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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

Neoliberal Capitalism v. Planet Earth

Capitalism configures our culture, our language, our perceptions, our habits of mind and our experience in both general and specific ways. Our projects and aspirations are tied to our future consumer capacity—if we get the right job we can buy all those things that give us status and comfort. Capitalist consumer habits are manufactured and shaped by commercial images that link love, friendship, community and prosperity to certain commodities—buy this and you will be happy; own this and be part of a community of people who share your values. Eventually we come to associate our freedom exclusively with the freedom to consume or buy as much as we want.

All of this led me to the question I asked at the Philosophers Café: Namely is it capitalism that creates the consumer, or is it our obdurate human desire to consume that creates and perpetuates an untenable, life-destroying capitalist system? If it is the former, then we appear to have a choice; if it is the latter, then it would seem we are doomed as a species to consume our way into oblivion.

In a very real sense the choice to adopt a world economic system grounded on the realization of profit was not something human beings collectively decided upon. It was decided for us by a group of very wealthy and powerful white men who believed in subjugating those they deemed inferior, expropriating their land, taking ownership over the means of production and exploiting human labour for individual profit.

Capitalism understood in this historical sense gave legal cover to the project of imperialism as well as to practices of slavery and property seized through force or violence. In an important sense capitalism was never merely an economic system—that is, merely the production, distribution or trading of goods. It was from its first beginning a political system or way of organizing society in the interests of those few who were fortunate enough to be white, male landowners.

When Adam Smith defined the mechanism of capitalism as an invisible hand, he was saying that capitalism regulates itself and therefore should not be fettered, interfered with or in any way controlled by government—it was a force unto itself that would always reach a kind of economic equity and equilibrium even though it was grounded on self-interested actions. The rich imperialists, industrialists and property owners could thereby console themselves into believing that within capitalism itself there was a benevolent hand steering the economy in the interests of all people.

Of course, whether they themselves believed this or whether they even cared about the majority of people was not at all important. What was important was selling the contradictory message that selfishness is a virtue, and that capitalism is an inherently self-correcting and even benevolent economic system. The other important message can be discovered within the logic of capitalism itself: endless growth is necessary not only for capitalism but for human happiness.

Faith in the inherent benevolence and growth of capitalism has been fundamentally challenged again and again—the 1929 and 2008 crashes most notably. But like most faith systems, it continues beyond any reasoned argument demonstrating its inevitably disastrous consequences. Marx argued that the internal contradictions of capitalism would bring it to crisis, and in this crisis of legitimacy we would see new opportunities. In other words, the crisis of capitalism would be followed by a new awakening, a sense that we can, in fact, choose a different kind of economic system. This did not happen, even when we were shown time after time that capitalism was an untenable economic system.

Is it any different today? Well one thing is surely different: The scale of capitalist enterprise in Adam Smith’s and even Marx’s time pales by comparison to today—not merely because of population, but also because of rapid advances in technology and the coupling of global capitalist economics to global neoliberalism. Secondly, we now realize that economics and especially capitalist cannot be separated from the biosphere.

It is capitalism in its present neoliberal configuration that has brought us in direct conflict with the planet. In the face of climate warming the contradictions of capitalism are no longer circumscribed by the internal logic of capitalism itself, but by the carrying capacity of the planet to supply the materials and energy required to keep capitalism going. The crisis of capitalism unfolds as mass species extinction, as ocean acidification, as loss of forests, as shortages of fresh water as destruction of habitats, as obliteration of pollinators and insects. In this sense, the contradiction of capitalism has been externalized as an either/or: either planetary environmental stability or unfettered capitalism

The stark reality is that capitalism relies almost entirely on the burning of fossil fuels, the destruction of rainforests, the pollution of water and soil, industrialized agriculture and factory farming. We are at a point in history where the final contradiction of capitalism will be played out as a life and death struggle. To choose to continue with capitalism is, in effect, to choose death over life.

Greta Thunberg’s message was finally that if we choose to continue on the present path there will simply not be a liveable planet for the next generation to inhabit.

Will this final environmental crisis of capitalism be the one that finally awakens us into a realization that we must now opt for a different kind of economic system?

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