Capitalism vs Ecology: Hyperconsumption or Hyperaccumulation?

Another critique of the ecological views of the author of How the Rich are Destroying the Planet

After Climate and Capitalism reviewed Hervé Kempf’s book How the Rich Are Destroying the Planet, a reader drew our attention to this article by Marc Bonhomme, a long-time activist in socialist and independentist movements in Quebec, published on August 28 in his blog, under the title L’écologie, d’Hervé Kempf à Françoise David. Many thanks to Marc for permission to publish here, and to Richard Fidler for the translation.

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by Marc Bonhomme

On August 26, on the web site of Québec solidaire, the party’s chief spokeswoman, Françoise David, posted a small essay entitled “Ecology without justice is not ecology.” This essay completely ignores the post-Kyoto objectives, although these are the main topic of the current international debate on ecology issues. One might have thought that the QS spokeswoman would stand on the objectives in the final report for 2007 of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a UN body, which Greenpeace-Canada summarizes as follows:

.”.. to maintain the Earth’s average temperature increase below this 2% ceiling, global greenhouse gas emissions will have to be reduced to the 1990 level by 2020 and reduced by a further 50% by 2050.

“For Canada and the other industrialized countries, the objective is still more radical: greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by 30% from the 1990 level by 2020 and by 80% by 2050.”

Keep that under your hat. She prefers to base herself on the positions of Hervé Kempf, the environmental columnist for the centre-right French newspaper Le Monde. We can understand why when we observe the degree of generality, imprecision and above all lack of audacity in the spokeswoman’s proposals. In January 2007, Le Devoir published a front-page interview with Hervé Kempf. I reacted with a short critical essay. I drew attention to the ambiguity of Kempf’s analysis concerning anticapitalism, the standard of living of ordinary people, and especially the closures of profitable factories. The Québec solidaire leadership is strangely silent about the latter, notwithstanding the frequency of such closures or mass layoffs.

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Le Devoir’s anticapitalist punch: The better to serve the bosses

“Capitalism said to be at the origin of the social and ecological crises” was the subtitle on a page one article in Le Devoir on January 6, 2007. The only way it could be said more clearly would be to make the allegation a simple factual statement. Indeed, says the author of this statement, Hervé Kempf, Le Monde’s environmental columnist:

“The social system currently governing human society, capitalism, is blindly bracing itself in opposition to the indispensable changes that must be made if we want to preserve the dignity and promise of human existence…. We cannot understand the concomitance of the ecological and social crises if we do not analyze them as two facets of the same disaster.”

However, isn’t it the case that capitalism, far from being blind, is simply obeying the laws of valorization of capital?

Politically, global capitalism, says Kempf

“relies on crises such as that of September 11 to appreciably reduce the human rights won through struggle and to neutralize, if not eliminate altogether, the democratic mechanisms that allow free public debate on choices of projects, the choices of society that are raised repeatedly by the workings of the economy.”

However, isn’t it the case that capitalism constrains parliamentary democracy within the narrow limit of private ownership of the means of production and circulation?

Similarly, Kempf notes the inanity of the actually existing alternatives:

“But he notes as well that a large part of the European left has not seen how deeply related the two problems are, just as many ecologists, who cling to an environmentalist approach, miss half the problem if not its primary cause.”

But isn’t it true that pinks and greens alike, accepting the electoralism inherent in parliamentary institutions, thereby abandon any challenge in the streets to the sacredness of private property?

Kempf’s solution to the evils of capital?

“To end this race to conspicuous consumption, he advocates radical controls on wealth by ‘putting limits on the maximum wage and the accumulation of inherited wealth,’ a sort of counterpart of the minimum wage but from above. …

“We must add to the ecologist principle ‘Think globally, act locally,’ initially so useful in creating awareness, the principle that the situation imposes: ‘Consume less, distribute better.’ …

“That is why, he says, it is necessary to ‘lower the rich’ instead of raising up the poor, and to begin to respect the irreversible thresholds of deterioration of the planet’s resources.”

There is no disputing this “model of hyperconsumption that the lower classes, and especially the middle class, are now trying to imitate, just as the developing countries try to imitate the western countries….” Like a plague of obesity that deforms the body, it is only too clear that our cities are swimming in garbage and pollution, and that the ecological balance of the earth is on the verge of breaking down.

Hyperconsumption or hyperaccumulation?

But it is still necessary to discover the origin of this self-destructive hyperconsumption. By rejecting Marxism as an anti-humanist ideology, Kempf deprives himself of an essential tool; Marx, after all, laid the foundations of a science of history that has provided the key to understanding the barbarities of the past and present.

Hyperconsumption is nothing other than the caricature by the world’s middle classes — petty bourgeoisie and labour aristocracy — of the accumulation of capital. With warmongering neoliberalism, this accumulation of capital has become hyperaccumulation both of the means of production (not only in the old auto industry, now in a crisis of overproduction but above all in the new teleinformatics, where planned obsolescence is systematic), and of the means of destruction on a basis of permanent (and no longer cold) war.

Until the 30 golden years of postwar expansion (1945-75), the supposed marvels of consumerism were not generally accessible to the mass of the world’s proletariat, despite the anticipatory innovation of the “American way of life” in the USA that Thorstein Veblen had announced in 1903 in The Theory of the Leisure Class, in which he had demonstrated the counter-revolutionary political function of conspicuous expenditures in the gilded age of the robber barons described by Mark Twain and denounced by the muckrakers:

“The workers do not seek to displace their managers; they seek to emulate them. They themselves acquiesce in the general judgment that the work they do is somehow less ‘dignified’ than the work of their masters, and their goal is not to rid themselves of a superior class but to climb up to it.” (Robert Heilbroner, The Worldly Philosophers, Fifth edition, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1980, pages 230-231)

If conspicuous consumption marks a break with the puritanism and Victorian moral hypocrisy of the British Empire, which until then had restrained the consumption of the new middle classes generated by the rising imperialism, it really only began to extend to them during the “Roaring Twenties,” only to be brutally interrupted by the Great Depression of the Thirties followed by the Second World War. Even after that, the mass consumption of the proletariat,[1] the offspring of the conspicuous spending of the leisure class, was not the driving force of the postwar boom although it does explain no doubt its longevity and even more so its end.

The principal driving force of the effective demand of the postwar boom was not in fact mass consumption but the huge reconstruction effort in the wake of the devastation of the war, financed by the victors (e.g. the Marshall and Dodge plans), not to mention the immense work of re-equipping the industry of the Anglo-Saxon countries exhausted by the war effort. Then came the pent-up demand of the middle classes, fueled by victory bonds and mortgage credit, which in turn necessitated a major deployment of public works financed by the public debt.

Proletarian mass consumption, financed by the generalization of credit and stimulated by a new wave of advertising that developed during the postwar boom, simply prolonged this massive primary effective demand. However, it was not so much an economic means as it was the political response, predicted by Veblen, to the resurgence of the postwar trade-union struggles in the victorious countries against a backdrop of revolutionary upsurge in the conquered countries other than Germany, former colonies and dependent countries, from the Chinese Revolution of 1949 to the decolonization of the Sixties. It was not conceded in good grace by Capital, therefore, but out of corrupting necessity.

The crumbling of socialist hope, as a result of the Stalinist degeneration and the collapse of actually existing socialism, created the conditions for the victory of this ideological and political corruption. Proletarian solidarity found itself disarmedboth by the strangulation of monthly payment deadlines and by the individualism of the suburban bungalow and car. Neoliberalism took advantage of this to substitute for the proletarian mass consumption of the imperialist countries, which responded poorly to some genuine needs, the hyperconsumption of the global middle classes, which responds poorly to some virtual needs. The other side of the coin is the generalization of massive poverty and inequalities in the third world, including in the high-growth countries, and a generalized cancer in the imperialist countries.

That is how Capital was able to re-establish a compromised rate of profit[2] without, however, creating the conditions for a stabilization of the new paradigm, which lacked an effective engine of demand. This could be the (re)equipment of the production apparatus of the major third world countries if imperialism managed to recolonize them in order to gain control over their surplus value,[3] hence the necessary conversion of free-trade neoliberalism into warmongering neoliberalism. Hyperconsumption, while it is necessary to warmongering neoliberalism to provide it with a social basis in the middle classes and to dangle as a carrot in front of the proletarian donkey, is far from sufficient to guarantee an effective demand heralding an ascendant phase of the long wave[4] but it does, as a corollary of hyperaccumulation, help to disrupt the major ecological balances.

To fight hyperconsumption in isolation is reactionary

While Le Devoir’s subtitle challenged capitalism, such was not the case with the main headline “The rich on trial” (Les riches au banc des accusés). Who are the rich? Rich can, of course, be defined as a synonym for capitalist or bourgeois, but it is usually understand as the opposite of poor. Are the so-called middle classes poor? Is the majority of the proletariat in the imperialist countries poor? To ask the question is to answer it. So it is the majority of the inhabitants of the imperialist countries, or almost, who are said to be on trial. It is true that, assessed by that yardstick, the majority of the globe’s inhabitants could be considered poor… but they are even more guilty than the super-rich because they produce too many children:[5]

“Hervé Kempf is quick to acknowledge that [soaring population growth] certainly has a greater impact globally than all the hyperconsumption of this oligarchy composed of a few hundred thousand millionaires and billionaires, who control the bulk of the incomes and financial capital.”

So that is what, in this context, is meant by “lower the rich” without “raising up the poor.” Should we abolish Law 142 in order to raise the wages of the state employees who have been the victims of a two-year wage freeze?[6] Isn’t that instead a great opportunity to reduce the consumption of the rich? Should we pity the 800 Goodyear workers in Valleyfield who have lost their jobs? Weren’t they too well paid when, according to the mayor of Valleyfield, “ regionally, we even suffer a shortage of skilled labour in some areas.”[7] to which the chief of regional economic development added: “ For the fifteen or so employers [in the metalworking and reinforced concrete industry] who are looking for workers, it is good news.”[8] Now, there’s a new lowering of the rich that will also contribute to regional development!

Using Kempf’s reasoning, the thing is not to raise the minimum wage but to decree a maximum wage, no doubt set at the level that Goodyear — or the countless textile and clothing businesses that shut down in 2006, so many that the FTQ no longer wanted to talk about them in its year-end balance sheet — would consider adequate to avoid shutting their doors after having forced concessions from the union in 1999 in return for promised investments in modernization that were never implemented.[9] Quebec employers will no doubt be happy to have found a new ally in this scourge of capitalism who volunteers his services to the implacable imperatives of competitiveness on behalf of the ecological struggle.

“Prohibit all layoffs”

If you really want to look at France for a left response to wage stagnation and layoffs by profitable companies, you would be better off to follow the example of the emergency program of the candidate of the Ligue communiste révolutionnaire for President, Olivier Besancenot, who is polling between 4 and 5%. Concerning factory closures, his emergency program proposes a complete “ban on all layoffs”:[10]

“What is needed is a straightforward incursion into capitalist property by outlawing layoffs, making employment contracts permanent irrespective of changes in position or skills; employment contracts to be the complete responsibility of the employer, the professional field or local employers irrespective of the vagaries of this or that activity. …Such choices can only be imposed on the bosses.

“It is the prohibition of all layoffs that we demand, therefore, the outlawing of dismissals by imposing the maintenance of the employment contract. To finance potential incongruities in these rules, an occupational social security fund might be established, financed by employer contributions pegged to wages and managed (as the whole social security system should be) by representatives of the workers.”

The unfortunate reality in Quebec remains the everlasting committee of survival or reclassification in which the employers, local officials, provincial and federal governments, and labour leaders, each blaming the other, work in unison to pressure the union ranks to wrest still more concessions, ending up at best with a solution like the one in Paccar[11] based on huge government subsidies with a bonus investment from the so-called Solidarity Fund… with the same employer, no doubt. As to the leadership of Québec solidaire, let us hope for more than silence, and at least support for the trade-union leaders.

Footnotes

[1] The mass consumption of the proletariat meets the needs for housing and transportation through the bungalow and the automobile, and not collective housing or mass public transit. The hyperconsumption of the middle classes is reflected in monster houses and SUVs, once the bungalow and the so-called family car proved ill-suited to those needs.

[2] See http://www.marcbonhomme.com/page0/files/page0_blog_entry42_2.pdf.

[3] See the paragraphs “Les conditions économiques d’une sortie de crise sont partiellement réunies” et seq. in http://www.marcbonhomme.com/page0/files/page0_blog_entry37_2.pdf.

[4] For a theoretical explanation of the concept of “long waves,” see http://hussonet.free.fr/mandel05.pdf.

[5] On the question of overpopulation, the following comment by Mike Davis, author of Planet of Slums, is very relevant:

“The paramount question is not whether the population has grown too large, but: how do you square the circle between, on the one hand, social justice with some kind of equitable right to a decent standard of living, and, on the other, environmental sustainability? There aren’t too many people in the world – but there is, obviously, over-consumption of non-renewable resources on a planetary scale. Of course, the way to square that circle – the solution to the problem – is the city itself. Cities that are truly urban are the most environmentally efficient systems that we have ever created for living together and working with nature. The particular genius of the city is its ability to provide high standards of living through public luxury and public space, and to satisfy needs that can never be meet by the suburban private consumption model. …

[T]he question of whether certain cities become monstrously over-sized has less to do with the number of people living there, than with how they consume, whether they reuse and recycle resources, whether they share public space.” (http://bldgblog.blogspot.com/2006/05/interview-with-mike-davis-part-2.html)

[6] Translator’s note: Law 142, enacted by the Charest government in December 2005, imposed a 33-month wage freeze (retroactive to June 30, 2003) and annual wage increases of 2 percent in the last four years of an almost seven-year contract. It applied to 500,000 hospital workers, teachers, civil servants, school support staff and other provincial public-sector employees.

[7] Denis Lapointe, mayor of Valleyfield, Radio-Canada news, January 5, 2007.

[8] Janic Tremblay notes that the news created a shock wave, Radio-Canada, January 4, 2007: http://www.radio-canada.ca/nouvelles/Economie-Affaires/2007/01/04/001-goodyear-emplois-pertes.shtml.

[9] For the unrealized promises, see http://www.radio-canada.ca/nouvelles/29/29242.htm, and for the union concessions, see http://www.radio-canada.ca/nouvelles/22/22116.htm.

[10] See http://www.fluctuat.net/3841-Programme-d-Olivier-Besancenot.

[11] [Translator’s note] In the mid-1990s, Paccar, a multinational company, announced it would close its Kenworth truck manufacturing plant at Ste-Thérèse, laying off 850 workers. Jean-Marc Piotte describes the end result of the lengthy negotiations:

“ The union had to accept all the employer demands but one: it was able to retain the union seniority clause. Of the 850 workers employed when the plant closed, 350 would be recalled in 1998 and 350 were placed on a recall list while the others would take early retirement. How can one seriously talk about a union victory and respect for the dignity of the workers? The multinational Paccar, which garnered a profit of $295 million in 1995, obtained the cancellation of millions of dollars of fines for non-compliance with the automobile pact incorporated in the NAFTA, a no-interest loan of $13.5 million from the federal and provincial governments, a Quebec government grant of $8,000 for each job “created” and a loan from the [FTQ] Solidarity Fund of $26.5 million…. There was one winner, Paccar, before which the union and our two governments had to kowtow in order to negotiate keeping 350 workers employed.”– Jean-Marc Piotte, Du Combat au Partenariat : Interventions critiques sur le syndicalisme québécois (Montréal: Les Éditions Nota Bene, 1998, pp. 208-211.)

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