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Monday 10 March 2008 Letters
The greening of capitalism
Have capitalists manufactured scarcity?

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Letters responding to: The greening of capitalism by Frank Furedi

I agree with Furedi that James Heartfield may be wrong in implying that manufactured scarcity is a conspiracy dating from the seventies. But if environmentalism was a fringe thing then, it became embraced by New Labour after the failure of their knowledge economy ideas, as Heartfield says. And whilst capitalists may not be consciously aware of what they are doing, they tend to stick with something that works, and so far, green capitalism is working for them.

Furedi also argues that Heartfield’s contention that green capitalism can get away with deliberately manufacturing scarcity may be misplaced. For Heartfield, manufacturing scarcity is a new organising dynamic of capitalism. In the past, a key way that capitalism could sustain making profits was by cheapening commodities through mass technologically-improved production. In turn, these cheapened commodities cheapened the value of labour power because wages could now purchase more for less hence a wage cut could be lived with. But with the new manufactured scarcity, this process is artificially subordinated to one of increasing commodity values. An example of this is the housing market where the lack of new homes has pushed housing beyond many people’s reach. Scarcity means the houses are now overpriced. However capitalist competition would normally mean new homes would be built and so the prices would revert to the real values, and so scarcity would be overcome and old ways of securing profitability would return. This is why Furedi thinks Heartfield is misplaced: competition will ensure that manufactured scarcity is only a temporary blip.

However the greening of capitalism may yet prove to negate this idea and support Heartfield’s thesis. If one considers the moral outrage now directed at irresponsible businesses from all sections of society, it might be that the new morality and new laws which accompany green capitalism will actually hinder any re-emergence of competition on this issue. An individual capitalist wanting to build new non-green houses would be treated as a rogue, and he would probably fall foul of laws banning building on the green belt, or brownfield sites for example. We have already seen this with food, post-Jamie Oliver. Even McDonald’s now has to sell carrot sticks and fruit. Would an old-fashioned fast-food outlet actually get the go-ahead today from town planners? And with Marks & Spencer charging 5p for a carrier bag, and Gordon Brown banning the rest, doesn’t this show that the new morality is so intense, no-one will dare compete to undermine the ethos of scarcity?

Barry Curtis, UK

I recently read James Heartfield’s Green Capitalism - Manufacturing Scarcity in an Age of Abundance and found it very stimulating. I then read Furedi’s review on spiked and I thought it was misplaced in its criticisms of Heartfield’s important work.

Firstly, it’s unfair to say that Green Capitalism reads history backwards in terms of the ascendancy of Green ideas. Heartfield does cite the report The Limits To Growth which was commissioned in the 1970s and does go on to point out the elitist background of many of today’s environmentalists. But a careful reading of Green Capitalism shows it is not saying that this was a pre-planned strategy launched in the 1970s which only bore fruit in the 1990s. In fact Heartfield explicitly makes clear that there were two key factors responsible for the ascendancy of green views; the demise of the Soviet Union which led radicals to take up green politics and the capitalist retreat from production (see p.29 Green Capitalism).

While Furedi congratulates James Heartfield for doing an excellent job of alerting us to the importance of the economic reorganisation that is taking place under the environmentalist imperative he goes on to say it is far from clear to what extent this process represents a new dynamic towards the construction of scarcity. This is really an empirical argument and in Green Capitalism, Heartfield gives several really good examples that support the manufacturing scarcity argument. These are carbon trading, clean energy and negawatts, land retirement creating food scarcity, and the green belt choking off new homes.

The argument about scarcity is also wider than this. Capitalists engage in production to make a profit and they have absolutely no interest in meeting total demand. And Heartfield is right to point out that they do not really want a race to the bottom. In the marketplace, capitalists spend thousands of pounds advertising their products in an attempt to make them distinct. From Levis jeans to Marks & Spencer salmon, the emphasis is on creating a unique product which is invariably more expensive than its cheaper imitations. In addition, at certain times, capitalists in a monopoly or oligopoly are in a position to control access to the market and thereby make additional profits through limiting supply. Whilst Furedi is correct to point out that this is not a long term solution, Green Capitalism does not fall into this trap. Heartfield explicitly states using green business strategies to engineer scarcity is not a long-term strategy for success - it is a means to sustain profitability in the here and now and points out that there will always be a clash between the capitalist instinct to produce more goods and its narrower goal of making profits. Furedi is correct to point out green ethics may provide the market with unprecedented opportunities to expand consumption through the creation of new demands which is a point Heartfield astutely makes in Green Capitalism when talking about green consumption.

At a time when environmentalist ideas dominate the political landscape, Green Capitalism is a timely and well researched book. I thought Furedi’s review was unduly harsh and misplaced in its criticisms.

Mark Aldulaimi, UK

 

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