2010s >> 2019 >> no-1379-july-2019

Cooking the Books II: Monbiot sees the light

Writing in the Guardian (25 April, also on his blog www.monbiot.com), George Monbiot revealed that he had come to realise that ‘the problem is capitalism’:

For most of my adult life, I’ve railed against “corporate capitalism”, “consumer capitalism” and “crony capitalism”. It took me a long time to see that the problem is not the adjective, but the noun.’

This puts him way ahead, in terms of understanding, of the many left-wingers who rail only against neo-liberalism or Trumpism as they used to against Thatcherism and who want a more state-directed capitalism. It puts him ahead, too, of the Greens who want a return to a smaller-scale capitalism. It is, as he has come to recognise, capitalism, as a system of production for profit and the accumulation of more and more capital out of profits, that is the problem.

He indicts capitalism on two counts. First, that it is premised on ‘perpetual growth’:

Economic growth is the aggregate effect of the quest to accumulate capital and extract profit. Capitalism collapses without growth, yet perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity.’

This is true. Capitalism could not function without growth. Its economic imperative to give priority to making and accumulating profits is not only a threat to the environment (Monbiot’s main concern). It is means that production to meet people’s needs also takes second place. It’s capital accumulation before butter.

Monbiot’s second indictment of capitalism is ‘the bizarre assumption that a person is entitled to as great a share of the world’s natural wealth as their money can buy.’

This is true too, and it applies not just to natural resources but equally to the wealth that is fashioned from them. ‘Have Money, Can Buy’ applies to this too. The other side of this coin is ‘Can’t Pay, Can’t Have’, which explains not just world poverty and malnutrition but why, even in the developed capitalist parts of the world, people’s needs are not adequately met, whereas they could be if the waste and profit priority of capitalism did not exist. There is no need for any man, woman or child in any part of the world to go without adequate food, shelter, clothing, health care or education.

Monbiot has more or less correctly identified the problem with capitalism. That’s the first step. The next is to see what might be the alternative and how to bring it about. He says he doesn’t have a complete answer (and doesn’t think any one person has), but he does see a ‘rough framework emerging’. He mentions various ecological thinkers and goes on:

Part of the answer lies in the notion of “private sufficiency, public luxury”. Another part arises from the creation of a new conception of justice, based on this simple principle: every generation, everywhere shall have an equal right to the enjoyment of natural wealth.’

Both of these would require that the Earth’s resources, industrial and not just natural, should have become the common heritage of all humanity, and could not be implemented gradually or piecemeal within the framework of capitalism.