If we don’t get rid of it, capitalism is going to destroy society. It’s a system geared around delivering ever-increasing profits to big business, and enriching the sociopathic corporate elite that runs the economy. To do that, it needs constant economic growth. To fuel that growth, it needs fossil fuels and never-ending consumerism – and in one mad, 150-year binge after 200,000 years of relative human sobriety, it’s brought the ecosystem that supports us to the brink of catastrophic breakdown.
But we’re not doing anything about it. That’s despite melting icecaps, acidifying oceans, soaring temperatures, the loss of half the planet’s wildlife in the past forty years, and the loss of a third of its farmable land in the last thirty.
That’s because modern politics is essentially the art of maintaining the political and economic status quo. Society is governed by people that want things to stay as they are. They’re ultra-pragmatic careerists who oversee an economy that enriches the super-rich at the expense of everyone else, because it means they get richly rewarded themselves. They don’t want the world to end – but they’re not tough or brave or independent-minded enough to break away from a situation that benefits them and the elite interests they serve.
In short, mainstream politics is impervious to radical change. Leave it to the career politicians, and civilisation will burn. Try and bring in someone vaguely radical from the fringes instead – say, Jeremy Corbyn – and the politician class, the business elite, and the corporate-funded media will unite to destroy them.
If we’re going to avert catastrophe, it’s going to take tens of millions of ordinary people pushing for it instead – the general population starting to throw its weight around, bringing its overwhelming numerical superiority to bear, organising, boycotting things, being civilly disobedient and so on.
And now, with things the way they are, and society the way it is, I can see absolutely no prospect of that happening whatsoever. Thus, we’re probably all doomed.
Why do ordinary people do nothing about a looming crisis that could destroy civilisation as we know it?
- Because consumer culture has made us dumb and unquestioning.
Most people are apathetic, apolitical and catastrophically ill-informed about the world they live in.
That’s not really their fault. Mainstream culture has made them that way. It’s full of mindless entertainment, designed to churn out vapid drones only interested in themselves and buying things. A multi-trillion-dollar marketing system manipulates people into wanting things they don’t need to feed consumer capitalism’s systemic need for constant growth.
That means puddle-shallow films, music, TV programmes, magazines and more that make people feel good about rampant materialism, and keep them distracted from anything that might suggest rampant materialism isn’t a very clever idea, at least as far as not destroying the planet’s concerned.
That’s why tens of millions of people know next to nothing about the world outside their own everyday experience of it – let alone the fact that if we continue as we are for much longer, it’s curtains for society as we know it.
- Because the news media ignores big issues and suggests nothing ever changes.
The papers and the TV networks are run by profit-seeking corporations. They don’t broadcast anything that could threaten their ability to make profits. They don’t cover suffocating global poverty or vast inequality or climate change or anything else that could lead people to wake up one day and decide we need a radically different society.
Say ‘politics’ and the vast majority think of the House of Commons and Ten Downing Street – i.e. something totally irrelevant to their everyday lives. That’s because that’s exactly how the papers and the telly news presents it. ‘Politics’ is robotic solicitor-types in suits squabbling with each other in London and giving themselves pay rises.
The news media shuns issues of substance to obsess over the Westminster soap opera, and unsubtly cheerlead for privatisation, austerity, the growth economy and militaristic foreign policy. When bad things happen, the overriding message is ‘oh dear, that’s a shame, but there’s nothing you can do about it’.
And the end result is millions of people so (understandably) disgusted by the Westminster gravy train that they hate anything even vaguely political by association, and who believe that no matter how bad society is at the moment, it can’t ever be changed.
- Because the people with the most to gain from radical politics are the ones most bitterly against it
Capitalism uses and abuses the vast majority to benefit a tiny minority, and it’s those at the bottom of the social scale who get it the worst.
For forty years, the system’s been making life progressively harder for working class people. Since the 1970s, consumerism hasn’t been enough to satisfy the needs of the growth economy on its own – and the elite has responded by slashing budgets for housing, education, healthcare, and selling off public-owned assets to the profit-seeking private sector.
Now, it’s harder than ever to find housing you can afford, a good school for your children, and get a stable job that pays a decent wage. People know that, and they’re extremely angry. But over decades, the gutter press has used its colossal influence to channel that anger away from the real culprits – the elite – and encourage people to blame vulnerable scapegoats for their problems instead.
Years of exposure to the Sun and the Daily Mail have made working class people irrationally obsessed with immigrants and benefit cheats. Foreigners supposedly ‘steal their jobs’. ‘Scroungers’ get housing when they don’t.
They want borders closed, asylum seekers sent home, aid budgets abolished, welfare claimants thrown out onto the streets. They’re often fanatical about it. And they hate the Left – the bit of the population that wants to transform society in a way that would benefit working class people most of all (and that includes about the only people campaigning to save the environment) – because we stand up for migrants, welfare claimants and other vulnerable groups.
- Because the most educated people are also some of the most indoctrinated
In recent history, progressive politics has been most successful when working class people and affluent, university-educated people join forces.
Given that millions in the former group have been gradually moulded into mini-Mussolinis by too much exposure to the Daily Mail, that sort of alliance doesn’t seem feasible any more – but if any section of society was going to fully appreciate the catastrophe that awaits us without radical action, you’d think it would be the latter.
In practice, they’re often just as brainwashed as everyone else. Rich liberals aren’t usually racist, and they don’t read the Sun. But they’re still conditioned by the media they consume and the culture they’re a part of.
If tabloid readers have an instinctive bias towards the hard-right, a lot of broadsheet-rustlers have one towards the extreme centre – the idea that politics should essentially be non-ideological technicians trying to administrate capitalist society as efficiently as possible, occasionally introducing mild reforms, but doing nothing to fundamentally change the nature of societies rigged in favour of the wealthiest.
They’ve got a naïve but unshakable faith in social institutions that are really about oppression, exploitation and control. They might take issue with a few bad apples in the House of Commons, or the occasional unscrupulous corporation, but think that the British political system and the capitalist economy are essentially fine.
They’re arrogant, narrow-minded, and extremely susceptible to metropolitan groupthink. They’re educated, but demonstrate a stunning lack of critical thinking. They bitterly attack anyone too critical of the status quo – quickly slurring them as dumb, angry populists or dangerous extremists. And when they say things like ‘I hate Momentum because it’s full of women-hating anti-Semites’ – as I heard a former editor of the Reader’s Digest who’d never been to a Momentum meeting in her life say recently – they’re not all that different from Sun readers who think Polish people are eating their swans.
But despite all that, you still can’t give up.
So, in other words, whatever your standing in society, capitalism finds some way of brainwashing you into hating radical politics – now the only thing that can pull us back from the brink of ecological Armageddon.
But that doesn’t mean you can go home and happily spend the rest of your life eating pasties in the bath. The chances of saving society from itself might be tiny, but the stakes are too high to sit back and do nothing.
Do your very best to avoid helping the system kill the planet. Boycott things. Abstain from things. If you can avoid it, don’t drive a car. Resist consumer culture. Only buy things you need. Buy local wherever possible. Cut out as much meat from your diet as you can stand – it’s the easiest way of reducing your carbon footprint. If you earn more than you need, give the surplus away – people are starving in a world with enough food to make everyone alive fat.
On the organisational front, help keep left-wing, ecological politics alive. Support attempts to build ways of communicating and sharing news outside the mainstream. I know it’s hard, you’re tired, the working day is long, but try and go to meetings, and get involved with political groups near you. That sort of grassroots organising – yes, multiplied by about a thousand, but you have to start somewhere – is about the best bet we’ve got of transforming society from below. The basic aim is simple – ensuring that if, in ten, fifty, a hundred years’ time, a more fertile situation for radical politics comes about, there’s enough of a radical infrastructure there to take advantage of it.
If that’s sounds like a long, hard, unsatisfying slog, with little to no hope of a positive outcome in your lifetime, that’s because it is.
That might depress you, or make you want to give up. But if it does, you need to think about the kids being born today who have to try and live on this planet long after we’re all dust in a box.
Never lose sight of what’s at stake. Every minute of every day, somebody somewhere is suffering unintelligibly for reasons we have the resources to prevent a thousand of times over – and without the most drastic action, climate change is going to make that situation much, much worse.
Not for our own sakes, but for billions in infancy now, and billions more yet to be born, we have to try our damnedest to save civilisation from itself.