Monday, October 02, 2017

Capitalism, Infinite Growth, Climate Change & Manufactured Hopelessness


by Gaius Publius

The video above comes in two parts — the first four minutes or so deals with the title problem, and the last two minutes offers a solution. Note those two sections and the points they make as you watch. I'll address each point separately below.

Capitalism, Infinite Growth and Climate Change

We seem to have turned the corner on American belief that climate change will result in a bad end for us unless we stop it or alter its trajectory. Most Americans, however secretly, have come at last to that conclusion, even if (or perhaps because) they think the "us" in the previous sentence is "other people," the un- or soon-to-be-born.

Even Republican office holders are starting to affirm the obvious trajectory of climate change, not to mention ordinary Republican voters of all stripes and kinds. Yes, there are still deniers and agnostics in the mix, but I don't think they represent the majority of the nation any more. That tide has turned, if only just.

We have also likely turned the tide on the notion that infinite economic growth, defined as "more cans and bottles for you, more and greater wealth for the rich," can be sustained, though most don't realize it yet. Watch the first four minutes of the video above and ask yourself — Who doubts the main point made? Is there anyone you know (or know of) who thinks we can have "infinite growth on a finite planet" and survive?  Likely no one.

It's the connection pf infinite growth to capitalism that hangs people up. Most don't see yet that infinite growth — more cans of coke, more terrible fast food restaurants, more smart phones you can't repair — is required for our present economic system to continue to function. They don't see the present economy, defined as the production of "things," as requiring infinite growth. Does a corner grocery store need infinite growth to survive? they ask. Obviously not. And isn't a corner grocery store "capitalism"?

But today's capitalism isn't the world of the corner grocery store, where the owner who lives upstairs can do well by earning enough to meet his or her expenses, year after sustainable year. That world has become this one, a world of giant companies eating giant companies in order to grow, absorbing others to ensure they're not the next prey, because quarterly earnings can never be said to be flat when market analysts come calling.

No large publicly owned company can survive with no growth — it will die or be absorbed into another large company. And at some point, all of this growth will end. Grow or die is one of the marks of late stage capitalism, with "die" the inevitable end of all of them.

Just as late stage capitalism is unsustainable, by the way, so too is infinitely increasing income inequality, a situation into which we're heading, both nationally and internationally. The image of a world collapsing under the burden of extreme wealth inequality brings to mind one of the most memorable lines from the video above:
"Imagine what it means for your personal security as a heavily armed civilian population gets angrier and angrier about why this was allowed to happen."
Sound familiar? Sound like it may be nascent now?

Why Don't We Choose Differently?

All of the above situations suggest a grand "problem statement" — one that American citizens, indeed world citizens, are coming to grips with as we speak. Is this train's journey sustainable into the future? If not, how do we get off?

Just as the first four minutes of the video engender fear, the final two minutes water the tree of hope, suggesting that humankind can fix these problems if only it wishes to. I too believe that we can fix these problems — hold at bay a collapse due to the twin tsunamis of wealth inequality and climate-cause chaos — at least within limits, if we choose to. In fact I've offered an "Easter Island solution" to the problem of addressing climate change, offered it many times:
You're a villager on Easter Island. People are cutting down trees right and left, and many are getting worried. At some point, the number of worried villagers reaches critical mass, and they go as a group to the island chief and say, "Look, we have to stop cutting trees, like now."

The chief, who's also CEO of a wood products company, checks his bottom line and orders the cutting to continue.

Do the villagers walk away? Or do they depose the chief?

There's always a choice ...
It's a simple solution, and certainly not unique to me. Naomi Klein, for example, brings it up in a different form every time she speaks — depose the chief and run the island ourselves.

So what prevents us from choosing that?

Manufactured Hopelessness

For the answer I'll turn to David Graeber. This is from his excellent book Debt: The First 5,000 Years (quoted here, my emphasis throughout). Graeber begins:
There is very good reason to believe that, in a generation or so, capitalism itself will no longer exist – most obviously, as ecologists keep reminding us, because it’s impossible to maintain an engine of perpetual growth forever on a finite planet, and the current form of capitalism doesn’t seem to be capable of generating the kind of vast technological breakthroughs and mobilizations that would be required for us to start finding and colonizing other planets. Yet, faced with the prospect of capitalism actually ending, the most common reaction – even from those who call themselves ‘progressives’ – is simply fear. We cling to what exists because we can no longer imagine an alternative that wouldn’t be even worse.
This is in line with the video presenter's idea, that fear is our natural reaction to this awareness, and fear can lead us to make changes.

Graeber then explains why, instead of experiencing fear that spurs us to action, we're gripped by fear that locks us to inaction:
How did we get here? My own suspicion is that we are looking at the final effects of the militarization of American capitalism itself. In fact, it could well be said that the last thirty years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a giant machine designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures.
He means "militarization" as a metaphor, that the apparatus, the "giant machine" he's talking about, is a form of capitalism that's been weaponized and propagandized as a defense against its own consumer base, which is all of us. When has any major company's commercial not had as its secondary message, "We're doing this because we want to help you," whatever else the primary message — for example, "This $1000 drug is your only hope" — may be?

Every bought commercial paints its purchasing corporation as noble, as the solution, when in fact its purchaser is the problem. That description is true even of those benign-appearing car ads that offer off-road "freedom" to wage slaves chained to cubicle farms. The fault is never the corporate-dominated life; the solution is the corporate-dominated life. Or so says the commercial. Do the wage slaves of the car companies buy those cars to experience freedom?

"You can't have that"

In the passage above, Graeber, writing in 2011 about manufactured hopelessness, also presciently reminds us of Hillary Clinton's virtual campaign slogan, "You can't have that." This still serves as a slogan for the current neoliberal "support" for Medicare for All — in Al Franken's words, it's "aspirational," something to want but never to expect to get.

Graeber then exposes the inner workings of the apparatus of manufactured hopelessness:
At its root is a veritable obsession on the part of the rulers of the world – in response to the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s – with ensuring that social movements cannot be seen to grow, flourish, or propose alternatives; that those who challenge existing power arrangements can never, under any circumstances, be perceived to win. To do so requires creating a vast apparatus of armies, prisons, police, various forms of private security firms and military intelligence apparatus, and propaganda engines of every conceivable variety, most of which do not attack alternatives directly so much as create a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity, and simple despair that makes any thought of changing the world seem an idle fantasy. Maintaining this apparatus seems even more important to exponents of the 'free market,’ even than maintaining any sort of viable market economy. ...

Economically, the apparatus is pure dead weight; all the guns, surveillance cameras, and propaganda engines are extraordinarily expensive and really produce nothing, and no doubt it’s yet another element dragging the entire capitalist system down – along with producing the illusion of an endless capitalist future that laid the groundwork for the endless bubbles to begin with.
He concludes:
Finance capital became the buying and selling of chunks of that future, and economic freedom, for most of us, was reduced to the right to buy a small piece of one’s own permanent subordination.

In other words, there seems to have been a profound contradiction between the political imperative of establishing capitalism as the only possible way to manage anything, and capitalism’s own unacknowledged need to limit its future horizons, lest speculation, predictably, go haywire. Once it did, and the whole machine imploded, we were left in the strange situation of not being able to even imagine any other way that things might be arranged. About the only thing we can imagine is catastrophe.
A being can nibble on itself from time to time, but it cannot eat itself forever and live.

"Consumed with that which it was nourished by"

In the capitalist vision of infinite growth, we see, to paraphrase Shakespeare's words...

...the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of its youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourished by.

In other words, that which feeds it, eats it. Infinite growth, the fuel of late-stage capitalism, can only burn it down to a bed of ashes that lingers briefly warm, then dies. 

What drags us into hopelessness is the carefully manufactured illusion that there is no possible economy but a "free market" economy, despite (a) the fact that no free market ever existed anywhere, and doesn't exist now; and (b) that successful communal — non-competitive — markets exist everywhere around us.

Start by looking within your own family. Or at any community that sustains its weaker members rather than feeds on them. At Social Security, say. Or Medicare.

Medicare isn't "aspirational," Mr. Neoliberal. It's already here. How do we know we can have that? Because we already do have that. We just want a little more of it.


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At 12:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

(in response to the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s – with ensuring that social movements cannot be seen to grow, flourish, or propose alternatives; that those who challenge existing power arrangements can never, under any circumstances, be perceived to win.)

"Oh wow I get it thinking on this has been totally uptight".... Trump was put in office with the consent of the neo-liberals to thwart Bernie's political revolution? After 4, or 8 if we must, years of the hopeless Trumplicans the electorate will properly learn to accept neo-liberalism as it's only other choice.

At 1:03 PM, Blogger Gaius Publius said...

With respect to this:

Trump was put in office with the consent of the neo-liberals to thwart Bernie's political revolution

Almost, but not quite. In 2016, the order of neoliberal preference was always:

The Republican nominee, including Trump

It was never:


I thought that would have been obvious, but I'm not sure I read the sarcasm of the comment correctly.


At 1:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"not sure I read the sarcasm of the comment correctly.

What would hurt Sander's revolution more & bring voters back into the non-revolution fold? Clinton or Trump? Who's the scarier monster?

At 2:11 PM, Anonymous Hone said...

Very interesting, Gaius. However, capitalism is not really capitalism in its true form - it morphs into socialism when it is in danger of implosion, as in 2008 and many times in our history - saved by those in power. Socialism is only good when it is for the capitalists, not the people.

I get so annoyed when Medicare for All is said to be too difficult and unattainable - President Johnson implemented Medicare. It can be done, of course it can. Other industrialized countries all have it along with some not so industrialized countries so why can't we? The will must be there and you are correct in that hopelessness of the people halt demands - though perhaps no longer. Most Americans have woken up about the desire and appropriateness of health coverage for all.

Talking about infinite growth, infinite population growth is another elephant in the room that is hardly ever mentioned. It steps on the toes of the religious and the personal. We cannot keep having more and more children ad infinitum either. People would have to take personal responsibility and controls their productivity. Yeah, that will happen!

We are so screwed.

At 4:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very salient, again, Hone.

Capitalism demands perpetual growth to fuel its lust for ever INCREASING profits. Stagnation in profits is akin to receivership in capitalism, the American version anyway. When the DOW or NASDAQ sits on a number for very long, pretty soon we're in a "recession" where 300 million are ratfucked so that the CEO caste can be asked to pretty please create a couple of jobs.

There are 3 big problems in "deposing the chief"... well, 4 really.
1) the chief is worshipped as a deity-ish entity. human brains have that flaw where anyone in "authority" is generally seen as "better than us". It's one flaw that will kill us all eventually.
b) it takes cooperation among the tribe, which is almost impossible until the starvation, sickness and misery are nearly generally lethal. Just ask the French and Russians why it took them so long.
III) americans are lazy morons. There don't exist enough of us to comprehend just what that video means AND there exist nearly none of us willing to expend one erg of energy to do one fucking thing about it.
IV) the chief has the largest military in the history of the earth and if it became apparent that he'd be deposed, he would use it... even nuking the earth to 'bolivian' just to prevent the unwashed from succeeding in anything.

And there's this. No matter what the chief does; no matter what the unwashed do; no matter what ANYONE does or not... it's too late about climate. In a century the following will be true:
oceans will be 10 meters higher
temps will be > 6 deg C higher
species will have been dying by the hundreds per year for a century
1-20 billion very hungry, thirsty, sick and miserable humans will pollute and be polluting the earth. The number will depend on how many and how effective the wars over resources will have been.
no measurable increase in human intellect nor understanding that humans have been responsible for their own misery.
America, capitalism and democracy will be an historical footnote... if anyone still studies history.

At 2:29 PM, Blogger QAdams said...

Yep, that's all too correct, Anonymous... hopey-changey just won't get it done, not any more. We are well and truly screwed.

At 5:04 AM, Blogger frankie said...

For an in-depth analysis of the issues mentioned in Gaius' article, a must read is the now classic book "Prosperity without Growth" by Dr. Tim Jackson, British ecological economist and professor of sustainable development at the University of Surrey.

I am in the process of writing synopses of the book's 11 chapters, section by section. You can access these on my website beginning here: "Tim Jackson: In a finite world, what can Prosperity (without growth) possibly mean?"

Here is an excerpt from this opening post:

"The vision of social progress that drives us – based on the continual expansion of material wants – is fundamentally untenable. And this failing is not a simple falling short from utopian ideals. It is much more basic. In pursuit of the good life today we are systematically eroding the basis for wellbeing tomorrow. In pursuit of our own wellbeing, we are undermining the possibilities for others. We stand in real danger of losing any prospect of a shared and lasting prosperity.”


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