the ills of the system and why it is the way it is, what’s the solution?
For many the most obvious answer still would be to reform capitalism itself. Make the governments act, force the companies to go green with legislation that has real teeth or use financial incentives to encourage sustainable production.
Just yesterday a group of Australian businesses and environmentalists, frustrated by the glacial progress so far on environmental issues, announced they were setting up a lobby group to put pressure on governments to do just this.
Now it is possible to imagine a capitalism that lived off the profits based on the production and sale of renewable energy. You can’t go anywhere these days without seeing new environmental businesses setting up, especially water tanks and solar panels. The car company Saab flashes its green credentials with ads boasting about “Going Grrreeen” because it uses biofuels. There are companies growing rich on renewable energy, organic farming or environmentally sound building practices. After all there’s no law that says for capitalism to survive it has to rely on fossil fuel sources, that it has to have plastic or die.
So also, it can seem to be common sense to take steps individually, to clean up your own backyard. Certainly this is the message we can take from the Howard government’s recent Environmental Guidelines handout. Though I suspect most people would consider it a complete waste of the paper they used in the guidelines, when the advice included such things as telling people to keep the lid on the saucepan when they’re cooking.
As well many environmental groups can point to gains that have been won. In Melbourne, for example, when the Victorian government proposed placing a toxic waste dump in the middle of working class western suburbs – and home to Melbourne’s market gardens – a coalition of workers, unions, local residents and market gardeners ran a successful state-wide campaign and forced the government to ban future land-filling of hazardous waste. In addition there was a complete overhaul of hazardous waste management, including recycling and waste reduction.
Union initiated Green Bans and the anti-nuclear movement certainly won gains earlier, both drawing in unions, resident actions and mass rallies.
It’s even conceivable that in the face of an immense global crisis brought on by climate change, where the social upheaval and instability threatened the survival of key sections of global capitalism, that some dramatic world-wide shift to sustainable production could happen.
So it may be possible that capitalism can spend its way out of a planetary meltdown, but the crucial question is: what will be the final cost to humanity of its survival? Restructuring the world economy to provide some level of sustainability is not going to be just a case of simply switching from one profitable enterprise to another or paying a bit more for energy and water. Because “we are where we are”, we have a world system based on massive extraction of non-renewable energy sources and other resources generating enormous profits for existing companies, alongside a world arms race leaning more and more to nuclear weaponry and ratcheting up the pressure to mine uranium.
None of these firms will give up their profitable businesses without a fight, nor will governments simply drop the push to nuclear warfare. In fact we could – and will if capitalism continues along its present trajectory – see wars fought where the new renewable energy firms challenge their rivals oil and coal for market dominance, or countries fight over access to food and water resources. In other words the market forces of capitalism running rampant.
So if the ruling class cannot provide the answers – and there’s a lot more in this pamphlet and in issues of our magazine that spell this out – who can?
Earlier I referred to capitalism as being basically a two class society – workers and bosses. Rather than being any particular attribute of the bosses or what they do, it is actually the combination of workers’ labour (or labour power as Marx called it) and the world’s natural resources that creates society’s wealth. And more specifically it’s workers’ labour power that is the source of profit that the system so relies on.
It doesn’t take much then to see that if workers are the source of the system’s wealth, then as Marx famously puts it, they can also be the system’s “gravediggers”. In other words, when workers stop, nothing moves and this points to the power the working class has to challenge capital – a power held by no other group in society. And we’ve just seen what happens when sections of the working class right now – the teachers and nurses in Australia or the workers and students in France and German railway workers – take action.
So precisely because the global threat to the environment comes from the operation of capitalism itself, we’re going to have to take on the might of the corporations and the state that is hand in glove with them. Obviously this isn’t just something that can happen overnight. Right now this means our first step must be a collective fight for reforms, harnessing the strength of the organised working class, to shut down the polluting companies and force governments to act, rather than looking to concerned citizens individually rationing their water and electricity use, paying more for “green” alternatives or buying organic.
In other words – how we struggle and what we demand matters. If we look at how the battle against uranium mining was waged, it’s clear it was through collective action, the combined mobilisations of the anti-uranium movement, indigenous groups and the unions, that we won what we did. Mobilising around working class demands such as “Black Ban Uranium” or “land rights, not uranium”, kept the movement focused on the need to tackle the bosses and the government, not just do deals with them or even see some of them as our allies. Again I want to refer you to our pamphlet which has more examples of the different struggles in Australia’s history.
However this is just the beginning. Mass mobilisations and union pressure can start to shift the corporations, but to challenge capital at its very core – and lay the basis for a different world – we need to go further. Out of the struggle must come both the revolutionary organisations of workers to overthrow capitalism, and a class ready to build the world anew – to build a socialist society.
And to get to there, we need to start in the here and now – as Mick’s book “From Little Things…” outlines. We need to be having the political arguments convincing people that capitalism is the cause of the world’s environment problems, why it’s the organised working class that has the power to stop capitalism in its tracks – and as a consequence, why it is so crucial to build the mass mobilisations – like this month’s Global Warming rally and the union struggles that can strengthen workers’ ability to fight.
But also, why we need to build political groups such as Socialist Alternative, to bring together the admittedly small numbers of active socialists around today to start to make the arguments about the need to take the struggle past reforming capitalism on to the path of a revolutionary transformation of society. To begin to build a socialist society that can lay the basis for a sustainable world for the whole planet.