Book Review from the February 2011 issue of the Socialist Standard
A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilization … and how to save it . By Nafeez Mosaddeq Ahmed: Pluto Press, 2010, £19.99
The author is an Executive Director of an ‘independent’ think-tank, working within the sphere of International Relations theory. He has written a very interesting and useful book, but it’s not always an easy read. The subject matter is dense, and there is an immense amount of material packed into its 300 pages.
Ahmed argues that a conjunction of crises is facing humanity, comprising a massive threat to modern industrial civilisation. The crises are global warming, energy scarcity, food insecurity, economic instability, international terrorism, and the tendency towards an erosion of democratic rights. What he stresses and successfully demonstrates is how the various crises are interconnected, and make worldwide systemic change to humanity’s political economy not just desirable, but inevitable. He also rightly insists that these global crises are not aberrations but are actually “integral to the ideology, structure and logic of the global political economy”. As such, they can not be solved by either minor or major policy reforms “but only by drastic reconfiguration of the system itself”.
There is certainly plenty for socialists to agree upon in this urgent and appropriately alarming book. Ahmed advocates a radical extension of democracy, with a need to localise and decentralise political power, the need for sustainability and balance in our relationship to the environment, and a consequent rejection of the values of rampant consumerism. Many of the suggestions outlined for future social organisation are also useful and necessary, but the question arises as to what type of system they should take place in.
In stating that he is using a “Political Marxist Framework”, the author contends that “global crises are generated directly by the operation and structure of the global system” with its untrammelled pursuit of profit. However, a problem arises with his emphasis on ‘neoliberal capitalism’. This description is fair enough when referring to a specific phase of development within global capitalism, but it seems it’s not capitalism in its entirety that he rejects, despite his desire to see it radically restructured.
Ahmed does say we need to “fundamentally reconfigure the relationship between labour and capital,” but not to the extent of eradicating private ownership of the means of production. Instead, he argues that it should be massively extended “to facilitate universal access … by all individuals and communities” (original emphasis). If there is to be ‘universal access’, why retain private ownership? Work – labour – is a social activity; and if all own, then none do. It’s better, therefore, to end the system of ‘production for profit’ and all the paraphernalia of the class-divided system.
To be fair, he does describe his solutions as a “tentative template”, and insists that we all need to be involved in developing responses to our problems. The issue remains of what direction a “post-carbon revolution” will take. The danger is of a continuing and refined super-exploitative society dominated by the interests of a small minority, but a more hopeful scenario is also put forward of large grassroots movements emerging worldwide to push humanity in a more equitable direction. This book provides plenty of reasons why the task of building a political movement for socialism is more urgent than ever.