The origin – and future – of Capitalism

I have just read an account of how powerful are the dynamics driving capitalism. Ellen Meiksins Wood wrote “The Origin of Capitalism” (verso) in 2002. I find her thesis compelling. Although capitalism has become a major component in the planet-trashing culture sweeping the world, it is not actually a root cause. Easter Island offers evidence that the ‘Tragedy of the Commons’ could destroy a society without any special help. But according to Wood, capitalism was an inevitable consequence of earlier developments, in particular the replacement of the feudal provision of goods to those not directly working the land by a cash rent, and the emergence of a significant number of landless labourers, who were therefore dependent on a cash wage for subsistence. These changes happened not at the time of the industrial revolution, but in rural England some centuries earlier.

Wood’s central point is that the changes which led to capitalism happened because of the opportunities the new arrangements afforded, at least to key players. She points out that the dominance of the profit motive was a natural next development (it had never been paramount before), and once that happened, everyone, opressors and oppressed alike were locked into economic imperatives. From Wood’s thesis the industrial revolution was an inevitable consequence of that , but an agricultural revolution due to the same forces had already taken place.

Capitalism came into being to facilitate growth: the two are bound up together. Provided there are the resources to fuel growth, capitalism gives entrepreneurs an advantage, and it does foster innovation, so it spread quickly to other parts of Britain, then to Europe, and in due course to the rest of the world. But because what started as opportunity became an imperative, and remains so, those gaining most from this system could not stop even if they wanted to. The ‘Tragedy’ would ensure that any one business taking the IPCC reports seriously would simply be replaced by others. The dynamics which were a major factor on Easter Island have become irremovable globally.

But surely, one might think, the small ‘elite’ who hold real power want to save the planet? The formation of the Club of Rome over 40 years ago demonstrates that some of them do, but the foregoing logic means that ecological destruction will have degenerated too far before a sufficiently overwhelming number of them change tack.

Identifying capitalism as a serious problem does not lead me to anti-capitalism. I can see it from their point of view. Just as the IRA had eventually to be talked to, so those who have very good cause to hate capitalism and capitalists will have to stop vainly fighting them, and join in ways to help them stop damaging the ecosphere. This must be possible because it is not in the interests of those still making the profits to ruin the basis on which  they make those profits. I do not want to confiscate any more than is necessary from those currently making huge profits than is necessary to achieve two aims: a sustainable world economy, and every individual being assured of basic needs. Capitalism has a firmer grip than ever, so we need them on our side. What matters now is helping the climate deniers, many of whom I believe do secretly worry about the IPCC information, to escape from the trap that, as Ellen Wood explains, capitalism is simply a part of.

Capitalism is only a part of the story. My attention has been drawn to the Wikipedia account of the Tragedy of the Commons. It puts it in the wider context as a sub-set of ‘The Tyranny of small decisions’. Whilst this is true, most of those decisions, world-wide, have only been made possible by the opportunities which capitalism opened up, which in due course became imperatives. Everybody drives their children to school where I walked, unaccompanied. I know Green Party members who visit family in other continents. Their individual self-denial would not make a detectable difference to global warming.

Reading Wikipedia has prompted me to a disturbing possibility, and here I must quote from my book.:

In his book ‘Rethinking Green Politics’ (1999, Sage Publications), John Barry quotes the ‘Terrible trio’ of Ophuls, Hardin and Heilbroner who saw some form of eco-authoritarian regime, with a scientific elite guiding decisions as necessary to deal with the ecological crisis predicted by ‘Limits to Growth.’

Not only do I find Barry’s rebuttals inadequate, but the wider ‘Tyranny’ reinforces the case against democracy. Ken Livingstone simply introduced the Congestion Charge in London, and the subsequent consensus was that it was a good idea. Yet even with this precedent, given the choice, Manchester voted 4 to 1 against.

In an earlier blog I quoted the CEO of ExxonMobil as explaining to investors that the reason they were ignoring the IPCC reports was not necessarily because they didn’t believe them, but no government would dare to implement unpopular measures. It is because I desperately want to believe in democracy that I see the need for something which allows millions of people to view a cessation, or at least a pause in economic growth as a good idea. I am still waiting for a better proposal than the Citizens’ or Basic Income.

2 responses to “The origin – and future – of Capitalism

  1. Nice some greens still have saving the planet top of their agenda.

    • Another oldie I have just found.Thanks Brenda. As you know I am standing for leader of the Green Party on just that platform.

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