Book Reviews: ‘The World in Crisis’, & ‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist’
‘The World in Crisis’. Edited by Guiglelmo Carchedi and Michael Roberts, (Zero Books, 2017)
Karl Marx believed that capitalism had a tendency for the rate of profit to fall, and that this is ‘the most important law in political economy’. The Socialist Party has been non-committal on this ‘law’, partly because of its unfinished state (basically notes edited for publication by Engels after Marx’s death), and partly because the ‘law’ seems to be questionable due to what Marx called ‘counteracting factors’’. Also, some leftists have invoked a tendency for the rate of profit to fall as the cause of capitalism’s inevitable collapse (not heard so often these days, they are capitalism’s falling rate of prophets).
This collection of essays from writers around the world examines the evidence from states around the world (including China) using Marx’s theory of value. Marx’s ‘law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall’ (LTRPF) can be stated in a couple of sentences:
• Capitalism is based on the competitive accumulation of profits through technological innovation.
• Technological innovation increases output but reduces the value of commodities and therefore the profit of what is produced.
This, in one form or another, is the explanation for the cause of capitalism’s inherent economic crises. What the writers here refer to as the ‘Great Recession’, which began in 2008, was the LTRPF manifesting itself as a financial crisis. The LTRPF is also a rejection of explanations of crises in terms of a general lack of purchasing power (Keynesian economics), high wages or government spending (the right wing) or inequality (the left wing).
Against the LTRPF Marx identified five counteracting tendencies which raise the average rate of profit:
1. Increases in the intensity of exploitation (getting more out of the same or fewer workers).
2. Reduction of wages below their value (in money wages or in real terms through inflation).
3. Increasing unemployment (depressing wage levels and holding back wage rises).
4. Cheaper constant capital (less money spent on productive assets).
5. Foreign trade and investment (new markets and export opportunities).
Marx mentioned other possible counteracting tendencies but did not go into detail. For Marx and the authors in this book the counteracting tendencies are insufficient to prevent a long-term fall in the average rate of profit. The long-term trend is downwards (in the UK since the late nineteenth century), punctuated by upsurges brought about by the counteracting tendencies. The main part of this book is a detailed statistical analysis of evidence from around the globe. It is, the editors admit, ‘often dense in analysis and flush with figures and numbers’. But for anyone looking for the hard data which backs up Marx’s LTRPF, here it is.
Marx was in no doubt that ‘permanent crises do not exist’ and the writers here agree. So what of the future? The intensification of class struggles and further bouts of austerity for the working class, alternating with booming economies, seems the most likely. All in the name of a declining rate of profit. Perhaps the most important consequence of the analysis in this book is that there are no reformist solutions. As long as the profit system – capitalism – remains the future for the working class is a world in crisis.
The Recovery Position
‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist’. By Paul Kingsnorth, (Faber & Faber £14.99)
This consists of a series of essays written between 2009 and 2016, most previously published in newspapers and magazines or online, which trace the author’s disenchantment with environmental activism. He originally wanted to save nature from people, but he gradually came to see the problems inherent in what he was doing. For one thing, the movements he was involved in were increasingly unsuccessful: every environmental problem identified at the 1992 Earth Summit had got worse in the years since. Ineffective action, he concludes, leads only to despair, and false hope is worse than no hope.
In addition, the green movement had changed. It was once eco-centric but shifted to become more about people, about social justice and equality for humans, having been taken over by the left: ‘green politics was fast becoming a refuge for disillusioned socialists, Trots, Marxists and a ragbag of fellow travellers’. Unfortunately this kind of vague and unsupported generalising is typical of much of the book. This is a pity, as there are some interesting claims here, for instance that many greens still see a motorway across a downland as bad but would be quite keen on a wind farm in the same location.
Moreover, his depiction of green politics is at best a half-truth. The Green Party do speak of ‘a political system that puts the public first’ but also of ‘a planet protected from the threat of climate change’. Friends of the Earth talk about protecting the bee population (partly because humans need them, admittedly) and also about preserving nature, advocating approaches such as agroecology and permaculture. Greenpeace oppose deadly air pollution, but also aim to defend the oceans and protect forests.
Kingsnorth is particularly scathing about sustainability, which he views as meaning ‘sustaining human civilisation at the comfort level that the world’s rich people – us – feel is their right’. Clearly he has no idea who the world’s truly rich people are. He also objects to the alleged single-minded obsession with climate change, and to seeing it as a challenge to be overcome by technological solutions. Capitalism, he claims, ‘has absorbed the greens’, but there is in fact no reason to think they were ever anti-capitalist. He never seems to ask why green movements have failed, let alone raise the possibility that their lack of success might be due to capitalism and its emphasis on profit.
The book closes with a couple of pieces on ‘uncivilisation’, a supposed alternative described only in very general terms as rejecting theories and ideologies and political or social ‘solutions’. Don’t come up with big plans for a better world, Kingsnorth says, but take responsibility for a specific something: he currently lives with his family on a two-and-a-half acre site in Ireland in an attempt to escape from ‘the urban consumer machine’. Rather than becoming involved in environmental or political causes, he proposes withdrawal and contemplation. He accepts that he does not have useful answers but it is not clear that he even has any worthwhile questions.