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Abrupt climate change and the dead end of eco-consumerism

4:30 pm in Uncategorized by cassiodorus

crossposted at and at VOTS

Book review: Pierre-Louis, Kendra. Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet. Brooklyn: IG Publishing, 2012.

Green Washed cover

A recent book takes aim at the idea that we can buy our way to a clean environment.

A number of recent written pieces have reflected actual interest in doing something about abrupt climate change. Abrupt climate change is now stalling the gulf stream. Barack Obama mentioned climate change in his recent State of the Union speech. Canada dumps its Kyoto targets, but perhaps Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders are now interested in climate change legislation. “John Crapper” suggests we ought to declare war on fossil fuel. Agathena tells us more about Canadian tar sands.

Generally speaking, none of the suggested solutions to have reached mainstream respectability does what it takes. We are still debating the comparative merits of continuing along the current path, or ineffectively petitioning the government to do something ineffective. I know, this may appear to be cart-before-the-horse logic to those who simply wish to get the government to focus on abrupt climate change. However, we need to be careful to avoid imagining that our problems will be solved with anything less than a broad social transformation. You can make the “work within the system” argument all you want, but generally speaking both the Republican and the Democratic Parties are conservative parties, and we do ourselves no favors by repeating their conservatisms.

Even “John Crapper” does not go far enough:

What if we declared war on our fossil fuel dependency and waged a WWII type effort to wean ourselves off of its use and transform our economy to a non-polluting , renewable energy based one?

What we actually need is an economy that isn’t predatory, and that isn’t going to bring the natural world and the working-class society to ruin. The worst thing we could do, in light of all that, is to assuage the collective guilt about pollution and unsustainability while at the same time creating a “new economy” which is just as polluting and unsustainable as the old economy. Higher standards are not “purity” — they’re the price of sincerity.

We can already predict that, in the case of abrupt climate change, another consumer-oriented solution is going to be proposed. We are already told that, as consumers of fossil fuels, it is all our fault — never mind that the fossil fuels come gift-wrapped to us in a tremendous infrastructure of global oil, coal, tar sand, and natural gas production and distribution facilitated by an expanding global capitalist world-economy, none of which was our choice to begin with. Moreover, we will be told by the environmental advocates of business as usual that the solution to our evil consumerism is to buy carbon-credits, or to pay carbon taxes, or to buy carbon easements. Let’s assuage the collective guilt, they will tell us, and then get on with business as usual. Never mind that business as usual is a bad bargain, and getting worse.

In this regard, we ought to discuss the high standard of sincerity suggested in Kendra Pierre-Louis’ recently-published book Green Washed: Why We Can’t Buy Our Way to a Green Planet. Fundamentally, Pierre-Louis takes aim at the idea that proper consumerism can solve our ecological problems, and concludes that it can’t. This isn’t to say that there aren’t better and worse things to consume, but rather that the whole consumption edifice is unsustainable. “Eco-fashion is less about sustainability and more about mitigating guilt.” (24-25) Systems of commodity production invariably fall afoul of ecosystem integrity, and so our main option is to become post-commodity, and thus post-capitalist.

Pierre-Louis begins by discussing how this works out for industrial agriculture. “We are told that industrial agriculture is the best way, is in fact the only way, we will ever mitigate global hunger. And yet, at the same time, it is a food system that often times seems more efficient at harming the environment than it does at feeding people.” (35) Rather than explaining right away why environmental damage is a necessary characteristic of our industrial-consumer systems, Pierre-Louis launches immediately into assessments of environmental damage. The author begins, then, by showing how tiny the window for avoiding consumer guilt really is, when one takes the world of fact into account. Big Ag is dangerously dependent upon limited water supplies; genetic engineering has manifested “superweeds”; organic agriculture is often bought up by large corporate interests.

Later we are to discuss solutions, and here Pierre-Louis is not comprehensive, advocating change in the most general of terms. But this can be forgiven of her, because she is trying to reach a consumer audience with a message aimed at transforming current modes of thinking, and that she does spectacularly.

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No future for you

10:10 am in Uncategorized by cassiodorus

This is an attempt to assess how political life has been foreshortened by the fact that "the horizon of the future has contracted."

(Crossposted at Orange)


This was somewhat popular in avant-garde circles when I was a mere highschooler; today its message seems more relevant than ever:

Yes, that’s right: no future for you. In October of ’08, during the most accelerated phase of the downward economic slide, there was some sort of pseudo-questioning which was going on in publications such as The Economist about "capitalism at bay." There wasn’t really any thought here of divergence from the official ideology: The Economist’s capitalist flag-waving is on full display in its final paragraph:

Indeed, history suggests that a prejudice against more rules is a good idea. Too often they have unintended consequences, helping to create the next disaster. And capitalism, eventually, corrects itself. After a crisis investors (and for that matter regulators) seldom make exactly the same mistake twice.

The problem with this logic, of course, is in what counts for The Economist’s readers as a "mistake." For the investor class, appropriate behavior means predatory accumulation, and a "mistake" would be failing to turn a profit. During certain periods of capitalist history, predatory investor behavior was forgivable because conditions were such that, to quote John F. Kennedy, "a rising tide lifts all boats." This is no longer the case, as it once might have been in the ’60s: in the era of neoliberalism (1980-present), the global growth rate declines from decade to decade, while investor expectations remain as high as ever, and so you have economies of growing inequality in which the investor class grabs all the economic gains while everyone else just breaks even.

Thus nobody in the investor class is going to consider predatory accumulation a "mistake," whereas in real life the growth of inequality is generally bad for the economy as a whole. With continued appropriate investor behavior, as profits continue to be privatized while losses continue to be dumped onto the public as a whole, the worsening of economic situation is a practical inevitability. This is the reality you’d read from bobswern’s last diary, or from gjohnsit’s statistical litany of last month.

The dynamic of worsening capitalism, moreover, does not appear to be limited to the logic of capital accumulation. It repeats itself across a whole spectrum of social behaviors. The root cause of this dynamic appears as an accumulating pointlessness, as the mad rush of global capitalism desperately gropes for a good reason to continue to burn 85 million barrels of oil every day and preparing eventual climate disaster in consequence.

Here it is important to consider the substance, or lack thereof, of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, as the link shows, favors "the rule of the market." But this is a mere philosophy of convenience, as the general pattern is one of socialism for the rich and laissez-faire for the rest of us. The neoliberals, then, don’t really believe in their philosophy — it’s just an excuse for corporate penetration of the world’s markets. So our world society, then, has put a philosophy of convenience in control of our most basic processes of "making a living," with the result that there is a spreading pointlessness to our everyday existences as human beings.

Back in 1984, toward the beginning of the neoliberal era of Reagan and Thatcher (and not too many years after Johnny Rotten & Co. came out with their song), the philosopher Jurgen Habermas lamented as follows:

Today it seems as though utopian energies have been used up, as if they have retreated from historical thought. The horizon of the future has contracted and has changed both the Zeitgeist and politics in fundamental ways. The future is negatively cathected: we see outlined on the threshold of the twenty-first century the horrifying panorama of a world wide threat to universal life interests: the spiral of the arms race, the uncontrolled spread of nuclear weapons, the structural impoverishment of developing countries, problems of environmental overload, and the nearly catastrophic operations of high technology are the catchwords that have penetrated public consciousness by way of the mass media. The responses of the intellectuals reflect as much bewilderment as those of the politicians. (pp. 50-51 of The New Conservatism).

Well, at this point the bottom has fallen out, and the future is not only "negatively cathected," it appears to be on the verge of disappearing altogether. Our three-decade grace period has expired, extended no doubt by the invention of the Internet but expired nonetheless, and in that interim we have done nothing of consequence to create another future to replace the one which disappeared when our nation put Reagan in the White House and brought neoliberalism upon the world. The normal function of the system is what we have left, and the normal functioning of the system didn’t need our productive labor (thus offshoring) and won’t need our consumer dollars (now that there’s a debt crisis). Some expanding symptoms include:

1) The shrinking educational system: as Arne Duncan runs his "Race to the Top" contest, 300,000 teachers face layoffs, so that’s the immediate issue: the longer-term issue is one of increasing tuition and increasing corporate dependency at colleges and decreasing budgets at public schools over the past three decades. See e.g. "The Lost Soul of Higher Education," recently out via the New Press. So, to review: children are our future, and here we are sacrificing them on the altar of educational poverty. Doubtless they will find it more difficult to consider the future than we currently do.

2) The complete inefficacy of the political Establishment’s approach to abrupt climate change. Nothing being proposed in Congress advocates what’s necessary: forcibly shutting off the world’s oil spigots and abandoning the world’s coal mines. Instead, Congress limits its diet to proposals which will hand out a few bucks to "alternative energy" while fooling the public into thinking that "carbon restrictions" have somehow been invented, thus maintaining "alternative energy" as a mere supplement to destructive fossil fuel energy. The concessions to "offshore oil production" should have taken the mask off. (NB: I have already written at length here on the flaws of cap-and-trade.) What has apparently got under the environmentalists’ skins is Congress’ refusal to consider alternatives to catastrophe as future options.

3) Entitlements reform: Now there’s a topic related to the future. When you retire, where does your Social Security go, when the "debt commission" is packed with Social Security looters?

4) The "shock doctrine" as applied, now, to Europe. They don’t really care whether or not Greece or Spain has a healthy economy; their main concern is that these countries pay off debts, and if their economies shrink to nothing as a result well that’s just too bad. The rest of the poorer half of Europe comes after that, and then it’s hard to tell who’s next. The rest of the world, of course, will eventually be obliged to run up the credit cards in order to maintain financial solvency while their economies are brought to ruin by financial speculators.

5) The persistence of pointless war. Our nation’s leaders no longer sing the praises of the wars they conduct, with any great demonstrations of how war actually achieves their great patriotic goals, or any open-air invitations to the media to show to the public what-exactly is being achieved through war. Perhaps there is the occasional assassination of "al Qaeda number whatever," but that is the sort of thing which would be accomplished by a program of targeted assassination, which would be different from war. We appear, then, to have witnessed the triumph of the concept of warfare as an ongoing Operation Speedy Express as practiced upon the obscure corners of the world (see e.g. Fallujah). And the rhetoric of patriotism is engaged in a rearguard defense of "the troops" against whomever is left to decry war as a scam, while the government continues to prosecute those evil whistleblowers as our wars are conducted in secret. Since the main purpose of these wars seems rather disconnected from any actual goal of "fighting the terrorists" and rather securely connected to the continued blank check that Congress continues to hand to the defense corporations (while in the same stroke keeping the military careerists in business), we have to wonder what pitiful trauma of global resource exhaustion will actually end them.

6) The continued, and reckless, across-the-board subordination of the natural world to the short-term profit motives of large corporations. As the fishing industry depletes the oceans of its natural endowment, so also the forests are removed for the wood industries and the gene pools of essential food crops are polluted by genetically modified organisms.


Thus we can see how Habermas’s concept of how "the horizon of the future has contracted" has proceeded over the decades to the point at which one has to ask about whether the future is being considered at all. I suppose you have groups such as the Campaign for America’s Future — but there’s no vision of the future represented on that website except that the future will be "progressive," whatever that is. The problem is of course that the specter of systems exhaustion hangs over the whole world-society. Any future we imagine will have to confront that systems exhaustion. The future we currently imagine (if we imagine one at all) doesn’t do that, and so it’s a sure bet that our future will be imposed upon us as we operate as cogs in the existing system.

All of this tinkering-around-the-edges, let’s-ask-our-policymakers-to-do-something-nice "action" will be of little use except insofar as we might be able to cannibalize the social programs thus produced to create something better. As Stan Cox points out in his book Sick Planet, "we have to work from the beginning to develop smaller organizations and structures that are specifically intended as parts of a system to succeed capitalism" (p. 175). The problem, then, is that the vision of such a system is singularly lacking in our society. No future, no future, no future for you.

Earlier this week, Tom Engelhardt put out a "college commencement address" in which he suggests to the "Class of 2010" its future. Its message is quite apropos here:

I was born in a country that thought it could rebuild anything. You’re living in one lacking recuperative powers. Our resources are now being mobilized to fight two obscure and remarkably pointless, if destructive, trillion-dollar wars in distant Afghanistan and Iraq that most Americans pretend aren’t even going on. In the meantime, you have never been called upon to mobilize for anything. You have never been asked to sacrifice anything for the greater good. Even as nothing is being asked of you, your future is nonetheless being sacrificed. If you leave this campus and do nothing, your life will be far worse for it.

When I began, I said I wouldn’t want to be you. That’s because the task before you is grotesquely super-sized. You undoubtedly sense this, sense that somehow you need to free yourself from so much these years have taught you in order to imagine a future for us all.

Preparing for the new era of domination

3:22 pm in Uncategorized by cassiodorus

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.

Crossposted at Orange)


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 would run into another roadblock: the price of oil. 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?

Whence capitalism?

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.

A question for the “realists”

5:33 pm in Uncategorized by cassiodorus

Why not aim for disaster?

It’s the most "realistic" possibility, after all.

Or, more specifically:

How minimal are your aspirations?

How static is your picture of the future?

Here’s an example:

Some of that species which we may call "realists" just want the House to pass the Senate bill. Since it’s not "realistic" (according to this doctrine) to get the Senate to improve its bill, the progressives should compromise, they reason, and get Congress to deliver a less appealing, less useful bill to the public because it’s "better than nothing."

Never mind that the mandates are unpopular and the public option is popular — they will take a bill with the former but without the latter, regardless of the consequences for Democrats running for office this year. And certainly never mind the problems with the excise tax and the difficulty of enforcing the insurer regulations. Thus the disaster predicted by dissenters in light of a "health insurance reform" bill which attempts to make the public scrimp on health care while failing to contain costs.

The "pass the damn bill" people envision that the Dems would be unpopular were they to pass "nothing" (the only alternative option they can see). Never mind that Massachusetts, a state with 12% Republican registration and already-existing Romneycare, decided against a Democrat who promised to "pass the Senate bill" in a recent special election for Ted Kennedy’s seat. You’d think that, already knowing something about Romneycare, they’d have elected Coakley and kept the 60-vote majority in Congress if they were at all enthusiastic about its nationwide spread.

Perhaps our next "realistic" expectation, given the passage of the Senate bill, is that the public can vote the Democrats out of office and, come 2013 after the Band-Aid Period when the major provisions become law, the Republicans (who might very well have control of Congress again by that point) can "fix" the bill. Then this particular group of "realists" can actually achieve the nothing they accuse the non-"realists" of wanting. In short, disaster. Or maybe we can expect the bill to be dead, and the issue to disappear. Again, disaster.

The for-profit insurers, of course, are the main reason why the US is paying more and getting less for health care than practically all other industrialized nations. In ten years we will all be asking this question: "who could have imagined that placing them under permanent, guaranteed subsidy wouldn’t solve our health care finance problems?"

And then there’s the "realist" show-stopper argument for "pass the damn bill" these "realists" have. "We’d better take what we can get because Congress won’t revisit health care for another fifteen years." As if 2010 were like 1994! (In fact 2010 is a much more high-pressure situation than 1994. What this means for this year’s elections is uncertain.)

Of course, there is in fact a "realist" counter-argument to the "pass the damn bill" people, and it goes as follows: "there aren’t enough votes in the House to pass the Senate bill." I don’t buy into that premise, either. People change their minds. It’s in fact possible that the House could pass the Senate bill.

And, fortunately for the "pass the damn bill" people, there is an anti-"realist" argument in their favor. See below, between the asterisks.

Look, this is just the problem with "realism" as it applies to the health care reform debate. You can see the general pattern: the current, corporate-dominated political reality is misconceived as something stable, and so "realistic" political action is predicated upon that assumption of stability. But reality isn’t stable!


The diaries I’ve been writing since, more or less, my second and third ones here, published at the end of 2006, do not accept any portion of this version of "realism." You see, 2010 is not like 1994 in a very important way: the system-as-a-whole is significantly less stable than it was, and is still morphing from more-stable to less-stable forms.

The bailouts, for instance, are an attempt to protect capital (i.e. investible funds, and the property and labor they’re invested in) from its own obsolescence. Business is "too big to fail," and so it leans increasingly, from decade to decade, upon the enlistment of government to protect its "right" to profit. As business increasingly adopts the role of social vampire, the lifeblood is sucked out of the economy, and the average global growth rate declines from decade to decade.

As Harry Shutt described back in 1998, feeding the surplus of capital only causes it to produce more capital, thus compounding the problem of too much capital. If you have a copy of Harry Shutt’s The Trouble With Capitalism handy, you can turn to p. 111 to see the fundamental analysis:

in terms of the proliferating symptoms of an oversupply of capital and the efforts of the corporate sector (with the full support of governments) to take remedial action. In the light of the discussion in the last chapter it is clear that such action is needed, from the perspective of capitalists, to avert an effective devaluation of capital within the market economy. This task is, of course, a twofold one in that it requires

  • the identification of profitable new outlets for investment to absorb the growing supply of capital, and
  • the maintenance of an acceptable rate of return on the stock of capital already invested as well as on new investments.

It will be readily apparent that, as long as the growth in real demand for investment capital is tending to weaken while the rate of return sought by investors remains high, the fulfilment of these mutually interdependent objectives is bound to prove ultimately self-defeating. This is because the inevitable consequence of maintaining a high return on the capital stock as a whole is that yet more investible funds will be generated for which outlets must be found. (111)

Thus capital plays the role of the broomstick in the tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice:

Just as the broomstick accumulates water, so also capital accumulates profits. And Congress, for its part, is composed of a bunch of Sorcerer’s Apprentices, trying to "solve the problem" of capital (in this case through "health insurance reform") by placating its demands, while in fact just compounding the problem of too much capital. In reality, moreover, there is no Sorcerer to save the Sorcerer’s Apprentices in Congress, like there was in the movie "Fantasia." The brooms will keep multiplying, the water level will keep rising, and corporate domination will continue to strengthen itself ad infinitum unless it is stopped. Ask anyone who’s paying a premium.

Harry Shutt’s concise description of what is going on with the economy has been true for thirty years now. As capital gets ever-bigger, its profit motives become ever more malignant. To expect this trend to continue, and thus the economy to worsen as the states to move further into bankruptcy, is the "realistic" thing to do. As capital becomes more and more malignant, there will be less and less for anyone who is not in the owning class. At what point, then, do we attempt a wholesale change of our reality, so that it no longer conforms to "realism"?

We can see from the various sell-outs in the history of "health insurance reform," then, that we are being set up for neoliberal reform, reform which accommodates the dominant forces of capital. This fits the economic history of the past thirty years, of which Harry Shutt is merely a concise expositor. Ultimately we will have to insure that such reform is not our only option.


So the above is my perspective on "health insurance reform." I’m not really against the "pass the damn bill now" thing so much as I’m against the philosophy of "realism" which underpins so much of its argument. Go ahead, "pass the damn bill now" — just stop telling us that this was the "realistic" thing to do. The current political, economic, social reality is not really all that stable. Everything will be revisited. Perhaps if the Senate bill is passed it will be fixed later — that would be a valid, if not necessarily important, argument for urging the House to pass the Senate bill. Do keep in mind, though, that reality is in part what you try to make of it, and that if you set your sights super-low, then reality will doubtless oblige.


The point at which I see the real disaster for "realism" as a philosophy is at that point when the "realists" apply their realism to the problem of abrupt climate change. Let’s go back to Petit et al., from the June 3, 1999 issue of Nature magazine. Here is the critical graph:


Now, the lines on the graph represent average temperatures and average CO2 levels for the past 420,000 years. Please note that the average temperature we confront today corresponds to a global atmospheric carbon dioxide level of 290 or 300 parts per million. If the scale (and Arrhenius’ century-old calculations of the measurable relation between CO2 level and average temperature) are correct, we can imagine a five to six degree (Celsius) increase in average global temperature from carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere.

The scientists who understand global climate think this would be catastrophic. Take a look at the distillation of their research in Mark Lynas’ book "Six Degrees," in which five to six degrees is equated with the collapse of global civilization. This, then, is why James Hansen is calling for a retreat to 350 parts per million. It’s also why Joseph Romm, two years ago, suggested that the IPCC was lowballing climate change because it was based on "scientific consensus," whereas reality is based upon a determination of the facts of the matter.

Now the "realists" can be expected to push everyone to ask Congress to sign some sort of loophole-ridden bill. It will be based upon proven-ineffective "cap-and-trade" schemes, and subsidies to "clean coal" and other projects of the future. It will not achieve James Hansen’s notion of a global retreat on carbon dioxide levels. If it is all that is passed, our luck will at some point run out.

In contrast to the "realists," we need to organize for something which will actually deal with the climate change problem, as with the health care problem, and we need to devise a strategy (probably involving several steps) to get what we want. Because, in contrast to the "realist" version of reality, the future is likely to be quite scary,