by Faramarz Farbod
That is what I say when friends ask me why I founded the Beyond Capitalism Working Group (BCWG) in 2015.
But this is not all. They also ask why pick on capitalism? Have not people from time immemorial wrestled with environmental degradation such as soil erosion and depletion, over-hunting, and widespread logging? Did not the Maya, a sophisticated civilization made up of 19 million people, experience a rapid collapse in a span of a mere century due to a drought that had been severely exacerbated by rapid deforestation? Indeed, why not place the blame on human nature itself or organized human life, especially given that revolutionary advances in technology have made possible dramatic increases in human population?
There are several possible responses to the above queries.
It is true that peoples in the antiquity faced environmental degradation. Their issues, however, were limited to a locality or a region. For example, deforestation was responsible for 60% of the drought that led to the rapid collapse of the Maya during the 8th or 9th centuries.
The first unique characteristic of the late capitalist era, however, is that its ecological reach is global and threatens nearly the entirety of life on the planet. What we are witnessing is not a society whose activities threaten its existence but a globalized economic system whose normal operations threaten the entire planetary ecological system. Indeed, this constitutes the 2nd unique feature of the present historical moment:we are dealing with a capitalist economic system with a global reach. It is precisely because the system’s reach is global that the damage it inflicts on life-support systems is so widespread as to set it on a tragic collision course with the Earth itself.
The first unique characteristic of the late capitalist era, however, is that its ecological reach is global and threatens nearly the entirety of life on the planet.
It is crucial to realize that this widespread damage originates from the normal functioning of the system and not from its malfunction nor simply because of overpopulation or the use of vastly more powerful technologies. The richest 10% globally, for example, uses about 60% of the planet’s resources and is responsible for a similar share of global pollutants let out into the atmosphere.
The systemic nature of the ecological degradation should compel us to analyze with sober senses the central driving forces of the system as a whole. These are (a) a cancer-like hunger for endless growth driven by the “egotistical calculation” of commerce seeking maximum profitability, (b) the treatment of human labor as a cost leading capital to oppose labor capturing a fair share of the wealth it creates, and (c) the determination of massive investments by an increasingly transnational capitalist class, a tiny sliver of the total population. As Peter Phillips has shown in his recent book Giants:The Global Power Elite, just 199 people manage 17 transnational investment companies that together controlled $41 trillion worth of assets in 2017.
Capitalism, however, has intensified its assault not just against this beautiful planet but against the people inhabiting it.
How else are we to make sense of the facts that the world’s 2,200 billionaires increased their wealth by $2.5 billion per day in 2018 while nearly half of humanity (3.4 billion people) live with less than $5.50 a day; that the super-rich had stored $7.6 trillion of their wealth in offshore tax havens in 2015 while some 10,000 will die daily of lack of access to health care; and that Ethiopia’s health budget, a country of 105 million people, is nearly equivalent to just a 1% tax on Jeff Bezos’ fortune ($112 billion), the richest man in the world?
Clearly, the ruling class has no good ideas about how to address the existential crises the reproduction of its own class domination generates. In fact, the ever-increasing concentration of wealth in its hands ensures that no solution, even if it is compelled to accept it by pressures from below, can remain effective for long and not be subject to rollback.
Therefore, it is left to us to free our minds and acquire the ‘we’ consciousness necessary to mount a serious challenge to global capitalism and its by-products:imperialism, neoliberalism, war, racism, poverty and, especially, the destruction of the ecosystem. Time is not on our side. We must act before the full range of catastrophes awaiting us materialize. We must try to see through the ideological mystifications the system generates to camouflage its nature. We must bring about a radical transformation in how we relate to one another and to nature.
BCWG is an expression of this radical hope. It rests on the premise that we are capable of rationality and can act proactively to avert predictable disasters. But there is an alternative consciousness and one that only springs to action in reaction to the already-occurring socio-ecological disasters. This catastrophe-based consciousness is real and dreadfully inadequate for the task before us. As Dr. King once said, “We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.” There is, he continued, “such a thing as being too late,” especially now and in relation to the ecological destruction underway. But as the worst is yet to come, we must insist with Marx that humanity be “at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind,” and we would add, with nature, and act to transform the world accordingly.
by Faramarz Farbod
Faramarz, a native of Iran, teaches political science at Moravian College. He is a member of the Alliance steering committee and founder of the Beyond Capitalism Working group
(Essays express the ideas of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Alliance.)