From humanitarian and ecological viewpoints, many aspects of the capitalist economic system are irrational; although they are certainly rational from the more limited standpoint of the individual business or capitalist seeking to make profits.… With regard to the environment there are scores of examples of irrational behavior by capitalist businesses that have the ultimate goal of making profits. Many practices and side effects of the way the system functions degrade the ecosystem and its processes on which we depend and may also directly harm humans. For example, it is not rational to introduce chemicals into the environment, including into products we use daily, that are either toxic or cause illnesses of various types. Yet there are over 80,000 chemicals used in the United States; few of them are tested for their effects on people or other species, and many commonly used ones are suspected to be carcinogens or have other detrimental effects.
Two weeks ago I returned from my fiftieth class reunion at Oberlin College in Ohio. The brief discussions I had there with environmental faculty and students left me feeling a bit dazed. So many good and intelligent people, so concerned, and doing what they think and hope will help heal the environment—this college has one of the best environmental education programs in the country. However, I was left disappointed and profoundly discouraged by the lack of discussion—or even interest in having a real continuing discussion and debate—regarding the root causes of our environmental disasters. Not just climate change, but also pollution of the air, water, soil, and living organisms, the loss of biodiversity both aboveground and in the soil, the extinction of species, and the overuse and misuse of both renewable and nonrenewable natural resources.
More than six years after the beginning of the Great Recession in the United States, and nearly five years since it was officially declared over in this country, the core economies of the capitalist world system remain crisis-ridden. The jobs lost in the downturn in the United States have not yet been fully recovered and the economy remains sluggish. In Europe the crisis has hardly abated at all and a number of the peripheral European Union countries are in what can only be called a depression—especially Greece, Spain, and Portugal. The last member of the triad of advanced capitalist centers, Japan, has gone through what have been called two “lost decades” of slow growth and deflation and is attempting once again to jump-start the economy through a combination of devaluation of the yen and deficit spending.
Modern capitalism, sociologist Max Weber famously observed early in the twentieth century, is based on “the rational capitalistic organization of (formally) free labor.” But the “rationality” of the system in this sphere, as Weber was to acknowledge elsewhere, was so restrictive as to be in reality “irrational.” Despite its formal freedom, labor under capitalism was substantively unfree.… This was in accordance with the argument advanced in Karl Marx’s Capital. Since the vast majority of individuals in the capitalist system are divorced from the means of production they have no other way to survive but to sell their labor power to those who own these means, that is, the capitalist class.… The result is a strong tendency to the polarization of income and wealth in society. The more the social productivity of labor grows the more it serves to promote the wealth and power of private capital, while at the same time increasing the relative poverty and economic dependency of the workers.
Land grabs—whether initiated by multinational corporations and private investment firms emanating from the capitalist core, sovereign wealth funds in the Middle East, or state entities such as China and India—are now in the news constantly. For example, in July 2013 the Colombian ambassador to the United States resigned over his participation in a legally questionable effort to help the U.S. corporation Cargill use shell companies to amass 130,000 acres of land. This land was supposed to be used for agricultural production, but there is also land being grabbed for other purposes—such as mining or to construct roads, buildings, and dams. In human terms, land grabs mean real people and families are dispossessed. When people lose access to their land, they also lose their means to obtain food, their communities, and their cultures.
Given [the] background of high unemployment, lower-wage jobs, and smaller portions of the pie going to workers, it should come as no surprise that, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 50 million people in the United States live in poverty (with income in 2011 below $23,021 for a family of four) while another 50 million live between the poverty level and twice the poverty level—one paycheck away from economic disaster. Thus, the poor (those in poverty or near poverty), most of whom belong to the working poor, account for approximately 100 million people, fully one-third of the entire U.S. population.… Wage repression and high unemployment are the dominant realities of our time. A vast redistribution of income—Robin Hood in reverse—is occurring that is boosting the share of income to capital, even in a stagnating economy. Is it any wonder, then, that for years on end polls have shown a majority of the population agreeing with the statement that the United States is on the wrong track and not headed in the right direction?
Within the current system, there are steps that can and should be taken to lessen the environmental problems associated with the limits of growth: the depletion of resource taps and the overflowing of waste sinks, both of which threaten the future of humanity.… [H]owever, …attempts to trace these problems, and particularly the problem of depletion natural resources, to population growth are generally misdirected. The economic causes of depletion are the issues that must be vigorously addressed (though population growth remains a secondary factor). The starting point for any meaningful attempt actually to solve these problems must begin with the mode of production and its unending quest for ever-higher amounts of capital accumulation regardless of social and environmental costs—with the negative results that a portion of society becomes fabulously rich while others remain poor and the environment is degraded at a planetary level.
When I consider the concept of harmony in the context of humans, their societies, and the environment I have a particular understanding of the concept. It refers to all people living together peacefully without exploitation of one person by another, each able to reach his or her full human potential, in a society in which everyone has their basic material and nonmaterial needs satisfied, feels secure, safe, happy, and fulfilled as human beings. In addition, the concept also implies harmony between people, the environment, and the other species we share the planet with.… [But] there is an overriding issue when considering harmony as I have briefly described it. Harmony in the world—among its people and between humans and the rest of the ecosystems—is not possible in the context of capitalism. Capitalism…has shown that it fosters interpersonal relations and metabolic interactions with the earth that are detrimental to achieving a harmonious existence.
I am a regular reader of Monthly Review. I read with interest the recent articles on ecology and Marxism…. It is true that Marx and Engels conceived that capitalism engenders a “metabolic rift” in nature and society. But both of them emphasized that the industrial growth that socialism would produce is beyond imagination under capitalism…. In the middle of the nineteenth century, it was impossible for Marx and Engels to envisage the ecological catastrophe that a constantly expanding industrial society can ensue.
Food is one of the most basic of human needs. Routine access to a balanced diet is essential for both growth and development of the young, as well as for general health throughout one’s life. Although food is mostly plentiful, malnutrition is still common. The contradiction between plentiful global food supplies and widespread malnutrition and hunger arises primarily from food being considered a commodity, just like any other.
The Great Recession in the United States, which lasted eighteen months, the longest downturn since the 1930s Depression, was declared over and done as of July 2009. The economy has been growing, albeit slowly, since then, and the output of goods and services (Gross Domestic Product or GDP) has returned to pre-recession levels. U.S. corporate profits have soared, and most of the big banks, after being bailed out, have been making piles of money. However, rising production and profits have not been accompanied by the return to work of millions of unemployed people, many of whom have been out of work for numerous months and have little prospect of future employment.… This essay will focus on the jobs disaster in the United States, although the problem is global. The United States is where the crisis began, and it is still the world’s richest and most powerful nation. What happens here has serious repercussions for everyone in the world. In addition, the disconnect between economic reality and the propaganda of recovery is greatest in the United States. So a close examination of what is happening in this country is instructive, not just for those of us who live here, but for those in the rest of the world as well.
Given the overwhelming harm being done to the world’s environment and to its people, it is essential today to consider how we might organize a truly ecological civilization—one that exists in harmony with natural systems—instead of trying to overwhelm and dominate nature. This is not just an ethical issue; it is essential for our survival as a species and the survival of many other species that we reverse the degradation of the earth’s life support systems that once provided dependable climate, clean air, clean water (fresh and ocean), bountiful oceans, and healthy and productive soils.… There are numerous ways to approach and think about the enormous harm that has been done to the environment. I will discuss the following: (1) the critical characteristics that underlie strong ecosystems; (2) why societies are not adequately implementing ecological approaches; and (3) how we might use characteristics of strong natural ecosystems as a framework to consider a future ecological civilization
The Great Financial Crisis began in the summer of 2007 and three years later, despite a putative “recovery,” it is still having profound effects in the United States, Europe, and in much of the world. Austerity is being forced on working people in many countries. Matters are especially difficult in Greece, a country that is being compelled by the demands of bankers, including the International Monetary Fund, to squeeze its workers in return for loans from abroad to help pay down government debts. Official unemployment in the United States is still around 10 percent, and real unemployment is much higher. An unprecedented 44 percent of the officially unemployed have been without work for over six months. A record number of people are receiving government food assistance as well as meals and groceries from charities. Many U.S. states and cities, facing large shortfalls in their budgets due to falling tax revenues, are cutting jobs and reducing funding for schools and social programs
For those concerned with the fate of the earth, the time has come to face facts: not simply the dire reality of climate change but also the pressing need for social-system change. The failure to arrive at a world climate agreement in Copenhagen in December 2009 was not simply an abdication of world leadership, as is often suggested, but had deeper roots in the inability of the capitalist system to address the accelerating threat to life on the planet. Knowledge of the nature and limits of capitalism, and the means of transcending it, has therefore become a matter of survival. In the words of Fidel Castro in December 2009: “Until very recently, the discussion [on the future of world society] revolved around the kind of society we would have. Today, the discussion centers on whether human society will survive.”
Today the capitalist economies of the world are in deep trouble. Some economists have theorized that the linkages between the United States and the rest of the world had been weakened as other nations gained more economic autonomy. A decoupling thesis was presented claiming that a crisis in one part of the system (say, North America) would not affect other major parts (say, Europe and Asia). We now know this is not true. Toxic assets were sold around the world, and banks in Europe, Asia, and Japan are in trouble too. Housing bubbles have burst in Ireland, Spain, and many other countries. In Eastern Europe, homes were bought with loans from Swiss, Austrian, and other European banks, payable in European currencies. As the economies of Hungary and other nations in the region, which financed their explosive growth with heavy borrowing from Western banks, have gone into recession, their currencies have suffered a sharp deterioration in exchange rates. This means that mortgage payments have risen sharply, as it now takes many more units of local currency to buy the Swiss francs or euros needed to pay the loans. In some cases, mortgage payments have doubled.