in an exchange over at turbulence it was briefly asked how the ecological crisis can be understood as it specifically relates to the current neoliberal epoch of capitalism.  it’s an important question.  different aspects of both the capitalist and ecological crisis would have to be used to explain each other on a case by case, or issue by issue basis.

Loren Goldner offers an explanation of neoliberalism that includes an ecological dimension.  he describes the form of ecological devastation during the present era as part of the need for what he calls “looting,” or primitive accumulation.  currently, the claims to wealth by the capitalists exceed the actual amount of wealth in the world.  so, along with wages and public infrastructure, the environment is being looted to make up for that lack of real wealth.

Goldner argues that this is a contraction of social reproduction, which means that capitalism is cannibalizing its means to expand its ability to create real wealth.  instead of real wealth, the stock market and other speculative financial measures create what Goldner calls “fictitious capital.”

As of the end of 2005, there was  $33 trillion in outstanding debt (Federal, state, local, corporate, personal) in the U.S. economy, three times GDP. (No one knows how much is tied up in the international hedge funds and derivatives, and the estimated $7-8 trillion in Federal debt does not include trillions more in commitments for Social Security and Medicare.)  The state (including Federal, state and local levels) consumes 40% of GDP. The net U.S. debt abroad is between $3 and $4 trillion (at least $11 trillion held by foreigners minus $8 trillion in U.S. assets abroad) i.e. it is comparable (at 30% of GDP) to the situation of crisis-ridden Third World countries.  That amount is growing by $800 billion a year at current rates. Ominously, in late 2005, foreign income from investment in the U.S. exceeded U.S. income from overseas investment (the one remaining strong pillar of the U.S. international position) for the first time. Foreigners hold an increasing percent of U.S. government debt; the four major Asian central banks (Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan) alone hold nearly $2 trillion.  It is the Federal government’s debt, and hence these foreign loans, which make possible the reflationary actions of the Federal Reserve Bank. Since the early 1980’s, a kind of  “financial arbitrage capitalism”, in which investment in increasingly focused on different possible financial instruments instead of production, has been put in place.  Thus the old conceptualization of the role of the banking system and the Fed’s (apparent) ability to expand and contract credit availability through it,  is superseded;  increasing amounts of “virtual” credit are created by “securitized finance” independent of banks. One must also consider the government-linked entities (Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae), which backed the reflation of mortgages of the past 4 years, leading to an incredible housing bubble. This entire edifice has depended on 1) low inflation in the U.S., as higher inflation would scare off foreign lenders; 2) the willingness of U.S,  “consumers” to go more and more heavily into debt (with debt service now taking 14% of incomes, as opposed to 11% a few years ago) 3) the willingness and ability and above all the need of foreigners to go on re-lending U.S. balance-of-payments deficits back to the U.S., allowing increasingly indebted U.S. “consumers” to be the “locomotive” of the world economy […]

Accumulation is threatened because the totality of capitalist paper claims to wealth (profit, interest and ground rent), starting with the $3-4 trillion “nomad dollars” held outside the U.S.,  exceed the surplus value available for their valorization. This excess of fictitious claims is, as sketched above, the result of decades of debt pyramiding aimed at delaying a deflationary crisis, and can be maintained only by reducing the global wage and through “primitive accumulation” (non-reproduction or non-exchange) from incorporating petty producers from Third World agriculture into the global working class, the running down of capital plant and infrastructure, and the looting of nature. It is quite different from earlier, “normal” capitalist expansions in which these claims grow alongside the expanded reproduction of society. Today, capitalist paper expands and social reproduction contracts.

this is why:

The early 1970’s crisis erupted, as mentioned, at the end of a period of rising working-class insurgency. Underneath all appearances, this crisis expressed the superannuation of value as a form through which society could reproduce itself. In the proletarian eruption in Europe and the U.S. from the mid-1960’s (wildcat movement in the U.S. and the U.K.) to the mid-1970’s (Italy, Portugal, Spain) by way of May 1968 in France, the working class (as well as other social strata) were groping toward the “full development of activity itself” made possible and necessary by the previous development of capitalism. The capitalists, on the other hand, needed to oversee a general devalorization of capital and of labor power such that a new expansion could begin on a profitable basis. In contrast to the first phase of capitalist history (1815-1914) this could not occur through a rapid deflation, depression and recovery. Global society was TOO productive for the value form, and hence not merely capitalist paper but actual productive forces, and above all labor power, had to be destroyed and rolled back, as had occurred in the 1914-1945 transition from British-centered to America-centered world accumulation. The emergence of the “neo-liberal” phase of capitalism in the late 1970’s was the attempt to protect the capitalist titles to profit, interest and ground rent from excessive devalorization through the global “Ponzi scheme” described previously, and at the same time to oversee a “slow-motion crash landing” in the grinding down of working-class living standards globally.

i don’t think this necessarily limits ecological devastation to the era of neoliberalism, but it offers important insights into the current crisis, and into the particularities behind what went down in Copenhagen such as the financial scheme of cap-and-trade, and the role of China, the biggest holder of US debt.

it also points to the fact that, if capital absolutely needs to loot the environment, there are almost no possibilities for reform under the current political and economic constellation of capital.  it’s a question of what is possible, and what is not.  this lends toward the position that the Green New Deal, or any form of ‘green’ capitalism is out of the realm of possibility.  what Copenhagen demonstrated is that under the current system of capitalist exploitation and accumulation, the environment is not a barrier.  on the contrary, it’s a ‘free input,’ an easy way to accrue profits and stave off collapse.

with this in mind, not only will green capitalism continue to destroy the natural world, but it’s a fantasy of the pathetic state of social democracy in the world today who imagine that they are stronger than they actually are.  we see this in the way some groups in the US delude themselves into thinking they can push Obama to the left.

the same is true for a number of Left parties in Europe, who, after vowing never to work with neoliberal parties, have done just that.  in Greece, the Socialist Party came to power after massive strikes and street demonstrations brought down the conservative, neoliberal government, but the economic limitations and demands of neoliberalism — in addition to the fact that the Socialist Party represents only the left wing of capital — have forced the Socialist Party to implement a new round of neoliberal austerity measures and structural adjustment programs.

i’m only beginning to see the implications of this for the anti-capitalist green left.  arguments for a green capitalism will have to be collapsed and debunked, no doubt.  but i’m not sure if it’s the debate we should be concerning ourselves with today.  making this debate a centerpiece of our strategy, for the moment, is only responding to the politics of delusion.  certainly, in our organizing we’ll need to be able to respond to folks who are still thinking through the issue and might be considering the possibilities of a green capitalism.

but i guess it still leaves open the questions:  what’s the program?  what’s the strategy?

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