MAD: Capitalism on a Finite Globe

That hardly anyone remembers that MAD once stood for mutually assured destruction is the only peace dividend of the end of the Cold War that I can think of. In the old days, somebody, supposedly, had to push a button to set off the doomsday machine. Today all we have to do is sit back and watch how global genocide will unfold.

In 1917 Bertrand Russell wrote in Political Ideals:

Capitalism and the wage system must be abolished; they are twin monsters which are eating up the life of the world.

At the time, Russell may  not mean that part about the life of the world quite as literally as it sounds today:

In place of them [those monsters] we need a system which will hold in check [people]’s predatory impulses, and will diminish the economic injustice that allows some to be rich in idleness while others are poor in spite of unremitting labor; but above all we need a system which will destroy the tyranny of the employer, by making men at the same time secure against destitution and able to find scope for individual initiative in the control of the industry by which they live. A better system can do all these things, and can be established by the democracy whenever it grows weary of enduring evils which there is no reason to endure.

Here’s a segment of and interview conducted by Scott Bochert with Fred Magdoff about his book What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism:

What is the general attitude of the environmentalist movement toward your view, i.e., a systemic, anti-capitalist point of view?  Have attitudes been changing in recent years?

Over the last decade there are increasing numbers of environmentalists who do understand that capitalism is the critical issue.  This is certainly a major step forward.  However, most of these people call for what is essentially tinkering with the system — better regulations, more government support for alternatives to fossil fuel energy, trying to factor in the costs of damage done to the environment into the prices of products — while keeping the essence of capitalism intact.

Why not try to reform capitalism along “green” or “sustainable” lines, or aim for a “zero growth” economy?

Truly “green” or “sustainable capitalism” is an oxymoron.  The very heart of the system — production of goods and services to make profits, which propels growth — excludes the possibility of capitalism being anything other than a system that has environmental destruction as a by-product.

Of course, it’s possible to have such things as better environmental regulations and use of fewer toxic chemicals.  We now have sewage treatment plants to treat the waste of cities and the rivers are therefore cleaner.

But the need to grow — to produce and sell more and more stuff while recognizing no boundaries — and having profits as the driving force and overwhelming goal of production means the system will always be environmentally destructive.

Zero growth is an economic disaster in a capitalist economy.  At this time (August 2011), the United States economy has been growing for more than two years since the official end of the Great Recession.  But it’s growing too slowly to provide enough jobs to re-employ the fired workers and get anywhere near full employment.

We have some 28 million people either unemployed (14 million), underemployed, or so discouraged that they have stopped looking for work (another 14 million between them).  Sustained high rates of economic growth are needed to get anywhere near what might be considered full employment.

The only way that zero economic growth can be consistent with satisfying people’s basic needs — physical and non-physical — is to have a different economic/social system in which production is done only for the purpose of providing these needs to the population instead of production for the purpose of selling stuff (regardless of its social value) and perpetually making profits.

We can argue about whether “sustainable capitalism” is an oxymoron, but even if it’s not why would anyone want to preserve Russell’s twin montsers of capitalism and the wage system?