Is it Capitalism That’s the Problem?

In her This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014), Naomi Klein states:

What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house? I think the answer is far more simple than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. (p. 16)

By posing climate change as a battle between capitalism and the planet, I am not saying anything that we don’t already know. The battle is already under way, but right now capitalism is winning hands down. It wins every time the need for economic growth is used as the excuse for putting off climate action yet again, or for breaking emission reduction commitments already made. (p. 20)

The assertion here that there is a battle “under way” between “capitalism” and “the planet” raises several questions, the first one of which is: What is “capitalism”? Here is one definition:

Capitalism is an Economic_system” economic system and a mode of production in which trade, industries, and the means of production are largely or entirely privately owned. Private firms and proprietorships usually operate in order to generate profit …

Note here that “capitalism” is an abstract concept; that is, it refers to an “ideal,” one which would be realized to varying degrees of perfection by the real-world societies that adopted it. The reason?: Any given society has a history, with each society developing its own particular culture. That culture would play a key role in shaping how “capitalism,” in a society that decided to adopt it, did so. More accurately, how the society’s elite decided to shape the economy.

That latter fact—that all “civilized” societies are governed by an “elite,” despite the nominal sort of governance that exists—is highly important, for, e.g., the definitional claim that property in a “capitalist” society is “privately-owned” masks the fact that in any “civilized” society, some individuals will own more than others—with many of those “others” being forced to sell their labor to survive. In addition, groups will form (e.g., corporations in this country) that have far more influence/power than most individuals will have.

Given this fact, the abstract concept of “capitalism” must be judged as ideological; as, that is, favoring the interests of some (those with property) over others (those lacking in property). Because the concept is an ideological one, it is reasonable to conclude that propagation of the concept—whether as “patriotic” or on some other basis—will tend to cause most members of the society to accept, and then act upon, the concept—having the result of making the society even more inegalitarian than it was before (as is happening in the United States)! Put another way, the thought control—“mystification”—involved with the capitalist ideology tends to cause many in an ostensibly “capitalist” society to act against their interests, and in favor of members of the elite.

klein_DVGiven that the United States does not have a “capitalist” society, to write—as Klein did—that “right now capitalism is winning hands down,” is to make a literally nonsensical statement.

What Klein should have done is to identify the causal factors that have been, and are, operating within the United States, and then demonstrate their relevance in bringing not only us USans, but us humans, to the brink—because of global warming. Instead, Klein succumbs to glibness. Beyond that, Klein:

  1. Never provides any substantial evidence that a “battle” is occurring between (the abstraction) “capitalism” and the planet. The “fact” stated in her subtitle is never developed, and demonstrated, adequately.
  1. Her claim that “the answer [to the problem of global warming] is far more simple than many have led us to believe” is one that some scientists would question. For example, Arctic climate scientist John B. Davies would reject such a claim out of hand, given that he wrote, in 2013: “The world is probably at the start of a runaway Greenhouse Event which will end most human life on Earth before 2040.”

What’s notable about Davies’s claim is that it does not identify “capitalism” as a direct cause—or even indirect cause, for that matter—of global warming. Rather, Davies would argue that the main reason the human future looks bleak is that humans—Western humans in particular, so far (but China now “leads the pack”)—have been burning fossil fuels, thereby increasing the “greenhouse effect,” and thereby causing global warming.

It’s true that there has been less “state” involvement in the economy in the United States than in e.g., China, but that fact does not prove that the U.S. economy is “capitalistic.” After all, the national government does play an important role in the U.S.—and not as a “leveler” but, rather, to make the rich richer!

Insofar, then, as the United States has—relative to other countries in the world—a major responsibility for the “global warming problem,” this is not so much because this country has a (mythical!) capitalistic economy but, rather, because:

  1. The country has a class system, with the rich in control of the country: Our country is a plutocracy, and a “republic” only in name.
  2. The rich—symbolized well by Donald Trump!—are (as F. Scott Fitzgerald said): “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” They tend to be more self-centered than the rest of us, and their control over the economy—along with their lavish spending—makes them far more responsible for the carbon dioxide that the U. S. generates than anyone else in the society. And, given that they seem to have more interest in next quarter’s “bottom line” than the human future, if our species “goes the way of the dinosaurs soon,” the rich in the world—in the U.S. in particular—will be most responsible for this unhappy “event.”

What’s so ironic about the ideological claim that ours is a “capitalistic” society is that it gives capitalism a bad name—implicitly suggesting that it is our (non-existent) capitalism that is “leading us to the brink,” rather than thinking processes and actions of those individuals who run this—and other—countries!

I, for one, can easily imagine a relatively egalitarian society whose members adopted “capitalistic” principles to “operate” their economy; but because they were motivated by human nature (also see this), rather than an acquired “nature,” were able to create a society more similar to the second, than the first, model described in my “Two Models of Society”—and than the one now existing in the U.S. The sort of society, I might add, that would not be likely to be leading us toward the abyss!

Al Thompson retired over seven years ago from an engineering (avionics) firm in Milwaukee. His e-mail address is: Read other articles by Alton.