Adrienne Buller: Freedom, Democracy, Justice: The Illusions of Green Capitalism

Adrienne Buller is the Director of Research at Common Wealth. Adrienne’s writing and work has appeared in the Guardian, Jacobin, the New Statesman, New Left Review, and Financial Times, among others.

In this excerpt from her most recent book, The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism (Manchester UP, 2022), she discusses the concept of green capitalism, which seeks to address the ecological crisis through market-based solutions and centers around two strategies: commodifying governance of phenomena and using the state as a facilitator of new market domains, both of which ultimately want to privatise the response to ecological crisis and transfer complex ethical and political questions to the private authority of markets.

“In ecological crisis, capitalism confronts both an unprecedented threat to its fundamental operating logics, and an opportunity to turn (for a finite period) the mitigation of that threat into a new terrain for profit. Green capitalism, reflects this blend of threat and opportunity, and is centred around two broad strategies for minimising the former while maximising the latter. The first strategy is to commodify and render market-compliant the governance of phenomena from carbon emissions to the ‘services’ provided to the economy by ecosystems and biodiversity. The second is to use the state as a facilitator of new market domains and as a ‘de-risker’ of private capital, in line with the Wall Street Consensus articulated by Daniela Gabor.

In lieu of public investment and capacity, green capitalist approaches thus advocate the use of state capacity—particularly for handling risk—to safeguard and shepherd private capital into previously undesirable areas through a heady blend of market making, incentive, and guarantee. In practice, these approaches operate in a somewhat blurred sequence, with the establishment of markets for trading emissions permits, for instance, immediately followed and supplanted by the market for derivatives and other financial products based on these new commodities, with financial risk often shifted, willingly, onto the state and public.

Within both of these strategies—and running through the numerous green capitalist policies and solutions explored in this book—is a central thread: the effort to privatise the response to ecological crisis. In other words, green capitalist solutions seek to transfer the complex, ethically and socially fraught, and inherently political questions presented by ecological crisis from democratically contestable terrain to the private authority of markets, with outcomes ultimately driven by the self-interest of rational actors motivated by profit. For disciples of ‘free market’ economic liberalism, the idea that green capitalism seeks to shift authority over the collective response to ecological crisis to the private sphere will appear as a grave misreading of the market and the price mechanism as the ultimate terrain of democracy. To quote Ludwig von Mises, among the most prominent free market thinkers: ‘The capitalist system of production is an economic democracy in which every penny gives a right to vote.’ In this view, the market is an innately democratic system, in which actors arrive freely as equals and make their voices heard through spending or withholding their money. As a result, the market is also an arbiter of justice and good democratic governance, as it penalises those businesses or actors whose actions or offerings are deemed undesirable.

Any casual observer of the political systems of the US or UK, among others, will understand immediately that this vision is a fantasy. The scale of economic power exercised by the vast corporate persons and financial firms that today dominate the global economy all but erases the power any individual has in making their voice heard. Indeed, corporations routinely have outsized sway in formal political democratic processes as well, with lobbying power and political donations often setting incredibly narrow terms within which politicians can operate.

Distributions of wealth are radically unequal and their increasingly strict relationship to asset ownership makes the ever-elusive aspiration of ‘social mobility’ increasingly untenable. We produce more than enough food every day to feed everyone on Earth, yet each year over one billion tonnes is left to waste, as an estimated 800 million live in hunger and ‘chronic malnourishment’. The freedom to consume affordable goods is increasingly predicated on the reciprocal unfreedom and exploitation of those within the supply chains of those goods, from garment workers to seasonal agricultural labourers. It is difficult to maintain that this is a system defined by its promotion of democracy, genuine freedom, or justice.

The scale of economic power exercised by the vast corporate persons and financial firms that today dominate the global economy all but erases the power any individual has in making their voice heard.

In fairness, free market thinkers acknowledge that expansive inequalities exist and indeed that people may take issue with them; within the market-led value system, however, these are not problematic. To borrow again from Mises: ‘It is true that the various individuals have not the same power to vote. The richer man casts more ballots than the poorer fellow. But to be rich and to earn a higher income is, in the market economy, already the outcome of the previous election.’ Thus, the issue of the enormously unjust ‘pre-distribution’ of wealth and, correspondingly, democratic power, is deemed entirely fair—the reflection of democratic will previously exercised. Similarly, substantive equality is not of concern, provided the conditions of formal equality are met.

This relative disinterest in substantive inequality is integral rather than incidental to market-led economics and systems of governance. As theorist Stuart Hall wrote, this ‘liberal’ approach to governance embodies an inescapable tension ‘between its universalistic claims on behalf of all citizens and its alignment with the interests of particular sections of society; between its commitment to representative government and its doubts about universal democracy.’ It is a disinterest that also, ultimately, deals the strongest blow to the prospects of green capitalism as a viable or desirable programme for confronting ecological crisis. Vast tree planting projects in service of carbon offset demands are already driving major land grabs across many regions of the Global South, and their widespread uptake—in combination with other non-solutions such as massive scaling up of crops for bioenergy—is placing the stability of the global food supply at additional risk. Resistance to the perception of anti-democratic ‘elite’ climate politics perceived to place unjust burdens on the working poor is widespread (if not always in good faith), from the gilets jaunes in France to the UK parliament’s ‘Net Zero Scrutiny Group’. At the same time, the foregrounding of profit-motivated solutions risks exacerbating the very inequalities driving ecological crisis in the first instance. It is for this reason that the solutions of green capitalism—whether carbon pricing, ESG or habitat banking—are self-defeating.

So, should we accept green capitalist solutions? The answer, to me, is clear. Market-based solutions do not offer a path to safety for the world’s majority, let alone a future that is defined by collective abundance and wellbeing. At best, green capitalist solutions are a deadly distraction from the urgent task of actually slowing, reversing, and adapting to climate and ecological crisis; at worst, they are actively undermining our ability to do so”.

This excerpt has been taken from The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism (Manchester UP, 2022)

This article courtesy of Progressive International.

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