It Ain't Easy Bein Green

Max Sawicky sawicky at
Tue Sep 29 15:39:15 PDT 1998

I've been a good boy today -- gotten some actual work done, so I can afford to ventilate a little.

A basic point of contention between LP and myself that doesn't necessarily involve the green question is this recurring issue that capitalist growth is due to the theft of resources or economic goods in general through the framework of imperialism.

The fact of injustice and imperialism is not in question as far as I'm concerned. The hard question is how much growth can be explained in this way. 90 percent? Ten percent? We had a short series of posts on this not too long ago. It is not the sort of thing you can settle with e-mail or by flinging citations back and forth.

For those who care, I doubt that Marx explained growth in this way, or by this emphasis, though others are much better situated to hold forth on this than I. I'd be curious about this, which is why I mention it. Maybe this is the burden of Lenin's book, but I would not classify the latter as scholarship.

One point which seems clear is that from an economic standpoint, theft of ownership is not the issue for capitalist growth. The real issue is unequal exchange. Theft may facilitate unequal exchange but does not imply it. For instance, when the Saudi monarchy sells oil they are getting a fair market price. The injustice derives from who rules Saudi Arabia, not the price of oil. The price of oil is actually high to the extent that cartelization (such as it may be, these days) restricts supply.

Louis (and myself, incidentally) would like the price of oil to be higher for environmental purposes. But in this vein it is not the price of oil which is "artificially" low. It is the social cost of oil which those of our ilk (very loosely speaking) contrive to set above the market price. All workers are somewhat worse off for lack of such a policy, not the workers in the poor nations in particular.

One way to gauge the inequality of exchange is by determining the extent of economic rent which the source nations forego by virtue of imperialist skullduggery. But consider what happens when the booty reaches our shores. The importer must surely be motivated to charge the same price to manufacturers or consumers as the exporter would if they had the political/military muscle to control their own exports. There is no discount in this sense.

If you want to postulate that the importers and manufacturers are one and the same, then they must then remain motivated to charge whatever they can get further down the chain of production and consumption. Kids don't end up getting a discount on Nike shoes. The injustice does not reside some cost saving, but in a wealth transfer. The wealth transfer results in some extent of capital investment and foments some economic growth, and not necessarily in the imperial country. Capital can go anywhere. Again, the question is not whether or not US growth has been abetted by unequal power relations, but how much.

On the labor side, assume the manufacturer by some means or other obtains resources at a discount. In this context, the question becomes why this ought to benefit the workers at all. A monopolist can afford to share some rents with workers, but what forces them to do so? It comes down to the conditions in the labor market and the political power of labor vis-a-vis capital.

I distinguished between workers, executives, and technical professionals (like me and Louis). Louis fuzzed this up with the phrase "white collar workers." My point was that given the stagnant state of U.S. wages, until relatively recently, the case for overpaid workers, even professional ones, seems weak. Managers are another story, but I don't propose to build a movement around managers unless they handle fried chicken.

>No, what will happen is that prices will reflect the cost of labor that is
sufficient to give every human being a decent life.>

I don't understand this. A decent life for all will result from sufficient output, equitably distributed, with due regard for environmental costs. Fair distribution is made possible by incomes restricted within socially-acceptable boundaries of inequality.

> . . . Nobody who picks coffee for a living will go hungry or worry about
their children dying from diarrhea because of lack of clean water. When everybody has put these sorts of worries behind them, then we can talk about moving forward. . . . >

If you were in charge I would not reject this hierarchy of priorities. But you can't get there from here. You can't organize U.S. workers on that basis. Not African-Americans, not hispanics, not even immigrants with living relatives in distant hell-holes.

I had said:
>>By contrast, I would suggest that economic
>>growth in the U.S. creates the basis for
>>rising incomes and a more benevolent
>>posture towards the less-developed

>This is just garbage written in bad faith. Economic growth in the United
States is directly related to its historical role in plunging other nations into dependency. Every time there has been an effort by a developing nation to assert control over its own resources, we have sent goons in to destroy the experiment. The list is endless . . . >

One last time, "related" is not in question. How much is.

Here I could have been more precise in my language. Growth creates the possibility for constructive and humane economic relations between rich and poor (or strong and weak, if you prefer) nations. It does not lead to it necessarily.

It ought to be noted that socialist countries have been implicated in unequal transfer, so at least in one sense the problem is not exclusive to capitalism.

It is quite true that the record of capitalist nations in the goon business is not good, so pessimism is understandable. But such pessimism, which could be applied to the entire reformist project, does not supply any positive affirmation of alternatives. Capitalism may never work very well, but it may be the only system the world ever sees henceforth. I get depressed at times, but sooner or later (especially after a thrilling round of golf), I'm ready to try and do some more good deeds.

We all have to try and do the best we can. If you need to score points by alleging bad faith, go ahead and try. I understand it. I've seen it before and probably will again. It's the hallmark of a weak argument. It'll just be too bad--more left energy wasted on wheel-spinning.


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