George Monbiot: not exactly anti-capitalist

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George Monbiot, who writes a regular column for The Guardian on the looming ecological catastrophe, is a very passionate investigative journalist. He has produced innumerable carefully researched exposés of the cynicism, avarice, and mendacity of the corporations and governments who – whether they brazenly deny climate science outright or coat themselves in green credentials – are the principal agents of global environmental destruction. For a long time he has tried to find the root causes of the whole problem in the economic model that reigns throughout the planet, railing against various forms or aspects of the capitalist economy. But recently, he appears to have taken a step to the left:

“For most of my adult life I’ve railed against ‘corporate capitalism’, ‘consumer capitalism’ and ‘crony capitalism’. It took me a long time to see that the problem is not the adjective but the noun. While some people have rejected capitalism gladly and swiftly, I’ve done so slowly and reluctantly. Part of the reason was that I could see no clear alternative: unlike some anti-capitalists, I have never been an enthusiast for state communism. I was also inhibited by its religious status. To say ‘capitalism is failing’ in the 21st century is like saying ‘God is dead’ in the 19th: it is secular blasphemy. It requires a degree of self-confidence I did not possess.

But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to recognise two things. First, that it is the system, rather than any variant of the system, that drives us inexorably towards disaster. Second, that you do not have to produce a definitive alternative to say that capitalism is failing. The statement stands in its own right. But it also demands another, and different, effort to develop a new system”[1].

Monbiot accepts that there are two elements of capitalism which are inherent to the system and which are utterly inimical to maintaining a sustainable environment: the drive towards perpetual growth, and the institution of private property, which allows you to do what you want with the land and nature as long as you have enough money to buy it. He also explains that his lack of enthusiasm for “state communism” derives from the fact that “Soviet communism had more in common with capitalism than the advocates of either system would care to admit. Both systems are (or were) obsessed with generating economic growth” 

Of course Monbiot is right that the problem is not this or that form of capitalism but the system itself. The drive to perpetual growth and expansion is the drive to accumulate capital – extracting surplus value from your workforce, producing for the market to realise your profit, then reinvesting to expand your enterprise and outdo the competition. This is not some by-product of the system, it is the system, and anyone who follows a no-growth model of capitalism is doomed to extinction. Similarly, the system can’t be separated from private property, from competition between separate enterprises, even if the older model of individual ownership has to a large extent been superseded by ownership by faceless corporations or nation states, some of them claiming to be “socialist”.

Monbiot humbly tells us that he has no ready answers to the problem but is making inquiries into the work of ecological thinkers like Jeremy Lent, Naomi Klein and Amitav Ghosh, and in particular the “doughnut economics” of Kate Raworth. But while the latter’s  model seeks to factor social justice and ecological consequences into an overall economic diagram, it is telling that Monbiot himself considers that Raworth is “the John Maynard Keynes of the 21st century[2]. But Keynes was the perfect example of someone who tried to find a way of preserving capitalism while lopping off its worst bits (in his case, the crisis of overproduction in particular); and none of the authors that Monbiot recommends, for all the insights they offer us, are able to go beyond the confines of capitalism when it comes to proposing an alternative society. 

Monbiot’s anti-capitalism (which is increasingly shared by august institutions like the IMF who are getting very concerned about the growing gulf between rich and poor) shows how hard it is to pronounce the God of capitalism to be dead, to make a real break from its ideological grip.

And yet the real alternative is, at one level, childishly simple: if the problem is a system that can’t help but invade the very last corner of the planet, the alternative is to suppress the whole spiral of accumulation by attacking it at its roots: the system of wage labour and generalised commodity production, replacing it with production for direct use. If capitalism equals the privatisation of the planet then private property in land, resources and the means of production needs to be got rid of, whether in its individual, corporate or state form.

In other words, the alternative is communism. Not Monbiot’s contradiction in terms, “state communism”, but a stateless world human community. To make this small step in thinking would seem to be uncomplicated, but in fact it means putting into question the entirety of bourgeois politics and economics and recognising the necessity for a proletarian revolution, because the present rulers of the earth are certainly not going to give up their private property without a fight. 

Amos,  23.5.19