The Cooking the Books column from the April 2014 issue of the Socialist Standard
‘NOT EVEN CLIMATE CHANGE WILL KILL OFF CAPITALISM. AS LONG AS THE CONDITIONS FOR INVESTMENT AND PROFIT REMAIN, THE SYSTEM WILL ADAPT. WHICH IS WHY WE NEED A REVOLUTION.’ This is not a headline from the Socialist Standard but the introduction to an article in the Guardian (6 March) by Razmig Keucheyan which does indeed put forward an argument similar to ours about not expecting capitalism to collapse of its own accord, in this case from an ecological rather than an economic crisis.
Keucheyan wrote of ‘ a worryingly widespread belief in left-wing circles that capitalism will not survive the environmental crisis’ and went on:
‘ The system, so the story goes, has reached its absolute limits: without natural resources – oil among them – it can't function, and these resources are fast depleting; the growing number of ecological disasters will increase the cost of maintaining infrastructures to unsustainable levels; and the impact of a changing climate on food prices will induce riots that will make societies ungovernable. The beauty of catastrophism, today as in the past, is that if the system is to crumble under the weight of its own contradictions, the weakness of the left ceases to be a problem. The end of capitalism takes the form of suicide rather than murder. So the absence of a murderer – that is, an organised revolutionary movement – doesn't really matter any more.’
We can add that, supposing the environmental catastrophists were right and capitalism did collapse from an ecological crisis, the outcome would not be socialism. In the absence of a strong socialist movement the outcome would be a social regression to the sort of dystopia portrayed in disaster films. So, there would still be a need to build up a movement consciously aiming to replace capitalism with socialism. In fact it would be more urgent than it already is.
Keucheyan counters ecological catastrophism by arguing that capitalism can adapt to the environmental crisis to the extent that this opens up profit-making opportunities, giving as examples ‘militarisation’ (investment in producing arms to defend or acquire diminishing resources) and ‘financialisation’ (in particular insurance against catastrophes). Others, which he didn’t mention, would be investment in technologies to reduce CO2 emissions or in developing alternative energy sources to burning fossil fuels.
This is not to say that capitalism is capable of solving the environmental crisis, but merely that it will be able to adapt to it and make profits from attempts to mitigate it. Saying this can be interpreted as saying that capitalism is not as bad as the ‘catastrophists’ claim. To a certain extent this is true. Capitalist governments have intervened since its inception to prevent the unbridled pursuit of private profit from harming the general capitalist interest. A large section of Marx’s Capital is devoted to describing the struggle for Factory Acts which the government eventually adopted to prevent employers driving workers into the ground and so threatening future generations of wealth- and profit-producing workers.
A modern example would be the Clean Air Act of 1956 which ended London’s notorious smogs. So capitalism is capable of adapting to environmental problems, even if it waits till the last moment (when overall profitability is threatened) and risks doing too little too late. Not that this makes capitalism any more acceptable.
In any event, capitalism will not collapse of its own accord. It will have to be done to death by conscious, majority political action.