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Available from James Heartfield's website


Putting the hippies on the payroll

Green Capitalism: Manufacturing Scarcity in an Age of Abundance, by
James Heartfield

Philip Cunliffe
posted 4 March 2008

Everyone has gone green. Even reprobate oil corporations have stopped funding the ‘global warming sceptics’, as they retool their operations to cash in on the bonanza of carbon-trading. Bewildered by the sudden desertion of their corporate allies, a few isolated libertarians fight a rearguard action against the green tide. With the publication of Green Capitalism, James Heartfield has launched a powerful new critique of green supremacy – but from a Marxist rather than a libertarian perspective. This distinctive outlook allows Heartfield to show that the various political positions taken in this debate are not what they seem.

Green activists have always gained from portraying themselves as radical outsiders posing a fundamental challenge to a brutal and exploitative system. This posture has become increasingly difficult to maintain as elites have made the green cause their own. As Heartfield points out, ‘Some of the world’s wealthiest people are also its greenest. More and more of them make their money being green – they are the pioneers of Green Capitalism.’ (p21). Big corporations now routinely publish sustainability and social responsibility audits, while the likes of Exxon, Philip Morris, Du Pont and Monsanto all heavily subsidise environmentalist critics (p31). The appearance of confrontation between indignant greens on the one hand, and chastened capitalists on the other, is deceptive. According to Heartfield, it is more of an internal squabble than a real struggle between two rival social groups:

Green activists rubbish corporate environmentalism as ‘greenwashing’. But the truth is that most of the leading green activists – [Lord] Melchett, Tony Juniper, Jonathan Porritt, Des Wilson, Sara Parkin, the New Economics Foundation – have made a very good living writing Corporate Social Responsibility documents … Greenies get jobs as consultants and trainers, hectoring the unenlightened suits. When green activists frame their criticisms aggressively, that is often just their way of negotiating a better deal. (p31)

From the libertarian perspective, the capitalists’ eagerness to flatter the hippies is exasperating. But this is only because libertarians buy into capitalists’ mythologising of themselves as bold entrepreneurs. The reality is that capitalists make ‘a living out of the hard work of other people. They told stories about themselves that cast them as the hardworking, thrifty ones who built up the company (while the workers themselves were generally cast as too lazy to get on)’ (p14). In effect, libertarians reverse the argument made by their green and anti-globalisation opponents. Instead of rapacious corporations wrecking the planet, for libertarians it is rapacious governments that are the problem, expropriating the capitalists’ hard-earned wealth and tying them up in red tape.

But the corporate willingness to embrace green regulations and put the hippies on the payroll becomes less puzzling if one is willing to view capitalism not just as a sphere of economic activity distinct from the rest of society, but as a fully-fledged social system. After all, a society that prioritises profit over human need will always be one that is predisposed to curbing human needs. It is here that Heartfield’s argument packs a potent punch. The green call for restraining human needs in favour of nature’s imagined demands complements the requirements of capitalist society, which is always in need of new mechanisms to discipline and curb demands from below for more of the social surplus. Capitalism is also a contradictory social system, oscillating between dynamic expansion and lethargic stagnation. Heartfield argues that the greens merely express one aspect of capitalism – its tendency toward restraint – against its more dynamic side.

In other words, green capitalism is not a passing fad adopted by a few corporate bosses, too spineless to stand up to the hippies; it expresses an essential feature of the social system. As Heartfield reminds us, the origins of modern environmentalism lie in the 1970s when the elite industrialists of the Club of Rome commissioned The Limits to Growth report. As the long post-war boom ended, arguing that the world was running out of resources was another way of saying that there was nothing left to redistribute, and that trade unions must settle for lower wages (p27). (Needless to say, the Club of Rome’s predictions about the exhaustion of natural resources were all confounded [p13]).

In his artful dissection of ethical consumerism, Heartfield demonstrates what demands for economic moderation mean for today. In Heartfield’s view, ethical consumption is little more than the traditional snobbery of conspicuous consumption dressed up in green garb. Far from restraining consumption, environmentalism inflates its scale and scope, so that it expresses not only the refined taste but also the superior morals of the (rich) consumer: ‘It could be stated as an economic law: the greener you are, the more you consume. If that seems a bit hard to swallow, let’s break it down. First, the richer you are, the greener you are. Second, the richer you are, the more you consume.’ (p50). When greens disparage consumption, their real target is mass (ie ordinary folks’) consumption. Jetting off on safari and paying to offset your carbon emissions is fine, but hopping over to Prague on Easyjet for a wild weekend is morally abhorrent.

Heartfield shows that the contradiction runs deeper than the hypocrisy of rich greens like Al Gore and Leonardo DiCaprio telling us all to make do with less. The dilemmas of ethical consumption, that keep a whole generation of agonised newspaper columnists in employment, reflect the fact ‘that green ideals are themselves incoherent’. The problem is that there can never be any universally-accepted means of arbitrating which resource should be rationed. If the livelihoods of African farmers need to be preserved, then the answer is Fair Trade; but if carbon emissions are the problem, then domestic food is better (p55). If climate change is the problem, ‘then we ought to be willing to sacrifice England’s green and pleasant land to the march of the wind farm’ (p56). As Heartfield argues:

however systematic each of these diagnoses [of ecological degradation] is, the green sentiment is not reducible to any one of them. Each can be jettisoned or picked up in turn without damage to the core prejudice that modern life is exhausting nature’s bounty … It is not possible to generalise the green lifestyle. By definition, an ideology that sees mass consumption as the problem cannot be adopted by the masses (p57).

The rise of green capitalism is not just expressed in demands for restraining mass consumption, but also in changed attitudes towards production. A system that prioritises profit over people has little difficulty retooling its performance to engage in unproductive activities, as long as it can make money. Just as the corporate raiders of the 1980s saw that it was possible to make money by breaking industry up rather than building it up, so today’s green capitalists realise that it is possible to make big bucks without doing very much at all – by ‘manufacturing scarcity’. Here, Heartfield identifies carbon trading, ‘clean energy’, environmental land retirement and green belt housebuilding restrictions as the key examples where output is squandered in favour of (green) profits: ‘restricting output and so driving up prices is one short-term way to secure profits’ (p34). This insight gives Heartfield a distinctive account of the recent phenomenon of rising prices for agricultural commodities, which is generating inflationary pressure throughout the global economy. Heartfield attributes this to the systematic restriction of agricultural output across the last few decades, which has let millions of hectares lie fallow – the result of turning land over to nature reserves as well as heavily subsidised, lower yield organic farming. This policy was a conscious response to the downward trend in food prices, the result of improved agricultural productivity that threatened the profits of agribusiness:

According to the mainstream media, the pressure of biofuels and global warming are to blame for the shortfall in crops – as if governments had not been involved in a twenty-year programme of retiring land from production. Today’s scarcities have been engineered, in the name of saving the environment, but in fact to defend the livelihoods of big agriculture (p44).

The sheer productivity of capitalism undermines its own basis. The more the costs of production go down, the more difficult it is to sustain and justify private property relations – hence the increased rent-seeking behaviour, where profits have to be secured through essentially non-productive means. Heartfield takes his argument beyond exposing the parasitic pursuits of the green capitalists, to consider the ‘green imperialism’ that holds back development in poor countries, through to analysing how the assumptions of neo-classical economic theories break down in the face of the material plenty in which many of us in the West now live.

In all these arguments, Heartfield is elaborating on Marx’s core insight made 160 years ago: as a social system, capitalism faces historically unique problems of social control, arising from the fact that it enjoys too many resources rather than too few (1). All hitherto existing civilisation ‘was not much more than an armed stockade around the food store’ (p6), producing just enough to hover above the abyss of famine and plague. By contrast capitalism is the only social system that has a systematic incentive to increase productivity by combining and replacing labour with technology – the result of recognising the rights of workers as free agents, in the form of issuing contracts of employment. By the same token, the development of the forces of production is at least partly dependent on the willingness of labour to fight for its interests: the more powerful the workers, the more capitalists are forced to develop labour-saving technology. As Joseph Schumpeter argued, a man with enough candles and servants has no need of electric light. With the organised labour movement weak and craven, there is less countervailing power or pressure on capital – and it is in these conditions that greens have emerged to express the limits of capital as natural ones.

Even as capitalism has liberated much of humanity from the tyranny of nature’s caprice, it also pulls us back from the brink of freedom, the greens stepping up to keep us in hock with their spectres of interplanetary catastrophe and ecological doom. Like the generation of leftwing baby-boomers that came before them, doubtless some time soon today’s greens will embark on a spell of soul-searching, as they try to understand how their radical incursion was so rapidly absorbed by the establishment. But Heartfield’s book already has the answer: the greens were never that radical or rebellious to begin with.

(1) ‘In [capitalist] crises there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity – the epidemic of overproduction. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism … and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce. The productive forces at the disposal of society no longer tend to further the development of the conditions of bourgeois property; on the contrary, they have became too powerful for these conditions, by which they are fettered, and so … they bring disorder into the whole of bourgeois society, endanger the existence of bourgeois property.’ Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto

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