I grew up in Sheffield in the 70s and 80s. Its cheap bus fares, theatres, museums and art galleries, its network of well-stocked libraries and its abundant green spaces made me into the person I am and gave me an abiding sense of respect for the value of public provision. I went to primary school in an area of the city called Greenhill, where they taught me how trees, by absorbing carbon dioxide and thus ensuring we have enough oxygen, help us to breathe.
I don’t live in Sheffield now, but all my family do, including my nieces, who all go to school in Hillsborough which they walk to and from along tree-lined streets. Those trees have attracted national attention recently because the local council is bowing to the demands of a private company and allowing a huge number of them to be cut down on the flimsiest and most selfish of pretexts. Although the trees represent £11.4 million in purported value*, there’s no way for Ferrovial (the transnational corporation which has, via its subsidiary Amey, bought up large parts of Sheffield City Council) to monetise it, and it costs to maintain them so they might as well chop them all down**.
Although some legal systems insist on granting them the same status as human beings, corporations don’t actually live and breathe. They do think, after a fashion, but they have only one obsessive thought: how to accumulate more wealth. They achieve this in large part by externalising their costs. PFI, the secretive and essentially deeply corrupt system of which Sheffield’s deal with Amey is part, has had a devastating impact on the wages and conditions of public servants. The rationale for the whole scheme is not just that the private sector is more efficient, but also that it grants access to global financial markets. Thus it represents not only a transfer of wealth from the public to the private sector, but also the exposure of essential public services to the whims and storms of the global market. Not quite by chance, it’s also accompanied by a lack of democratic transparency. Whether it be in Sheffield in relation to trees, or (my former London borough) Haringey with regard to housing, voters are not allowed to know what exactly has been agreed in their name.
Modern corporations are by definition psychopathic, in that nothing else matters to them but short-term self-interest. The possessors of great wealth have not always been so single-minded in the attempt to turn everything of public utility into private wealth. Centuries ago, feudal landlords created country estates like Chatsworth by turning commonly farmed land into symbols and sites of their power and wealth, thus depriving peasants of access to food and forcing them to move into cities to get jobs in factories as wage labourers. They sculpted the landscapes of their estates to demonstrate their command over nature, but at least they kept most of the trees standing. In the case of Sheffield, some local nabobs donated their land to the city, making it into one of the greenest in Europe. Some notable figures also funded the construction museums and art galleries.
For previous generations of capitalists, acres of trees not only stood as signs of wealth. They could also be pulped and transformed into physical money. The American writer Thomas Pynchon’s ancestral family fortune was made and then lost in paper, described in ‘Gravity’s Rainbow’ as ‘the wholesale slaughtering of trees’, ‘producing toilet paper, banknote stock, newsprint—a medium or ground for shit, money, and the Word’. Before that they were fur traders, ‘still for the living green against the dead white’.
Nowadays capitalism, if it can still be called that, has entered a new phase, not that of the dead white but rather the flat white of the service economy, serving principally the needs of corporations. About twenty years ago I spent a year working in a corporate environment, in the technical support area of a software giant in Dublin. At the time I thought that computers were somehow exciting – I hadn’t yet realised that I was essentially working with hyped-up stationery. One episode stands out as emblematic of such organisations and how they operate. The company in question had a new piece of utility software for a brand-new version of the Apple Mac tantalisingly close to readiness, but the end of quarter was closing in and the programmers weren’t going to make the deadline. That didn’t stop the company from selling thousands of packages of the new version at a software trade fair in France – the problem came when the purchasers arrived home and to their horreur – zut alors! – discovered that the box contained a note explaining that the actual software wasn’t quite ready yet, but do please accept this database accounting programme as a temporary replacement. I have rarely felt so relieved not to speak better French, because my francophone colleagues had to explain to several thousand really, really, really fucking angry customers that they would have to wait just zat leetle bit longer. The enraged Mac enthusiasts weren’t exactly mollified when, a couple of weeks later, the actual disc arrived and turned out to be full of bugs which (I forget the exact technical details) shat all over the insides of their beloved iMacs. In order to save time, the company had curtailed the testing stage. Fortunately, things ended well, as the share price of Symantec (which was the name of the company) rose at the end of the quarter, so everyone was happy, except the people who actually wanted the software. They’re probably still vert de rage two decades later.
Nowadays if you need some software – say, Microsoft Word – you can just download it, but while in the intervening years you could do so for free, Silicon Valley has found new ways to make its products pay. Such programmes are now available for a yearly rent. Tech firms are thus the cutting edge not just of technology but also of new forms of buying and owning and the legal architecture that underpins them. In the book ‘I Hate The Internet’ Jarett Kobek nails one major inspiration for the ideology that inspires such innovation:
‘Ayn Rand [is] probably the most influential writer of the last fifty years. She wrote books about how social welfare recipients were garbage who deserved to die in the gutter. She was well regarded by very rich people unwilling to accept that their fortunes were a combination of random chance and an innate ability to humiliate others. Ayn Rand’s books told very rich people that they were good, that their pursuit of wealth was moral and just. Many of these people ended up as CEOs or in high levels of American government. Ayn Rand was the billionnaire’s best friend.’
Jonathan Freedland calls this ‘the age of Ayn Rand***’. She is worshipped, and her adolescent take on neoliberalism advanced, by hugely influential figures including Alan Greenspan, Paul Ryan, Peter Thiel and Jimmy Wales in the US and Sajid Javid and Daniel Hannan in the UK. The Rand cult is not the only source of such ideas – Thatcher and Reagan were devotees of Friedrich Hayek, whose doctrine, with its antiregulatory zeal, has come to dominate global politics over the last forty years – but it is an emblematic one.
Although the Little Red Book of the technocultural revolution, TED Talks, provides the comforting sense that corporate interests can be persuaded to act in the interests of humanity and the planet, with the innovative shift to a digital, virtual paper-free economy a symbol of this potential for environmental responsiblity, there’s nothing sustainable about an economic system which is wholly subservient to the ideology of self-interest. Such a form of capitalism is much more corrupt and infinitely more destructive than any prior phase. It dictates that everything that does not serve private interests has no value and must be destroyed.
The concept of ‘seven generation stewardship’ urges humanity to weigh all its decisions with an eye to the needs of people in 150 or so years. Instead, here in the UK, we have continual bursts of shock doctrine austerity wrecking the life chances of our children, our children’s children and our children’s children’s children ad infinitum: no libraries, no galleries, no social or economic security, no public transport, no trees. Our Government barely seems to think more than a day or two ahead, or to the next Daily Mail front page. According to this ultra-short-term, grab-what-you-can ideology, trees resemble people, indeed entire populations: they’re too expensive to maintain. Permanent austerity is therefore a response to environmental collapse, one which represents the priorities of elites far more articulately than any number of photos of David Cameron with huskies. It is a war against not only the very notion of public provision, but human existence itself.
Sheffield owes its development to the industrial revolution, and the industrial revolution owes a lot to Sheffield. Its confluence of rivers and hills created boundless energy. A visit to Shepherd’s Wheel, Forge Dam or the Abbeydale Industrial Hamlet convinces you that such forces can be sustainable on a small scale, but once the wheel started turning the momentum was unstoppable. We created forces of which we quickly lost control. The driving force of capital accumulation demands acceleration far beyond anything the planet, our bodies and our mind can contain. Trees fall for the same reason our children can’t keep their eyes off our iPads. It’s a vapid conceit to kid ourselves that this mode of interacting with the world is more sustainable: it is produced and promoted by the same dynamic as that turning the Arctic into an oil field. We can have ipads and smartphones like the one I’m using to write this (made of plastic derived from oil and hand-manufactured by slaves in China); but no trees. We can have the internet, but we must in return wave goodbye to a stable climate. This is the faustian pact of unrestrained capitalist development. Culture, from music to books to art galleries, survives only as a medium for advertising and other forms of corporate promotion. All that is solid melts into air, and we end up paying for oxygen. As Karl Marx wrote, ‘Accumulation: This is Moses and the Prophets!’ – ones worshipped by politicians such as Michael Gove, who called the felling of trees in Sheffield ‘bonkers’ but who will search in vain for ways to stop it. Successive governments, at the service of private interests to whom his ideological devotion is total, have sacrificed democracy to corporate power. Despite Gove’s sentimental pretences, that ‘bank holiday from cynicism’ in the words of Oscar Wilde, he has no more respect for trees than he does for experts. This is a man who tried to abolish the teaching of climate change in schools. For those of his persuasion nothing, not even the planet, can stand in the way of the market. The fact that it is fixed in favour of corporations is by-the-by. Roberto Saviano was right to call the UK the most corrupt country in the world. He, a veteran of exposing the mafia at very great personal risk, knows la materia: globalised, financialised corruption covered up by legal omertà. Unlike those who stand in the way of organised crime in Palermo or Acapulco, the heroic protectors/protestors of Sheffield’s trees are threatened not with death (although the forces they are combatting are not averse to using violence) but with jail and/or destitution.
This is not a conspiracy theory. No single human being or secret committee is in charge of the global market. Abstract forces are increasingly convinced that they can keep growing only if they can dispense with human beings. They believe that they can survive without the physical world. Their barely human servants, from Gove down to the austerity-bound councillors who voted for privatisation, are just doing their bidding. Increasingly computers have become self-aware, making decisions for us without our even knowing it, unerringly following the guidelines programmed into them. Capitalism is thus an out-of-control driverless juggernaut,crashing down the street at full pelt, uprooting and destroying everything in its path, from democracy itself to ancient oaks and elms. There is no utility software which can resolve its malfunctions.
*I understand why desperate campaigners come up with such figures; personally I think that framing the issue in such terms is a mistake. Doing so capitulates to the priorities of the other side.
**I am by no means an expert on the tree issue, these people are.
***Or, to give her her full name, Ayn ‘Medicare‘ Rand