2020s >> 2021 >> no-1407-november-2021

Cooking the Books 1

Greed or Necessity?

‘Wake up XR, you’re not going to kill capitalism’, was the headline in Hugo Rifkind’s column in the Times (31 August). According to him, XR ‘wants to save the world by ending capitalism’. That’s not what they say. Their position is that talk of ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’ is ‘politics’ and that the urgent need is to go ‘beyond politics’. As they put it on their website, ‘we have a moral duty to act – whatever our politics.’ This makes them a political pressure group, employing direct action and civil disobedience tactics, to try to get capitalist governments to do more to combat climate change. At most, they are proposing a purely constitutional change – decision-making citizens’ assemblies – which, given that most ‘citizens’ today still vote for capitalism in conventional elections, would come up with measures to be implemented in capitalism.

Maybe some in XR blame ‘human greed’ for the present situation and see the solution as people consuming less or there being fewer people. This seems to be Rifkind’s assumption. In any event, he equates capitalism with greed and argues that you can’t abolish capitalism because you can’t abolish greed as that’s against human nature. ‘Extinction Rebellion protestors need to get real about human nature,’ he says:

‘Abandon capitalism? Come off it. Do humans really care about the planet enough to give up on the fundamental human desire for more, and more and more? Have you ever met any?’

Actually, it is quite common to meet people who might want more but not ‘more, and more and more’. But why, at present, do people want more money? It’s because they need it as capitalism is a system where you must have money to survive; for most people it’s also a system where you can’t be sure that you will get a regular supply; if you lose your job it dries up. In these circumstances getting as much as you can is a reasonable precaution for you and your family against this economic insecurity. In short, such behaviour is a product of capitalist society, not an expression of human nature.

In his article Rifkind reveals that he had recently interviewed George Monbiot, who he describes as ‘an unabashed proponent of the whole environmentalism-entails-anticapitalism worldview’. Monbiot has indeed come out and stated that capitalism is the cause of environmental damage.

He does not blame human greed as such for damaging the environment. He blames the way in which capitalism allows the rich to do what they want with their money, on the greed and irresponsibility of the rich in ‘the pursuit of private luxury’.

Capitalism does, as explained, encourage, in fact obliges, people to seek to acquire money. The rich have to as well, not so that they can wallow in luxury but because this is what capitalism dictates. As Marx wrote of the capitalist:

‘So far as he is personified capital, it is not values in use and the enjoyment of them, but exchange-value and its augmentation, that spur him into action. Fanatically bent on making value expand itself, he ruthlessly forces the human race to produce for production’s sake… As such, he shares with the miser the passion for wealth as wealth. But that which in the miser is a mere idiosyncrasy, is, in the capitalist, the effect of the social mechanism, of which he is but one of the wheels’ (Capital, Vol. 1, ch. 24, s. 3).

In other words, what we are dealing with here is not the personal greed of the rich but a ‘social mechanism’ which obliges those in charge of capitalist corporations to accumulate more profits as more capital to make more profits, to make more capital, and so on. This, not human greed, is why capitalism as an economic system is geared to infinite growth in a finite world.

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