The Limits to Capitalist Growth

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The Limits to Capitalist Growth

by David Jhirad, Marian Lowe, and Paolo Strigini

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 7, No. 3, May 1975, p. 14 – 19 & 34 – 37

The authors are working on models of development and are members of Science for the People. David Jhirad is a physicist at the Unversity of Massachusetts, Boston, interested in new energy sources, environmental issues and non-linear systems. Marian Lowe is a chemist at Boston University, and is currently working with a group of women on a book about women, science and ideology. Paolo Strigini is a geneticist at Boston University, interested in population dynamics and genetic engineering. A preliminary version of this article has appeared in Perspectives, Cambridge, Mass., June 1974.

Contemporary Capitalism is clearly facing major problems. A cluster of interrelated crises — labeled with a variety of names: population and food, unemployment and inflation, development and investment, industrial production, energy and pollution — appear to threaten the survival of the human race, the standard of living of the industrial nations and the profits of the capitalists. Such crises are also upsetting the previous balance of power among and within the leading industrial nations. All of these problems are often presented in terms of world survival, while the real question may be whether capitalism will survive as the predominant social and economic system in the developed world. 

Capitalist decision makers are urgently looking for methods to deal with these problems. Their concern is apparent in multiplying international conferences, official documents and independent studies (financed or encouraged by them) on the nature of the various crises. Solutions which would tamper with the basic economic and political institutions of capitalism, however, are unlikely to be even considered. Therefore such global concern cannot be left to the Rockefellers. 

For the people who want a future free from deprivation, exploitation and pollution, an understanding of the present world crisis is vital. It is also important for several reasons to analyze carefully and thoroughly the studies carried out for the capitalist decision makers. First, failure to recognize realistic current policy options of the capitalist planners means being unaware of the multi-faceted forms of technological fix and social engineering that are in store for our society and the whole world. Second, their analysis of the various problems and of the consequences of some different policies can help to outline alternative socialist solutions (which are neither glib nor obvious). Third, if new conflicts and contradictions — which surface in these studies — explode within the capitalist system, then the previous equilibrium of economic forces, social allegiances and political alliances may be undermined and a new revolutionary potential may emerge. 

These reasons have prompted the present attempt to analyze three recently published studies concerning the crisis in the world and in the United States. 

Limits to Growth 

The Club of Rome is a multinational group of prominent experts in management, economics and other scientific fields, with academic, political and business connections. Its founder, Aurelio Peccei, an Italian philanthropist and businessman, manages a consulting firm for economic and engineering development, affiliated with Fiat and Olivetti-Bull. Members include the head of the Battelle Institute in Geneva, the scientific director of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Western Europe and the head of the Japan Economic Research Center. Many other members are professors in various universities, such as MIT. Under Club of Rome sponsorship, Jay Forrester of MIT’s Sloan School of Management became interested in applying his expertise in systems analysis, a theory of decision making developed for large corpora!ions and urban planning, to world management. The Volkswagen Foundation (Germany’s counterpart of the Ford Foundation) financed the work of an interdisciplinary team of scientists at MIT, headed by Forrester’s associate Dennis Meadows, which led to the publication of The Limits to Growth,1 which we will refer to as CR1. 

The work of the MIT group was an ambitious attempt to go beyond mere extrapolation and develop a dynamic model of the world which could be used to forecast the consequences of different policies. The method used — systems dynamics — tries to identify the ways in which the different parts of a complex system are related and to express all of these relationships in mathematical form. For any real system, a choice must be made of the most important parts and the most important relationships, which then define the mathematical structure of the model. The latter, however, is generally so complicated that its practical handling requires a computer. The effects of changes in any part of the system on every other part can then, in principle, be calculated by the model. Furthermore, if such changes are assumed to occur in time, the development with time can be predicted for the whole system and its parts. 

The model constructed by Forrester, Meadows and associates describes the world in terms of five major parts (submodels). According to the MIT group, when each part is considered separately, it displays a particular tendency. While two of them — population and industrial production — may grow indefinitely, the other three — food supply, usage of non-renewable resources and pollution — can grow only up to a maximum finite level (which is not easy to determine). The latters represent, therefore, the limits to growth on the planet. 

In order to define the interactions among the five submodels and to quantify the effects of various factors on the level of each one, a vast amount of statistical, demographic, economic and environmental data was used by the MIT group. For example, the gross national product per capita in different nations (a measure of economic development) was related to the nation’s birth and death rate and to the qualitative and quantitative consumpiton per capita of food, energy and minerals in each nation. Increasing levels of pollution were also related to economic (industrial) development. Thus the MIT group calculated the average global effect of economic growth in slowing down population growth and in increasing consumption and pollution. Implicit in these calculations is the assumption that world development is following the pattern of the most advanced nations, in particular, the United States. 

The final model contained some one hundred relationships, quantified by using global averages. The reliability of the model was tested by starting with the global figures for 1900 and seeing if the model could predict the historical development up to 1970. The structure of the model was revised until reasonable accuracy was achieved. Global averages for 1970 were then fed into the computer and a projection forward (to about the year 2100) was made, assuming that the current patterns of development would continue in the future. The answer was that: 

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years. The most probable result will be a rather sudden and uncontrollable decline in both population and industrial capacity.2

The sensitivity of the MIT model to limited changes in some uncertain estimates (such as maximum global arable land and reserves of non-renewable resources) and to some foreseeable technological advances (for example, better birth control, pollution control and increased food yields) were tested. The answer of the computer was that final collapse was only slightly postponed and, therefore, it could not be attributed to inaccurate data or averted by technological progress. Meadows and associates feel that their model “is already sufficiently developed to be of some use to decision makers.” Consequently they advocate as the only valid solution a policy of equilibrium, one which they claim is (1) sustainable without sudden and uncontrollable collapse and (2) capable of satisfying the basic material requirements of all the people. They insist that industry and population growth must stop very soon in order to achieve global equilibrium. They assert that a delay in instituting these policy changes will make it harder to attain an equilibrium state and if present trends persist up to the year 2000 an equilibrium would probably be no longer possible. 

Limits to Models

Since its publication in 1972, The Limits to Growth has sold about three million copies in twenty-seven languages. It has prompted a considerable amount of both favorable and adverse comment. Some critics have claimed that the quality of the data used in the MIT study is poor, and that relatively small changes in the input can alter the predictions and considerably postpone the final collapse.3 More important, however, according to the MIT group itself, is the controversy concerning the structure of the model. For example, it has been argued that, first, the use of global averages is unrealistic for today’s world.4 Second, the impact of scientific and technological advances on the three critical submodels (for instance, in solving problems concerning replacement of scarce minerals, increase in food production and pollution control) has not been sufficiently taken into account.5 Third, the model is presented as above politics and value judgments (a tendency of mathematical modellers in general), while sociopolitical choices may have important effects on the population, the economy and the environment.6

While the MIT group contends that its model is useful, in spite of some admitted shortcomings, another model appears to have been designed to answer most of the criticism aroused by the earlier work. This second study has been also sponsored by the Club of Rome and funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. The report has been published as a book, Mankind at the Turning Point7, which contains very little technical detail. (We will refer to this as CR2.) Its authors are Mihajlo Mesarovic (US) and Eduard Pestel (West Germany), two university professors who headed a very large team of scientists mostly from these two countries. 

The new model appears extremely ambitious in its structure, which is based on more than 100,000 relationships. Instead of dealing with global averages, it divides up the world into ten regions, on the basis of geographic, economic and political characteristics. Thus, once assumptions have been made for each region and for its interactions, the developed and under-developed countries, market and planned economies can then be followed separately or as a global system by the computer program (hence, probably, the enormous number of relationships). The same five material factors enumerated in the earlier study are the basis of the new world model, but in addition, the effects of some different sociopolitical choices are said to be taken into account. 

Although their model appears technically quite similar to the earlier one, Mesarovic and Pestel have disclaimed the predictions of doom and the Malthusian recommendations of the MIT group. Their tone and their arguments are often explicitly political. They claim that their approach is positive and pragmatic: 

Rather than collapse of the world system as such, catastrophes or collapses on a regional level could occur, possibly long before the middle of the next century, although in different regions, for dzfferent reasons and at different times.8

Their prescription, rather than calling for zero growth, is

Such a global solution [that] could be implemented only through a balanced, differentiated growth which is analogous to organic growth… The delays in devising such global strategies are not mental or costly, but deadly. It is in this sense that we truly need a strategy for survival.9

Both of these reports involve two aspects: a prediction of what will happen if growth of the current kind continues, and alternative projects of the results of some policy changes. The results of the reports as far as the first aspect is concerned cannot be easily dismissed, although the time scale and the specific form of doom predicted may be open to question. Even though much of the technical criticism of such models may be significant, it is also entirely possible that the structure of these models are reasonable first approximations to capitalist world development, on which they are explicitly based. Obviously the kinds of assumptions and data fed into a computer determine the results emerging. As computer programmers like to say, “garbage in, garbage out” — or in the case of the Club of Rome studies, “Malthus in, Malthus out”. There is really no need for computers to reach the same qualitative conclusions as these reports. There is no need for computers to realize that there is something wrong with a form of production which must use most of the world’s resources to provide an adequate standard of living to the middle and upper classes of about one fifth of the world, and to realize that the limits to the expansion of such a system must be reached relatively soon. Thus the major shortcomings of the reports appear not to be in their prediction of limits to capitalist growth, but in their treatment of the available options of the current situation, as we will discuss shortly. 

Proposals for Equilibrium

Both Club of Rome reports state that global equilibrium requires that industrial growth stop, or at least slow down, in the developed countries. While such policies are recommended their actual implementation is not discussed in detail. That a no-growth situation is being seriously considered for the United States, is shown by several other reports which do address the problem of how to approach an equilibrium state. The Ford Foundation, for example, has been interested for some time in research and planning concerning resources and energy as is indicated by its funding organizations like “Resoures for the Future”. Energy is both a crucial resource for real economic growth and the first one for which the global supply is escaping the control of the advanced industrial nations. The current perspectives of long term energy shortages and of enormously growing capital investments for energy supply, have now prompted the Ford Foundation to carry out its own Energy Policy Project (EPP) to explore the possible ways of limiting energy consumption. 

The EPP report proposes three alternative scenarios for future energy consumption in the United States up the the year 2000. Domestic consumption of all forms of energy could rise from the present level (80 quadrillion BTU’s) to 185, 118 or 100, respectively, depending on different policies to be adopted. 

In the first case, the “historical growth scenario” there would be no policy change and energy use would continue to grow as in the past (about 3.4% a year). This option 

would require very agressive development of all our possible supplies oil and gas on-shore and off-shore, coal, shale, nuclear power. If it proved possible to increase oil imports on a large scale, then the pressure on domestic sources would relax somewhat. Still, the political, economic and environmental problems of getting that much energy out of the earth would be formidable. 10

In the second scenario, the “technical fix”, the growth rate in energy consumption would be reduced by half. Energy saving technologies would have to be applied systematically to industrial processes, buildings and cars. This substantial saving would still provide “a quality of life at home, travel convenience and economic growth that differ little from the historical growth scenario”. It would necessitate the aggressive development of only one major energy source — oil or gas or coal or shale or nuclear power.

The third scenario, “Zero energy growth” (ZEG), while initially similar to the second, would result in a leveling off of future energy consumption. In addition to all the paraphernalia of the technical fix, this solution would require “a real break with our accustomed ways of doing things.” Structural changes in the economy would be needed, like regional transportation systems, extensive materials and waste recycling, more durable products and the supplementing of fossil fuel reserves with renewable energy sources. Economic growth, however, would continue even during and after the transition to ZEG. Therefore, this perspective implies that, while the industrial growth would substantially stop in this country, a vigorous development would be sustained in education, medicine and other service areas. The EEP report is clearly in favor of this solution, but it also perceives the difficulties of reconciling it with the institutions of private capitalism. It suggests that “Government fiscal and monetary policies to maintain economic growth and full employment during the transition period would be crucial.”

Since the government, however, has never arranged anything like full employment in peacetime, and since there are clearly problems in maintaining economic growth at the present time, even with growing energy consumption, the EPP proposals have an Alice in Wonderland air about them. This perception is considerably heightened by statements like:

…There is nothing inherent in the ZEG scenario which would preclude national redistribution of the ‘energy income.’ Those who do not have an adequate standard of living need not be stopped from achieving one because of lack of energy. Nor is there any inherent reasons why those in the middle to high energy income brackets would have to give up any of the things that they enjoy today.11

The report skims rather blithely over how energy income might be redistributed in an economy which is characterized by soaring energy prices but has never experienced anything like redistribution of monetary income, or why the planners of the Ford Foundations and their colleagues should have any strong desire for this to happen. 

Technology and Society

Common to these reports is the conclusion that unrestrained economic growth cannot continue due to physical limits. We are offered the choice of curbing growth voluntarily or having it curbed for us through collapse of the system. This question of physical limits, however, is not a new one. The question of how many people the planet can support and at what level, does not have any single answer. Historical progress has been the result of technological advances and political transformations, which have been mutually dependent. The size and material well-being of human societies have ultimately been limited by the goods (food, shelter, etc.) which could be provided by the particular technological and societal forms present. Therefore, an analysis of the current forms of science, technology and social organization is crucial for any theory of growth and of its limits. 

The expansion of the capitalist system, which has reached its most advanced form in this century in the United States, has been made possible by the development of “modern” science and technology and has determined such development. This historic form of science and technology grew out of the science and social organization of Europe. It was geared to maximum consumption and wasteful use of human and material resources, like the mode of production which it served and promoted. Nevertheless the spectacular technological advances which have occurred since the Industrial Revolution have caused the resource limits of the planet to recede to a degree that would have seemed impossible to many 19th century thinkers. Thus, not only were Malthusian predictions of hordes of humans kept in check only by starvation, war and pestilence not fulfilled, but a vision of unending technological progress appeared to have made the question of physical limits to growth obsolete. Such thinking culminated in the unbridled technological optimism of the two decades after World War II, when it was felt by many, especially in the United States, that one could expect

… An end to poverty and the inauguration of permanent prosperity, universal equality of opportunity and a radical increase in individual freedom, the replacement of work with leisure for most of mankind, . . . permanent but harmless social revolution and [characterized by, to use Daniel Bell’s phrase] the end of ideology.12

This American dream was seriously challenged during the sixties by the Vietnam war, the growing dissatisfaction of workers and students in the developed countries and the explosive pressure of masses of people living at the margins of the “economic miracle” areas of the world. Furthermore, the spectre of pollution began to arouse the concern even of those who had reaped the major benefits of technological progress. In place of the previous technological optimism, there is now both a growing suspicion of technology for having contributed to the current crises, and in increasing dependence on technology to get us out of the mess. 

With the disappearance of technological optimism, the question of the existence of physical limits to societal growth has been resurrected. It has manifested itself in various forms; a neo-Malthusian concern with population growth; a concern with finite supplies of raw materials; a prediction that the pollution levels inherent to an industrial society will prove fatal eventually; and as a special case of this last form, speculations about the “heat death” of the world — the effects of long term thermal pollution. The treatment of technology in the reports under discussion here is characteristic of the revived concern with physical limits and of the current ambivalent attitude toward technology. The reports reject technology as the solution to the current problems facing capitalism. However, they assume that technology as currently practiced will continue and furthermore, each of them assumes that some technological improvements will be necessary to implement the solutions which that particular report happens to be pushing: equilibrium, organic growth or zero energy growth. 

CR1 is the most explicit in its technological assessment. Since the position with respect to technology appears to be basically the same in all of the reports, we shall take this one as representative. The position of this report on technology is summarized in the following terms: 

When the World models collapse, they do so because of the accumulated costs and side-effects of technical successes . . . (and not) because we have assumed that sometime in the future technical progress will fail . . . We are uncomfortable with the idea of basing the future of our society on technologies that have not yet been invented and those whose side effects we cannot assess . . . We do not believe those technologies will be effective or forthcoming without a value change that recognizes explicit goals for and limits to physical growth.13

CR1 claims to have demonstrated in general, that, with forseeable technological improvements or advances, sustained economic growth is not possible. However, the political changes called for in these reports are at best minor modifications of the existing capitalist economic system. The assessment of technology is then made in the context of a capitalist society and the projected technological development is limited by this context. 

In making its technological assessment, CR1 assumes for the world model that currently available technologies will continue to be used as they are at present. Then, in alternative computer runs, it includes “technologies which are possible but not instititutionalized”, that is, technologies which are direct extensions of currently utilized ones. Thus, in considering both present and future technologies, the limitations imposed by the present social system can be seen. 

In restricting its perspective to the capitalist mode of technology and economic growth, CR1 neglects the possibilities for immediate amelioration of some problems and for a more rational and equitable use of resources. As examples, the vast amount of technological skill and resources currently going into the military industry, into research on increasingly sophisticated weapons and control devices, into creating superficially different products for advertising purposes, or into the leisure and luxury industries could be diverted to more constructive purposes. Such conversions would also help relieve some shortages in investment and raw materials, and perhaps some strain on the environment. Yet, the possibility of such a change is not considered, much less the political and social conditions under which it could take place. The same limitations appear in considering possible future technologies. For example, there is no consideration of developments in mass transportation which give maximal fuel efficiency and minimal environmental impact; or of new conceptions in medicine and health care distribution which are emerging in the People’s Republic of China (and are also being attempted on a very small scale in this country).

Since these reports have limited themselves to a technological assessment within capitalism, their pessimism about the possibilities for much help from technology appears to be well-founded. In fact, all of the reports may be seriously underestimating the problems which may arise due to technological development under capitalism. Barry Commoner14, for example, has argued convincingly that technology in a “free market” economy may be substantially incompatible with environmental integrity. The reason for such incompatibility, according to Commoner, is that the pressure for higher profits has pushed new, generally more polluting, technologies. The profitability of these new technologies is maintained by charging the environmental costs (the negative externalities) to society as a whole. This means that a rational balancing of the benefits and problems associated with new technologies is never done. 

Thus, all the reports that we have examined make a rather convincing case for the necessity of curbing capitalist industrial growth, whereas they do not attempt to explore alternative options. In an economy geared to increasing capital accumulation through increasing industrial production and material consumption, the “physycal limits” are clearly not dictated by physics. Such a society must obviously generate overpopulation, scarcity and waste of both human and material resources. The accommodation of capitalism with such “physical limits” will have to be at the expense of human development. On the other hand, a society characterized by a socially rational use of resources and technology would, while recognizing the possible existence of physical limits, continually work to avoid colliding with them. At the same time, such a society would attempt to overcome the social limits — the institutional economic and cultural heritage of capitalism — to fee human development.

A New Global Capitalist Order?

The reports we have discussed are presented by groups which picture themselves as above politics, looking for neutral solutions to the crises which their computers predict. The CR1 report is ostensibly addressed, for example, “to all men and women of good will” and they say further: 

We believe that an unexpectedly large number of men and women of all ages and conditions will readily respond to the challenge and will be eager to discuss not if but how we can create this new future.15

In reality, theories of growth, no-growth, “organic growth” or zero-growth cannot be above national and international factions. It seems likely that these reports represent the views of particular sectors of the capitalist world and that the solutions proposed represent the interests of these sectors. The real interests of the Club of Rome appear to be concerned with global capitalism. Indicative of this, and of its approach to finding solutions, is its call in Limits to Growth for 

…the creation of a world forum where statesmen, policymakers and scientists can discuss the dangers and hopes for the future global system without the constraints of formal intergovernmental negotiations.(Emphasis added.)16

According to the authors of Mankind at the Turning Point, “A number of meetings are already planned with public figures, political leaders of different parts of the world.” The objective of such meetings would be the “development of a practical international framework in which cooperation will become a matter of necessity rather than being left to good will and preference.” The kind of international representation at these meetings illuminates the interests represented. A large majority of the active participants are from the United States, Western Europe and Japan. 

An overwhelming concern with a global perspective for capitalism is evident throughout both reports to the Club of Rome, in spite of the differences in technical detail and solutions offered by the two. The technical debate between CR1 and CR2 for an aggregate or a regional structure of the world model and for no growth or organic growth seems a little futile at this point, since a substantial agreement appears to exist between the two reports. If we assume that there are economic and political forces with interests that are either predominantly global or national, then the overall debate starts to make sense. It is not the second Club of Rome report fighting the first over some obscure technical question, but rather both together representing global interests as opposed to national interests. These reports provide a framework for attempts to coordinate and rationalize capitalism on a world scale and to institute a strict control over economic growth. 

Both reports anticipate that some economic and political powers within the capitalist world may see their interests as differing from the overall interest of world capitalism. According to the final commentary of CR1:

…even if the consequences of continuing growth anticipated by the model were, through human inertia and political difficulties, allowed to occur, they would no doubt appear first in a series of local crises and disasters. But . . . many nations and people, by taking hasty remedial action or by retreating into isolationism and attempting self-sufficiency, would but aggravate the conditions operating in the system as a whole. The interdependence of the various components of the world system would make such measures futile in the end… and lead to contagious social disintegration.17 

The CR2 report is even more emphatic about the need to control national interests. This report was introduced at a meeting in Berlin by the authors with the warning that if the developed world fails to invest heavily to make the poor nations self-sufficient and to curtail its own waste of resources, 

There will be a thousand desperadoes terrorizing those who are now ‘rich’… Ten or twenty years from today it will be probably too late, and even a hundred Kissingers, constantly criss-crossing the globe on peace missions, could not prevent the world from falling into the abyss of nuclear holocaust.18

After examining a more detailed world model, CR2 recommends “organic growth” to be achieved by “paths of development, region-specific rather than based on narrow national interests.” 

The practical identification of national and international interests as two opposed factions is not unambiguous, since both interests are obviously represented in all large economic and political powers. It is important, however, to recognize that a growing contradiction has emerged between national and international interests in the capitalist world, forcing both governments and large corporations to take sides or to try to straddle the fence on various issues. The “oil crisis” is the most obvious current example of these contradictions. In this situation, the conflicting interests of both the various nations and the multinational corporations involved have become clear, although a concrete analysis of the conflicts is a complicated task. Another example of conflicting viewpoints, apparently opposing international to national interests, is the issue of international aid to South Asia. 

One position is represented by the Club of Rome, condemning, as mentioned above, “nations or people … retreating into isolationism and attempting self-sufficiency.” The opposite position has been recently stated by Philip Handler, the president of the National Academy of Sciences, in the following terms: 

Cruel as it may sound, if the developed countries do not intend the colossal all-out effort commensurate with this task, then it may be wiser to “let nature take its course” as Aristotle described it: “From time to time it is necessary that pestilence, famine and war prune the luxuriant growth of the human race.”19

Asked if he was advocating “triage”20 and “cutting Asia adrift”, Handler replied: “That’s what I was saying, gently — I can’t imagine not doing it.”21 Jay Forrester, the initiator of the computer modelling approach to world problems, has recently also advocated such an “ethic of triage.”22

The recommendations of the Club of Rome concerning a slowdown of economic growth in the developed countries are consistent with those of the Ford Foundation concerning energy consumption (and economic growth, in terms of industrial production) in the United States. Such recommendations indicate that the international interests of some United States-based multinational corporations are no longer identical with the national interests of the developed countries, and in particular with the national interest of United States capitalism. It is clear that the latter can no longer be identified with the global interests of capitalism as a whole. The fact that the United States uses 30 to 40 percent of the world’s resources with about 6 percent of the world population is pointed out in the three reports we have discussed and has appeared many times recently in the media both in the United States and abroad. The wasteful pattern of food and other types of consumption in the United States is pointed out with increasing frequency. It has been brought up repeatedly by official foreign delegations at recent international conferences: in Berlin (development), in Bucharest (population), and in Rome (food). Such attacks have often come from groups representing capitalist nations and capitalist interests, such as an Argentinian group from the Fundacion Bariloche (the local equivalent of the Ford Foundation). At the Berlin conference, the Argentinian group, backed by other delegations, stated that, “Backward societies could not progress by copying patterns established by the developed countries” and condemned the latters’ “frivolous consumption, irrational waste of natural resources, social deterioration and growing alienation”.23

The sharpening conflicts among different capitalist interests are thus bringing about the need for an instrument of mediation to assure that the overall interests of the capitalist system are protected. Within the “international framework” of the Club of Rome, “statesmen, policy makers and scientists” can debate and formulate the general decisions which “will become a matter of necessity (for capitalists) rather than being left to good will and preference” of “narrow national interests”. While each large corporation and government is busy trying to formulate the policy which can best serve its own particular interests, each one must also become aware that such policy cannot be implemented if it is opposed by the others. The Club of Rome appears to have appointed itself, at least for the present, as the advance planning agency for the capitalist system as a whole. 

That this may indeed be the case, is shown by the following exchange between Schonfield (director of the Royal Institute of International Affairs) and Peccei (the founder of the Club of Rome): 

S. “What we are really talking about is the need to exert far more central authority over masses of people. The point I want to make is that implicit in the Peccei’s system of global management is the reassertion of imperial power on a world scale.”

P. “No, I wouldn’t use those words. I think there would simply be a rethinking among the decision makers toward taking responsibilty for the long term development of economy or society on a global basis.”24

Ideological and Political Implications

Both the Club of Rome and the Ford reports call for some future redistribution of income on a national and international scale, as an essential prerequisite for social equilibrium, when economic or energy growth stops. They do not, however, deal with the present problems of unequal distribution of wealth, power and knowledge within all capitalist countries, much less with the causes of such inequality. Thus, they are not able to make any recommendations for eliminating inequalities in a future global system, other than presenting them as a moral issue — something that ought to occur. 

The stability of any socio-political system based on inequality depends on material and ideological factors. The latter are necessary in order to persuade as many people as possible to accept inequality among and within nations. The predictions of doom and the policy recommendations of all these reports, in fact, concern primarily — explicitly or implicitly — the advanced industrial nations. Although CR2 apparently extends its scope to include the rest of the world, the decisions about different paths of development in the world’s different “regions” are left to the capitalist planners (in the management of such a world is thus implicit the option of triage: the possibility of condemning some regions as hopeless, while preserving or promoting others). Thus, the arguments and rhetoric of these reports are designed to fulfill a twofold aim. One is the political purpose of rallying the governments of the developed countries to actively support a new capitalist global order, and the other is the purely ideological attempt to convince their peoples to accept it. 

In an unequal hierarchical society, Daniel Bell notwithstanding, the ideology functions to justify differences among people. In advanced capitalist countries, particularly in the United States, the myth of an open society with equal opportunity for advancement in an everexpanding economy — with pie in the sky — has been an important component of an ideology which legitimizes existing power relationships. Ideological persuasion, appropriately alternated with economic cooperation and violent repression, have secured the acceptance of the “American system” by a large majority of people in this country. The success of analogous operations in other countries, in spite of cultural differences, has been largely conditioned by their degree of economic development. Thus, the appearance of democracy under capitalism has been made possible by the promises stemming from a booming economy based on imperialism (with the consequent lack of capitalist development and democracy in large parts of the world). 

The assumption that increased production through technological advance would solve the inequalities of distribution under capitalism — the very foundation of capitalist democracy — has proved false and misleading. Inequalities have never disappeared, even in the developed countries. Now in these countries economic growth has come to a stop, with the result that unemployment is soaring and real wages are dropping. A decline in the standard of living of most working people appears inevitable, which is bound to make the current ideology less and less credible. Since the limits to growth arguments are presented as independent of social and political systems, they are increasingly being used to try to persuade people to accept a lower standard of living, while convincing them that the problems of capitalism are the inevitable result of any industrialized society. 

It does not seem likely, however, that most working people will be persuaded by such arguments to accept a continuous erosion of their standard of living and to give up their hopes of upward mobility in an open society. Thus, the economic flexibility of the system and the social support for it may well be waning. Hence, the need for more authority and coercion to maintain an increasingly rigid and hierarchical social order. The stability of the new social order will then depend on the possibility of convincing at least the more privileged sectors among the working people — the middle classes — that police repression and other authoritarian measures are unavoidable in order to save the system. Although the “models of doom” arguments will not persuade the poor to accept these new policies of capitalism, the apocalyptic projections of the Club of Rome may be useful in securing the crucial support of the middle classes in the developed countries for an authoritarian regime. This will be necessary for capitalist — rather than world — survival. 

Of course, in trying to bolster capitalist authority, the limits to growth arguments will be supplemented by many other ideological and practical ingredients. Sexism, racism and other deep seated and widespread social (and religious) prejudices and fears will continue to be used by precapitalist and capitalist ruling groups to divide their enemies and to win the support of those who are caught in the middle, with ambivalent interests and allegiances. While the present economic, social and political differences among and within nations are largely the result of imperialism and unequal capitalist development, other important cultural differences do exist. The proposals for triage may be looked upon as particularly hideous attempts to use all these differences to prevent people from understanding each other and their real problems. 

How far the attempt to impose the new capitalist authority may go, will depend also on many practical factors. One is the ability of the developed capitalist nations to retain control of the largest part of world resources and means of production, by possibly coopting some developing powers, such as Iran and Brazil. Another factor is the possibility of effective opposition to the new phase of capitalism, raised by non-capitalist nations. Finally, the most decisive factor will be the organized resistance and the imaginative counter-offensive of the working classes and oppressed groups within the capitalist nations and of the liberation movements throughout the world. The strength and the scope of these forces will depend on how and when they identify clearly their goals and their solutions, their allies and their enemies. 

Blueprints For An Alternative Model 

While a socialist system can provide a more rational utilization and distribution of human and material resources, and can remove the social, economic and political barriers which prevent real democracy and progress under capitalism, it would not automatically solve all the problems of the world by seizing power. World population will keeping increasing (probably doubling even if birth rates should drop immediately to replacement levels) and therefore food and industrial production must be greatly developed, if the needs of all people are to be met. However, industrial growth through available or projected technologies is threatening disastrous depletion of resources and pollution. Such “limits to growth” — as they are perceived by capitalist planners — are real problems for the future and can only be avoided by a socialist society through a transformation of science and technology. Qualitative changes must be made in the production and use of materials and goods which can preserve the common environment and yet satisfy universal needs. No technocratic class — be it one like the Club of Rome or one with a progressive political allegiance — can invent and direct such a transformation. It is necessary, instead, that all nations and people learn to plan, develop and control — through new democratic institutions — the material conditions of their life. 

The qualities that will characterize a future socialist society are developing in present social and political experiments, both inside and outside the capitalist world. Such qualities will emerge and grow as the number and awareness of the people involved grow, and as they learn from their achievements and their failures. These movements have already outlined a greatly enlarged conception of economic and political democracy. They have recognized the necessity for community and workers control of the national economies and the production process, through non-hierarchical institutions. They have brought up the political nature of personal relationships, and the crucial necessity for a shift to cooperative and non-exploitative forms of human behavior, if genuinely collective institutions are to be viable. New experiments are also beginning to demonstrate that a meaningful technological assessment can only be made in an economic system that dispenses with capital accumulation and private profit, and that technologies will have to be redesigned to conform to environmental safety and political control by popular institutions. 

While one cannot outline all of the essential characteristics of a socialist society which does not yet exist, it is important to start the work. A world wide socialist plan of development must be forged, along with a new and real international solidarity. It must include the criteria and strategy for redistribution of material resources and for a transformation of social and technological structures. It has to satisfy the cultural and political goals of the nations and people involved. Its practical realization requires a transition which would surely transcend, in its significance and its difficulties, all previous political, cultural and technological revolutions.


The critical contributions of R. Arditti, David Deitch, Doris Deitch, B. Park and G. Salzman are gratefully acknowledged.


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  1. D.H. Meadows, et. al., The Limits to Growth (Signet, New York 1972)
  2. D.H. Meadows, et. al., op. cit., p. 29
  3. Science News, September 2, 1972, p. 153
  4. H.D. Cole, et. al., Models of Doom (Universe Books, New York 1973), p. 27–28
  5. Ibid., p. 10–11
  6. bid., p. 209 ff.
  7. M. Mesarovic and E. Pestel, Mankind at the Turning Point (E.P. Dutton and Co./Readers’ Digest Press, New York 1974)
  8. M. Mesarovic and E. Pestel, op. cit., p. 55
  9. Our description is taken from the Preliminary Report of the Ford Foundation Energy Policy Project, Washington, D.C., 1974. The final report has been presented to the general public under the title A Time to Choose, Ballinger, Cambridge, 1974
  10. Preliminary Report of the Ford Foundation Energy Policy Project, p. 39
  11. Ibid., p. 52
  12. J. McDermott, Technology, The Opiate of the Intellectuals, N.Y. Review of Books, July 31, 1969
  13. H.D. Cole, et. al., op. cit., p. 237
  14. B. Commoner, The Closing Circle, (Bantam Books, New York 1972)
  15. D.H. Meadows, et. al., op. cit., p. 199-200
  16. M. Mesarovic and E. Pestel, op. cit., p. xi
  17. D.H. Meadows, et. al., op. cit., p. 192
  18. M. Mesarovic and E. Pestel, op. cit., p. 69
  19. Science News, November 2, 1974, p. 278
  20. A military term used to divide war casualties into three groups to determine where to direct medical aid. Use of the term “triage” has recently been extended to refer to counties with relative degrees of need for foreign aid.
  21. Science News, November 2, 1974, p. 278
  22. The New York Times, October 17, 1974
  23. The New York Times, October 1, 1974
  24. The London Observer, March 19, 1972