Hot Air Capitalism

November 7th, 2012

Published on NYT eXaminer, by Costas Panayotaki, Nov. 2, 2012.

In a column published in the November 1, 2012 edition of The New York Times Nicholas Kristof describes Hurricane Sandy as a wake-up call that underlines the urgency of dealing with climate change. (i) Going through the reasons that, according to scientists, “rising carbon emissions could make extreme weather – like Sandy – more likely,” Kristof notes the absence of climate change from the debates between Obama and Romney and declares himself puzzled about the Republicans’ failure to grapple with this issue. According to Kristof, this “failure is odd, because in other areas of national security Republicans pride themselves on their vigilance.”

Kristof’s naiveté on this issue reflects the limitations of what sociologists might call the functionalist conception of politics. This conception assumes that, like other institutions in our society, the political system is set up to satisfy the needs of the general public … //

… In today’s societies, one such minority is the capitalist class. Thanks to its control of the economy, the capitalist class is able to deploy the surplus produced by working people in ways that ensure its continued prosperity and domination. It can, for example, use part of the surplus to shape policies in ways that secure its continued externalization of the ecological costs of its economic activity. The fact that a carbon tax would force capitalist interests that benefit from consumerism and the overconsumption of fossil fuels to bear the cost of their actions rather than shifting it to vulnerable populations that perish from extreme weather phenomena in Bangladesh, Haiti or New Orleans helps to explain why politicians, dependent on the financial support of such capitalist interests, are not overly eager to discuss, let alone adopt, Kristof’s solutions. Another part of the surplus is used by capitalist elites to spread misinformation about the causes and seriousness of climate change. Despite the overwhelming consensus within the scientific community about the seriousness of the climate crisis, capitalist elites have been busy bankrolling ‘experts’ and ‘think tanks’ that propagate climate ‘scepticism’. As for the failure of the media to expose the dangers of climate change, isn’t that merely a reminder that these media are part of the capitalist economic system, controlled by capitalist interests and dependent on revenues from corporate advertising which contributes to consumerism and the environmental devastation of the planet?

The deification of self-interest that provides capitalism with necessary ideological support doesn’t help either. In propagating the ideology that competition in capitalist markets can ensure that the pursuit of economic self-interest does not lead to exploitation but to the common good, the capitalist class also legitimizes a self-interested attitude that can prove a serious obstacle to any effort to do anything about climate change. After all, why would self-interested individuals today, who may in various ways benefit from the fossil-fuel based status quo, agree to any taxes or social reforms that may reduce their own benefits for the sake of unborn generations? In all these ways, the externalization of the environmental effects of economic activity is not a puzzling dysfunction that we can do away with by tweaking the status quo. This externalization, and the deepening ecological crisis it has produced, is a predictable product of a capitalist system that can only continue to generate profit for the few by devastating the lives and environmental conditions of the many. But this is the kind of ‘inconvenient truth’ that you are not likely to read in the pages of The New York Times. (full text).
(Source: NYRX)

(Costas Panayotakis is Associate Professor of Sociology at CUNY’s New York City College of Technology and author of Remaking Scarcity: From Capitalist Inefficiency to Economic Democracy, see Pluto Press).

Links:

Hara Kouki & Costas Panayotakis on the Political Crisis in Greece
, , 14,56 min, uploaded on YouTube by democracynow, June 16, 2011;

Better Food Company on the Bristol Pound, on Bristol Pound.org, by Sarah, Oct. 30, 2012.

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