Avoiding the capitalist apocalypse

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In ‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century,’ Thomas Piketty says capitalism has avoided a Marxist apocalypse. This misrepresents Marxism, and ignores the ever-increasing degradation and destruction of life on Earth, and the looming threat of climate disaster.

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by Paul Street
Znet, April 12, 2014

The French economist Thomas Piketty’s magisterial, marvelously cross-disciplinary, and audaciously titled volume Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press, 2014) contains an interesting statement on its very first page.

“Modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge,” Piketty writes, “have made it possible to avoid the Marxist apocalypse but have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality – or in any case not as much as one might have imagined in the optimistic decades following World War II.” (Capital in the Twenty-First Century, p.1).

Who is Piketty’s (or his translator’s) “one” here? Certainly not a Marxist who was familiar with his or her hero’s (Karl Marx’s) analysis, according to which capitalism naturally tends towards the concentration of wealth and income.

The ‘Marxist apocalypse’ that wasn’t

And what is “the Marxist apocalypse” that hasn’t happened, exactly? Piketty means the growing division of Western industrial society between a wealthy bourgeoisie on one hand and a vast property-less proletariat, leading (in Marx’s vision) to international working class and socialist/communist revolution – what Piketty calls “Marx’s dark prophecy.” (Capital in the Twenty-First Century, p.9)

He is of course correct that the European and North American socialist revolution Marx dreamed of didn’t happen in the late 19th or 20th centuries. Neither did proletarian immiseration on the scale that Marx predicted [1] – at least not in the core Western countries at the center of capitalist development.

But why call Marx’s dialectical divination “apocalyptic” and “dark”? “In the place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms,” Marx proclaimed in 1848, “we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the conditions for the free development of all.” For Marx and many socialist, communist, and left anarchist fellow revolutionaries of the mid and late-19th century, workers’ revolution – the overthrow of private capital and its savage, amoral profits system and the replacement of the capitalist ruling class by the popular reign of the associated producers and citizens in service to the common good was hardly a catastrophe.

To the contrary, it was for them the dawning of the end of the long human pre-history of class rule, ushering in the possibility of a world beyond exploitation and the de facto dictatorship of privileged owners – a “true realm of freedom” beyond endless toil and necessity, “worthy of [homo sapiens’] “human nature.” [2]

The capitalist apocalypse that is

Piketty is free to call this dream naïve, unrealistic, impractical, ill-conceived, even dangerous, of course. Still, “dark” and even “apocalyptic” seem coldly unfair and at least unnecessary. Those word choices suggest a certain elite bias. It’s always been the ruling classes who have most particularly found Marx’s ideas destructive and catastrophic – this for obvious reasons.”

But have we really avoided “Marxist apocalypse” in the years since Marx wrote. Forget for a moment the cataclysmic wars, imperial policies, abject plutocracy, and misery of the 20th and early 21st centuries, terrible problems that Marxist and other radical intellectuals and activists are quite willing and able to root in the system of class rule called capitalism – with great justification I might add. Forget the global pauperization that has spread like something out of The Communist Manifesto in the neoliberal era[3], however much the rich nations may have avoided Piketty’s “Marxist apocalypse.”

The common ruin of the contending classes

Put all that aside for a moment, if you can, and reflect on the growing environmental catastrophe that now poses a genuine threat of human extinction in the not-so-distant historical future. Marx suggested a different and actually apocalyptic alternative to proletarian revolution in the Manifesto:

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.”[4]

Can there by any serious doubt that “the modern economic growth” that Piketty praises for having kept “the Marxist apocalypse” at bay threatens to bring about “the common ruin of the contending classes” – indeed the ever-increasing degradation and final destruction of life on Earth – precisely because it is taking place under the command of capital? More than merely dangerous, uncomfortable, and expensive, the new weather patterns threaten the world’s food and water supplies. They raise the real specter of human extinction if and when terrible “tipping points” like the large-scale release of Arctic methane (a potential near-term context for truly “runaway global warming”) are passed.

The related problem of ocean acidification (a change in the ocean’s chemistry resulting from excessive human carbon emissions) is attacking the very building blocks of life under the world’s great and polluted seas. Thanks to climate change and other forms of toxic human intervention in global ecosystems, we most add drastically declining biodiversity – a technical phrase for the massive dying off of other species – to the list of “ecological rifts”[5] facing humanity and other living and sentient beings in the 21st century.

The findings and judgments of the best contemporary earth science are crystal clear. As the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research (UK) concluded last year:

“Today, in 2013, we face an unavoidably radical future… We either continue with rising emissions and reap the radical repercussions of severe climate change, or we acknowledge that we have a choice and pursue radical emission reductions: No longer is there a non-radical option. Moreover, low-carbon supply technologies cannot deliver the necessary rate of emission reductions – they need to be complemented with rapid, deep and early reductions in energy consumption.”[6]

Sadly, however, the Tyndall scientists failed to raise the question of the deeper social-systemic cancer behind the spreading disease of human-generated climate change. The disease is capitalism[7], for whose masters and apologists the answer to the venerable popular demand for equality has long been “more.” The answer is based on the theory that growth creates “a rising tide that lifts all boats” in ways that make us forget about the fact that a wealthy few are sailing luxuriantly in giant yachts while most of us are struggling to keep afloat in modest motorboats and rickety dinghies.

As Le Monde’s ecological editor Herve Kempf noted in his aptly titled book The Rich Are Destroying the Earth (2007), “the oligarchy” sees the pursuit of material growth as “the solution to the social crisis,” the “sole means of fighting poverty and unemployment,” and the “only means of getting societies to accept extreme inequalities without questioning them. . . . Growth,” Kempf explained, “would allow the overall level of wealth to arise and consequently improve the lot of the poor without—and this part is never spelled out [by the economic elite]—any need to modify the distribution of wealth.”[8]

“Growth,” the liberal economist Henry Wallich explained (approvingly) in 1972, “is a substitute for equality of income. So long as there is growth there is hope, and that makes large income differentials tolerable.”[9]

Of course, growth is more than an ideology under the profit system. It is also a material, economic imperative for investors, managers, workers, and policymakers caught up in the disastrous competitive world-capitalist logic of what John Bellamy Foster calls “the global ‘treadmill of production.” Capitalism demands constant growth to meet the competitive accumulation requirements of capital, the employment needs of an ever-expanding global class or proletarians (workers dependent on wages), the sales needs of corporations, and governing officials’ need to legitimize their power by appearing to advance national economic development and security.[10]

This system can no more forego growth and survive than a person can stop breathing and live. It is, as Joel Kovel notes, a system based on the “eternal expansion of the economic product,” and the “conver [sion of] everything possible [including the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil and plants] into monetary [exchange] value.”

“The Earth we live on,” Kovel notes, “is finite, and its ecosystems have evolved to accommodate to that finitude. Therefore, a system built on endless growth is going to destroy the integrity of the ecosystems upon which life depends for food, energy, and other resources.”[11]

Consistent with this harsh reality, the system’s leading investors have invested massively in highly wasteful advertising, marketing, packaging and built-in-obsolescence. The commitment has penetrated into core processes of capitalist production, so that millions toil the world over in the making of complex electronic (and other) products designed to lose material and social value (and thus to be dumped in landfills) in short periods of time.[12]

Along the way, U.S. capital has invested huge amounts of fixed capital in the existing fossil fuel-addicted energy system – “sunk” capital investments that make giant and powerful petrochemical corporations and utilities all too “rationally” (from a profit perspective) resistant to a much needed clean energy conversion. As leading environmental author and activist Bill McKibben explained in his 2010 book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet:

 “Sunk costs…it’s a phrase we need to know if want to understand why all the big companies are not jumping aboard the clean energy train. The journalist Paul Roberts figured earlier in the decade that ‘the existing fossil fuel infrastructure, from power plants and supertankers to oil furnaces and SUVs,’ is worth at least $10 trillion, and scheduled to operate anywhere from ten to fifty more years before its capital costs can be paid off. If we shut it down early, merely to save the planet, someone will have to eat that cost. Given such ‘serious asset inertia,’ no owner or investor in a power plant is likely to accept the write-down without a ‘nasty political fight’” (emphasis added).[13]

‘Everything else we’re talking about’

Speaking of the growing climate disaster, the world’s leading left intellectual Noam Chomsky (in my view the left’s brightest mind since Marx) observed nearly two years ago that “if …this catastrophe isn’t …averted “ then “– and in a generation or two, everything else we’re talking about won’t matter.”[14]

Piketty would seem to almost sort of agree a little bit, maybe. In a brief sub-section of his book, in prose scarred by the overly technical spirit of the elite academic and policy world, he writes the following:

“The second important issue on which [capital accumulation] questions have a major impact is climate change and, more generally, the possibility of deterioration of humanity’s natural capital in the century ahead. If we take a global view then this is clearly the world’s principal long-term worry.”

Imagine “tak[ing] a global view.”! That would seem to be the view to take when it comes to planetary ecology, yes?

“Degradation of natural capital” is econo-speak for eco-cide.

Piketty’s statement comes on page 567, like a tiny afterthought near the end of Piketty’s giant tome, on the volume’s mere three pages that focus in any way on the leading specter haunting humanity in the 21st century, brought to us courtesy. Perhaps it is not so welcome and wonderful that capitalism avoided Marx’s “specter … haunting Europe” in 1848.

Paul Street is the author of many books. His latest is  They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy ( Paradigm Publishers, 2014 )


1. “The modern laborer….sinks deeper and deeper….He becomes a pauper, and pauperism develops more rapidly than population and wealth. And here it becomes evident, that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an over-riding law. It is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery, because it cannot help letting him sink into such a state, that it has to feed him, instead of being fed by him. Society can no longer live under this bourgeoisie, in other words, its existence is no longer compatible with society.” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto (1848), end of Section 1, titled “Bourgeois and Proletarians.”

2. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume 3: The Process of Capitalist Production as a Whole (New York: International, 1967), 820.

3. Mike Davis, Planet of Slums (New York: Verso, 2006).

4. Marx, Communist Manifesto, beginning of Section 1.

5. John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on Earth (New York: Monthly Review, 2010), 14-15.

6. Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, “The Radical Emission Reduction Emission Reduction Conference, December 10-11, 2013,” http://www.tyndall.ac.uk/radical-emission-reduction-conference-tyndall-centre-event-confronting-challenge-climate-change

7. See the incisive reflections of historian Richard Smith in “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism,” Real World Economic Review, issue 53, June 26, 2010, reprinted with revisions at Truthout (January 15, 2014), http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/21215-beyond-growth-or-beyond-capitalism

8. Herve Kempf, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2007), 70, 73.

9. Wallich is quoted in William Greider, Come Home America: The Rise and Fall (and Redeeming Promise) of Our Country (New York: Rodale, 2009), 202.

10. John Bellamy Foster, “Global Ecology and the Common Good,” Monthly Review (February 1995), read online at http://clogic.eserver.org/3-1&2/foster.html

11.Joel Kovel, “The Future Will be Ecosocialist Because Without Ecosocialism There Will be No Future,” Chapter 2 in Francis Goldin, Debby Smith, and Michael Steven Smith, IMAGINE Living in a Socialist USA(New York: Harper Collins, 2014), 27-28

12. John Bellamy and Brett Clark, “The Planetary Emergency,” Monthly Review, Vol. 54, Issue 7 (December 2012), http://monthlyreview.org/2012/12/01/the-planetary-emergency

13. Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Time Books, 2010), 55.

14. Noam Chomsky, “The Plutonomy and the Precariat,” (May 8, 2012)http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/175539/tomgram%3A_noam_chomsky,_a_rebellious_world_or_a_new_