An all-consuming greed by William Bowles

26 July 2007

‘The less you eat, drink, buy books, go to the theater, go dancing, go drinking, think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save and the greater will become that treasure which neither moths nor maggots can consume — your capital. The less you are, the less you give expression to your life, the more you have, the greater is your alienated life … So all passions and all activity are submerged in greed — Karl Marx, Notebooks, 1844 (emph. added)

While I writing this I’m listening to the delightful and delectable Bill Evans playing his heart out and I understand totally what the great man is saying, but I am not entirely surprised that some (perhaps many) people don’t understand Marx’s commentary on the destructive power that the accumulation of capital has on the individual. The reason I suspect has to do with how it rules our lives in ways that do not reveal the underlying causes of how the greed of a few powerful men determine the lives of the many, perhaps in part because we think we’d like to be where they are (isn’t this the heart of the fantasy that we’ve been sold)?

[H]is melodies became the elixir for the avarice that surrounded him.’ — From sleeve notes by Bob Belden to the Grant Green album ‘Live at the Club Mozambique’ recorded in Detroit in 1971 but not released until 2006. The album by the way, rocks.

The most obvious expression is the fetish of consumption which at first sight seems to be based on the power of advertising and marketing but there are much deeper desires at work here than meet the eye, desires that advertising exploits but does not create.

The problem is that we are literally immersed in a world of commodities almost to the exclusion of everything else, yet judging by the yearnings expressed for the natural world and for a past obliterated by the avalanche of a ficticious future that the possession of commodities promises, the illusion is wearing thin.

Now nobody denies that we need things above and beyond the basics of food, clothes and shelter. We also need books, music, trips to the country, indeed all kinds of things are necessary to living a full life but the question arises as to whether we need them for the sake of possessing them or because they make our lives richer and more fullfilling?

It’s also clear that the possession of things doesn’t necessarily make us ‘happier’ or more fulfilled as human beings, indeed it can be argued that the desire to possess is an addiction that has nothing to do with the intrinsic value of the objects possessed but to do with the expectation that their possession promises to the possessor, a promise that can never be fulfilled except by continued accumulation of yet more things, and judging by the amount of junk that fills people’s homes (most of which never gets used), it’s a treadmill that is awfully difficult to get off once on.

The underlying motivation for the production of things resides elsewhere, in the nature of the economic system itself, where the direction and nature of production is determined by forces which are the result of the inexorable ‘logic’ of capitalism, much of it powered by war or preparing for one.

Thus following WWI, the automotive industry ‘took off’ because an enormous capacity had been built to supply engines for the war but once ended the capacity had to be utilised in some other way — enter the age of the automobile. The same thing happened following the end of WWII only this time it was the aircraft industry which had to find new markets for its war products in the civilian sector (which were initially based on military aircraft designs). Enter the age of global tourism and global war of course. [1]

The computer and the global telephone network are also spinoffs from the military-industrial complex, and in all the examples, it was the state which financed the initial investment either directly or indirectly through subsidies, tax breaks and the of funding umiversity research programmes.

The point is, what we take for granted, mass air travel for example, is the result of serendipitous actions on the part of capital to create new markets and nothing more. That millions travel the world as a result and with it the creation of tourism is neither here nor there, nor is the damage both physical and cultural to national cultures (and now the climate) that mass tourism inflicts of any concern to those with capital.

The problem that confronts us is that once created, undoing it is virtually impossible — who could deny working people the ‘right’ to a cheap holiday in Ibiza or Buenes Aires or the ‘right’ to own a car regardless of the damage it does to our environment (or impinge on the ‘rights’ of those who do not own a car).

And herein lies the rub as they say, we’re all along for the ride whether we want to be or not and regardless of the consequences, but the reality is that if it were not for the control of resources and markets that the capitalist world has, none of these ‘rights’ would exist in the first place.

But given that time seems to be running out for us, do we have any choice but to confront our demons and if so, how? This is the dilemma that confronts socialists and it goes to the very heart of what a socialist economy is all about and one made more urgent by the need to reestablish our relationship with Nature instead of riding roughshod over it.

But the choices confronting us due to the impact that climate change is having on our world are making it abundantly clear to ever greater numbers of people that we can’t have both; either we change the way we live or we perish.

With great swathes of central England under water (and some 300,000 without clean water or electricity) it should also be obvious by now that the ruling elites have neither the desire or the ability to transform our economy so that it once more exists in harmony with Nature, but this is what it’s going to take, it’s unavoidable. The havoc caused in central England by some rain also highlights just how fragile our ‘civilisation’ really is, with millions of people living in flood plains. Imagine the effects of such a disaster on the peoples’ of the poor countries of the world if we in the so-called developed world are powerless to do anything about it!

It also seems obvious to me that real socialism is intrinsically ‘green’, thus the terms ‘ecosocialism’ or ‘green socialism’ are redundant descriptions (but perhaps a necessary step to reestablish our credentials as the only alternative to capitalism?).

Viewed in this light the task though by no means a simple one, is obvious: we have to reorder our priorities, namely a more modest ‘lifestyle’, the reestablishment of the ‘collective commons’ by bringing the major sectors of the economy back under real democratic public control, but now on a global scale. In reality we own nothing, all that we have belongs to Nature (of which we are a part) and once we’ve finished mucking it up, it will, one way or the other, be returned to Nature with or without us.


1. For more on this aspect I highly recommend David F. Noble’s ‘Forces of Production‘ which explores in detail the relationship between ‘innovation’ and war and a lot more beside.

It’s also worth checking out the following two essays on the Climate and Capitalism Website, ‘Business As Usual Will Cause Catastrophic Sea Level Rise‘ by James Hansen and the essay by Joel Kovel, ‘Why Ecosocialism Today?

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