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Unsustainable Capitalism - Can planet earth survive capitalism?

Capital plunders the wealth of nature in order to exploit the human labour that its agents apply to those raw materials. Marxists recognise that only human labour can add more value than goes into its production. However, without the wealth of nature, there would be nothing to which human labour could add value.

That key to a materialist view of our social and physical worlds takes us to one of the irreconcilable conflict between the necessity that capital has to expand and the twin impacts of that drive on available resources and from pollution. No disagreement is possible. But once more the challenge is how to make those connections part of the daily practice of activists and working people.

What do we put on placards? What do we publish in a theoretical journal?

Despite a revival of interest in Marx’s critique of political economy since the on-going implosion of capital in 2007-8, the fact remains that many of the basics about capitalism are not as widely or as deeply known throughout the Left as they were before the 1980s. The situation is almost the obverse with the environment. Very little was said about environmentalism in the Marxism-Leninism of the previous era. Of recent times, authors assure us that Marx and Engels were among the first ecologists and that Engels led the way.

Marxists might have had environmentalism in our heads – certainly in our sacred texts – but those concerns were not at the forefront of our practical socialism. A distinction arises here between Philosophical Idealism and Historical Materialism. Our minds might recognise the importance of the natural world and yet not be materialists in our behaviour towards it.

The same gulf existed between the writings of Engels on the emancipation of women and how women were treated around the Left. What has changed is that women took up the struggle. They did so in the ever-changing circumstances of capitalist production since the 1930s Depression. In the process, they reclaimed the early comments by Engels and Bebel. Through their activism, they are still teaching us which elements from the classics are applicable today.

There is a lesson here for Marxists. Gaining the correct concepts is never easy.  But their correctness can never be severed from their relevance to the changes always underway in reality. As capitalism changes, so must we learn to adjust the concepts that we need to understand those changes and thereby oppose the rule of capital more effectively.

Attempts to explain why capitalism is incompatible with sustainability face a number of hurdles.

First, we have to get a clear understanding of capital. To give a simple but crucial instance of common mistake. ‘People before Profits’ is a regular call around the Left. It is sharp and threatens a key element in capitalism. There is no reason to stop using it. However, to focus on ‘profit’ is to leave out its purpose within capitalism. The aim of capitalism is not ‘profit’. Profits derive from the surplus value produced by wage-slaves. The system clogs up if at least some of the surplus value, once it is realised as profit, does not go into expanding reproduction. Hence, the crux is accumulation. I have yet to see ‘surplus value’ or ‘accumulation’ on a placard or turned into a chant. No one should lie awake trying to make them rhyme.

The big step is to absorb the three reasons why capital has to accumulate in order to exist.

1. Competition from other producers drives each capital to lower unit production costs to compete on price. As a result, those corporates therefore produce more units and must sell more items to chase the same absolute return;

2. At the same time, pressure from wage-slaves for a bigger share of the surplus-value the supply is met by replacing living labour with the dead labour embodied in machines which in turn increase the volume of commodities that have to be sold;

3. Capital needs to realise the surplus value embedded in those items as profits through sales. That is why we have been subject to a century of mass marketing, including consumer credit. That advances on earnings attempt to bridge the gap between wages and the values that wage-slaves have added and which capital must expropriate..

The threat is not from personal greed or ‘Affluenza’ but from the creation of demand to cope with the over-production that is inherent in the expansion of capital.

Put those three forces together and there is no way that capital can survive in a steady state. On paper, it could get rid of competition through a total cartel and monopoly. Or it could totally control workers to block any rise in the costs of labour power. But then capital would not be able to realise its surplus value by pushing up effective demand.

Indeed, it seems that total/social capital has to expand at around 3 percent per annum if the system is not to implode. In the broadest terms, that rate of growth will mean that the resources needed to sustain capital will double every thirty years. If the quantum today is 100, in 2044 it will be 200; in 2074 it will be 400, and before 2114 it will be 800. Those numbers apply only if all other things are equal. In reality, the number in 100 years from now could well be below 800. One reason for its being less will be technological changes, for instance, the application of previously unused resources. Plastics made last century possible. Who knows what possibilities are in sand beyond silicon chips.

More significantly, what has to expand for capital to survive is not the quantum of physical product but the value in them. In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about immaterial commodities, such as on-line ‘information’ services. So far, there has been more talk than non-physical commodities. Indeed, the Cloud turns out to be a vast computer base in India that is using up so much energy that it might spontaneously combust. Meanwhile, the competing suppliers of phones and pods are up to the old game of planned obsolescence.

Hence, the volume of physical ‘on-line’ commodities shows no sign of shrinking. In addition, the free info sites such as Google are paid for out of advertising revenues to push more stuff. But the rules outlined in 1 and 2 apply here too. The drive in capital is for more value. Therefore, the less labour-time in each unit, the more units capital has to have.

Although we must remain skeptical about the escape routes for capital, we should never forget that new things happen. With all its crimes and horrors, capitalism remains the most revolutionary system that the world has ever seen. But even if its demand for resources does not undergo a fourfold spike by 2114, we will be up to our eyeballs in trash.

 This sketch of the political economy of resources shows how taxing is the task of finding ways to make these principles accessible to billions of people. The only way to do so will be to express them in terms of how we live them out every hour of the day.

If you think that propaganda will be hard work, the hurdles are higher for implementation. Even if capital runs out of the resources that will let it expand at a rate compatible with its survival, capitalism will never automatically collapse. For as long as its agents hold state power, it can pass the costs along to working people. Capitalism therefore sustains itself by smashing 99 percent of the population and the wealth of nature. Salvation for the planet means smashing the capitalist state.

That win for our class will not of itself make life on earth secure. It will merely open the door to seeking different ways to live. As materialists, we know that there is no utopian blueprint for the future. As ever, we shall have to learn by doing, with all the risks and failures that must follow. Future generations might stuff matters up in new ways. The only certainty is that disaster will not be avoided if we go on as most environmentalists have, that is, by doing very little to challenge the rule of capital.

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