The Ruling Class and the Ecological Crisis

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The Ruling Class and the Ecological Crisis

 

 SYNOPSIS

The most serious crisis now facing humankind is ecological overshoot: the concurrent violation of multiple natural limits and the consequent threat of environmental collapse. Because this threat is unprecedented, it calls for entirely new patterns of economic and political thought. Because it is urgent and existential, it calls for immediate action by the only social force capable of transforming the economy in time – the ruling capitalist class. The failure of this class to act decisively will result not only in environmental catastrophe and immense suffering, but also in its loss of political power.

The key action required is rapid impact reduction, which entails sharp decreases in per-capita consumption and population. Such decreases are incompatible with growth-dependent capitalism, which means that the system must be historically superseded. The need for this shift has far-reaching political implications. Most importantly, the capitalist class must quickly transform itself into a contractionary ruling class, leaving behind those members who cannot adapt. Although this transition is a drastic shift, many among the powerful will recognize it as consistent with their responsibilities and interests under current conditions.

The resulting contractionary economy will utilize familiar capitalist institutions – markets, money, etc. – and will be based largely on private enterprise, or business. However, the contractionary state will strictly regulate economic activities based on the requirements of environmental sustainability, social stability, and economic equity. To a significant degree, post-capitalist society will be organized according to the principles of traditional conservatism, which emphasized prudence, humility, community, respect for nature, and generational continuity.

Social forces outside the ruling class – workers, the young, the religious, environmentalists, progressives, etc. – can facilitate the required transformations by fighting for them politically and by accurately characterizing the crisis as overshoot rather than climate change or global warming. In addition, they can humanize these transformations by demanding economic equity and social justice while the changes proceed.

 

Political Power

A crisis is a time for sober thought. When major threats are absent, people can afford to indulge in comfortable myths and shared delusions. When a disaster such as the ecological crisis unfolds, mental fictions become dangerous. The key fiction that must now be exposed relates to the political structure of capitalist societies.

According to the conventional account, such societies are ruled by the majority through their elected government, a democratic arrangement known as popular sovereignty. However, anthropologists know that most complex societies are controlled by a ruling class, which exercises power through an apparatus of coordination and control called the state. Traditional conservatism shares this view, insisting that true democracy is impossible, and that a “natural aristocracy” actually dominates society. A strong adherent of this perspective was John Adams, the second president of the United States, who asserted that, “… the aristocracy which must prevail in every society, whether recognized or ignored, will be the real masters under universal suffrage.”[1]

The conventional claim is that today’s capitalist societies are exceptions to this rule – that power has been transferred to the masses. This is categorically false. Based on their growing economic influence, European capitalists gradually seized power from the feudal landowners, in the process becoming the ruling classes in their respective countries. Once this power was consolidated and the masses no longer posed a revolutionary threat, parliamentary democracy was granted as a concession or appeasement. Elected government was a positive step in that it gave the populace a means to express their interests and concerns. However, true power – the state-mediated exercise of social control – remained with the capitalist classes. This reality is hidden under normal circumstances, but becomes visible when a populist leader is overthrown or assassinated, or when a country that defies capitalist interests is invaded and brought to heel.[2]

Below I will ignore the myth of popular sovereignty, allowing me to address the ecological crisis and its potential solution in a rational manner. My focus will be on the rich capitalist countries because they drive the global economy and are responsible for much of the ecological destruction that has occurred.[3] For ease of expression, and because the ruling classes of these countries are tightly integrated, I will refer to them collectively as a single ruling and capitalist class.

 

Disastrous Advice

As noted, the capitalist class rose to dominance due to its economic prowess. This gave the rising manufacturers a tightening grip on society, but it provided no basis for the deep political understanding that is required to retain power through periods of flux or adversity. The capitalist class, therefore, has always needed political guidance. In addition, because capitalism is rooted in economic growth, the class required economic guidance as soon as growth threatened to become environmentally dangerous.

The necessary counsel has historically been provided by respected members of the class itself, by senior members of the state, and by conservative intellectuals. Whatever its source, it must respond to changing conditions so that society can continue to function smoothly under capitalist control. Given the severity of the ecological crisis, it is clear that this advice has for decades been disastrously wrong. In the absence of reliable guidance, the capitalist class has been steering society almost exclusively on its economic instincts. As with a corporation cast adrift by inept leadership, this cannot long continue without dire consequences.

To be fair, the guidance that is now required is difficult to formulate. The threat of ecological collapse means that the global economy must be fundamentally restructured. In the past, such radical shifts have been achieved through revolutions, where a declining ruling class is supplanted by another with new ideas, vision, and energy. Under prevailing circumstances, this mode of change is not available: in the rich capitalist countries there is no social force that is capable of overthrowing the current rulers. Progressives, environmentalists, and the political left all lack revolutionary theory, strategy, and leadership. They play purely defensive roles in their resistance to social injustice and environmental degradation. The young, who should be enraged at their dismal long-term prospects, are for the most part silent. The religious, who should be passionately defending the sanctity of the living world, are largely invisible. The recent environmental encyclical by Pope Francis is a welcome exception, but its practical consequences are as yet unknown.

The above combination – the need for fundamental economic change and the absence of revolutionary potential to achieve it – has presented the system’s advisors with a formidable challenge they have been unable to meet. There are two main reasons for this failure. The first is that capitalism was born when the environment was perceived to be limitless, and continuous expansion thus seemed possible. To scientists it became clear around 1970 that this assumption was false, but the advisors have been unable or unwilling to adjust their worldview accordingly. The second is that capitalism faced a profound threat from the socialist world until the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union was dissolved. Countering this threat evidently exhausted the advisors’ intellectual reserves, leading them to a shallow triumphalism rather than a hard-nosed reassessment of the post-socialist world.

In this article I offer the capitalist class and its close associates my version of the missing advice. More specifically, I present economic and political concepts that are intended to assist society’s rulers in analyzing their posture towards the ecological crisis and in moving towards a sustainable global economy. Because this document is a preliminary overview, details are lacking and elaboration is avoided. I begin by clarifying the nature of the crisis itself.

 

The Ecological Crisis

When the environment first became a major issue four decades ago, the focus was on the depletion of scarce resources, especially nonrenewables such as metals and oil. It has since become evident that this focus was misplaced, and that the main danger is the impact of humankind’s economic activities on the world’s ecosystems. This impact has the potential to devastate the biosphere, thereby eradicating complex life on earth. Resource depletion, by contrast, will at worst cause the collapse of human civilization. Even if this occurs, our species will survive, and non-human species will either be unaffected or will benefit from our reduced presence.

The impact problem is wide-ranging, comprising such effects as excessive greenhouse gases, chemical toxification, ocean acidification, and habitat destruction. These are not discrete issues, but rather multiple consequences of a single, momentous event in the planet’s history: humankind’s violation of the biosphere’s absorption and resilience limits. For this reason, the crisis is accurately characterized as ecological overshoot, or simply overshoot.

Although the nature of the crisis is conceptually straightforward, it has been severely distorted by those seeking to diminish or deny the problem. The most prevalent falsification is to restrict attention to greenhouse gases by defining the crisis as climate change or global warming.[4] This has two detrimental consequences. First, it ignores the remaining impact effects, thereby reducing a multifaceted problem to a single one of its components. Second, it causes the concerned to seek solutions in the restricted sphere of energy systems, whereas the broader overshoot perspective makes it clear that any solution must consider the economy as a whole.[5]

To move beyond the physical aspects of the crisis to its other attributes, I suggest the abbreviation UUE as a memory aid. This stands for Unprecedented, Urgent, and Existential. Let me address these in reverse order. The crisis is existential because, as noted above, it has the potential to destroy the biosphere on which life depends. It is urgent because, given the environment’s unexpected sensitivity to human intervention, decisive action is required within years if irreparable damage is to be avoided. But the attribute that warrants our closest attention is the unprecedented nature of the ecological crisis. Capitalist societies have for centuries accumulated economic knowledge, political experience, and social insight based on the assumption that growth would continue indefinitely. This expansionary worldview has permeated our imaginations and colored our intellects. Now that growth has become ecocidal, this perspective must be comprehensively reassessed.

Unfortunately, the social capacity to conduct this reassessment has been gravely impaired in recent decades. Faced with various threats to its dominance, and having decided to reverse the working-class gains since World War II, the ruling class has increasingly discouraged independent thought. This was done through such measures as purging universities of dissenting elements,[6] placing tighter controls on the media, and restricting the bulk of state funding to profit-oriented research. These measures achieved their purpose, but at the cost of sharply decreased social adaptability. Today, very few thinkers – particularly academics – are willing to risk their credibility or financing by venturing beyond the boundary of permissible ideas. Given this state of paralysis, the most significant initial step the ruling class could take to reverse overshoot is to loosen the shackles on independent thought, thereby permitting intellectuals to seriously address humankind’s existential predicament.

 

The Economic Solution

If humankind’s excessive environmental impact is the cause of overshoot, its solution is the fastest possible reduction of this impact. This has long been evident to ecologists, who developed the IPAT formula to facilitate discussion on this topic. The formula states that environmental impact is a function of population, affluence, and technology. More precisely, impact increases as per-capita consumption and population rise, and decreases as ecological efficiencies rise. The economic solution to overshoot is thus transparent: decrease per-capita consumption and population as rapidly as socially feasible, and increase ecological efficiencies as rapidly as technically feasible. The combination of decreasing consumption and population is here referred to as rapid economic contraction, or simply rapid contraction. When increasing efficiencies are included, the term used is rapid impact reduction. To summarize, overshoot is the result of excessive environmental impact, and can be reversed through rapid impact reduction.

Is this solution possible under capitalism? This question is not intended to trigger a semantic debate about the meaning of “capitalism”, but to find strategic clarity. If the system is logically compatible with rapid impact reduction, the latter can in principle be implemented through aggressive policy initiatives within the prevailing order. If the two are incompatible, systemic change will be required. An answer to this question is thus essential. Let me first address rapid contraction and then move to higher efficiencies.

Capitalism displaced feudalism for understandable reasons. Although business activity was widespread in medieval Europe, it was hamstrung by a social structure that severely restricted the economy’s output rate.[7] Given the powerful human drives towards enhanced luxuries for the rich and increased necessities for the poor, a system that smashed these restrictions had a distinct advantage in the process of social evolution. Despite the rich-poor disparity and the brutality of capitalism’s birth, the system responded effectively to the natural human tendencies to enhance our satisfactions and ease our burdens. Capitalism’s historical rationale, therefore, is economic growth – a continuous increase in the economy’s output rate. Over time, this imperative was woven into the system’s fabric and became one of its central attributes. Clearly, then, capitalism is incompatible with rapid contraction: because the system must expand, it will persistently seek to increase both per-capita consumption and population.

The picture is somewhat more favorable for ecological efficiencies. Spurred by competition and profits, capitalists constantly strive to reduce costs. If a prospective efficiency measure costs less than an existing inefficiency, it will likely be adopted. However, an environmentally damaging inefficiency will be costless to capitalists unless property rights are violated or a social cost is imposed. In many cases, therefore, a financial motive to adopt the measure will be absent. The upshot is that, although capitalism can increase efficiencies to some extent, these increases will generally be below the limits of technical feasibility.

These conclusions – no rapid contraction and only modest efficiency improvements – make it absolutely clear that rapid impact reduction is unattainable under capitalism. Although the word could continue to be used for the sake of continuity, at the conceptual level there should be no illusions: in order to salvage what remains of the biosphere, expansionary capitalism must be historically superseded by a contractionary economy. The transition to such an economy is discussed below. First, however, it is important to understand what might impel capitalists to abandon the system that currently serves them so well. Two key motivations are considered: the responsibilities of ruling classes in general and the interests of today’s capitalist class.

 

Ruling-Class Responsibilities

Because all complex societies have a ruling class, such classes have been numerous through history, and some general statements can be made about them. One is that a ruling class has certain prerogatives, the most important of which is political power itself. This consists of the capacity to substantially control the minds and behavior of subordinate strata, and thus to shape society according to ruling-class purposes. This sounds Orwellian when baldly stated, but effective social control is the inescapable essence of political power. Another prerogative is a set of privileges. These include luxury consumption and the prestige associated with social dominance.

Corresponding to these prerogatives are certain responsibilities. The first of these is the populace’s well-being, which should be maximized given a society’s technical means. The Occupy movement of 2011 was predominantly a reaction to the low level of well-being for some members of society due to ruling-class excesses.[8] The second responsibility is rational social direction. As conditions change, the ruling class must modify its thinking and behavior so as to ensure social stability and popular well-being. Concisely stated, ruling classes have historically enjoyed the prerogatives of power and privileges, and have assumed the responsibilities of popular well-being and enlightened social guidance.

The capitalist class today fully exploits its privileges, but to an alarming degree neglects its responsibilities. Most significantly, its insistence on continued economic expansion in an ecologically degrading world is a flagrant repudiation of rational social direction. In the short run this will lead to declining well-being for the populace as – to cite just one example – deteriorating climate conditions cause food to become prohibitively expensive and malnutrition to soar. In the longer run, ecological collapse will spell quietus for the human project. Faced with these horrendous prospects, members of today’s ruling class might want to consider the principle of noblesse oblige, which was a compelling motivation for their predecessors. The Wikipedia entry on this topic accurately states that, “‘Noblesse oblige’ is generally used to imply that with wealth, power, and prestige come responsibilities … privilege must be balanced by duty towards those who lack such privilege or who cannot perform such duty.” In brief, safeguarding the environment through prudent economic behavior is the right and honorable course of action for those who have been entrusted with social leadership.

Beyond this moral duty is the brute fact that continued destruction of the biosphere will irrevocably strip the capitalist class of power. Long before ecological collapse consigns the issue of power to irrelevance, society’s rulers will face unimaginable social chaos, vicious internal divisions, and possibly political revolution. Any of these will end their reign after only a few hundred years. Economic prudence is therefore not just a moral and historical obligation, it is necessary for continued social control.

Because the consequences of relentless expansion are easily foreseen, one is forced to conclude that elaborate rationalizations are being employed to evade them. This self-delusion brings to mind the plaintive question asked in an environmental documentary: “… what state of mind were we in, to face extinction and simply shrug it off?”[9]

 

Capitalist Interests

The material interests of capitalists are more difficult to assess than their responsibilities because interests are largely subjective. That is, they depend not only on the amount of wealth that flows from profits, but also on how this flow is perceived. What is offered here is a simple analytical approach to ensure that the main factors are considered.

The key question is this: which alternative is materially better for capitalists – continued expansion until their inevitable loss of power, or a shift to contraction with prospects for the indefinite future? To make this more concrete, assume that capitalist power will be lost in the year 2050, whether from chaos, division, revolution, or collapse. If posed in 2015, the question then becomes: will gains be greater with 35 years of expansion, or with a long-term future in a non-expanding economy? Although the answer will to some degree depend on economic specifics, the decisive factors will be the values and principles of the individuals concerned.

Regarding values, many capitalists care deeply for the well-being of their descendants, and will therefore strive to protect their children and grandchildren from the perils of overshoot. Some will undoubtedly seek this protection in affluent enclaves that provide temporary refuge, but others will understand that a more definitive solution is required. Many capitalists also have a strong attachment to the natural world, resulting in a firm commitment to wilderness preservation and sustainability in general. Regarding principles, some capitalists subscribe to the tenets of traditional conservatism, which include humility, prudence, environmental stewardship, and respect for past and future generations. These ideas have been suppressed under capitalism, but could be recaptured in a post-capitalist world. Those who subscribe instead to classical liberalism may conclude that the principles of free markets and individual liberties will be seriously undermined in a collapsing biosphere, and may therefore drop their longstanding commitment to economic growth.[10] In all these cases a moderate long-term wealth flow will likely be preferred to a short-term wealth grab.

What must also be considered is that the social basis for assessing gains will be modified in the contractionary context. This can be illustrated with a few examples. First, although luxury consumption will likely decrease in absolute terms, it will change very little in relative terms. This is because the ruling class will continue to consume at levels that are substantially above average, in both quantity and quality. Second, the prestige associated with social and economic leadership will not diminish. It could on the contrary be sharply boosted as the populace realizes that its leaders are aware of the ecological challenge and are working hard to preserve the basis for civilized life. Last, many of society’s environmental demands cannot be met under capitalism, but are within reach in a contractionary economy. For instance, former climate-change envoy John Lawson has written an open letter to Shell CEO Ben Van Beurden, prodding the latter to facilitate the shift to clean energy. What Lawson ignored is that this shift is virtually impossible to achieve in an expanding global economy. If the economy were to contract instead, Van Beurden and his colleagues could likely meet Lawson’s demands, thereby becoming the heroes of a renewable energy future.

The above comments address capitalist interests in relation to the transition from capitalism to a contractionary economy. Let me now widen the historical perspective. As mentioned, the feudal economy was impeded by various constraints and thus remained for centuries in what was essentially a steady-state condition. Capitalism’s great contribution was to remove these constraints and initiate rapid expansion. The ecological crisis now necessitates a return to the steady state through a period of rapid contraction.

The striking feature of this historical sequence is that the constant factor is not capitalism, but business – private production and exchange for profit. The sequence starts with steady-state business under feudalism, moves to expansionary business under capitalism, and returns to steady-state business in a post-capitalist economy. Capitalism can thus be seen as a form of business activity that beneficially expanded production during a limited period of favorable environmental conditions. This means that the shift to a contractionary economy should be construed not negatively, but positively: not as the rejection of capitalism, but as the acknowledgment that this specific form of private enterprise is no longer tenable and that a new form must now be developed. In other words, capitalists who move beyond the current system, rather than betraying it, are demonstrating their informed allegiance to the underlying world of business, which like all biological and social entities must evolve to survive.

 


 

What has been said so far implies that three distinct transformations are required to reverse ecological overshoot. First, the capitalist class must be internally transformed so that rapid impact reduction becomes an urgent objective. Next, the economy must be transformed to permit the implementation of this goal. And last, the capitalist state must be transformed so that the political and other conditions for rapid impact reduction are put in place.

In the next three sections I briefly address these transformations, with the aims of making them easier to envision and to explore the impediments they will face. When I say that something “will” happen, it means I believe that this is the most likely outcome.

 

Transforming the Capitalist Class

In the absence of an existing or potential revolutionary force, there is only one social group in the rich capitalist countries that has the capacity to fundamentally reshape the economy in time to prevent ecological catastrophe: the current ruling class. In order to realize this potential, however, the group must first transform itself into a contractionary ruling class. This will entail a major shift in its economic orientation as well as modifications in its individual composition.

To understand the essential nature of this transformation, it is again necessary to step back and examine the historical context. When the early capitalists rebelled against feudalism’s economic strictures, they presented society with a new economic conception. This initiative had two important attributes. First, it was an act of historical will or volition. The upstarts, after all, were under no compulsion to alter society’s economic direction. They were successful entrepreneurs who could easily have amassed their fortunes and lived out their lives in comfort. Instead they chose to challenge the entrenched landowners, shatter the medieval status quo, and develop a more productive economic system. Second, the economic conception itself was deeply flawed. The energy and determination shown by the early capitalists were rooted in their single-minded pursuit of economic expansion. In this pursuit they neglected ecological limits, as already mentioned, but they also overlooked other crucial factors. Increased well-being requires not more outputs in general, but more of the right kinds of outputs. These must then be equitably distributed. And production should cease when people are satiated and can be spurred to further consumption only by elaborate stimulation.

In brief, the new conception fixated on growth while largely ignoring environmental constraints, output mix, distribution, and satiation. Given this history, the economic shift required today will be both a repetition and a correction. It will repeat the act of historical will by altering society’s economic trajectory from expansion to contraction, despite the lack of social compulsion to do so. In addition, it will correct the initial conception by incorporating ecological limits and possibly the other neglected factors.

Let me now turn to the process that could achieve this transformation. I will refer to supporters of the capitalist view as expansionists, and to supporters of the contractionary view as contractionists. Although the transformation will vary with circumstances, its rough outlines can be discerned. The starting point is that all capitalists can currently be considered expansionists. While some have expressed deep concerns about ecological degradation, none have moved beyond the system’s core rationale to support rapid impact reduction. From this starting point, the transformation will proceed in two stages.

In the first stage some advanced capitalist elements – likely intellectuals, but possibly members of the state or business participants – will respond to the ongoing environmental disasters and to political pressure from below by accepting the crux of the arguments presented here. These early adopters will then seek to persuade their colleagues to embrace this stance by clarifying ruling-class responsibilities and capitalist interests, and by pointing to a strategic path that could achieve a sustainable, non-socialist economy. This persuasion will hopefully feed on itself and escalate, thereby creating a critical mass of capitalists who share the contractionary worldview. This initial stage will be internal to the ruling class and its close allies, with little external visibility. Despite the dramatic shift in perspective among capitalists, political power will remain in expansionary hands.

The second stage of the transformation will be critical because it involves the transfer of power from expansionists to contractionists. This must be done with extreme caution because the expansionists have strong allies in the state’s coercive sectors, and could therefore defend their posture with devastating force. The suggested approach, appropriately enough, comes from the business world. When corporate leaders have outlived their usefulness they are typically not humiliated and kicked to the curb, but are instead allowed to maintain their self-respect and given golden parachutes. This achieves the purpose of redirecting the corporation while allowing the new leaders to assume their posts with minimal acrimony. In similar fashion, committed expansionists must be treated not as enemies to be vanquished, but as economic leaders who have been unable to adapt to altered circumstances. Instead of being unceremoniously ousted, they should be eased out and compensated as required.

The transfer of power also requires careful attention to the populace. Decades of capitalist conditioning, plus the realities of human nature, have led most people to embrace the notion that increased consumption is the road to happiness. In the short run the expansionists can meet these ecocidal expectations, whereas the contractionists cannot. Because it is impossible to retain power in the face of intense popular opposition, ways must be found to reverse or at least moderate these demands. One approach is to redefine popular interests by appealing to those aspects of human nature that have previously been ignored or downplayed. Among these are people’s love for their children and further descendants, and their abiding appreciation for the natural world. Another is easily overlooked, but will be a powerful motivator for many: the promise of life-affirming work. Contractionists could readily exploit the absurdity of excessive hours and soul-destroying labor when the technical means to abolish these horrors have long been available.

A second approach to popular attitudes is considerably more extreme, but will likely be necessary. As a well-known report noted with respect to US military renewal in the 21st century, “… the process of transformation … is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and catalyzing event – like a new Pearl Harbor.”[11] Conservative scholar Russell Kirk made a similar comment half a century earlier: “Except under the pressure of some enormous event, general ideas filter only slowly into the mind and conscience in democratic societies.”[12] The critical insight in both cases is that a radical shift in the populace’s basic posture requires experiences that have overwhelming emotional impact. Thus, if the populace is to scale back its consumption with minimal resistance, the ruling class will likely have to stage propaganda events that are on the scale of 9/11 and that drive the popular mind decisively in this direction.

 

Transforming the Economy

My assumption at this point is that the transformation of the capitalist class is complete, and that society is therefore dominated politically by the contractionary ruling class (CRC). This means that the latter has the power to restructure the economy. However, some expansionists likely remain in positions of economic influence, and the populace retains many of its growth-oriented ideas and attitudes. If the drive towards sustainability is to succeed, these sources of opposition must be carefully managed.

The guiding principle in the restructuring is that the resulting economy must be consistent with the CRC’s motivations – that is, with its perceptions of its responsibilities and interests. This is the only way to ensure that the transition will proceed with sufficient urgency and thoroughness to avert ecological disaster. In other words, the prospective contractionary economy must reflect the CRC’s understanding of its responsibilities – rational social direction and popular well-being – as well as its material interests. Let me briefly address each of these in turn.

The CRC is by definition contractionary, so it has embraced the idea that rational social direction implies rapid impact reduction. The economy will therefore feature decreasing per-capita consumption, a declining population, and an intense effort to increase ecological efficiencies. Because the first two of these measures run counter to both human nature and the capitalist past, they will be extremely difficult to implement. Finding courageous and innovative ways to reach these objectives will be the CRC’s central economic challenge, and the primary motivator for staging the “catastrophic and catalyzing” events cited above.

The CRC’s perception of popular well-being will be determined by two factors. The first is the objective need for social stability. A decreasing average level of per-capita consumption will lead to disruptive conflicts unless people understand that this burden is being borne more or less equally by all. This means that a contractionary economy must strive for highly equitable output distribution. It also implies that workers who lose their jobs must be socially supported until they can be re-employed, and that the available working hours must be fairly apportioned. The second factor is subjective. The CRC may conclude, on ethical or other grounds, that the economic conception of the early capitalists ignored crucial factors, and may seek to rectify some or all of these omissions. This could increase the populace’s well-being beyond the need for social stability. The orientation of a contractionary economy towards popular well-being thus has both a necessary and a discretionary component.

Regarding its material interests, the CRC understands that these were well-served under capitalism, and will therefore want to minimize changes to the present system. This suggests a simple guideline for meeting these interests: a contractionary economy should modify capitalism only to the extent that this is necessary for rapid impact reduction, social stability, and popular well-being. Any additional changes must be justified as overlooked factors that turn out to be essential to a contractionary economy or society. This guideline roughly defines the limits to state regulation of the economy, and implies that business rather than the state is the default economic agent.

The principles of economic transformation are readily proposed, but the devil is in the details, and implementing these principles will require sound theoretical guidance. It follows that the field of economics must be restructured as well. The main issue here is that the standard discipline has internalized capitalism’s economic conception and thus reinforces its expansionary practices. The relatively new field of ecological economics has to some degree rectified this conception’s environmental shortcomings, but it lacks an independent analysis of well-being and thus cannot be an adequate replacement.

A fundamental problem with both approaches is the failure to recognize that a complete economic theory comprises two discrete conceptual frameworks: one to guide the economy by setting rational objectives (output quantities, resource and waste flows, population level, etc.), and another to analyze the economy’s detailed operations as the basis for business behavior and public policy. Based on this perspective, I have developed a guiding economic framework called the Economics of Needs and Limits, or ENL.[13] ENL addresses both environmental limits and human well-being, and could be a useful tool for the CRC as it struggles to escape the capitalist past. Earlier I suggested that the ruling class should loosen the shackles on independent thought so that intellectuals can seriously address the ecological crisis. Improving ENL and developing a comprehensive economics for the contractionary era was one of the key projects I had in mind.

 

Transforming the State

The last transformation to be considered is that of the capitalist state. This change is necessary to permit the CRC to reach its main objective: revolutionizing the existing economy in order to achieve rapid impact reduction. Generally speaking, the state has two primary functions: to exercise social control on behalf of the ruling class and to organize society in accordance with ruling-class purposes. Thus, in the present context, transforming the state means shifting social control from the capitalist class to the CRC, and reorienting social organization from expansion to contraction. Let me address these two topics in order.

Briefly stated, the capitalist state exercises social control by selectively meeting popular expectations and through various methods of manipulation and coercion. These methods include the shaping of ideas through propaganda, deception, and fear, and a combination of physical and psychological compulsion to enforce compliant behavior when these methods fail. Given the severe time constraints and the unavoidable realities of political power, these control techniques will be adopted by the contractionary state with only minor modifications.

The critical problem will be to shift social control to the CRC. Many influential members of the state are strongly committed to the capitalist class and its worldview, and will find it difficult to overcome their loyalties or to alter their perspectives. Because the problem is similar to that posed by expansionists during the economy’s transformation, a similar solution applies: these individuals should be treated not as adversaries to be summarily dismissed, but as professionals who were unable to adapt to radically changed circumstances. To the degree possible, they should be allowed to retire in comfort or to take positions with reduced responsibilities at similar levels of compensation.

Perhaps the most important method of social control is the myth of popular sovereignty, which entails the identification of government as the locus of power. Like the other control methods, this will remain substantially in place. Very few members of the populace will be exposed to the ideas presented here, and the majority will therefore have no reason to lose their faith in popular rule. What most people will experience is not a social upheaval centered on the ruling class, but significant changes in advertising, media reports, the statements made by political leaders, the organization of the labor market, and the availability of consumer products. There is no reason to further complicate their lives by exposing them to the political depths. Regarding government, the populace will continue to perceive this as the core political institution. Moreover, the practical importance of government could escalate because rapid contraction must be equitably managed to avoid destabilizing conflicts. The only way to ensure this is to allow the populace to express its views in a representative forum, thus allowing the contractionary state to respond in a judicious manner.

Let me now turn to the state’s reorientation of its social organization. Unlike the assertion of social control, this will entail major changes. The shift from expansion to contraction contradicts not just the acquisitive aspects of human nature, but also the patterns of thought and behavior that for centuries have been assiduously cultivated. Thus, when the state implements new policies and develops new institutions, it must be guided by principles that are distinct from those it followed under capitalist rule.

Fortunately it is not necessary to develop these new principles from scratch. As previously discussed, feudalism was essentially a steady-state economy, and it is now necessary to return to the steady state. This suggests that the principles that guided feudal society can, with appropriate modernizations, be applied to the organization of the post-expansionary world. It is also fortunate that the principles of feudal life were captured in the tenets of traditional conservatism. This political orientation can therefore be selectively tapped for the required guidelines. Based on this line of reasoning, the following broad principles of social organization are suggested for use by the contractionary state.

– Suppress human nature with respect to consumption, but stimulate it in areas that are consistent with a steady-state economy. The aim is to produce well-rounded individuals who are comfortable with a humbler lifestyle by counteracting what Russell Kirk has called, “… [the] reduction of human striving to material production and consumption”[14].

– Encourage the development of community. People yearn to be part of a collectivity beyond the family and other small groups. In Kirk’s words, “Individualism is social atomism; conservatism is community of spirit. [People] cannot exist without proper community, as Aristotle knew; and when they have been denied community of spirit, they turn unreasoningly to community of goods.”[15]

– Foster social solidarity, including economic equity, in order to ease the burdens of ecological decline and the challenges of reduced consumption.

Promote the virtues that capitalism has discouraged, but that are at the core of ancient wisdom: prudence, humility, respect for nature, generational continuity, and social stability.

Members of the contractionary state will undoubtedly require more concrete guidelines than those listed above, but these may serve as a fruitful starting point.

 

Other Social Forces

Although the ruling class has been emphasized in this document, other social forces have important roles to play in the transition to a contractionary economy.

Physical scientists and environmentalists are the logical advocates for an accurate depiction of the ecological crisis. The main objectives are to redefine the crisis as ecological overshoot rather than climate change, and to clear up the confusion between climate change and global warming. This accuracy is necessary not only to facilitate public support for rapid impact reduction, but also to purge a muddled picture from the minds of many intellectuals.

Progressives are strongly motivated by social and economic fairness, and are currently seeking equitable degradation under the label of environmental justice. During the transition these efforts should be extended to include equitable contraction. This will include the fair distribution of a shrinking output basket, the removal of luxuries before necessities from the output mix, and the compassionate treatment of workers during the economic transformation.

Social thinkers face a difficult challenge in freeing themselves from the capitalist mode of thought, but once this is achieved they will have much to do. The list includes re-conceptualizing economics and politics, rewriting laws and constitutions, developing new institutions and modes of governance, and formulating new policies, procedures, and regulations. The tasks are so numerous that advanced thinkers should consider tackling them well before the transformations discussed here actually occur.

The religious, the young, and the populace at large can make their greatest contributions by backing the contractionary cause during the transformation of the capitalist class, and by supporting rapid impact reduction despite the material sacrifices this entails. The young in particular are encouraged to raise their voices because it is their future that is imperiled by today’s heedless and immoral economic expansion.

 


 

CONCLUDING COMMENTS

 

Today’s ruling class is in a position that is utterly unique in history: it is the only social force capable of turning humankind away from an ecological disaster that could eradicate complex life on earth. In this document I have therefore advised its members to carefully evaluate their responsibilities and interests in light of their principles and values. My hope is that, based on this evaluation, they will gracefully sideline those who are bent on economic expansion, transform themselves into a contractionary ruling class, and initiate rapid impact reduction.

The main impediment to such a shift is the momentum from centuries of rapid expansion, which has obscured the fact that capitalism is not synonymous with business, but is instead a specific form of business that has been rendered obsolete by ecological limits. Overcoming this obstacle will require imagination and courage, both of which are surely within the capacity of the ruling class and its close associates.

The urgent, existential task today is to instigate the political changes that will lead to rapid impact reduction. If my proposal for transforming the capitalist class seems fanciful, the reader may want to consider the prescient words of American sociologist William Ophuls. Already in 1977 he recognized that ecological scarcity implies massive political changes. However, he cautioned that, “… at this juncture any specific set of solutions would immediately be criticized as politically unrealistic. Indeed, how could it be otherwise? Current political values and institutions are the products of the age of abnormal abundance now drawing to a close.”[16]

Frank Rotering
August, 2015


Notes

[1] Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Publishing, Inc.,1985 – first published in 1953), 108. Kirk is widely recognized as the foremost scholar on the traditional conservatism of Edmund Burke.

[2] For some details on this topic, see my Political Primer.

[3] The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) are also critical for sustainability, but I have not studied these societies in detail and will leave the analysis of their strategic paths to others.

[4] Although global warming and climate change are often used interchangeably, they are not synonymous. Global warming refers to the heating of the earth’s surface – its land, surface water (excluding the deep ocean), and atmosphere. One result of this heating is climate change, which refers to alterations in long-term weather patterns: increasing droughts and heat waves, more intense storms, etc. The overall picture is this: climate change is one of several consequences of global warming, global warming is one of several consequences of excessive greenhouse gases, and excessive greenhouse gases are one of several components of overshoot. For more on this topic, see The Three Most Dangerous Illusions.

[5] The narrow energy perspective underpinned the numerous misleading statements that followed the announcement in 2015 that global CO2 emissions were stable from 2013 to 2014.   The most egregious of these was that emissions had been “decoupled” from economic growth and that “green growth” had therefore arrived. Aside from falsely equating CO2 with greenhouse gases overall, this dismissed the numerous other environmental impacts of growth, and it incorrectly implied that stable emissions are sufficient to address global warming. What is actually required are the fastest possible decreases in these emissions.

[6] The objective of purging undesirable elements from universities was central to William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale (1951), which was a landmark in modern conservative thought. In his introduction to the 25th anniversary edition he pointed to the need at universities for, “… judicious hiring and firing, precisely with the end in mind of furthering broad philosophical objectives and cultivating certain ideals.”

[7] An account of business activity during this period can be found in Edwin S. Hunt & James M. Murray, A History of Business in Medieval Europe, 1200-1550 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

[8] The central motive for the Occupy movement was succinctly captured by 19th-century political theorist William Lecky: “When triumphant robbery is found among the rich, subversive doctrine will grow among the poor.” (Kirk, op. cit., 334)

[9] The Age of Stupid (2009). The question is asked in 2055, after global warming has extinguished most of humankind due to “… our behavior in the period leading up to 2015”.

[10] Modern conservatism is an artificial mix of classical liberalism (also known as neo-liberalism or libertarianism) and traditional conservatism. For a detailed examination of the attempts to reconcile these fundamentally different political perspectives, see George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America since 1945 (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006 – first published in 1976). This topic is discussed in my Political Primer.

[11] Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources For a New Century, p. 51. This is a report by “The Project for the New American Century” (PNAC), which appeared in September, 2000.

[12] Kirk, op. cit., 453.

[13] An overview of ENL can be found here. My full treatment is the book The Economics of Needs and Limits.

[14] Kirk, op. cit., xv.

[15] Kirk, op. cit., 242.

[16] William Ophuls, Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity: Prologue to a Political Theory of the Steady State (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1977), 282. The other significant book published around this time was William R. Catton, Jr., Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1980). Catton understood that the environmental problem revolves around the earth’s human carrying capacity and that conscious self-restraint is the only rational way forward. The publication of these two books means that by 1980 the core ideas were in place for a post-expansionary strategy. The subsequent suppression of independent thought can be inferred from the almost complete lack of theoretical progress since that time.

 

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