Vivienne Westwood, one of the world’s most iconic fashion designers and the inventor of punk, wants revolution.
In a talk at March’s FutureFest entitled ‘End Vulture Capitalism’ ahead of her discussion with Edward Snowden, she warned of the growing dangers of runaway climate change and what she called “monopoly capitalism”.
Addressing the crowd in her trademark teetering heels, Westwood jumped straight in.
“I’m sure you all know that if the world gets two degrees hotter than it was in 1800, which is the time when the industrial revolution started, you cannot stop it going to five degrees, because everything kicks in – all the methane gets activated, all these things: you can’t stop it,” she says.
“The Earth will survive in this poor state, but there will be mass extinction of the human race, and it can happen very quickly, we might not be able to prevent it even at this time.”
As depressing a description of the state of affairs as it is, it’s not exactly a radical concept. Scientists and activists have been warning for years about the dangers of runaway global warming, and most of us have heard the damning diagnosis for a complacent humanity many times before.
But Westwood is more concerned about the cause, and for her it is far more than overuse of fossil fuels.
Monopoly capitalism: the root of climate change?
For Westwood, the blame lies at the feet of those in charge of our economic system: not business owners and governments, but a much smaller group of people apparently with far more power.
“People call it the 1%, but of course there’s a lot more people involved in this structure,” says Westwood.
“I’ve called it vulture capitalism. The next name for it really is monopoly capitalism.”
If Westwood were to use one word for this economic system, sustainable most certainly would not be it.
Everybody’s so used to it that they can’t imagine anything else.
“It’s running away, it’s at an end,” she says. “The central bankers – there are about 147 of them, and the world is run for their profit. There are three groups of people, the bankers – I’m not talking about every bank, I’m talking about the central banks that print money – they’re connected to the monopolies, the people who dig for oil, take out all the finite resources of the Earth, and politicians, and the press is on their side as well.
“It’s an economic system that’s been going on for a couple of hundred years. And everybody’s so used to it that they can’t imagine anything else.”
Economic Ponzi scheme
Westwood sees this system as being run for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the many.
“What happens is that the central banks print money, but they don’t need to print money very often because they have so much interest. They create debt and they live off the interest. And it’s only in emergencies that they need to print the money,” she explains.
Citing an example of a US-based chicken farmer featured in the documentary Food, Inc., Westwood explains how producers are forced to go into extreme levels of debt to maintain cheap and unsustainable food, which is both damaging environmentally and which locks them into contracts with big producers.
In the chicken farmer’s case, this is through the use of expensive machinery to aid mass food production and processing.
“One of the big corn producers, they have a contract with the bank, they tell her to install these things and she can borrow money from the bank all the time, as long as she’s got the contract with the corn people,” says Westwood.
“So the point is that she earns about $20,000 a year, and she owes the banks nearly $2m, which she can never, ever pay. They don’t want her to pay, they want her to just pay the interest.”
Individuals aren’t the only ones trapped by impossible debt, however. Westwood also cites the example of developing nations saddled with financial commitments well beyond their means.
“You’ve all heard of poor countries who have to sell all their assets in order to pay the interest on money they’ve been forced to borrow by the World Trade Organisation,” she says.
“It’s a whole scam, and it’s actually a complete Ponzi scheme. We’re at the end – people are getting more and more desperate.”
Westwood also sees her hometown of London, UK, as evidence of the damage monopoly capitalism can do.
London has seen a wild increase in property values as foreign investors snap up houses that they never intend to live in. Simultaneously rent prices have increased as people flock to the city for work that is incredibly scarce in other parts of the country.
As a result, many areas of the city are changing rapidly, with areas Westwood remembers fondly from her punk and new wave days being bulldozed and replaced with luxury accommodation.
“They’re just selling all the spaces – all the gay clubs and stuff, they’re all out in Essex now,” she says.
If you imagine what this world is going to be like when everybody’s dying.
“There’s just buildings stuffed everywhere for speculators. And I heard the other day that one of the government people said if you can’t afford to live in London, then find somewhere else, like the people that they chuck out of the houses.”
Although a relatively minor concern when compared with the daily hardships experienced by people in other parts of the world, Westwood believes it points to a nightmare scenario in the event of climate change-related disaster.
“If you imagine what this world is going to be like when everybody’s dying,” she says.
“It’s such short-term thinking, everything is just really.. terrible.”
Locked into the system?
While Westwood is highly scathing of the economic system, she also acknowledges that she, as the owner of a fashion brand with yearly profits in the millions, is part of it.
“Everybody’s connected, everybody who makes a decent living somehow is connected with this whole thing,” she says.
It will change it because you will act.
However, this hasn’t stopped her from calling on people to seek revolutionary change, despite the fact that a complete change in economic system could well cost her millions.
Looking out into the crowd of FutureFest attendees, she implores people to take action.
“Talk to people. I go on demonstrations whenever I can, I think it’s really important,” she says.
“But I want to mention just that it is the public debate, we need it to accelerate, to grow, to intensify, and this will change the political system. It will change it because you will act.
“Anyway, I hope it will, because it’s all we’ve got.”