Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

Capitalism, calling a spade a spade

Today I had the privilege of listening to two of the best conference keynote addresses I have heard at an international conference for a long time. They formed part of the same plenary session, here at Dublin City University in Ireland, where members are gathered for the annual conference of the International Association for Media and Communications Research (IAMCR). In all, it has been a wonderful experience here in Dublin, and I must admit I feel more than just a little envious of the Irish, having listened to the Irish president, Michael D Higgins, deliver his conference opening address two days ago — what a thing to be proud of: A state president who is an intellectual of the highest calibre, and can meet some of the world’s leading intellectuals attending this conference on equal terms. In this respect he reminded me of Vaclav Havel of the Czech Republic.

Professor Higgins (who used to teach sociology) spoke on the conference theme — “Crises, ‘Creative Destruction’ and the Global Power and Communication Orders” — and left no doubt in one’s mind that he is an academic turned politician who not only understands the global (dis-)balance of power better than most world leaders, but is prepared to do what is within his capabilities to address in a creative and ethically responsible manner (he used to be the minister for arts and culture, under whose leadership a set of unique policy reforms were carried out). That he is under no illusion about the current nexus of global power, nor of the superficiality of its self-understanding, is apparent in his remark (in the course of his address), that while Karl Marx had used the notion of “creative destruction” (borrowed from him by conservative economist Schumpeter) to articulate the logic of capital in a finely nuanced manner, among the current power-merchants the meaning of the phrase has degenerated to mean “downsizing”.

To return to today’s keynote addresses: they were delivered by two intellectuals, both of whom are well-known among communication theorists, as well as a wider community of scholars. The fact that the first one, John Bellamy Foster, was invited to be a keynote speaker at a media and communications conference already speaks volumes about his notoriety, for he is first and foremost professor of sociology at the University of Oregon in the US. Richard Maxwell, the other keynote speaker in this session, seemed, on the face of it, to belong more properly at this conference, given that he is professor of media studies at Queens College, City University of New York. Their theme for the session was: “A ‘three-legged stool’? Environmental and economic crises and the strategic implications for the role, content and practices of mediated communication.”

Maxwell disabused the audience of a number of falsely held beliefs, one of them being that electronic equipment such as laptops like the one on which I am working at present, as well as mobile phones, iPads and tablets, are environment-neutral. Sadly, they are not; we concentrate on their use, which may seem innocuous, but their manufacture is hugely problematical as far as climate change goes. Even just using these devices across the globe takes huge amounts of electricity, in its turn requiring the manufacture of batteries as well as (mostly still) coal-fired electricity generation. We are all unavoidably complicit in this. Moreover, Maxwell remarked on the notion of “cloud computing”, which is being touted (by Google, among others) as an alternative to data storage on one’s own devices or in server data banks. This would entail storing all one’s data in (or on) a data “cloud” maintained by Google and other such companies. (Needless to say, after the recent revelations about Google’s collaboration with the Prism snooping programme in the US, falling for this “cloud” concept would allow spy agencies even more direct access to private communications and other files.) Maxwell left one in no doubt that the very idea of democracy, as well as the planetary life-sustaining natural environment, was under threat today.

Foster, who is just as much an economist as a sociologist, brought the IAMCR delegates an even stronger message. He connected the growing ecological crisis with the latest phase of capitalist development in ways that revealed his intimate knowledge of economics as well as of the degraded state of the global ecosystem. I don’t have a copy of his address — he was speaking off the cuff anyway — but the following excerpt from his recent book (with Brett Clark and Richard York), titled The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (p6) captures succinctly what he said.

“The ecological rift referred to in the title of this book is the rift between humanity and nature. The world is really one indivisible whole. The rift that threatens today to tear apart and destroy that whole is a product of artificial divisions within humanity, alienating us from the material-natural conditions of our existence and from succeeding generations. Our argument, in brief, is that a deep chasm has opened up in the metabolic relation between human beings and nature — a metabolism that is the basis of life itself. The source of this unparalleled crisis is the capitalist society in which we live.

“Ironically, most analyses of the environmental problem today are concerned less with saving the planet or life or humanity than saving capitalism — the system at the root of our environmental problems. As Derrick Jensen and Aric McBay cogently write in What We Leave Behind, we live in a culture in which there is an ‘inversion of what is real and not real,’ where ‘dying oceans and dioxin in every mother’s breast milk’ are considered less real than ‘industrial capitalism’. Hence, we are constantly led to believe that ‘the end of the world is less to be feared than the end of industrial capitalism … when most people in this culture ask, ‘How can we stop global warming?’ that’s not really what they are asking. They’re asking, ‘How can we stop global warming without significantly changing this lifestyle [or deathstyle, as some call it] that is causing global warming in the first place?’ The answer is that you can’t. It’s a stupid, absurd, and insane question.”

Strong words, and all indications at this conference have been that voices are getting stronger all the time in their condemnation of capitalism.

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