Monbiot, neo-liberalism, and the climate

George visited Leeds on 18th May to publicize his book “How did we get into this mess?” He is devastating on the stranglehold neo-liberalism has over world affairs generally, and the way all but 0.1%, not 1%, are already enslaved by it, and how the philosophy has laid waste to so much potential beneficial activity. But only when discussing Keynesianism as the only apparent alternative in the field did he explicitly refer to climate change as a major threat. (Keynes is silent on this), though George did also point out widespread ecological devastation.

However, I was able to ask a question, in answer to which he confirmed that the Citizens’ Basic Income would indeed be a valuable component in any attempt to stem the neo-liberal tide. His talk outlined the problem. The plug for the visit said the book offered solutions, but if the Basic Income was among them,  he did not say so in his reply to my question.

Although the Basic Income is a practical measure, self evidently justified purely on social justice grounds, its relevance as central to the theme of George Monbiot’s talk – and book – is much wider. It can, I say will, begin the shift in mind sets which George so graphically demonstrated as necessary. The clue here is Milton Friedman’s support for the idea. Of course Friedman’s version was some distance from the more common models proposed by social justice proponents. Also, like most of them, Friedman was not to my knowledge concerned with Limits to growth, but what is important is that the 0.1%, those over whom the rest of us have no control whatsoever, have an incentive to consider a Basic income.

I frequently mention Enough is Enough by Dan O’Neill and Bob Dietz, and Prosperity without Growth by Tim Jackson as excellent books explaining how a no-growth, sustainable economy could work. But what neither book offers is a reason why those driving the devastation – the neo-liberals – should stop doing what they are doing any time soon.

Unfortunately the problem is much knottier than that. The Club of Rome did attempt to start just such a move as long ago as 1968, but The Tragedy of the Commons explains why it has not yet protected the ecosphere. Oddly enough, I don’t blame the neo-liberals. In her Book The Origin of Capitalism: a longer view (Verso, 2002) Ellen Meiksins Wood explains that the monetization of transactions in place of transfers in kind in mediaeval England created opportunities which very quickly brought imperatives in their train. Anyone who did not obey these imperatives was at a serious disadvantage, hence the rapid spread of capitalism world-wide. Neo-liberalism is merely the final refinement of that logic and philosophy.

Suppose that a neo-liberal did worry that she or he was damaging the ecosphere. Growth is the key to why they cannot stop. A growth milieu is competitive. All you achieve by not competing is to lose market share. You can do nothing to save the environment on your own. Wood accuses other theories of capitalism of assuming what they claim to prove, but what they actually take for granted is growth itself.

Although those who have been the winners until now, and still are, will not suffer as much as the rest of us from continued ecological devastation whatever forms it takes, they will not escape unscathed. They do have an incentive to preserve the ecosphere, and everything which depends on it, including the potential for future profits. Even the CEO of Exxonmobil, who is playing a harder game of poker than most, does realize this.

How will a Basic income help? Once everyone has basic needs, they can start to make decisions on what is sustainable. A return to a more communal ethos (and hence a retreat of privatization) may not follow immediately, but that will, I think will be the inevitable logic of preserving the ecosphere as the first priority.

I do not argue against those who talk about a crisis of capitalism. They are right. Without a Basic Income the grimmer scenarios look more probable, but eventually even the CEO of Exxonmobil will have to pay lip service to the new ethos brought about by the concept that everyone gets basic needs, and preserving the ecosphere is in his interests. Capitalism will not be smashed. The neo-liberals will remain massively richer than the rest of us, but everyone will have a share, and if you personally have the ability, then you too can join the neo-liberals – within ecological constraints.


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