Global capitalism is the 800-pound gorilla. The twin ecological and economic crises, militarism, the rise of the surveillance state, and a dysfunctional political system can all be traced to its normal operations.
We need a transformative politics from below that can challenge the fundamentals of capitalism instead of today’s politics that is content to treat its symptoms. The problems we face are linked to each other and to the way a capitalist society operates. We must make an effort to understand its real character. The fundamental question of our time is whether we can go beyond a system that is ravaging the Earth and secure a future with dignity for life and respect for the planet.
What has capitalism done to us lately?
The best science tells us that this is a do-or-die moment.
We are now in the midst of the 6th mass extinction in the planetary history with 150 to 200 species going extinct every day, a pace 1,000 times greater than the ‘natural’ extinction rate.1 The Earth has been warming rapidly since the 1970s with the 10 warmest years on record all occurring since 1998.2 The planet has already warmed by 0.85 degree Celsius since the industrial revolution 150 years ago. An increase of 2° Celsius is the limit of what the planet can take before major catastrophic consequences. Limiting global warming to 2°C requires reducing global emissions by 6% per year. However, global carbon emissions from fossil fuels increased by about 1.5 times between 1990 and 2008.3
Capitalism has also led to explosive social inequalities. The global economic landscape is littered with rising concentration of wealth, debt, distress, and immiseration caused by the austerity-pushing elites.
Take the US. The richest 20 persons have as much wealth as the bottom 150 million.4 Since 1973, the hourly wages of workers have lagged behind worker productivity rates by more than 800%.5 It now takes the average family 47 years to make what a hedge fund manager makes in one hour.6 Just about a quarter of children under the age of 5 live in poverty.7 A majority of public school students are low-income.8 85% of workers feel stress on the job.9
Soon the only thing left of the American Dream will be a culture of hustling to survive.
Take the global society. The world’s billionaires control $7 trillion, a sum 77 times the debt owed by Greece to the European banks.10 The richest 80 possess more than the combined wealth of the bottom 50% of the global population (3.5 billion people).11 By 2016 the richest 1% will own a greater share of the global wealth than the rest of us combined.12 The top 200 global corporations wield twice the economic power of the bottom 80% of the global population.13
Instead of a global society capitalism is creating a global apartheid.
What’s the nature of the beast?
Firstly, the “egotistical calculation” of commerce wins the day every time. Capital seeks maximum profitability as a matter of first priority. Evermore “accumulation of capital” is the system’s bill of health; it is slowdowns or reversals that usher in crises and set off panic. Cancer-like hunger for endless growth is in the system’s DNA and is what has set it on a tragic collision course with Nature, a finite category.
Secondly, capitalism treats human labor as a cost. It therefore opposes labor capturing a fair share of the total economic value that it creates. Since labor stands for the majority and capital for a tiny minority, it follows that classism and class warfare are built into its DNA, which explains why the “middle class” is shrinking and its gains are never secure.
Thirdly, private interests determine massive investments and make key decisions at the point of production guided by maximization of profits. That’s why in the US the truck freight replaced the railroad freight, chemicals were used extensively in agriculture, public transport was gutted in favor of private cars, and big cars replaced small ones.
What should political action aim for today?
The political class has no good ideas about how to address the crises. One may even wonder whether it has a serious understanding of the system, or at least of ways to ameliorate its consequences. The range of solutions offered tends to be of a technical, legislative, or regulatory nature, promising at best temporary management of the deepening crises. The trajectory of the system, at any rate, precludes a return to its post-WWII regulatory phase.
It’s left to us as a society to think about what the real character of the system is, where we are going, and how we are going to deal with the trajectory of the system — and act accordingly. The critical task ahead is to build a transformative politics capable of steering the system away from its destructive path. Given the system’s DNA, such a politics from below must include efforts to challenge the system’s fundamentals, namely, its private mode of decision-making about investments and about what and how to produce. Furthermore, it behooves us to heed the late environmentalist Barry Commoner’s insistence on the efficacy of a strategy of prevention over a failed one of control or capture of pollutants. At a lecture in 1991, Commoner remarked: ”Environmental pollution is an incurable disease; it can only be prevented”; and he proceeded to refer to “a law,” namely: ”if you don’t put a pollutant in the environment it won’t be there.”
What is nearly certain now is that without democratic control of wealth and social governance of the means of production, we will all be condemned to the labor of Sisyphus. Only we won’t have to suffer for all eternity, as the degradation of life-enhancing natural and social systems will soon reach a point of no return.
3 United States Environmental Protection Agency, “Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions Data,” <www.epa.gov/climatechange/ghgemissions/global.html>.
4 Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva and Nick Galasso, “Working for the Few: Political Capture and Economic Inequality,” Oxfam International, 20 January 2014.
5 Gillian B. White, “Why the Gap Between Worker Pay and Productivity Is So Problematic,” The Atlantic, February 2015.
6 Les Leopold, “The 6 Economic Facts of Life in America That Allow the Rich to Run off with Our Wealth,” AlterNet, 16 December 2014.
8 “A New Majority Research Bulletin: Low Income Students Now a Majority in the Nation’s Public Schools ,” Southern Education Foundation, January 2015.
10 Joseph Kishore, “Wealth of World’s Billionaires Surges Past $7 Trillion,” World Socialist Web Site, 4 March 2015.
11 Michael M. Phillips, “Very Rich Get Very Richer: Wealthiest 20% Hold 94.5% of World’s Money,” Wall Street Journal Blog, 19 January 2015.
12 Oxfam International, “Richest 1% Will Own More Than All the Rest by 2016,” 19 January 2015.
Faramarz Farbod teaches Political Science at Moravian College.