Big finance and the great sell-off of ‘our’ natural assets.

Last year, Zygmunt Bauman, the Polish Sociologist, wrote of Capitalism:

 “In the face of financial crisis, any hope that the parasite will die when it runs out of food is in vain…. I suspect that one of capitalism’s crucial assets derives from the fact [of]… its own inventiveness, the arbitrariness of its undertaking and the ruthlessness of the way in which it proceeds… one is entitled to surmise that in the offices of capitalism, hard labour is focused on constructing new “virgin lands” – though also burdened with the curse of fairly limited life expectancy, given the parasitic nature of capitalism. (1)

In summary, Bauman’s thesis is that rather than being fundamentally challenged, capitalism will inevitably shrug off contradictions, such as those posed by the financial crisis, and move on.  In fact, neoliberalism, as embodied in the giant transnational corporations, has hugely increased in wealth and power, since the collapse of Lehmans; in part because of governmental acceptance that certain financial corporations are ‘too big to fail’ (Crouch 2011). (2)

It is now clear that the corporate-financial-political nexus have found their new ‘virgin’ lands to parasitise … in the guise of ‘developing’ the ‘green economy’.


Rio+20, the Earth Summit, sought to address global challenges such as climate warming, sustainability, governance, the devastation of biodiversity and the eradication of poverty, that still affects about one billion people worldwide.

United Nations Environment Programme, or UNEP argues that the investment of 1 percent of the world’s gross domestic product — approximately US$750 billion — in five key sectors would be enough to fund the Global Green New Deal and refocus the global economy to increase the supply of jobs and at the same time step up efforts against climate change and environmental degradation and in favor of poverty reduction. Energy-efficient buildings, renewable energy, sustainable transport, agriculture and freshwater are the key areas for structuring the green economy, according to UNEP. (3) 


But the outcome of Rio+20 was widely regarded by activists as an abject failure. George Monbiot writes:

‘The Earth’s living systems are collapsing, and the leaders of some of the most powerful nations – the United States, the UK, Germany, Russia – could not even be bothered to turn up and discuss it. Those who did attend the Earth summit in Rio last week solemnly agreed to keep stoking the destructive fires: sixteen times in their text they pledged to pursue “sustained growth“, the primary cause of the biosphere’s losses.  The efforts of governments are concentrated not on defending the living Earth from destruction, but on defending the machine that is destroying it.(4)

However, whilst many political leaders failed to attend Rio+20, over 1000 different businesses and corporations joined the delegates and NGOs.

‘Peter Bakker, the president of the World Business Council for Sustainable Business (WBCSD), believes that the corporate sector currently offers the best opportunity for saving the world.’

However…‘What Bakker does not mention directly is the other side of the equation, that if the City does not put a value on sustainability, CEOs … could be brought down if they have two quarters in a row of poor performance, with city figures likely to blame him for paying too much attention to saving the world rather than driving profits.’  (5)


World Development Movement report that Nick Clegg attended Rio+20 in order to lobby on behalf of this false green economy.

‘Multinational companies and banks, with the support of the UK government, are using the summit to push for new markets to be created in biodiversity and ecosystems… This could mean, for example, financial speculators betting on whether species become extinct or not.’ (6)

Chillingly, William Buiter, chief economist at Citibank even proposes that water itself (rather than water utilities) must be privatised.

‘I expect to see a globally integrated market for fresh water within 25 to 30 years… Once the spot markets for water are integrated, future markets and other derivative water-based financial instruments – puts, calls, swaps – both exchange-traded and OTC will follow.’ (6)

This threat to natural resources, and the confiscation of water/land/forests from local people, who have no formal ownership deeds, is from corporate interests seeking to promote the financialisation agenda – a 21st century global version of the 19th century Land Inclosure Acts – which includes removing the previously existing rights of local people to carry out activities necessary for their livelihoods on ‘common land’, such as cultivation, cutting hay, grazing animals or using other resources such as small timber, fish, and turf.

Risibly, it is argued by the corporates, that the environment is being destroyed because it does not have a price tag, and is, therefore, not valued. Their answer is to assign it an economic value, by bringing the resources into the market! 


In similar, spurious fashion to the rationale for the privatization of public services, the financial crisis is cited as necessitating corporate involvement.

Like other business leaders at Rio, [Peter Bakker] recognises that global solutions are unlikely in times of economic and financial crises, and the best alternative is to build coalitions at a more local level, with individual countries and cities, or as he and many others refer to them as “the coalitions of the willing.” (5)


This is a new and more insidious level of commodification… the control of the financial sector, reformulating the fundamentals of the real economy, affecting people’s control over their food, water, energy and air.

We have already seen the result of involvement of the financial sector in food markets.  Millions of people across the world have suffered from hunger and malnutrition because of food speculation leading to high and volatile prices… and food riots.

In the initial stages of capitalist history, the primary appropriation and commodification of nature, was through human labour.  For example, by farming, low level mining or hunting.

However, capitalism has the intrinsic tendency for concentration and centralization of wealth into the hands of the richest capitalists. This is broadly the meaning of the term ‘accumulation’ which evolves and expands through a process of exchange or “trading up” but also through directly taking an asset or resource from someone else, without compensation. David Harvey calls this accumulation by dispossession.

Kees Van der Pijl, a Professor of International Relations, writes:

‘Capital is in constant quest for unpaid labor in its social substratum, and once a major ‘deposit’ is found and incorporated, it seeks to raise the rate of exploitation in the actual labor process; until at some point the social and natural substratum upon which capital accumulation feeds, which it penetrates and transforms, begins to show signs of exhaustion.’  Transnational Classes and International Relations. (7)

Exhaustion and destruction of the biosphere… so-called ‘ecocidal neoliberalism (Elliott and Atkinson) – occurs in the end phase of this process, when ‘social norms and relationships have been shaped to meet the requirements of commodification and exploitation’.

By ‘shaping of social norms and relationships’, Van der Pijl means the creation of a class of workers/ consumers who are ‘groomed’ by education, the media and advertising, to be fully integrated into the capitalist economy. This is the false consciousness, created by such ‘strategies of control’ as described by Chomsky (8), and it is this false consciousness which must be confronted to stop the tide of deregulation and reverse it.

Examples of such ‘false consciousness’ include the untruths inherent in ‘There is no alternative’, ‘We can’t afford it’, the prevailing skepticism about man-made climate change; the discounting of the ‘limits to growth’, negative attitudes towards renewable energy, the absence of insight into the inherent contradictions of sustainable ‘green capitalism’, the acquiescence in high levels of unemployment, and more.

The Left needs to understand that neoliberal capitalism is not only parasitic on human workers and the non-capitalist social world, but also destructive and exploitative of the finite non-human world, upon which we all depend for survival.

‘Ecology can be seen as one of the contemporary conjuctures with which all political-economic projects have necessarily to deal, in transforming the conditions for state intervention.’ (9)

This is an imperative because as Herman Daly, the ecological economist suggests, when ‘manmade capital’ reaches a tipping point of absorbing the finite resource of ‘natural capital’, it is inevitable that the capitalist system enters a series of ever-more-severe crises. (7)  We are already at that point,  with ecological crises such as global warming, oil-dependency; the on-going financial crises; and with increasingly polarized, political crises, which can be seen in the rise of the far right and the various revolts against neoliberalism (mostly evident in Europe and South America).

In 1944, the Hungarian historian, Karl Polanyi wrote about the ‘utopian’ idea of the self-regulating market:

To allow the market mechanism to be the sole director of the fate of human beings and their natural environment would result in the demolition of society… Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime and starvation.  Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighbourhoods, and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed. (10)

The slogan of the Sandinistas of Nicaragua was that there could be ‘no revolution without the women’.  Similarly, the global Left needs to understand that there can be no removal of the ‘huge institutional blockages of neoliberal capitalism’ (11) without also incorporating the protection of our natural environment from unsustainable exploitation.


Needless to say, lack of finance is not the reason for the financialisation and commodification of natural resources.

As mentioned above, the giant corporations, the financial sector and the super-rich are richer than ever.

For example, the combined wealth of 1000 richest persons in Britain is now estimated at more than £414bn. (12)  But more staggeringly, the net worth of America’s 400 wealthiest individuals exceeds the net worth of half of all American households, their combined wealth being $1.5 trillion (£959 billion in sterling). (13)

Hence, the entire UNEP programme, costing £482 billion, (3) could be implemented with just half of the combined wealth of America’s 400 richest citizens.



(2) Colin Crouch  (2011)  ‘The strange non-death of neoliberalism.’  Polity Press, 65 Bridge Street Cambridge C2 1UR, UK







(9)  Ecology, Political Economy and New Labour.

(10) Thomas Frank (2012) ‘Pity the Billionaire.  The hard-times swindle and the unlikely comeback of the right.’ P.184  Publisher Harville Secker London  ISBN 97818446556029




Related post:

Peak Oil, NeoLiberalism and Think Left ( Think Left: A socialist Britain in a greener world)

7 thoughts on “Big finance and the great sell-off of ‘our’ natural assets.

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