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Is capitalism destroying our planet? (2)

Throughout this paper* I have used the term “capital” broadly in accordance with Marxist usage to denote the process by which money (as signifier of capital) endlessly reproduces itself, that is, the dynamism at the heart of this process. “Capitalism”, on the other hand, is the mode of social being, or kind of society which is established through the economic functioning of capital, that is, a society which values everything reductively in terms of money as principle of exchange. The result is that “use value” is replaced by “exchange value” (see Kovel 2002: 5-8; 38-48; 51-58).

Moreover, because this paper is not intended as a defence of Marx’s, or a Marxian, understanding of capital and of capitalism in narrowly economic terms against other, post-Marx interpretations of the more strictly economic aspects of Marx’s philosophy (or theory), it moves unapologetically within the sphere of a broad Marxian understanding of capital and capitalism. After all, Marx’s critique of capitalism is considerably more than mere economic theory — it also, importantly, equips one (now, as then) with the conceptual means to render an ideological (or ideology-) critique of capitalism, as the work of numerous thinkers (including Adorno, Horkheimer, Benjamin, Hardt and Negri, as well as Kovel) evinces.

I should stress, once again, that it is not my purpose here to engage in a debate with economists or economistically-minded individuals about the adequacy of Marx’s or (neo-)Marxists’ interpretation(s) of capital and capitalism. While I believe that Marx was substantially right about capital and capitalism (as characterised in this paper), I recognise that this will always be a subject of philosophical debate, and nothing is cast in positivistic stone. This makes any positivistic claims about Marx having been proved “wrong” about certain things, once and for all, ludicrous, of course — different interpretations and assessments of Marxism and of capitalism belong primarily in the realm of philosophical debate. And, given the fact that the manifestations of capitalism in society change historically, this is likely to remain so.

The question prompted by the claim that capitalism is today the culprit regarding eco-degradation, is obviously: what about socialism, or communism, for that matter — is their record regarding the environment and ecology any better? The answer is, of course, that it is not, and for several reasons, one of which is that these ideologies and their socio-economic configurations have always formed part of the “logic” of modernity with its emphasis on science and technology (including industrialisation). Joel Kovel (2002: 198-212; 222-232) argues that what should therefore replace capitalism — the ecodestructive character of which is discussed in this paper — is not any of the socialisms (or communism) of the past, but a distinctly new kind, namely “ecosocialism”. But whatever the case may be, it is the unbridled expansionism and accumulation at the heart of capitalism — regardless of the cost to nature or humanity — that singles it out as nature’s enemy number one.

It is probably the case that capitalism as a way of life is so familiar and commonsensical to most people in the developed world — and increasingly in the developing world — that any argument to the effect that capitalism is in the process of destroying nature (and concomitantly the very ground of organic life on earth, including that of humans) would strike them as being absurd. And yet, it seems to me that this conclusion is increasingly unavoidable in the face of massive evidence to that effect. In a publication that must surely rank as being among the most persuasive in this respect, Joel Kovel (2002) sets out to demonstrate at length that it is capitalism as a way of life which is the “culprit” when it comes to the destruction of the environment and the fundamental undermining of the functioning of terrestrial ecosystems. How is this possible?

Kovel (2002: 17) makes the important distinction between the environment — “a set of things outside us, with no essential structure” — and an ecology as “a whole defined by internal relations”. It follows that boundaries between different ecologies are “sites of active transformation” (ie they unavoidably affect one another) — an important consideration for understanding the effect of capitalist expansion on natural and social ecologies. He reminds one (2002: 3) at the outset of the sobering fact that, more than 30 years ago, increasing concern about geo-ecology resulted in a new politics, manifested as the first “Earth Day” on April 22 1970. Remarkably, the so-called (capitalist) “elites” added their weight to this movement in the guise of the “Club of Rome”, which later published a manifesto entitled “The limits to growth”.

Sadly, not only has nothing come of such an exhortation to limit the “growth” that is inseparable from capital, but the effects of the unbridled growth that has taken place since the early 1970s are there for everyone to take note of (and a shocking list they comprise; see Kovel 2002: 3-5; National Geographic, September 2004). More alarmingly (and tellingly), today ” … even the idea of limiting growth has been banished from official discourse” (Kovel 2002: 5). Kovel continues (p5):

“Further, it has been proved decisively that the internal logic of the present system translates ‘growth’ into increasing wealth for the few and increasing misery for the many … ’growth’ so conceived means the destruction of the natural foundation of civilisation. If the world were a living organism, then any sensible observer would conclude that this ‘growth’ is a cancer that, if not somehow treated, means the destruction of human society, and even raises the question of the extinction of our species. A simple extrapolation tells us as much, once we learn that the growth is uncontrollable. The details are important and interesting, but less so than the chief conclusion — that irresistible growth, and the evident fact that this growth destabilises and breaks down the natural ground necessary for human [and non-human; B.O.] existence, means, in the plainest terms, that we are doomed under the present social order, and that we had better change it as soon as possible if we are to survive.”

*Excerpt from my paper: Nature, capitalism, and the future of humankind. South African Journal of Philosophy (SAJP) 24 (2), pp.121-135, 2005.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.