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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 7/26/10

The End of Capitalism?: Part 2A. Capitalism and Ecological Limits

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The following exchange between Michael Carriere and Alex Knight occurred via email, July 2010. Alex Knight was questioned about the End of Capitalism Theory, which states that the global capitalist system is breaking down due to ecological and social limits to growth and that a paradigm shift toward a non-capitalist future is underway.

This is the second part of a four-part interview.

Part 2A. Capitalism and Ecological Limits

MC: Capitalism has faced many moments of crisis over time. Is there something different about the present crisis? What makes the end of capitalism a possibility now?

AK: This is such an important question, and it's vital to think and talk about the crisis in this way, with a view toward history. It's not immediately obvious why this crisis began and why, two years later, it's not getting better. Making sense of this is challenging. Especially since knowledge of economics has become so enclosed within academic and professional channels where it's off-limits to the majority of the population. Even progressive intellectuals, who aim to translate and explain the crisis to regular folks, too often fall into the trap of accepting elite explanations as the starting point and then injecting their politics around the edges. This is why there is such an abundance of essays and videos analyzing "credit default swaps", "collateralized debt obligations," etc., as if this crisis is about nothing more than greedy speculators overstepping their bounds.

On the contrary, the End of Capitalism Theory insists there are deeper explanations for why this crisis is so severe, widespread, and long-lasting. Here's one explanation: The devastating quaking of the financial markets, and the lingering aftershocks we're experiencing in layoffs and cut-backs, are manifestations of much larger tectonic shifts under the surface of the economy. This turmoil originates from deep instabilities within capitalism, the global economic system that dominates our planet. The dramatic crisis we are experiencing now is resulting from a massive underground collision between capitalism's relentless need for growth on one side, and the world's limited capacity to sustain that growth on the other.

These limits to growth, like the continental plates, are enormous, permanent qualities of the Earth they cannot be ignored or simply moved out of the way. The limits to growth are both ecological, such as shortages of resources, and social, such as growing movements for change around the globe. As capitalism rams into these limiting forces, numerous crises (economic, energy, climate, food, water, political, etc.) erupt, and terrible destruction sweeps through society. This collision between capitalism and its limits will continue until capitalism itself collapses and is replaced by other ways of living.

Like Tectonic Plates Colliding: Capitalism is Ramming into the Limits to Growth,
Like Tectonic Plates Colliding: Capitalism is Ramming into the Limits to Growth,
(Image by Plain Edge Schools)
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The End of Capitalism Theory argues that capitalism will not be able to overcome these limits to growth, and therefore it is only a matter of time before we are living in a non-capitalist world. A paradigm shift towards a new society is underway. There's a chance this new future could be even worse, but I hold tremendous hope in the capacity of human beings to invent a better life for themselves when given the chance. Part of my hope springs from the understanding that capitalism has caused terrible havoc all over the world through the violence it perpetrates against humanity and Mother Earth. The end of capitalism need not be a disaster. It can be a triumph. Or, perhaps, a sigh of relief.

Defining the Crisis

Rather than spend our time learning the language of Wall St. and trying to understand the economic crisis from the perspective of the bankers and capitalists, I think we can get much further if we take our own point of reference and then investigate below the surface to try to find the true origins of the crisis. This is what I call a common sense radical approach. Start from where we are, who we are, and what we know, because you don't need to be an academic to understand the economy you just need common sense. Then try to get to the root of the issue (radical coming from the Latin word for "root"). What is really going on under the surface? What is the core of the problem? If we can't come up with a common sense radical explanation of the crisis, we'll always be stuck within someone else's dogma. This could be Wall St. dogma, Marxist dogma, Christian dogma, etc. So what is this crisis really about?

I assert that the current crisis is dramatically and profoundly different from any crisis previously faced by the global capitalist system. I see one basic reason for this: the system can no longer grow. Without growth, capitalism cannot function. Like a shark that must keep moving in order to breathe, a capitalist economy must keep growing in order to survive. Without the possibility, or probability, that investors will make a profit on their investments, they will not invest. No one invests if they expect to lose money or keep the same amount. If investors cease to invest, businesses cannot expand, jobs are lost, consumer spending declines, and loans stop coming, creating a cycle of bust. Crashing markets will continue to freefall until the government steps in with bailouts to artificially boost investment. But bailouts are only a temporary solution. If the markets cannot be "corrected" and get back on a growth trajectory, game over.

Financial analyst Nomi Prins has tallied the various loans, guarantees and giveaways that make up the Wall St. bailout to a total of $17 Trillion [PDF], a sum larger than the annual GDP of the United States. This is a staggeringly expensive life support system for the "too big to fail" banks. How much longer can the federal government essentially print dollars to keep the stock market afloat? The End of Capitalism Theory says, "not long." In the long arch of history, we are at the tail end of the capitalist period. Whatever follows it, for better or worse, will need to be adapted to a smaller economy.

Capitalism and Enclosure

To understand the end of capitalism, we need to know where the system started. For 500 years, capitalism has spread like a cancer across the planet. It first spawned in Western Europe on the backs of the peasants and small farmers who were displaced by the "enclosures." The enclosures were the forced privatization of land, literally the enclosing or fencing off of land that was previously shared or held in common. The state acted as enforcer of this process, violently expelling poor communities from their homes and the "commons," or traditionally public land. The land was taken away from the small farmers so it could be exploited for large-scale agriculture and animal herding.

These enclosures had the effect (intended or not) of creating two new classes of people: 1. a small opportunist class of private landowners and businessmen who evolved into today's capitalists, and 2. a large landless class of workers who were forced to toil for a wage in the new urban factories, because they had nowhere else to go.

At the very same moment, the European states carried out the enslavement of millions of Africans and the genocide of the indigenous nations of North and South America. Suddenly two "new" continents could be exploited, with slave labor, bringing tremendous wealth to the rising capitalist elites in Europe. This brutal violence against people of color was instrumental in the spread of capitalism across the planet. It was accompanied by a terrifying assault on women in the form of the witch hunts, which saw hundreds of thousands of women tortured and burned alive, according to Silvia Federici's provocative and necessary book Caliban and the Witch: Women, The Body, and Primitive Accumulation.

The book documents how the Church and state used the witch hunts to persecute sexually rebellious women, such as those having sex out of wedlock, committing adultery, abortion or infanticide. They also targeted women who held respected professions in peasant communities, such as that of midwife, healer, or fortune teller. Federici sees this as a broad attack on women that created a new kind of patriarchal order. She explains that by the time the witch hunts came to an end in the 17th century, women in capitalist society had largely become enclosed within the prescribed roles of mother pumping out new workers, or unpaid houseworker. These are exactly the female roles that the new system of capitalism required of women, argues Federici, because women's unpaid reproductive labor boosted capitalist profits just like the unpaid labor of the African slaves. Keeping women confined as housewives and mothers meant their labor was never valued, although this labor is necessary for the entire society to exist.

Women have pushed back against this paradigm and made dramatic gains in the past 50 years, especially in the Global North. But in the Global South the position of women has largely deteriorated as capitalism has penetrated.

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Alex Knight is a proponent of the End of Capitalism Theory, which states that the global capitalist system is breaking down due to ecological and social limits to growth and that a paradigm shift toward a non-capitalist future is underway. He is (more...)
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