Anthropocene Capitalism

In a deep and original study of the Anthropocene Era – “The Shock of the Anthropocene” – two French academics, Bonneuil and Fressoz spell out three phases of this new geological era:

  1. 1750-1950 Thermo-Industrial Revolution that saw the exploitation  of cheap fossil energy raising atmospheric CO2 emissions above the 277 ppm at the end of the climatically stable Holocene lasting around 12000 years during which human civilisations flourished. by 1950 CO2 global levels were at 311 ppm.
  2. 1950-2000 The Great Acceleration during which exponential growth of human population and industrial impact based on cheap energy multiplied enormously leading to CO2 levels of 380 ppm.
  3. 2000-present Tipping Point Phase in which CO2 levels in 2016 exceeded 400 ppm and points of no return (to long-term environmental sustainablity) across at least three planetary boundaries are evident.

The chilling conclusion that humankind has pushed the planet beyond the limits that will lead to the collapse of stable civilised human societies is elaborated further in Wolfgang Streeck’s “How Will Capitalism End?”  This is a brilliant book that deserves to be widely read. Irrespective of the environmental limits to economic expansion, Streeck sets out the instabilities within capitalism and the erosion of democratic checks on runaway growth that will lead to the breakdown of the global economic system in due course.

Here is a summary of some of the key ideas in Streeck’s analysis provided by David M. James (my highlighting):

Capitalism is permanently unstable and in a state of flux [a point generally forgotten and denied by the dominant “general equilibrium theory”]. Given its inherent tensions and contradictions, capitalism’s success has been dependent on the timely appearance of a new technological paradigm or the development of social needs and values complementing the changing requirements of continued economic growth.

One of the current problems for capitalism is how to convert insecure workers into confident consumers. Following the replacement of the working class by technology, the same is now happening to the middle class by information technology, undermining the very carriers of neo-capitalist and neoliberal lifestyle (careerism-cum-consumerism). There is nothing left to prevent the accelerated displacement of labour.

“OECD capitalism” has been on a crisis trajectory since the 1970s, with three major trends: declining growth, growing inequality and rising debt. These trends are mutually reinforcing. We are entering a period of “deep indeterminacy and multi-morbidity”. For the decline of capitalism to continue no revolutionary alternative is required.

The neoliberal social order results in “under-socialised individualism”, making people liable to be drawn into “repressive-identitarian collectivism”. There has been a gradual erosion of the post-war “standard model of democracy”, in part a consequence of “de-nationalisation” (globalisation) and neoliberalism. The new elites have accepted lower growth because they’ve benefitted from higher profits (the system has been restructured to achieve this) and growing inequality. Democracy has become irrelevant to the political economy, leading to the birth of “post-democracy” (decision-making being removed from the political arena altogether). “Now states are located in markets rather than markets in states”. The global financial industry’s provision of liquidity establishes control over national governments.

We are entering an “Interregnum”: capitalism is disintegrating from within, with no successor approaching, and the incumbent management is clueless about how to restore stability. Equally the opposition has no idea how to replace it. The end is a process not an event, marked by proliferating and irresolvable crises. Individual resilience in the system (adaptability to the conditions of neoliberalism) undermines collective resistance to it. Networks of “users” replace communities of citizens (= also part of “post-democracy”).

The 4 behaviours of “users” in the entropic system: coping, hoping, doping and shopping. Optimism underpins the system, impeding political radicalisation and collective action. Pessimism is labelled as a socially harmful personal deficiency. The crisis of capitalism is so pervasive that it affects the whole social order and way of life “dependent on the uninterrupted progress of private capital accumulation”.

Capitalism and democracy were compatible for only a short period: the 30 years after WW2, an era of economic growth within national economies facing a common external threat (communism). Capitalism’s success was always dependent on countervailing forces (trade unions, an interventionist state, regulation) that limited it, but those forces have been more or less destroyed by neoliberalism.

The large-scale migration from politics to markets has hollowed out the public sphere, undermining public interest in politics, such that whatever political interest or activity remains tends to be not for but against something.

The “European consolidation state” is forcing national economies and democracies to be “market-conforming” (Merkel’s phrase). The politics of the consolidation state protects markets from the vagaries of democratic politics, imposing a permanent austerity regime. Europeanisation today is identical with a systematic emptying of national democracies of political economic content. “Where there are still democratic institutions in Europe, there is no economic governance any more … and where there is economic governance, democracy is elsewhere.” There is a regime of “authoritarian liberalism” throughout the EU’s institutions, especially the European Council (and the Finance Minister’s group), the ECJ and the ECB.

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