The capitalism question

IssueNovember 2010
Feature by Michael Albert, Barry Cager, Gabriel Carlyle , Cornerstone Cath, Ewa Jasiewicz, Sam McCann, Phil Thornhill

Climate scientists have reached an international consensus that devastating runaway climate change is inevitable unless significant changes are made. How radical do these changes have to be? Is it possible to make these changes within the current framework of industrial capitalism? Below are edited highlights of responses from a variety of activists from radical movements – the full text of the interviews are available on the Peace News blog.

PN: In your view, can we halt runaway climate change without overthrowing capitalism?

Michael Albert (ZNet): 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.

So yes, you could imagine – 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.

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 thus 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.

Cath Cornerstone (Radical Routes): That’s a difficult question – I don’t think so, no. Whether we can stop it at all is another question. I think we can maybe try to mitigate its effects or make it go a bit slower until we can handle it better but no, I don’t think you can stop it now.

Gabriel Carlyle: I hope so – because if we can’t then it looks like we’re well and truly stuffed.

Ewa Jasiewicz (radical journalist): It’s interesting that you talk about “overthrowing capitalism”… I think that can sometimes be a little bit inaccurate about the nature of capitalism, which is a social relationship, an economic relationship that we are all participating in and reproducing on a daily basis.

We absolutely need to stop the reproduction of capitalism because it’s the core driver of climate change because of its emphasis on a consumption-driven economy, on a fossil fuel-driven economy.

Phil Thornhill (Campaign Against Climate Change): There are serious reasons to think that we won’t be able to [stop climate change] and that we’re too late already…
When it gets to capitalism, for me personally, I find that kind of thing is too vague to be useful.

Barry Cager (Happendon Wood activist): No, it’s impossible. Short answer.
Well, I really don’t believe it’s possible at all, because, for a start, the way capitalism is set up is based on growth, and it would basically disintegrate without growing. And so, a planet is finite, and all the resources that capitalism depends on are finite, so it’s not going to last, it’s not sustainable.

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?

Phil Thornhill: That question really presupposes that we share certain views that I probably don’t, I don’t think… I think you’d probably make more sense by abolishing the term [capitalism] completely. It’d be an interesting mental exercise, at least, to try and define a political philosophy on what you think ought to happen without using the word. I think that would be quite interesting, because then people couldn’t succumb to the temptation.

Michael Albert: 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.

Ewa Jasiewicz: The tell-tale sign would be, I think, a world without financial markets. I think if we had, perhaps, no money – I don’t know how it works on large-scale, complex, intricate sort of city-based societies, but I would like to see a gift economy.

Barry Cager: Well, I’m afraid this is going to sound really harsh, but there’ll definitely be a lot less people. This is not something I intend to achieve or part of a political program. The fact is, to live sustainably on this planet, we not only have to use less, but there has to be less of us. The other thing is more people moving to the country to have more of a relationship on a day-to-day basis.

Gabriel Carlyle: If we’re talking about replacing capitalism with something significantly better then I guess we’d be talking about an end to wage-slavery, genuinely democratic control over economic decisions (for those who know the buzz-words, workers’ control rather than central planning), and the dismantling of undemocratic private concentrations of economic power such as corporations.















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