Book Review from the December 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
Green Capitalism. Manufacturing Scarcity in an Age of Abundance. By James Heartfield. www.heartfield.org .2008
James Heartfield is associated with the former Trotskyist (British) Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) which used to publish Living Marxism (LM) and has moved on considerably since “the collapse of Communism” at the end of the 1980’s and the dissolution of the formal RCP organisation in 1997. These days the so-called “LM network” produces the edgy www.spiked-online.com website and organises debates and events under the auspices of the Institute of Ideas and a myriad of propaganda campaigns expedited largely through a robust, sometimes entertaining, and not ineffective style of media entryism.
One area this current has been particularly interested in over the last two decades is in promoting a full-on critique of the reactionary imperatives of the politics of “Environmentalism”. In Green Capitalism James Heartfield reminds us that the profit system is essentially a system of rationing, which is now, in certain circles and in a variety of ways, being dressed up as “greenwashing” by Big Business and Governments – as the contemporary ruling elites reinvent scarcity in an age of abundance.
Heartfield rightly presents the capitalist mode of production as an epoch in which the force of human ingenuity has sought to ameliorate the exigencies of life through technical breakthrough with the result that happiness is the condition for most of us in Western societies. I do, however, take issue with the notion that one out of any of the 300 workers at the Lombe silk works on the Derwent in 1721 or the 5000 wage slaves at Arkwright’s Mill in Cromford in 1771 woke up for work every day with a sense of unmitigated joy. Whilst those long deceased exploited workers are no longer “variable Capital”, my modern-day neighbours don’t seem to enthuse much about the conditions of their means of living whilst having a sup on a Friday night in the local pub, either. Nevertheless, the material gains we have made in the interim between the first factories and 21st century capitalism are impressive.
In a summation of capitalist economics Heartfield tackles the neo-classical economists and suggests they were in effect “Rationers by Trade“ (my phrase not his) but you get the point. Notwithstanding that, the book opens with a great sense of optimism and opines succinctly upon the gains made by the working class under capitalism. The author explains carefully the concomitant progressive and destructive forces at play within the profit system and hints at transcending towards a more rational form of society founded upon technological progress.
This work sets out to show how modern Environmentalism came about as a consequence of ruling elites ideas about scarcity. Heartfield‘s argument is that, in Western society, the myth of the “fragile” planet emerged as a consequence of the retreat from production in the original heartlands of industrial capitalism.
Much of the Green Capitalism provides an excellent exposition of the fools’ errand of “Environmentalism” and the levers of power behind that aspect of the moribund profit system. Meanwhile, at times the prose is poor and plodding, and some of the referencing is both points-scoring and unnecessary to make the more essential issue clear. Do we really need to be lectured about Trotsky’s ideas on production? Some of this stuff would leave the general reader all at sea in very short order. Whilst a final extraordinary point is clearly made: the world population grew from 791 million in 1750 to 5.9 billion in 1999, as a consequence of advances in agriculture, transport, sanitation, industry. Many of that number exist at the level of subsistence – and it should not be that way! So, from an editorial perspective the narrative simply peters out – a bang and a whimper! Where is the alternative?
Notwithstanding that, this book has much to recommend it, not least for cocking a timely snook at both the modern-day misanthropes who see mankind as a plague upon the planet and the long-dead ‘dismal scientists’ of neo-classical economics who could not comprehend a theory of productive growth through collective endeavour. Heartfield puts a well aimed, populist boot into the modern-day Green Capitalists – Branson, Goldsmith, Charles Windsor, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Lord (Peter) Melchett, and makes reasoned argument that Western Capitalism has got to go Green for the sake of exploiting new sources of profit.
There is an argument that modern socialists need to take on the Green catastrophists and promote technology and real democracy to face down the spectre of Austerity Capitalism in the 21st Century - in order to kill the pernicious profit system once and for all.
-Andy P. Davies