2 Responses

  1. [...] email from John Riddell, co-editor of Socialist Voice:Your post this morning was aptly introduced by this question: “Can capitalist society act quickly and effectively to [...]

  2. rethinker April 20, 2007 at 9:04 pm |

    I am very glad that you have responded and begun a more detailed discussion of this question, which I think is one that ecosocialists absolutely must address. I find the ‘Barriers’ article from Tanuro to be quite well-argued, and I recognize that it contains some very important points that anyone would be wise to consider. Yet I find that I am still not quite convinced of what appears to be the implied conclusion. I hope that it is appropriate for me to take some space here to explain the reasons for disagreeing.Perhaps it is most helpful if I set out what I see as the point of contention. When I read arguments to the effect that capitalism will always present barriers to the solution of some problem, I take from them the implication that instead of trying to solve that problem within capitalism, we should work to overthrow capital and establish a socialist economy first, and then we should find it easy to solve the problem. If I am assuming too much here, point words in people’s mouths, then perhaps there isn’t that much to argue over. But I do find that a dangerous line of argument, especially when the problem that confronts us is as urgent as the problem of global warming. My position is that socialists should try to do whatever is most likely to work to stop the problem of global warming, and that isn’t necessarily always to wait until after the revolution to get the problem under control. Socialists have been trying to put an end to capitalist relations of production for quite some time now, and capital has survived despite repeated predictions of its inability to deal with crisis after crisis. My fear is that by insisting that capitalism must be transcended before anything can be done about global warming will mean that our energies will not be put to good use, as it is unlikely that enough other people will be willing to listen to arguments about capitalism being the problem, and our arguments will be ignored and the planet will continue to get hotter. We would be better off working with those, and there does seem to be more and more of them, who want to limit capital’s power to destroy the planet, rather than alienate them with rigid principles that criticise them for their assumptions about economics.Of course, this only makes sense if we can also believe that something meaningful can be done about global warming within the confines of capitalism. I think a good argument can be made that this is not completely out of the question.I do recognize the strength of the analysis of capitalism and the reasons why it will always make it more difficult to deal with these kinds of problem. However, saying that there are reasons why an economic system isn’t likely to solve a problem is not the same thing as saying that it can’t ever deal with the problem. What is needed here is to consider the three ‘barriers’ (from the first post on this blog) one at a time and see if they are insurmountable or just regular old barriers of the surmountable kind.First is the fact that dealing with global warming will require massive spending of a sort that won’t be near-term profitable. This is to some extent true, but is it really the case that this can never be done because capitalists are in charge? Our analysis needs to remember that we don’t have any kind of pure capitalist economy as described in the pages of Marx’s Capital. We have a state-regulated economy, and although the state is by and large controlled by capital, there are many instances from history of the state spending money on solving collective problems, for a variety of reasons. Here in Canada, the state spends something like a third of its expenditures on health care, not just because it is short-term profitable to do so. Another really good example is the massive military spending that governments of the capitalist countries engaged in to defend themselves during WWII. I think these precedents are good reason to suggest that in fact capitalism (through the state) is capable of engaging in massive spending to solve collective problems even when it isn’t in the short-term interest of every part of the capitalist class to pay the taxes necessary. Also it must be recognized that there will be lots of profits to be made building mass transit vehicles, windmills, solar power arrays, and retrofitting homes. It is primarily the fossil fuel industry that stands to lose profits from attempts to solve the problem of global warming, and there is no reason why they can’t be induced to shift their investment into different kinds of activity.Secondly, the problem is global and national economies are competing against each other. This is a big problem, but again there is precedent in solving it. Not only that, but there are only a few economies (US, Europe, Japan, maybe China) that are so dominant as to be able to influence the activity of the rest of the world, so as long as we can get these economies on side, the rest of the world can be bullied into going along with the plan. CFCs were eliminated, and I am aware that oil plays a much more central role in industrial economies, but if capitalists can collectively recognize their interests on a national scale, as I argued in the last paragraph, then they should be able to do so on a global scale. Again, in WWII, this problem was solved. The US took its time taking up arms against the Nazis, but overall we didn’t have the freerider problem happening with all the Allies just waiting for each other to stop Hitler. A similar dynamic might be possible this time around too.Third, the restructuring of our economy will need to be all-encompassing, for sure. Right down to the level of individual consumer choices. Capitalism isn’t the kind of thing we expect to be able to do that, but I think some care needs to be taken here. After WWII, the economic structure was transformed massively from one oriented towards laissez faire liberalism towards a Keynesian welfare state – perhaps not as much in the US as in some other countries, but still the changes involved in allowing workers legal rights to collectively bargain and massively increasing state spending on social goods was not a small one. And then, of course, over the course of the 80s and 90s, that was all reversed and the economy has reverted to laissez-faire, this time with an international dimension based on free trade agreements. Why can’t we argue for a similar transformation of capitalism towards a more ecologically sustainable version?Tanuro’s discussion actually provides three slightly different barriers, and I should deal with them in a further post. But let also make three more general points.First, what is really needed in this kind of debate is not just generalizations about what is in the interest of capital and what it isn’t, but some discussion of the basic structure of capitalism as a set of production relations and what they imply for ecology. Is there something about the private control of the means of production, or the commodification of labour power, that can be logically extended to demonstrate that capitalism must continue to consume fossil fuels at current rates? I believe that such an analysis would reveal that capitalism is a radically adaptive system – it has survived many a serious threat in the last 100 years – and so there is reason to think that it could be forced to adapt to more sustainable practices.Secondly, the metaphor of a war on waste, or a state of emergency, seem to me to be really very helpful. Only that kind of phrasing of the question, I believe, is likely to get the ruling class to act on to solve the problem that all of us face. We are facing a threat more serious than any military threat and we need to mobilize all of society’s resources in a centrally controlled effort to stop it! That kind of appeal is the only thing that has worked in the past.And lastly, I hope that no one will take my arguments here to be a defence of capital and its right to pollute in any way shape or form. I am a socialist and hope to help eliminate capitalism some day, but fear that global warming needs to be, and can be dealt with first. So I hope no on
    e will respond by telling me that markets in carbon offsets aren’t effective, etc – I am not arguing for market-based solutions. Stopping global warming might be possible within capitalism, but if so, it will require a strong state that can stand up to capital, tax it, regulate it, and otherwise restrict its capacity to profit. In other words, it will require us to argue for the kinds of things that socialists support anyway. With some effective political work, we might be able to further both aims. Hopefully, once all other options are exhausted, and it becomes obvious that state direction of a large sector of the economy is absolutely necessary for solving the problem, it might be possible to convince more and more social democrats and left-liberals that in fact capitalism will always be a problem, and we can come out of this crisis having weakened or even mortally wounded capital. But that isn’t the same thing as waiting for the revolution to happen first.rethinker

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