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Sun Jul 26 15:10:43 CEST 2015

Reflections on the essay by John Bellamy Foster

The Great Transitions Initiative is a reflection of the growing
understanding that the very way capitalism functions is at the center of
the ecological crisis that befalls the earth and its inhabitants. For this
reason, people associated with the Initiative have written that they
=E2=80=9C=E2=80=A6envision the advent of a new development paradigm redirec=
ting the global
trajectory toward a socially equitable, culturally enriched, and
ecologically resilient planetary civilization.=E2=80=9D But why does
capitalism=E2=80=94which I would describe as an economic system rather than=
=E2=80=9Cdevelopment paradigm=E2=80=9D=E2=80=94 need replacing? What would =
a =E2=80=9Csocially equitable,
culturally enriched, and ecologically resilient planetary civilization=E2=
=80=9D be

The significance of Karl Marx for the GTI is that his work offers a
comprehensive analysis and understanding of capitalism=E2=80=94not only as =
economic system, but also its political, social, and ecological
ramifications. The development of his ideas and theories did not come out
of the thin air. Rather, they were based on an incredible amount of hard
work=E2=80=94detailed studies of history, economics, anthropology, science,=
consultation of government documents.

As John Bellamy Foster has laid out in detail, Marx and Frederick Engels
were aware of the negative effects that capitalism was having on the
ecosystem. Their remarkable writings contain what can only be considered as
advanced ecological concepts, very much concerned with the human
interaction (metabolism) with the rest of natural world, especially in
relation to the growth of capitalist economies in the 19th Century.

Let me summarize my view of the key ideas that come directly out of the
Marxist tradition as they relate to our current environmental crisis:

The =E2=80=9Claws of motion=E2=80=9D of capitalist economies govern the ope=
ration of the
system at its most basic level and compels it to strive to attain continual
growth of individual firms (with competition and buyouts destroying some in
the process, leading to larger and larger companies) and the entire
economy. In the process, capitalism expands geographically to become a
world system=E2=80=94something that was evident from its very inception in =
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. There can be no such system as
=E2=80=9Cno-growth capitalism.=E2=80=9D For when growth falters (recessions=
depressions), the system is in economic crisis, with much human suffering.
Also, there can be no such concept as =E2=80=9Cenough=E2=80=9D in capitalis=
t economies,
because in order to accumulate ever greater amounts of capital=E2=80=94the =
force of the system=E2=80=94new products are created continually and more o=
f all
products must be sold next year than this one. This drives a complex and
multifaceted sales effort=E2=80=94amounting to
some ten percent of the economy=E2=80=94 to convince people that they =E2=
=80=9Cneed=E2=80=9D these
products. Capitalists and their allies also work politically, militarily,
and economically to eliminate barriers to accumulation of profits=E2=80=94t=
unstated, but underlying, goal of deregulation efforts, reduced taxes on
corporations and the wealthy, the multilateral trade agreements such as
NAFTA, the WTO, covert actions to destabilize =E2=80=9Cunfriendly=E2=80=9D =
governments, and
outright warfare.

As capitalism normally operates, what economists nowadays call
=E2=80=9Cexternalities=E2=80=9D are created=E2=80=94negative social and eco=
logical effects. Not
needing to avoid or remedy the =E2=80=9Cexternalities=E2=80=9D (except for =
a few
regulations to curb some of the excesses) is key to understanding why
capitalism is so profitable. As Engels wrote in the 19th Century: =E2=80=9C=
cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes
of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one
generation of very highly profitable coffee trees =E2=80=93 what cared they=
the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper
stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock! In relation to nature,
as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned
only about the immediate, the most tangible result...=E2=80=9D(1) It is
capitalism=E2=80=99s inability to rationally regulate the human interaction=
nature and its resources that results in environmental
crises (local, regional, and global) as well as depletion of resources,
threatening the lives of generations to come. This is the problem addressed
in Marx=E2=80=99s famous theory of the metabolic rift. As Naomi Klein notes=
 in This
Changes Everything, =E2=80=9CKarl Marx=E2=80=A6recognized capitalism=E2=80=
=99s =E2=80=98irreparable rift=E2=80=99
with =E2=80=98the natural laws of life itself=E2=80=99=E2=80=A6[Today] the =
Earth=E2=80=99s capacity to
absorb the filthy byproducts of global capitalism=E2=80=99s voracious metab=
olism is
maxing out.=E2=80=9D (2)

Fulfilling everyone=E2=80=99s basic needs on an equitable basis so as to al=
low for
the development of each person=E2=80=99s full human potential will require =
conscious regulation of the interactions between humans and resources.
While this does not guarantee an ecologically sound economy, attaining such
a goal is inconceivable without the people who actually do the work taking
into account the needs of posterity. For example, if local fisheries are
under the control of people in coastal villages=E2=80=94rather than in the =
hands of
large commercial trawlers owned by companies trying to maximize
profits=E2=80=94there is the need to fish in ways that preserve the product=
(or better yet, reproductivity) of this important resource.

The only way to consciously regulate the interaction with resources is
through a democratic approach that takes seriously Marx=E2=80=99s contentio=
n, that
Foster quotes=E2=80=94=E2=80=9CEven an entire society, a nation, or all sim=
existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth. They are
simply its possessors, it beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an
improved state to succeeding generations as boni patres familias [good
heads of the household].=E2=80=9D

Some thoughts of basic principles, practices, and operating procedures of
such an economy and society have been outlined in my article, =E2=80=9CAn
Ecologically Sound and Socially Just Economy=E2=80=9D=E2=80=94

1. Frederick Engels, =E2=80=9CThe Part Played by Labour in the Transformati=
on from
Ape to Man,=E2=80=9D in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works (Ne=
w York:
International Publishers, 1975), vol. 25:463.

2. Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (New York: Simon and Schuster,
2014), 177, 186.

Fred Magdoff


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

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