IT’S THE PERFECT PARABLE for capitalism. Set in Morocco, it’s about the sand that’s fast disappearing from the country’s tourist beaches.
Once famed for its broad beaches of golden sand, the coastline of Morocco is in the grip of an ecological catastrophe. Millions of tons of precious sand are disappearing on the backs of lorries, donkeys and the poor. Jagged rocks now stand exposed where once the backsides of wealthy western tourists rested comfortably.
It's illegal, of course, this mining of Morocco’s precious sand, and were the laws protecting it enforced there would be no problem. But, those laws are not enforced. They never are: not when the choice is between protecting the environment and protecting business. So the big trucks roll out, passing with a roar the urban poor toiling away with their shovels.
Where does it go? Into the big coastal cities, naturally, where corrupt property developers, hand-in-glove with equally corrupt local and national politicians, are throwing-up long lines of luxury hotels to accommodate the vast herds of foreign tourists who (pre-Covid) flocked to enjoy – you guessed it – Morocco’s golden beaches!
But wait, there’s more. The illegally acquired sand which these developers are pouring into their concrete-mixers contains perilous quantities of highly corrosive sea-salt. Concrete structures built with this kind of sand are tragedies waiting to happen. In just a few years they will begin to crack, crumble, and collapse in a cloud of salty dust.
Just about everybody in a position to prevent this from happening is well aware of the danger. That none of them will do anything about it is explicable, almost entirely, in terms of the intricate, mutually-rewarding relationships capitalism creates and protects to facilitate the generation of wealth and the realisation of profit.
Protecting the beaches is, obviously, in the long-term interest of everyone involved. Without the beaches there will be fewer and fewer tourists; fewer and fewer guests to pay for the construction of all that additional accommodation; and fewer still when all those structurally unsound hotels begin collapsing on top of them. Unfortunately, the long-term interest of everyone is being sacrificed to the short-term interest of the individuals and corporations deriving immediate monetary reward from the shifting of Morocco’s sand.
The failure of humanity to respond proportionately to the existential threat of climate change is really just a case of Morocco’s disappearing beaches writ large. Every politician in a position to take effective remedial action against anthropogenic global warming will restrict their response to a great many words and a handful of symbolic gestures, because taking truly effective action would harm the economic welfare of far too many of their constituents.
It was George “Dubbya” Bush’s vice-president, Dick Cheney, who put it best when he informed those clamouring for action on climate change that “the American way of life is non-negotiable”.
No Republican (or Democratic) President is going to bankrupt the big oil companies, crash the automobile industry, vastly increase the price of private travel, or mandate the radical scaling back of personal consumption, that any realistic effort to halt global warming would necessarily entail. Rather than surrender their immediate interests and comforts, the beneficiaries of industrial civilisation will go on backing it until, harking back to our Moroccan example, all the tourists disappear and the hotels start falling down.
Capitalism’s most extraordinary achievement is to have created what the French “Situationist” philosopher, Guy Debord, called “The Society of the Spectacle”. In capitalism’s glittering palace of commodities, human relationships take second place to the relationships consumers form with their purchases.
In the Society of the Spectacle watching replaces doing. It’s the place where we either become spectators to our own lives, or spectators to the lives we aspire to. That’s the clincher: those inside the glittering arcade watch themselves, while those outside watch them watching. The masses’ political dreams, contra Marx, are not about torching the theatre – they’re about being seated in the audience. What brought down the Berlin Wall? Pornographic videos and blue-jeans.
What can those who grasp the civilisation-destroying potential of climate change possibly put up against the capitalist spectacle? What will they tell the huddled billions yearning to breathe air-conditioned air? Drive a sleek European car? Watch a jumbo-sized hi-def flat-screen TV?
“In the interests of the human generations yet to be born, you must go on living in a corrugated iron shack on a rubbish dump.”
Good luck with that!
You might as well tell those poor Moroccan day-labourers with their shovels to stop digging. Why would they, when behind you they can see the corrupt construction companies’ big lorries carting away sand by the ton? If they decide, instead, to keep on digging – so their families can keep on eating – who can blame them?
The question today’s socialists run from is the very same question yesterday’s socialists answered with such confidence and conviction: “What have you got that’s better than capitalism?” For a brief, enthralling period they pointed to the revolutionary society taking shape in the Soviet Union. By the late 1920s, however, it was becoming increasingly clear that the ebullient Soviet newsreels were not telling them the truth. Disillusionment would have set in much sooner had it not been for the beating capitalism took from the Great Depression. Post-World War II, however, and post-Stalin, the world of “actually existing socialism” had nothing to set against the astonishing abundance and novelty of the capitalist West. When an old comrade – a paid-up member of the Moscow-aligned Socialist Unity Party, no less – was asked where he’d rather live, Russia or New Zealand, there was only one honest answer he could give.
When you’re shovelling the beach into bags, your mind is focused on the money it will bring, not the wasteland that will be left behind. Until runaway climate change finally switches off their bright lights forever, the day-labourers of Planet Earth will keep their eyes firmly fixed on the glittering spectacle of capitalism’s magic cities.
Built out of, and on, the corrosive sands which they, themselves, have shifted.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 3 September 2020.