Opinionista Jeff Rudin 10 February 2015

Capping capitalism – The need for democratic control

Sitting alongside the worldwide official recognition of the urgent climate change need to cut greenhouse gas emissions is its opposite: the frantic need for even more (carbon-based) energy to boost Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and create jobs in a world sinking with the weight of the jobless. These conflicting needs are seldom recognised: although joined together like Siamese twins, recognition of the one is (normally) a condition for the invisibility of the other. The bizarreness of this simultaneous seeing and blindness is policy incoherence at its most egregious.

In South Africa, the need for a huge increase in energy is a received truth. The reality of power cuts, together with the constant fear of ‘load-shedding’ and the harsh realities of huge and continuing increases in the cost of electricity, have made all of us aware of what is supposed to be our crisis of energy poverty.

It is, indeed, this awareness that makes it easy for the government to say that we just have to have new nuclear power stations to keep the lights on.

Climate change, and its imperative to reduce greenhouse gas, has no proper reality in the discourse dominated by the stampede for more and more energy.

Proponents of the Green Economy, unlike most people, usually acknowledge the conflict between carbon-based energy and climate change. But, in so far as they look critically at energy needs taken as given, they seldom go beyond how we, as individuals, use – or misuse – energy. Left unasked is the much bigger question: who decides – and on what basis – which specific products should be made in the face of the low carbon imperative of climate change?

Climate change (and its related crises of resource and water depletion amongst others) demands much more than renewable energy. Climate change demands that energy demands must be radically reduced to ensure that at least 80% of the known fossil fuel reserves (excluding non-conventional sources) remain untouched underground. Contrary to frequent fears, this radical reduction can be achieved, as will be seen, without having to return to the darkness of the world before electricity or the general impoverishments of life before machinery and mechanised transport.

The understandable fear that climate change means reversing technological progress cloaks deep-seated and long-standing class privileges. Large numbers of people living in the modern world are without personal experience of modern world or, at best, experience modernity only infrequently or intermittently. This is the ‘economy of exclusion’, as it is being called.

Adaptations that reinforce privilege

Exclusions from the modern world are the lived reality of probably more than half of South Africa’s population. The danger of the climate change adaptations so readily advocated throughout the world as rational acclimatisations to changes that cannot be stopped is that they are built on the status quo and, in that way, reinforce the inequalities that have become normalised.

Water provides an immediate example. The most likely adaptation to water scarcity, which climate change is increasingly making worse, would be to restrict the provision of domestic water to its current statutory minimum. This amount, however, is some four times less than what a basic minimum should be, according to research by the South African Municipal Workers Union.

The challenge is that, while addressing the dire need to reduce carbon-based energy, we simultaneously need to increase – or, ideally, redirect – energy to provide everyone with the basics of modern life. For starters:

  • Electricity – 23% of South Africa’s households have no electricity
  • Slums – 13.65% of the South African population officially live in slums. (Even providing eco-friendly houses requires large amount of energy; as do the lighting, streets, ablution facilities and other infrastructures of modern group living.)
  • RDP Housing – some three million houses were built during 1994-2013, when neither ceilings nor gutters for rain water harvesting were required. (A large amount of energy will be needed to bring these houses up to 21st century standards, even using the most energy efficient processes and materials.)
  • Housing backlog – stands at 2.1 million in 2013, an increase of 17%, according to official figures and substantially higher according to other specialists
  • Energy poverty – approximately 43% of our population is classified as energy poor.

The best of both worlds: energy sufficiency & modernity

Contrary to popular perceptions, reversing climate change does not mean returning to a pre-industrial way of life. Renewable energy offers a future that is still based on electricity and the services and machines it powers

In the meantime, there is no need for still more carbon-based electricity (this includes gas and oil besides South Africa’s main polluter, coal). Immediately available energy efficiency and conservation measures combined with a rational allocation of existing power for socially determined and democratically agreed purposes obviate the need for additional climate-unfriendly or dangerous energy supplies. But this depends on…

Capping Capitalism

South Africa’s political economy, like those worldwide, is one whose health is directly measured by the productivity of the waste it is compelled to generate in the process of maximising profit. Most of what is produced has a life-span designed to be as short as possible; much rests on the manufacture of either hedonistic needs or self-evidently artificial ones. Bottled water – in conditions when safe and considerably cheaper tap water is readily available – stands supreme as an example of an artificial need.

The Need for Democratic Control

The inherent anarchy of capitalism’s ‘free market’ is now imperilling the future of our very species. Reforming capitalism is thus a climate change imperative. Only the wilfully blind would, when confronted by climate change, deny the need to critically assess the social, ecological and other environmental impacts of each particular product and its promotion and distribution throughout its entire life-cycle. These fundamental issues lie outside traditional concepts of democracy and are left instead to each business and investor to decide by and for themselves. They alone make these life-shaping and climate change-determining decisions, even though they are driven primarily by the dictates of their own profit. For instance, (despite some limited regulatory restraints) car manufacturers decide such essentials as the type, size, weight and speed of their cars; variables that determine the energy intensity of their manufacture and carbon-spewing of their running.

This market freedom is no longer compatible with the challenges of climate change. Climate change demands the deepening of democracy by allowing a much louder social voice.

Examples of actions we should be demanding could begin with, for instance, a ban on commercial bottled water. Restricting motor manufacturers, cell phone and computer companies to new models once every three or four years and imposing taxes on cars designed to break the legal speed limit might sound preposterously unrealistic but are indeed no more than fist steps if the economy is to be tamed sufficiently to give all of us a future – and to do so without having to go backwards. The Stone Age didn’t die because of insufficient stones but because people came to realise the inherent limitations of stones.

There can be no cosmological ‘Big Bang’ equivalent to the comprehensive changing of capitalism. Unlike the cosmic birth of everything, the death of capitalism cannot be marked by a single instantaneous event. If the climate change tipping point is to be avoided, the need to subject the free market to democratic control is self-evident. A concurrent essential, however, is no less fundamental: it requires the changing of the individuals who, collectively, make up ‘the people’ whose will democracy expresses. This is because capitalism is much more than just an ‘economic’ system; it is simultaneously also a people shaping system for, without people moulded by the needs, values and attitudes of capital, the system cannot function. Unless capitalist socialisation is transformed, the internalisation of capitalist values and attitudes guarantees a capitalist circularity. Democratically asking people, socialised to be consumers, what they want guarantees consumer answers: even more frequent cell phone changes and faster cars to kill even more people, for instance.

The problem is that the required transformation of people takes time and it is time that is the very condition no longer compatible with the climate change emergency. Concurrent with the slow process of changing people, small climate-friendly steps must therefore be taken immediately. The start must be the capping of capitalism’s existing freedom to plunder the planet and thereby expose humankind to climate change extinction.

We should not tolerate any prevarication regarding these simultaneous needs, even though we must expect responses straight out of G. K. Chesterton’s story of citizens who, in response to their petition to close a pub that served poisoned beer, were told:

Yes, the evidence supports your case, but before we sacrifice historical continuity by tearing down this admittedly noxious establishment, you must specify exactly what should be put in its place. DM

This is an edited version of a chapter from a forthcoming Alternative Information & Development Centre (AIDC) booklet


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