SOME AT the heart of global capitalism recognise that their system threatens disaster. A World Bank report last week warned that if things continue as now the world will be ‘confronted by dysfunctional cities, dwindling water supplies, more inequality and conflict’.
It argued that the atmosphere’s ‘capacity to absorb carbon dioxide without altering temperatures has been compromised because of heavy reliance on fossil fuels for energy’. The system ‘simply cannot be sustained on current production and consumption patterns’, admits the bank. ‘A major transformation is needed,’ it concludes.
Yet the bank, and the governments and businesses whose interests it represents, refuse to implement change. They argue that the only answer is more of the neo-liberal policies and subordination of the world to big business which have caused the crisis. This contradiction is not some insane conspiracy. It flows from the logic at the heart of global capitalism.
Those at the top of that system are unable to change course, even when they see the logic of their system driving the world towards disaster. In some cases those at the heads of giant firms, governments or global institutions can see no further than the immediate chase for markets and profits.
This stupidity can lead them to pursue actions aimed at short term gain. These undermine the very long term viability of their own profit making and the stability of the world in which they operate. To see examples of such people you need look no further than those around US president George W Bush.
But there are some at the top of capitalism who are more intelligent. They understand that capitalism can create extremes of wealth and poverty, and fuel bitterness which can erupt in ways which can threaten their future operations. They also recognise that capitalism can damage the environment, and has been responsible for climate change which could threaten the sustainability of their system.
The head of the oil company BP, Sir John Browne, is an example. He recognises the real threat, and the causes, of global warming. Browne has delivered serious lectures on environmental themes, and makes great play of BP’s investment in renewable energy. Yet BP is the world’s single biggest seller of petrol, and is set to expand further.
After a series of mergers and acquisitions last year its production of oil and gas leapt by 55 percent, its oil and gas reserves by 190 percent.
This gulf between rhetoric and practice comes from the pressures which every capitalist firm is subject to. John Browne himself says that the bottom line is, ‘increasing sales, increasing margins and reducing costs’.
His firm is in competition with other oil firms for markets and profits. It has to maximise profits to satisfy those who own shares in the firm – mainly giant investment institutions. If BP fails to do this those investors will threaten to move their money to rival firms.
Those at the head of capitalist firms are compelled, on ‘pain of extinction’ as Karl Marx put it, to follow the logic of capitalism. They can change this or that aspect of their operations, or sometimes agree to take action which may hit immediate profits to help ensure future profit making. But there are real limits on this process. Capitalists can, of course, spot a market opportunity to make profit by, say, investment in renewable energy.
But they are subject to the central drive to make profit which ultimately overrides all else. This logic means capitalists press governments and global institutions to pursue policies which are aimed at helping that process, and block action which may challenge it. To secure the kind of change needed means a fundamental challenge to the system. Activists in the anti-capitalist movement who argue for such a challenge, for building more protests aimed at capitalism, its institutions and its summits are right.
And this is why those within the movement tempted to see the way forward as winning the ear of those at the top of the system are misguided. But if the kind of challenge to the system that is needed is to be successful, it will take more than demonstrations.
That movement must link with the one force in society that has the power to successfully challenge the enormous power of global capitalism. That force is the billions of people who do all the work the system depends on, and suffer the daily exploitation and misery capitalism brings. They create all the wealth and profit the system depends on, and have the power to wrest it from those who control it now.
There is hope for a sustainable future for the world and its people. It lies with linking the spirit of the anti-capitalist movement with the power and struggles of the global working class into a movement which can effect the fundamental change – a revolution – needed.
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