In an important Occupy-inspired essay published on Tomdispatch.com in May of 2012, the leading US Left intellectual Noam Chomsky argued that if the global environmental catastrophe created by anthropogenic climate change “isn’t going to be averted” soon, then “in a generation or two, everything else we’re talking about won’t matter.”
Chomsky was writing for leftists and progressives, a group for whom “everything else” includes standard portside targets like poverty, imperialism, racism, inequality, plutocracy, neoliberalism, sexism, police-statism, nationalism, government surveillance, mass incarceration, corporate thought control, militarism, and, last but not least, capitalism.
Chomsky had a point. All bets are off on the prospects for a decent and livable future are unless homosapiens wakes up quickly and acts on a giant scale to move off fossil fuels and on to renewable energy sources – a technically viable project. The “usual” struggles over how the pie is distributed, managed, and controlled and by and for whom are going take on a frightful feel when it becomes apparent that the pie is poisoned. Who wants to turn the world upside down only to find that it is riddled with runaway disease and decay? Who hopes to inherit a dying Earth from the bourgeoisie?
Still, Chomsky’s comment should be taken with a grain of salt. If and when we move into full environmental catastrophe, basic questions of social justice and democracy are still going to matter a great deal to those left trying to live through and mitigate the misery.
At the same time and more importantly, Chomsky’s comment should not be taken to mean that (contrary to his own analysis) we should separate the climate problem from “everything else” and place it above all the other concerns that have long preoccupied progressives – that “green” should trump “red” and “black” in our priorities and understanding..
Where, after all, does the current environmental crisis come from and what is preventing us from acting to avert catastrophe? The answer to both questions is the Left’s longstanding number one bệte noire: the good old growth-, accumulation- and exploitation-addicted profits system, Yes, capitalism, with its competitive and atomized dispersion of economic decision-making, inherently antithetical to public planning for the common good. As the Canadian Marxist Sam Gindin recently explained on the left Web site Jacobin, “It is not just that…capitalism is inseparable from the compulsion to indiscriminate growth, but that capitalism’s commodification of labor power and nature drives an individualized consumerism inimical to collective values (consumption is the compensation for what we lose in being commodified and is the incentive to work) and insensitive to the environment (nature is an input, and the full costs of how it is exploited by any corporation are for someone else to worry about).”
“A social system based on private ownership of production can’t support the kind of planning that could avert environmental catastrophe. The owners of capital are fragmented and compelled by competition to look after their own interests first, and any serious planning would have to override property rights — an action that would be aggressively resisted.”
There’s a lot more that could be said about how and why the soulless and chaotic bourgeois mode of socioeconomic management (furthered and not tempered by the modern corporation) is wired to destroy life on Earth, but that will do for a useful summary at present.
The brilliant Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein deserves credit for putting the focus on capitalism as the main culprit in her latest and best book: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. “The really inconvenient truth,” Klein argues – correctly in my opinion – “is that [global warming] is not about carbon – it’s about capitalism…. [and] the war [that system] is waging on earth.” Climate change, Klein notes, “isn’t an ‘issue’ to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It is a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message – spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions – telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing the planet.”
Klein rightly presses left and other ecological activists to abandon their “fetish for structurelessness” and work to develop the kind serious mass movement that could function as a vehicle for the broad social and political change required to save livable ecology. That is very good advice. So is her call for environmentalists to tone down their emphasis on fear (“act now or we’re done for!”) and to articulate a vision of where we want to end up after we flee ecocidal capitalism. As Klein reminds us, “we need somewhere to run to. Without that, the fear is only paralyzing.”
Klein is correct also to challenge activists to understand the environmental crisis and climate action within the broader political framework of issues and problems that are directly linked to the climate question: housing, public space, labor rights, unemployment, the social safety net, human services, infrastructure, militarism, racism, democracy and more. Climate action, Klein shows, is intimately related to and consistent with positive government and collective action around each of these and other interrelated areas. A movement to address the climate crisis can be a bridge to broad progressive social change and the regeneration of democracy and the public sector in all areas of society.
Note how this turns Chomsky’s 2012 comment on its head. In This Changes Everything, the argument isn’t “solve climate change or soon everything else we progressives talk about won’t matter.” Klein’s point instead is that climate action, necessary to save a livable planet, is also a crossing to progress on “everything else we talk about.”
The new climate action movement must not, Klein wisely counsels, be framed in terms of the stern demand that people “make do with less.” The command reinforces the neoliberal austerity that has been advanced by financial and corporate elites and their many agents in state power for the last three-plus decades. It’s hard to expect calls for a more austere lifestyle to be received favorably by a working class majority whose standard of living has been relentlessly assaulted for more than a generation.
Mass and wasteful consumerism is a giant problem, but the point is not to call for more mass self-denial. It’s not about more versus less; it’s about better versus worse. The task is to create qualitatively different and better material and social lives beyond the authoritarian and ecocidal rule of capital.
But what does Klein mean, exactly, when she says “capitalism?” Here, as in her previous book c, she grants the system freedom to modify itself away from “free market fundamentalism” in a fashion that might seem acceptable to squishy progressives and cautious liberals. Listen to the following passage from This Changes Everything:
“What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house? I think the answer is far simpler than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets” (This Changes Everything, p.18, emphasis added).
The third sentence in this passage is consistent with Klein’s radical statement about “the really inconvenient truth” (that the problem is capitalism). Not so the second sentence, which attaches the moderating description “deregulated” to overall system supposedly in the docket. The problem recurs across This Changes Everything. As Gindin rightly notes:
“Klein… leaves too much wiggle room for capitalism to escape a definitive condemnation. There is already great confusion and division among social activists over what ‘anti-capitalism’ means. For many if not most, it is not the capitalist system that is at issue but particular sub-categories of villains: big business, banks, foreign companies, multinationals….Klein is contradictory on this score. She seems clear enough in the analysis that pervades the book that it is capitalism, yet she repeatedly qualifies this position by decrying ‘the kind of capitalism we now have,’ ‘neoliberal’ capitalism, ‘deregulated’ capitalism, ‘unfettered’ capitalism, ‘predatory’ capitalism, ‘extractive’ capitalism, and so on. These adjectives undermine the powerful logic of Klein’s more convincing arguments elsewhere that the issue isn’t creating a better capitalism but confronting capitalism as a social system” (emphasis added).
This is not a new difficulty in Klein’s writing. Her previous blockbuster The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007) was directed primarily at neoliberalism, at (Milton) “Friedmanite capitalism” and at so-called disaster capitalism, not at capitalism itself, It exhibited no small nostalgia for the Keyensian “regulated” and “welfare” capitalism that reigned across much of the rich world in the post-World War II “Golden Age” – a capitalism that (among its many terrible consequences) pushed the world into environmental crisis by the last quarter of the last century. As Marxist commentator Doug Henwood noted in a critical review of The Shock Doctrine, “Using words like ‘Friedmanite’ and ‘neoliberalism’ is a way to avoid talking about capitalism in any systemic fashion.”
Failure to deal with capitalism in a systemic and radical fashion combined with “Golden Age” nostalgia is of course a common malady among the many liberal and progressive authors whose books about and against economic and related political inequality make it onto bestseller lists and receive accolades from purportedly left outlets like The Nation. The difference between (a) these authors and Klein’s Shock Doctrine and (b) Klein’s latest book on the other hand is that (a) make no claim to be opposed to capitalism as a system but (b) does make that claim. That difference and the overall excellence of This Changes Everything combine with the undeniable existential urgency of her topic (anthropogenic climate change is, as the radical philosopher John Sonbonmatsu once told me, “the number one issue of our or any time”) to make This Changes Everything a notable advance over The Shock Doctrine. While Klein retains the habit of attaching qualifying adjectives to the sociopathic system (capitalism) that is operating as wired to destroy life on earth and while neither “socialism” nor “eco-socialism” receive a single index entry in This Changes Everything, she knows very well that (at the risk of sounding fear-based) its 21st century peoples’ eco-socialism or the death of prospects for a decent future.
Maybe leaving “wiggle room” for the system to change itself in a positive way is part of the price of admission that big money publishing firms, speaker committees, progressive-liberal magazines (e.g. The Nation) and media agents require for celebrity status (I am familiar with one best-selling US non-fiction author who decided for that very reason not to publish a book-length argument for socialism he’d privately written). There are other risks. It’s not for nothing that Dr. Martin Luther King told his assistants to turn off their tape recorders when he riffed on the virtues of democratic socialism and argued that the changes he and they sought (primarily the end of poverty) could not be attained under capitalism. Maybe the price is worth paying to reach a public pulpit to move the world forward on the core civilizational issue that is anthropogenic – well, capital-o-genic – global warming. Or maybe not.
Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1 % Democracy
1. See John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Planet (New York: Monthly Review, 2010); Richard Smith, “Beyond Growth or Beyond Capitalism?” Truthout, January 15, 2014; Paul Street, “Why I am an Eco-socialist,” Open University of the Left, December 14, 2013