Capitalists can never stop killing the planet.
In a discussion group I participate in, someone asserted that capital, as a unified entity, could act to save itself by reducing its damage to the environment, even if it had to sacrifice significant profit to do so. I’m sure that for many people, this belief underlies their hopes for progress at the Copenhagen talks. But these talks are now falling apart before they even happen, which was inevitable given the fundamental nature of global capitalism.
I’m revising some of my comments to the group for re-posting here:
Because of the globalization of production and consumption, the intertwining of complex financial markets, and because capitalists employ mechanisms (like the UN or World Bank) for uniting for particular cooperative purposes, they can seem essentially multinational in character. But the ruling class is not in fact globally unified and can not act as such, even in this final stage of the imperialist era. They are still separate blocs rooted in nations, competing over resources and markets. China vs. India vs. U.S…. these are still real rivalries. Capitalists still require their national governments and armies to defend their interests as they persist in trying to expand their global reach.
One might argue that national governments act as international representatives to facilitate relationships between blocs of capital that are more cooperative than competitive. But let’s see what happens when the value of China’s investments in US treasuries dissolves when the dollar collapses. Let’s see what happens when China builds a dam that blocks a major river from reaching India. Or how the current struggle over Central Asia’s oil plays out. On an individual level, the national character of capital blocs becomes obvious during the simple act of attempting to buy or use foreign currency.
Any talk by governments, individually or collectively, of managing the environmental crisis is either 1) lies to pacify the people and divert the energy of more potentially radical environmental movements or 2) schemes for making more profit while actually making the crisis worse (carbon offsets, for example, actually increase carbon emissions).
Those in power can and do collectively make minor specific adjustments in policy, and trumpet these as evidence that they really won’t destroy the planet, or at least will try very very hard not to. But these are meaningless — it’s the trend overall that matters. Who cares about adjustments when they’re still killing everyone? They congratulate themselves for these plans and schemes and agreements, while their rate of destruction actually accelerates.
Those who run this system are not stupid. They know that their system is unsustainable and will result in omnicide, and in their own demise. Yet they will fight over the last bit of profit from the last bit of earth, until it’s too late to save anything. They have little control over this — the economic mechanism that brought them into existence and keeps them in existence *as capitalists* makes it impossible to stop, as impossible as it would be for me to tie a knot in a rainbow.
The ruling class can not decide to stop competing and give up capitalism deliberately in favor of a sustainable global new order. Francis Fukuyama argued in “The End of History” that that had happened in an economic/political sense after the fall of the Soviet Union — he turned out to be wrong. New blocs of capital coalesce, strengthen and face off once again.
Capitalism has an inherent law of expansion that can not be reformed, even by itself, even to save itself. It is only when capitalism is in crisis, like crisis of overproduction, that contractions must happen, but these are only times of regrouping to expand even further still. Capitalism, if not overthrown, will end up destroying itself along with us. It can not do otherwise. It’s not because capitalists are bad people, it’s because of mechanisms in the system (that are still described best by marxists) of competition and the constantly falling rate of profit. Though there is also a mechanism leading toward increased monopolies, competition remains primary — there can never be a situation where one corporation swallows all the rest into one overarching global über-bloc of capital.
Governments can, though, sacrifice some capitalists to save the system, as happened with the New Deal, and has happened in the recent financial crisis too. But this is to preserve a system with competition at the core, and they will always protect the interests of “their” blocs of capital first. The best that capitalists can hope for is to get as much as they can while they can get it. They can’t make the system stop even if individuals among them might wish to; the only way for it to stop is for those with opposing interests (that’s us) to stop them.
It might seem counter-inituitive that some members of the ruling class like Al Gore are helping to expose that the planet is in trouble. But the ruling class needs spokespeople to convincingly address the concerns of the people, or they risk social disorder. These spokespeople may even personally care very deeply about reforms. Unfortunately they are incapable of calling the system that causes all this into question, so their net effect is negative.
All these recent exposure movies like “Inconvenient Truth,” “Food Inc.,” “Capitalism: A Love Story” do not really challenge the system’s fundamental nature, or exploitation as a way of life. They serve (whether intentionally or not) as ways of making people think their issues are being addressed while bringing them back into the fold. They soothe and divert percolating discontent before it has a chance to break the surface as open rebellion. The election of Obama was used for this too — it drew millions of disillusioned people back into the system’s political orbit, changed them from outsiders into participants and defenders. NGOs do this, all reformers do this, even if their intentions are good.
There are always contending ideas within the ruling class about how best to preserve and expand their rule. They’re not one united monolith. They have differences about how it’s best to rule and protect their capital. Some of them think it’s best to try to minimize the damage, prevent social disorder, make reforms; while others are more in favor of raw exploitation and the iron fist. These opinions contend, and sometimes reforms are made when the ruling class as a whole finds them necessary for the continuation of their ability to exploit. But their fundamental activity is the exploitation, not the reforms. It always will be, as long as they hold power.
For those upset by the failure of the Copehagen talks, they were doomed from the start. Even if agreements had been reached, the nations involved would have been incapable of going against their own nature. Agreements would have been unavoidably broken, limits regretfully breached.
Our future should not be thrown away on impossible wishes and hopes. For us, there’s no dodging responsibility — we must stop omnicide ourselves, by overthrowing those in power and dismantling their system.