FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Two Cheers for “The Story of Stuff”

by KEVIN CARSON

If you haven’t watched Annie Leonard’s “The Story of Stuff,” I suggest you do. These videos include detailed examinations of the waste economy, subsidized inefficiency and planned obsolescence.

A recent installment, “The Story of Broke,” itemizes wasteful government spending on things like the military and enormous subsidies to prop up the well-named “dinosaur economy.” But this is only a preface for Leonard’s argument that the government really isn’t broke: If it stopped wasting money on bad stuff, it would have more than enough for “building a better future.”

Her laundry list of good things the government should spend money on includes energy efficiency projects, retrofitting homes, subsidies to alternative energy and green technology, and millions of college scholarships. But her vision of a “better future” reflects the internal contradictions of progressivism.

On one hand, we have the mid-20th century, conventional liberal vision of government intervention to build giant blockbuster infrastructure projects, spur creation of new industries, and “create jobs.”

On the other, we have the green, “small is beautiful” sensibility which emerged in the hippie era, of eliminating waste and mass consumerism.

The two just don’t go together.

When Rachel Maddow stands in front of a giant hydroelectric dam, or talks about the Interstate Highway System, as examples of doing “great things,” she channels the mid-20th century managerialist liberalism that made Galbraith’s heart go pitty-pat. That vision really isn’t compatible with the “green” and “small is beautiful” stuff that progressives also talk about.

You simply can’t have a capital-intensive economy based on large-scale, centralized infrastructures, unless you can guarantee a revenue stream to service all those overhead costs.  Which brings us to the Galbraith’s dark side: Creating social mechanisms to guarantee the output of industry will be absorbed so that the wheels of industry don’t get clogged up with unsold inventory. It was precisely that imperative that gave us subsidized waste, sprawl, the car culture, and all the rest of it in the first place.

The “progressive” capitalism model of Gates and Warren Buffett is a greenwashed version of Leonard’s dinosaur economy. There’s an inherent contradiction in her dismissal of that archaic economy, while calling for government policies to provide “good jobs.”

Expansionist government activity to utilize industrial capacity and keep everyone working full-time is the old 20th century model. But it requires an ever-diminishing amount of capital and labor to produce a given standard of living. If we eliminate the portion of industrial capacity and labor that goes to waste production, we wind up with lots of abandoned mass-production factories, and lots of people working fifteen hour weeks and buying stuff from relocalized garage factories close to where they live. And that’s not the sort of thing Gates and Buffett like, because they can’t make money off it.

Another problem is Leonard’s prescription: “Who has the real power? We do.”

Really? Barack Obama is the most progressive Democrat in at least two generations. He garnered the largest Democratic majority since LBJ defeated Goldwater, entering office with an apparent mandate from the financial collapse. Congressional Democrats picked up a super-majority. If “we” didn’t have the power to do these things with this once-in-a-lifetime alignment of the political stars, it’s safe to say it will never happen.

A government powerful enough to “build a better future” will almost certainly — on the principle that power is drawn to power — use that power benefit the few, the rich and the powerful. A continent-sized representative government, by its nature, is not amenable to control by a majority of millions of people. That’s why we had all those “dinosaur economy” subsidies in the first place.

If we want to build a better future, contesting the corporate oligarchy’s control of the government is probably not the best way to go about it. Fortunately, there are millions of people out there who really are building a better future, and they’re doing it by treating big business and big government both as obstacles to be routed around.

They’re building a new society within the decaying old society of dinosaur capitalism and its pet government, ready to replace it with something better when it collapses under its own weight.

They include Wikileaks, the file-sharing and free-culture movements, and Occupy Wall Street.

They include Linux developers, micromanufacturers in projects like Open Source Ecology and Hackerspaces, permaculturists, and community-supported agriculture.

They include the builders of encrypted currencies, barter systems, encrypted routers, and darknets.

And they’re not waiting for a government to give them permission.

Kevin Carson is a research associate at the Center for a Stateless Society. his written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: An Individualist Anarchist Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online.

Kevin Carson is a senior fellow of the Center for a Stateless Society (c4ss.org) and holds the Center’s Karl Hess Chair in Social Theory. He is a mutualist and individualist anarchist whose written work includes Studies in Mutualist Political Economy, Organization Theory: A Libertarian Perspective, and The Homebrew Industrial Revolution: A Low-Overhead Manifesto, all of which are freely available online. 

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
February 24, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Exxon’s End Game Theory
Pierre M. Sprey - Franklin “Chuck” Spinney
Sleepwalking Into a Nuclear Arms Race with Russia
Paul Street
Liberal Hypocrisy, “Late-Shaming,” and Russia-Blaming in the Age of Trump
Ajamu Baraka
Malcolm X and Human Rights in the Time of Trumpism: Transcending the Master’s Tools
John Laforge
Did Obama Pave the Way for More Torture?
Mike Whitney
McMaster Takes Charge: Trump Relinquishes Control of Foreign Policy 
Patrick Cockburn
The Coming Decline of US and UK Power
Louisa Willcox
The Endangered Species Act: a Critical Safety Net Now Threatened by Congress and Trump
Vijay Prashad
A Foreign Policy of Cruel Populism
John Chuckman
Israel’s Terrible Problem: Two States or One?
Matthew Stevenson
The Parallax View of Donald Trump
Norman Pollack
Drumbeat of Fascism: Find, Arrest, Deport
Stan Cox
Can the Climate Survive Electoral Democracy? Maybe. Can It Survive Capitalism? No.
Ramzy Baroud
The Trump-Netanyahu Circus: Now, No One Can Save Israel from Itself
Edward Hunt
The United States of Permanent War
David Morgan
Trump and the Left: a Case of Mass Hysteria?
Pete Dolack
The Bait and Switch of Public-Private Partnerships
Mike Miller
What Kind of Movement Moment Are We In? 
Elliot Sperber
Why Resistance is Insufficient
Brian Cloughley
What are You Going to Do About Afghanistan, President Trump?
Binoy Kampmark
Warring in the Oncology Ward
Yves Engler
Remembering the Coup in Ghana
Jeremy Brecher
“Climate Kids” v. Trump: Trial of the Century Pits Trump Climate Denialism Against Right to a Climate System Capable of Sustaining Human Life”
Jonathan Taylor
Hate Trump? You Should Have Voted for Ron Paul
Franklin Lamb
Another Small Step for Syrian Refugee Children in Beirut’s “Aleppo Park”
Ron Jacobs
The Realist: Irreverence Was Their Only Sacred Cow
Andre Vltchek
Lock up England in Jail or an Insane Asylum!
Rev. William Alberts
Grandiose Marketing of Spirituality
Paul DeRienzo
Three Years Since the Kitty Litter Disaster at Waste Isolation Pilot Plant
Eric Sommer
Organize Workers Immigrant Defense Committees!
Steve Cooper
A Progressive Agenda
David Swanson
100 Years of Using War to Try to End All War
Andrew Stewart
The 4CHAN Presidency: A Media Critique of the Alt-Right
Edward Leer
Tripping USA: The Chair
Randy Shields
Tom Regan: The Life of the Animal Rights Party
Nyla Ali Khan
One Certain Effect of Instability in Kashmir is the Erosion of Freedom of Expression and Regional Integration
Rob Hager
The Only Fake News That Probably Threw the Election to Trump was not Russian 
Mike Garrity
Why Should We Pay Billionaires to Destroy Our Public Lands? 
Mark Dickman
The Prophet: Deutscher’s Trotsky
Christopher Brauchli
The Politics of the Toilet Police
Ezra Kronfeld
Joe Manchin: a Senate Republicrat to Dispute and Challenge
Clancy Sigal
The Nazis Called It a “Rafle”
Louis Proyect
Socialism Betrayed? Inside the Ukrainian Holodomor
Charles R. Larson
Review: Timothy B. Tyson’s “The Blood of Emmett Till”
David Yearsley
Founding Father of American Song
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail