This year marks the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day, which also marks the beginning of what I call below the modern environmental movement. In 2019 and the first part of 2020 militant demonstrations seeking an end to global warming were sparked by disastrous events generated by climate change. These included fires, droughts, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes. These disasters, long predicted by scientists and environmental activists, are associated with the melting of polar ice caps, which increased sea levels and altered climate patterns. But 2020 will also be remembered for something even more disastrous, also predicted by climate scientists and epidemiologists. A global pandemic is killing millions, closing the global economy and moving the world to the greatest economic collapse in the history of capitalism.
The essay below was begun and largely completed prior to the outbreak of the Covid-19 crisis. My focus, like much of the environmental movement at the time, was on global warming and the role that carbon in the atmosphere plays in that. While briefly reviewing the activities of environmental activists over the last 50 years, I focus on a plan put forth by U.S. politicians known as “The Green New Deal.” I argue that while the various components of the Green New Deal should be supported and fought for, they contradict the need of the capitalist system for unsustainable levels of per capita consumption. Capitalism, I argue, is a system of production for the sake of more production and because of this it must “Grow or Die” (the GOD principle).
Once the Pandemic hit the world full force, I realized that my analysis of the Green New Deal’s limitations is equally applicable to pandemics, both today’s and those likely to come in the future. As politicians look for who or what to blame for the present Covid-19 scourge, many scientists and activists are beginning to see the systemic basis for the release of old but previously undiscovered diseases. While the development of vaccines, treatments, testing and supplies of protective equipment is critical, that is not enough in the longer run. The unrelenting need for global capitalism to grow has meant that economic development has increasingly encroached into the habitats of animals that have lived for centuries in isolation, located in pristine regions of the earth. These animals have been hosts to many viruses and have developed immunities to them. But the destruction of habitat has brought both the animal hosts and their viruses into contact with humans who have no such immunities. This was the likely origin of Ebola, SARS, MERS and Zika. And many believe that economic development and the GOD principle will explain the far more deadly Covid 19. Destruction of habitat, especially in the last 20 years, has been due to capitalism’s reliance not only on growth but on the need to achieve this growth through extractive activities – mining for minerals including oil and the construction of pipelines. Extractivism also includes logging, and the construction of dams for hydroelectric power. The destruction of habitat is also generated by industrial agriculture, which compounds the dangers of habitat destruction with heavy use of fertilizers, pesticides, and unsafe animal and fish farming practices.
In this essay I will maintain my emphasis on the Green New Deal as a way to think not only about climate change but about broader environmental questions that include the current pandemic. In Part I of the essay I briefly review the history of the modern environmental movement, explain The Green New Deal and then discuss a variety of issues connected with its implementation. These include the relationship of the environment to the economy, the limits of technological solutions to the climate change crisis, the Green New Deal’s approach to inequality, and the relationship of capitalism to economic growth. Ultimately to achieve the aims of the Green New Deal and to stop the encroachment of economic growth into pristine habitats I call for a new path forward – a specific form of socialism. Part II is a discussion of this new path that is a system that does not require growth. And it can achieve the aims of the Green New Deal and diminish the attack that capitalism is waging on the eco system generally. This section is not intended to be a fully developed program for a new society. That requires much participation and discussion. Instead I simply outline some elements toward a new society that I hope will encourage and aid such a discussion.
How to Save the Planet
In the late 1960s I worked with a team of researchers who were looking into the possibility of using computers and other cutting edge technologies, to manage the quality of the water flowing down the Wisconsin River. I was focusing on the political aspects of water quality management and wrote a book by that name which was published in 1972. In the introduction to that book I wrote the following:
My report was completed, appropriately enough, during the first Earth Week celebration in 1970, when the problem (of environmental quality) was continually emphasized and documented. But students of environmental quality were aware of this problem long before anyone had thought of having an “Earth Week.
Since that time there have been a number of surges in environmental activism that have resulted in stricter environmental regulations, but have not reversed the ongoing degradation of our eco-system. The modern environmental movement in the U.S. began in the 1950s as Rachel Carson pushed for controls on the use of pesticides. Her book, Silent Spring, published in 1962, sold two million copies. And it resulted in the banning of the use of DDT despite vigorous resistance by the chemical industry. In 1969 and into the 70s, direct action against polluters took a number of forms. Most famously an activist who went under the pseudonym of “The Fox,” dumped wastewater produced by U.S. Steel into their corporate offices and performed other acts of “ecotage” as he called it. There was also a strong movement against nuclear power that included direct action to block the construction of new nuclear power plants.
Also there were some major environmental catastrophes that created a strong sentiment for action. These included widespread forest damage from acid rain, and a massive oil blowout in Santa Barbara, California in 1969 that dumped 200,000 gallons of oil into the ocean over a period of eleven days. Also in 1969, there was the day that the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio caught on fire.
These tactics and the environmental disasters generated national laws aimed at protecting the environment. In 1970, President Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency and Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin established the first Earth Week to promote environmental education. Also in 1970 President Nixon signed the Clean Air Act that focused on emissions of pollutants that contributed to acid rain. In 1972 he signed the Clean Water Act. In 1973 Nixon also signed legislation to protect endangered species.
These regulations and environmental agencies were a response to a growing and bi-partisan movement that initially built on the work of established organizations like the Sierra Club, founded in 1892 by conservationist John Muir. The World Wildlife Foundation, founded in 1961, worked on protecting endangered species. Greenpeace, formed in 1971, employed militant direct action tactics throughout the world to protect the environment.
Environmental Politics Becomes Partisan
Initially both conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, supported environmental regulation. But this bi-partisan support in the U.S. for measures to protect the environment came to an end roughly 20 years ago.
Part of this shift came as activism and research on environmental degradation focused on carbon dioxide and its role in warming the planet. This focus was not confined to the U.S. In 1969 the United Nations Economic and Social Council (UNESCO) held an international conference and issued a proclamation concerning the need for a world-wide effort to end environmental abuse. UN Secretary General U Thant signed the proclamation. In 1972, the UN held a “Conference on the Human Environment” in Stockholm, Sweden that was attended by nations around the world and launched a UN Environmental Program. In that same year an international organization called The Club of Rome issued a report called “Limits of Growth.” International conferences and scientific research continued and launched what became known as “The Kyoto Protocol.” In 1997 the Kyoto Protocol established national targets for the reduction of emissions of “greenhouse gasses,” mainly carbon dioxide, which is generated by the burning of fossil fuels. Major international meetings in Durban, South Africa (2011) and Doha, Qatar (2012) resulted in what is known as the Paris Agreement in 2015. Basically it is a plan for reducing the emissions of greenhouse gasses world- wide.
The link between carbon dioxide and climate change was initially raised by scientists in 1975 in an article that appeared in Science Magazine (William Broeker, “Climate Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” Science, 1975, v. 189, #4201, pp. 460-63.) In 1979, a study by a team of scientists known as the “Charney Report” moved the scientific research further (National Research Council, 1979, “Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment, Washington DC, National Academies Press). This report to the American Academy of Science summarized the research of a number of scientists designated as the Ad Hoc Study Group on Carbon Dioxide and Science. A few years later, environmentalist William McKibben began issuing reports that focused on the relationship between carbon dioxide emissions, deforestation, and climate change. His book, which was published in 1981, The End of Nature, established an upper limit for carbon based environmental degradation. He argued that carbon levels in the atmosphere greater than 350 parts per million will lead to radical global warming and associated climate change. McKibben established an organization, 350.com, which turned the global environmental movement’s full attention to lowering greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels.
The internationalization of the environmental movement and its focus on fossil fuels gave rise to an increasingly militant anti fossil fuel movement that advocated the use of renewable energy sources. But the emphasis on the need to limit the use of fossil fuels generated a very serious backlash led by major players in the fossil fuel industry. Sociologist Robert Bruelle identified 118 think tanks, advocacy organizations and trade associations that make up what he called “the climate change countermovement industry” (CCCM). (Robert J. Brulle “Institutionalizing Delay: Foundation Funding and the The Creation of the U.S. CCCM,” Climate Change, November 19, 2013). This industry, he argued, produces books and pamphlets, uses TV and social media outlets to promote the notion that climate change is simply a natural process and is not caused by humans. Their reach goes deep into U.S. society. The largest of these organizations are established conservative think tanks: The Enterprise Institute, Heritage Foundation, Hoover Institution, Manhattan Institute, and the Cato Foundation. The top 91 organizations that comprise the CCCM had a total income of $7 billion between 2003 and 2010. Half of the revenues of the trade associations came from membership dues and assessments. But the balance of their funding and the climate change denial work of the think tanks come from foundations.
Bruell discovered that the impetus of foundation funding for the CCCM initially came from the Koch Brothers’ foundations as well as Mobile Exxon. But when their actions came under fire by the environmental movement, they reduced their funding significantly. Their overt funding was taken over by a “black box” trust called Donars Trust/Capital. This trust now accounts for about 14% of the funding of the CCCM. Its rise coincided with the decline of Koch and Mobile Exxon direct funding, leading many to speculate that the Koch/Mobile Exxon support of CCCM activities simply went underground.
Since the funders of the CCCM also fund conservative causes, major conservative think tanks and activist organizations began to be involved in climate change denial activities. As a result, climate change became a partisan issue. Conservatives and Republicans often oppose the notion that human activity has contributed to the changes, while liberals and Democrats support policies and regulations designed to reverse or at least halt the advance of global warming and climate change. The visible result of this political shift is that while the Republican Nixon Administration began a process of stricter environmental legislation and regulation, these measures are now vigorously opposed by Republicans. In 2001, President George W. Bush pulled the U.S. out of the Kyoto Protocol. Democratic President Obama brought the U.S back into the UN process by signing the Paris Accord. Republican President Trump has taken the U.S. out of the accord and slashed the funding of the Environmental Protection Agency that had been started by Richard Nixon. As Robert Bruelle stated in his study of the funding of the CCCM:
This is how wealthy individuals or corporations translate their economic power into political and cultural power.
The Idea of a Green New Deal (GND)
Even as the environmental movement surged on a global scale, the level of carbon in the atmosphere continued to rise at a rapid rate. McKibben warned of catastrophe if that level were to exceed 350 parts per million (ppm). We reached that level in 1988. Today it stands at over 415. With the pandemic it has leveled off. But many observers suggest that once we go back to normal economic activity it will rise again.
The rapid increase of carbon in the atmosphere has, as predicted, been accompanied by dramatic environmental events. Melting polar ice caps have raised the level and temperature of the oceans. High seas threaten human settlements around the world. The warmer temperatures of the ocean and the planet generally have drastically altered weather patterns, leading to monster hurricanes and floods in some regions, drought in others. Colder areas of the globe are experiencing warmer temperatures while more moderate climates are facing climate extremes – massive winter storms and / or dangerous heat. Shifting human settlements due to changing weather patterns and a continuing use of pesticides and deforestation also threaten animals and insects which can potentially impact the food chain needed by humans to survive.
Finally (hopefully not too finally) I am writing this essay as the world suffers from a global pandemic. Yet another virus of the same type as Ebola, Sars, and others called “new corona virus causes a disease called Covid-19. As I write this it is ravishing the planet and crashing the global economy. There is evidence to suggest that the origin of this and previous new viruses are the result of an unrelenting destruction of the habitat of animals that carry the virus (John Vidal, “Destroyed Habitat Creates Perfect Condition for Coronavirus” Scientific American, 3-18-20). These diseases have been unknown because they have been sealed in areas of the world where humans had never occupied. But now the growth of the global economy depends on the invasion of this habitat for development. Roads, huge hydroelectric dams, industrialized farming, the exploitation of shale oil and the laying of pipelines have raised the specter of unleashing disease on the world which threatens human life itself.
Furthermore, these negative impacts of climate change are unevenly distributed. The poorest and most vulnerable peoples around the world are bearing the brunt of disastrous environmental events. In response, the global environmental movement is demanding environmental justice along with an end to human activities that will cause further degradation of nature and climate shifts. Many scientists now warn that the entire planet could face the annihilation of life itself.
As these impacts of environmental abuse manifest themselves today, there has been a resurgence of activism often led by young people who see a threat to their own lives as well as those of their children and potential grandchildren. Since this essay focuses on the current U.S. proposal for a Green New Deal (GND), I will only highlight some of this growing activity around climate change and climate justice that the GND is responding to. It is important to note that climate and environmental activism is on the rise all over the world, much of it coming from nations of the “global south.” Some highlights of environmental activism include 5,200 demonstrations that were held in 181 countries in 2009. William McKibben’s group 350.org helped to organize a “Global Peoples’ Climate March in 2014 that focused on carbon emissions. There was a major standoff between mostly Indigenous activists and the government in the U.S. in 2015 over the plan to run an oil pipeline (Keystone XL) through sacred lands, as Canadians protested the extraction of shale oil that would run through that pipeline. Canadian railroad movement was blocked across Canada for three weeks led by the Wet’suwet’en people to protest a natural gas pipeline going through their lands. President Obama put a hold on the building of the Keystone pipeline. President Trump then gave the pipeline a green light. Two major global demonstrations have been held this year (2019). Extinction Rebellion organized marches around the world under the slogan: “This is not a drill!” and “There are no good jobs on a dead planet!” The leaders proposed the formation of people’s councils to develop further actions and programs to stop climate change and eliminate the danger of extinction posed by climate change. Also a massive world-wide “Climate Strike” spearheaded by a 16 year old Swedish student named Greta Thurberg resulted in 6,135 actions in 185 nations that included an estimated 7.6 million demonstrators.
Prior to the pandemic there had been varied political responses to the demands arising from this growing activism in different nations. In the U.S., liberal Democrats call their plan a “Green New Deal” (GND). Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez and 68 other Congressional Representatives have formulated the “Green New Deal” (GND) as a Congressional resolution, introducing it into Congress as House Resolution 109, February 7, 2019. Senators Edward Markey and Bernie Sanders introduced a similar resolution into the U.S. Senate. This plan is spelled out in some detail on the web site of Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and was a major part of his campaign for President of the U.S. The GND outlined in these resolutions and on Senator Sanders’ web page is a massive and far reaching program. The program addresses the scientific consensus that human activity has led to a warming planet resulting in massive climate changes. The primary focus of the GND is just and equitable measures to reduce carbon in the atmosphere and halt the climate change crisis in ten years. The full GND report on the Sanders web site is quite detailed. It calls for the banning of: importing fossil fuels, off shore drilling, fracking, mountain top removal for mining purposes, extraction of fossil fuel on public lands and an end to fossil fuel subsidies. In addition the GND calls for:
- 100% renewable energy use for the generation of electricity and in all forms of transportation by the year 2030;
- Complete decarbonization by 2050.
- A massive program of technological investment including research and development to develop energy storage facilities;
- Reducing the cost of all electric cars to $1,800;
- Using materials recycling techniques to build renewable energy infrastructure;
- Finding alternatives to the use of plastic;
- Creating a transportation infrastructure to facilitate electric cars and electric public transportation;
- Diverting global resources from military to green activities;
- Redoing trade deals to include environmental standards;
- Establishing a “climate justice resiliency fund to help areas experiencing the highest vulnerability to climate change;
- Rebuilding U.S. infrastructure to withstand climate change impacts.
The Environment vs. the Economy
From the early days of the modern environmental movement, a number of economists and some labor unions argued that “extreme” environmental policies will cost jobs. Those holding such views would likely consider the Green New Deal to be extreme. However, the slogan posed by many youth in a recent demonstration: “There are no good jobs on a dead planet!” suggests a justifiable urgency to eliminating the emission of more carbon into the atmosphere. Putting aside the claims of climate change deniers and those who argue that change is due to natural, cyclical processes or a change in the earth’s orbit around the sun, it is important to look carefully at the relationship between economic considerations and environmental regulation.
In the 1970s a new field called environmental economics evolved in response to the rise of environmentalism. In 1984 these economists formed The Association For Environmental Economics that began to churn out policies for government regulation of the economy. The association maintained that free markets were still the best solution to growing environmental concerns. Pollution was considered to be an “externality” to normal market functioning and thus needed to be controlled by government regulations. Prior to this development, environmentalists argued for a policy guideline called the “precautionary principle.” If lawmakers perceived that an activity might be problematic for the environment, it should simply be banned. “Err on the side of caution” sums that position up. But environmental economists, in keeping with their allegiance to free markets, posed a different standard. They argued that social activity that was perceived to be a possible threat to the environment should be subjected to some type of benefit-cost analysis in which the costs of banning that practice would be weighed against the benefits of continuing it. The question became: Is a particular proposed regulation “cost effective”?
Furthermore this branch of economics tends to favor market-based regulations instead of out and out bans. Examples include a “carbon tax” that would make carbon emissions more costly. Also the idea of establishing a carbon market has been proposed. This idea was the environmental economists’ policy proposal for implementing international standards for carbon emissions. Countries whose emissions were above their internationally established carbon emission caps could buy a right to pollute from nations who were below their caps. The impact would be to make the cost of pollution a “market decision” rather than a governmental one.
But another group of economists, biologists, physicists and other scientists concerned with environmental degradation have developed an alternative way of examining the relationship of the environment to the economy. They call it ecological economics. (See the work of Herman Daly, one of the founders of ecological economics.) They begin their analysis by observing that the economy is surrounded and contained by the ecosystem in which we use solar-based energy to create things we need to live on—food, housing, clothes, etc. The process of living and consuming creates pollution and waste that can be absorbed by the ecosystem and rendered harmless. Oxygen in lakes and rivers, for example, can break down many organic pollutants. Garbage can be composted and turned into soil. Forests and certain grasses can remove excess carbon from the atmosphere. But there is a limit, they argue, to how much pollution and waste the ecosystem can absorb in a given period of time. Ecological economists call this limit “the earth’s carrying capacity.” If pollution and waste are discharged at a rate that exceeds the earth’s carrying capacity, environmental degradation in the form of polluted air and water, acid rain, global warming, and pandemics can occur. Herman Daly has cited three factors that can lessen (or accelerate) such degradation: population, consumption per person, and technologies that can reduce the degrading impacts of the growth of population and per capita consumption.
Environmental economics seeks to enable the economy to grow without inhibiting population growth or per capita consumption. And it eliminates governmental regulation that cannot be justified by a cost benefit analysis. In contrast, Ecological economists argue that economic growth needs to be curbed if it results in pollution and waste that exceeds the carrying capacity of the ecosystem. And they call for government to intervene by policies to reduce population growth and/or growth in per capita consumption. Governments can also invest in technologies that can enhance the earth’s carrying capacity and/or reduce the rate at which we put pollution and waste into the ecosystem.
The idea that there are ecological limits on economic growth seems to be born out by the science we have at our disposal. Most scientists agree, for example, that putting carbon dioxide into the air more quickly than the sun and the earth’s vegetation can clean it up has negative consequences for our climate. Certain mining processes deplete resources faster than they can be naturally replaced, and they generate pollutants that poison streams and water tables. Industrial fishing can deplete fishing stocks faster than natural growth can occur. Large-scale farming can and has depleted soil productivity and led to soil erosion. Putting carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides into the air by burning coal and running gas-guzzling cars and trucks has also created acid rain that is harmful to forests, many plants and fish. And rapid destruction of natural habitat to achieve needed growth generates the release of previously unknown viruses.
But capitalism requires every firm to produce on an expanded basis and at the lowest possible cost. Economic growth requires expanded consumption for each person in society. So even in the approach of ecological economics, there is a contradiction between the health of the environment and the capitalist system.
Ecological economists attempt to deal with this contradiction primarily through technology. In the U.S., two-thirds of the gross domestic product is consumption. So limits on per capita consumption would place too great a burden on economic growth. In fact other nations such as China are trying to increase domestic consumption to avoid reliance on trade. So for ecological economics to work in a capitalist system that relies on growth, the increase in the earth’s carrying capacity would depend on technologies – primarily clean energy. This is the approach of the Green New Deal.
Limits of technological solutions to the climate change crisis
The Green New Deal technology initiatives face two kinds of limits. One involves the physical (putting aside political) practicality of the conversion they are proposing. The other is whether the implementation of these conversions will actually result in “complete decarbonization by 2050” as the GND requires or even a substantial reduction in carbon emissions .
The program, as laid out by Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders, combines various bans on the extraction and use of fossil fuels with measures that switch from these fuels to various forms of renewable energy such as wind, solar, biofuels and hydraulic. Energy use that is presently generated by fossil fuels is converted to the renewable energy sources. For example, the Green New Deal proposes that by the year 2030 the generation of all electricity will make use of renewable energy sources. Furthermore, all modes of transportation will use renewable energy sources as well. That means all automobiles, trucks, planes, trains and busses will be electric in 10 years. Also they aim for complete decarbonization by 2050. The heating and cooling of homes, offices, schools and factories will all be converted to renewable energy sources.
The banning of the extraction of fossil fuels and an end to the use of such fuels will require the development of a massive renewable energy infrastructure. Fuel storage facilities must be built that include batteries and completely new electric grid facilities as well as charging stations all along the highways and in truck and railroad depots and airports. Gasoline and diesel cars, trucks, planes and railcars will all have to either be converted or replaced.
The storage batteries for all of this are currently not technologically feasible. This doesn’t mean that it can’t be done but it does mean that it is something else to do. The GND proposes a “massive program of technological investment and research and development.” The authors of the program claim that this will create 20 million jobs. Be that as it may, the technological and physical means to carry out the GND is still a very big job to be done.
In a recent issue of Commune Magazine, Jasper Bernes (“Between the Devil and the New Deal,” 4-25-19) points out that the mineral extraction needs and the building of the GND infrastructure and new cars, planes, trains, trucks and busses will in and of itself generate a great amount of carbon emission. Also energy storage requires special batteries that make use of rare earth minerals like indium, gallium, selenium, and lithium that are non-renewable. So renewable energy requires a non-renewable resource. Furthermore, the extraction of these minerals will presently require the use of fossil fuels – oil and gasoline–and will thus increase carbon emissions around the world. These minerals are mined in Chile, Bolivia, Australia, and Germany among many other nations. As a result, Bernes argues, there is no such thing as a carbon neutral source of energy. Even solar panels will require the use of fossil fuels to produce them. Furthermore, the shipping of products – minerals or energy storage products–come from cargo ships that produce 3% of all the emissions of carbon on the planet. Biofuels that are seen as a possible substitute for petroleum-based fuels require land that had once been forests or used for crops that take carbon out of the air. According to Bernes, it would take about a dozen acres of land to produce enough biofuel to fill the tank of one intercontinental jet. Finally the transition to the march toward a “carbon free” society also requires concrete and steel that are very carbon intensive materials.
Beyond the question of whether carbon free energy is really carbon free is the fact that producing many of the products, energy sources and storage mechanisms is not yet technologically feasible and would require, in the words of the Green New Deal document itself, “a massive program of research and development.” This raises the question of whether the goal of “100% renewable energy for all electricity and transportation by the year 2030 and “decarbonization by 2050 is remotely feasible technologically speaking.
One final point about technological solutions to climate change is this. Technology innovations in a capitalist economy require private investment. Such investment can be encouraged with the carrot and stick of government subsidies and regulations. Or in state capitalist economies the government can perform the investment function. But ultimately the ball is in the court of corporations–state or private. Much of the technological investment over the past 30 years has been in transportation or manufacturing activities that generate carbon dioxide. The explanation for these priorities is simple. Technological development reflects the outcome of class relations. If the capitalist class feels that the threat of climate change is greater than the threat to capitalism of eliminating carbon emissions they will respond to a degree. But for reasons I will explain later, there is a limit on the extent to which we can rely on corporations or the governments that serve them for technological investments that will resolve the climate change crisis.
All of this is not to imply that many of the ideas contained in the GND document should not be tried. We should all be supporting the sort of activism that pushes both government and corporations as far as possible. Efforts to “de-carbonize” are important to the future of the planet. But the GND sidestepped the most critical path in that direction—reducing per capita consumption. The global capitalist economy requires economic growth to survive. In the U.S. where 2/3 of gross domestic product or GDP (the measure of total economic activity) is consumption, a reduction of economic growth would be catastrophic. This problem has recently been into bold relief by the temporary shut down of the economy to curb the pandemic. Many have noted that the skies and water ways are clearer, and little carbon is going into the atmosphere. But people are crashing into poverty and hunger as the entire global capitalist system shuts down. In a nation like China that depends largely on exports, efforts are underway to increase domestic consumption as the path to economic growth. In fact, it is fair to say that the economic development strategies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund rely on increasing per capita consumption everywhere. In fact, the measure of how well the economy is doing that is used by nearly all economists is growth in GDP. Since 1980 when global capitalism implemented what many call globalization or neo liberalism, global GDP, has grown from $27,907 billion to $82,635 billion in 2018! (Estimates by World Bank are in constant 2010 dollars). So even if the technology-based approach of the Green New Deal were successful, its carbon reduction would be offset by the relentless demands of a consumption-based global economy.
The Green New Deal and Inequality
In addition to the goal of reducing and eventually eliminating carbon emissions, the Green New Deal also aims to address the question of inequality in our society and to some extent in the world. Politically the growth of inequality has captured the attention of various progressives and liberals. Their focus is directed toward the distribution of income and wealth. French economist Thomas Piketty in his book Capital in the Twenty First Century documents inequality of wealth and income throughout the world including the U.S. He concludes that much of this is the result of the fact that returns to capital (various assets controlled by 1% of the population) are greater than the growth of income and output. While he acknowledges the social inequities that have resulted from this, his solution is to tax returns to capital to even the score. But he cautions that the tax can’t be so great as to destroy capital accumulation and that this can only work with rapid growth of output and income.
Inequality, moreover, is not only manifested in terms of wealth and income. There are also great inequalities in the impacts of climate change and the burden of measures aimed at eliminating harmful environmental practices. The Green New Deal attempts to address such inequities, meeting the demands of “environmental justice.” The idea of a “new deal” refers back to the program of President Roosevelt during the Great Depression. But these measures such as the creation of new kinds of jobs, suppression of the price of all electric cars and alternative energy sources run up against the same problem as their technological measures to reduce and eliminate carbon emissions. They all depend on high rates of economic growth.
Capitalism and Economic Growth
Growth in GDP is both necessary for our global economic system to survive and it is driving the catastrophic degradation of the eco-system. The Green New Deal under capitalism is limited by this fact. No amount of tinkering with capitalism will change that. This does not mean that we shouldn’t fight for the various provisions of the GND. We should. But that can’t be the end game. Unfortunately many proponents of the GND fall all over themselves to make it clear that they are not opposed to capitalism. And many of those who declare themselves to be “socialists” do not advocate the end of those features of capitalism that make growth necessary. My assertion that economic growth is essential to the survival of capitalism is central to the conclusion developed later in this essay that we need a socialism that does not require the growth of consumption. So my position on the need for economic growth in a capitalist system is crucial to my critique of the Green New Deal.
Over the past decade there has been a debate among environmentalists who relate to the concepts of ecological economics over the question of whether an end to growth means an end to capitalism. One faction has used terms like “green Keynesianism” and “steady state economics” to present arguments to support the proposition that it is possible and desirable to have capitalism without growth. In 1977, ecological economics founder Herman Daly published a book called Steady State Economics. The book has been revised and reprinted a number of times throughout the 1990s. Tim Jackson’s book Prosperity Without Growth (2009) also develops the position that no growth capitalism is a viable approach. Both Herman Daly and Bill McKibben lauded Jackson’s book. McKibben’s 12 books (from End of Nature (1989) to Eaarth (2009) ) focus on the science of climate change and its causes. His organization 350.org organizes activist work around the world to combat the release of carbon into the atmosphere. But both of these important activists believe that you can sufficiently reduce carbon emissions and other forms of pollution by reforming capitalism and focusing on green technologies.
These ideas have been vigorously opposed by another set of environmental activists including economists who call their point of view ecosocialism. In Paris in 2001, Joel Kovel and Michael Lowi penned “An Ecosocialist Manifesto” as a perspective for a movement to combat climate change. At the center of the manifesto is the view that it is capitalism itself that is destroying our ecosystem. They argued that capitalism is a system “predicated upon the rule Grow or Die!” Some have called this the GOD rule. I will not attempt to summarize all of the ideas of ecosocialism but would suggest a book edited by Quincy Saul, The Emergence of Ecosocialism: Collected Essays by Joel Kovel. Another good source that summarizes the positions of activists who advocate systemic change from different points of view is David Pepper, Eco-Socialism: From Deep Ecology to Social Justice.
The heart of the debate over whether capitalism can be reformed so that it does not rely on growth seems to be different conceptions of what capitalism is and what it is not. Below I will outline a number of reasons why I find the so-called GOD rule persuasive. But first I need to take a bit of space to explain what I mean by capitalism. Many people, including those among the ranks of steady state economics folks, equate capitalism with private markets and label economies with a relatively large public sector as “socialist.” This is not the way I use the terms capitalism or socialism. The largest capitalist nations today vary considerably in the relative importance of private markets. Despite all the political banter about “big government,” U.S. private enterprise accounts for about 77% of the entire economy. Relative to other nations, this is a large portion. Among European nations, Germany is closest to the U.S. at 72%. Sweden is 68%, England 58%, and France 55%. (These figures are calculated using World Bank statistics on Gross Domestic Product.) It is possible to function as a capitalist system without any private enterprise at all. The former Soviet Union was, in my opinion, a type of capitalism called state capitalism. So what do I mean by the term capitalism? And what is it that makes capitalism…capitalism?
A key task of any social/political/economic system is to enable people to acquire what they need to live a decent life and ultimately reproduce themselves. Capitalism is a relatively young system. It began in England in the 18th Century but only got going throughout Europe and the U.S. in the 1800s. Capitalism replaced both Feudalism and Mercantilism and was an improvement on those systems.
Under Feudalism kings, queens and various feudal lords controlled a great deal of land. They maintained a large standing army to protect the lands and the Feudal lords. Peasants provided food from the land. They were allowed to keep a bit for themselves. Artisans made weapons and things needed by royalty. But wealth was accumulated basically by plundering near by lands. It ultimately wasn’t sustainable. Trade drove Mercantilism, the other major system before capitalism. Merchants sailed the seas trading this for that. This system was based on buying various things as cheaply as possible and selling at a profit. And while it enriched some of the merchants, kings, queens, artisans and more than a few pirates, it was not able to do much for everyone else. Some economies were fortified by slavery and interacted with merchants and some feudal societies by selling slaves or the commodities produced by slaves. Slave owners would then buy what was needed to feed slaves and enrich themselves. As I said, capitalism was initially an improvement.
Capitalism began in England in the 1700s with the textile industry. Using wealth gained through trade or feudal plunder, a new capitalist class emerged. They set up factories, and began to hire workers for wages. This replaced a system where individual craft workers produced textiles in their homes. Workers were paid wages based on the hours they worked or the number of pieces they processed through the machines. But the wages were always less than the amount of money gained by the capitalist by selling the textiles. The surplus was accumulated and used to enrich the capitalist and build new machines and more factories. This system turned everything into a commodity that could be bought and sold. Not only were the textiles produced in the new factories commodities, but the workers’ labor power, their capacity to produce, was also a commodity. And value was now based not on how much commodities were needed by society, but by the labor time required to produce them. All of this is the essence of capitalism.
Competition among capitalists compelled each of them to attempt to capture as much of the market for their products as possible and to produce at the lowest cost. For this they needed more surplus value to invest in their businesses. As capitalism expanded, it ultimately has come to encompass the entire world. So that most all workers in the world today must now work for wages in order to survive and reproduce. And capitalists depend on waged labor to produce value; and they need the workers, the producers of value, to use some of the value they are allowed to keep in the form of wages to buy the goods and services generated by the capitalist system. But production is not simply based on what people need. It is based on the need for capitalists to accumulate and invest surplus value. If an individual capitalist doesn’t do this, his or her business will die. This is the basis for the admonition “Grow or Die” (GOD).
Today, economic growth is achieved by investing in technologies that raise productivity (the amount of production from each worker in a given period of time) and by moving capital to places where costs are lower (wages, health and safety standards or lower pollution regulation). Technology and capital mobility has put the system into a crisis in which global capitalism is unable to adequately feed, clothe and house vast numbers of people. Many people are essentially left out of the mainstream economy and forced into homelessness. Others don’t make enough income to live decently. Then capitalism must grow even more to get out of the crisis.
One other factor that explains my view that capitalism requires growth is credit. As individual capitalists and blocs of capital compete, they find it necessary to use surplus value for investment before it is even produced. Banks can produce the money form of value out of thin air. Loans are used to keep the production process going but creditors now have a claim on future value that includes not only the original loan but also the interest they charge. Furthermore, workers, the producers of value, take out loans so they can feed, clothe, house, educate, and care for themselves and their family. The amount of value they get to keep from their labors is not adequate to keep up with these needs. And the system needs their purchases to turn the value they create into their own wages plus a surplus for their bosses. So they borrow from the banks – mortgages for their homes, student loans for education, heavy use of credit cards for various expenses. What is important to understand about credit is that it has no value behind it. In my book New World Disorder, I call it phantom capital. Its only reality lies in the fact that it represents a claim by creditors on value yet to be created. It drives capitalists to accumulate more and more surplus to pay off both creditors and workers or die in the attempt. It drives the workers to create more and more value through their labor. And it thus drives the capitalist system to grow or die.
Despite the fact that credit is merely a phantasm, its role in global capitalism is constantly gaining prominence. Credit itself is being used as if it were a commodity on a par with a pair of shoes or an automobile. Loans are bundled into bonds called collateralized debt obligations or collateralized loan obligations that are bought and sold in global credit markets. These massive claims on value yet to be produced are a huge part of the relentless pressure to produce more and more and more. If the system ever reached the point that there were massive defaults (which happened as recently as 2008) global capitalism itself would die. The 2008 mass default averted death with more loans from the government. But these just added to future claims on value yet to be produced as government bailouts are also claims on value. There is a great danger today that the system may face collapse as we are seeing a massive global expansion of credit to prop up the system as it is forced to shut down because of the pandemic. Thus the admonition to grow or die continues unabated. And as politicians and economists claim that once the pandemic has been stopped we will see another round of economic growth, the earth’s ecosystem is getting perilously close to a point of no return. As some of the climate activists say “there are no good jobs on a dead planet.” We could add that there is no such thing as green new deals, capitalism, or socialism on a dead planet. All that may be left are cockroaches and viruses.
Eco-Socialism: A Path Forward
Capitalism is a system of production for the sake of more production. The problems highlighted by the Green New Deal – climate change and inequality – require a system whose aim is not production but the full and free development of humanity. And the full and free development of every individual requires a sustainable ecosystem as well as equality of opportunity among human beings. I have stated that the Green New Deal itself cannot be seen as an end game. But the movement for a Green New Deal is an important opportunity to rid ourselves of the very system that has brought us to the point of possible climate catastrophe, growing inequality, and now a global pandemic. Joining or supporting efforts to demand zero carbon emissions and an end to inequality is an opportunity to raise the question of what sort of society is needed where sustainability and equality are possible.
Earlier I stated that Senator Bernie Sanders’ view of socialism and those that focus on the size of the public sector are not what I mean by socialism. Below I outline some elements of socialism that I would like to see included in a discussion of what the movements for sustainability and equality are for. What follows is not a utopian “plan.” The details of what each element includes and how to implement them must be the product of a broad societal discussion. It will be no easy task. Certainly the pandemic and the subsequent collapse or near collapse of the economy give us a picture of the difficulties of replacing capitalism with socialism as defined below. People working in industries that would have to be eliminated must be compensated. The system and discussion would have to be global. So it won’t happen all at once. But what we are for can never happen unless we start first with discussions and then with specific measures that point in the right direction.
Production for Human Needs
Production in a capitalist system is used to earn exchange credits in the form of money in order to produce more. Many products and services meet human needs. But meeting human needs plays second fiddle to the need of the capitalist system to produce, sell commodities and make profits. In a socialist society that priority is reversed. A house in a capitalist society has two aspects. On the one hand it is a home and a place of shelter. That is its use value. On the other, it is a commodity that can be bought and sold in the market place. That determines its exchange value. The fact that we have so many people homeless or living in dilapidated houses attests to the fact that exchange value is the priority in a capitalist system. In a socialist society the value of the house is its value as a place of shelter, meeting a very basic human need. In a socialist society, everyone would have a home. More broadly, in a socialist society all production would be geared toward meeting human needs. Meeting such needs, as opposed to more production, would be the priority of the system.
This raises the question of what a human need is. It is likely that nearly everyone would agree that some goods and services are necessary to meet human needs. These include: food, clothing, shelter, health care, education, clean air and water, and a sustainable ecosystem. Beyond these we would have to have a discussion of what other things are truly needed: computers and an internet, cars and other forms of transportation, books, sports equipment, plastic bags and food packaging, wine etc. etc.? It would certainly be a complex process to come to a societal resolution to such questions. But put into the context of a climate crisis, a health crisis and the need to end inequality, I believe resolution is possible. The alternative of rampant consumerism to prop up a capitalist system will ultimately destroy not only capitalism but the planet as well.
If the purpose of producing goods and services is to meet human needs for all, labor itself could assume a different form. In a capitalist system, labor has a dual character. It is on the one hand a meaningful, purposeful, creative activity that is enjoyable if it enhances our self-development and meets the needs of others and ourselves. But this aspect of labor is pushed aside because most workers are forced to sell their capacity to work in a capitalist labor market. And that aspect of labor is turned into yet one more commodity that has the ability to create value that is greater than what workers receive in wages. A socialist system would aim to eliminate the process of working to produce surplus value. Labor would be solely to produce goods and services that meet human needs. Under such a system labor as a meaningful and creative activity can flourish, overcoming the present contradiction between labor and the commodity labor power. Socialism could do away with wages. Rather than working for wages, we would work to meet one another’s needs.
Money derives its meaning from society, not from those who own the largest piles of it…We need to de-sanctify money, reminding ourselves that it is not a god ordained to rule over us, nor is it a natural force like gravity, which operates beyond our control…If we kowtow to money, we are worshipping a phantom.Scott Russell Sanders, “The Mystique of Money,” in Earthworks, Indiana University Press, 2012
A socialist society can de-sanctify money by eliminating money as we know it today altogether. Since money is a phantom, this may seem like a job for “Ghost Busters!” But if society defines and gives meaning to money, a new society whose aim and purpose is to meet human needs can replace capitalist money with something else.
First it is important to understand what I mean by capitalist money. In a capitalist society money performs a number of functions that would not be needed in a socialist system. Money is a way to measure exchange value. So it is used as a medium of exchange. It is also used to store value in, for example, a bank account or a stock certificate. The nature of money today is complicated by the fact that different nations use different forms of money. There are dollars, Mexican pesos, euros, yen, etc. If you have dollars but want to buy a taco in Mexico City you would need to convert your dollars into pesos. In theory the exchange rate of one currency to another is based on purchase of a similar goods and services. For example the price of a taco in Mexico City in pesos can be compared to the price of a similar taco in Chicago in dollars and that would determine what each currency is “worth.” In practice, central banks of different nations can manipulate exchange rates by buying and selling a variety of currencies creating a price based on “supply and demand” for money. Money’s social definition, in this case, has become a commodity like shoes and houses and everything else. We are buying phantoms on a global scale! But we can change such a farce.
Note: All of this is based on the fact that money represents exchange value created by workers, and the accumulation of this value by capitalists. Under capitalism, money is also a measure of wealth. So having a lot of money can be translated into power over other people’s lives. But Marx once said of wealth that once the “bourgeois form is peeled away…” (by bourgeois form he essentially meant money) “what is wealth if not the universality of the individuals’ needs, capacities, enjoyments, productive forces produced in universal exchange; what is it if not the full development of human control of the forces of nature—over the forces of so-called Nature, as well as those of his own nature…”
In a socialist society there would be no need for money as a measure of wealth because wealth is measured by how well we meet individual needs, capacities and enjoyments. Furthermore, goods and services would not be purchased, but would be produced and distributed to meet human needs. There would be no need to price anything. So money as a medium of exchange would also not be needed.
Since we all live in a society ruled by money and those who have a lot of it, it is difficult to imagine exactly what the elimination of money would look like. A society where production is organized to meet human needs rather than create profits, and where goods and services are distributed rather than bought or sold in markets we can begin to conceive of options to money as we know it today. Instead of money, for example, workers could be issued credits whose sole use would be to meet their needs. There would be no need to store or save such credits. In place of money we could conceive of a computer-based accounting system where your right to specified amounts of food, a house or a winter coat would entitle you to claim these things.
Conceiving of an alternative to the phantom of capitalist money and implementing that alternative will require a lot of discussion and some experimentation. There are more questions than answers here. But hopefully this outline of some of the elements of eliminating money as we know it can be a basis for beginning the discussion of how to de-sanctify phantom money. (Some of these ideas are developed in more detail by Anitra Nelson and Frans Timmerman (ed.), Life Without Money: Building Fair and Sustainable Economies.)
The growing development of robotics, artificial intelligence and other labor saving technology could be used in a socialist system to free us from much of the kind of labor that does not enhance capacities and enjoyments or creative pursuits. Today while such technologies are already being employed, they are displacing people and separating them from the ability to “make a living.” Technological investment and development in today’s society must contribute to the ability of capitalists to accumulate value, make profits and reproduce the system. Priorities for technological investment and their use are a reflection of class relations rather than a means to meet human needs or those of nature. In a socialist society, technology could be used to enhance the development of human beings and also to offset possible harm to the ecosystem.
Land Use and Economic Development
In a socialist society, land use planning directed toward the meeting of human needs would look very different from what we are seeing today. In cities throughout the world, daily commutes within metropolitan regions require millions of people to spend hours of the day sitting in cars while spewing carbon into the atmosphere. Land once used for factories sits idle; the ground around and beneath the shuttered factories is polluted beyond redemption. Meanwhile what was once fertile agricultural land that could grow enough food to feed the people with minimal fertilizing, processing and shipping is being turned into housing tracts from which workers set off on their long daily commutes. Industrial farming is gobbling up all the sustainable family farms located further away from cities, producing food for cattle or for export. Their productivity and profitability depends on fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides that poison aquifers and insects vital to the health of the soil and pollination that is vital to the global food supply. Industrial scale pork, bovine and fish farming is threatening near-by aquifers, the quality of water in wells and the safety of the food they produce. Other lands needed for sustainable farming are destroyed by oil extraction processes like fracking and the refining of shale oil. Dangerous and environmentally destructive pipelines to move this oil cut across other fertile lands and even through residential neighborhoods. Massive hydroelectric dams destroy towns, villages and small farms in order to generate cheap electricity for industrial enterprise.
Industrial agriculture, logging and mining operations are penetrating into and destroying the world’s rain forests and rich bio diverse areas. Such activities are reducing the ability of the earth’s ecosystem to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. In addition, the encroachment into pristine forests eliminate the habitat of animals, bringing many of them into contact with human beings to the point that we are exposed to new viruses that threaten humanity itself.
A lack of any successful urban and regional land use planning has contributed greatly to the deterioration of the global eco system. In many parts of the world land speculation and development are driving families into already over crowded cities where they live in nightmarish conditions in a state of poverty.
From the very beginning of the capitalist system, the private ownership and use of land has been vital to the system’s existence. Initially the rising class of capitalists needed wage laborers to accumulate surplus value and grow the system. So they gained control of lands used by peasants as a commons for growing and raising their own food, forcing these families into the cities to work in the factories being built there. Initially the owners of capital bought land not only for their factories, but also to house the workers. They were able to extract high rents for filthy, crowded living quarters. All of this was a part of the “rosy dawn” of capitalism.
Over the years various reformers attempted to regulate land use to improve the living conditions of workers and also to preserve agricultural land and open spaces. Out of such efforts the city and town planning movement was born. Patrick Geddes, a Scottish biologist and geographer advocated land use planning for human needs back in the late 19th Century. In the same period, Ebenezer Howard and Frederick Olmsted advocated merging the best aspects of the urban and rural by creating planned communities with beautiful parks surrounded by green belts that were called “new towns.” Reformers in Europe and the U.S. embraced a related popular movement they called “City Beautiful.” A U.S. economist named Henry George took a different tact. He argued that land and all other natural resources must belong to everyone. And individuals who used the land had to rent it from the rest of us. Out of this he devised a system known as the single tax. The tax he proposed was to be levied on the land at a rate needed to meet all revenue needs of government. There would be no other taxes.
But while these and similar ideas had support from reformers, and a number of popular movements, they have been overwhelmed and overturned by the relentless need of the capitalist system to grow itself. And the use of land has played a vital role in that mission. As capitalism developed and grew to encompass the world, land use patterns were changed to meet the needs of capital accumulation along the way. For example, with the rise of mass production in the U.S. after WWII came a decline in small family farms. The migration from country to city and the influx of returning military troops filled the factories with workers. The development of suburban tracts on what was once farmland met the housing and education needs of these new manufacturing workers and their families. Highways were constructed to connect the suburban workers to their workplaces.
These activities were facilitated by the creation of a class of developers who speculated by buying cheap land, covering it with cheap housing and selling at a profit. Their industry was called FIRE that stands for Finance, Insurance and Real Estate. Some developers simply buy up huge tracts of land with the expectation that they can sell it at higher prices once it is needed for highways and various forms of development. Some develop the land with housing, factories and office buildings. They can then sell the land and buildings for even higher prices. In the case of mining and agricultural lands, the price of land is driven by the value of what is being grown or extracted. In every case, the price of land is completely divorced from the needs of the masses of people. And no amount of urban and regional planning has been able to make it otherwise. I was taught in graduate school that these market forces tend to lead to land being developed to its “highest and best use.” That formulation does not stipulate whose use they are talking about. Even government imposed land use controls like zoning or safety and health standards regulate land markets to protect a system that includes real estate speculation and trade. And that protection is far more important than using land to meet human needs.
As a part of the vision of socialism I have projected earlier, land can be seen as everyone’s property and its value determined solely by human need. Since part of that need is to keep development within the bounds of the earth’s carrying capacity, the harmful practices that are part of today’s land use development reality, could and must be eliminated. Food security, rather than profit would be the point of agriculture and land use controls would enforce that objective. The need for open spaces in metropolitan areas for a healthy environment can be met with such controls. Harmful extractive processes – mining, logging, hydropower would be highly regulated to be sustainable for the eco-system and for human needs. In short, land use regulation would no longer be constrained by the insatiable need of capital to grow and extract value from human labor. Land use for human need is part of the definition of socialism.
Class, Race, Gender, Sexual Identity
In today’s society, social class is based on one’s role in accumulating or producing value. Class may be defined in terms of occupation and the capacity to control the conditions of work or to decide whether and where work is available. One mark of socialism is the elimination of class so that such distinctions are of no relevance. Race is also a social category. It is often used in today’s society as a mechanism to divide and control the working class. Gender is defined by expected behavior and appearance and is used to maintain a system of male supremacy. These identities are all associated with different forms of oppression. A movement toward socialism necessarily opposes all forms of oppression and discrimination. And opposition to capitalism needs to begin here. The objective of ending oppression and discrimination is ultimately to eliminate these categories altogether in favor of a system geared to meet the needs of all.
The State and Government
Neo-liberalism or globalization is a strategy of corporate global mobility in which multinational corporations have little allegiance to any one nation. The pursuit of that strategy has begun to hollow out nation-states. Meanwhile the ideology of nationalism is rising throughout the world. In a socialist society, national borders and ethnicities would have little relevance. The task of meeting the needs of all individuals is a global affair. All citizens would ultimately consider themselves citizens of the world. Socialism is often equated with huge central governments and a subsequent concentration of power and ultimately oppression. That certainly has been the case in Russia and China and other countries that call or called themselves socialist. But my own view of socialism as a system geared to meet human needs suggest a form of governance where humans have a direct say in determining what those needs are and how they will be met. This implies a highly decentralized form of governance. Councils or communes can be conceived of where workers control the facilities that are producing for human need; residents control their own communities. Regional councils and even national councils can be made up of representatives of the local communes.
The development of the modern nation-state is relatively new. The beginning of today’s nation-states can be traced to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 that ended the 30 Year War in Europe, establishing the principle that each nation- state has sovereignty over its territory defined by geographical boundaries. Prior to this treaty, territories controlled by kings and emperors could be readily redefined through arranged marriages between the families of sovereigns or by simple conquest. Nation-states were defined as a territory united by a common language and culture. Ultimately this principle became enshrined into the Charter of the United Nations in 1945. The UN charter declares the sovereign equality of all member nations and stresses that all member states have a right to territorial integrity. This declaration was backed up by a system of international law.
Between 1648 and 1945 wars and various sovereign realignments divided the world up mainly into various empires that included a number of territories that we define as nation-states today. In fact empires governed global political economies since the beginning of recorded history. And that form of state prevailed for most of the world until around 1918. The most recent empires included the Russian, Persian, Quing, British, French, German, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian among others. The Russian Revolution of 1917 eliminated the Russian Empire, eventually replacing it with the Soviet Union after World War II. After World War I, the Persian and Ottoman Empires were carved up by the British and French into today’s nation-states based on their desire to control them through colonialism. Austria and Hungary became two separate nation-states in 1918. Some of the smaller nations within the old empire also were made into separate nation-states including Czechoslovakia (later divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia), Yugoslavia (which has since been made into six nation-states). Parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire also went to Poland and Romania.
There is much more to this story including the evolution of the boundaries of the United States. But my point in laying out just a few pieces of this history is that the particular configuration of nation-states in the world today are of recent origin and the product of wars, revolutions, annexations, colonialism and imperialism. In each case the motivation behind drawing these boundaries has not been to meet human needs. Rather, national boundaries reflect the needs of capitalism on a global scale to accumulate surplus value and use it to reproduce capitalism. This is true in the U.S. despite the intense discussions around elections, immigration, and the constitution. The poet, Carl Sandburg, who was a fierce critic of the U.S. entry into World War I and who watched the vicious repression against the International Workers of the World who advocated war resistance (“Workers Shouldn’t Fight the Rich Man’s War”) had this to say about the U.S. laws and the Constitution.
When a good law goes on the books the courts generally wipe it out. This hardly ever happens to manufacturers, merchants, bankers, or any other big money men. Courts have the power to say a law is “unconstitutional” or something else is wrong with it. And that’s all. Workers can whistle through their teeth…That piece of paper called the Constitution of the United States is some joke. It was made for men against dollars. It is used for dollars against men. Constitutional right—Huh!
In his numerous anti war poems he offered an alternative view of nations.
Two countries with two flags
Are nevertheless one land, one blood, one people—
can this be so?
And the earth belongs to the family of man?
can this be so?
In periods of crisis, dominant ethnic, language or religious groupings within nation-states have harkened back to their status in previous empires as a countermeasure to their feelings of powerlessness. Narrow nationalist supremacy ideology has historically been the basis of fascism. German, Italian, and Spanish fascist movements were all built on an imagined superior culture of past empires. Today’s nationalist movements even in the wake of weakened nation-states or possibly because of the decline in the power of these states, are similarly looking to the past for solace and a way forward.
All of today’s nation-states and their legal structures are designed to protect the capitalist system even as that system becomes more global. The nation state itself would have to be eliminated under socialism and the form of governance would have to be completely different. Rather than attempting to keep a system of production for the sake of production afloat, the task around the world would be to produce and share the fruits of our labors toward the end of providing food, clothing, shelter, education, health care, clean water and air to every human being in the world, while protecting the entire ecosystem from its current trajectory of annihilation. The current form of nation-states is designed to protect the system rather than the people or the earth. A new form of governance is needed and much discussion as well as trial and error are required to find a proper form. For starters, we could eliminate artificial borders and allow the free flow of people and ideas. In today’s global capitalism only corporate assets are able to flow freely. Since there can be no territories to defend or conquer in a socialist system, we can do away with huge standing armies and see that our security is focused on human needs.
One objection to ideas like these is that “human nature” would simply not allow these things to work. In response, I turn to the great poet, William Blake, who employed the image of “mind forged manacles” as a way to think about the excuse of human nature as an impediment to socialism.
I wander thro’ each charter’d street,
Near where the charter’d Thames does flow.
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.
In every cry of every Man,
In every infant’s cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg’d manacles I hear.
To me this means we need to break through the notion that “human nature” is an immutable impediment to doing things differently. And that human nature itself is one of our mind-forged manacles. I elaborated on this theme in an essay called: “Is ‘Human Nature’ a Barrier to a World Without War, Environmental Destruction and Inequality?” (available on my web site: www.david-ranney.com).
My argument can be summarized as follows.
My thinking has led me to believe that there is no such thing as a biologically or divinely based human nature that cannot be changed. Today’s form of “human nature” has developed out of the needs of our political and economic system to survive. The institutions we have built – government, corporations, technology, and religion in their present form–have generated and are protected by the perpetuation of human nature as we know it. These institutions and those who control them perpetuate human nature in its present form to preserve what is and their position in society. And this has been true throughout history.
I go on to conclude that if we wish to create a truly socialist society, one not dependent on growth, then changing human nature is a key part of the task we face to get there.
Saving the Planet
The passions around movements throughout the world to save the planet are ultimately raising a question about capitalism. That is true even for those who believe they can save the planet and maintain capitalism. The question simply is: what is the good of a political and economic system that will bring about mutual annihilation? The fact that this question is raised in the context of mass movements to save the planet is an opening both to save the planet and begin a movement toward socialism. The fact that the planet is presently experiencing fires, floods, devastating storms, droughts and now a global pandemic makes the mission of these movements even more urgent. Participating in various movements around environmental degradation offers an opportunity to discuss why replacing capitalism is an essential part of environmentalism. This can broaden discussions of how to implement aspects of the Green New Deal to include how we move toward a system that is based on human need rather than production for the sake of production. Our choice today is Eco-socialism or Annihilation!
I wish to thank: Aaron Benanav, Kingsley Clarke, John Clegg, John Garvey, Jarrod Shanahan, Chloe Wattlington, Adrian Wohlleben, and Pat Wright for comments on earlier drafts.