Is A 'Green' Capitalism Possible?
I have my doubts about whether eco-capitalism or environmental capitalism is possible or even desirable. An authentically green approach would so radically alter economic relations that they would simply no longer be recognizably 'capitalist'. Conversely, 'green capitalism' would do little more than put a green sheen on capitalist economic relations without fundamentally altering its basic doctrine. Put another way, there are structural reasons why 'green capitalism' is impossible that have to do with the very nature of the capitalist system. However,I also think that it is actually dangerous to indulge in the fantasy that we can continue in our present consumptive habits and expect that greening our economic system here and there will be enough to turn things around.
First, the structural considerations. At a historical level capitalism has been understood differently at different times: as agrarian capitalism, laissez-faire capitalism, industrial capitalism, state capitalism, and what we now understand as corporate-consumer capitalism. But in all of these configurations it retains two universal, constitutive features: private ownership and capital accumulation in the hands of fewer and fewer owners.
Along with these latter constitutive features, all forms of capitalism are premised on a foundational myth: that the planet we live on has limitless resources that can be endlessly developed. This latter assumption coupled with the structural features of capitalism underscore the impossibility of ever bringing the latter in harmony with nature. This reality becomes even more obvious in the most virulent form of capitalism—that is, our present version of consumer-corporate capitalism that has become the default economic system in modern neoliberal regimes.
The insidious aspect of the current consumer capitalist system is that it persuades and encourages us to participate in our own domination and eventual enslavement to a debt system. That is the first contradiction of so-called ‘free-market’ consumer capitalism: We are ‘free’ to consume our way into debt servitude! This is not by accident, but by design. In other words, consumer capitalism is structured in such a way that in exercising our economic freedom we actually eliminate our freedom of choice because we turn ourselves into debt slaves. At the same time, we enable and perpetuate an economic system that thrives best when the gap between the mega rich and everyone else is allowed to continuously widen.
The second contradiction of consumer capitalism is hidden in the assumption that the resources of this planet are infinite and that everything on it and beneath it can and should be extracted, privatized, bought and sold. As consumers, we are, once again, turned into accomplices and enablers of an extractive economic system that can only end in ecocide on a planetary scale.
The third contradiction lies in the dual presumption that capitalism is both a ‘freely chosen’ economic system and a necessary, inevitable and inescapable one.
Marx thought that the inconsistencies and internal contradictions of capital accumulation would necessarily bring about recurring crises, cycles of boom and bust and the eventual demise of capitalism as an economic and political system. The conditions of possibility for a classless, socialist society would then be able to emerge. Many explanations have been offered as to why this did not happen—the adoption of mixed economies; the rise of labour and other social movements; the growth of the military industrial complex and the success of capitalist war economies; the emergence of a broader middle class etc.
But the actual reason capitalism did not necessarily self-destruct is precisely because there really is nothing ‘necessary’ or inevitable about history, economics, politics, social life. We choose to perpetuate capitalism every time we buy into its way of ordering human affairs and opt to live within its consumer matrix. The internal contradictions within capitalism do not, by themselves, bring about change. 'We' bring about change, individually and collectively. We are beings that can reflect upon who we have been, where we are now and where we would like to be in the future. We are beings that can choose to act other than we presently do in order to realize a different environmental, social and economic future.
We are not driven by necessities (whether economic, political or social) unless we choose to be—unless we have somehow persuaded ourselves or allowed others to persuade us that we have no choice.
Once we understand that consumer-corporate capitalism is an economic and political system that we have chosen rather than one we must accede to, it will become possible to see alternatives. Once we realize that we cannot consume our way into a green economy, other ways of thinking and acting will show themselves to us. If we remain passive spectators and willing consumers things will go on as before. If, on the other hand, we become active resistors to the extractive imperative, and anti-consumers in our daily lives we may be able to see a greener path going forward.