“Green Economy?” We’re Not Green Enough to Buy It

In last month’s Rio +20 (UN Conference for Sustainable Development) declaration, “The Economy We Need,” RIPESS (French acronym for Intercontinental Network for the Promotion of Social and Solidarity Economy) dismisses the “so-called green economy” model promulgated “by governments and corporations” with the contempt it deserves.

There are at least two problems with the green economy movement. The first is highlighted in the RIPESS declaration: It is really a greenwashed attempt to create a new, greenwashed model of capital accumulation for global corporate capitalism, based on “the commodification of the commons.”

Green (or Progressive, or Cognitive) Capitalism, like the first Industrial Revolution, is based on a large-scale process of primitive accumulation (a technical term Marxists use that means “massive robbery”).

The primitive accumulation preceding the rise of the factory system in industrial Britain involved the enclosure of common lands: First of a major portion of the Open Fields for sheep pasturage over several centuries in late medieval and early modern times, then the Parliamentary Enclosures of common pasture, woodland and waste in the 18th century.

The new greenwashed model of corporate-state capitalism, as the RIPESS declaration suggests, achieves primitive accumulation through the enclosure of the information commons. Economist Paul Romer calls it the “new growth theory.” It’s based on enclosing digital information and innovation — things which are naturally free — as a source of rents. This “progressive” model of capitalism, promoted by Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Bono, is even more heavily reliant on patents and copyrights than the existing version of corporate capitalism.

The “green capitalist” model is intended as a response to the primary threat facing corporate capitalism and its model of capital accumulation: Technologies of abundance. If allowed to operate without hindrance, the free adoption of low-cost, ephemeral production technologies and the radical deflationary effect of freely replicable digital information would not only destroy most existing corporate profits but render most investment capital superfluous.

It’s this threat, all the “progressive” rhetoric aside, that “green capitalism” is intended to head off. It’s a last-ditch effort to rescue an entire system of class privilege and economic exploitation based on artificial scarcity from the revolutionary impact of abundance.

The Solidarity Economy model promoted by RIPESS — and by my free market anticapitalist comrades at the Center for a Stateless Society — is just the opposite. What we seek is a self-organized, decentralized economy, in which ordinary people take advantage of new technologies of abundance (like low-cost production technologies and free information) to build an economy of our own in which the rentier classes’ huge accumulations of land and capital are worthless.

This was foreshadowed by the Owenite cooperatives of the 1830s, in which unemployed tradesmen undertook production in cooperative shops, marketing their wares to their fellow workers for Labor Notes in barter exchanges. The problem was that this model only worked for craft trades in which the tools of production were still individually affordable. It didn’t work in forms of industrial production which relied on large, specialized, and extremely expensive machinery. The Knights of Labor learned this the hard way four decades later when their efforts at creating worker cooperatives ran head-on against the capitalization costs of the factory system.

The beauty of the age we live in is that new production technology is reversing this process. A growing share of manufacturing takes place in job shops using cheap, general-purpose CNC machine tools. A garage shop equipped with open-source lathe, router, 3-D printer, etc., costing $10-20,000 can produce goods that once required a million dollar factory. And a much larger share is amenable to such production methods. In food production, soil-intensive raised-bed horticulture was already far more productive than industrial agriculture. New techniques, like those of John Jeavons, are making it more productive still.

It’s technologically feasible for workers and consumers to bootstrap almost an entire economy on the Owenite model, with very little in the way of land and capital assets.

So the question is, which model do we want to follow? Do we knuckle under to the greenwashed Hamiltonian model of “progressives” like Gates and Buffett, aimed at protecting their profits against the radical deflationary effects of abundance? Or do harness these deflationary effects for people like ourselves, replacing the domination of bosses, toil and debt with a society of self-governance, leisure and mutual cooperation.

You shouldn’t have to think about it long.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory