Tag Archives: capitalism

Demonstrates use in climate marches of the phrase: "System Change Not Climate Change"

System Change, Not Climate Change?

“System Change, Not Climate Change” declares a common sign at climate marches. Is it true?

That depends on what we mean by “system change.”. If it implies that capitalism is incompatible with a stable climate, the sign is incorrect. And that would be an encouraging conclusion. We have grounds for hope if there is an ecologically sustainable form of capitalism. The prospects for “system change” – for overthrowing capitalism – in the next couple of decades are negligible. Change within capitalism is more within the realm of the politically possible.

Eco-socialists, Marxists, most “degrowth” proponents, and many others believe that capitalism is inherently growth oriented. If “grow or die” is the logic of capitalism, the search for a path to sustainability within capitalism is doomed. Economic growth is normally associated with increased throughput of energy and materials, and with the generation of more waste products. Yet infinite growth within a finite earth, we all agree, is impossible. The only environmental option, from this viewpoint, is to fight for a post-capitalist/socialist economy.

But is this logic sound? The idea is that, without growth, capitalism flounders. Static capitalism will fail, it is said, owing to an inevitable decline in investment opportunities, leading to a falling rate of profit. The outcome would be a deflationary spiral of shrinking incomes, growing unemployment, and unpaid debts – ultimately, economic collapse.  However, I find this logic unpersuasive. The real obstacle to ecological sustainability, under capitalism, is not an economistic imperative. Instead, it is the power of sections of capital and the culture of possessive individualism. Whereas an inner logic is immutable, a political-cultural obstacle can be overcome through organization and political action.

“Grow or die” is an incorrect assumption that obstructs climate-change action by suggesting that socialist/postcapitalist revolution is necessary, albeit improbable. If the fight for ecological survival is rather a struggle to shift from one form of capitalism to another, it appears more winnable.

Let’s apply these thoughts to a radical Green New Deal that includes constraints on throughputs in the economy and on pollution. Throughput declines, but this change does not necessarily signify a static or stagnant economy. Output shifts in composition and may even increase.  What capitalism requires to survive is compatible with such constraints.

  • Firms can make profits, to sustain investment levels.
  • The incentive system rewards “effort, thrift and innovations.”
  • Firms remain responsive to shifting consumer demand.
  • An ethos of economic advancement continues.

Competition among firms continues in the Green New Deal. Those that develop more efficient production processes will undercut their competitors with lower prices. Competition will also continue over the quality of goods and services and over the introduction of new goods. In short, innovation and entrepreneurship remain key to success in the new, sustainable economy. Investment will continue, enhancing efficiency. Workers will not bear the burden of adjustment. Just transition includes a job guarantee, job-sharing and shorter hours of work; productivity growth can be shared by workers. Governments will maximize employment by taxing “bads”, such as resource use and pollution, rather than “goods, such as payroll taxes and profits.  Corporate debt will bring some firms down. But massive public investment in the early phase, together with Quantitative Easing will create new opportunities for investment in the green economy. Capitalism will survive constrained throughputs, even though some firms will not. Development will continue, even if growth does not.

A conceptual problem clouds the understanding of alternatives: thinking of capitalism as one specific sort of economy, In reality, capitalism is a variegated economic system with individual types that are shaped by their varying institutional contexts. Capitalism, as classically defined, is an economic system in which free labour (but to what extent decommodified?) works for a wage on privately-owned means of production (but with how much public ownership?) to produce commodities (but with how many public goods?) for sale on the market (but under what sort of restrictive regulations?). The questions posed within the definition underline the reality that capitalism is an umbrella term, under which diverse economies shelter.

Institutional frameworks vary significantly. For example, the Keynesian consensus (1944-late 1970s) rested on a different set of rules than the Washington and Post-Washington consensus (neoliberalism) that succeeded it (1980-present). A Green New Deal would operate under a different set of rules than either of these two.

Institutions thus shape economies; but institutions can be changed. If the rules of an economy permit the exploitation of nature (and labour), then nature (and labour) will be exploited by corporations, to the detriment of society. Why? Because the firms that scrupulously avoid degrading nature (or exploiting labour) will be undercut by competing firms that have no such scruples. The rules of the game (institutions) must be redefined to rule out such exploitation by any actors. And firms can, and will, adjust to the new rules

Thus, the problem posed by climate change is not an implacable economic logic, but a matter of power structures and popular attitudes. It will require a hard struggle to defeat the fossil fuel industry and its supporters, let alone tackle the possessive-individualist mentality. But it can, and must, be done.

Degrowth: Desirable but Improbable

Degrowth is a growing intellectual movement among those alarmed by the climate crisis. Its proponents envision a desirable world which has not only come to terms with the ecological crisis, but also is more egalitarian and convivial than our current societies, both in the global North and South. Advocates also provide a cogent critique of economic growth. They contend, perhaps less cogently, that capitalism is the problem because it is inherently growth oriented. One finds, in addition, the analysis of many relevant policies, at both the national and global level, for overcoming the climate/ecological crisis and building an egalitarian society. However, the political strategy for moving from our current situation to the desirable world is underdeveloped. It seems highly improbable that we will witness a transformation of capitalism in the next decade or two, let alone a nonviolent transformation.

Some of the terms are confusing. All eco-socialists are degrowthers, but not all degrowthers are eco-socialists (though most are). The degrowth movement is diverse; yet many (probably most) degrowth proponents, together with eco-socialists, believe that system change is needed to safeguard the environment and build an equitable society. Radical degrowth advocates prefer to refer to the future they want as “post-capitalism” rather than post-growth or socialism. “Post-growth” is a suspect term, from their viewpoint. That is because those who believe that capitalism is compatible with ecological sustainability prefer the term “post-growth.” “Post-capitalism,” on the other hand, declares that capitalism is the problem, but avoids the ideological baggage of socialism while implying an anti-capitalist orientation.

Degrowth as a theory and program emerged in France in the 2000s, later spreading to the rest of Europe, and then to North America and the world. Degrowth has long intellectual roots. The movement sides with the famous Limits to Growth report to the Club of Rome in 1972. André Gorz, a French eco-Marxist who wrote presciently about ecological destruction and capitalism in the 1970s and 1980s, is another important influence.

 That the origins of degrowth lie in the universities, and it remains largely an intellectual movement, is not incidental Many books and articles in the degrowth tradition are demanding to read for those who lack training in the social sciences. One wonders who the audience is for many of the books and articles: mainly activist-scholars, it appears. The academic exigency of publish (in specific refereed journals) or perish seems to have molded the expression of degrowth. Yet there is an effort to popularize the approach, such as in the perplexing slogan found on climate marches – “System Change, Not Climate Change.”           

What, in essence, is degrowth all about? I think nearly all advocates would agree the degrowth concerns an equitable downscaling of production and consumption that increases human well-being and enhances ecological conditions at the national and global levels “- with degrowth starting in the rich countries, but soon including, with technological and monetary assistance, the countries of the global South. Proponents promise a good life for all within the planet’s ecological boundaries.

One problem with this approach, and the criticism that sparks anger in its adherents, is the improbability of achieving this transformative program within a couple of decades (which is the time we have available). The quandary of degrowth is captured by the ironic slogan that was scrawled on the walls of Paris in 1968: “Be realistic. Demand the Impossible.”

  • “Be realistic”: Degrowth’s central idea is realistic. The idea of infinite growth on a finite planet is absurd.

There is, in short, a major political problem with degrowth.

Consider the dimensions of this problem.

  • Who will vote for degrowth (besides you and me)? Degrowth has a negative connotation. “Post-growth” is more positive, if vague. “Post-capitalism” would scare many people – what actually is proposed? Right-wing populists would feast on the doctrine, were it to be a contender for power. They would swiftly discredit the program as the product of “woke” socialists whose real goal is to abolish private property and impose new taxes and restrictions on liberty. (Trump’s White House condemned even a rather tame version of the Green New Deal in 2019 “as seeking to achieve what Stalin tried, and failed, to achieve.”)
  • Where is the mass movement? Degrowth constitutes an intellectual movement, mainly of those associated with universities throughout the world. The doctrine is complex, assuming prior knowledge of economic history, ecology, and social theory. Many of the major works on the topic are unlikely to engage a mass audience.
  • Degrowth in one country will not work.   It is predictable what will happen if a degrowth-influenced government assumes power. Capital flight and capital strike will lead to a decline in the value of the national or regional currency; the resulting inflation of prices and growing unemployment and shortages will produce an economic crisis; and this economic crisis will precipitate a political crisis in which the government backs down or collapses. What is needed is a globally coordinated movement in several countries at once; but such coordination is hard to achieve and is nowhere in sight.
  • Will an ecological crisis galvanize support for a radical degrowth program? It might. However, we encountered such a crisis in 2023 in the form of extreme weather throughout the world, along with the warmest year on record, and it did not lead to a shift to the left. Indeed, a widespread ecological crisis, owing to the insecurity and fear it would unleash, might bolster the far right. Fascist themes of blood and earth and of imposed order might prevail, together with the scapegoating of migrants fleeing ecological and political disasters in their homelands.

In sum, degrowth is acute in identifying continuous economic growth as a problem, though its further argument that capitalism is inherently growth oriented is problematical. Its vision of a future society governed by the equitable and democratic downscaling of production and consumption is highly attractive. Degrowth advocates have also developed an array of worthy policies. But the political strategy is lacking, even though degrowthers recognize the political challenges.

If green growth (as previously argued) is inadequate to the climate challenge, degrowth is impracticable. We arrive at an impasse. But this reform-versus-revolution dichotomy is too crude: there is a third alternative (leaving fascist denialism and eco-anarchism aside): a radical-reformist Green New Deal. A later post will develop this idea.

Climate and Capitalism: Is System Change the Answer?

This 55-minute lecture assesses approaches for surmounting the accelerating climate crisis. i focus on the desirability, viability, and potential feasibility of these approaches.

The argument is simple.

What is possible (Green Growth) is inadequate to the challenge of climate change, whereas what is necessary and desirable (Degrowth) is impossible in the short time available to us. To escape this impasse, we need to forego reformism and radicalism in favour of radical reformism – a supplemented Green New Deal.

The Fascist Virus

In an unpublished article circa 1934 entitled “The Fascist Virus”[i] Karl Polanyi sketches a theory of fascism that remains relevant. This theory is further elaborated in an article entitled “The Essence of Fascism”[ii] and in The Great Transformation (1944). In light of current politico-economic trends, this theory is worth revisiting. Continue reading

The Origins of Today’s Fascist Tendency

In responding to the threat of today’s fascist tendency, an effective strategy depends upon a robust diagnosis. It is clear that right-wing populists, the harbingers of this tendency, are channeling the resentment and rage of substantial segments of national populations. But where precisely does the anger come from? Continue reading

A New Vision for the Left I: Legacy

Tolstoy observed that there are only two essential questions: how shall we live, and what should be done? A vision effectively answers these two questions.

But the left’s vision is no longer as compelling as it once was. The failures of socialist and social-democratic movements in the 20th century and new challenges in the 21st century demand a rethinking. The absence of a compelling and viable worldview has allowed far-right, populist movements to step into the breach and make headway everywhere.

Continue reading

Why Polanyi and Not Marx?

A recent Marxist critique of Karl Polanyi’s theoretical approach concludes that there is nothing wrong with the latter that cannot be remedied by a major infusion of key Marxist concepts. Benjamin Selwyn and Satoshi Miyamura in their 2014 New Political Economy article display an impressive grasp of Polanyian as well as Marxist categories. Yet, in their critique, they never consider why Polanyi, who was both knowledgeable of, and sympathetic to, Marxism in his early and middle years, eventually broke with Marxism to forge his own analytical path. Might he not have had good reasons for doing so? Continue reading

Six Reasons for Reading Karl Polanyi (Even If You Study the Global South): Part II

In addition to reading Karl Polanyi for his appealing normative stance and transdisciplinary approach, I am drawn to four other attractive features. Continue reading

The Socialist Impasse

During the past several years, I have spent a lot of time reflecting on the unpalatable dilemmas that confront the Left, both socialists and social democrats. What is the way out, for those concerned to build equal freedom and a more democratic society? Continue reading