Crisis, workers, and the absurd capitalist fantasy of endless growth

I think this video is an important discussion to watch, and to think about. Michael Brooks and Professor Richard Wolff raise some important issues, and make some good points about what’s happening right now and what the future looks like.

A couple things I want to highlight. The first, as the title states, is the fantasy of endless growth. Capitalism has always been fueled by the expansion of capitalist enterprises into new territories. For the most part, that has been a physical expansion, and it generally comes with the displacement or destruction of people and of ecosystems that happen to be living where the capitalists want to make their money.

In “the West”, or at least in the United States, I think there has been a sort of comfortable illusion that the period of rapacious expansionism was over. The era of colonial empires ended, countries around the world got their independence, and we settled into the pipe dream of capitalist, liberal democracies as the final form of human political and economic endeavors – something that could, despite relying on endless growth, go on forever. If we did outgrow our planet, it would somehow happen after we had unlocked the key to easy space travel, so we could just expand out into the galaxy, rather than scouring our planet down to the bedrock before driving ourselves to extinction.

And it was a pipe dream. It was always a poisonous fantasy fed to us to cover up reality, for the benefit of the few at the top. The expansion never ended. The stories we heard about rain forest destruction were not, as I thought in my childhood, the result of people doing something else, somewhere else, with no real connection to me. Nor did my own decisions about whether to buy recycled paper products really matter. Those goalposts always shifted. Recycled paper became nearly ubiquitous, and the deforestation continued for different products. I think right now palm oil is the big one, but the pattern has always been consistent – the endless growth of capitalism is fueled by endless expansion and consumption of natural resources, of ecosystems, and in many ways of people.

It has been the endless hunt for new sources of oil and gas, and the myriad spills and leaks around the world. It’s been the destruction of whole mountains for the coal underneath them. It’s been the continued betrayal, relocation, and gradual genocide of our fellow humans in the various native American and other societies around the world. It’s been the encroachment of capitalist enterprise into the realms of public goods and services. It’s been the pollution of our air, our land, and our water.

And of course, it’s been the changing of the global climate.

Ursula K Le Guin once said, “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”

I think that’s a quote worth bearing in mind. The miasma of capitalism is ubiquitous. It’s part of nearly everything happening on the surface of this planet right now. It is also, however, built entirely on a foundation of fantasy, and of the denial of reality. It’s built on the myth that growth can continue infinitely on a finite world.

In this video, Wolff brings up another quote, also about the way societies change. Where Le Guin’s was given just a few years ago, in the context of modern capitalism, the quote Wolff shares is from roughly a century ago, during a struggle to overthrow that same divine right of kings. It’s a response to the question of why it seems to take so long to actually go about the business of building a revolution, and overthrowing the established order.

“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”

– Vladmir Lenin

The other key point in this video is that we are in a period of weeks in which decades happen. Workers around the world, and particularly in the United States, are becoming aware of their power in a way they have not been for a very long time, and are beginning to experiment with the use of that power. There is a scramble by those at the top to solidify their control, and it can be seen in the expansion of authoritarian strategies, and the desperation to force Americans back to work, despite the mass death we know would result from it. While people are fighting for their lives, and medical workers are fighting to save as many as possible, there is also a struggle for power going on, and it’s a struggle that needs to happen if we are to have any shot at building a better future.



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  1. cartomancer says

    This was recognised early on, by Marx himself and especially by early 20th Century Marxists like Hanna Arendt and Rosa Luxembourg. It’s exactly the same process of Primitive Accumulation that was responsible for the original establishment of Capitalism in England and across Europe through the displacement of the people from common lands and the seizure of landed wealth for a few. There’s a good podcast on the subject by David Harvey:

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