More things Eva von Redecker misunderstands

As pointed out in my previous post, Eva von Redecker wants humankind to overcome capitalism in order to become able to solve our urgent problems. Among the things she misunderstands is that advanced capitalist societies do have an idea of the common good. They could – and should – do more to promote it.
Argentina legalised abortion at the end of 2020, so fewer women will die because of illegal surgery: activists celebrating in Buenos Aires. Alejo Manuel Avila/picture-alliance/ Argentina legalised abortion at the end of 2020, so fewer women will die because of illegal surgery: activists celebrating in Buenos Aires.

In her most recent book, von Redecker bemoans that capitalist businesses use commodities which are extracted without regard for the natural environment, and waste is discarded with equal disregard. All that counts, she says, is marketing goods in a profitable way. What is needed instead, in her eyes, is a focus on sustaining life in every dimension – from the global ecosystem, to human communities and individual workers. She thus calls for a more caring and sharing society.

She largely disregards that advanced capitalist societies do indeed have an idea of the common good. It includes universal access to health care as well as primary and secondary education. To a considerable extent, labour laws and environmental regulation actually restrict owners’ right to do with their property whatever they want. Moreover, economists have developed sophisticated theories of the public good. Governments have tools at their disposal to safeguard human welfare. Moreover, cooperative forms of ownership are possible – and have often proved useful.

The real challenge

While it is true that much more needs to be done, it is empirically wrong to argue that nothing will really make a difference unless we overcome capitalism. We should focus on making progress. We cannot afford to be distracted by utopian visions.

Climate science tells us we need to get a grip on global heating within this decade. Poverty and human suffering are worst where governance has collapsed and where capitalism is the least developed. In this context, notions of everything becoming better due to an anti-capitalist revolution are romantic fantasies. What might work is regulating prudently and stringently.

Modern societies are complex and functionally differentiated (see my conversation with Anna-Katharina Hornidge in Focus section of D+C/E+Z e-Paper 2020/09). We face huge challenges, but there is not one single root cause that needs to be tackled. Intelligent reforms are necessary, and they must take account of every social system operating according to a logic of its own. No, not everything is simply dictated by “capitalism”.

The relevance of social movements

To be fair, von Redecker does not preach a singular, violent overthrow to solve all problems. She sees the inklings of a “revolution promoting life” in social movements that have recently made headlines, including climate-protection campaigns, Black Lives Matter and anti-femicide activism in Latin America (“Ni Una Menos”). The author claims that these movements are different from the labour and civil-rights movements of the past, in that they focus on protecting life. I do not find this argument convincing.

Quite obviously, labour and civil-rights movements were geared to protecting and improving the lives of people. At the same time, insisting that black lives matter as much as white lives do, is quite obviously a civil-rights issue. The same is true of the demand that women’s lives must be safe. It is not empirically evident, however, that activists of the civil-rights campaigns prioritise climate protection. Environmental activism, in turn, is nothing new either, but emerged in the late 1960s and early 1970s when scientists first made the global public aware of planetary boundaries.

The social movements von Redecker praises deserve endorsement. For good reason, they demand a better future. But no, they do not amount to a comprehensive attack on capitalism. They indicate an urgent need for better regulations and more stringent enforcement. Humanity needs fast, but incremental change, and it is impossible to start anew from scratch (see interview with Achim Steiner in focus section of D+C/E+Z e-paper 2020/09).

Von Redecker, E., 2020: Revolution für das Leben (“Revolution promoting life”, in German). Frankfurt, S. Fischer Verlag.

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