Yes, Jonathon Porritt – capitalism is the problem
Review by Paul Feldman
In the end, it comes down to whether or not global capitalism is inherently incompatible with sustaining the planet’s eco-systems. If it is, then activists who identify the profit system as the source of the problem have a duty to devote their energies to capitalism’s overthrow. That’s the blunt point of view of Jonathon Porritt, a leading environmental campaigner for more than 25 years.
Before you get too excited at the prospect of Porritt - an adviser to business, the Prince of Wales and the New Labour government - joining the ranks of the revolution, there is a catch. Porritt only accepts that what he calls “capitalism as we know it today” appears to be “incompatible with anything even vaguely resembling sustainability”, adding: “The continuing… liquidation of our natural capital throughout the global economy provides ample evidence on this score.”
In its place, Porritt proposes that we should develop an alternative capitalist economic model or a “capitalism as if the world matters”. This is the title of his detailed argument for a reform of capitalist structures and objectives that, once implemented, would sustain the planet’s eco-systems and still allow business to make profits. Just as importantly, what he calls a “soft landing” for contemporary capitalism would undermine the case for revolutionary change!
Porritt readily acknowledges that capitalism is responsible for climate chaos, the depletion of resources, growing inequality, the elimination of species, industrialised agriculture and so on. In fact, he marshals the evidence extremely well to show that this road leads to the end of humanity. Assessing the last 50 years, the period when the global market economy has emerged alongside the transnational corporations, he concludes:
“If we don’t learn to live sustainably within the natural systems and limits that provide the foundations for all life forms, then we will go the same way as every other life form that failed to adapt to those changing systems and limits. Deep down in our collective psyche, after hundreds of years of industrialisation that systematically suppressed a proper understanding of our continuing and total dependency upon the natural world, that atavistic reality is beginning to resurface.” [emphasis in original]
We have indeed reached such a turning point in human history and Porritt is right to emphasise that time is not on humanity’s side. He is also correct to talk of the “demise of conventional environmentalism” under the pressure of globalisation. The campaigns of pressure, lobbying, exposures, calls for the regulation of business activity and the emphasis on recycling have had little if any impact on halting the destruction of eco-systems. But Porritt’s own view that capitalism is both the problem as well the solution is an equally flawed approach, as we shall see.
Porritt’s case is that there are “no structural, inherent characteristics within a capitalist system that would make sustainability an unattainable goal”. The transformation of those “aspects of contemporary capitalism” that are incompatible thus becomes the goal of all environmentalists and campaigners for social justice. He then analyses five aspects of capital – natural, human, social, manufactured and financial – and puts forwards proposals to adapt them so that they function in a sustainable way. Manufacturing could, he argues, operate in a way that respects nature through “sustainable development” while remaining creative and profitable. From the standpoint of formal logic, the proposals seem self-evident, neat and non-threatening. Just what the capitalist doctor ordered!
Porritt’s argument is founded on his agreement with Demos analyst Tom Bentley that the “values of individualism, diversity and open exchange” are now “embodied in the structure of capitalism, which now constitutes the only viable possibility for organising economies”. According to this declaration from a senior figure in the Blairite thinktank, history ends with capitalism. As such, the reconciliation of sustainability and production can only be achieved through reform of the present system.
Even so, Porritt knows he is up against it, acknowledging that “many of the changes now required can only be twisted to fit these market disciplines with great difficulty”. He also accepts that governments from New Labour to the Bush regime, to bodies like the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are driven by what is good for contemporary global capitalism. Nevertheless, for Porritt, having ruled out any alternatives to capitalism, reform is the only way to go.
The scale of the challenge is shown in the fact that more than 90% of all the materials extracted to manufacture consumer goods ends up as waste. Even Porritt has to admit that “sustainability and capitalism do not automatically make natural bedfellows”. Then there is what he calls a “shameless lack of political leadership and vision” and the fact that “politicians seem paralysed by the immensity of the changes required”. He doesn’t exclude New Labour from this critique, even though he is chair of the government’s Sustainable Development Commission.
The weaknesses in his case flow from Porritt’s failure to understand the nature of capitalist production as a totalising system, where it is impossible to single out an “aspect” as if it were a cog in the wheel. The global market economy is an objective contradictory process which has an existence, inner logic and development that is independent of those who are involved in it. In that sense, it is not a rational system under the control of any group of capitalists, governments or institutions. No one, for example, can halt the tidal financial flows of capital that transcend borders and time zones in 24-hour trading. Global capitalism is predominantly anarchical, defying attempts to bring it under control.
The fact that the intensive globalisation of the last 30 years has driven the destruction of eco-systems, as Porritt would admit, reinforces the notion that today’s capitalism is more out of control than ever before. The whole process of manufacture, production and consumptoin is vastly speeded up by comparison with previous periods of capitalism. Technological innovations are soon discarded in favour of more “up-to-date” versions that are marketed in a mass way in order to fuel demand. Astronomical amounts of fictitious capital compete for a return on investment, forcing the pace of production to go even faster. Whole areas of the globe previously untouched by capitalism and consumerism like India and China are thrust into the global economy. Taming the global capitalist tiger is simply not an option.
Capitalism is a system that through its own internal logic pursues capital accumulation for its own sake. The only interest is whether commodities produced are exchanged for money because until they are exchanged, the value – including profit – they contain is not realised. As production for profit is the overriding driving force and an end in itself, it is immaterial what goods are actually produced. As it sets out to create wealth rather than meet need as its first priority, capitalism is in effect on a treadmill.
When stripped right down to its essence, in capitalist society the rule is: no profit, no production. Competition amongst companies in a capitalist economy requires them to make their products more attractive to potential consumers than those of their competitors. There are several tactics used: reducing the price charged; making broadly equivalent products appear different and more attractive; bringing new products to the marketplace to satisfy unmet demands, and stimulating new demands; or undermining, weakening and then either buying up or finally destroying the competitor. The giant transnational corporations use all these methods to their fullest extent. The heart of the whole process of making profit is the ability of workers – including managers – to add more value to inputs during the working day than the total cost of their employment to the firm. The difference between the total cost of labour and the value added by workers is called surplus value.
So the key to defending profits in an era of fierce competition is the pressure to reduce the cost of production. Costs of production include labour, which also means management, machinery, commodities bought from suppliers, distribution including holding stock, and communication. Obviously, reducing costs means paying less for inputs. Hence the unending search for ever-cheaper sources of labour and materials and the leap-frogging of investment from continent to continent. As productivity is driven up, and investment in automation replaces human labour, more and more commodities are churned out. This has serious and inescapable consequences for those shareholders expecting to benefit.
The smaller proportion of people employed in relation to fixed capital reduces that portion of funds invested in labour, the source of surplus value, and so puts downward pressure on the rate of profit. This in turn requires further investment and another cycle begins. Increased productivity produces overcapacity, and the surge of cheap commodities overwhelms the available market. This contradiction is both the motor of growth, and the cause of crisis. The contradiction tears capitalist society itself apart, setting owners and managers against their employees and destroying the planet’s eco-systems.
The anarchy of the capitalist system is in turn a reflection of the alienated nature of social relations running through contemporary society. Porritt is right to stress the subordinate nature of economic and political activity to the biophysical world, on which we depend as thinking, breathing, human beings. What he does not examine, however, is how distorted our relationship to nature is, how alienated we are from the world around us. This alienation stems from the nature of ownership and control in capitalist society.
The most significant arena in our relationship to nature is the economic process. Yet here we are deprived of any influence, let alone control. The present system is organised on a highly socialised basis, often involving workers in many different countries working in a collaborative way. But this whole process is controlled from start to finish by capital and its inherent need to expand. Nature itself produces land and raw materials. These, for the most part, are privately owned. While we are free to sell our labour power to an employer, once bought it becomes a commodity for use by the capitalist alone. In fact, the more the world is filled with commodities, the less we have for own use. Moreover, as capitalism extends its reach into areas not previously dominated by markets and production for profit – for example, the human genetic code – it deepens further our alienation, our removal from a direct relationship with the world outside of us and also with ourselves.
Assessing this phenomenon as it appeared in the first part of the 19th century, Marx noted in his Grundrisse: “For the first time, nature becomes purely an object for humankind, purely a matter of utility; ceases to be recognised as a power for itself; and the theoretical discovery of its autonomous laws appears merely as a ruse so as to subjugate it under human needs, whether as an object of consumption or as a means of production. In accord with this tendency, capital drives beyond national barriers and prejudices as much as beyond nature worship, as well as all traditional, confined, complacent, encrusted satisfactions of present needs, and reproductions of old ways of life. It is destructive towards all of this, and constantly revolutionises it, tearing down all the barriers which hem in the development of the forces of production, the expansion of needs, the all-sided development of production, and the exploitation and exchange of natural and mental forces.”
Porritt says the plan is to change the anti-ecological characteristics of capitalism through “the usual levers – government intervention, consumer preference, international diplomacy, education and so on”. This bring us to the other crucial aspect that Porritt fails to understand - the relationship between capitalism as a productive system and the state political system that has developed alongside it, especially in its contemporary context. These two major areas of capitalist power are mutually dependent and inter-related. Neither can break free from the other, even if it wanted to. The state in the final analysis exists to perpetuate, legitimise and develop capitalism as an economic system. There are tensions and conflicts but these are secondary to these main objectives.
While Porritt acknowledges the crisis of contemporary politics he does not see that this is directly related to the coming together of corporate power with political institutions and rulers. One of the crucial outcomes of corporate-driven globalisation is the undermining of the traditional parliamentary state, with its formal democratic processes and decisions that were influenced by the national interests of locally-based capitalism. With a globalised economy, governments and the states they preside over have transferred significant power to supra-national bodies. Decisions in each country are driven by the need to attract inward investment and maintain a competitive edge for the transnational corporations that operate within a nation’s borders.
As a result, especially in Britain and the United States, the business of government has become business itself. Blair is fond of reminding us that globalisation in the shape of the market economy, is the only game in town. That is the explanation behind New Labour’s abandonment of even the modest Kyoto treaty framework on carbon emissions in favour of market “solutions” through technological innovation and voluntary targets. As for taking up Porritt’s ideas for a new, sustainable form of capitalism – forget it! As Blair said in New York recently, no one is going to advocate a disruption to the world economy because of an environmental danger. Porritt himself concedes that “many governments are now predisposed against decisive intervention in the marketplace” and have become “adept at shedding both risk and responsibility” to business, quangos, agencies, citizens as well as “the market”.
So it is actually beyond the capacity of present-day governments to tackle climate change and ecological crisis. That being the case, we have to return to what Porritt himself said was the only alternative to his own views:
“If, as a politically active environmentalist or campaigner for social justice, one’s answer to the question is they are, indeed mutually exclusive (that capitalism, in whichever manifestation, is in its very essence inherently unsustainable), then one’s only morally consistent response is to devote one’s political activities to the overthrow of capitalism.” [emphasis in original]
We cannot act to safeguard nature until we can establish a direct relationship with nature, one that is not mediated by the needs of capital. The simple notion that “owning” nature is historically absurd is our starting point for proposing a way forward. Whatever way it is presented by capitalism, there is nothing “natural” or eternal in the present circumstance where external nature is deemed private property for use and exploitation in the pursuit of profit. In fact, this expropriation only dates from the late 18th century and the emergence of capitalism. The unparalleled expansion of this type of production under corporate-driven globalisation has produced a qualitative turning point in humanity’s relationship to nature. Our co-evolution with nature is threatened by a systemic ecological crisis that capitalism as a global system has created but is incapable of tackling and which can only worsen. Our destiny is to end the absurd by terminating private ownership of the forces of production, through expropriation of the expropriators. We must move forward in history, creating an economy based on co-ownership and control, transferring the power and resources of the transnationals into a social new setting, and establishing a truly democratic state in place of today’s discredited political institutions. By ending our alienated relationship with nature we will create the conditions for dealing with the ecological crisis.
Far from reducing the amount of interaction between humanity and nature, we need to increase it to a higher, more scientific level than ever, developing consciously the human character of nature and the natural character of humanity. This is completely different to the philosophy of both the capitalists and the Greens. Both make nature and human beings into absolute opposites, ignoring the fact that human society - its agriculture, industry and cities - is now one of the biggest parts of nature. In the case of capitalist ideology, the principle is one of mastery and domination of nature and natural processes in order to produce profit. In the case of the Greens, the principle is that human beings must withdraw from nature, returning to some point where their impact on it was less.
The kind interaction with nature we should aspire to needs to be guided by the most advanced scientific approach, examining the complexity of our mutual relations at the deepest chemical, biological and ecological level. Our co-evolution with nature must not be minimised but maximised, made more sophisticated and more serious and careful at the same time. Ending production based on capital accumulation will transform our ecology. We will replace the creation of exchange value with the production of useful objects, of use values. We will transform what we make, and the way in which we transform nature. Workers will co-operate internationally to plan production for the benefit of the majority. This will bring about a shift to farming for local food and a programme of infrastructure improvement to bring the basics of housing, water and power to all. Urban planning will set out to redesign and restructure the cities and end the alienation of town from country and vice versa. Eliminating massive over-capacity and a refocusing of the economy to the provision of the basic necessities of life will bring improved efficiency in the use of energy and raw materials, and lessen the impact on nature.
All enterprises will have access to the best and most recent scientific and economic knowledge in order to move to life-cycle production – production planned from the extraction of raw materials to the reclamation of waste after the end of the product’s life and the remanufacture of the waste products into useful components for the same, or other, productive processes. Scientific research, which is today directed towards helping capital to grow at the expense of nature, will focus instead on restoring damaged eco-systems. Economic and community planners will work with scientists and communities to produce holistic plans that meet people’s needs. The resources wasted by capitalism will be redirected towards immediate large-scale investment in solar power and desalination, recycling of waste and land reclamation.
Porritt’s book has the merit of bringing out into the open the relationship of capitalism to the eco-crisis. He also demonstrates how production of commodities could take place in a sustainable way, without undermining the world around us. Challenging those who reject capitalism to fight for its overthrow is also refreshing, even if he himself wants to reform the system. At least he is honest and consistent. In a certain sense, Porritt is right: the solution does lie within capitalism. But it is not within capitalism’s power to deliver it. The technology, science, skills, human resources, endeavour, altruism and aspirations are all present. They contain the potential to solve all the pressing needs of humanity and address the eco-crisis in a meaningful way. At present, these resources are trapped with the straitjacket of private ownership and production for profit. Our task is to liberate these resources from their capitalist framework. Then and only then could we make sustainable development a reality.
Capitalism as if the world matters: Jonathon Porritt, Earthscan 2005 £18.99