Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Myths of Capitalism (continued): The Inside Solution Fallacy

In the face of ecological and environmental challenges, which I don't think I need to enumerate here, I've often heard people make an assumption: at some point, they say, people will have to "wake up," and bring about some kind of change from the bottom up. I've even somewhat flippantly supported this premise, that if people "vote with their dollars" that, within the framework of capitalism, if the vote comes from a majority, it'll force a shift of priorities and may be the only way for a capitalist state to maintain cogency in the face of declining resources (material and human) that cannot support a never-ending increase in profits, even with the addition of technological advance in the mix. I even once wondered if this was an underlying element of the Obama administration, though in light of actions taken since he has taken office, I can only see it as a part of the narrative of the administration, rather than the reality- though this could be due to external political, economical, or social pressures.

Be that as it may, having spent many hours thinking about this, I've been wondering if the underlying premise is flawed. We may be able to generate cultural reform from within the system in the way that counterculture attempts- and more rarely, succeeds at doing. But this does not extend nearly so far as we'd like. Consider instead the idea that the ecological and economic pressures are already intensifying, the destratification is already underway, though we have a hard time seeing it because even rapid change in a historic sense may still seem slow to our eyes. What's the result of these pressures? Depression. Wild hope. Fear. Panic. In that order, the hoi polloi may become more pliable, not less. All of these things make people easier to manipulate, not less. We do see anger and outrage, embodied, for instance, by the exaggerated posturing of the Teabaggers, but it seems fairly impotent in terms of enacting the kind of change that would actually bring our culture back into alignment. The new slaves don't build pyramids, they work in Walmart and Mcdonalds. It is a mistake to assume that at some point mistreated, underpayed peasants will inevitably rise up in arms. For thousands of years civilizations such as the Egyptians build their empire on the back of a workforce living little better than their livestock. This has been, if anything, the norm rather than the exception over the past 3000 years.

We may also want to look at the history of the rise of Capitalism to understand the seed of its undoing:
Capitalism is a system that is committed to an unbounded increase in production in the name of an unbounded increase in profits. Production, however, cannot be increased in an unbounded way. Freed from the restraints of despots and paupers, capitalist entrepreneurs still have to confront the restraints of nature. The profitability of production cannot expand indefinitely. Any increase in the quantity of soil, water, minerals or plants put into  a particular production process per unit of time constitutes intensification. It has been the intention of this book to show that intensification inevitably leads to declining efficiencies. That declining efficiencies have adverse effects upon the average standard of living cannot be doubted. (Cannibals and Kings, Harris.) 
This follows from Harris' general thesis, that the processes of human history shows groups and even civilizations following a certain pattern of production which, if population is not kept in check through internal or external means, results in a forced movement to another method of production which often has a decreasing effect on the standard of living. In plentiful times, effective hunter gatherers have to put in far fewer hours per day than farmers, who have to invest their energies into the entire life cycle of the plants that they are harvesting, as well as deal with the repercussions of the strain that may put on the environment as population increases.

My point being that the argument that the ills that capitalism produces will inevitably outweigh the boons, and that it may be unlikely that a transition to a different method of production can occur from within that same system. If history has anything to say about this, it simply cannot. What history cannot show us is the results of production on the scale that it is presently in place, nor on the effects of globally intertwined civilizations and economies. But it may not be very hard to guess... it certain stands to reason that this is one of the reasons why the apocalypse myth has so forcefully become the zeitgeist of our age, even as capitalism tries to pull a profit out of that.

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