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A User’s Guide to the Crisis of CivilisationGetting from A to B is the big issue

An ambitious book about the global crisis and its causes argues that we should regard the present as transitional to a better society based on sustainability and the control of resources through popular and democratic participation. Review by Phil Sharpe

The most powerful suggestion of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation is that the present system is not permanent but the product of hundreds of years of development of capitalism. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed argues that the market and neo-liberalism is not the summit of human progress and is self-destructive, promoting the necessity of historical alternatives.

He utilises aspects of Marx’s approach of historical materialism in order to arrive at his conclusions but does not support Marx’s perspective of a communist society. Instead, he argues for a different alternative that would still allow humans to control their own destiny. What this society would be is not entirely clear because it combines elements of both capitalism and socialism.

In the introduction Ahmed argues for a holistic methodology to establish that the various crises, such as declining food production and the depletion of energy reserves, are part of a single global crisis. “This book explores the hypothesis that these seemingly separate crises are in fact manifestations of the dysfunctional global political, economic, ideological and ethical system that characterises industrial civilisation in toto.”

Attempts to address the economic crisis are inadequate, he insists, because they do not tackle the ideological limitations which promoted this situation. This crisis is also part of a process that is self-destructive. We should not conclude that progress cannot be realised but that progress will be different to the present in terms of a post-carbon society of a sustainable economy.

The author uses a wealth of detail to support the contention that global society is in a process of acute crisis. However the theoretical problem is that he cannot translate his understanding of the depth of crisis into an argument for the possibility and necessity of transition to a better society.

The result is that the book may unintentionally seem to vindicate a politics of pessimism rather than hope. For example, the first chapter about climate change provides a mass of statistics to argue that the world is undergoing global warming, and its various effects are described in impressive detail. Furthermore the inadequacy of the response of the governments of the world is also detailed.

But the result of the impact of human activity on the environment is outlined in the bleakest terms and the perspective of the importance of an alternative is reduced to that of a moral “ought”. We have no sense that an alternative can actually be realised that could begin to try and tackle the problem of climate change.

This sense of prevailing pessimism is articulated in the chapter on energy. It is argued that energy is becoming increasing scarce because of the situation of peak oil. The author contends that a situation of peak oil occurred between 2005 and 2008. The result will be ever-increasing scarcity and higher prices, and the prospect is that scarce oil can promote a depression worse than the 1930’s. The alternatives of natural gas and nuclear power are also considered to be short-term and ultimately unsatisfactory.

Hence the author concludes: “The long-term trend of steady depletion of hydrocarbon and other conventional energy sources, particularly oil, portends nothing less than the end of industrial civilisation as currently understood. The twenty-first century represents a critical transition period in which hydrocarbon energies will become increasingly scarce.”  

But what is absent from this perspective is an elaboration of how this process of transition can be realised. The author does argue that what is required for change is an end to American domination of oil supplies and promotion of an ideological alternative to consumerism. We can agree with these sentiments, but how are we to realise this post-carbon society? Ahmed is very good at describing what is wrong with society, but he is not so good in detailing a programme of change and transition.

The chapter about food insecurity outlines how the control of the big corporations has resulted in the end of sustainable and localised production and its replacement by the global production of food for profit. There is still a potential abundance of food but its unequal distribution between the rich North and the poor South, leads to situations of famine and civil unrest. This can be resolved by movement towards localised, organic and sustainable farming, Ahmed argues, without articulating how this problem can be resolved at the level of practice.

The global economy is outlined in terms of the durability of poverty and the fact that this is based on the domination of the world economy by big corporations and the political power of the USA. This situation is expressed by the role of economic institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Ahmed outlines how the world economy is based on an acceptance that the USA has a balance of payments deficit which is financed by the other major economies by buying American debt in the form of Treasury bonds. This situation is not challenged because it is feared that, if the USA was undermined, it would result in the collapse of the world economy. Relations between the North and South are often based on programmes that involve privatisation and the opening up of economies to free trade, and the result is mass poverty.  

He outlines in intricate detail how the world economy became increasingly dependent on the role of credit and debt rather than investment in productive activity. Ahmed also argues that emergency bail-outs and quantitative easing will not succeed in re-stimulating the economy: “The reason for this was simple. The bailouts took taxpayers money – trillions of dollars of cash – out of the economy (the exchange of tangible products and services) and pumped it into the private banking system. The banking system... had no intention of using its new found cash to kick-start lending. On the contrary... the bailouts were used to replenish their lost reserves and could not be used for new spending.”

Consequently the measures that the various governments can promote in order to try and overcome recession are unlikely to work. Instead, the author predicts, recession will result in the prospect of depression, mass unemployment, poverty in the West and the tendency towards protectionism, trade war and the threat of new global wars. This situation is connected to the ecological problems, the shortage of energy resources and the food supply.

The limitation of Ahmed’s standpoint is caused by the fact that he does not identify who or what could be the agency to promote progressive change in this situation of deepening crisis. Instead he presents change as the automatic and mechanical expression of imperatives created by the economic crisis and the ecological situation.

The increasingly catastrophic economic situation will create an overwhelming dynamic of transformation that will be reflected at the level of consciousness and practice: “Grassroots pressures could converge with this economic opening, creating the possibility of more concerted openings to reorganise social relations in a more sustainable way. Unfortunately, the later the occurrence of such developments, the more difficult it will be to avoid certain catastrophic situations.”

In other words, if the favourable opportunities presented by the increasing crisis and catastrophe are not realised then the situation could become increasingly detrimental to the prospect of movement to a post-carbon society. However, because Ahmed has not identified clearly the agency of change, it is entirely possible that his worst case scenario will be realised. He has not been able to establish why the growing crisis of capitalism would promote the conditions for revolutionary transformation.

His standpoint represents the limitations of critique. Ahmed has been able to outline some of the most important problems of capitalist society. But he has not been able to realise his other aim which is to show why this crisis can be transitional to a better historical alternative.

In contrast, Marx saw that capitalism was historically progressive because it created the objective and material conditions for a better historical future, which was defined as communism. Without capitalism, communism would not be possible. Instead of this definite conception of transition to a higher level of development, Ahmed replaces it with the vague sense of a post-Carbon society and it remains problematical that humanity can realise this type of society before civilisation itself utterly fails.

The overwhelming sense of doom is not overcome in the two chapters devoted to terrorism. Ahmed argues cogently that terrorism has become the pretext for the militarisation of society and the increasing justification of authoritarianism and the erosion of democratic liberties. However his ability to explain the motives of elites, whether that is the ruling class in the West, or the violent actions of the terrorist, are not extended in order to outline the alternative. Instead we have a sense that the crisis is being mediated and distorted by the conflict between the forces of imperialism and terrorism. How do we explain the prospect of revolution in these apparently adverse circumstances?

Only in the most tenuous manner does he finally concede that opposition to the wars  created by the crisis and the increasing militarisation of society will create a threat to the domination of ruling elites: “Thus, while states, banks and corporations are likely to be the principal actors in ongoing militarisation processes over the next decade, these processes and their long-term futility will also generate increasing number of detractors in the form of popular grassroots movements opposing war and calling for social justice.”

The problem with this perspective is that protest is portrayed as a moral ideal rather than being an expression of a definite historical process. The actual logic and dynamics of movements against war is not articulated in terms of their possible role in the process of historical transformation. Instead anti-war movements are outlined as merely the expression of moral outrage with capitalism rather than being the indicator of the change of society into a higher level of development.

Ahmed outlines how the global economy is dominated by international institutions like the IMF who act in the interests of America. The system is based on an ideology of profit maximisation and neo-classical assumptions that represent a crude materialist approach. The world is considered to be a collection of atomistic physical units in conflict with each other, and has an ethical system that justifies maximum consumption. This is defined as unnatural because it does not represent what is for the well-being of nature and humanity.
This is a useful and important summary of the contemporary global economy. Ahmed has outlined the importance of historical materialism as a research tool able to outline the tendencies of development and features of capitalism. He can show what is wrong with capitalism at the level of economics, politics and ideology, but is unable to outline how capitalism can develop into a higher form of society. He cannot move from an articulation of what he is against into an expression of what he is in favour of.

This critical point can be extended to his conclusion. Ahmed argues that the separation of access of producers from the means of production, or the dispossession of labour, has to be ended. However, he cannot envisage a different type of society from that of capitalism. He argues that access to the productive resources of society “does not necessitate the abolition of private property” and “nor does it automatically justify the forms of socialist central planning associated with the Soviet Union”. The control by labour of productive resources is said to be compatible with individual ownership. However, this is a petty-bourgeois system of commodity production and historically all these forms of production have resulted in the development of complex capitalist social relations.

The problems that the author has outlined in the book will not be overcome without a perspective to establish the criteria for the effective transformation of the global economy of capitalism. Social ownership and planning are not simply the instruments of Stalinism, but can be utilised in a democratic manner to establish real control over production and distribution. The author is effectively arguing for a fairer and better form of capitalism, and he fails to recognise that with individual control of productive resources some individuals will have more than others.

This private ownership of the economy will generate the continued exploitation of wage labour. This is what happened in Russia after the end of Stalinism. Formally, the population had equal access to productive resources through ownership of shares, but the shares were quickly bought by a few rich individuals and the result was the re-creation of the social relations of capital, the exploitation of wage labour.

Ultimately his approach is confusing. He calls for democratic participation as the basis of control of economic resources and yet believes that this is possible in terms of private ownership: “This should not necessarily obviate a legitimate role for private enterprise in developing productive resources that are to be considered publicly owned, but ultimately their exploitation (particularly of resources such as water) must aim at meeting the needs of local populations, and this necessarily requires direct community participation in relevant private development  enterprises.”

The realisation of democracy in economic activity requires public ownership in order that resources are controlled by the majority, and the confusion of what is public and what is private only obscures clarity in this context. Historically private ownership of important economic resources can only result in intense social inequality. Ultimately he is trying to return to a pre-globalisation form of capitalism rather than trying to consistently locate what is in the present that will realise a better future.

The most consistent and revolutionary aspects of Ahmed’s perspective of the post-carbon society is at the level of ethical values. He argues that the morality of capitalism has to be replaced through a holistic approach based on cooperation and participation: “Self-fulfilment, in other words, will be based on creative communion with others, and with nature, rather than unlimited exploitation of others and of nature for material ends. Such a new ethical system will be capable of uniting different humanist, spiritual and religious traditions in the overreaching recognition that moral values objectively harmonize us with nature, and therefore in some way constitute cognitive reflections of humanity’s relationship with the natural order.”

At the level of ideology the author is able to outline convincingly the necessity of a different value system if society is to realise its challenges without the limitations of profit maximisation and capitalist social relations. Yet he cannot establish coherently the type of society that would be compatible with this process of ideological transformation.  However, he has established the reasons why capitalism is historically transitory and is likely to be replaced by a different type of society because of a process of contradiction and upheaval.

15 December 2010

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A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation. Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed. Pluto Press £17.50

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