In the Clutches of Capital By William Bowles

19 April 2006

It strikes me that the citizens of the capitalist world are in so deep with the ‘life style’ that like all addicts it is virtually impossible for them to escape the clutches of capital. Once on the conveyor belt of consumption there is no turning back.

Chief among the addictions is the automobile, a drug far more powerful than crack cocaine and completely legal, indeed in some parts of the world, you are automatically regarded as a criminal if you don’t have one.

So much depends on maintaining the addiction that it’s difficult to see how we can wean ourselves off it, for not only is it a major employer of labour it is also the main consumer of just about every element in the periodic table and then some, resulting in the creation of a globe-spanning system of exploitation.

Globally, there are something like 3 billion vehicles with millions more pouring off the assembly lines every year. The effects of the automobile pervade every aspect of society from transport policy to urban and rural planning, consuming a vast chunk of social spending on things like roads but also the vast infrastructure needed to manage the culture of the car from licenses to the legal system.

It is of course total madness but try telling that to a nation of junkies and they’ll run you over.

I selected the automobile but the same insanity applies to all the other major elements of the production/consumption process such as pharmaceuticals, consumer products in their endless variety, food and such like.

There are of course millions of people involved indirectly in the supply of these drugs from the advertising industry through to the packaging and distribution sectors, thus directly or indirectly, there are very few people whose livelihoods don’t depend on the continual supply of these legal narcotics.

It explains much about why it is so difficult to rouse the people from their slumbers, there’s just too much at stake. Capital and labour are locked together in a dance to the death, producing and chowing products ad infinitum.

The logic is remorseless for without endless consumption the entire enterprise that is advanced capitalism has no function. No consumers, no production.

Now don’t get me wrong here, we obviously need to produce stuff but currently we have no control over what gets produced or how (don’t be fooled by all that guff about the ‘market’ and ‘demand’, demand has to be created, that’s what advertising is all about).

So how to break the vicious cycle without waiting for the wholesale collapse of the capitalist economies? Of course, it’s more than likely that Gaia will do it for us but what a cop out after all these decades of struggle to achieve a just world for the millions who suffer so.

It also goes a long way toward explaining why the attempts at building an alternate socialist economy failed so miserably, for there is no way a real socialist economy can emulate capitalist production and make it work for the common good.

The logic of the first attempts at constructing planned economies were based upon the entirely false idea that the factory system, the assembly line and so forth were somehow neutral when it is obvious that they reflect a very specific way of employing labour, one that suits the capitalist mode of production but precious little else.

Based upon the idea of production purely for the sake of profit, it sees people as merely extensions of the production process, as little more than machines made of flesh and blood and just as disposable.

There are therefore two very fundamental and interconnected problems we have to confront; breaking the addiction and devising an alternate method of organising production. To this we also have to add the political dimension, that is how we organise ourselves to bring about these changes.

It should surely be clear by now that production purely for the sake of profit has led directly to the potential environmental disaster the planet faces for there are no constraints except whether or not the product makes a profit for the shareholders.

Everyday thousands of ‘new’ products hit the supermarket shelves, the great majority don’t last a year but vast amounts of energy and resources go into making these ‘new’ products as companies desperately seek new sources of profit as existing markets become saturated in just the same way as new drugs hit the street seeking new consumers. The only difference between the two is that the former are legal and the latter are not.

Now this might sound either completely obvious or totally utopian but nevertheless, the fact is, although we may be able to explain the nature of capitalism, until we can come up with a workable alternative, all we can do is bitch and whinge, essentially adopting no more than a defensive posture.

The issue has taken on a certain urgency because of two things: one, the onslaught by the US and two, what looks like the destabilisation of the delicate balance we call the climate (two, obviously not unrelated processes).

The first issue comes back to where I came in, namely are the populations so heavily addicted to capitalism as to be unable to extricate themselves? If so, then the solution obviously lies elsewhere (and hopefully not with climate collapse!). Yet why should we rely on the struggles those least able to defend themselves?

Haven’t we stood by for decades and watched from the sidelines as millions of people have been slaughtered just so we can jump into our super-duper automobile, drive to the mall and buy a ‘new’ bathroom cleaner? The entire thing is total madness and only those so totally in thrall to their addiction can avoid the reality of what the world pays for the ‘benefits’ of our so-called civilisation.

But this by no means excuses us from devising an alternate political economy, one that doesn’t depend on endless production of useless products and one that doesn’t depend on screwing 80% of the world’s population just so that 20% can live lives of comfortable (if deeply unhappy) dependency.

Given the parlous state of the world with an out-of-control US imperialism threatening the world with nuclear weapons, the issue is no mere academic exercise or the dream of idealists, the fate of humanity depends on us producing a viable and just alternative.

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