The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The Death of Capitalism

Let us state the obvious.

Capitalism has failed.

It has failed because it failed to deal with climate change.  This was a forseeable, and foreseen disaster.  We knew it, without any reasonable doubt, by the late 70s. If we had acted then, we could have stopped the worst of it.

We did not.

The death count will be in excess of a billion people. I think, given the way that damage counts keep coming in above prior estimates, and given how vicious cycles act, that the death count will be in the billions.

It is not inconceivable that we could see the end of human, and higher, life, on Earth, though it is still unlikely.

We are in the middle of a Great Extinction. Each life-form which dies off takes genetic wealth with it and weakens the ecosystem. Ecosystem collapse has happened in the past in limited regions, it can happen globally.

If it does, we may need to bend over and kiss our asses, lives, and species goodybe.

(I am fundraising to determine how much I’ll write this year. If you value my writing, and want more of it, please consider donating.)

Capitalism’s great claim to being a superior form of organization for production and distribution of goods and services is that it is best able to account for costs and benefits: It produces that for which people are willing and able to pay.

People weren’t willing and/or able to pay to stop climate change. In part, this is because actors with money were able to obfuscate both the science and the situation, spending millions on doing so, and buying the political process. In part, it is because climate change’s worst effects were expected to take place AFTER the death of the people who needed to act to stop it.

If you were 30 in 1980, you are 66 today. If you were 40, you are 76. If you were in the decision making class, overwhelmingly allocated to those who were 50+ in 1980, you are 86 today.

People who were in their prime and during their decision-making days, when we needed to act on climate change, were making a DEATH BET.

They bet they would be dead before the worst results of climate change happened.

They will win this bet.

This was a RATIONAL thing for them to do. I want to repeat that, because too many people think “rational=good.” It does not. It was rational for them to discount a future they would not see.

Note also that they did not prioritize their children and grandchildren’s well-being over their own. This, also, is RATIONAL.  How your children do after you are dead has only an imaginary effect on your well-being. (For instance, if you think they’ll be ok, that’s enough. And that’s an easy enough thing of which to convince yourself.)

Our capitalist markets did not discount the future properly. Capitalistic accumulation, which gave certain corporations and individuals excess rewards, and thus power, also made it easier for them to capsize the democratic process.

This does not mean that capitalism is entirely to blame, not directly. In 1980, the US was not yet an oligarchy. At that point, it took a mass movement, a constituency, to decide: “Fuck all that environmentalism and conservation crap.”

That movement was headlined by Reagan and presaged by Thatcher in Britain. Reagan won because of the so-called “Reagan Democrats,” who abandoned the post-war Democratic coalition to vote Republican. They were substantially and primarily SUBURBAN voters. The suburbs, now, but especially then, would have been hammered by properly done environmental and conservation changes, as they were massively energy inefficient. You do not get a generation and a half of suburban housing prices rising faster than wages and inflation in such a world. (You do get better wages, as there is more real work to be done.)

As time went by, the advantages that Reagan put into play disproportionately (and vastly so) benefited a small number of Americans, and America became an oligarchy. You can date America’s descent to oligarchy somewhere between Gore v. Bush (2001) and Citizen’s United in January, 2010. Personally, I would pick the passage of TARP, done in the face of phone calls in excess of one hundred to one against: 2008.

Capitalism has thus, in the span of less than five decades, ensured that there will be billions of deaths and has bought-out the popular sovereignty system of representational democracy.

Despite triumphalism, it is also true that we have had the ability to end hunger and famines for decades and have not done so. Serious poverty in Africa has dropped as a percentage, but risen in absolute numbers. In the past 30 years, the average amount of calories consumed in India has dropped. China has industrialized, but studies show that those who remained in traditional villages are happier.

It is very easy to look at what has been achieved under capitalism and cheer. Vast growth, vast increases in food production, and so on. One can argue how much was driven by capitalism, how much by democracy, how much by government bureaucracy, and how much by industrialization, but the last 200 years have seen massive accomplishments.

Those who die in the next 100 years will not be so sanguine about the costs, however, as they will be the ones to bear them. Those who do not die, but suffer and see their loved ones die, are unlikely to forgive.

They WILL be looking for an alternative to capitalism, because it will be clear to them: The cost of capitalism is too high.  Especially if we skirt species extinction in a visible way.

There is no “end of history” minus an end to sentient life. There never will be.

The world keeps changing, capitalism and democracy were never going to be the last systems, and it is now obvious and visible that they are unlikely to be.

It is possible that one or the other might survive, in a modified form, but only if it casts blame on the other.

This doesn’t mean markets won’t survive. Markets have been with us for thousands of years, but markets as the prime distribution and production mechanism for the majority of the population have not.

The Death of Capitalism, and possibly the Death of Representational Democracy, are nigh. If you are young, you will see one or both. You may even if you are middle-aged.

(This is part 1 of a semi-series.  Read part 2 on “What Capitalism is and part 3 on “Did the Industrial Revolution Require Clearances, Genocide and Imperialism,” and part 4 “How The Rational Irrationality of Capitalism Is Destroying the World”.)


The Day Someone Bombs a Wedding or Funeral in the US…


What Is Capitalism?


  1. V. Arnold

    Ian, this is one of your best threads, IMHO. Spot on across the board.
    Guy McPherson gives us 14 to 30 years. It’s not because we can’t adapt; it’s because the rest of life cannot in the time remaining.

    And David Suzuki even before McPherson, was saying the same thing; late 70’s early 80’s. I heard it then and knew it was true.
    Here’s a great interview with Guy McPherson by Chuck Mertz of “This is Hell”;

    A very thought provoking, no holds barred, interview.
    I will no longer even discuss any counters to the immanence of the coming extinction of the human species; it’s happening as I type these letters.
    We’re out of time; the only question is; what will we choose to do with what’s left of our lives?

  2. V. Arnold

    Uh, one caveat; you’re time line is way too long…

  3. j

    > One can argue how much was driven by capitalism,
    > how much by democracy, how much by government
    > bureaucracy, and how much by industrialization

    I would argue most of it was driven by fossil fuels, which, converted into massive amounts of free work by industrialization, enabled us to have the modern versions of capitalism, democracy, bureaucracy and industrialization.

  4. Mike

    McPherson is running his own self publicising death cult. We won’t become extinct but we will kill many, many other species and experience a very large die-off, of our own making. But we’re too much like cockroaches to die out fully.

  5. Bruce Wilder

    The reification of the industrial revolutions as “capitalism” and confounding those developments with the ideologies of “market economics” is not especially clarifying, with regard to the nature of the challenges to human social and political organization.

    The scientific, industrial and democratic revolutions that began in the 16th and 17th centuries have altered the scale and, for lack of a better term, collective consciousness of human society. That we are even aware of the consequences for ecology of our industrial activities is a product of those revolutions, beginning with the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment.

    The Friedmanite market economics, which supplied an ideology to Thatcher and Reagan, and became the neoliberalism of “there is no alternative” today doesn’t get even as much credit as it deserves for our political debility. We do not live in a literal market economy and have not in the most advanced economies since at least the 1880’s (sic), but having economists talk as if we do has been very useful to the oligarchs, who want to prevent collective political action and blunt the effectiveness of public policy thinking.

    We live in societies dominated as never before in human history by hierarchies, and still talk as if “markets” coordinate the political economy of deep specialization and global trade. We have made ourselves stupid and wonder why we cannot reason together. We have the fundamentals of political economy wrong and it has profound consequences. We live in economies coordinated by money, but mainstream economics plays at modeling economies in which money is no more than a numeraire, “neutral in the long run” to use the jargon and prices clear markets. “Prices clear markets” – few greater and more mind numbing delusions have ever gripped the minds of humans concerning the mechanics of political and economic motivation and coordination.

    Human narrow minded selfishness, which can neither comprehend collective consequences nor coordinate a common and effective response, is certainly at fault, but if an enlightened self-interest is to find a less self-destructive path we must have the ability to think thru what we do and conceive of institutions to coordinate the necessary constraints. As it is, we do not permit ourselves to understand even the system we operate, and consequently lack the means of clear-eyed reform. We have the myth of markets and fear and it is not enough to wish for spontaneous good will.

    Human global society acts much as if it has no more intelligence or consciousness of consequences than a slime mold spreading in the dark in search of sweet. Somehow, humans must find a social means of getting more of human intelligent awareness into the governance of our collective behavior.

    As Putin put it in another context: “Do you realize what you have done?”

  6. V. Arnold

    @ BW
    “Human global society acts much as if it has no more intelligence or consciousness of consequences than a slime mold spreading in the dark in search of sweet.”

    It’s not an act; it’s the reality of our collective behavior.
    Love your phrasing…

  7. Joe

    I’m no cheerleader for capitalism, but it seems inaccurate to blame capitalism for these human failures. Do non-capitalist economies have a better track record on any of these issues?

  8. The tragedy is that, even now, we could do so much (aside from the civilization-destroying threat of global warming), but because of our political-economic system (liberal capitalism) we’re compelled to desperately make and purchase junk (often on credit) to justify our existences.

    I’m not a Marxist, but I agree with him that capitalist organization led to enormous increases in productivity, but that it had to be followed by something more humane.

    Democritizing society is still a worthy goal. If only to navigate the coming cataclysm.

  9. Socialiast

    Yup, capitalism has failed not because of the horrible exploitation, the ever-growing inequality, the constant social and cultural degradation, the wars and suffering it has caused, the racism and discrimination it promotes etc. etc. But because of the environmental concerns!!!

    If you think capitalism will be abolished because of the environmental disaster we are facing, you are in for a disappointing surprise.

  10. highrpm

    i tend to agree that the collective mind is more at fault than capitalism. in fact, capitalism is just another orchard in the collective land holdings.

    the inventers of the cerebral cortex likely wanted to make a breed that lived above the dog-eat-dog of the wolfpack. and maybe they even succeeded for awhile. unfortunately for our biosphere and us, we wait in travail of our souls for the next revision of the humanoid that works to greater effect in checking the forces of the amygdala.

    (and it isn’t google. semiconductor solutions ain’t nuthin’ in complex elegance and efficiency next to molecular biochemistry and celluar artistry and their self-assembly capabilities.)

  11. Erik

    I always wonder at the “progress” of various parallel threads of society and whether certain alignments were a foregone conclusion.

    For example, climate change clearly follows industrialization and the spread of consumerism, which is itself a product of industrialization. Once cars are ubiquitous, the suburbs are almost inevitable, thereby worsening climate change.

    Two questions are:

    1. Was it foregone that we would get to the 70s level of industrialization, consumer culture, and population prior to realizing the threat of climate change? Risk aversion is a natural human state. When I was a child, I always assumed that any products sold at the store were tested and approved for sale by the government (how naive!). Capitalism, however, is a system that disrupts that natural aversion to risk by systematically favoring risk-takers. If we had had a different flavor of capitalism, or a different system altogether, may we have realized the threat of climate change earlier? I am essentially describing a society that accelerates science before technology so that the implications of technology can be better understood prior to adoption. Or is it the case that such a society / culture would never really industrialize at all, and we’d be spared climate change but also all the benefits of the modern world? Is it possible for human nature to walk that fine line, and how far back would we have to dial our culture to get there? The US Civil War? The US Revolution? The British Empire and mercantilism? The Renaissance?

    2. This is a smaller question, but one of the things that enabled Reagan at least to run away with capitalism towards its riskier instincts are racial politics in the US. This I lay at the hands of the founding fathers, who chose national unity and the ability to establish a constitution over dealing with the issue of slavery in 1789. This did not have to be delayed for another 70 years, and the impact of that timing, coupled with the Jim Crow culture that followed the failed reconstruction, has ripples up to and through Reagan. If it had been dealt with, and if there had been no “Souther Strategy” in US politics, would things have turned out better? This is an example of parallel tracks of history that did NOT have to be aligned, necessarily. However, there is still the question of Thatcher in Britain, which DID abolish slavery earlier than the US. Which leads me to think that the turing point perhaps has less to do with slavery and more to do with the liberalisation of attitudes towards women in both the US and UK, which was a direct result of women entering the workforce, which was a direct result, more or less, of WWII. WWII can be viewed as an inevitable results of industrialization, as the last of a long series of wars fought using escalating technology, up until mutually assured destruction. So now I am back thinking that perhaps the timing of climiate change was inevitable as it is all linked to the timing of industrialiation.

  12. Tony Wikrent

    A direct, disconcerting, and, I think, completely accurate, summary of where humanity stands at this point. But Bruce Wilder and Joe make very valid points, which, I think, go the heart of why I prefer Veblen’s analysis of political economy to that of Marx’s. Marx’s agent of change is a nebulous dialectical materialism that becomes less applicable to reality the closer you approach heights of Marxist purism. But Veblen posits human greed and status-seeking as the primary agents of change of the Leisure Class. And Veblen finds those agents at work in all societies, whatever the way they have organized their economic systems, from basic hunter-gatherer economies, to advanced industrial economies organized on supposedly socialist or communist principles. Moreover, Veblen never forecasts an end to the workings of human greed and status-seeking; whereas Marx, Lenin, and others believed that basic human nature would be changed under the dictatorship of the proletariat.

    Charles Beard’s book is a favorite among lefties who dismiss the American Revolution as merely one group of white oligarchs displacing another group. Beard himself was dismayed to find that most people ascribed his views to his being a closet marxist. In response, Beard wrote in which he compares Marx and Lenin to Madison and Hamilton, and concludes that it was USA’s founders who provide a better paradigm of human behavior and how best to govern it. Because, contrary to the popular misconceptions cemented in the public mind by decades of conservative, libertarian, and neo-liberal propaganda and proselytizing, USA’s founders were quite clear that unbridled concentrations of economic wealth were as much as danger to republican self-government as a standing army. Just look at the conclusion of Madison’s # 10, in which Madison explains that political factions most often arise from economic interests: the primary role of government is to REGULATE those interests so that their actions conform to the Constitutional mandate to promote the General Welfare.

    Last month I published on Kindle an abridged and annotated edition of a 1937 book, by Douglass Adair and Walton H. Hamilton. In my Introduction, I wrote,
    “Arguing that the new American republic was merely a continuation of European mercantilism obscures the historical breakthrough represented by the creation of that republic, and its explicit Constitutional mandate to promote the General Welfare. Failing to see how this breakthrough represents a culminating triumph of the political and scientific Enlightenment over irrational and arbitrary power—ecclesiastical as well as oligarchical and monarchical—is a major reason the left today is so confused, disjointed, and ineffective.

    “The words “mercantilist” and “mercantilism” are generally used whenever government powers are used to promote a state’s economic powers. By specifying in the Constitution that government powers are used to promote a state’s economic powers in promotion of the general welfare, the American republic made a sharp break from European mercantilism, in which the welfare of a sole monarch or small group of oligarchs was often conflated with the general welfare of a state or nation.”

    I believe that if the Constitutional mandate to promote the General Welfare were still fully operative, we would have addressed the problem of climate change in the 1980s–or at least we would have acted more forcefully to end our dependence on fossil fuels when the concept of peak oil was fully articulated in the 1970s. A recent series on revealed that beginning in the late 1970s, scientists at Exxon had identified and begin warning against the impact of burning fossil fuels on the environment, including effects on climate.

    The crucial question I think we must ask, therefore, is: What were the agents of change that drove the USA away from its founding principles as a self-governing republic, to become an oligarchy? I think it is brilliant to pinpoint the date at which the USA devolves fully into oligarchy as the adoption of TARP, but at the same time pinpointing such an exact date obscures the fact that there has been a long, identifiable process that brought about the transformation from republic to oligarchy. Ian alludes to this process by mentioning Reagan and Thatcher, but behind them were a number of agents actively promoting and building the conservative / libertarian / neo-liberal movements. Jane Mayer’s new book has been in the news last week because it identifies and dissects those agents, though the journalists last week chose to focus on Mayer’s expose of the Koch brothers.

    Philip Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe fully exposed the workings of the Mont Pelerin Society in their book of a few years ago, . Mirowski and Plehwe miss two crucial facts, however. First, they mention but do not explore the fact that the general secretary of MPS was Max Thurn. Who is he? The scion of one the richest, most powerful, and most ruthless of Europe’s oligarchical families, Thurn und Taxis. Secondly, they fail to note one of the peculiar characteristics of the economic doctrines of conservative / libertarian / neo-liberal thinking: they explicitly attacked what makes the American republic so remarkably different than any government before it: the Constitutional mandate to promote the General Welfare. As von Hayek puts it starkly in the title of his best known screed: that mandate is , the “statist slippery slope” to dependence on government largesse and tyranny.

    Now, Veblen provides a comprehensive paradigm for analyzing and understanding old world oligarchs. Marx does not: he dismisses them as feudalists being swept off the stage of world history by the inexorable yet nebulous historical forces of dialectical materialism. But in point of fact, the example of Max Thurn and the Mont Pelerin Society shows us that that old world oligarchs are anything but “swept away.” Or, look at who occupies the interlocking directorships of the largest European companies. Who controls, for example, the largest block of stock in Royal Dutch Shell? By golly, it’s the Orange-Nassaus of the Netherlands.

    Lest you think inquiring into the old European oligarch is conspiracy-mongering, consider what the logical end-state of conservative / libertarian / neo-liberal philosophy: Hans-Hermann Hoppe’s open call for a return to monarchism in . Admittedly, Hoppe is an extreme outlier: he opposed MPS on the grounds that MPS was “socialist”!

    Another important, overlooked fact concerns the role of organized crime. Historically, the oligarchical families of Europe have used criminal gangs intensively in “regulating” the political game. Particularly interesting is the role of the fortunes made in the Opium War and trade in transplanting organized crime to USA. Besides the loyalists from the American Revolution, this is the root of the “special partnership.” Take the time to look at the board of HSBC, which used to be Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. It really is a wake up call when you assemble these facts alongside Veblen’s analysis of how the Leisure Class uses deceit, fraud, and force to secure its economic, political, and social domination. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think Marx provides anything nearly as precise and specific as Veblen’s discussion of deceit, fraud, and force.

    This consideration of the role of European oligarchs allows us to go beyond a focus on just USA capitalism. I assume that Ian is condemning capitalism not just in the USA, but all around the world.

    The role of organized crime is the great untold story of what happened to the USA economy beginning with the 1960s and 1970s mergers and acquisitions “booms” and especially the 1980s leveraged buy-out boom. A large part of my animus toward marxism comes from this period, when I found to my dismay and disgust that marxists and socialists had no interest in breaking through their ideological purity to consider, let alone actively oppose and organize against, the role of dirty money in buying control of, then looting, USA industry. Returning to Exxon and the story that Exxon scientists identified the negative effects of fossil fuels s early as the 1970s, I think a large part of the reason why Exxon dropped its efforts to address these problems was exactly because corporate raiders such as T. Boone Pickens, Jr. and Karl Icahn–be it noted, using large amounts of dirty money–had begun raiding the oil industry in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Phillips Petroleum and Texaco were two companies that were destroyed in this process. Before that, it’s worth noting, Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where Phillips was headquartered, was a center of progressive politics in that state, thanks to the very high concentration of very highly educated scientists, engineers, geologists, and others residing in the town.

    Interestingly, it has been reported that Icahn had funding connections to the Japanese yakuza, so that Japanese capitalism is now brought into the picture along side USA and European capitalism. And, of course, the history of the Opium and slave wars and trade brings much of the rest of Asia into the picture as well.

    Maybe someday, when these basic facts are more widely accepted, some scholar will investigate what links, if any, there were between oligarchical families, organized crime, and the academic scribblers who promoted the “shareholder value” thesis. I think a long, sordid story will emerge. But is just part of the larger story of how the USA was destroyed from within by suffocating the impulse to promote the General Welfare.

  13. Tony Wikrent

    I have no idea why, but all the titles of the books I mentioned were stripped out in the process of posting. I apologize, but if Ian cares to investigate the software whys and wherefors, I did copy and paste all the book titles, mostly from Amazon.

  14. Dan Lynch

    I agree with many of the individual points Ian makes, but disagree that it’s all capitalism’s fault. The communist countries also had terrible environmental track records.

    That said, one thing that is uniquely bad about capitalism is that it needs growth to work, and growth is not sustainable.

    As for climate change being understood and accepted in the 70’s; no, only a few scientists were confident about global warming in the 70’s. Myself I don’t recall even hearing about the global warming theory until the late 80’s, and like many I was skeptical at first. It takes more than a few scientists to build a movement to make the radical changes required to address global warming.

    I blame climate change on human population growth. Capitalism facilitated and encouraged that growth, but is not totally to blame.

  15. Bill

    I have no idea what a grandiose statement like “capitalism has failed” even means. The problem is the (mal)implementation of capitalism – specifically, producers’ tendency to leave off the books costs that are inconvenient, like pollution. This has a long history, and it’s something that NEW (Net Economic Welfare) tries to rectify over that older form of accounting, i.e., GNP.

    That actors such as Exxon went from listening to their own scientists in the late 1970s to obfuscating, lying and propagandizing like the tobacco industry did before them is not an inherent failure of capitalism – it’s the failure of policing bad actors.

    Oligarchy is also just the reemergence of feudalism, a power structure that preceded capitalism; oligarchy seeks to subvert markets.

    Where capitalism might have failed is its conceptualization of everything in terms of market value. Nature is merely raw material for finished goods. That might not be too bad if our population didn’t far exceed nature’s ability to bend to this role.

    The other problem is the division of capital and labor where the former is allowed to exert total control over the latter. This will only get worse as robots and drones (capital) supplant labor’s role to an ever greater degree. The only remedy is labor having some market (non-utopian Marxist) control/ownership over capital.

    I think it is too early in the skid into climate catastrophe to predict whether we can right ourselves. Solar is plunging in price and may supplant fossil fuels earlier than we can predict. The battery cars produced by Tesla, Google and Apple (and those other car companies) may be the beginning of the market-based gravitational pull away from fossil fuels that overcome the power of fossil fuel cartels.

    We do live in interesting times.

  16. S Brennan

    I’d like to add that the mechanism for much of this was taking place in the 70’s long before Reagan.

    Ignoring, for a moment the Democratic leadership’s shift to a younger, upper-class frat boy mentality, who encapsulated an ethos that prominently featured a disgust with sharing a bed with the working class. I mean, why would an upperclassman respect a man who wouldn’t “do the honorable thing” and get a college or medical deferment to avoid the war? That aside though, I’d like people to focus on the main culprit, unrestricted trade that allowed for massive political and labor arbitrage.

    By the mid-70’s it was clear US industry would have to spend a considerable sum to modernize industrial facilities in order to optimize productivity, reduce rising energy costs and meet newly established EPA standards, standards that were written by generation that was about to put down the reigns of power. And who would benefit from all this hard work*…well, in large part, the working class. With the passing of the old Democratic leaders, there was no longer a lobby for working-class people, the generation who had to put food on the table for their family during the Great Depression was almost gone and their days of taking to the streets long past.

    Into this brief vacuum stepped the neoliberals, whose institutional desire for the gilded age remained strong. Those working people who knew of the gilded age calamitous crashes of great frequency were fading, or already in the grave. The old failed idea of unfettered capitalism was dusted off, renamed “new” and “liberal”, then the card trick of the century was slipped in…”free” trade. Trade without meaningful tariffs.

    Tariffs had played a role in the gilded age demise. Tariffs were despised by the upper class, because they wound up paying them when they brought in luxuries from across the globe…few items purchased by working people came other countries, most were domestically produced. Rich people paying their fair share, the horror, clearly, something had to be done!!!

    Tah Dah!

    “…The United States Revenue Act of 1913 also known as the Tariff Act, re-imposed the federal income tax following the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment and lowered basic tariff rates from 40% to 25%…well below the previous cut in tariffs accomplished by the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909.”

    At the time the exemption to income tax was close to $6,000/yr, about what it is today and it insured that only extremely well-off paid this tax….which seemed fair. But as most reading this know, the exception was lowered through the magic of inflation with more and more ordinary people paying a tax intended ONLY for the wealthy.

    But that was changed in 1932, when the wealthy found tax rates being raised so that they once again had to pay reasonable portions of their income…with EXTREMELY STRICT ENFORCEMENT came grudging compliance. What was meant to reduce the tax on the wealthy was being used as a weapon against them. At the same time, immigration was reduced to increase labor demand and tariffs were also reimposed and enforced. Economist love to lie their asses off on the subject of the Smoot–Hawley Tariff, but the reality is, 94% of the decline in international trade occurred before it’s enactment, so AT MOST, it is responsible for only 6% of the decline in trade. Those who know the facts, understand that he decline in world trade was sole they function of a worldwide depression, those who say otherwise are liars, fools or frauds.

    Back to the 70’s, the “new” gilded age would include “free” trade as it’s cornerstone and the history of tariffs would be the “big Lie” told over and over to justify it. “Free” trade would also allow the uppermost class from having to heavily invest in a “public good” of meeting newly established EPA standards and energy efficiency. The atlas was shrugged at just in the nick of time. And so it went. And so it goes. Had the tariff regime** remained in place, US industry would have had to clean up it’s act, labor would have remained a force and the downward spiral would have been drowned in the bathtub.

    *Work that was once considered managements reason for being

    **China uses tariffs very aggressively, it got the US to move it’s auto plants there by informing them of their implementation timetable…Detroit obliged to the letter, only the “useful tools” of the world believe them to be counter productive.

  17. Nicholas Swenson

    Why is it “RATIONAL” to be a greedy fuck? Why is it rational to not give a shit about future generations?Why is it rational to only care about what happens to your subjective perspective, fuck everything else? Why is it rational to ignore empathy, even for future generations? I’m not convinced, especially due your capitalization of the term. You’re subtly trying to force over a definition that doesn’t quite fit. Don’t do that. 😉

    See I don’t think you’re quite getting the full picture. I don’t think people ignored effects on future generation in such a discrete cost-benefit analysis. You’re giving them too much credit. They simply couldn’t realize how impactful their actions could be, simply due to the whole system skewing their access to information. They were locked into a capitalist mindset of competition, so they really couldn’t consider all the possible externalities, because that would mean losing. Fear of loss within a competitive environment literally locked out considering all the possible externalities, especially those so distant in the future. It truly is the system’s fault. It’s the manifestation of capitalism’s greatest fault: tragedy of the commons …

  18. Many children, to some degree, are trained by authoritarian parents to ignore and deny their own feelings and therefore they never develop empathy for others’ feelings. They do, however, develop deep feelings of anger, resentment, fear, and self-loathing that have nowhere to go and must be sublimated or taken out on someone else for that person’s mental survival.

    It’s not the system’s fault. Those systems are created and maintained by people. People make the choice to hurt others or make the choice to not care if others are potentially hurt.

  19. bob mcmanus

    Following VA’s links and reading more McPherson and learning about global dimming pretty well settled it for me. Near term extinction, like a decade or two.

    1) McPherson thinks Obama was briefed around inauguration. I am not sure I care anymore, maybe I actually hope there is an “ark” or “refuge” for a few thousand Saudi Princes and families to try to prolong the extinction.

    2) I am not sure, looking at long history, that there was an alternative. Humans are aggressive expansionist animals, and have repeatedly fouled their nest to the extent they were capable.

    3) Time for eulogies, post-mortems, elegies, recriminations whatever. Been a nice run for the human race, we got Cherubini and Coltrane Sistine Chapel and Joyce, Bergman and Ozu.
    Burned bright, died young. Prettier than dinosaurs.

  20. bob mcmanus

    I guess a question does remain:

    “Do we want to tell the kids?”

  21. Ian Welsh

    Capitalism is a decision making method, nothing more or less. Communism was no better in this regard, but communism didn’t control most of the resources of the world for the last 200 years.

    Industrialization is certainly to blame in a sense; but we could have kept the gains of industrialization and avoided the worst of what is to come.

    As for fossil fuels, yes, of course, in a mechanical sense they are to blame. Why did we not transition off them once we knew they were going to destroy us?

  22. Kurt

    Has anyone come across any thoughtful projections of the human costs of climate change by the end of the century? I have been looking for serious attempts to estimate climate-related mass migration, loss of crop yields, effects on public health and mortality, etc. but have not been able to find anything that attempts a comprehensive model.

  23. capelin

    3) Time for eulogies, post-mortems, elegies, recriminations whatever. Been a nice run for the human race, we got Cherubini and Coltrane Sistine Chapel and Joyce, Bergman and Ozu.
    Burned bright, died young. Prettier than dinosaurs.

    and that passage. thanks

  24. bob mcmanus

    “Has anyone come across any thoughtful projections of the human costs of climate change by the end of the century?”

    Guy McPherson is I think a little bit crazy for links and cites, being an academic, but if you look around VA’s link at #1, given time and effort I am sure you can find what you want. From my reading today, I do remember McPherson has raised the current annual cost in lives from 500k t0 5 million a year.

    There ain’t gonna be no end of the century. Time stops before that.

    Let me introduce to you to Doctor Kubler-Ross.

    “…but we could have kept the gains of industrialization and avoided the worst of what is to come.”

    As a Marxian, I have a lot of difficulties with counterfactuals. There is no escape from history.

  25. V. Arnold

    bob mcmanus
    January 25, 2016

    A kindred soul apparently; you’re the first person to respond in a positive way to McPherson’s thorough research which goes very deep into reality.
    Capitalism is a vile and destructive system which suits human nature to a tee. What a perfect union; and a suicidal union made in the heavens…
    Make the best of the time left…

  26. EmilianoZ

    Everything has a beginning and an end. For sure, capitalism has now outlived its utility. Even MLK acknowledged that capitalism may have had a democratic purpose at the beginning. But by the 50ies, MLK already knew capitalism was past its expiry date (see the links about that on NC around MLK day). Today we’re way past the diminishing returns phase and well into the negative returns phase.

    Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean the ideology will disappear. It can still be maintained artificially. An example of that is religion. There was a time when the main religions were a vital progressive force. The cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, Bach’s music, El Greco’s paintings (to cite a few achievements) are the proof that religions were once a living force capable of producing greatness. At the beginning, Islam was also a progressive force. In Persia (now Iran), Islam ended the caste system (similar to India) that existed there. In the Middle Age, the Islamic empire had advanced science compared to Europe. Today nothing good comes out of religion anymore but billions are still believers.

    I’m not sure global warming was strongly established in the 70ies. Climate science relies heavily on computer simulations. Computing power was ridiculous at that time. Today’s iphone has more computing power than the best computers of the 70ies. Global warming was probably just an hypothesis at that time, one with good grounds, but still just an hypothesis. Around that time some scientists were worried about a new ice age. Telling people they had to reduce their standards of living because of an hypothesis was a non-starter.

    Maybe we could have developed the science, the computing power earlier, had we not sunk so much resources into the arms race during the cold war. Here capitalism has to take the blame. It was well known that the communist block was purely defensive. The arms race was not necessary. But as Eisenhower said, the industrial military complex had to be fed.

    It can even be that nothing could have been done. Some diseases develop silently without any obvious signs. When the signs become obvious, it is already too late. In that case, we can only say like Charles Bovary: “C’est la faute a la fatalite.”

    Suburbs are evil. Suburbs are America’s biggest mistake. Suburbs were invented to save capitalism. Give every man his little castle to defend and he’ll become a conservative, he’ll be a good consumer spending money to beautify his little nest, he’ll develop a healthy sense of individualism. I now live in the city, in DC. For a little while I lived in the suburbs (Bethesda). The sight of the carefully manicured gardens, the residents eyeing outsiders suspiciously always made me want to puke.

  27. Hugh

    Sherman was about the only person who thought the Civil War was going to be long and bloody, and even he admitted he seriously underestimated its severity and costs. He was initially dismissed for his assessments. In 1898, Bloch published his The Future of War in which he argued, using for his time a really impressive use of technical data, that war was impossible because it would destroy the countries involved. This did not stop the belief following the events of August 1914 that the troops would be home by Christmas or prevent the destruction, destabilization, and impoverishment of many of those countries. The Club of Rome came out with its Limits to Growth in 1972. James Hansen brought climate change to the fore in 2005 when he reported that the Bush Administration was monitoring his work and limiting his access to the public. My point is that there were people who saw what was coming but it was even worse than they thought and their foresight was either ignored or suppressed by elites and the public remained wildly uninformed.

    My views are similar to Ian’s but not identical. He speaks of oligarchy while I prefer kleptocracy because I think the events we are living through can only be understood in terms of crime. The rich and elites justify their wealth and privileges by contending that they know what’s going on so they can not maintain they don’t know they are looting the rest of us. They can make their crimes “legal”. They can refuse to prosecute them, but what they can’t do is make them not crimes. There is nothing rational about their blind worship of markets and their idolization of capitalism, except that these provide the perfect cover for their looting. There is no agency. Markets and capitalism are treated as forces of nature. They just are, and as such, unchallengeable.

    I also see the primary problem as overpopulation. It is this which is driving climate disruption, resource exhaustion, and ecosystem destruction. I see world population peaking at around 9-10 billion by 2040-2050 followed by a 90% dropoff to a billion or less by 2100 due to war, starvation, and disease. The rich and elites don’t care anything about any of this because they are by their nature perfect parasites. They will feed upon us until they kill us and after that they will feed as long as possible upon our carcases, and then they will, like we, die. There is nothing rational about this. There is no endgame. It is just the nature of the beast. Sure many of the rich and elites of today will still die in comfort, but the important thing to understand here is that even if everything fell apart long before they made their exit, they would still act the same, as parasites.

  28. V. Arnold

    January 25, 2016

    I’m not sure global warming was strongly established in the 70ies. Climate science relies heavily on computer simulations. Computing power was ridiculous at that time. Today’s iphone has more computing power than the best computers of the 70ies. Global warming was probably just an hypothesis at that time, one with good grounds, but still just an hypothesis. Around that time some scientists were worried about a new ice age. Telling people they had to reduce their standards of living because of an hypothesis was a non-starter.

    Unfortunately, your post is a perfect example of the failure of critical thinking extant in most humans.
    As far back as the late 1800’s some people were already aware of human’s negative impact on the planet. Anybody living in London during the heyday of coal burning could see the future.
    To use the lack of technology as an excuse for ignorance is just ludicrous. And again, another form of denial so strong in, especially, U.S.’s culture of learned helplessness.
    You would be well advised to study the history of U.S. education and its teaching of infantilization as a means of docility of the masses.
    You could start with John Taylor Gatto’s Underground History of American Education or Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society.

  29. Ramona

    I, too, think we have come to the end of capitalism. Indeed, I wonder each morning if I have woken up to a world in which all capital is frozen, i.e. evaporated.

    Humans have regenerated from as few as 2,000 during the bottleneck tens of thousands of years ago; however, whomever was left would have to be human 2.0 in order to survive a radically different ecosphere.

    I’m 68 and glad of it most of the time. I am about to retire which means no longer teaching 18+ year olds that their future is grim.

    We could still do something: maybe. But the change would have to be massive, global, come from the 99% and require a long list of miracles.

    Nothing else is worth fooling around with although my personal projects will soon turn to documenting my ride through all this. If something survives, perhaps my story will help explain it all to ET who can phone in our history for the akashic records.

    Life of some sort will continue. Maybe the dolphins can survive if we die off. I would like that.

    I don’t believe humans are hardwired to produce this catastrophe; we just got bamboozled by capitalism at precisely the wrong moment.

    Aliens might be interested in helping.

  30. Some Guy

    ‘The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we are forced to do so. For when asceticism was carried out of monastic cells into evervday life, and began to dominate worldly morality, it did its part in building the tremendous cosmos of the modern economic order. This order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism, not only those directly concerned with economic acquisition, with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last ton of fossilized coal is burnt.”

    In Baxter’s view the care for external goods should only lie on the shoulders of the “saint like a light cloak, which can be thrown aside at any moment.” But fate decreed that the cloak should become an iron cage.”

    Weber, from ‘Asceticism and the Spirit of Capitalism’

    Personally, I side with those who think the problems with humanity run much deeper. Observing the behaviour of toddlers, I often find myself noting, ‘this is why all the other species on the planet are going extinct.’ It’s a joke, but it’s not.

  31. reslez

    It’s becoming clearer that the fossil fuel industry knew about anthropogenic global warming way before the rest of us, much like tobacco. NC has been covering the story:

    Exxon’s Oil Industry Peers Knew About Climate Dangers in the 1970s, Too

    The American Petroleum Institute [API] together with the nation’s largest oil companies ran a task force to monitor and share climate research between 1979 and 1983, indicating that the oil industry, not just Exxon alone, was aware of its possible impact on the world’s climate far earlier than previously known. […]

    An InsideClimate News investigative series has shown that Exxon launched its own cutting-edge CO2 sampling program in 1978 in order to understand a phenomenon it suspected could harm its business. About a decade later, Exxon spearheaded campaigns to cast doubt on climate science and stall regulation of greenhouse gases. The previously unpublished papers about the climate task force indicate that API, the industry’s most powerful lobbying group, followed a similar arc to Exxon’s in confronting the threat of climate change.

  32. Awesome, Ian.

    Only thing is: peeps in the aggregate are mostly as smart as you, Ian. I mean: look at the responses on here!

    And we have trained the next gen to roll over and take it and keep on truckin’…

    And there are a FEW, v FEW hopeful signs amidst all the boomer angst that you express so well, Ian.

    You know what’s coming next: you should read my latest book.

    Well, turns out, in this case, it’s true. hahahaha

    Best to all,


    PS we REALLY should get together in person Ian.

    Happy New Year!


  33. Brian

    Define capitalism. Because without a definition this article is useless. If you mean the definition ‘ability to own and trade private goods.’, then wtf, you are basically saying the death of private ownership and the commodification and deterritorialization of goods… I don’t think that will ever die. Please define what YOU mean by what capitalism is defined by that is dieing.

  34. This does not mean that capitalism is entirely to blame, not directly. In 1980, the US was not yet an oligarchy. At that point, it took a mass movement, a constituency, to decide: “Fuck all that environmentalism and conservation crap.”

    That movement was headlined by Reagan and presaged by Thatcher in Britain.

    Jeremy Corbyn’s brother Piers in an article in last Sunday’s Observer claims that Margret Thatcher was to blame for raising the spectre of anthropogenic climate change in the UK. He claims it was used to promote the use of nuclear power over the use of coal to generate electricity and thus defeat the miners.
    Piers Corbyn does not accept that climate change is caused by human agency. What his brother thinks is not clear.

  35. Ian Welsh

    The request for a definition of capitalism amuses.

    Read up one post, or see the bottom of the post.

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