- by Eileen Whitehead
- The Guardian
- Issue #1957
It seems that the capitalist way of living has been with us forever, but it has only come about since early global trading developed around the sixteenth century. Early societies were primitive and foraging communities and were the earliest form of communism. There was no class society as such and no money. Inventions helped humanity develop slowly, first with stone tools, the wheel, and pottery, etc. Men and women were considered equally important in a society where everyone pulled together for the common good.
But since the rapid development of machinery and the ability, with trains, ships and planes, to send food from agricultural regions to the cities and even to other countries, some parts of society began to enjoy a better way of life. Along with these advances came a better understanding and treatment of diseases.
Suddenly, we see the damage this is causing. The fossil fuels, which have been the bulwark of the industrial revolution, are now seen as the villains of the piece. The pressure put on the natural environment by so many people wanting an improved lifestyle has been destroying the planet. We have reached a point where the “good times” of capitalism seem to be coming rapidly to an end, or at least to a point where it can no longer continue as it has for the past 200 years. Engels was to hint at this in his Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy, 1844:
“Every new crisis must be more serious and more universal than the last. Every fresh slump must ruin more small capitalists and increase the workers who live only by their labour. This will increase the number of the unemployed and this is the main problem that worried economists. In the end commercial crises will lead to a social revolution far beyond the comprehension of the economists with their scholastic wisdom.”
Contemporary eco-socialists are recommending de-growth in opposition to the continuing capitalist mantra of producing more than we want. However, this is not a practical solution if pursued relentlessly. Given the current system of capitalism, it would only create even more unemployment, poverty, and suffering. But capitalism, as it stands now, will seal the fate of us all. Perhaps it’s a case of deciding what industries we need to reduce and/or eliminate. It might even be beneficial if workers were actually in control of what is needed to be produced and given the flexibility of working where they are needed. If the workers are in charge of production, perhaps goods could be produced in less time. This was an important objective for Marx, who saw the potential for freeing workers from unnecessary labour with a reduction of hours and more leisure time, leading to a more complete development of the individual. A happy human works better with a happy heart.
We urgently need to replace all jobs in dirty fossil fuel industries with innovative, technological industries. Here, we would be providing “green” jobs and instead of subsidising the mining industries we can spend that money on better health and education. However, under our current system, the majority of the people have to rely on the decisions made by the few – the bourgeoisie. An ideal world would be where the working class make decisions. One of them would certainly be a shorter working week to enable workers to spend more time with their families. This will not happen under the present system of government legislating for the benefit of the wealthy, capitalist class.
The world has reached a tipping point where our future is at risk as climate change causes rapid vagaries to our present way of life. It is no longer possible to simply keep producing more stuff, cutting down more trees, or digging up more minerals, destroying our natural world. Capitalism makes us compete with one another: we have to grow, make profits, and accumulate capital. With the currently crucial function of fossil fuel and automotive capital within contemporary capitalism, there will be no remission in the economic growth affecting climate change while causing irreversible environmental damage.
All we’ve been hearing during decades living under neoliberal, imperialist capitalism is the importance of economic growth and increased monetary value. If production were to turn out to be for social need, i.e. the expansion of free services such as health, education, transport and housing, the need to measure monetary value would become irrelevant. We can’t, of course, return to an earlier, simpler way of life, but we must strive for a more harmonious and sustainable relationship with nature.
Achieving zero fossil fuel industries necessitates an expanded production in wind turbines and solar panels and, possibly, more research into wave power. Reduction and eventual elimination of the production of petrol-driven cars must be supported by extra public transport and sustained working from home. The essential elimination of fossil fuels, cars, armaments, single-use plastics, factory farming, etc. will be painful, but can be offset with more jobs in the renewable industries, better staffed health centres and in education, including more doctors and nurses in mental health and welfare. I can only see a better quality of life for everyone once we’re through this difficult transition period. But one thing is certain; we cannot continue with our extravagant western way of life as we have for the past 200 years without dire results.