Wednesday 21 May 2014

Shouting From Beyond The Crossroads

Green Marx: The growing awareness that Capitalism, unchecked, will ultimately consume the life-giving properties of the planet itself is challenging Green parties' reliance on "Green Technology" and the technological fix. Karl Marx saw the overthrow of the capitalist system as a social and ethical necessity, but it is now clear that revolution and human survival are no longer separable.

DO YOU SHOUT at the television? Indulge in lengthy harangues at the radio? I’m afraid I do. Increasingly so, given that it’s an election year and there’s a growing number of things to shout at television about. Time was when I’d have attributed this habit of berating inanimate objects to advancing years. But young people assure me that nowadays they do it too.
Last Sunday I gave my lungs a good workout during TVNZ’s current affairs programme Q+A. Bryce Edwards, the University of Otago’s peripatetic commentator on all things political (and compiler of that utterly invaluable compendium of political news and commentary, NZ Politics Daily) was criticising the Greens for attempting to use Green Capitalism to save the planet.
“Awh, jeez, Bryce, give us a break!”, I yelled at the offending collection of electronic circuitry, “How many viewers do you suppose are going to hold that against them? And how many extra votes do you reckon they’ll attract by decking out Karl Marx in a green suit?”
Later that morning, however, after my blood pressure had returned to normal, I began to think more carefully about Bryce’s criticism. By mid-afternoon I’d already half-convinced myself that the young political studies lecturer was right.
If even the Greens aren’t prepared to call things by their true names – who is?
Can you really prefix “Green” to the global phenomenon that’s pouring more and more Carbon Dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere? From Brazil to Indonesia: in all the world’s denuded tropical rainforests, what else but Capitalism is powering the chainsaws of the tree-fellers? Could the gaunt and exhausted construction workers recruited from across the Muslim world really distinguish between the Capitalism that vomited up their squalid shanty towns and the Capitalism that’s erecting Dubai’s towering “eco-friendly” architecture? And, much closer to home, can Green Capitalism really displace the Cow-Cockey Capitalism pouring nitrates and phosphates into our waterways? Or the Carbon Capitalism sinking drill-shafts into our deepest seas?
Green Capitalism? You might as well speak of Green Cancer. But, if you’re looking for alternatives – why not ‘Man Crusher’? Or, ‘Earth Eater’?
I’m old enough to remember when the first whispers began to spread about the limits to capitalist growth. When individuals like Rachel Carson and groups like the Club of Rome first connected the insatiable appetites of industrial capitalism with the gaping rents that were appearing all around the globe in the fragile webs of life we were only just beginning to call ecosystems.
It was around the time when, in the manner of a glittering cosmic cue, the Apollo astronauts began sending back to humankind the first images of its tiny blue planet floating – so beautiful, so vulnerable and so alone – in the infinite reaches of space.
And it was here, in New Zealand, that those whispers first cohered into an audible political voice. Formed in 1972, the Values Party was the first to openly question the idea that economic growth could be pursued endlessly and without cost.
It was heresy, but it stuck. Tens-of-thousands had just signed the ‘Save Manapouri’ petition. The Labour Party’s election ads depicted the environment in an Agee preserving jar! Tantalisingly close to the surface of the voters’ minds, not only in New Zealand but all across the developed world, a realisation of extraordinary power was taking shape. That humanity had reached a cross roads.
Down one road lay something new, something transformative. A new, lighter and less destructive way of being human. Charles Reich called it “The Greening of America”. Values promised to take us "Beyond Tomorrow".
Down the other road lay more: much more; unbelievably more. Waiting for us was a cornucopia of technological wonders that also offered something new and transformative. A human society increasingly wired to its machines, and those machines becoming more and more human.
But such magic technology could only ever be the distillation of processes fatally destructive of the planet’s capacity to maintain ecosystems conducive to human survival.
Capitalism’s technological fix, founded upon the shifting sands of cheap energy, finite resources and cheap labour is, ultimately, unsustainable. Its ever-more miraculous industrial alchemy can only be sustained by cannibalising its own children and heating up the planet’s atmosphere.
These are unglad tidings for any political party to bear. Values tried to warn New Zealand about the ultimate cost of Capitalism but only succeeded in splitting itself apart. Like the rest of us, Values’ members (and now the Greens’) have found it easier to believe in the power of science to resolve all contradictions.
Hence Russel Norman’s promise that Green Capitalism, wielding Green Technology, will rescue us from the twin threats of Global Warming and critical resource depletion. I suspect he knows this is nonsense. The Devil is not defeated by weapons manufactured in Hell.
From the road we’ve chosen there is no turning.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 20 May 2014.


Anonymous said...

So Chris, can I take from this comment:
"Karl Marx saw the overthrow of the capitalist system as a social and ethical necessity, but it is now clear that revolution and human survival are no longer separable.",
that you see all the wonderful things we saw in Eastern Europe and other Marxist nirvanas, ie borders to keep people in rather than out, secret police, neighbourhood informants, travel restrictions, one party states, forced labour etc etc are what are going to cure climate change and thus ensure our survival?
It seems to me that, environmentally, communism caused far more problems than it cured. Or didn't they do it "properly" in the past, and that given another opportunity, you and Russel Norman and diverse others would finally get it right?

Chris Trotter said...

To: Anonymous

What you are describing are the totalitarian, state capitalist regimes which grew up under the tutelage of the USSR and came crashing down in 1989.

Those countries had about as much to do with Karl Marx as the corrupt plutocratic oligarchy currently controlling the USA has to do with Adam Smith.

Don't you worry, when a genuine Marxist revolution takes place, I'll be the first to let you know.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the reply Chris.
Just as I thought then, the people running those places called themselves communists but they just weren't doing it right.

Perhaps you'd care to share with us exactly what a genuine marxist revolution would look like, and whether or not you would like to see one happen here?

I'm fascinated.

Don Robertson said...

Then they called themselves Capitalists - even got Roger Douglas and co to give them an hand - but they aren't doing that right either. Well, I guess they learned how to sell state assets from out Telecom experience.

And, while we're at it, perhaps you could share with us what a genuinely capitalist economy looks like - without the state building roads and railroads. Remember the World Trade Centre in New York? That 'symbol of capitalism'? Do you know who owned it?

But seriously - one idea I hate is that there can only be one approach to everything. If the free market can provide tee shirts in a range of prices, sizes and colours, then the free market must be right for wages and electricity.

Another idea I hate is that everything that is not 'capitalist' is 'communist'. There is an alternative, and it is Stalin.

Capitalism is a powerful force - and it should be used when it is the best tool for the job. But if you think it is the only tool, you'll find you're trying to bang in nails with a screw driver. Still a good idea to keep the safety goggles on, though.

If you do want to get us off oil - and have an aversion to living in caves - who do you think is going to find a way to do that? A government committee? Quite frankly, I don't think it will be Greenpeace, either.

We have seen capitalism - as practised today - as the only tool there is. Back when the earth was first seen from space, private space travel was unthinkable. As unthinkable as letting mining companies conduct their own safety audits.

Anonymous said...

We have ridden the utopian wave of capitalism since the early 20th century, ridden the wave like kings. The shore break is approaching and it is a dumper onto a shallow and juggled reef, the shoreline is barren, rocky interspersed with the carcasses of rotting sheep and cattle.

We will have to take the wave on the head and swim in and make our shelters from bones. The future will be brutal and primitive and poor but not political.

Davo Stevens said...

There has never been a Communist or true Capitalist country anywhere in the world. Except perhaps Dickens' Victorian England which was close to Capitalism.

Stalin was never Communist he was Fascist Megacorporatist in economic action.

The Greens here have moved away from the hair shirts and sandals to the mainstream politics of a modern society. They sit a little left of centre perhaps the position that Labour once held until they went off the rails with Douglas.

jh said...

Because we only love family and close friends, those who don't have the requirements of life must produce goods or services to attract those requirements from those who do. In Tijuana you can see women selling lovely crape paper flowers on sticks.
Human behaviour evolved in a different environment when nature and man were on an even footing.

Tiger Mountain said...

There is a whole generation with little memory of the failed Eastern European states and Nuclear missile MAD and cold war.

Post modernist philosophy looks more than insipid compared to Dialectical Materialism and Marxist political economy. The Soviet example can no longer be credibly used to denigrate the need to forcibly remove the neo liberals. They are not going to hand it over voluntarily.

Revolution–a change in class power is needed world wide to solve the contradiction of planet ending unsustainable growth that only benefits a tiny few and their hangers on. The capitalists have had several unencumbered decades now to trickle it all down and have abjectly failed to do so. Just look at Africa, Latin America and the ‘Western’ countries too–women, children and the poor copping it. Even the Pope is speaking out about class war.

Revolution not Mid East type regime change, or even a shift to parliamentary forms for some countries though these and other reforms are necessary. Socialism the politics that dare not speak its name.

The instant right response to such a post as this shows there is still life and purpose in marxism if it is feared by capitalists.

Anonymous said...

Grant - they also called themselves Democrats and Republicans but no-one ever seems to pull them up on that - kind of defeats that rather flimsy argument :-) They were no more democratic or republican than they were communist.Anyway, China seems to be showing the rest of the world how to do capitalism pretty well.

Jigsaw said...

I agree with Grant Shaw. The strange thing to me is that all socialists seem convinced that if they try it just one more time it will turn to paradise ...the next time. They seem unable to see that the downfall of the socialist/communist system lies within itself. Human beings are what they are and attempting to alter them to fit a system just never works.
But there again it seems that in spite of everything Chris Trotter will recognise the genuine thing when it comes along...yeah right!

jh said...

I don't get what the alternative to capitalism is supposed to be other than a reformed market economy. Land taxes (for instance) to undermine the rent seeking property investors)?
I remember studying ecology and economics at the same time and being struck by the similarity between markets and the way species exploit an ecological niche.
I think this point is relevant:
The economy is a subset of the environment, not vice versa .
Try to get some on the left to see that humans (other than rich and powerful humans) are the problem. Take Kiribati; Kiribati is threatened by rising sea levels and in decades ahead the people may have to move to other countries.

103,248 (July 2013 est.)
0–14 years: 38.5% (NZ 20%)
The population grew by 78% from 52,000 in 1973 to 93,000 in 2005,[1] an annual average growth rate of 1.8%.
don't they share some blame for their predicament?
Apparently not:

CarbonGuilty said...

My word what windmills you lot tilt at. How myopic & depressed you socialists are.
What crisis? Where?
The world has never been better, largely thanks to the West spreading freedom and light through democracy and their technology. Call it capitalism if you like but humane democratic freedom is a better name for it. It certainly was not thought of by Marx who got the wrong end of the stick on every count. His vision was not democracy, it was dictatorship, which is what you socialists hanker for really. Admit it. You're not democrats.
The proportion of real poor on the planet has sunk like a stone under 'capitalism' and the means of connection & communication now has girls in NZ pushing for bastards in Nigeria to free their fellows. When in the glorious past would this have happened? Who has flown in to fight those scum who kidnapped them? Socialists? Yeah right.
There is less war, less oppression, less ignorance, less almost every ill than ever, even in foul Marxists influenced countries like China.
Now the environment has been better, but it has been worse too. It has been improving in nearly every, but not all respects since the 1950s in the developed world and has probably peaked in its stress in the developing world. China again excepted, thanks to its glorious revolution, partly inspired by your hero Chris. It would be like Taiwan or S Korea without Marx. He should have been strangled at birth.
Capitalism a cancer Chris? Well Marxism must be Ebola virus then. It may not be directly responsible for 50m dead in each of the USSR and Mao's China but let's be kind and say it was just an unintended consequence. Marxist collateral damage eh. North Korea has statues of him dotted about their glorious workers paradise.
Revolution? You don't deserve to live in the West mate. All that reading of history and you still don't get the truth of what a really great philosophical man said once: democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others...

Anonymous said...

"freedom and light...The proportion of real poor on the planet has sunk like a stone... "
Carry on, I believe you were saying something funny...

jh said...

The world has never been better, largely thanks to the West spreading freedom and light through democracy and their technology.
Cheap energy has been more important than technology

Lomborg type arguments are too tricky-dickie to bother with.

Anonymous said...

"The world has never been better, largely thanks to the West spreading freedom and light through democracy and their technology. Call it capitalism if you like but humane democratic freedom is a better name for it."

Tell that to the East Ukranians under attack from the US backed fascist government in Kiev. Tell it to the the Iraquis. Tell it to the Libyans. Tell it to the bloody marines.

Davo Stevens said...

Keep going Carbon, your comments are along the lines of Lewis Carroll.

The mass killings you comment on in Mao's China and Stalin's Russia had nothing to do with economics and everything to do with Idealogy.

What is so wrong with sharing the prosperity of a country with everyone within it? Not just a select few?

Remember our Democracy took about 700 years to develop yet we, or rather the Yanks, think that it can be imposed at the muzzle of a machine-gun. It can't, people have to find it by themselves. In doing so there is a time of troubles that we are seeing in those places.

The most stable time in modern NZ was the period from 1950 to 1974 when the Oil Shock hit us. In that period no-one was really poor, most had a job that could pay their living costs and have a little to save. Most owned their own houses and the was very little crime. Compare that with what we have now and tell me which is worse, then or now?

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Carbon guilty. Actually the question of poverty and capitalism is not nearly as simple as many seem to think. Yes in the last 30 or 40 years, maybe less – the number of poor has dropped worldwide. But once you take out India and China, (particularly in Africa) the number of poor people has risen. And capitalism has only had something to do with it depending on your definition of capitalism. Certainly free trade has nothing to do with it, because those two countries that have decreased the number of poor people - that is India and China, have very strong protectionist policies in place. And in fact only one of them is democratic. Democracy is not necessarily needed for development and prosperity it would seem.
Not to mention the fact that Europe and the United States became prosperous at a time when neither were particularly democratic, and all/both relied on protectionism in trade. Sweetness and light indeed :-).

CarbonGuilty said...

Replying to DS & GS: 1950s to 1970s better? Read Rosemary McCloud, as she writes on this. Better for whom? Certainly not women. Not Maori, esp women. Not gays. Not Commies. Not workers ....
No it was better for WASP males like me, born with that silver spoon in my mouth and access to foreign currency. NZ was at its worst in that period I think. It is an outstandingly good country now though in my view, except for the products of the welfare system & criminal classes who have failed to pick up the great benefits of welfare which most who experience get ahead from. Please don't say the so the called poor in NZ are a result of capitalism when it's capitalism that pays their benefits. I suppose capitalism has provided cheap booze and drugs so guilty on that count.
Now GS: Look at what I said. I didn't say numbers, but proportion of poor. Way down and part thanks to freer trade than before and technology, invented by whom? Capitalist countries of course.
Look there are no perfect systems for this planet, just some that work pretty well and are open to improvement and the rest. Those either kill on a large scale or are fantasies. Marxism seems to fit both failed types. That there are still those who want to give it another go is about as funny and silly as the NZ Nazi Party..

Loz said...

Trade and technology usage predates capitalism by thousands of years so any suggestion that they are actually because of capitalism is ridiculous. Some horrific systems do kill on a large scale and should be condemned on principle. The era of transnational capitalism is reigning over both the global extinction of thousands of species and death through hunger and malnutrition on a scale not seen outside of the very worst wars. But I guess capitalism really is a war of those who control resources against those in need of food, shelter, healthcare and other human necessities. That's probably why South America has been drastically reducing levels of malnutrition with its socialist governments while free market Africa with its low taxes and minimal government assistance programmes has not.

Poor nutrition plays a role in at least half of 11 million odd deaths of children every year. Over 7 million people currently die each year from hunger itself although there is more than enough food for everyone. Favouring the private accumulation and control of wealth, food and resources over the basic needs of other human beings in desperate need really does sound like a Nazi idea!

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Carbon guilty, perhaps you should read what I said. Free trade has made some contribution, but as I also said – India and China are both protectionist. And as I also, also said, the U.S. and Europe grew prosperous by protecting their industries, not by free trade. Do some research, read some history.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Oh, and while I remember – I never actually said the fifties to the seventies were better. Although they were better in many ways. Perhaps not for women or for gay people. And I don't read Rosemary McLeod these days, she used to be funny and perceptive but is now just a sour old woman. You just have to listen to her witter on with Jim Mora. Journalists interviewing journalists – gotta love it!

CarbonGuilty said...

You two above need to read S Pinker's 'The Better Angels of our Nature', you are so out of date. It's not the horrible 50s or 60s any more. And btw, he's a liberal. He establishes why the world is way less violent, way better than it has ever been by a country mile. It is almost as if we are a new species today. A lot is owed to good institutions and trade. Good government & the rule of law is what poor countries lack most. Nothing to do with capitalism which actually least likes poverty, as it is no good for business.
GS you can't have it both ways: So free trade makes you poor yet the US is all for it nowadays yet got rich with protectionism yet India is still poor with protectionism. Makes sense as much as Loz does with the idea that poverty today is 'on a scale not seen outside of the very worst wars' when the fact is there is less of humanity in poverty than ever, and very little war. Not noticed?. And socialism in S Am a success? Venezuala: the best example of socialism in S Am. Case closed.

Nic the NZer said...

@CarbonGuilty, "GS you can't have it both ways: So free trade makes you poor yet the US is all for it nowadays yet got rich with protectionism yet India is still poor with protectionism."

Actually that is a very perceptive observation, but its entirely inline with history. Countries which have developed industries will often push for free-trade, that's because their well developed and efficient industries can then go and trade on their advantage in other markets with undeveloped competitors. On the other hand less well developed industries are able to develop into more well developed (e.g efficient) industries when there is some protection, they may not be ready to compete globally yet, but with enough protectionist help then in the future they may be competitive.

However the US still protects a wide variety of its industries at home and is frequently not for free trade in US markets. Basically everybody is for free-trade (eliminating trade barriers) in other countries markets, there is nothing for them to lose.

The most recent example of this might be US vs Japan in the super computer industry (circa 1980s). The US developed a super computer industry by imposing a lot of protectionist measures at home (primarily blocking superior Japanese machines from the US). That was because the free-trade route would at the time have favored the superior Japanese designs. Now the US has a super computer industry, but I don't know if its the world leader at present.

BTW, no country has ever gone 3rd to 2nd or 2nd to 1st world via free-trade.

Loz said...

CarbonGuilty, at your suggestion I have been reading Steven Pinker and trying to find reasoned arguments from Rosemary McLeod. Your arguments are like a stone skipping across a pond, only occasionally touching upon the surface before taking off again on its original trajectory.

Steven Pinker is a biological determinist who constructs arguments against the idea of group decision making, instead suggesting that the state of the world is the result of genetic disposition. In a TED talk, philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein brilliantly persuades professor Pinker that reason is actually the key driver of human moral progress" . Instead of suggesting that increasing IQ is responsible for a reduction of deaths through war we have to remember that the "current" period he refers to is also the period of the post-war consensus where the United Nations was established to ensure that powerful national interests were intended to be submissive to the democratic ideals of collective security.

I suspect that you are young and honestly do believe (as you suggest) that New Zealander workers, Maori and women in the 1950's and 1960's were generally unhappy with the nation they lived in. It simply is not the case. Unequivocal and deep affection for the "quarter acre, half-gallon, pavlova paradise" was almost universal. The recent budget reaction in Australia has highlighted that across the Tasman our cousins also remain deeply committed to a role for government in ensuring the state provision of universal healthcare and education. Interestingly, the recent publication of the OECD better life index showed that the level of happiness in a country seems to be clearly linked to how close a country comes to providing full employment... a position New Zealand held throughout the 1950's and 60's. Countries with higher taxes and strong state welfare provision top the list. Gallup also shows that of all the people on the planet, South Americans are the most likely to experience positive emotions on a daily basis.

I'm glad you mention Venezuela as being a "case closed" example of socialism in action. Quite apart from the ongoing electoral support that the socialists receive the statistics show stunning achievements under the government of Chavez. GDP tripled, net national income tripled, unemployment dropped from 11% to 8%, external debt dropped from 49.7% of Gross National Income to only 16.1%, inflation dropped to being lower than under either of the previous two presidents and Venezuelans believe they have the healthiest democracy in South America.

Viva la Revolution!

Guerilla Surgeon said...

I can't see that I'm attempting to have it 2 ways. All I said was that free trade has made some contribution to decreasing poverty. Free trade has certainly helped China and India raise quite a number of people out of poverty. But they don't actually practice free trade themselves, its free entry to other people's markets that have helped them. They are quite protectionist of their own industries. And as Nic said, developed economies – all rather elements of them are all for free trade, because they have mature well-designed products, and are ready to take advantage of other markets. Developing economies on the other hand need to protect their industries. All the south-east Asian Tigers did it until their industries were mature enough to survive without it, and in fact to a certain extent still do. And I have read Steven Pinker's book – it was written years ago :-). And yes, there is a lot less violence in the world today, not denying that. And good or authoritarian government is responsible for quite a bit of that. As is technology and integration of various economies. But I'm not sure what your point is here, because I've never argued against that.

CarbonGuilty said...

Loz: Pinker has an open mind it seems. Good? Yes but you label him a 'biological determinist' which I take it does not meet with your approval. He is a scholar I would say and leave it at that but he has done his homework and has convincing arguments for the world being better than ever before, humanly speaking.
GS: The book I refer to is from 2011 so perhaps you didn't read it or finish its 700 pages.
I think he and many other scholars now have a very good case for the proposition that humanity is doing lot better now by most, not all, most measures. Why? WE cannot really tell as it is complex but it is exactly corresponding to a period dominated by the democratice, mostly liberal, capitalist West, mostly consisting of an alliance between the US & Western European countries. I would say well done to them.
Happier? That is a vague measure and as I understand it, does not change much and is not consistent with the expected things like material wealth and security.
South America is part of the world so sure it is better now than before. Women's rights and education of girls, connected to the softening of Catholicism perhaps? Venezuala? Well Hilter made the trains run on time. It seems well on track to becoming a sad, oppressed place like Cuba. Bet happiness is in decline there.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

"Why? WE cannot really tell as it is complex"

Hooray, my point exactly.

CarbonGuilty said...

So we agree the world has got better, probably thanks to the spread of capitalist cultures? Therefore the socialist & communist blocks of the world contributed by their terminal decline? Yes perfect!
So improvement in the world corresponds with the decline of the left. Makes sense to me but of course it cannot be proved. It is rather like wild weather being attributed to climate change. Maybe but impossible to prove.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

You continue to put words in my mouth :-). Actually the world got better with the rise of Keynesian economics. Now it's getting worse.

Guerilla Surgeon said...

Further to that now I've got some time. You of course are talking about social betterment if you want to call it that. That I tend to put down to the decline of religion, and the general social liberalisation of society. Economically things might be looking up for people in China and India and maybe some now in South America, but developed countries are stagnant. Now this might be a result of a win/lose situation with respect to developing countries. But that doesn't help people pay the bills in New Zealand. Personally, I'd rather railways didn't know where X thousand rolling stock were, or I had to wait some months to get a new phone (though that would have changed with new technology anyway.) than we had people in New Zealand who don't get enough to eat, or can't find decent housing. Political choice yes, and that's my damn political choice. Yours obviously is somewhat different.