‘As we transition to a lower energy system (renewables replacing fossil fuels), growth-based economics will be phased out and replaced with something else.’ (Simon Michaux)
The first week of September started with the official return of the deadly virus. On Tuesday 5th, pictures of Joe Biden wearing a black facemask were released into the global infosphere. Simultaneously, mask mandates were issued at an elementary school of a wealthy little town in Maryland because of a new Covid outbreak where 3 pupils tested positive. In late August facemasks were mandated at Lionsgate studios (Hollywood), Morris Brown College, Atlanta (with social distancing), and Dillard University, New Orleans, followed by other public places across the Western world. From September 25, each US family can request 4 free at-home Covid tests, as the Biden administration resumes the programme that was ended in June last year. Testing was also scaled up in the UK, where Covid-related flight disruptions brought back vivid memories of the recent past.
The first thing to do when faced by the formidable ideological firepower of the ruling class is to keep calm and not lose sight of the deep causality. The signifier “Covid” does not belong – primarily at least – in the semantic field of epidemiology, but in those of socioeconomics and behavioural psychology. Its intrinsic purpose was always to shepherd us into a “lower energy-density” world where implosive capitalism seeks to prolong its lifespan by turning the screw on entire populations. The flow of interchangeable emergencies, even when purely hypothetical, feeds into the fear paradigm that keeps us subjugated. The manipulation of perception in the digital era dissolves the boundary between true and false, which become irrelevant. This is perhaps nowhere more palpable than in the increasingly frequent nationwide emergency drills via alarms sent to mobile phones, so many punishing reminders that we must live in a constant state of “shock and awe”.
By now, this much should be clear: crisis capitalism operates as a diabolical “poverty management” exercise based on the controlled release of panic, anxiety, and guilt, supplemented by endless distractions and fake binaries. Since 9/11, emergency is a state of mind that must be systematically nourished to keep the plebs in check. In this respect, Virus is only one of today’s symptoms of a collapsing form of life. While humanity possesses the material and intellectual competence to provide for basic rights to food, shelter, and a meaningful shared existence, it spectacularly fails to do so by subordinating those rights to the blind drive for profit-making, whose viciousness grows as we edge closer to full-blown economic meltdown.
1. Rolling out fear to rollover debt
What the media and political class will never tell us is that, since 2008, the system has inflated the largest debt hyper-bubble in history, which in turn has led to an equally monstrous “everything bubble”, from stock markets to real estate, thus setting the stage for a financial breakdown that will eclipse the previous one by several orders of magnitude. No-one will ever inform us that the next lock up (liquidity freeze) of the financial system will be followed by the collapse of the economy and the inevitable lockdown of society. In the dramatic meeting that took place on Thursday 18 September 2008, Ben Bernanke (then chairman of the Federal Reserve) famously said: ‘If we don’t do this tomorrow [pump hundreds of billions of dollars into the system], we won’t have an economy on Monday.’ Today, the consequences of a financial crash are going to be infinitely worse, and there’s no guarantee that another rescue operation to unblock the system via massive cash injections – as already experimented during Covid – will work. Essentially, this is why we’re being conditioned to accept, if not actively desire, “low energy” capitalism.
Many will recall that in September 2019, exactly four years ago, repo (repurchase agreement) rates exploded overnight, shaking the core of a shadow banking system addicted to cheap credit. To avoid a liquidity freeze and its domino effect, the Fed immediately started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation via “Quantitative Easing on steroids”: first weekly, then daily cash injections to the tune of billions of dollars. They reassured us that the technical fault would be resolved in a couple of weeks, and yet they went on flooding the banking sector with inordinate amounts of magic money until April 2020, when the baton was passed to the various pandemic support packages. During those months, the nature of crisis capitalism emerged clearly in all its absurdity: a virus was weaponised to gag the global economy while the financial sector got bailed out. This is how the most efficient economic system we can think of makes its own greed “sustainable”.
In Autumn 2023, pandemic angst might still work better than anything else as the panacea for all excess demand. Concealed by the usual barrage of meaningless “news”, the debt-soaked system is again reaching a point of maximum saturation, in a context that sees us moving ‘[f]rom a capitalist productivist society to a neo-capitalist cybernetic order, aiming this time at absolute control’,[i] as Jean Baudrillard put it back in 1976 – a time when the left was not yet paranoid about being paranoid, having not succumbed to the ubiquitous “conspiracy theory” blackmail.
The predictable return of the facemask is a symptom of economic stress, since in the magical world of perpetual QE, debts and deficits can be rolled over only if a fear campaign is rolled out every other month to cool down any excess of production & consumer demand. As more monetary injections are needed to support the debt bubble that keeps financial markets from cratering, real demand must be compressed to prevent an inflationary spike that could easily get out of hand. As a rule, when monetary injections exceed the actual value created in the real economy, money devaluation is inevitable. The scenario the elites want to avoid (at least for now) is depicted at the end of Alan Pakula’s 1981 film aptly titled Rollover, when, after a financial crash, the world’s currencies become worthless, and riots develop across the globe irrespective of political boundaries (East and West blocs) or economic differences (developing and industrialised countries). The implicit lesson of the film is that for today’s financial charade to continue, the skyrocketing debt stocks must be rolled over, which requires the assistance of an endless sequence of exogenous “accidents” – a strategy now so desperate that it might even culminate in mass murder via war expansion or other means.
On the surface, things are bad enough. The financial system is a speculative black hole that must be fed greater and greater amounts of cash, and yet can never be made whole. For the first time, the US national debt has passed the $33 trillion mark, with 1 trillion added in the last three months alone. As the debt multiplier ticks higher, bond selloffs are increasingly common, which means that bonds (debt securities) lose value while their yields rise. The US 10-year Treasury yield has just topped 4.5%, the highest point since October 2007, which pressurises stock markets as risk increases. Consistently rising bond yields are now a major concern for both Wall Street (with JP Morgan warning of a 2008-like stock market) and Main Street economies no longer able to re-finance their way out of the debt trap. At some point soon, then, an inflationary monetary response (money printing to the moon) will be required. But the intrinsically pathetic effort to save an indebted system by adding more debt to it can only exacerbate the problem further. The above picture is further aggravated by China and other BRICS+ countries dumping US Treasuries, while oil prices (energy costs) are rising. Here, it is interesting to note that many hedge funds are shorting (speculating on the decline of) the energy sector, which makes one wonder what they know that we don’t.
If we look beneath the surface, it gets even worse, as the entire economic structure is crumbling. It’s worth stressing that sovereign debt is the backbone of modern financial systems, which means that demand for government bonds must be constantly stimulated – especially in the unregulated repo markets, where lending is mostly collateralized precisely by government bonds. The key role of repo lenders in keeping the system liquid hinges on their confidence that the value they receive as collateral (typically, Treasury bonds) does not drop sharply. When that happens, it triggers margin calls (requests from the lender to cough up additional funds) and then fire sales (asset sales at very low prices due to impending bankruptcy) – a vicious circle usually leading to a crash, as it almost did in September 2019.
This is to say that, since debt is the epicentre of our world, its volatility shakes the foundations of the entire socioeconomic structure. The problem we are facing is that the borrowing binge of capitalist States has no end in sight, because revenues are chronically insufficient. However, servicing public debt presupposes real growth, which the State cannot provide. The State does not produce value, it can only manage it for social consumption. It is therefore delusional to think that the central bank allows the State to have real command over money. In economic terms the authority of the central bank is purely formal, for its money creation programmes can only represent real value, not generate it. This is why Marx defined government bonds as titles of fictitious capital: ‘illusory’ from the outset, as they are ‘nominal representatives of non-existent capital.’[ii]
Over the last four decades we’ve been flying on borrowed wings: a debt-driven, grotesquely financialised capitalism that is now running on empty. What we’re left with is an “all-hat-no-cowboy” mode of production, a sputtering economic engine in denial about its impotence. Yet we can be certain that, just like the previous ones, the current “everything bubble” will also burst. And since the volume of fictitious capital is now much greater than it ever was in the past, the deflagration will be much more violent.
2. Poverty is the new green
The above goes a long way explaining why we are being indulged in the moralising narrative of a “green transition” to “low energy” capitalism. Simply put, the latter translates as more poverty and less freedom for anyone not fortunate enough to belong to the 0.01%. Let’s consider the recent Saudi move to extend oil production cuts to the end of the year, which immediately sent crude oil (Brent) beyond $90 a barrel. US strategic reserves are now at their lowest since the early 1980s, while the global oil market faces a deficit of 3 million barrels a day. Despite the fossil fuel hysteria, oil is still by far the most efficient energy source for the capitalist engine, which also means that when its price goes up, it bleeds into a myriad petroleum-based commodity prices. This is further tailwind for an inflation genie (loss of purchasing power) long escaped from the monetary-policy bottle, which suggests that emergencies must be (re-)mobilised to keep (especially energy) consumption demand in check. Or perhaps it’s just a bizarre coincidence that the Saudi decision to cut oil production was taken on the very same day (September 5th) that a befuddled Joe Biden was sent in front of the cameras wearing a facemask.
In the context of “capitalist realism”, then, what is the battle against climate change really about? First, we are rapidly moving to a multipolar world in which the BRICS+ nations consume more fossil fuels than the West, since they’ve replaced the West as “factory of the world”. This new multipolar order has been in the making for a long time and is de facto already in place. The most obvious practical problem with Net Zero is therefore that the “growth fetish” of the global productive machine is existentially dependent on fossil fuels (oil, gas, and coal) insofar as their unique applications cannot be easily phased out and replaced by renewable transition technologies (wind, solar, etc.). Simply stated, renewable energy systems have lower Energy Returned on Energy Invested (ERoEI) ratios than fossil fuel-based systems, as even the “progressive” liberal press is now acknowledging. Thus, in the foreseeable future Big Oil will continue to profit, as fossil fuels represent around 80% of world energy use, with petroleum as the largest single energy source in the global economy (a third of world energy consumption).
To understand what is at stake in the climate change conundrum we should perhaps start with some recent illustrious U-turns on radical Net Zero commitments, including those by Bill Gates, Rishi Sunak and Larry Fink (BlackRock’s CEO). The story of BlackRock’s change of heart is perhaps the most revealing. On June 26th, the United Nations Human Right Council filed a complaint against Amin Nasser, CEO of Saudi Aramco, the world’s largest oil-producing company (98% owned by the Saudi State). The missive, which was also sent to Aramco’s global financial partners (including JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, BNP Paribas, Goldman Sachs, Crédit Agricole, and other mega banks) challenged Aramco on human rights violations tied to fossil-fuel induced climate change. Two months later, the correspondence was released to the public, accompanied by jubilant headlines by all Western mainstream media. What MSM didn’t report so keenly, however, was that in July 2023 – only a month before the UN letter was made public – that same Amin Nasser, CEO of Aramco, was named independent director of BlackRock. Now, if we consider that BlackRock is not only the world’s top asset manager and most powerful economic entity on the planet (with over $9 trillion assets under management), but also a staunch supporter of decarbonisation, should we conclude that Larry Fink (BlackRock’s CEO) suddenly scrapped his cuddly environmentalist agenda? Not exactly, for both he and his new Saudi board member have made it clear that they’ll continue nudging the fossil fuel companies they represent to adopt decarbonisation plans, despite ditching the ESG terminology. In short, while Big Money invests in all those profitable businesses it tells climate change aficionados to boycott, it also “cares about the planet”.
Of course, “capitalist realism” is inherently hypocritical, combining ‘rapacious pursuit of profit with the rhetoric of ecological concern and social responsibility.’[iii] In light of the unstoppable economic decline we’re facing, the official ecological narrative, based on the virtuous phasing out of fossil fuel emissions, is a pseudo-humanitarian façade whose aim is not only to promote a delusional Green New Deal as sustainable (for the super-rich) blueprint for post-crisis capitalism; but also to escort impoverished populations into a digital panopticon designed to optimise mass control. In this respect, the Green & Digital transition supports “ethical” immiseration and “smart” authoritarianism.Noble climate change hyper-activism is perhaps closer than it cares to know to promoting a centralised ecosystem regulated by avatars, tokenised digital assets, blockchain infrastructures, bio-nanotechnologies, the Internet of Bodies, and so on. The ubiquitous “veil of technology,” with its smart rhetoric, is a wonderful opportunity for totalitarian de-socialisation: the posthuman dissolution of individuality, interiority, ambivalence, difference, critical thinking, and resistance. It is therefore no surprise that even Middle East “oil countries” (GCC: Gulf Cooperation Council) are now aiming to achieve Net Zero (by around 2050) while also looking to ‘seize the metaverse opportunity’ (as detailed here).
The blind spot in the entire climate change diatribe is that the capitalist “growth fetish” is predicated on the assumption that resources, just like capital, are infinite. “Sustainable capitalism” is therefore an oxymoron – unless we place it in a totalitarian framework. When looking at the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals, for instance, it’s tempting to read their decontextualised idealism as sinister warnings of the brave new world in the making. Thus, ‘eradicating poverty’ turns into poverty management; ‘zero hunger’ into rationing food; ‘good health and wellbeing’ into compulsory vaccination; ‘quality education’ into suppression of dissent; ‘affordable and clean energy’ into low-energy destitution; ‘decent work and economic growth’ into spiralling wealth inequalities; ‘sustainable cities and communities’ into urban apartheid; ‘responsible consumption and production’ into mass immiseration; ‘peace, justice and strong institution’ into “just wars”.
Along these lines, the fact that climate change organisations are funded by Big Money, including Big Oil itself, should at the very least give us pause for thought. Consider the Just Stop Oil movement. As detailed also by The Guardian, Just Stop Oil protesters ‘have received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Los Angeles-based Climate Emergency Fund (CEF)’, which ‘was started with a $500,000 donation from Aileen Getty, the granddaughter of Jean Paul Getty whose petrochemical empire made him the world’s richest man, a source of some controversy in the climate activist world.’ A billionaire oil heiress who lands millions every year to groups of in-your-face eco-warriors while expanding her financial portfolio and travelling on private jets between various luxury homes should not merely cause “some controversy,” but a deep sense of nausea, ideally followed by serious self-reflection. Instead of tackling the core issue – the criminal and destructive compulsion to economic growth – we are fed yet another false binary (are we pro or against climate change protesters?), which is itself based on the promotion of ecology as the “new opium of the masses”.
It should be clear that “low energy capitalism” comes with significant collateral damage. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, funded by the usual suspects, prescribes drastic consumption reductions for city dwellers to keep the temperature rise below 1.5 degrees and avoid “climate breakdown”. This is to be achieved by 2030, and it affects categories like cars, flights, appliances, and food. For instance, the C40 report recommends ‘the total elimination of meat and dairy products’, as ‘consistent with evidence that these food groups are generally associated with the highest levels of emissions and are not necessary for human health if appropriate food substitutions are made to ensure sufficient nutrient intake.’ In short, the reduction of consumption-based emissions requires ‘significant behavioural changes’, which effectively amounts to putting into practice a smart version of the Covid lockdown fraud. No wonder the 15-Minute City, initially conceived in 2016, gained popularity during the recent lockdowns. As always, the projected figures are sprinkled with irresistible humanitarian appeal: ‘eating less read meat and more fruit and vegetables could save 170,000 deaths per year, equivalent to $600 billion based on the economic value of life’; ‘reducing dairy could save 19 billion cubic meters of freshwater per year’ and ‘460 million square meters of land per year, equivalent to a land mass the size of Spain, or 32 billion trees’; and so on. As most people are defenceless when exposed to these numbers, their commitment to “save the planet” leads them to embrace their own coerced immiseration with gusto.
3. From peak oil to peak labour-power
Perhaps it’s time to recognise that Net Zero is baked into the (implosive) economic cake. The spinning of the environmental narrative must be contextualised within the management of a monstruous debt burden that accompanies the decline of our civilisation by unleashing, among other things, the destruction of fiat currencies. Adorno’s famous aphorism from Negative Dialectics comes to mind here: ‘No universal history leads from savagery to humanitarianism, but there is one leading from the slingshot to the megaton bomb.’[iv]
Countries all over the world are desperately attempting to contain the consequences of their chronic dependency on insubstantial money creation, whose delusional aim is to preserve a failed system. They no longer do so through conventional austerity policies alone (which have long proven inadequate) but by administering emergency measures and fabricated conflicts. Any political responsibility is delegated to the impact of exogenous crises. The centralisation of capitalist rule combines, in a perverse way, feeding liquidity into the debt-based system with one hand, and stifling consumption demand with the other.
It goes without saying that this strategy completely ignores the devastating internal contradiction of capitalist accumulation. Ultimately, the authoritarian attempt to manage the collapse of money as store of value stems from the fact that labour-power, the substance of capital, was made obsolete by the vertiginous growth of technological innovation (the scientification of production) since the Third Industrial Revolution in the 1970s. It is in this wider context that we must place the current shift to a “lower energy capitalism” for the masses. The latter is rooted not merely in “peak oil”, which is also a factor, but fundamentally in “peak labour-power”, for value creation in capitalist terms depends on the combustion of human energy: the ‘productive expenditure of human brains, muscles, nerves, hands, etc.’[v] In relation to peak labour-power, there’s no denying that the world is increasingly populated by “useless eaters”. Significantly, the US is witnessing record numbers of homeless people and inactive (not seeking a job) labour force. The latter – the “no-longer-working class” – amount now to around 100 million adults (against 161 million in employment or seeking a job), and is up 58% from 1990. At the same time, 36% of Americans have no savings at all, and another 19% has less than $1000 saved. If we place this bleak picture against the backdrop of the unforgiving US debt-clock, it should be clear why our “growth system” is sponsoring “low energy”, which in capitalist terms can only mean one thing: more poverty.
While the capitalist social relation is reified into anonymous markets driven by competition and a now dominant architecture of “monetary plumbing”, capital’s self-expansive capacity depends on labour markets, which is where the labour commodity is bought to be used as “raw material” for capitalist valorisation. The “beautiful machine” must of course extract energy from raw materials as such (from fossil fuels to lithium, nickel, cobalt, etc.); however, it is primarily powered by the bodily combustion of human labour. Only by exploiting commodity producing wage labour can the capitalist make two (real) dollars out of one. As David Graeber put it succinctly: ‘Automation did, in fact, lead to mass unemployment. We have simply stopped the gap by adding dummy jobs that are effectively made up.’[vi] This is why the epochal crisis of commodity producing labour-power is the root-cause of our collapse.
Today, in many regions of the world, the system of commodity production is already in tatters. The compensative addiction to speculative profits that will never be realized is what prompts the shift to what I’m tempted to call “totalitarian humanitarianism”, legitimised by irresistible, science-based tales of global calamities and ready-made solutions. The incorporation of the masses into modern citizenship was always a process of adaptation that forced human consciousness into the form of life called “work society” (capitalist and socialist alike). In this respect, modern dictatorships are by no means exceptions to democracy, but manifestations of the fleeting character of democracy itself. It is now clear that democratic systems cannot regulate the destructive force of existing economic relations. Rather, each member of the global society is defined a priori as either economic competitor or – more crucially in today’s implosive environment – economic surplus, whose consumption habits must be at once reduced and closely monitored, or worse.
Owing to unparalleled concentrations of wealth and power, the elites deploy sophisticated techniques of manipulation though which they manage to silence or discredit dissent while simultaneously promoting “humanitarian solutions” – which is what totalitarian regimes always do. The left, bathing in an ocean of intellectual bad conscience, contributes heavily to this new normal. If in the recent past the left was never afraid to denounce the corrupt nature of existing power relations, it has now wholeheartedly embraced the “revolution of the ruling class”: the aggressive reconfiguration of its conditions of possibility. Until a couple of decades ago, the left at least retained the intellectual dignity to reject compliance. In a talk from 1993, Marxist political theorist Michael Parenti could still say what is just common-sense obvious, and yet is anathema to today’s opportunistic “left-critical” milieu: ‘No ruling class could survive if it wasn’t attentive to its own interests, consciously trying to anticipate, control, or initiate events at home and abroad, both overtly and secretly. It’s hard to imagine a modern state in which there’d be no conspiracies, no plans, no machinations, deceptions, or secrecies within the circles of power.’
We no longer seem to have the critical capacity to reflect on the insanity of our condition. If the left is largely acquiescent or colluding with power, most critical voices simply call for the “beheading of the financial aristocracy,” so that the capitalist engine can go back to firing at all cylinders. This is a narrow-minded view insofar as it forsakes the crucial insight into the objective dimension of our mode of production – the naturalized systemic compulsion through which ‘capital […] works towards its own dissolution.’[vii] The financial apparatus can be abolished only by overcoming the capitalist relations as such. While there is no doubt that the destructive course of our world is actively being steered, we should not confuse the immoral technocrats of capital with capital’s amoral drive. The global plutocracy’s evil is the subjective extension of the system’s objective violence.
The implosion of our civilization results from the inertial self-movement of capital’s century-old law of self-expansion. This law is internal and immanent rather than external and transcendent – something which Marxist movements, with their emphasis on the proletarian revolution, never fully understood. While the mode of production needs subjective validation, at the same time it drives on autopilot. Whether it achieves its goal by exploiting human labour, starting wars, or speculating on financial assets is completely irrelevant from capital’s blinkered perspective. This means that, strictly speaking, the current implosive process is not caused by the sociopathic elites, who are instead guilty of cynically managing it. Collapse itself is rather the consequence of a tectonic shift that undermines the system’s productive conditions of possibility, since technological productivity has now vastly supplanted labour-based (value-creating) productivity. Capital’s appropriation of technology for its own misanthropic end turns a potential blessing into a misfortune. Herbert Marcuse grasped this in 1964, before the Third Industrial Revolution was in full swing: ‘It seems that automation to the limits of technical possibility is incompatible with a society based on the private exploitation of human labour power in the process of production.’[viii] The bitter irony is that, today, a minimum amount of human labour would satisfy the basic needs of all members of any society.
[i] Baudrillard, J. Symbolic Exchange and Death (London: Sage, 1993), p. 81.
[ii] Marx, K. Capital: a critique of political economy, Volume 3 (New York: Penguin Classics, 1991), pp. 598 and 608.
[iii] Fisher, M. Capitalist Realism. Is There No Alternative? (Zero Books, 2009), p. 27.
[iv] Adorno, T.W. Negative Dialectics (London and New York: Routledge, 2004), p. 320.
[v] Marx, K. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Volume One (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1976), p. 134.
[vi] Graeber, D. Bullshit Jobs. A Theory (London: Penguin Books, 2018), p. 265.
[vii] Marx, K. Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (London: Penguin, 1993) p. 700.
[viii] Marcuse, H. The One-Dimensional Man (London and New York: Routledge 1991), p. 39.