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Can civilization survive capitalism?

Can civilization survive capitalism?


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By Noam Chomsky

The system is highly monopolized, limiting dependence on the market more and more: In the last 20 years the profit sharing of the 200 largest companies has risen enormously, reports academic Robert W. McChesney in his new book Digital disconnect. Capitalism is a term commonly used now to describe systems in which there are no capitalists; for example, the cooperative-conglomerate Mondragón in the Basque region of Spain or cooperative companies expanding into northern Ohio, often with conservative support - both are discussed in an important paper by scholar Gar Alperovitz. Some may even use the term capitalism to refer to the industrial democracy endorsed by John Dewey, America's leading social philosopher, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Dewey urged workers to be the masters of their industrial destiny and all institutions to submit to public control, including the means of production, exchange, advertising, transportation and communication. In the absence of this, Dewey argued, politics will remain the shadow that big business casts over society. The truncated democracy that Dewey condemned has been in tatters in recent years. Now government control has been narrowly concentrated on the top of the income index, while the vast majority of those below have been virtually disenfranchised.

The current political-economic system is a form of plutocracy that strongly diverges from democracy, if by that concept we mean political arrangements in which the norm is significantly influenced by the public will. There have been serious debates over the years about whether capitalism is compatible with democracy. If we follow that capitalist democracy really exists (DCRE for short), the question is rightly answered: They are radically incompatible. It seems to me unlikely that civilization can survive the DCRE and the highly attenuated democracy that it entails. But could a functioning democracy make a difference? Let's follow the most critical immediate problem facing civilization: an environmental catastrophe. Public policies and attitudes diverge markedly, as is often the case under DCRE. The nature of the gap is examined in several articles in the current edition of the Deadalus, newspaper of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Researcher Kelly Sims Gallagher finds that 109 countries have enacted some form of policy related to renewable energy, and 118 countries have set targets for renewable energy. In contrast, the United States has not adopted any consistent and stable policy at the national level to support the use of renewable energy. It is not public opinion that motivates US politics to stay off the international spectrum. Quite the opposite. Opinion is much closer to the global norm than US government policies reflect, and much more supportive of the actions needed to confront the likely environmental disaster predicted by an overwhelming scientific consensus - and one that is not too far off; affecting the lives of our grandchildren, most likely. As Jon A. Krosnik and Bo MacInnis report in Daedalus: Vast majorities have favored steps taken by the federal government to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emissions generated by electricity producing companies. In 2006, 86 percent of those surveyed favored requesting these companies or supporting them with tax exemptions to reduce the amount of that gas they emit ... Also in that year, 87 percent favored tax exemptions for companies that produce more electricity from water, wind or solar energy. These majorities were maintained between 2006 and 2010, and somehow later they were reduced. The fact that the public is influenced by science is deeply troubling to those who dominate the economy and state politics. A current illustration of their concern is the teaching on the environmental improvement law, proposed to state legislators by the Council of American Legislative Exchange (CILE), a corporate fund lobbying group that designates legislation to meet the needs of the corporate sector. and extreme wealth. The CILE Act mandates balanced teaching of climate science in K-12 classrooms. Balanced teaching is a code phrase that refers to teaching climate change denial, balancing the stream of climate science. It is analogous to the balanced teaching supported by creationists to make the teaching of creation science possible in public schools. Legislation based on CILE models has already been introduced in several states.


Of course, all of this has been clothed in rhetoric about the teaching of critical thinking - a great idea, no doubt, but it is easier to think of good examples than a topic that threatens our survival and has been selected for its importance in terms of corporate earnings. Media reports commonly feature controversy between two sides on climate change. One side consists of the overwhelming majority of scientists, global national scientific academies, professional scientific journals, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). They agree that global warming is happening, that there is a substantial human component, that the situation is serious and perhaps fatal, and that very soon, perhaps in decades, the world may reach a tipping point where the process escalates. quickly and is irreversible, with severe social and economic effects. Such a consensus is rare in complex scientific matters. The other side consists of the skeptics, including a few respected scientists - who note that much is still unknown - which means that things may not be as bad as thought, or they could be worse. Outside of the artificial debate is a much larger group of skeptics: highly regarded climate scientists who view the regular reports of the PICC as overly conservative. And, unfortunately, these scientists have repeatedly been proven correct. Apparently, the propaganda campaign has had some effect on public opinion in the United States, which is more skeptical than the global norm. But the effect is not significant enough to satisfy the gentlemen.

Presumably that is the reason why sectors of the corporate world have launched their attack on the educational system, in an effort to counter the dangerous public tendency to heed the conclusions of scientific research. At the Republican National Committee (RICNR) Winter Meeting a few weeks ago, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal warned the leadership that we have to stop being the stupid party. We have to stop insulting the intelligence of the voters. Within the DCRE system it is extremely important that we become the stupid nation, not fooled by science and rationality, in the interests of the short-term profits of the lords of the economy and the political system, and to hell with the consequences. These commitments are deeply rooted in the fundamentalist market doctrines that are preached within DCRE, although they are followed in a highly selective manner, to sustain a powerful state that serves wealth and power.

Official doctrines suffer from a number of known market inefficiencies, including failure to take into account the effects on others in market transactions. The consequences of these exteriorities can be substantial. The actual financial crisis is an illustration. It is partly traceable to large banks and investment firms by ignoring systemic risk - the possibility that the whole system could collapse - when they conducted risky transactions. The environmental catastrophe is much more serious: The externality that is being ignored is the future of the species. And there is nowhere to run, cap in hand, for a rescue. In the future historians (if there are any left) will look back on this curious spectacle that took shape in the early 21st century. For the first time in human history humans are facing the significant prospect of severe calamity as a result of their actions - actions that are hitting our prospect of decent survival. Those historians will observe that the richest and most powerful country in history, enjoying incomparable advantages, is leading the effort to increase the likelihood of disaster. Leading the effort to preserve the conditions in which our immediate descendants can have a decent life are the so-called primitive societies: First Nations, tribes, indigenous, aborigines. Countries with large and influential indigenous populations are well on their way to preserving the planet. Countries that have driven indigenous populations to extinction or extreme marginalization are rushing toward destruction. That is why Ecuador, with its large indigenous population, is seeking help from rich countries to allow it to conserve its vast oil reserves underground, which is where they should be. Meanwhile, the United States and Canada are looking to burn fossil fuels, including dangerous Canadian tar sands, and do so as quickly and completely as possible, while praising the wonders of a century of (totally meaningless) energy independence without looking askance at what it would be the world after this commitment to self-destruction. This observation generalizes: Around the world indigenous societies are fighting to protect what they sometimes call the rights of nature, while the civilized and sophisticated scoff at this nonsense. This is the exact opposite of what rationality would presage - unless it is the skewed form of reason that passes through the DCRE filter.

(Noam Chomsky's new book is Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S. Empire. Conversations with David Barsamian)

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