A great example of commodity fetishism – or, the way in which living under capitalist society makes us believe that things which are not real are, in fact, real – is what is commonly known as “the miracle of compound interest”. Blogger Erin Burt from kiplinger.com enthuses: “It magically turns a little bit of money, invested wisely, into a whole lot of cash.”
Actually, as any Marxist can tell you, there’s no magic in that. A bank account full of money doesn’t breed as if it were a nest of cockroaches, although there are similarities. Exponential growth in bank deposits is made possible by exponential growth in the real world of commodities which those deposits are designed to purchase. And the exponential growth which – as Waikato union organiser and permaculturalist Rob George puts it in this issue – is “in capitalism’s DNA” is based on continually intensifying exploitation of both labour and nature. The miracle of compound interest is the miracle of how much working people – and planet Earth – can tolerate being vampirized.
In a sense, this issue of UNITY follows on from not only the last issue – which showcased Grant Morgan’s blockbuster article setting out the case that capitalism is on a collapse trajectory – but from our January 2006 issue, “System Change Not Climate Change”. We aim to show in this issue that the natural, physical limits to exponential capitalist growth – the resource and climate crises mentioned in our last issue – will lead to a crash and replacement with some other system, sooner than later, no matter the system’s inbuilt defenses.
The idea that there might be limits to capitalism other than the resistance of workers is not a new one in Marxist theory. Rosa Luxemburg, one of the giants of our intellectual tradition, suggested something similar in her groundbreaking 1903 work, /The Accumulation of Capital/. Capitalism, Luxemburg argued, was reliant on a non-capitalist “outside” to commodify and feed to the insatiable machine. If that “outside” were to ever run out, so would the life of the system itself. This is a point replicated admirably by David Parker’s demolition of the pollution market (aka “carbon trading”). Here, capitalism is attempting to commodify the production of pollutants itself – which is mathematically certain to do nothing but create more pollution.
Another, “kindler and gentler” commodification response is the Green New Deal proposed by several liberal and social democratic figures. But as Rob George ably points out, that’s just another approach to producing more, and creating more profit. The “Jevons Paradox” – that increases in resource efficiency actually lead to increases in resource consumption – will ensure that the glorious new dawn of electric cars and solar batteries will end up becoming more of a long-term problem than what it replaced. As Kay Weir shows, that’s already happening before our eyes in the form of the “biofuel” (actually agrofuel) industry.
An increasing number of groups around the world are declaring themselves to be “ecosocialist” – that is, anti-capitalist but also anti-productivist, challenging the fetishisation of economic growth which tainted many historically “socialist” countries. The Belém Declaration of 2009 offers a rallying call for activists around the world – already, dozens of New Zealanders have signed up. One of the declaration’s authors, Joel Kovel, goes on to explain what concrete efforts have been made to turn this into a global organisation. We also show by example what a tiny socialist group in opposition (in Australia) and what a mass force which is in government (in Venezuela) have made of the concept of ecosocialism, turning nice ideas into a platform for action.
On the subject of action, one sentence in Rob George’s contribution to this issue particularly stands out for me: “Increasingly capitalism will not be left to its own devices. Our environment will see to that.”
This comes after Rob has expressed his scepticism about one of the traditional bases of Marxist theory – that the working class, and only the working class, have the motive and the opportunity to put an end to the capitalist system.
As Marxists, we must fight against allowing our knowledge of the objective resource limits of capitalism to turn into fatalism, a belief that we can’t do anything, but not to worry, the revenge of Mother Nature will do it for us. The system will certainly break down. The question of whether this breakdown will be the birth of a perfect barbarism, or the dawn of a new world, can only be down to a question of what new social forces emerge from the breakdown – which is at least partly a question of political action in the here and now.
The human capacity to adapt and survive is one of the most glorious and one of the most tragic things about our species-being. People can put up with a hell of a lot, if there’s no obvious alternative – the survivors of Auschwitz, Rwanda or Gaza are living proof of that. In acts of everyday heroism, working people work long hours, feed their families, do what they’re told, and keep going day after day over long, lonely lifetimes.
But the price of this heroism is a continual, and rising, psychic undercurrent of stress, violence and mental ill-health, erupting regularly into violence against self, others and property. As long as the working class can tolerate the system, it can reproduce itself.
So I’d agree that there’s nothing inevitable about class consciousness or revolt. However, I think one of the limits in what Rob is saying is indicated by the fact that he – and Michael Burawoy, whom he quotes – refers to “the proletariat” in the third person. We would be extremely suspicious of Pakeha theoreticians discussing the prospects for tino rangatiratanga, or male writers discussing women’s liberation. Liberation can mean only self-activity. One of the great successes for capitalism since the 1960s and 1970s has been to draw the sting from struggles for gender, sexual and ethnic liberation by allowing the intellectual leaders of these oppressed groups to rise into the middle classes – as authors or academics. In the workers’ movement, it’s been more or less the opposite – leadership has been “professionalised”, becoming something you go to university to learn – but the outcome is much the same.
There is a perception that the movement for ecological justice is, far from being a mass movement, a movement of disaffected middle-class layers who see themselves as “enlightened” and define themselves in opposition to the masses. Too often we hear the suggestion that working people who shop at The Warehouse, or drive old-model gas-guzzling cars to get to work out in industrial suburbs, are part of the problem – and that those privileged to live in “eco-communities” with composting toilets and plenty of leisure time to grow vegetables are the vanguard of change.
But the Marxist attitude is that those who will transform the world will educate themselves while working in call centres, railway shunting yards and fast-food outlets – and that it’s precisely because of their experience up at the coalface of the system that they will become convinced of the necessity and possibility of a new, sustainable world, and be in a position to do something about it. For this reason, we must bring the daily struggles of working (as well as indigenous) people into the heart of ecosocialist analysis. An ecosocialist movement which doesn’t root itself in the lived everyday experience of the oppressed masses is doomed to be able to only fiddle around the edges as the planet burns.