Paul Sweezy: Capitalism versus the environment

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[Quotes and Insights #27]

Since there is no way to increase the capacity of the environment to bear the burdens placed on it, it follows that the adjustment must come entirely from the other side of the equation.

And since the disequilibrium has already reached dangerous proportions, it also follows that what is essential for success is a reversal, not merely a slowing down, of the underlying trends of the last few centuries.

We have seen that at the heart of these trends is an economic system driven by the energy and inventiveness of entities — individuals, partnerships, in the last hundred years corporations — out to advance their own economic interests with little thought and less concern for the effects on either society as a whole or the natural environment which it draws on for the essentials of its existence.

Already a century and a half ago Marx and Engels, in a memorable passage from the Communist Manifesto, paid a remarkable tribute to the energy and achievements of the then young capitalist mode of production:

“The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of nature’s forces to man’s machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalization of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground—what earlier century had even a presentiment that such forces slumbered in the lap of social labor?”

Actually, when this was written in 1847 the rule of the bourgeoisie extended to only a small part of the earth’s surface, and the new sciences and technologies harnessing the forces of nature to human purposes were still in their infancy. Since then capitalism has spread to become a truly global system, and the development and application of science and technology to industry and agriculture have progressed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams a hundred and fifty years ago.

Despite all the dramatic changes, however, the system remains in essence what it was at its birth, a juggernaut driven by the concentrated energy of individuals and small groups single-mindedly pursuing their own interests, checked only by their mutual competition, and controlled in the short run by the impersonal forces of the market and in the longer run, when the market fails, by devastating crises.

Implicit in the very concept of this system are interlocked and enormously powerful drives to both creation and destruction.

On the plus side, the creative drive relates to what humankind can get out of nature for its own uses; on the negative side, the destructive drive bears most heavily on nature’s capacity to respond to the demands placed on it.

Sooner or later, of course, these two drives are contradictory and incompatible. And since, as argued above, the adjustment must come from the side of the demands imposed on nature rather than from the side of nature’s capacity to respond to these demands, we have to ask whether there is anything about capitalism as it has developed over recent centuries to cause us to believe that the system could curb its destructive drive and at the same time transform its creative drive into a benign environmental force.

The answer, unfortunately, is that there is absolutely nothing in the historic record to encourage such a belief. The purpose of capitalist enterprise has always been to maximize profit, never to serve social ends.

Mainstream economic theory since Adam Smith has insisted that by directly maximizing profit the capitalist (or entrepreneur) is indirectly serving the community. All the capitalists together, maximizing their individual profits, produce what the community needs while keeping each other in check by their mutual competition.

All this is true, but it is far from being the whole story.

Capitalists do not confine their activities to producing the food, clothing, shelter, and amenities society needs for its existence and reproduction. In their single-minded pursuit of profit, in which none can refuse to join on pain of elimination, capitalists are driven to accumulate ever more capital, and this becomes both their subjective goal and the motor force of the entire economic system.

It is this obsession with capital accumulation that distinguishes capitalism from the simple system for satisfying human needs it is portrayed as in mainstream economic theory. And a system driven by capital accumulation is one that never stands still, one that is forever changing, adopting new and discarding old methods of production and distribution, opening up new territories, subjecting to its purposes societies too weak to protect themselves.

Caught up in this process of restless innovation and expansion, the system rides roughshod over even its own beneficiaries if they get in its way or fall by the roadside.

As far as the natural environment is concerned, capitalism perceives it not as something to be cherished and enjoyed but as a means to the paramount ends of profit-making and still more capital accumulation.

Such is the inner nature, the essential drive of the economic system that has generated the present environmental crisis.

Naturally it does not operate without opposition. Efforts have always been made to curb its excesses, not only by its victims but also in extreme cases by its more far-sighted leaders. Marx, in Capital, wrote feelingly about nineteenth-century movements for factory legislation and the ten-hours bill, describing the latter as a great victory for the political economy of the working class.

And during the present century conservation movements have emerged in all the leading capitalist countries and have succeeded in imposing certain limits on the more destructive depredations of uncontrolled capital. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that without constraints of this kind arising within the system, capitalism by now would have destroyed both its environment and itself.

Not surprisingly, such constraints, while sometimes interfering with the operations of individual capitalists, never go so far as to threaten the system as a whole. Long before that point is reached, the capitalist class, including the state which it controls, mobilizes its defenses to repulse environmental-protection measures perceived as dangerously extreme.

Thus despite the development of a growing environmental consciousness and the movements to which it has given rise in the last century, the environmental crisis continues to deepen. There is nothing in the record or on the horizon that could lead us to believe the situation will significantly change in the foreseeable future.

If this conclusion is accepted—and it is hard to see how anyone who has studied the history of our time can refuse, at the very least, to take it seriously—it follows that what has to be done to resolve the environmental crisis, hence also to insure that humanity has a future, is to replace capitalism with a social order based on an economy devoted not to maximizing private profit and accumulating ever more capital but rather to meeting real human needs and restoring the environment to a sustainably healthy condition.

This, in a nutshell, is the meaning of revolutionary change today. Lesser measures of reform, no matter how desirable in themselves, could at best slow down the fatal process of decline and fall that is already so far advanced.

Is the position taken here in effect a restatement of the traditional Marxist case for a socialist revolution?

Yes, but with one crucial proviso: The socialism to be achieved must be conceived, as Marx and Engels always conceived it, as the quintessential negation of capitalism — not as a society that eliminates the most objectionable features of capitalism such as gross inequality of income, mass unemployment, cyclical depressions, financial panics, and so on.

It is capitalism itself, with its in-built attitude toward human beings and nature alike as means to an alien end that must be rooted out and replaced.

Humanity, having learned to perform miracles of production, must at last learn to use its miraculous powers not to degrade itself and destroy its home but to make the world a better place to live in for itself and its progeny for millennia to come.

One final note. We call the society with these revolutionary aims socialism. But it certainly will not and cannot be anyone’s utopia. No doubt it will do many things badly, at least for a long time, probably worse than capitalism.

The relevant questions are different: whether it has once and for all stopped emulating capitalism, set itself the right goals, and is genuinely striving to achieve them.

If and when these questions can be answered in the affirmative, we shall be on the road to salvation.

From a paper presented in 1988 by the noted Marxist economist Paul Sweezy in 1988. The full text was published in Monthly Review.