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Karl Marx: Eco Warrior

August 11, 2015

marx

Apres moi le deluge is the watchword of every capitalist.”

Karl Marx said this in Das Kapital.  I won’t give you a page reference.  You’ll just have to start rereading Das Kapital from the beginning and keep going until you find it.  But it’s there.  Trust me.

Marx was not talking about ecological disaster exactly.  He was talking about the tendency to work human resources to the point of degradation and ultimate collapse.  He was talking about the physical damage done to workers in the effort to squeeze as much surplus value from them and noted that this process must meet its own physical limits at some point.

But the critical point was that Capitalism has its own accelerating momentum with immense destructive implications and that short-termism is essential to its nature.  The capitalist declares apres moi le deluge because the slightest unilateral deceleration of destructive exploitation will leave him (it was always “him” in Marx’s century and it mainly is now) at a competitive disadvantage.

I don’t think it’s a wilful extrapolation of the basic grammar of Marx’s thinking to say that Marx, in the twenty first century would have have been fascinated about the tendency to deny evidence of destructive climate change and to accelerate the destructive logic of physical exploitation unabated.  Apres moi le deluge offers the perfect description of our modern attitude to resources.  As Naomi Klein has recently pointed out (or rather, reminded us), expecting twenty first century capitalism to accommodate a sense of green responsibility is fundamentally misplaced.

Our twenty first century economy is predicated on the assumption that the short term interests of billionaires and the long term interests of humanity are precisely congruent.  The suggestion that these interests might diverge or even conflict and that a political decision to face down the billionaires might be necessary – represents such a cosmic heresy that the bouncers that patrol the outer limits of our legislators’ ideological purity have never allowed it close enough to the speech centres of their brains to permit its articulation.

Politicians like Stephen Harper have told nations like the Solomon Islands that they have no right to exist, if such a right were to conflict with the convenience of oil barons.  Does Harper believe that he is helping to annihilate the Solomon Islands?  He doesn’t think about it much I suspect, but I’m sure he doesn’t believe that the right of a Solomon islander to exist can possibly compete with the rights of oil barons to enrich themselves by the quickest possible means.

If the planet is to be saved, then a sense of common purpose is required.  Economies will have to be re-arranged and redirected.  If the short term interests of a very few threaten the long term survival of us all, then a degree of legal coercion is called for.

Socialism?  Well perhaps.

A lengthy historical caveat is called for.  The environmental records of nations that used to proudly call themselves socialist was lousy.  The pollution generated in the former Soviet Union was astronomical.  The Aral Sea is now half the size it was four decades ago for complicated reasons.  The reason for all this destruction?

Fear.  In a society where “the common good” is a coercive maxim driven by fear, people don’t actually think about the common good at all – they think about individual survival.  Targets are set.  Targets are to be met.  And if criticism of government policy is criminalised (or worse – medicalised) then environmental disasters are hushed up rather than challenged and redressed.  And if the politburo is also a gerontocracy then the maxim “apres moi le deluge” can equally well apply to soviet as well as capitalist planning.

A sense of environmental common purpose cannot be imposed at the point of a gun, because guns threaten individuals rather than planets and individuals will save their own skin first.

What’s needed is democracy.  Striving towards a common desirable goal is possible in wartime.  When the threat is real enough, people can commit to a common purpose in which individual selfish (and ultimately self-destructive) aims are restricted so that people (or a people) can survive for a generation or so longer.  This kind of democracy can only be possible if people without money can feel that they have the same political rights as people who do.

This kind of planet-saving democracy is only possible if a majoritarian mandate based on possession of a heart and a mind gains supremacy over a majoritarian mandate based on dollars.

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