Friday, September 29, 2006

Beyond the market economy

Awareness is emerging that neither the international system of carbon trading, nor myriad individual actions, nor even a combination of the two can stem the acceleration of global warming towards a predicted cataclysmic change in climate resulting from the recent period of capitalist globalisation. Concerned observers, activists and academics are now beginning to question and doubt the oft-repeated end-of-history mantra that capitalist production and the free market constitute the highest possible development of human society.

As mass protests fail to impress governments and proposals for reform fall by the wayside of history, there is now a growing interest in alternative ways of organising society. Inevitably and understandably there comes a re-examination of old forms and not-so-old proposals and experiments. In Market Schmarket* there is an eclectic but welcome stew of ideas. Unusually for a member of the Green Party, the author Molly Scott Cato, who is the organisation’s speaker on economics, explicitly pin-points the profit-driven capitalist economic system as the source of obesity and over-consumption; the epidemic of drug taking; global instability and war; and climate change.

Unlike many that call for various forms of regulation of corporate activity, Cato draws together a collection of ideas for solutions to some of the myriad of problems which contribute to contemporary ills. Even more unusually she (re)introduces some ideas for a society based on premises quite different from the shareholder-value, profit-driven growth which underpins capitalist social relations. She is highly critical of the campaigns to end poverty without replacing the system of exploitation at the heart of capitalism, stating: "Unless we establish an economic system that does not rely on expropriation and exploitation, no amount of aid or trade is going to end world poverty. It is worse than naïve; it is a deception to argue that it might."

Equally forthright criticism is directed at the many who want to reform the world trade system. "My view is that anybody who argues merely for a renegotiation of the rules of the WTO either grossly underestimates the power of the corporations and the governments they control, or else is deliberately deflecting our energy." Cato’s vision of a new society is formed around mutualism as expressed in the employee-owned co-operative movement, and a new system of production and distribution that balances the needs of producers, consumers and the planet. Once this new system is in place, and the copyrighting of ideas replaced with "an empowering attitude towards knowledge that privileges the rights of humanity", it begins to be possible to introduce a more rational consideration of international trade.

According to Cato, the new system begins with throwing "the profit motive out the window. In its place we will put two simple alternative objectives: the maximisation of human well being and the protection of the planet". Re-organisation of the world economy can then take place around bioregionalism, where bioregions are largely self-sufficient natural social units determined by ecological concerns rather than economics.

It isn’t hard to criticise the weaknesses in this wide-ranging and extensive assessment. We are reminded of the huge debt-enabled growth of the global corporations and the extent to which they determine the policy of governments around the world. But little is said directly to help with taking them on and dismantling their interconnected web of power relations. There’s much more of a flavour of disengaging, turning aside and establishing alternative ways of living on a small scale alongside "a tactical compromise with the money system". There is no perspective for actually challenging the power of global capitalism or, crucially, the state political system that maintains it in place. These omissions expose the weakness of the Green Party’s reformist approach to politics and economics. Nevertheless, Cato’s book is important because we as readers are challenged to consider other options, to learn lessons from history, and to begin to think about how we might organise society differently.

Gerry Gold, economics editor

* Market Schmarket, Building the Post-Capitalist Economy. Molly Scott Cato, New Clarion Press £13.95

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