Book Reviews

Manufactured scarcity

Green Capitalism. Manufacturing Scarcity in an Age of Abundance.

By James Heartfield. .2008. £7.50


James Heartfield is associated with the former Trotskyist (British) Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) which used to publish Living Marxism (LM) and has moved on considerably since “the collapse of Communism” at the end of the 1980’s and the dissolution of the formal RCP organisation in 1997. These days the so-called “LM network” produces the edgy website and organises debates and events under the auspices of the Institute of Ideas and a myriad of propaganda campaigns expedited largely through a robust, sometimes entertaining, and not ineffective style of media entryism.


One area this current has been particularly interested in over the last two decades is in promoting a full-on critique of the reactionary imperatives of the politics of “Environmentalism”. In Green Capitalism James Heartfield reminds us that the profit system is essentially a system of rationing, which is now, in certain circles and in a variety of ways, being dressed up as “greenwashing” by Big Business and Governments – as the contemporary ruling elites reinvent scarcity in an age of abundance.


Heartfield rightly presents the capitalist mode of production as an epoch in which the force of human ingenuity has sought to ameliorate the exigencies of life through technical breakthrough with the result that happiness is the condition for most of us in Western societies. I do, however, take issue with the notion that one out of any of the 300 workers at the Lombe silk works on the Derwent in 1721 or the 5000 wage slaves at Arkwright’s Mill in Cromford in 1771 woke up for work every day with a sense of unmitigated joy. Whilst those long deceased exploited workers are no longer “variable Capital”, my modern-day neighbours don’t seem to enthuse much about the conditions of their means of living whilst having a sup on a Friday night in the local pub, either. Nevertheless, the material gains we have made in the interim between the first factories and 21st century capitalism are impressive.


In a summation of capitalist economics Heartfield tackles the neo-classical economists and suggests they were in effect “Rationers by Trade“ (my phrase not his) but you get the point. Notwithstanding that, the book opens with a great sense of optimism and opines succinctly upon the gains made by the working class under capitalism. The author explains carefully the concomitant progressive and destructive forces at play within the profit system and hints at transcending towards a more rational form of society founded upon technological progress.


This work sets out to show how modern Environmentalism came about as a consequence of ruling elites ideas about scarcity. Heartfield‘s argument is that, in Western society, the myth of the “fragile” planet emerged as a consequence of the retreat from production in the original heartlands of industrial capitalism.


Much of the Green Capitalism provides an excellent exposition of the fools’ errand of “Environmentalism” and the levers of power behind that aspect of the moribund profit system. Meanwhile, at times the prose is poor and plodding, and some of the referencing is both points-scoring and unnecessary to make the more essential issue clear. Do we really need to be lectured about Trotsky’s ideas on production? Some of this stuff would leave the general reader all at sea in very short order. Whilst a final extraordinary point is clearly made: the world population grew from 791 million in 1750 to 5.9 billion in 1999, as a consequence of advances in agriculture, transport, sanitation, industry. Many of that number exist at the level of subsistence – and it should not be that way! So, from an editorial perspective the narrative simply peters out – a bang and a whimper! Where is the alternative?


Notwithstanding that, this book has much to recommend it, not least for cocking a timely snook at both the modern-day misanthropes who see mankind as a plague upon the planet and the long-dead ‘dismal scientists’ of neo-classical economics who could not comprehend a theory of productive growth through collective endeavour. Heartfield puts a well aimed, populist boot into the modern-day Green Capitalists – Branson, Goldsmith, Charles Windsor, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Lord (Peter) Melchett, and makes reasoned argument that Western Capitalism has got to go Green for the sake of exploiting new sources of profit.


There is an argument that modern socialists need to take on the Green catastrophists and promote technology and real democracy to face down the spectre of Austerity Capitalism in the 21st Century – in order to kill the pernicious profit system once and for all.


From poverty to power


How Active Citizens and Effective States can Change the World

Duncan Green 2008

Duncan Green defines an effective state as one that “can guarantee security and the rule of law,” and has an effective strategy “to ensure inclusive economic growth”. Such a state should be accountable to citizens and able to guarantee their rights. Active citizens are linked to the state by a “combination of rights and obligations”: making use of these rights to improve their conditions.


He argues that it is the combination of poor men and women and their national governments that provide the main actors in the fight against poverty and inequality. Case studies are given to illustrate how even the poorest people have by their organised and persistent actions brought about beneficent change in their circumstances. Like the Chiquitanos people of Bolivia who after 12 years of “unremitting and often frustrating struggle” won legal title to the 1m-hectare indigenous territory of Monteverde.


He is aware that the scales are weighted against the poor in all areas. For example, research is dominated by the private sector: in agriculture 5 large multinational corporations spend $7.3bn per year on agricultural research on high value, high profit products while the staple foods of poor communities are “likely to be overlooked.” In biotechnology the picture is the same with GM crops being genetically engineered to meet the needs of large scale farms. There is no serious investment in the five most important semi-arid and tropical crops.


Half of the world’s population lives in the countryside and the majority of people in absolute poverty live in the rural areas. OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) sources are given for the claim that over the past 20 years aid donors and governments have effectively withdrawn from the countryside. Mention is made of the well known ‘structural development programmes’ which imposed a ‘radical free market’ on debtor countries.


Agricultural growth, Green argues, reduces poverty but is most effective when small farmers are able to capture a fair share of the benefits. Local farmers, he says, should be helped to improve the quality of their produce so that for example retail giants like McDonalds and Pizza Hut use local produce instead of importing produce from the USA. Here his ‘active’ citizens would be small farmers “organising their ability to negotiate a fair deal”. However when it comes to buying fertilizer or seeds, or selling produce or their labour, small producers are dominated by the large corporations. Small farmers are “de facto employees”.


In Green’s view efficient states should take the environment and the enhancement of the daily lives of the poor as prime considerations. Global governance (the “web of international institutions, laws regulations, and agreements”) could help, and the 8 main ways he lists include managing the global economy, redistributing wealth through aid or international taxation, averting health threats and avoiding war. However global governance fails to live up to its ideals. “The WTO is frozen, regional trade agreements are proliferating and introducing profoundly unfair trade and investment rules, the G8 is failing to keep its promises on aid…”, then there is the threat of climate change and “a looming financial crisis”.


The book is well sourced with a 24-page bibliography and three further pages listing background papers. There is much useful information covering more areas than can be dealt with in a review. However Duncan Green takes a moral stance whereas under capitalism the prime consideration cannot be the welfare of citizens active or otherwise, but sale and profit; this drives development (forget sustainable) – and can also inhibit it. And the state that in his view is supposed to facilitate change will only do so to the extent that the interests of the owning class are served.


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