By Craig Collins
WARNING: This article takes an unflinching look at an impending future we must avoid at all costs…in the hope we can figure out HOW.
Catabolic capitalism isn’t your grandparents’ capitalism. Back then, industrial capitalism profited primarily from growth, fueled by abundant fossil energy. But the centuries of cheap energy and an ever-expanding economic pie are over; and so are the rising living standards they generated. Even the recent decades of stagnation, debt-driven bubbles, and government bailouts are reaching their limit. Capitalism’s future is becoming catabolic.
In biology, catabolism is a destructive metabolic process that causes a living thing to cannibalize itself. Catabolic capitalism is an energy depleted, self-cannibalizing economy whose insatiable hunger for profit can only be fed by breaking down the society that sustains it. As it rampages down the road to ruin, gorging itself on one self-inflicted disaster after another, catabolic capitalism gathers a horde of raging tribalists around it. Flag-waving, gun-toting, white Christian tribalists glorify the mayhem and violence catabolic capitalism thrives on. These racist, anti-government holy warriors are becoming catabolic capitalism’s fanatic foot soldiers.
Profiting from Collapse
Our stagnating global economy is running low on energy, ravaging the planet, and marinating in its own toxins. But it’s a mistake to think capitalism can’t persist without growth. Capitalism’s prime directive is profit, not growth. Of course, an expanding economic pie creates greater opportunities for profit. And, in the long run, a profit-driven system may fail without it. But those who profit from this system are not about to throw up their hands and walk off the stage of history just because boom has turned to bust. As long as we put up with an economy that exploits people and the planet for profit, big money can be made from crisis, conflict, disaster, and desperation. As we enter a period of catabolic disintegration, the most successful capitalists will become the merchants of calamity, extortion, plunder, and war.
In the bygone era of industrial expansion, catabolic capitalists lurked in the shadows of the growth economy. They were the illicit arms, drugs, and sex traffickers; the money launderers, speculators, loan sharks, debt collectors, and repo-men; the mercenaries, smugglers, pirates, poachers, and black market traders; the illegal waste dumpers and unregulated mining, fishing, and timber operations.
As the economy’s energy-starved productive sector atrophied, this corrosive catabolic sector metastasized rapidly. It profits from conflict, crime, and disaster; scarcity, hoarding, and speculation; isolation, desperation, and prejudice; fear, anger, and chaos. We can see catabolism at work in today’s fractured media landscape. Cable and Internet giants manipulate and monetize users. Their algorithms customize and sensationalize content, enticing us to keep clicking and scrolling. Curiosity draws us down rabbit holes that feed our anxieties and prejudices by marketing wild conspiracies, xenophobia, religious fanaticism, crackpot patriotism, and racial hostility. Weapons manufacturers are also well positioned to reap catabolic profits by selling expensive firepower to governments and small arms to terrorists, über patriots, white supremacists, drug gangs, criminals, and a fearful public. The catabolic contractions ahead will drive the demand for their lethal merchandise to record heights.
Capitalism’s self-inflicted catastrophes—from pandemics to climate disasters like drought, hurricanes, floods, and wildfires—are already boosting the bottom line of many corporations. The Covid-induced recession generated record profits for credit card companies like Visa as jobless workers resorted to plastic instead of wages to make ends meet. Hedge funds and private equity firms have pushed high-interest loans on desperate small businesses. Internet and drug giants like Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Johnson & Johnson, CVS, and Pfizer are making super profits off the pandemic.
As climate chaos takes its toll, water speculators are aggressively lobbying to privatize public water storage and delivery systems across the drought-stricken Southwest. Financial speculators are becoming wealthy land barons as climate change transforms the frozen Canadian prairies they’ve purchased into valuable farmland. After Katrina and Rita, most gulf coast disaster relief went to large businesses located in areas least damaged by the hurricanes instead of the most devastated zones that needed them. And, in California, private fire-fighting contractors are selling their services to heavily insured luxury estates and corporations, while tax-starved public firefighters and prison inmates struggle to prevent neighborhoods from being reduced to ashes.
Even after a year like 2020, Americans have a hard time imagining a future of convulsive catabolic contraction. They assume their communities won’t be continually contaminated by pandemic disease and slammed by hurricanes, floods, droughts, and wildfires. They expect to find food in the supermarkets, gas in the pumps, money in the ATMs, electricity in the power lines, and medicine in the pharmacies and hospitals. But 2020 will seem like mere turbulence when the energy-starved global economy finally goes into a tailspin. Governments will be compelled to impose draconian measures to maintain authority when credit freezes, financial assets vaporize, currency values gyrate wildly, and international transport and trade grind to a halt.
In the midst of financial crises, catabolic capitalists will stoke the profit engine by taking over troubled businesses, selling them off for parts, firing the workforce, and pilfering their pensions. Private equity firms will buy up distressed businesses and abandoned properties strip them of valuable resources and sell them for scrap. Illicit lending operations will charge outrageous interest rates and hire thugs to shake down desperate borrowers or force them into indentured servitude. Instead of investing in struggling businesses, windfall profits will be made betting against growth by hoarding scarce resources or short selling futures, securities, and currencies.
As the economy flatlines and the tax burden on the shrinking middle class grows, catabolic capital will evade taxation by rallying the middle class against big government and high taxes. Of course, their lobbyists, lawyers, and politicians will make sure “tax reform” benefits them far more than the middle class. Tax starved state and local governments will be forced to either gut vital programs or borrow heavily to keep them alive. In the end, both strategies will leave government in shambles and deeply in debt.
Tax starvation means that social benefits, legal and regulatory protections, and modern society itself will be sacrificed to feed the bottom line. In the name of tax reform, catabolic capitalists will profit by tearing down democratic safeguards and legal barriers. Regulatory agencies that once provided some protection from polluters, dangerous products, unsafe workplaces, labor exploitation, identity theft, and financial fraud will be dismantled. Corporate crime will boom as society goes bust.
Society’s governing institutions of justice, law, and public safety will become early victims of this catabolic crime spree. Public safety will be stripped down, privatized, and sold to those who can still afford it. Court budgets will shrivel, privatized prisons will exploit convict labor, and police will seldom respond to everyday crimes. Instead, private security firms and gated communities will guard the wealthy, while the rest of us are forced to rely on alarm systems, dogs, guns, and—if we’re lucky—watchful neighbors to combat rising crime. To maintain their authority and crack down on dissent, government budgets will be spent militarizing the police with the latest weapons, riot gear, surveillance, and crowd control technologies.
As tax-starved public services, unemployment insurance, and social welfare programs are gutted, catabolic capitalists will pick over the carcasses of bankrupt governments. Crumbling public transportation and decaying highways will be transformed into private thoroughfares, maintained by convict labor or indentured workers. After pressuring bankrupt governments to sell off public utilities, water storage, and waste management systems, corporations will deliver these essential services only to the businesses and communities who can afford them. And, as public schools and libraries go broke, exclusive private academies will employ a fraction of the jobless teachers and professors to educate a shrinking class of affluent students.
A Dark Alliance
In a period of mounting scarcity, resource extractors will become major beneficiaries of catabolic contraction. Despite the disastrous climate consequences, American, Russian, Canadian, Chinese, and Scandinavian oil companies and governments are already vying to pump hydrocarbons out of an ice-free Arctic ocean. Energy, water, agricultural, timber, and mining corporations are deploying their lobbying muscle to completely privatize vital resources and enhance their bottom line with government subsidies, tax breaks, and “regulatory relief.” As the economy contracts, powerful resource conglomerates may maximize profits by forming cartels, stockpiling essential resources, cornering markets, and sending prices soaring while blocking environmental protections and fair distribution.
A powerful alliance between extractive and catabolic profiteers could put irresistible pressure on insolvent governments to ignore environmental laws and open public lands and coastlines to unregulated offshore drilling, fracking, coal mining, and tar sands extraction. Scofflaw resource extractors and criminal poaching operations will proliferate in corrupt, catabolic conditions where legal protections are abandoned and shady deals can be struck with local power brokers to maximize resource and labor exploitation. To pay off government debt, national parkland and wilderness areas may be sold and transformed into expensive private resorts while public lands and national forests are auctioned off to energy, timber, and mining corporations.
Tribalism: Capitalism’s Catabolic Crusaders
As the catabolic sector gains greater economic clout, it seeks political power as well. But catabolism has a serious image problem. It must cloak its malignant motives by cultivating a power base that will glorify and accelerate the disintegrating conditions it thrives on. Virulent tribalism has become catabolism’s ideal political partner. By enflaming national, racial, and religious hatred; inciting violent conflicts; dismantling democracy; ignoring human rights; and scorning environmental protections, tribalism generates an extremist power base and a profitable battleground for catabolic capital.
It’s hard to deny the petroleum connection between fanatic tribalism in the United States and the Middle East. Reactionary Muslim and Christian tribalism emerged from the two places on the planet that have experienced the most destabilizing booms and busts of extreme petroleum addiction. Both the highs and the lows of petroleum addiction have warped and shredded the social fabric of America and the Middle East. They have generated excessive disparities of wealth and power; extreme instability and social dislocation; and the soaring hopes and dashed expectations of “the good life” gone bad. These economic traumas have laid the groundwork for ultra-conservative religious reactions to the disruptive decadence of modern society in both the Middle East and the United States.
Rampant tribalism is a symptom of global capitalism’s energy-starved, ecocidal predicament. Religious tribalism was fueled by the West’s drive to control and consume the planet’s remaining petroleum reserves despite the climate disasters they’d cause. The flood of desperate climate and conflict refugees from the Middle East is directly linked to Western military intervention, repressive petro-tyrannies, jihadist insurrections, failed state conflicts, and climate-induced water and food scarcity. In the West, Islamophobia is a media and pulpit-hyped tribalist reaction to the sluggish global economy’s inability to absorb these refugees into a shrinking middle class.
It is no accident that globalism and foreign immigrants are popular targets for tribalist politicians seeking to build a xenophobic power base for their autocratic rule. The need to believe that a strong leader can restore “the good old days” generates a fervent following for tribalist tyrants everywhere, even though their false promises and self-serving solutions only make matters worse. Once in office, autocrats, from Iran and Hungary to India and the United States, have rallied their tribal base by expelling foreigners, undermining democracy, punishing disloyalty and dissent, and claiming that everything will go to hell without them.
At the heart of every tribalist creed is a big lie. Tribalists must deny the fact that humanity faces an ecocidal crisis of planetary proportions. Admitting that our survival as a species now requires us to put our shared humanity over our tribal rivalries is heresy and treason. Tribal loyalty must come first. Racial, religious, and nationalist tribes must expel and vanquish their enemies to restore their tribe to prosperity and greatness. They prefer to fight over these culturally imagined racial, religious, and nationalist differences while the real perils we face as a species threaten our very existence. Tribalists want to make sure they grab the best deck chairs on the Titanic.
Hiding behind the flag, the Bible, and the second amendment, gun-toting tribalism in the United States provides catabolic capital with an ideal political sidekick. By riding shotgun, these patriotic holy warriors glorify the nihilist violence that stokes catabolic profits. The election of a black president with a suspiciously Arabic name provided tribalists with further proof that white Christian civilization was on the verge of collapse. Most became Tea Party crusaders. But a bumper crop of militia tribalists believed the US had become a deep state, socialist tyranny—run by a global, Jewish illuminati—that could not be voted out of power. Before 2008, there were around 50 militia groups in the US; after Obama’s election, upwards of 200.
In 2016, Tea Party tribalists converged behind Trump’s MAGA movement. His election gave them a patron in the White House who affirmed their tribalist beliefs. Yet it weakened the relative position of hardcore militias who believed violence was the only path to power. Trump’s electoral defeat four years later has become a militia recruitment bonanza by validating their conviction that white Christian nationalism can only achieve lasting power through the barrel of a gun.
Trump’s media hyped re-election propaganda led many MAGA tribalists to believe in his “stolen election” fantasy. It was much easier to cry, “We’ve been robbed!” than to admit the fact that a broad, multi-racial coalition beat him at the polls. “Stop the Steal!” became a unifying battle cry for the MAGA tribalists who trashed the capital to demonstrate their heroic patriotism.
Debate rages over whether Trump’s failed legislative coup helped or hindered the tribalist cause. Even tribalist leaders who privately admit the election wasn’t stolen recognize the propaganda value of keeping the myth alive. Like Waco and Ruby Ridge, “Stop the Steal!” will go down in tribalist history as a valiant effort to save America from godless, socialist tyranny. But Republican politicians worry that MAGA voters will abandon electoral politics entirely if they believe the system is rigged. Some fear that the conservative vote will be split if Trump’s MAGA tribalists create their own party. Others are trying to rid the GOP of mainstream Republicans and make the party a psych ward for wing nut tribalists.
The aftermath of Trump’s failed coup could become a recruitment windfall for white nationalist militias. After January 6th more angry white boys may feel that joining a tribe of camo-clad, rifle-toting heavies gives them a boost of power and importance. But despite their militant posturing, few of the militia movement’s weekend warriors have any experience organizing widespread insurgencies.
The most serious groups are built around tiny secretive terrorist units designed to instigate fear, chaos, and conflict—not organize populist revolts. Their sordid history of violent infighting and constant arrests, plus their desire to recruit members with military or police training, leave them vulnerable to undercover infiltration. These problems render militias incapable of handling rapid surges of membership, much less leading populist insurrections.
But infiltration works both ways. Militias have many sympathizers and covert connections within the military, the police, and the Republican Party. If these wannabe storm troopers become more disciplined and politically connected they could perform the role that Latin American death squads and German brown shirts played in bringing repressive dictators to power and crushing democratic dissent. It’s important to remember that Germany’s drunken beer hall brawlers, former soldiers, and ex-policemen were eventually transformed into Hitler’s deadly Storm Troopers. The same could happen here.
But taking power is not necessary to serve the needs of catabolic capital. Even in their splintered and disorganized state, MAGA politicians and militia tribalists are already accelerating the kind of fanaticism, chaos, and conflict that can be highly profitable for those prepared to capitalize on collapse. One of the few points of agreement within the factionalized militia movement is their growing commitment to a strategy of “accelerationism.” Accelerationist militias believe modernity has reached such a level of degeneracy and corruption that it cannot be rescued through mass movements or other political means. Instead, modern society must be driven into apocalyptic collapse through terroristic acts of violence.
To serve the interests of catabolic capital, this mindless, wrecking ball strategy requires nothing more than organizing diffuse networks of terrorist cells to target, attack, and delegitimize the political institutions already corrupted by a catabolic economy. MAGA politicians inflame these catabolic conditions by pursuing political versions of the same accelerationist strategy within Congress. Failure to convict Trump of blatantly inciting an attempted coup after voter suppression tactics failed to deliver Republican victories are just two examples of the GOP’s accelerationist assaults on the electoral system.
Some tribal accelerationists even condemn capitalism. But their muddled, misdirected opposition has nothing to do with eliminating a system that exploits people and the planet. Tribalist anti-capitalism is aimed at eliminating a global illuminati of liberal Jewish capitalists who supposedly control the “World Order.” White Christian tribalists would round up and exterminate the members of this unholy order and wage a fierce battle for tribal supremacy over the planet’s vanishing resources. In the words of white supremacist leader Ben Klassen, “We are determined that the winner take all—that the White Race must colonize, occupy, and inhabit all—and we mean all—the beneficent territory of the Planet Earth…The White Race will either take all, inhabit all, or we will drown in a sea of mud races. The world is becoming far too crowded to support both us and them.”
As the world economy stagnates and unravels, radical movements on the left and right benefit from the political center’s failure to deliver growth. But, unlike the tribalist right, the left’s opposition to industrial capitalism offers a positive alternative to corporate rule. It rejects tribalism and struggles to forge human solidarity against a catabolic system at war with people and the Earth. It seeks to build an equitable society that can prosper and live peacefully within the limits of our finite planet. This carbon-free future requires a program of radical simplification and democratic localization—not violence, mayhem, terror, and destruction. It also requires a massive peaceful insurrection to put on the brakes, turn things around, and get off the road to ruin.
We are a long way from building a movement with the common purpose and political power to turn things around. However, the fight for a Green New Deal (GND) does create a focal point, a center of gravity, for bringing together the disparate elements of an emerging Green Resistance Movement. There are bound to be disagreements and tensions within this fledgling movement. For example, the question of whether or not we can grow our way to a Green future is a major source of contention. But the GND does begin to create a common project that everyone fighting for economic, social, or environmental justice can get behind. Common projects foster empathy, understanding, solidarity, and cooperation between organizations and people who are just beginning to recognize that their struggles are part of a larger movement. Right now it seems imperative that broad unity must be built around abolishing a doomsday machine at war with people and the planet. I hope to say more about this challenge in future articles.
Craig Collins, Ph.D. is the author of Toxic Loopholes (Cambridge University Press), which examines America’s dysfunctional system of environmental protection and the international system’s failure to confront climate chaos. He teaches political science and environmental law at California State University East Bay and was a founding member of the Green Party of California. His forthcoming books: Marx & Mother Nature and Rising From the Ruins: Catabolic Capitalism & Green Resistance reformulate Marx’s theory of history & social change and examine the emerging struggle to replace catabolic capitalism with a thriving, just, ecologically resilient society.
Other articles by Craig Collins can be found at: Catabolic Capitalism vs. Green Resistance
 This cellular catabolic process of self-cannibalism is called autophagy. See “catabolism” and “destructive metabolism” definitions in The Free Dictionary: https://www.thefreedictionary.com/destructive+metabolism
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