(A speech given at the One World Week Forum at the University of Warwick on January 30, 2014 on the topic of Capitalism and Sustainability: Can We Have It All?)
Can capitalism solve the problems of global warming and growing inequality?
It seems to me this is like discussing the issue of inappropriate hypersexual imagery bombarding 11-year olds and then asking: Can Justin Bieber or Lady Gaga fix the problem?
Real capitalism, not the theoretical version taught in school, is a system of minority rule in which a few people profit at the expense of others.
Real capitalists are always trying to cut their costs and increase their profits, which leads to unemployment, falling wages, rising economic disparity and not paying for the environmental damage they cause.
Private ownership of what are social means of livelihood produces incentives for capitalists to pass along the real costs of industry to communities, workers, future generations and other species.
Private ownership makes growing inequality inevitable. A system can proclaim itself democratic, but if a minority holds most of the economic, and therefore social and political power, that minority will inevitably reward itself, its power will grow and ever-expanding inequality will be the result.
Capitalism is sociopathic. Its ideologues, like the late Margaret Thatcher, reject the social, claiming only individuals exist. Yet capitalism has driven individual producers to the fringes of economies. Most people, 90 per cent in the U.K., depend on wages or salary, working with others in cooperative, coordinated labour — social labour, but directed by wealthy minorities for their own profit.
Capitalism promotes greed. It boasts of this. So why would we be surprised when a small minority with most of the power looks after itself, in effect telling the rest of us: “Screw you and the planet you live on! We don’t care about global warming because we have the money to buy a nice place regardless of how high the oceans rise.”
Capitalism requires constant growth to satisfy its need for more profit. But what happens when the environment needs a smaller human footprint? When, at least in wealthier countries, we must learn to live with less stuff?
History shows capitalism reacts badly to declining markets. When the economy shrinks for a sustained period the system goes into crisis. Banks crash, unemployment grows and capitalists often turn to war to get their profits rising again.
The truth is a sustainable economy is incompatible with a system that constantly demands more profit.
To quote the greatest living English political philosopher, Russell Brand: “I know what the fucking system shouldn’t do. It shouldn’t destroy the planet and shouldn’t create massive economic disparity.”
Like Russell we know what we don’t like. That’s the easy part. But how can we get rid of capitalism and what is the alternative?
To answer we must go back to the issue of power and how to distribute it in a way that promotes the common good, a key element of which is a healthy environment. The best way is through more democracy. REAL democracy. Economic democracy.
Do you want an equitable, sustainable economy? Then help overthrow capitalism and create an economic democracy.
What exactly does this mean?
Let me give you an example: With the one pound one vote system that governs corporate capitalism, Richard Branson, with a net worth of 3.5 billion pounds get 3.5 billion votes. In comparison you (pointing) get 147 and you get 58. Most of you poor buggers owe more than you own so you get no votes at all. Economic democracy means giving everyone the right to a voice and an equal vote in their communities’ economic decisions. When everyone has an equal right in decision-making, economies will be motivated by general wellbeing, not private profit. Economic democracy means eliminating the divide between workers and owners by making everyone an owner. Economic democracy means multiple owning communities — local, regional, national, international — so that power does not become concentrated in the hands of a single central state. It means that wherever social labour occurs a system of democracy manages the enterprise.
Imagine companies that are democratically run by workers together with a local, regional, national or international government, whichever is appropriate to that enterprise; companies whose mandate it is to promote the common good, rather than the narrow self-interest of rich shareholders; companies that no longer have incentives to destroy the planet, but rather face real penalties for harming the environment.
Now, I know what at least some of you are thinking. This is not realistic. Your ideas are just pie in the sky. But the truth is capitalism has already created what one might call “objective conditions” that do indeed make economic democracy possible. Most people in most countries already depend on social labor. Most of you, if you find paid employment, will be salaried or wage workers. If we choose to fight for it, we can expand one-person, one-vote decision-making into every area where people work collectively, which is most of our economy. If we elect governments committed to it, we could pass laws that limit private property to what is truly private and doesn’t give an individual power over others. We could create a system of social ownership with multiple democratic owning communities.
If we accomplish these three things — replacing corporate ownership with social ownership, replacing capitalist entitlement with equal human entitlement and replacing master-servant relations with workplace democracy — the system that drives enterprises to maximize profits, regardless of the consequences, would no longer exist.
Capitalism and sustainability, can you have it all? No. But there is a much better alternative: Economic democracy, a system that will offer authentic jobs, a nourishing work-life balance, your fair share of power and a healthy environment. This sounds like the essentials of a good life to me.