Climate change and capitalism: Michael Albert, ZCommunications

Blog by Sam McCann, Michael Albert

PN: In your view, can we halt runaway climate change without overthrowing capitalism? If not, why not? Or, if we can, why do you think that is possible?

MA: In theory, yes – capitalism has a built in drive to accumulate – and a structural incapacity to count effects on the environment into market valuations. So left to its own, with regulation, etc., it is not just incredibly harmful and destructive of human potentials, productive of poverty, and so on – but it also so violates the economy that not only would it be impossible to stop climate catastrophe – but, if capitalism had been functioning with zero restraints in the past, we would probably be fried – so to speak – already.

However, it is possible – technically possible – to have government intervention that is very effective to limited ends. You can outlaw child labour – it will still happen, but not much. You can put in minimum wage laws – people will violate them, but not too much. And so on.

So yes, you could image – technically – a mass upsurge in desire for climate sanity that propelled governments worldwide to impose very tough restraints on market choices and action – even to the point of redressing problems. Fact is, we saw this decades ago in regard to many ecological matters – not perfect, not even wonderful – but quite effective in some respects. Just like child labour laws…

The problem is, climate disaster arises from much more mainstream pursuits that are far harder to curtail and limit and reverse – so the movement pushing governments to behave thusly has to be much stronger – even than movements for child labour laws, affirmative action, and so on.

Can it happen? Technically, yes. But my guess is that such a movement is unlikely to develop unless fed by anti capitalist logic and beliefs – so that, in fact, even if the driving motive for many is climate issues or other ecological issues – the movement would wind up not only pressuring for restraints, but seeking a new system.

PN: What is your one-sentence definition of capitalism?

MA: Most generally and frequently, an economic arrangement including private ownership of productive assets, remuneration for property (profit), bargaining power, and to an extent output, corporate workplace divisions of labour and organization, and market allocation.

PN: What is the social marker that capitalism has been overthrown? In other words, in your vision of the future, how would we know that we’ve done away with capitalism? What is the most important thing that would have to change?

MA: You can get beyond capitalism without attaining, in my view, a truly desirable better system. The most likely such result we have often seen – typically called market or centrally planned socialism though I prefer to call it coordinatorism – meaning a system that eliminates private ownership of productive assets and remuneration for property but retains remuneration for power and output, corporate workplaces divisions of labour and organization, and either market allocation – or, if that is removed, central planning.

In contrast, I think a really worthy and viable economy (which I call a participatory economy, or parecon for short) would replace all four features – winding up with workers and consumers self managed councils, balanced job complexes, remuneration for duration, intensity, and onerousness of work, and participatory planning for allocation.

PN: Do you believe this can be achieved within the time frame for avoiding runaway climate change? If so, how? If not, why not?

MA: Replacing capitalism with coordinatorism can occur with little gain in ecological sustainability – and even, possibly, depending on many variables, with worse results on that score.

A parecon, in contrast, would do as well by the ecology as human knowledge and insight would allow – due to properly accounting for all ecological as well as social costs and benefits in decision making – not to mention other changes in the general priorities, motives, sensibilities, and capacities due to new social relations.

As to time frames – honestly – I have no serious opinion. I accept that there is a very big climate problem, among others. As to how long we have before that problem manifests in major losses for humanity – I doubt we know. But here is something to consider.

Each year – not in the future but right now – billions live in abject poverty, tens of millions die preventable deaths from curable or preventable diseases or starvation, and very small numbers, relatively, actually enjoy the kinds of material circumstances essential to full human growth and development – and even those have that curtailed by living in context of perverse social relations.

In other words, every day, week, month, and year, we already live with a horrific level of violence and denial – due to the social systems around us, not least capitalism. So for me, the question isn’t can we do something before our suffering grows outrageous – if we includes everyone, then our suffering is already well beyond outrageous.