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Abrupt climate change and the dead end of eco-consumerism

4:30 pm in Uncategorized by cassiodorus

crossposted at DailyKos.com 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.

Imagining post-capitalism

10:36 am in Uncategorized by cassiodorus

IMAGINING POST-CAPITALISM

1) The meaning of it all

The information we humans have accumulated as regards the origins of the universe, from the Big Bang to the present day, leads to an important conclusion: the appearance of human beings in the universe was itself an event of very low probability, and that we ought to be amazed that it happened at all. OPOL’s most recent diary expresses the gist of this. There still had to be an enormous number of universes in a multiverse if even one of these universes was to generate the possibility of life (never mind the possibility that WE could come into being). The Anthropic Principle explains this much: of all of the universes which exist, this one has life, and moreover intelligent life (life capable of understanding an Anthropic Principle), and so this explains a number of important aspects of our universe, especially as regards its physical and chemical attributes. Things are the way they are because if they were otherwise there would be no "us" to observe them being this way.

And then there is also the vast unlikelihood of the glorious civilizations which our planet’s human life has created. First off, natural catastrophes (such as the one which wiped out the dinosaurs) cleared the ecological path for the development of mammalian life, and thus ultimately for our existence as a human species. Kenneth D. Rose’s classic The Beginning of the Age of Mammals is telling in this regard: this book suggests that the only currently-existing mammals which resemble those which existed before the Age of Mammals are the platypuses. Thus the mammals which appear today can largely be considered to be a byproduct of that extinction, which cleared the ground for the vast array of mammals which existed in the current era, all the way up to the point where human beings started pushing them into extinction. Moreover, the genetic uniformity of the human race when compared with that of other species is perhaps due to common human ancestry (as well as a rather brutal process of selection which ostensibly did away with the other genetic variants). The genetic uniformity of the human species stands as one of the many puzzles of how the human species could have developed into what it has become from processes of natural selection: the bizarre character of our intelligence, our opposable thumbs, binocular vision, bipedal gait, extended childhood maturation process, our development of spoken language, all of which support our existence as a species whose survival is owed to our versatility and social complexity rather than to the adaptation to specific ecological niches (as attributed to other species) in the manner loosely described in The Origin of Species. We should, in short, be amazed we’re here, because (given the patterns of the rest of the universe) we look an awful lot like an anomaly.

Even from the development of human society, formidable odds existed against our developing the technologies we did, and (on a universe-wide level) against our appearance upon a planet with the enormous fossil fuel reserves which currently power our civilization. It is no wonder that the SETI projects haven’t found anything so far. Of course, the various SETI projects are best equipped to contact non-human civilizations which have invented (at least) radio, so there’s already a very high standard. In all likelihood, we aren’t alone, but from here we sure look unique.

That having been said, it sure looks like we are really about to "blow it," from our pinnacle of high anomaly. Go back and read OPOL’s diary again: he feels that sense in which we are about to "blow it," albeit a bit too pessimistically. We are about to "blow it" because, if we really wanted to, we could solve all of the world’s problems: hunger, unemployment, war, species extinction, resource crisis, and so on, but we don’t.

In fact, we could deal with all of these problems in a few short years, but we don’t. And we don’t, because we’re too busy playing the Capitalist Game. Money, property, that’s what counts — but money and property are merely the most efficient containers of what the anthropologists call "status," the sense in which (to quote George Orwell’s Animal Farm) all pigs are equal but some pigs are more equal than others. We will probably all die defending the status system.

So what is the Capitalist Game? In ancient times, before the propaganda about "post-industrial society," people knew far better than they do now about the dependency of political power upon productive power. The empires of old (Hellenistic, Roman, Arabic etc.) knew that their power over the world rested upon what the world produced, for without production neither the tax base nor the empire’s coffers could be used to buy anything. Even without money the peasants at the periphery could be forced to pay "in kind" to contribute to the greater glory of empires.

The Capitalist Game plays the same game as the empires once did, only far more efficiently. Its essence as capitalism rests upon a system in which production is (largely) guided by wage labor, and in which the exploitation of that wage labor (through control of the surplus) creates an elite "owning class," you know, those 793 billionaires and perhaps also those 10 million millionaires who sit atop the global wealth pyramid.

The Capitalist Game, then, is far more efficient than the Feudalist Game, which directly appropriated peasant production in order to finance a destructive warrior class ("knights"). This explains its dominance in the current era. There is, nonetheless, this sense in which the beneficiaries of the Capitalist Game are still an "old regime," as anthropologist Keith Hart describes it. Hart’s essay "World society as an old regime," pp. 22-36 of Shore and Nugent’s Elite Culture: Anthropological Perspectives brings out this sense, especially where he argues the point as such:

Ours is a corrupt ancien regime that must soon find a new democratic revolution, if human intervention in the life of this planet is not to end in catastrophe. (p. 29)

The system is out of control. There are plenty of signs of this: from out-of-control abrupt climate change to the pwnership of government by Wall Street to the general collapse before pharmaceutical interests in the matter of "health care reform." Witness the most recent statements of the director of the IMF: printing lots of money isn’t enough, we need a new currency to solidify inequality and to preserve the injustice of the current order.

In its daily operation, moreover, the whole system has gotten to the point where most of the important commodities are now produced on speeded-up assembly lines, in which the world outside of the assembly line must be standardized to fit the assembly line itself. Watch the movie Food, Inc., and then reflect upon this concept. The system has created a world which must fit the assembly line, and which will be thrown away when it no longer fits the assembly line’s standards

What I’m asking people to do, here, then, is to imagine a post-capitalism, a world in which the structural flaws in the existing system actually "become due," and the ancien regime collapses. Now, there will doubtless be considerable loss of life due to the catastrophic nature of the event and the general failure to prepare, but this isn’t what I’m asking you to imagine — we already have plenty of that every day, now, for natural as well as for un-natural events. I’m asking that we attempt to imagine the (post-capitalist) society which emerges afterward.

My more general suggestion, then, is that we continue the anomaly that the human race has been — but that, hopefully, future generations of the human race will be given the opportunity to take good care of the anomaly that is us, rather than squandering everything on the status games we currently play.

2) this is not a socialist tract

A number of my most recent “critics” (if they dare deserve such a label) have put me on the spot as a supporter of “socialism,” and asked me questions such as, “name a successful socialist nation.” To pursue such a line of reasoning is to miss the point, the point I’ve been making against the capitalist system since I started writing here over three years ago. My point is not to appeal to some past model of governance, as if we could improve the future by looking to something that happened centuries ago and by trying to make it permanent. The old regime does that, now, anyway. I am not trying to re-start the Soviet Union or the People’s Republic of China under Mao. Nor, for that matter, am I interested in recreating the United States of any previous era, or the Roman Empire under Trajan, or the British Empire of the late 19th century.

Nor am I terribly fond of the term “socialism.” “Socialism” is a word which means rather distinct things to those who use it, but since such people disagree on what “socialism” really is, it’s not such a distinct word after all. Thus it has the disadvantage of being perfectly clear to its users, but not at all clear to its audiences. “Socialism,” depending upon who uses the word, could mean the Soviet Union, or the ideal worker-controlled society, or mere government intervention into the economy — and each user would insist that her or his definition is the one and only true use of the word “socialism.”

Instead, then, I use the term “post-capitalism.” "Post-capitalism" is a vague term (who knows what will happen after capitalism, anyway?), but it’s intentionally vague, so that its contents can be filled with the human imagination.

Such a system has a momentum of its own, in which the deal-making (and the assembly lines) tend to expand until the whole system encounters a countervailing force. The contention offered here is that the exhaustion of the Earth’s ecosystems will be the countervailing force which will force the capitalist system permanently off-track.

The point of this essay, then, is not to enlist everyone in some utopian socialist design. Rather, it is to invite you to imagine a future in which the capitalist system has been publicly understood as the hindrance to long-term survival that it is, and in which you are building a non-capitalist future for yourself and for yours. How do you see it?

3) the big fish eat the little ones

There has been significant consolidation throughout capitalist industry in the last four decades of business. When I was getting a Ph.D. in Communication we learned about how 120 mass media corporations merged into maybe half a dozen giant entities over the past three decades. Food, Inc., reveals the same process going on with America’s food producers ("farmers" is now too dignified a word). This isn’t just coincidence – it’s an effect of how the game is played. The end-point of industry consolidation is a sort of debt-peonage for the public – the customer must pay, because there’s no other business, but since the customer’s claim to real participation in the system has become an unnecessary hindrance to profits, he/she must go into debt peonage to the corporations. The customer’s habitat (the landscape on which she/ he lives), meanwhile, is turned into a technological assembly-line for the creation of “product,” thus to justify the extension of corporation domination over the whole of the world.

4) technical quick-fixes won’t save us from technical quick-fixes

The most obvious place to look when attempting to save capitalism from its inevitable end is in the power of technical innovation. Somehow it is imagined that capitalists will use technology wisely, and save the world which they themselves have so very nearly brought to ruin. Technological innovation is obvious simply because the momentum of the system itself generates technologies – businesses typically attempt to save money on labor costs by investing in labor-saving technologies, and so the momentum of capitalist society is also a technological momentum.

For technology to be portrayed as a believable savior of planet Earth’s ecosystems, the “metabolic rift” between society and nature must be simplified somewhat, and arbitrary assumptions have to be made about the social uses of technology. Abrupt climate change is the classic example of this. The defenders of capitalism imagine that the numerous environmental problems besetting planet Earth – from the tragedy of the oceans to the species-extinction rate – can be reduced to one problem, abrupt climate change, and that this one problem can be solved through investment in “alternative energy,” ignoring the distinct possibility that “alternative energy” investment will merely supplement, and not replace, our destructive fossil fuel habits.

Since this method is likely to produce “solutions” of dubious quality, the pursuit of a solution to abrupt climate change then typically proceeds to the plea before governments to “do something” about abrupt climate change. This is also a problematic way of proceeding. Governments in this era are, by necessity, dedicated to preservation of “the economy,” which in turn clings to the corporate rate of profit, which will not stay large without constant infusions of cheap energy.

Most of the real solution to ecological problems, then, is in imagining a different social system, in which human efforts are actually directed toward solving ecological problems rather than in creating new problems to replace the old ones.

5) Democracy versus capitalism: you get to vote, but what is it worth?

The historical background for this is revealed in an old book by Ellen Meiksins Wood: Democracy Against Capitalism. In it, Wood details how the architects of modern democracy pushed economic affairs out of the realm of democratic arbitration. Sure, we have “capitalist democracy,” here, but the question Wood wishes to foreground is one of what social decisions are amenable to democracy, and which ones are amenable to capitalism. As Kees van der Pijl pointed out a decade ago, your vote merely selects members of the political class, who will routinely guard the neoliberal state. Salvation, then, is no longer to be found within the system.

Clearly, then, democratic safeguards will have to preserve something of people-power against the monolithic powers who print the money, pay the cops, and establish the "free-speech zones" outside of which the First Amendment is an irrelevance. This is where your imaginings of post-capitalism come into play. Try to make it Supreme Court-proof, at least.

6) “Small business” can be the norm under post-capitalism

One of the more interesting inventions of the “socialists” of the last century (in this case I am talking about Fabian socialists, from the UK) is “social credit.” Social credit comes as a partial answer to the question: how can we have money without having exploitation? Money, of course, is a facilitator of exploitation under capitalism: it’s the means by which the rich get richer in a scene where the poor merely have babies.

The best explanation of social credit to my knowledge is that given by Frances Hutchinson, Mary Mellor, and Wendy Olsen in their book The Politics of Money. Social credit works as follows: the workers, who run the government through direct democracy, also issue the money and back it with their own labors. Two reasons are given for the issuance of money: 1) consumer credits, which are given to assure everyone in the society a decent living, and 2) producer credits, which compensate new businesses for start-up costs, so that such costs are not passed onto consumers. The advantage of social credit is that the power behind money stays in the hands of the people as a whole.

Social credit could conceivably be part of a “slowed-down” society in which production was in the hands of communes, small businesses, and other local ventures, in an economy which did not exceed the natural world in its “rate of production.” Such an economy is suggested in the late Teresa Brennan’s volume Globalization and its Terrors. Brennan’s utopian ideal is given in a slogan she calls the “Prime Directive”: “We shall not use up nature and humankind at a rate faster than they can replenish themselves and be replenished.” How this rate is to be calculated is, of course, open to question — but once it is made a part of everyday action, it will be calculated — that’s the important thing to assure.

7) How it will happen

The neoliberals can always point to “democracy” as the pretext for their domination of government in the service of malignant capitalism, the popular will is likely to be thwarted for some time. In the meantime things are likely to get worse.

The optimists among us may point to demand placed upon government, that it come up with solutions to the pressing problems facing America today. The response from government, however, is a mere matter of public relations. We may be able to scrape off a few crumbs from the table out of this process, hopefully enough for continued subsistence.

The catch, then, is that when real solutions are most needed in America today, government can only offer public relations efforts. This leaves the obligation of real social change up to the people as a whole.

To a certain extent, certain populations within the world as a whole are trying to “check out” of the capitalist system on a personal level. We’ve quit the consumer society, we’ve stopped being go-getters at work, we’ve organized to create some autonomy in our lives against the corporations and their all-powerful “free market” which exists as a daily reminder of how worthless we are when made to compete with out-of-control assembly lines. If we are Americans, moreover, “the market" is now starting to thrown us out. Our homes are mere real-estate, collapsing in value faster than our mortgage payments, our jobs are more cheaply done elsewhere in the world, our money declining in value, our health insurance unaffordable.

History is not created by theorists, nor by futuristic science-fiction writers, but by living, breathing people. Thus it is up to you to create the post-capitalism of the future. The words “revolution” and “utopia” are too vague to capture the spirit in which the real-life future will be created. The Russian Revolution was a coup d’etat, the American Revolution was a civil war. Perhaps the breakup of the corporate world in which we live will resemble the breakup of the Soviet Union. Who is to say? At any rate, nothing good will come of waiting. We must make the future.

It’s the capitalist system, s.: a rhetoric

3:18 pm in Uncategorized by cassiodorus

To review: the controversy which had arisen before the State of the Union speech was about Obama’s consideration of a "spending freeze" to apply to certain portions of the budget. I suppose there was an attempt in there to balance it out, in terms of a jobs program and a student aid program.

Now, the standard rhetorical template for criticism of Obama seems to be lodged in a comparison between Obama and some past President. For some critics, he’s FDR; for others, Hoover. The critical question with both comparisons seems to be one of whether Obama can resuscitate the economy using a Keynesian stimulus, as FDR did, or is Obama another Hoover, bailing out the banks while letting the economy sink. Of course, declaring a budget freeze is a Hoover thing to do, whereas the jobs program and the student aid program are FDR moves. The question we ought to be asking, however, is one of whether or not we ought to trust the capitalist economy at all.

The alternative, a post-capitalist economy, is not obvious. As science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson points out, this is because our model of "business as usual" is based upon the short term, in which we imagine the continuance of the current system. However, problems such as abrupt climate change require us to imagine the medium term, in which the continuance of the system runs up against a rather onerous greenhouse effect. We thus need, for this reason and for others, to be thinking of ways in which we might "end the multigenerational Ponzi scheme."

The past is prologue: how we got to this point

The fundamental momentum of history from the mid-1970s onward is captured in Harry Shutt’s 1998 classic, The Trouble With Capitalism. Once upon a time, the reigning truth of capitalist economy was captured by classical economics, in which it was imagined that "economic stimulus" would lead to inflation. The result of classical economy was the "boom-bust cycle," in which periods of growth alternated with periods of economic contraction, because for the existing system to continue there had to be periods of saving as well as periods of spending.

What changed all this was the adoption, by the government, of Keynesian guarantees for the capitalist economy during the second Roosevelt‘s administration (1933-1945). The boom-bust cycle was replaced by a system in which government "pump-priming" was to result in steady economic growth. This worked sporadically until the spending boom of the 1950s and 1960s, when it resulted in the most robust period of economic growth in America’s history.

Of course, this was only to last so long as well. Eventually American corporations, having gotten fat off of the boom period’s profits, would find themselves making products that consumers weren’t buying — but this was during the pivotal period of the 1970s. The economy of the ’70s was characterized by a vast surplus of capital, both in terms of investment funds and actual physical businesses, in comparison with the actual need for business. Inventories were high and sales were low.

So in order to insure the survival of all this surplus capital, the business elites created a new economy in which governments around the world would assure their profitability while jettisoning everything else. This economy was based upon dollar hegemony, and its fundamental trope was "privatization" — privatization of entire economies into corporate hands. This was done mainly through international trade agreements conducted under the slogan of "free trade" and with the assistance of international banks (the "World Bank/ International Monetary Fund") and the World Trade Organization.

Thus the past thirty years have seen the political transformation of the Federal government into a facilitator for the maintenance of the rate of profit. (This might have been bearable had the rest of the world received sufficient attention as well.) As profits through the manufacture of real goods and services slowly declined, however, profits through speculation increased, so the financial "environment" had to be greased for speculators.

As for corporate profit, its fundamental nature was altered so that the foundation of corporate profit was no longer in the manufacture of commodities, but rather in the gaming of the financial system through "bubbles," bouts of asset inflation, and through dependence upon government largess. Shutt’s conclusion about this late form of "development" is ominous:

Indeed it ought scarcely to be a matter of dispute that unless there is a sustained revival of growth rates to levels consistent with both a reversal of the upward spiral of debt and the satisfaction of the financial market’s voracious demand for higher profits, than a cataclysmic collapse of the market values of financial assets and securities will be unavoidable. (183)

Yet all of what the government has done with bank bailouts has been to reinforce those asset values in the absence of such growth rates. Thus the final crash has still not yet happened; corporate dominance of government forestalls it yet.

The recent Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC has revealed how far the process of corporate dominance of government has proceeded. Corporations can, in essence, now buy as much government policy as they so desire. As massacio pointed out over at Firedoglake, the Supreme Court has reinforced "corporatism," the principle of corporate domination over economic and political affairs.

You thus have an endless loop in which government passes legislation profitable to corporations, who use a small portion of the money they get to buy the services of politicians, who then pass more legislation. How are you going to keep political action from becoming just another commodity? Citizens United v. FEC merely re-asserted what we already knew from reading Open Secrets — our politicians are on the take, and that it is easier to take gobs of political money and fool the public than it is to refuse the money and campaign honestly. You say you’re going to pass laws restricting campaign finance, enough to keep money influence out of politics? How are you going to buy the politicians who will do that?

Thus politicians today are further constrained by their immersion in an economic reality which makes them guardians of the "neoliberal state." Kees van der Pijl describes how this happened on a global level in his piece "The Aesthetics of Empire and the Defeat of the Left." Here’s how he describes it:

As a cadre entrusted with the day-to-day management of politics and administration, the ‘political class’ of each state is an internally cohesive force, and the particular sources of the entitlement to occupy state management posts such as the class struggle of the labour movement, have increasingly been left behind by that part of the cadre which entered politics as representatives of the working class aspirations for socialism.

Here is what van der Pijl is saying. Never mind that you may have been a socialist (or whatever) when you were running for office — when you get into public office you discover that you have to work with other politicians in the job of maintaining the neoliberal state. (This, then, is what the rhetoric of "bipartisanship" is all about.) And this neoliberal state, as we can see, is pervaded through and through with corporate interests.

The neoliberal state, however, acts as the guardian of an unstable economic order. We have now entered what John McMurtry called the "cancer stage of capitalism." It’s not as if the corporations are evil — let’s put that up front. The corporations are there to make a profit, and while profit might have been a smart path for them under the earlier dispensation, after World War II and before Reagan, now it just looks parasitical. Today, profit is too tied in with malignancy. Stan Cox’s Sick Planet describes how this works — since capitalist business operates to separate people from their money, it must cater to those who have money (whether they need anything or not), rather than that larger population that genuinely needs something. So parasitical businesses win the day. And, mind you, there’s nothing really wrong with parasites — it’s just that at some point they kill off the host organism. Thus there is something really unsettling about "business as usual" in this era.

Elishastephens reflects upon how this works for the health insurance business in his most recent diary. As an for-profit insurer, your primary job is to separate your clients from their money, and so you want to sell policies full of co-pays, limits, and deductibles, while maximizing your opportunities to deny claims. "Health insurance reform," moreover, will not stop insurers from doing what they would normally do, then, if the penalties for noncompliance are insufficient to deter insurers, or unenforceable. The bottom line is that when you get sick the insurers are hoping to hasten your death, because only your death will limit their payouts and thus save them money.

For the ideologues of capitalism, the corporatist, or neoliberal, reality is not "pure capitalism," as if there were something "pure" about the capitalist system. They associate "capitalism" with "freedom," as in the "free market" (in which participation is in fact both expensive and mandatory, and which grants us a rather low exchange-value as workers unless we have money or property to begin with). The ideologues of capitalism assume that the ingenuity of "capitalist" invention will save us from whatever disaster happens to be occurring at the moment. (The idea that we might get "ingenuity" from some other social order is never even considered by such people.)

There is, however, no quick technical fix for abrupt climate change, and no assurance that capitalist society would be willing to use such a quick technical fix were such a thing in fact available. Remember, world society has had the technical quick fixes to end world hunger for quite some time, yet the world still contains about a billion malnourished people.

What’s to do about it?

This is not 1932 anymore — nor is it 1950 or any previous year. It’s 2010 — pretty late in the game. Thus comparisons of Barack Obama with Hoover or FDR seem to forget which year it is. We need a transition to a different world, not a Keynesian stimulus or a set of half-measures.

Moreover, we are not going to get back to any revival of Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy, or Johnson under current conditions, not under the government we have now, and not even with a different government. The conditions just aren’t there anymore. We no longer live in an expanding nation-state trying to win the Cold War against the USSR.

Any "more and better Democrats" we care to elect will have to reflect upon this fact: the challenges of this era are ecological challenges. They involve reducing, not increasing, the impact of human society upon planet Earth, so that we don’t kill it off — so that future generations can enjoy what Earth has to offer.

The challenges of this era are also, fundamentally, educational challenges. The most important thing to know about the idea of an ecologically-sustainable world society is that it will require that we all be smarter. Not smarter in terms of having more facts in our heads, or in terms of "performance" and "achievement," the buzzwords of the test-prep fanatics, but smarter in terms of being more aware of our interconnectedness with the natural world. The "throw-away" society was an attempt, begun in earnest in the 1950s, to boost economic growth by detaching the consumer society from processes of interaction with the natural world. We need to go "back to nature," instead, in a way which will not amount to mere "green consumerism."

Now this is not a routine call for "socialism" along the lines of what you might read, say, here. We can look at the rhetoric of "socialist" demands to see what the problem is. The demands made in this sample "socialist" article are fair enough, if rather typical:

We need a society that guarantees everyone a job with a pension, housing, free universal health care, free high quality education through college, paid vacation, paid maternity leave and childcare. We deserve the right to live in peace without having to go to war to kill or die for corporate interests.

This looks like something we should all want — however, there is little point in demanding "socialism" as such because there are too many unanswered questions about how we are going to get the social order which will provide such amenities for everyone. The word "revolution" does not make this problem any easier. This is the fundamental problem to be solved — developing a workable post-capitalist order in piecemeal, trial-and-error fashion.

How we create this order will depend upon where we are. Fundamentally, its first prerequisite revolves around the idea of shelter — creating shelter from the requirement that we all participate in a "free market" in which we aren’t worth very much. That’s the prerequisite we’ll need in order to engage alternatives to capitalist ways of doing business.

Conclusion

I’d like to conclude by making a rhetorical point about the State of the Union address. Whereas the President’s speech seemed (to me at last) to be rhetorically based upon the principle of "something for everyone," the Republican response to the State of the Union address contained some rather specific ideological content, as follows:

Here at home government must help foster a society in which all our people can use their God-given talents in liberty to pursue the American Dream. Republicans know that government cannot guarantee individual outcomes, but we strongly believe that it must guarantee equality of opportunity for all.
That opportunity exists best in a democracy which promotes free enterprise, economic growth, strong families, and individual achievement.

Free enterprise, economic growth. Well, that’s how we got to the corporate governance which rules us today. It’s what will get us the further disaster where we’re headed, too, unless we can create an alternative.