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The Future as Transformation

by Birgit Mahnkopf Monday, Jan. 29, 2018 at 12:28 PM

There is no future with present-day capitalism. Capitalism stands for a movement of endless profit-making. Only a radical breach with the capitalist accumulation dynamic can nurture the hope of a reasonably tolerable future for human civilization on this planet.


There is no future with present-day capitalism

By Birgit Mahnkopf

This article published in Luxemburg 2/2015 is translated from the German on the Internet, Birgit Mahnkopf is a professor of European social policy in Berlin.]

We are presently not only in a structural or "systemic crisis" of capitalism as a world economic system. No way can lead back to the growth constellation before the outbreak of the 2007/2008 financial and economic crisis. At the same time, we find ourselves in a profound crisis of capitalism as a world-ecological system, a crisis that for the first time in history links the future of all persons living on the planet.

Capitalism is not only a global economic system that in its modern form – as a production system – is based on private property and paid labor, on a pressure of accumulation and growth and on the separation of politics and the economy. Simultaneously, it is a specific and historically unique form of the transformation of materials and energy into useful goods and services through human labor. Its metabolism rests on the development and plundering of all renewable and non-renewable "free services of nature" (Marx) and on the completely irresponsible filling of natural depressions (or sinks) for solid, liquid and gaseous materials that remain and are treated as "waste" after their use in production and services.

In capitalism, the inner and outer nature of persons become objectd of economic exploitation sooner or later. This includes incursions into the biological realities of life like changing whole landscapes, the destruction of countless species, and the change of the world climate. Much has been discussed on the left about the causes, forms and momentous consequences of the socioeconomic crisis of capitalism. The dynamic of the ecological crisis of capitalism is still treated as a secondary problem. However, why capitalism as a world-ecological system has no future should be clear. Only a radical breach with the capitalist accumulation dynamic can nurture the hope of a reasonably tolerable future for human civilization on this planet.

Capitalism stands for a movement of endless profit-making. Its driving force sweeps away the old rule relations in the past, replaces staid technology with new and more flexible technology and thereby brings many easements and improvements of everyday life. Again and again, capitalism was strengthened and emerged rejuvenated out of the crisis of its accumulation dynamic. Why couldn't this also be true in the future? Couldn't the stuttering economic engine in western industrial countries be stimulated by massive investments in resource-saving new technologies increasing efficiency, through information-based services and "smart" infrastructures – financed by enormous public-private partnership projects between global financial capital and public funding sources? The "green economy" is a rewarding business. That is the promise of the IMF, the World Bank, the OECD, UN organizations like UNCTAD and UNEF, the European Commission and countless think tanks and lobby organizations of transnational corporations and Green parties. The German government also expects an improvement of urban infrastructures and recycling techniques from a low-coal energy supply and from bio-refineries utilizing CO2 as a carbon fuel source so "the environment," "the climate" or even "the planet" will be saved.

Climate change is not avoidable anymore today even if its cumulative effects are first expected in the middle of the millennium. The higher CO2 concentrations and the subsequent global warming mark a planetary limit whose exceeding could lead to a collapse of complex eco-systems. The nitrogen cycle and the loss of diversity of species are also in the red. The planetary limits are very near with the hyper-acidity of the oceans and in global fresh-water consumption as well as in changes of land use. In the new report of the Club of Rome, Jurgen Randers makes a global prediction for the coming 40 years. His prognosis is depressing because the "war against the planet" (Bardi) will continue in the first half of the century. The world after 2050 will land in the dangerous path of self-reinforcing global warming. "Everyone, particularly the poor, will live in a world increasingly marked by chaos and climate damage," Randers warns. Only "a miracle" could ensure that human civilization will be "in a desirable and stable situation" by the end of the century.

But can we expect such a turn from capitalism? What is "new" in capitalism is controlled by the infinite movement of capital. The capital investment for the sake of profit must increasingly return to the investor…

Thus the future is planned as an extension of the present. Capital investors are mainly conservative and hardly open to the new. The future should raise more money tomorrow on the basis of what is conceivable today and not really give rise to anything categorically new… What appears tomorrow as new is what promises a high return on capital today.

If a technology, a piece of nature, a group of persons or some cultural artifact does not promise a little more income or return on capital in the near future, it will probably not be developed, produced, preserved or protected in capitalism. Gunther Anders described this peculiarity of capitalism as the "presentation of the future." We could even speak of a "colonization of the future by the present." Therefore, whoever wants another future than what the omnipresence of capitalism allows should really hope a "miracle" brings human civilization into a halfway desirable and stable situation at the end of this century.

But there are only miracles in fairy-tales. In banal reality, politics must help the unlikely to breakthrough. One prerequisite is the immediate and radical exit from the coal-based energy foundation of modern industrial capitalism – before reaching the tipping points of the bio-physical systems…

To contain climate change, 80 percent of known reserves in fossil fuels should remain in the ground. In the US, this amounts to 92%, in the EU 78% of all coal reserves and around two-thirds in China and India. Large parts of the oil reserves in the Middle East, as well as 60% of gas reserves, must stay in the ground. Unconventionally produced oil whose production in North America works like an economic engine for the world economy and production in the Arctic would be completely taboo (cf. Ekins/ McGlade 2015).

The interests of the coal-, oil-, natural gas- petrochemical and auto-industries and energy suppliers dependent on these industrial branches stand in the way. Their representatives will do everything to prevent the fast and extensive transformation in energy, agriculture, transportation and production required in the next two to three decades. Their arguments are heard again and again. A "good life within the burden limits of our planet" – according to the new report of the European Environmental Agency (EEA) – will only be possible if the very profitable fossil energy is replaced by renewable energy and energy needs altogether are reduced. However, three-quarters of the energy consumed in the EU are still produced with fossil fuel.

Not much will change in the foreseeable future. For the next 20 years – and these are crucial years for avoiding the worst case – the EEA only expects negative developments regarding greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the extent of energy consumption and the use of fossil fuel.

The "war against the planet" cannot be stopped with a mix of half-hearted production of renewable energy, accelerated technological change, and appeals for changing consumption and lifestyles. As long as production is expanded as in the auto-industry, scale-effects of growth will consume efficiency gains through new, resource-sparing technical procedures or substitute materials. This has been thematicized for many years under the term rebound-effects. However, financial capital plays a decisive braking role in "ecological restructuring." Credits or investment capital must be made available for the desired change. This would inevitably put pressure on productive capital… However, financial capital only pursues short-term interests in the profitability of invested capital. Therefore, risk-adverse investments have priority over investments in technologies necessary for a radical paradigmatic change of production structures. Financial capital is not only necessary for the ecological transformation of the existing industry infrastructures but also for building many labor-intensive services (in transformation, health, information technology and tourism). These produce fewer CO2 emissions but need much fixed capital for building the necessary infrastructures.

Wind- and solar energy also require a considerable material input for their production. They need special raw materials that cannot be substituted and are also sought for other projects. This forces up both the consumption and the costs of extraction of many of these materials identified as strategic by the EU. These materials scarce in the geopolitical sense are only produced in an energy-intensive way and are very hard to recycle and decompose…

In the developed industrial countries of the OECD world, the vision of a "green capitalism" fulfills an important ideological function. It promises to bridge the chasm between unlimited pretentious thinking (in the form of profit or consumption) and the physical finiteness of resources and sinks through technical innovations. This is a dangerous illusion because it legitimates the postponement of political decisions that must be made today to avert the collapse of the eco-systems before reaching the tipping point.

The social and economic systems also inevitably fall under pressure at the tipping points of the eco-systems. Woe to the one without increasing adaptability to the changes that change inevitably brings – and if this elasticity of the social systems and the readiness and capacity of people to react to shocks do not skyrocket. Many people in countries of the global South may be better prepared for this challenge than people in developed industrial countries who can hardly conceive a life beyond "always the same time" and "more and more of the same."

Social advances in the sense of protecting and expanding political, social and industrial civil rights and participation of all citizens in the community in "public affairs" holds societies together. However, advances do not result as unintentional side-effects of increased production, profit, and consumption. Advances will only be possible when people can imagine the future as something fundamentally new and different than an extended and improved capitalism.

No one can predict what forces will initiate the "great change" – whether plights, catastrophes or wars will decide the balance or whether the change will be reason-guided and triggered by the many little experiments and initiatives existing everywhere in the world today.

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