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Capitalism, our very own Death Star | The Triangle

Capitalism, our very own Death Star

A few years ago, a movie called “Melancholia” appeared that depicted the imminent death of Planet Earth from the approach of a rogue planet that had wandered into our solar system, and, like an evil twin, was headed straight for us. I don’t know how plausible the science is for that, but then, you don’t go to the movies for astronomy lessons. The point of the film was to show how its characters reacted to the prospect of sudden extinction. We all face personal extinction sooner or later, and, since genocide became popular in the last century, we’ve begun to have some experience of collective manmade extinctions as well. Some biologists have begun to speculate what the next dominant species on Earth might be after we render our planet uninhabitable for ourselves, and, of course, there is much talk about colonizing other worlds these days. The point about “Melancholia” is what happens when there’s no future at all and no way out; the death planet (itself lifeless) makes all escape impossible. It is Fate itself, in its most distilled and urgent form.
If such a scenario were real, what would be our response? Some might think we’d descend into an orgy of rape and looting, or line up for government-issued suicide pills as in the old Stanley Kramer film about nuclear annihilation, “On the Beach.” But I’ll bet our corporate masters would urge us to go out in a shopping spree. The last bottom line, after all, has to be a black one.
Our planet does in fact have a dark star, but it isn’t approaching us from outer space. It’s right here among us, sprung from us. It’s called capitalism, the insanely distorted form of labor extraction and market exchange that is now celebrated as our collective social destiny. It’s the giant heat engine that’s turning up the temperature of the globe, and spawning those once in a hundred or thousand year weather events that the past year, with a helping hand from a strong El Nino, have made the new normal. What 2015 has shown us is a preview of what awaits us a few years down the line. To be sure, the climate as such won’t kill us, though it may take a Black-Death-sized bite out of humanity’s soon-to-be unsustainable numbers. But the resource wars of the future that it will surely spawn could conceivably take us over the brink. The future, right now, looks like an unpleasant time to be in.
A German thinker, currently unfashionable, helped us understand the mess we were creating for ourselves, though he proved unduly optimistic about cleaning it up. A hundred and fifty years ago, Karl Marx patiently explained the distinction between use and commodity value for us, or the difference between goods produced for consumption in response to concrete human needs and those produced not for use but only sale and resale. The difference (although Marx didn’t have the analogy at hand, the internal combustion engine not yet having been invented) is between turning on a car ignition to go someplace and turning it on simply to let it run. Run an engine without moving it forward and you produce not motion (utility) but waste. In short order, the engine will stall. That is the simplest diagram of what a commodity economy looks like, and what it will do.
Of course, you might regard a perfect commodity economy as a contradiction in terms. Some of the things we produce we must certainly use; we all have to eat. But so-called commodity markets, based on pure financial speculation, approach this condition; and such markets have increasingly dominated the economy as a whole. They also, periodically, crash it.
Marx observed this in his own time, and the two consequences it invariably produced: capital concentration and mass immiseration. He also understood the revolution in technology that had made both the creation and control of a large urbanized workforce possible. Marx had no illusions about the agriculturally-based economy that had preceded industrial capitalism, or the elites that ruled it. But food is a product for use, however its price and availability may be manipulated, and those who produce it must also be allowed to consume it. Industrial capitalism alone had produced mass populations that could be considered superfluous, and therefore allowed to starve.
But as technology had enslaved man, so, Marx felt, it promised liberation as well. The machine offered abundance, and with it the prospect of release from the age-old round of toil that human survival, at least above the level of primitive society, had required, or, more properly, that had been exacted from it. The machine itself, however, first required liberation from its own bondage in the form of private capital. This would not come from gradual political reform through the liberal state, now as two centuries ago the fond illusion of its advocates. It would necessitate revolution. Fortunately, however, the means to achieve this were to hand: the very concentration by capital in the hands of a progressively smaller elite, both symbolized and concretely embodied in the factory, made an abrupt, radical, and final transfer of power possible.
Marx was concerned, reasonably enough, with the misery of human beings; he did not envision the misery of the planet itself. The appalling effects of early industrialization—poisoned rivers, polluted skies, stunted laborers and their children, and some of the worst mortality rates in human history—were apparent even to conservatives. But few were able to imagine the long-term consequences for the natural world itself, which capitalism had reconceived not as a nurturing if sometimes capricious mother but as a passive site for value extraction, much like human labor itself.
We know better now, to our cost. Nature has immense powers of recuperation, but they are not limitless, and if we force it into new paths it will take us on a very unpleasant journey. We know something, too, about technology. It is not fundamentally a set of processes or a sum of machines and gadgets, but a state of mind, an attitude toward ourselves and our surroundings, our being-in-the-world. We can’t, as Marx thought, liberate the machines by taking over the factory floor (the factories are no longer here in any case), because if we continue to use and power them in the same way, as instruments of rapacity, then they will finally own us and ruin the earth. You can do away with capitalists and still have capitalism, if you blindly import the capitalist mindset into the brave new world of revolution: this was the lesson of twentieth-century communism, which in Russia and China, wreaked some of the most extreme ecological devastation on the planet.
In this sense, Marx’s precursor Jean-Jacques Rousseau was more prescient, because he saw that the human problem was not simply a matter of material distribution and control but of issues fundamental to humanity as such. We aren’t going to solve the mess we’re making of the natural world by inventing better machines. We need more careful, mindful and cherishing human beings, and there’s no easy blueprint for that.
At the same time, the capitalists are all too much with us. Never before in history have so few commanded so much wealth and power worldwide, and never with so much arrogance and so little responsibility. Thinking ourselves through to a world we can still hope to live in will require our best attention; we cannot have it while mindless greed rules us and shapes our most intimate lives and thought. Our institutions, deformed by unaccountable power, are compromised and corrupt, and we need look no further than our farcical political season to see how far we have derogated from whatever fond hopes the founding fathers once had for their famous experiment. Fortunately, we still have good and wise and modest minds among us—Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein—and our survival instincts, we must hope, have not been warped beyond repair. But we must see clearly, and soon, the dark star that is approaching—that has, I mean, arisen from us. And we must disenthrall ourselves from it. This is the work we all have to do.