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The Term ‘Capitalism’ Has Lost Its Radical Edge

To the Editors,

In the June 2014 issue of Monthly Review, the “Notes from the Editors” included criticism of a recent article of mine and an ad hominem argument that I have abandoned my earlier political views since becoming a senior fellow at the Breakthrough Institute which the editors falsely label as “the leading big money, anti-green, pro-nuclear think tank in the United States.” Suffice it to say that senior fellow is an unpaid position and that Breakthrough’s leaders are committed environmentalists who think that nuclear power is needed to avert a climate disaster and to provide the developing world with an alternative to continuing energy poverty.

In reading me out of the left, are the editors embracing the sectarian view that the U.S. would be better off with a community of left intellectuals that was smaller but ideologically more reliable? I hope not, but that could well be the result when journals try to excommunicate those with whom they disagree.

Yes, I have argued that the term “capitalism” has lost its radical edge and is now owned by the right and works to reinforce support for the status quo. This is hardly the first time that a word has been deliberately appropriated by a group and given a new meaning. The Black Power movement took a negative term and gave it an entirely new political valence as did Queer activists. But if the Left can do it, so can the Right. Right-wing intellectuals in the 1960’s and 1970’s very self-consciously took a term that had historically belonged to the Left and infused it with new meanings.

Marx began his work with the critique of political economy to show what was wrong with the arguments made by the Classical Economists. When one critiques contemporary political economy, it is striking how many mainstream thinkers use the idea of capitalism to defend corporate power, environmental destruction, and the extreme concentration of wealth. Surely the left must be willing to critique even those terms that have been central to our own tradition.

Sincerely,
Fred Block
Berkeley, California

The Editors Reply

In relation to the issue of the Breakthrough Institute, which Fred Block raises here, the recent work of its founders, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, alleges that the environmental movement (and even the scientific consensus) is guilty of irresponsible “alarmism.” They argue that technology via such means as nuclear power, “clean” coal, and geoengineering can resolve the entire climate problem on a purely capitalist basis, allowing for unlimited economic growth—what they call the “post-environmentalist” solution.*

Our readers can determine for themselves what to make of the view that the idea of “capitalism” is now “owned by the right” and should therefore be abandoned.

Footnote

  1. *See, for example, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberg, “Global Warming Scare Tactics,” New York Times, April 9, 2014; “The Death of Environmentalism,” The Breakthrough Institute, February 25, 2011, http://thebreakthrough.org; John Horgan, “Killing Environmentalism to Save It: Two Greens Call for ‘Postenvironmentalism, December 26, 2011, http://blogs.scientificamerican.com.
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