Two horrifying events occurred this spring that, at first, may seem to have nothing in common. In Bangladesh, more than a thousand garment workers died in the collapse of the Rana Plaza, a building whose owners knew it was a structural peril. Seven thousand miles away, at an observatory in Hawaii, scientists reported that, for the first time in human history, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had climbed to four hundred parts per million—a symbolic marker of climate distress.
Capitalism, as the first socialists understood, has always been a revolutionary system. It has spurred the production and trade of wondrous commodities and the emergence of cosmopolitan cities. Its technologies have made some entrepreneurs and financiers obscenely rich. Yet they have also helped diminish the number of people whose lives are brutish, boring, and short.
But a profound irresponsibility has always pumped through the heart of the capitalist revolution: it cherishes no value but profitable growth. The consequence, Marx and Engels wrote back in 1848, is that capitalism becomes “like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”
Among those powers is the relentless competition that drives a clothing manufacturer outside Dhaka to pay his employees just $45 a month (“slave labor,” the new pope called it)—and to bet that cracks on the side of his building are no reason to lose a day of work. Another is the inexorable hunger for energy sources to run those factories and the trains and planes, ships and trucks that move their products and those of millions of other businesses to markets around the world. The CO2 level has risen in tandem with the spread of industrial capitalism and the reluctance of even nominally “socialist” nation-states to develop a serious alternative.
In the past, critics of the sorcerer could seek to tame one of his awesome, awful powers without worrying much about the others. In industrial nations from Great Britain to Japan, workers, joined by reformers and radicals of all classes, forced capitalists to accept the basic elements of a humane society: progressive taxation, minimum wages, health care, and collective bargaining. Economists, both left and right, called environmental damage a “negative externality”; it raised no doubts about the essential virtues of the system.
But such a separation no longer makes either political or scientific sense. No nation in the world is more at risk from climate change than Bangladesh, where tens of millions of poor people live in lowlands near the coast and lack the means to escape when cyclones hit. It will require a vast social, if not a socialist, effort to rescue them from probable danger and death where they work and where they sleep. That “nether world” turns more into our world with every passing day.
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