Inequality & Power: The
Economics of Class is available at the publisher’s (see Routledge.com) or at
amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, etc. Here is an excerpt (from Ch.
12 Confronting Inequality and Class, pp. 174-178):
Community and Biosphere
Connections between the increasingly threatening global ecological crisis of these times and the class system of the modern market economy are seldom highlighted in mainstream public discussion, even as awareness of the crisis heightens with news of each new environmental catastrophe. The connections are profound, however, and critical for any kind of satisfactory approach to the crisis if there is to be one. Increased recognition these days that a truly worldwide ecological crisis of sustainability is in progress raises real questions about all of modern industrial life and the social features that seem to go with it.
What is increasingly obvious is that high-output production per se -- the massively energy-using materials-transformation process that is globalized mass-production -- is the proximate source of the crisis. The unavoidable entropic by-products -- air and water pollution; soil, forest, fishery depletion; ecosystem imbalance and species extinction; environmental deterioration of all kinds -- accumulate to levels that cannot be sustainably accommodated by nature. The result is a critical threat not only to a great variety of living species but to human life itself.
Features of normal business competition in markets that are well-known and increasingly widely acknowledged are importantly to blame for all of this. First, it has been well understood by mainstream economists since early in the twentieth century that the problem of "externalities" is inherent in market systems. Market prices can only reflect costs that are themselves determined by the pricing of inputs in markets. Those costs that are not so determined do not get "internalized" into products' prices, and the latter then are distorted, as is product consumption in light of those distorted prices. The pollution and resource, environmental and ecological deterioration that arise in production for markets are the best known examples of such "side effects": they are real costs of production, and since markets cannot handle them, they go uncorrected as the goods the production of which causes them are over-consumed.
Equally well-known, albeit somewhat less widely acknowledged, is the fact that only public action and policy can prevent, repair or otherwise correct for such problems. The market itself can initiate neither regulation nor incentives otherwise to correct or prevent environmental destruction, these require public action to “internalize” the costs involved, since the latter remain otherwise externalities. Traditional government approaches include simple regulation, or pollution or environmental damage taxation, or subsidization of pollution or environmental damage control, as means of inducing the necessary business and/or consumer behavior. Conservative economists have pressed government environmental policy for the creation of novel property rights and markets as alternatives to the traditional approaches, for example, "cap and trade" systems in which pollution rights are created that can be exchanged in markets. It is not clear that the benefits of such “market-like” approaches over traditional approaches like regulation or taxation/subsidization are at all significant -- and even in such approaches, major government “interference” is required for creating and enforcing the property rights, overseeing compliance, regulating pollution levels and exchange of pollution rights, etc.
Even less widely acknowledged is the fact that appropriate levels of policy action are difficult or perhaps even impossible in the social, cultural and political environment of modern market systems, for government environmental policy in such systems will always tend to provide less than is necessary for real sustainability, just as many environmentalists have long argued. The reasons boil down to essentially this: The capitalist market system is growth compulsive, ever endlessly expansionist, propelled into new geographies and locations, new and more productive methods of production, new products and new variations on old ones, and perhaps most egregiously, new consumer wants and new ways of expanding them. A continually rising flow of new materials, processes and products is the result, and with them even more ecologically damaging "side effects". While government could perhaps, in principle, correct for the latter effects, it does not because its most critical role in a capitalist market economy arguably is not to regulate or oversee things in the public interest but to facilitate the growth compulsion of business: at every possible instance then, government in this economy tends to side with the need for growth not ecological sustainability.
A complete account of why this is so would be beyond the scope of this book, but a couple simple points are fairly clear. Government is responsive most to business, as we made clear in Chapter Eight. Business is, in general, growth compulsive in the sense that dynamic market competition rewards those businesses most committed to growth. Those businesses that are not so committed fall out along the way sooner or later, while on the other hand, government is most responsive to those that are biggest and have therefore the strongest growth compulsion. As for the rest of government's constituency, jobs depend on growth in a system that can find no other ways of providing them or of providing economic security otherwise, so most other people (and politicians) generally tend to side with business on the need for economic growth as well.
But the class system of economic inequality and its
associated power structures in modern market economies are a
critical part of this problem, and the problem goes much deeper
than merely the politics of growth vs. the environment. Analyses
of the breakdown of developed societies due to ecological
unsustainability in the historical and pre-historic past suggest
that the structures of social class are important elements in most
social collapses. The
ecologically suicidal consequences of those structures arguably
are compounded multi-fold in the social and economic context of
capitalist market systems.
First, while it is widely understood that rampant consumerism in individual behavior is the "ultimate cause" of resource depletion and ecological destruction of all kinds, consumerism is itself a consequence of more fundamental things. Certainly the advertising and marketing that are pervasive features of modern business, devoted as is the latter to expansionism in competitive markets -- and the hegemonic culture of consumerism now built upon this commercialism, as discussed in Chapter Nine -- are importantly to blame here. Yet that still does not quite get to the heart of the matter. For in order to be successful as business investments, advertising and marketing efforts must successfully appeal to other propensities in people than the simple need for goods and services per se, for the idea is get people to want more yet. It must therefore be asked, to what propensities do those efforts so successfully appeal?
In modern market systems, people are well-prepared to be wholly receptive to, and to seek and find various gratifications in, consumerist behaviors, even aside from the advertising and marketing environment in which they are surrounded. To begin with, because most people as wage-employees are subject to employers' power as analyzed in detail in this book, they must seek their personal fulfillment elsewhere than at work, insofar as the time spent there, the projects undertaken there, are not their own but their bosses'. As we discussed earlier, this kind of alienation extends as well into people's social lives generally, and indeed into their intellectual lives and their relationships with the natural world.
On the other hand, of course, businesses are all too willing to offer customers gratifications of all sorts for profit, i.e., in the form of commodities to be purchased. Thus it is natural in modern market systems for people to seek commodified gratifications in compensation for lives unfulfilled at work and in community, especially where other, non-commodified gratifications are increasingly hard to find (that is, in public goods consumption or in the commons). Consumerism thus has roots in the alienation lying at the very heart of production in modern capitalist market systems. The commercial advertising and marketing industries merely aggravate people's need to seek compensatory gratification in consumption, finding easy targets as they appeal to, exploit and encourage consumerist approaches in people's pursuit of personal fulfillment.
Moreover, pecuniary emulation and conspicuous consumption, which are probably inevitable behavioral features of any class system, are strongly compounded in modern market systems by people's need to pursue compensatory gratification in personal consumption, as well as by the individualism and competitive striving and ambition such systems also induce in people. Pecuniary emulation and conspicuous consumption are key elements of the "consumer psyche" to which all advertising and marketing efforts strongly and overtly appeal. Thus it is commonplace in advertising to encourage emulation of other consumers who are at or above one's own level in society's economic status hierarchy -- the "Joneses" absolutely must be "kept up with" or passed if possible, and are at any rate a necessary benchmark for comparing and measuring one's own status position. And of course this is not possible without the specifics of one's own possessions, like those of everyone else, being at least as conspicuous to others' eyes as theirs are to one's own. The advertising and marketing appeal to these propensities is perhaps nowhere better exemplified than in the clothing, automobile, housing and related industries.
Consumerism therefore is not the "ultimate" source of today's global ecological crisis, but only the most immediately obvious one. It has its roots in the alienation and pecuniary emulation already recognized as part of this system long before the historic rise of the advertising and marketing industries. Individual efforts to resist these propensities in people's personal lives will certainly help the cause of dealing with the ecological crisis -- ecological sensitivity, conservation, and humility and moderation in people's personal consumption are, after all, the ultimate goal. But that goal is unlikely to be reached except for a minority when the larger context of the class system of the market economy is still unchanged.
Consider too the implications of conspicuous consumption and pecuniary emulation for the politics of dealing with the ecological crisis. Public action on the ecological crisis will require, of course, a broad and strong constituency favoring it, but that will that be even more difficult to attain than is suggested by the politics of "growth vs. the environment". Emulation by the broader population is, of course, emulation of precisely those with the greatest material consumption. It is moreover emulation of those whose values, views and behaviors most tend to conservatism in the face of developments requiring a wholly different attitude. For it is the most affluent who have, first, the greatest material interest in the status quo, insofar as their positions most depend upon carrying things on as they are, not upon changing them. And it is the most affluent who are, second, most able by virtue of their wealth to avoid the many inconveniences and life disruptions arising from the ecological crisis, and who are accordingly least inclined to be concerned about its material consequences. These then are the kinds of values and attitudes most emulated by the broader population: not a promising political constituency for dealing with the crisis, even assuming the emergence of strong leadership from among those of the powerful classes.
In history and in pre-history too, class societies have apparently been most harsh on their natural environments and at the same time least adaptable to the harsh consequences. In effect, the modern capitalist market society has greatly magnified at least the first of these two realities: its footprint on the biosphere has been incomparably greater than that of all other societies combined to date. While it is heralded for its adaptability in other ways, there seems little ground for confidence in its ability to successfully adapt its ways to the requisites of ecological sustainability in a world it has itself so profoundly dislocated. Contrary to the drift of most mainstream discussion on the matter, the problem of social class is a fundamental element of both the global ecological crisis of these times and of the modern market society's difficulty dealing with it: the crisis will not be dealt with satisfactorily unless that problem is engaged as well.