Are you ‘radical’, and if not, why not?
I’m using the original definition of the word, not its bastardisation that over the years has come to be used as a kind of insult in some circles. I’ve been called ‘too radical’, and I want to show why that’s an absurdity.
So what does it mean? Radical is from the Latin radix, meaning root (as in radish). To be radical is to look at the root of a problem, not the symptoms. A radical solution is a definitive and comprehensive one, not a ‘sticking plaster’. To be radical is to be the opposite of superficial. So if someone calls you ‘too radical’, it means that they think you are not superficial enough. Take it as a compliment.
Because the meanings of words change over time (the word ‘quite’ for example, means more-or-less the opposite of what it meant a couple of hundred years ago), there is another definition of radical in the dictionary, and that is ‘extreme’. I’m going to ignore this Johnny-come-lately definition and concentrate on the original.
So let’s have a radical look at humanity’s problems. Where shall we start? Well, you’re on the website of an environmental organisation, so there’s a clue; and there’s a good reason to start with the environment, the biosphere, ecology – the ‘nature problem’. See here for why. If humanity were on the Titanic, the ‘nature problem’ would be the iceberg. It’s the over-arching, super-problem. There are many other problems facing humanity – but if we focus on them without addressing environmental problems as well, then the ‘iceberg’ will make those other problems irrelevant.
Our environmental / ecological problems are overriding because they affect our potential for survival as a species. Anyone who thinks that ecology is some sort of side-issue, or that the problem of ecological damage can be solved with lifestyle change and/or regulation, just hasn’t understood the implications of climate change and biodiversity loss for the future of humanity.
Not that lifestyle change and regulation are bad things – they’re essential in fact. But to think that alone, they can solve the problem, is not looking at the root – not being radical enough, in other words. So let’s go on a bit of a dive. Let’s look into the biggest problem facing humanity with a radical perspective.
1. What’s the root of environmental damage?
Not enough recycling? Not enough legislation? Too few electric vehicles? Not switching lights off when we leave a room? Of course not.
The root is the human economy, and especially our attempt to constantly grow it. Climate change and biodiversity loss is due to human activity. There’s nothing else – no giant asteroids, no massive volcanoes – it’s us. Or to be more precise, it’s our economy; and if our economy grows, the problem will get worse, whatever else we do. This is still a minority position, although it’s getting more of a mention in the mainstream press nowadays. George Monbiot recently nailed it in the Graun, for example. But, if the human economy has to grow perpetually, like a cancer, then at some point, unless we prevent it from growing any more, it will kill its host.
2. What’s the root of the quest for perpetual growth?
Why don’t we stabilise our economy so that we can live in harmony with nature? Wouldn’t that be the sensible thing to do?
The root of our inability to solve, or even, for most people, to understand this problem is the control of the political system and the media by economic forces that don’t want the system to stabilise. Politics is corrupt, and only small children don’t realise it (although most do by the time they’re teenagers). The main avenues for this perfectly legal corruption are: corporate political donations; corporate jobs for politicians; and the corporate lobby industry. Legal, yes; but do they serve democracy? Quite the opposite.
Plus, any government that unilaterally rejects perpetual growth without system change will suffer capital flight, and ultimately bankruptcy, as ‘investors’ (mainly algorithms) withdraw their money.
3. What’s the root of political corruption?
Why can’t we have real democracy? We say that we live in liberal democracies in the West? Why can’t we make them democratic?
Wealth has always been associated with power, and throughout history, to understand where real power was located required an understanding of where wealth was concentrated. Now, wealth is concentrated in the corporate sector, and therefore, power is concentrated in the corporate sector.
4. What’s the root of wealth concentration?
Why is wealth so concentrated? The root of wealth concentration is extraction. This is a very important term to understand – it’s a means of removing some of the wealth generated by the work of individuals and communities, and giving it to people who do no useful work, or no work at all, therefore allowing it to concentrate. Here are two ways that wealth is extracted.
From communities: if you shop at a local business, the money you spend stays in the local community; if you shop at a corporate branch, a percentage of the money you spend is extracted from the community for shareholders, executive bonuses, global HQs and distribution networks, global advertising etc.
From individuals: if you make a T-shirt as an individual and sell it, you get all the income from the sale; if you make T-shirts for a multinational corporation, or for a corporate supplier, or indeed from any company that isn’t owned by its employees, you receive a percentage of the sale (and in the case of T-shirts, a very small percentage), as wealth is extracted for the reasons mentioned above.
The super-rich have always lived off the work of others. In slavery and feudalism this was obvious. It’s a little more subtle in capitalism, but it’s still the case.
But nowadays, a Marxist analysis of the extractive forces inherent in capitalism and the labour theory of value is not enough. He knew about the monopoly on the issuing of legal tender, but he couldn’t even have had nightmares about algorithmic theft from small investors or the sharing economy.
5. What’s the root of extraction?
How is extraction allowed to happen? The root of extraction is the separation of capital and labour. By ‘capital’ I mean land, factories, offices, machinery etc. – anything that’s used to generate wealth, other than labour.
Take a smallholder as an example (but only a smallholder who owns his or her own land, or farms it collectively with others). The land is captial into which the smallholder adds his or her labour to generate wealth (food, raw materials, money). None of this wealth is extracted – they get to keep all of it. The same is true for self-employed people who own their own capital (tools, machinery, workshops, vehicles, offices etc.), and for people who get together to form co-operatives, partnerships or employee-owned businesses etc. – any model that doesn’t allow non-workers to extract wealth.
Now when individual owners or shareholders own the capital, but do no work, there is a separation of labour and capital. Capital then extracts part of the wealth that the people who do the work produce, and we’re on a slippery slope to wealth concentration, corruption of politics, the quest for perpetual growth, destruction of nature and, unless we replace this system, eventual human extinction (as nature can only be damaged to the point that it can’t support us any more, at which point we will be removed from the equation and nature will begin to recover).
What’s required is a reunification of capital and labour.
Now, if you stop at any point before number 5, you won’t have reached the real root of the problem, and you may suggest a solution that isn’t relevant or possible. For example, if you stop at number 3, you may conclude that to prevent concentration of wealth, we need to tax the corporate sector properly. That would be a great idea if it were possible, but in a world where politicians receive money, jobs and lobbyists from the corporate sector, they’re not going to upset their paymasters by taxing them properly. Small coffee shops, for example, will always pay a higher percentage tax than Starbucks in this system. The loopholes could be closed if the will were there, but it isn’t.
You might also conclude that all that needs to happen is for an anti-corporate party to be elected, and again, I certainly wouldn’t oppose that, and I’d help where I could. But within global capitalism, anti-corporate policies will cause capital flight. We need extra-parliamentary organising before parliamentary actions can go far enough to make a real and permanent difference.
If you have massive concentrations of wealth, you’ll never devise a political system that won’t be corrupted by it.
Once you’ve looked to the root of the problem, it’s easy to see that legislation (if legislation that addresses the root of our problems is possible, which it isn’t) isn’t going to be anywhere near enough to prevent the coming ecological crisis; and neither is individual lifestyle change (even if we could persuade enough people to do it, which we can’t).
So once you’ve reached number 5, and you can see that the root of the problem is the separation of capital and labour, you’ll understand that to start to solve our problems, we need to reunify them [you may want to take it further, and to explore the psychology of individuals who would aspire to separating it, but I’d argue that preventing them from doing it materially would be much easier than trying to change them psychologically; plus, the new material conditions would deter the separation of capital and labour, rather than applauding and rewarding it].
So how do we reunify capital and labour? Well, here’s the good news – we don’t have to invent anything. The reunification of capital and labour is already happening – i.e. a new economy is already being built. Rather than making this article even longer – here’s a description of the new economy and here’s how you can help it grow.
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