Why The Great Challenge of Now is Building a World, a Planet, and a Future Beyond Capitalism
Probably the most brilliant economist of his generation is Thomas Piketty. It’s not a coincidence he’s French, by the way. It’s a demonstration — that American economics failed, and how badly it did. I’ve been perusing reviews of his new book, and it strikes me as a necessary read. In it, Piketty echoes many of the points I’ve been making recently.
Let me try to crystallize them a little bit.
What’s the most urgent challenge of now? We live in an age of simultaneous catastrophes — what I often call the Big Five. Climate change. Mass extinction. Surging fascism. Inequality. Stagnation. Is it just a coincidence — so many cataclysms, all at once? Or is there a relationship?
Of course there’s a relationship. What links all these things is predatory capitalism. Capitalism, American-style, is the fundamental cause of the world’s Big Five Problems. It’s rules go like this. All that matters is profit. At any price, at any cost. As long as corporations maximize profit, a little bit more ever year, quarter, day — nothing else matters. It is the sole point of all life. Yes, really — that’s not an overstatement. Even if life on the planet dies — no big deal. “Profit” is maximized for “shareholders” who “own” the “corporations” that sell “consumers” stuff, and thereby, everyone is better off. As everyone grows richer, democracy and freedom are sure to follow.
There’s just one problem with the fairy tale of American capitalism setting the world free by making it rich. None of it ended up being true. It didn’t end up even being true for America — so how could it be true for the world?
A brief glance at America shows us what went wrong with American capitalism everywhere. Americans didn’t end up rich — they ended up poor, broke, and miserable. Incomes, savings, and life expectancy are all plummeting. Democracy is on its last legs. Americans are too weary and battered to do much about any of it. Capitalism broke America like a twig. But it did so to all the nations that bought into America’s capitalist system most heavily, too. China’s going technofascist. India’s turned hypernationalist. Britain’s committing a kind of spectacular suicide, throwing a huge tantrum and slashing its wrists. What the? Hardly the equation American economists predicted: riches, followed by democracy and freedom. Precisely the opposite is ensuing.
So what’s really happening here?
To understand it best, look at something seemingly completely, totally unrelated. The planet, and life on it. What’s happened to that? Well, take mass extinction. It follows a very specific, very special pattern. The most vulnerable things are being killed off first. The insects, the bees, the fish. As a result, ecosystems are beginning to run the risk of collapse, from the bottom up.
But the same is true for the planet. The glaciers are melting from the bottom. The reefs are being boiled to death. The rainforests are being logged to bits, and as the roots go, so does the soil. The very same pattern can be seen there, too. Systems collapsing from the bottom up.
It’s not just “as if” capitalism seems to hone in on the most defenceless, weakest, most vulnerable things, and exploits them so mercilessly, brutally, thoughtlessly, that they’re literally worked to death — that’s exactly what is happening.
Hence, the great pattern of this century: predatory collapse. Capitalism is has overexploited and overworked and overconsumed everything its come in contact with. The bees, the trees, the insects, the oceans, the rivers, the fish. You and me. Our kids futures. Our societies and their rights and freedoms. Democracy. Decency, truth, sanity, humanity. It’s chewed through all these things, and does so at an accelerating pace every day. It doesn’t care about replenishing or nurturing or nourishing anything. It just cares about exploiting the hardest, at the lowest possible cost, and charging the highest possible price. Bang! Profit’s maximized. The shareholders are happy — even if they’re just algorithms “owned” by hedge funds at this point.
Where else do we see predatory collapse? Think about how weird this is. It’s also exactly what’s happened socially, psychologically, and economically to us — not “just” to the planet, the climate, and the animals. In socioeconomic terms, predatory collapse means that rich have turned into the ultra rich…while the middle and working class has imploded and become the new poor. The economy has had its legs ripped off. The average American now dies in debt — that means that he or she never effectively owns, earns, or saves anything whatsoever. The average American is effectively something very much like a neo serf in a caste society of haves and have-nots. Of humans and subhumans — as in people without basic human rights, free to be mercilessly exploited — and in between, more and more a layer of algorithms and robots to separate the two.
(That same pattern is true in China and India, by the way. The “middle class” there isn’t rich in American terms, and its struggling to keep pace with vast increases in costs of living, and social upheavals from towns to new cities.)
Do you see how predatory collapse is the great unifying pattern of now? I want you to, very clearly. A term you’ll hear these days more and more is “civilizational collapse.” It’s true that the risks of it are increasing exponentially by the day. But the pattern is what’s special, and it can be seen everywhere in the world around us.Collapse from the bottom up. Bang! A catastrophic, sudden destabilization, fracture into chaos, implosion. The roots of things die, get ripped up, get torn apart — and so systems suddenly keel over, tip, stop, go into cardiac arrest and drop dead.
(In technical terms, we’d say: capital increases income to capital, not to labour. That’s it’s sole purpose, really. Unfortunately, we’re finding out the hard way today that “labour” really means everything from the planet to life on it to democracy to human rights. Even the bees and fish and insects are merely fodder to be exploited, things that work for free. Hence, capital income has skyrocketed over the past half century — the age of American capitalism — as you might expect; all while “labour income” has flatlined or fallen, which is a fancy way to say that nobody except capitalists have the money left to invest in the life, planet, democracy, or society. But the only thing they’re interested in is…even more money, by exploiting everything and everyone even harder. Hence…predatory collapse.)
Whether it’s our planet, life on it, our economies, our societies…the pattern capitalism leaves in its wake is exactly the same. The most vulnerable and defenseless things are preyed upon to the point of annihilation. Those things might be trees, insects, fish, bees. They might be human beings. They might be glaciers and reefs. The pattern is the point.
Capitalism creates predatory collapse. It isn’t able, in the end, to create real wealth, much less shared wealth. The gains of a global capitalist economy are going largely to a class of super rich, leaving middle and working classes to stagnate and suffer falling living standards. That, in turn, fuels extremism, climate change, and mass extinction — because a world that’s still so poor it can’t make ends meet can hardly then invest in a green and clean and healthy and free planet, with healthcare and education and income for every single child, for example. So when we subtract its costs to the planet, to life, to democracy, and to the future, from the paper “wealth” it has created — piling up money in a tiny number of hands — the genuine gains of capitalism are elusive at best .
(It doesn’t matter, by the way, how many American pundits cry foul about that. They can’t even create a society where elderly people don’t have to go into “medical bankruptcy.” Their definition of prosperity isn’t one any sane person should share.)
The greatest challenge of now is therefore moving beyond capitalism. As a global system, as a global economy. It’s a system that is causing predatory collapse…for every system in sight. Whether those systems are ecosystems or planetary systems or economic ones or social ones. They are all imploding because capitalism chews through their roots, and destabilizes them, leaving them teetering right on the edge of collapse.
Now let me come to Piketty. The theme of Piketty’s new book is much the above — and his conclusion is that it’s time to move beyond capitalism. I don’t know if he’d agree with my language or framing — his focus is much more on policies, and mine a little bit more on the big picture. But we agree, I think, on the basics: capitalism is obsolete, it hasn’t worked as a global economy, and the most urgent challenge of now is moving beyond it.
If we can’t, we will go on having predatory collapses — just, harder, faster, stronger. Predatory collapse will accelerate and exponentiate, grow more furious and rapid and destabilizing — until and unless the global economy isn’t just American style capitalism, chewing up everything in its path, from the planet to life to democracy to the future…to maximize profits for the 0.1% of the richest 1% of people on earth. What does that mean in hard terms? It means a global economy in which wealth is reinvested right back in the most vulnerable things that capitalism has exploited to annihilation — whether ecosystems, oceans, rivers, animals, middle classes, democracies, and so on.
Going beyond capitalism means this: reversing the pattern of predatory collapse that is ushering in something very much like a new dark age. If we don’t reverse that pattern now, soon enough — within this decade, probably — it will become irreversible, whether for the planet, for life on it, for democracy, for global peace, or even this idea of civilization itself.
(Now, when Piketty alludes to all that, when I say it in my own terms — I rest under no illusions that my own people — English-speakers, whether Brits, Americans, or even Australians — will be capable of really understanding it. Frenchies, Euros, Canadians, gentle New Zealanders? Sure. But us Anglos? Forget it. We’re the dummies of the world — and we’re furiously committed to our folly a little more each day. But that is very much the point.)
Remember when I said American economics had failed? It took a French economist to explain to American pundits and thinkers just how ruinous capitalism has really been as a global economic system. And they still don’t really get it very much. They can’t — their paychecks depend on them not getting it, after all. So the irony is this. The fates of English speaking societies today — America and Britain — are an object lesson in the astonishingly spectacular failure of capitalism. Unable to invest in themselves — overwhelmed by crackpot ideology, a thinking class that can’t think anymore, and badly broken theories of political economy — they can’t undo the jaws of the trap of predatory collapse that have closed around them.
There is no other way to undo predatory collapse than to invest in the bottoms of systems ripped apart by capitalism — whether those systems are the planet, life on it, our stagnant societies, or our democracies. Investing to replenish mass extinction, stagnation, inequality, climate change, extremism is how they are undone. Otherwise, they will continue to spiral out of control, until societies become America or Britain. Torn apart, no matter how rich and powerful they might be.
And we only have a decade or so to undo predatory collapse now, or else it becomes irreversible. Predatory collapse is swifter and more lethal than anyone believes. A decade ago, would you have predicted America and Britain would end up like this? And yet here they are. These two societies drop the jaws of the rest of the world. Nobody can quite believe Americans let their kids get shot at schools, and make their elders go without insulin and basic medicine. Nobody can quite believe the Brits are throwing a tantrum so huge it’s suicidal…all to make the world pay attention to them again, to feel strong and powerful. Nobody can believe what these societies let themselves become. Weren’t they the ones to admire, to want to become, not so long ago? Yet here they are. And nobody wants to become them now. Whoosh! A decade or so. That is all it takes for a predatory collapse to bite.
Not every nation will get the future right. This is an age in which even the mightiest can fall — blink! — like that. It’s prime exemplars today are America and Britain. They teach us what predatory collapse is. What it does. How savagely it bites, and strong its jaws are.
Has the world learned that lesson yet?
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