Capitalism in Context (Version No.1)


While corporations are busy marketing themselves as environmentally responsible global citizens, scientists warn that global ecological systems are severely destabilized and three planetary boundaries are presently being crossed (biodiversity, climate change and the nitrogen cycle). The confusion created by the gap between frightening scientific reports and reassuring messaging from advertising and corporate media is a good enough excuse to continue shopping, TV watching and generally ignoring escalating social/ political/ economic crises (as long as you happen to be privileged enough to avoid the immediate impacts). Business as usual continues as both knowledge and reason are distorted by market forces. When markets determine what information is available in the public sphere ‘knowledge’ comes to reflect what is profitable for those with economic power. This distorted knowledge rarely takes the earth’s needs into account. While efforts are made by hopeful environmentalists and NGOs to create ecologically and socially beneficial projects and tweak the market to recognize the value of the natural processes, the overall dynamic of capitalism leads to greater ecological devastation.

No rational society rewards members for undermining its existence, yet capitalism encourages individuals to exploit ecological and social resources by reducing all values to economic profitability. The underestimation of complexity and denial of the ecological basis for the economy constitutes a major distortion of reason. Capitalism obscures and systemically ignores the context that makes its processes possible. Economic growth is structurally dependent on increases in production, resource consumption, energy use and pollution. Growth is designed into the capitalist system and any barriers to growth are slowly eroded as capitalism expands into spheres that were once beyond market forces. The commodification of nature and the privatization of the public sphere, such as the NHS and the education system, are integral to the growth-oriented dynamic of capitalism. Sustainability requires decreasing resource use, but decreasing consumption would adversely affect the profitability of industry. From planned obsolescence to public relation strategies designed to discredit independent scientific environmental research, where money buys the ‘truth’ we end up living in illusionary worlds – worlds where sustainability becomes impossible.

Advertising is omnipresent and its visibility marginalizes environmental concerns to the point of obscurity. Truthful information on the state of Earth’s systems cannot compete with advertising.  Nature is characterised as infinitely exploitable. The UK advertising industry was worth £17,318m in 2008 (equaling 1.2% of GDP). In contrast, the total expenditure for three main campaigning environmental NGOs in the UK (WWF-UK, Friends of the Earth UK, and Greenpeace UK) equals £66.9m in 2010 (£55.5m+£8.7m+£2.7m=£66.9m). Estimating that a figure of 10% of this is available for communication, the result equals £6.6m/yr. Contrast this number (£6.6m) to the amount of money spent in the UK on advertising (£17,318m). On the basis of advertising expenditure alone, the three largest campaigning environmental NGOs in the UK have less than have 00.04% of the gross advertising expenditure to establish a visibility in an advert-dominated public domain. Obviously NGOs are able to leverage their causes due to the gravitas of their mission. Thus in some media environmental discourses are visible without the support of NGOs sponsorship but this visibility is limited. This media does not have the scope of commercial advertising. It reaches only those who read newspapers with environmental news or watch environmental documentaries. Corporate advertising is a primary way of sense making in a market-dominated society and advertising creates a representation of nature that suits its own purposes and portrays the natural world as open to exploitation. The endless greenwashing of products and brands reassures citizens that business as usual is morally sound ignoring overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.

In 2008 the Sustainable Development Commission UK (SDC) published Prosperity Without Growth?. The report examined the contradiction of an economic system oriented towards infinite economic growth within a finite environment. In the wealthy parts of the world such as the UK prosperity is no longer anchored to growth, in fact growth now functions to undermine prosperity due to its social and ecological consequences. Neither decoupling nor de-materialization is working to slow down the scale of ecological destruction because the essential dynamic of the current economic system is based on the erroneous premise that quantitative growth can continue indefinitely. Although this report was hardly an anti-capitalist critique but rather provided a basic examination of serious problems, the UK government effectively ignored the warnings of the SDC and in 2010 the Sustainable Development Commission, the UK government’s only independent environmental watchdog and advisory body, was abolished. With an annual budget of only £3 million the SDC costs the UK government the equivalent of a few metres of motorway (the M74 extension in Glasgow cost £692m working out at £138.4m per mile). The termination of the Sustainable Development Commission indicates how deeply the UK government is oriented towards the interests of the market above the social and ecological context that makes markets possible. Our political system is no longer capable of supporting any type of substantial attempt to address ecological priorities because our political system has quietly fused itself to corporate interests and the financial class.

Further distortions of knowledge are created by corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices of corporations eager to portray themselves as committed to social and ecological sustainability but less eager to actually follow through on these apparent objectives. CSR initiatives drive audiences further into a frame of reference dominated by the market through appropriating a language of values to describe consumerism and corporate culture. The public are referred to as ‘consumers’ in a none too subtle linguistic shift into the framework of the market. CSR fails to problematise the issues around industrial practice by ignoring independent research and working entirely within the systemic priorities of the market, i.e. increased profit and market growth. For example, corporations use public relations firms and astroturfing to deny climate change and dispute the findings of environmental scientists. Public relations exercises aim to legitimize corporate power by attacking an ecologically informed critique of industrial exploitation of the biosphere. Furthermore, corporate advertising orients communication around developing extrinsic values, i.e. values associated with the acquisition of material goods, financial success and social status. Extrinsic values are premised on a view of reality wherein humans are fundamentally separate and independent form each other and the ecological system. Within this value system and worldview there appears to be no alternative to the dominant values established within consumer capitalism. Anthropological, sociological and historical knowledge about values systems demonstrate that values are largely learnt beliefs developed by socialization. It is disingenuous to argue that there is no alternative to current values systems or that advertising does not affect social values. If marketing were not enormously influential it would not be a trillion-dollar industry.

The continuing economic crisis can be seen to provide opportunities for renewal. As shock waves reverberate throughout the political and social systems, deeper questioning of social priorities becomes necessary and more likely. The economic crisis needs to be understood as a warning. The economy is a system designed by humankind and therefore it is (theoretically) within our capacity to rebuild. Yet humankind cannot re-create collapsed rainforests, extinct species or disrupted climate systems. Sir Nicholas Stern warned that climate change is ‘the greatest market failure the world has seen’. If free market capitalism caused climate change, clearly there is an urgent need for an alternative social-economic-political system that can work within the boundary conditions of the Earth. Historical evidence demonstrates that dramatic social change can happen when society decides its dominant values and priorities are no longer fit for purpose. Recognizing the inherent dangers in capitalism and the emergence of disaster capitalism is fundamental to the work of resisting and transforming entirely dysfunctional governmental systems and economic models. Naomi Klein describes how this new phase neo-liberalism and disaster capitalism achieves it goals through the use of shock on stunned populations as public infrastructure is decimated in order to expand the scope of the market. The anti-capitalists analysis of capitalism’s destructive dynamic was essentially correct as we are now witnessing as global austerity measures come into effect. The larger problem is that the anti-capitalist critique is also right about capitalism as a system that will damage the earth’s systems beyond repair.



The graphics above displays relationships between disaster capitalism / green capitalism / sustainable development / grassroots activism (such as the Occupy movement). Green capitalism does not have the critical strategies available to it to resist the rise of disaster capitalism due to its failure to recognize the integral expansive and exploitative dynamic of capitalism. Green capitalism and even sustainable development obscures an ecologically informed critique of the industrial exploitation of the biosphere by legitimizing corporate power. Disaster capitalism will use green capitalism and sustainable development towards it’s own ends, i.e. making a profit. Thus neutrality or disengagement is a capitulation to power, as disaster capitalism quietly appropriates the energies of all those who do not actively resist it. This discursive model aims to help clarify relationships and strategies to help occupiers avoid the historical appropriation and political neutralization of eco-social movements.

This paper has now been re-written. The new improved version will be in the first issue of Occupied Times 2012.

4 thoughts on “Capitalism in Context (Version No.1)

  1. Free market is really distorted market, with prices omitting costs of preventing multiple collapse dynamics. Not complicated to fix with new worldview/growth pathway/economic tool:

    If not too harsh I tend to see eco-social movements as largely self- neutralising due to lack of organisation, systems thinking and strong policy proposals. Hence weak proposals of disaster capitalism so far prevail.

    “If free market capitalism caused climate change, clearly there is an urgent need for an alternative social-economic-political system that can work within the boundary conditions of the Earth.”

  2. Hi Blindspotting… re: 2nd paragraph, yes I agree there are lots of reasons why eco-social movements have not worked so far, those problems you mention played a role. I do think that you might be wrong to assume that it is ‘not complicated to fix with a new worldview/growth/pathway/economic tool’. It will be complicated and hard work whatever we want to do – there is no easy answer or quick fix. I will read the link but I have yet to see any proposal which would make our the work ahead not complicated!

  3. Also I believe you are underestimating the massive resistance to any sort of solution by entrenched interests – corporations, government and big finance.

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