‘Little boxes, little boxes … they’re all made out of ticky-tack’ By William Bowles

3 February 2005

Some years ago, I don’t remember where, I read that entire swathes of Indonesian rain forest were cut down simply to make cardboard boxes for Japanese consumer electronics; tvs, hi-fi’s, fridges and so forth. The stat staggered me, these were after all, just damn cardboard boxes destined to be trashed. Millions of these boxes are manufactured all over the planet every year, consuming who knows how many trees just to transport consumer products. Add in the foam plastic liners made from petroleum products then the oil consumed to transport them all around the planet and you have one, vast consumption machine that uses enough raw material and energy to run an entire country and then some.

Let’s move on. Without endless ‘innovation’, that is the creation of ‘new’ products, capitalist production stagnates, or more precisely, markets get saturated and the rate of profit falls, production stagnates except for a diminishing demand for replacement. Hence the need to create ‘new’ products, more often than not essentially the same product but with ‘additions’, what we euphemistically call added value.

For example, the Japanese auto industry initially conquered the world market by producing simple, well made and cheap cars but over time, it was necessary to add more and more ‘value’ to the cars, that is, complexity in the form of all kinds of gadgets, electric windows, air-con and so forth, because the market for the initial product became saturated. In order to keep the rate of profit rising it was necessary to add value to the product but value that came not from employing more people, rather it came from increased automation of production and the addition of ‘intangibles’, marketing etc, that now make up a significant percentage of the retail price of an automobile. In fact, the ‘cost’ of making an automobile is now around 25% of the price charged to buy it, the rest is the aforementioned ‘intangible’.

This happens with virtually every industry under capitalism. It is if you like, an inexorable law from which capitalist production is simply unable to escape. It either invents ‘new’ products and/or finds new markets into which to expand or the company in question dies, either through competition from other producers (better made, cheaper) or because the market shrinks to the point where production is unprofitable for the investor. To add insult to injury as it were, the process is entirely arbitrary, depending not on whether we really need the product but whether or not we can be persuaded to buy it.

Major revolutions in production, for example, the assembly line, the telephone, the airplane, the computer, and the older industries simply get wiped out, replaced in an incessant drive to create surplus value for the investor (the possessor of capital) by reproducing it in new forms. There is no rationale for the process except by describing it as ‘progress’, though by now it must surely be obvious to everyone that when the reproduction of capital for its own sake threatens the very existence of the planet’s biosphere that something is surely wrong.

Why is this all important? Well it relates to two connected issues: one is the threat to the planet from global warming, rising sea levels, destruction of habitat and so forth and the other is the incessant (yes, I’m still getting the stuff) argument, if that’s what it can be called, about ‘peak oil’, an argument that can be expanded to include almost any of the 92 elements that go to make up Planet Earth, as all of them could, under particular circumstances, be ‘consumed’. More precisely, converted into something else, something less useful to us like heat, carbon, or dare I say it, cardboard, instead of remaining bound up in things like trees, fresh water, animals, landscape.

But to talk of consumption as that of simply using up available resources entirely misses the point, for the key issue is not whether a particular element or material gets ‘used up’ but whether or not it becomes economically viable to extract it. Rest assured that if the oil does indeed get ‘used up’ (not a realistic appraisal), some alternative would be found, just as coal replaced wood and oil replaced coal (there are still billions of tons of coal sitting in the ground). And yes, one can talk of the environmental cost of coal, but more important is whether extracting coal is economically viable for capitalist production.

Tony Blair, in a speech this week was at great pains to assure investors that reduction in greenhouse gases would not result in reduced ‘growth’, though of course, the issue of what is meant by ‘growth’ was not elaborated on. But rest assured, the notion of continued production of whatever, will continue unabated.

NGOs like Greenpeace would like you and me not to fly, not leave the lights on or the front door open. They want us to walk instead of drive, all good stuff no doubt but of course it avoids the essential issue that the nature of a ‘developed’ capitalist economy needs us to buy like there’s no tomorrow for without it, there would be no ‘growth’. Indeed, fully one third of the ‘gross domestic product’ of the UK is generated by consumer spending! Yet the vast bulk of the product is not manufactured in the UK (although it is owned by transnational corporations). The entire thing is fuelled by debt, trillions of pounds of debt. So ‘growth’ in these terms represents spending ‘paid’ for by enslaving most of the population in lifelong servitude to the banks.

Thus the issue here is not growth per se but what kind of growth and where does the growth take place? It’s ironic that with the West de-industrialising at a rapid rate of knots by exporting production to places like China and India, at the same time it dumps on them for taking advantage of the industrialisation taking place by producing the products that we are only too happy to consume but it seems, it’s not for them to do the same.

How does the West square this circle? Enter ‘peak oil’. By focusing on the spurious notion of ‘running out of oil’ allegedly setting off a scramble for the stuff, avoids the fact that one, it diverts attention away from a squandering and wasteful capitalist economic system and two, avoids the potentially catastrophic consequences that wasteful production is having on the biosphere.

The ‘Green’ movement rarely, if ever, raises the issue of the economics of capitalism as being the root cause of global warming and climate change. Instead, it too tries to square the circle by getting us to consume less through a strange and in some ways, medieval ‘hair shirt’ approach to environmentalism. That somehow, we need to ‘return’ to an earlier epoch where life was allegedly simpler. The solution however lies not in consuming ‘less’ but in the things that we consume and the methodologies used to produce them.

And, as Buckminster Fuller pointed out forty years ago, technological development has consistently done ‘more, with less’; less raw material, less energy, less labour to produce the same result.

When profit is the only motive for production, short term gain determines the nature of the production process. After all, the investor (in actuality, the term ‘investor’ is a fiction, for the bulk of investment comes from giant institutions, mainly banks and insurance companies that possess diversified ‘investment portfolios’, driven by spreadsheets) won’t wait five-ten or more years to realise a return. One can go further and state categorically that capitalism is structurally incapable of looking beyond the immediate, short-term gain.

Does this mean then that a ‘planned’ socialist economy would do any better? History would appear to say no but we need to look beneath the appearances of things to understand what conditioned the development of the socialist economies of the past century. For the most part they were driven by ‘competition’ with capitalism in a race to try and match the output of consumer products, in order to satisfy the ‘demands’ of the consumer, a race they were bound to lose.

Without profit as a motivating force, ‘innovation’ and production for production’s sake in a socialist economy is an essentially meaningless concept. It’s yet another example of trying to square the circle. It raises fundamental questions concerning the nature of the production process itself, long considered by most socialist economists as being ‘neutral’ but obviously the nature of the production process is not neutral, it is itself the product of the capitalist-inspired industrial revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries.

Once on the treadmill of revolutionising production in order to reduce costs (increase profits) by removing as much human labour from the production cycle as is possible, is not something one can simply stop. It becomes its own rationale. The worker too, is transformed into a commodity, to be bought and sold and in so doing is forced onto the same treadmill, for without participating in the process of producing and consuming, they would starve.

If this isn’t bad enough, the intervention of the computer has revealed the underlying contradictions of capitalist production that have been inherent since the beginning. Reducing the labour component (synonymous with reducing the cost of labour) means that there are fewer and fewer workers to do the consuming. After all, the original equation, mass production=mass employment=mass consumption, no longer holds. There is only one solution to this contradiction: find new markets for production and commensurate with this, get those still in the production cycle to consume more. It’s an endless cycle that fuels ‘innovation’ that would make those Victorian industrialists heads spin.

Countries like China and India with vast populations, once on the same treadmill, have no choice but to produce and consume along with the rest of us. They have to be persuaded to buy the same products as the rest of us; energy squandering automobiles and consumer products. Once more we return to the nature of the kinds of production capitalism forces us into. So it’s not production in and of itself but what we produce and how we produce it that’s important.

Environmentalists quite rightly point to the inefficient automobile but it goes much deeper as the automobile is not merely a product but a globe-spanning process that embraces an entire range of industries too numerous to mention. In actuality, the automobile is merely the final expression of a vast pyramid built firstly on the extraction of raw materials, primarily oil, iron and silica, to which must be added an increasing range of rare elements needed for the electronics. But increasingly, the actual ‘production’ plays a less essential role in the process, with marketing and distribution now forming the bulk of the process of adding value to the product, entailing even more complexity as it drags in other production processes (video, print, IT and the Web, PR and so forth).

As capitalism has diversified production in the drive to find the lowest production costs, the process has been mediated by the computer with the invention of supply chains that ties global production together into a seamless, integrated process. In fact, without the supply chain, global production of what is really the integration of thousands of products, would be impossible.

This then, is a snapshot of capitalist production that shows that the issues surrounding the extraction of raw materials is not defined or even affected in any significant way, by scarcity. Indeed, it’s marked by an over-abundance of production that is now global in scope.

On the other hand, a return to some kind of idealised, ‘pre-industrial’ economy (unless of course climate catastrophe intervenes) is not a realistic alternative. What then is the solution? Increasingly, the idea of a socialist economy hinges on the evasive notion of ‘quality of life’ which is another way of saying that above all else, for socialism to succeed in winning over the millions of people currently engaged in a pointless existence of work, consumption, death, it’s relationships, meaning and human values that in no way depend on consumption. Instead, these are existential qualities, difficult to quantify in purely economic terms except that is when looked at from the perspective of basic needs; food, shelter, education, health, security, peace and so on. For without the basics it is extremely difficult to engage in an existential existence, life becomes too precarious, too insecure at least for those living in the poor countries of the world, fully 80% of the world’s population.

For the rest of us, although we may well possess an abundance of material goods, we lack security and peace and the very qualities that capitalism propagandises about such as peace of mind, a sense of belonging, in fact all the things that ultimately make life worth living, that no amount of material wealth can actually provide.

So to answer my own question about the kind of socialism I’d like to see, it’s one where human values come first, where individuals are free to pursue their own self-development as human beings, not as consumers and producers but as part of a network of relationships both with other humans and with the planet’s other inhabitants.

That this is entirely missing from capitalism is evident from the deep, pervasive unhappiness most of us feel, a sense of incompleteness, of alienation and of not being satisfied with life. There can be no other cause for the various and sundry addictions to almost everything that many millions of us suffer, that capitalism responds to by making war on significant sections of its own population, sensing quite rightly as it happens, that to deal with the causes would mean a complete reappraisal of the capitalist way of life. Not only a step too far for the political class that represents the class of capital but one that it is structurally, psychologically incapable of making.

It would seem therefore, that until the Left embraces a socialist philosophy that includes not merely a viable economic model but one that organically includes an approach to society that sees meaningful relationships, both to other humans but also with the planet as the primary objective of socialism, we are doomed to wander in the wilderness of the margins. For many on the left this means abandoning a lifetime of adherence to slogans and entering into a relationship with life as a whole, as seeing socialism not as an ideology but as a philosophy as well as a tool of transformation that offers a genuine alternative to an otherwise inevitable Armageddon.

Further Reading: See (by coincidence) the MediaLens article I’ve just posted
SILENCE IS GREEN: The Green Movement And The Corporate Mass Media

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