21 Oct 2009
Writing in the 1930s when Nazi barbarism was in the rise, the Marxist philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin said: “Marx says that revolutions are the locomotives of world history. But the situation may be quite different. Perhaps revolutions are not the train ride, but the human race grabbing for the emergency brake.”
That’s a powerful metaphor, one that brilliantly sums up the task facing us in the twenty-first century. Capitalism is driving at break-neck speed towards a precipice, towards an ecological catastrophe of unequalled proportions. The science is clear — business as usual is not an option. If nothing is done, then even the most optimistic best-case scenarios predict massive death and destruction.
There is no higher calling, no more important cause for you to devote your lives to, than taking control of the train and slamming on the brakes.
We know what the problem is. We know what needs to be done. So why do our rulers seem determined to leave our children and theirs a world of poisoned air and water, a world of floods and droughts and escalating climate disasters? Why have they repeatedly sabotaged even half-hearted measures to cut greenhouse gas emissions?
When they do consider or implement responses to the climate crisis, why do they always support solutions that do not work, that cannot possibly work?
Karl Marx had a wonderful phrase for the bosses and their agents — the big shareholders and executives and top managers and the politicians they own — a phrase that explains why they invariably act against the present and future interests of humanity. These people, he said, are “personifications of capital” — their social role is that of capital in human form.
They don’t act to stop climate change because the changes needed by the people of this world are directly contrary to the needs of capital.
Capital has no conscience. Capital has no children. Capital has only one imperative: it has to grow.
The only reason for using money to buy stock, launch a corporation, build a factory or drill an oil well is to get more money back than you invested. That doesn’t always happen, of course — some investments fail to produce profits, and, as we are seeing today, periodically the entire system goes into freefall, wiping out jobs and livelihoods and destroying capital. But that doesn’t contradict the fact that the potential for profit, to make capital grow, is a defining feature of capitalism. Without it, the system would rapidly collapse.
As Joel Kovel says, “Capitalism can no more survive limits on growth than a person can live without breathing.”
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