Capitalism versus the climate


 The following presentation was given by Socialist Action (Canada) National Federal Secretary Barry Weisleder at the SA educational conference at the University of Toronto, May 22-23.

“This Changes Everything” is the theme of this conference. But what exactly does it mean?

Firstly, there are the obvious signs of dramatic environmental change. Sea levels are rising. Oceans are warmer and more acidic. Coral reefs are dying, with serious consequences for sea life and shorelines. Glaciers and Arctic sea ice are melting. More frequent and intense heat waves are occurring, along with many more incidents of extreme weather, both super-hot and frigid. There are consequent droughts, loss of food sources, displacement of people, and massive fatality due to forced migration and war over scarcity.

Some folks prefer to close their eyes and sing, “Don’t worry. Be happy.” But that won’t alter the present course of climate change (95% of it is caused by human activity, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

The other way in which “This Changes Everything” is the way millions of people now look at the root cause of the problem—capitalism. Naomi Klein’s book deserves credit for being an important factor in this change. The environmental movement is certainly the biggest factor. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. That is what I wish to explore.

Naomi Klein’s new book, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate,” is the climax of her influential trilogy. It registers how much her perspective has changed over the last 15 years. This shift centers on both her assessment of the movement and her deeper appreciation of capitalism “as the main enemy.”

Her earlier criticisms of certain aspects of capitalism have now expanded to suggest that capitalism has become the central barrier to human survival and progress. “No Logo,” which came out in 1999, exposed the manipulative and exploitative innards of consumer culture. But it mistakenly distinguished between “good” and “bad” corporations, obscuring the social system in which these companies function.

Klein’s second major book, “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” chronicled how corporations and capitalist states pounce on the opportunities provided by man-made or natural crises to “ram through policies that enrich a small elite.” By focussing on crises, Klein underplayed what capitalism does between crises.

“This Changes Everything” concentrates on the system itself—and its environmental consequences. “[O]ur economic system and our planetary system are now at war,” Klein writes, “and it’s not the laws of nature that can be changed.” The significance of the book lies in Klein’s determination to demonstrate that changing our relationship to nature is inseparable from changing our relationship to one other—by “transforming our economic system.”

The immediate threat to the planet means that just adding “the environment” to our list of concerns is not good enough. The sheer scale of the problem necessitates a programme that confronts capitalism. We must do away with any notions, Klein asserts, that the environmental crisis can be contained and eventually rolled back through policy tinkering, technical fixes, or market-based solutions. After all, it’s silly to expect the market to solve problems it created. A far more comprehensive solution is required.

And it’s not enough to expose the woefully inadequate solutions of the Right. Hard questions must be asked of the environmental movement. While the movement has put the issue on the agenda and attracted many young people to the struggle, its organizational forms simply do not match what we are up against. After decades of engagement, the environmental movement remains relatively marginal, capable of slowing down this or that trend, but not able to reverse and correct capitalism’s reckless trajectory.

Klein is especially critical of those sections of the movement that jumped on the “green capitalism” bandwagon in the 1970s. Like labour unions that became increasingly bureaucratic and conservative generations ago, the environmental movement, she writes, “stopped being about organizing protests and teach-ins and became about drafting laws, then suing corporations for violating them, as well as challenging governments for failing to enforce them. In rapid fashion, what had been a rabble of hippies became a movement of lawyers, lobbyists, and UN summit hoppers. As a result, many of the newly professionalized environmentalists came to pride themselves on being the ultimate insiders, able to wheel and deal across the political spectrum.”

Klein goes on to point out that “so long as the victories kept coming, their insider strategy seemed to be working. Then came the 1980s.” Capitalism’s turn to neo-liberalism exposed the extent to which the environmental movement had become a paper tiger, able to maneuver somewhat within the system, but without the capacity for independent, sustained mass mobilization.

Apart from the opportunism of access to resources and entry into the inner circles, what accounts for the betrayals of these former idealists? How big a factor was having no broader vision beyond the environment, and little or no strategic plan for truly challenging power?

This is not just a question of history but a matter of strategy for today. Klein points to a part of the movement that didn’t sell out, but remained loyal to original principles. As much as Klein puts her hope in this latter group, she also admits to frustrations with key aspects of its strategic orientation. She makes two overlapping points.

First, there is the tendency of many in the movement to mistakenly identify structures per se as part of the problem. There is no going forward, however, without the development of institutions that can deal on a mass scale with resources, coordination, outreach, popular education, and make complex collective choices while keeping wayward leaders in check.

As Klein writes, “The fetish for structurelessness, the rebellion against any kind of institutionalization, is not a luxury today’s transformational movements can afford. Despite endless griping, tweeting, flash mobbing, and occupying, we collectively lack many of the tools that built and sustained the transformative movements of the past.”

Second, Klein insists that the struggle against climate change cannot be won by fear alone. Fear can be paralyzing. Fear can also generate support for the short-term false options offered by green capitalism. Similarly, simply calling for a more austere lifestyle only reinforces the austerity pushed by capitalist states. The issue is not just living with “less” but living differently—and better.

Change must be about an alternative society. To the extent that some sacrifices are necessary, there must be a radical equality of sacrifice, with such steps seen as “investments” in transforming society, rather than concessions to preserve capitalism.

To the uncomfortable question of “how can we persuade the human race to put the future ahead of the present,” Klein answers “you don’t.” Instead, work on the basis that “if there has ever been a moment to advance a plan to heal the planet that also heals our broken economies and shattered communities, this is it.”

It is necessary to point to issues directly linked to the environment—housing, transportation, infrastructure, meaningful jobs, collective services, public spaces, greater equality, and real democracy. Work to convince people that “climate action is the best hope for a better present, and a future far more exciting than anything else currently on offer.

In contrast, the mainstream environmental movement, Klein laments, “generally stands apart from these expressions of mass frustration, choosing to define climate activism narrowly—such as by demanding a carbon tax, or supporting Ontario Premier Wynne’s cap-in-trade carbon credits system, or even trying to stop a pipeline.”

Building a broad, radical, mass movement against climate change isn’t about de-emphasizing the central importance of the environmental crisis but of thinking about it politically and linking it to wider values. Such a movement needs to be independent of capital, and to be for the transformation of class society, to replace capitalism with socialist democracy.

Klein deserves credit for putting capitalism on trial. Yet she leaves too much wiggle room for capitalism to escape clear condemnation. There is already great confusion among social activists over what “anti-capitalism” means. For many, 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 to say that the problem is capitalism, but 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 that the goal isn’t to create a better capitalism, but to end capitalism as a social system.

It is not just that capitalism is inseparable from the compulsion to indiscriminate growth, but that capitalism turns labor power and nature into commodities. It drives an individualized consumerism that is incompatible with collective values. It is insensitive to the environment. After all, for capital, nature is an input, and the full costs of how it is exploited by any corporation are someone else’s problem.

A system based on private ownership of production can’t support the kind of planning that could avert environmental catastrophe. The owners of capital are compelled by competition to look after their own interests first. Any serious central planning would have to override property rights—an action they would aggressively resist.

As Klein notes, even countries that have spoken out against extractivism—in response to pressure from indigenous environmentalists—have often found themselves compelled by capitalism to mine and sell their resources as much as possible.

As for the Global North’s using its technology and wealth to expand the options in the Global South, this kind of solidarity would imply both a cultural transformation in the North and direct workers’ control over technology and social wealth so that global redistribution is possible. Only under world socialism is that even imaginable.

Some who see the limits of capitalism today look to the postwar era. But it was during the Keynesian welfare state period that freer trade made its great leap forward, multinational companies began their global expansion, finance— benefitting from the growth of mortgages and pensions and following giant corporations abroad—saw its first wave of explosive expansion.

Clearly, capitalists and their states have no interest in that earlier era which, for all its limits, still imposed too many barriers on the drive for profits. It is capitalism—not a qualified capitalism, but really existing capitalism—that “is the main enemy.”

This is the crucial point, because if we conclude that the environment can’t be regenerated under capitalism, then this is what becomes the great game-changer. Instead of lobbying corporations and states to modify their behaviour within capitalism, we must organize ourselves to replace the system.

We need to fight as hard as possible for reforms that limit environmental damage, but such a battle for reforms must be used to build a movement, led by a party, that can take us beyond capitalism.

Sadly, Klein doesn’t offer a political strategy. While she poses the need to link “Blockadia,” anti-fracking, and other social movements together in a unified movement against neo-liberalism and climate change, she doesn’t take up the fight for a workers’ government.

She invests her hope in an amorphous movement to replace “extreme,” neo-liberal capitalism with a regulated, benign capitalism. She doesn’t recognize the existence of a class struggle in which the choices are more starkly posed.

Instead of advocating a revolutionary perspective, she dismisses it with a caricature. Klein calls it a “violent vanguardist revolution” that nobody wants. She fails to admit that the major source of violence in the present racist, sexist, homophobic, imperialist world order is capitalism itself, and that every revolution against capitalism, from Russia to Cuba to Vietnam, had to defend itself against violent foreign intervention.

She points to the abolition of slavery as an example of when a massive, morally repugnant system was dismantled, while leaving the capitalist mode of production intact. But, as the American Civil War demonstrated, the ruling class rarely surrenders its “right” to exploit without a fight. The defeat of the slave mode of production required a revolution by which the capitalist North smashed the slavocracy that ruled the South. In 1864 capitalism still represented progress. For the past century that has no longer been the case.

To save civilization, humanity, and life on Earth, capitalism must be eradicated. It will take a revolution to do that. There can be no revolution without a revolutionary party. A revolutionary party is not self-proclaimed. It must earn recognition as such by millions of workers. It takes more than slogans to change society. But a full programme and sustained revolutionary practice in support of it is absolutely required.

Central to a programme for Climate Justice and a decent, democratic and sustainable future for humanity are the following elements:

Declare a Climate Emergency. Create a New Climate agenda that begins with nationalization of key sectors such as finance, energy, and resource industries like Big Oil and Gas, transportation, agri-business, and auto.

Restructuring of the economy fundamentally, with planning by workers, scientists and environmentalists, and management by elected worker representatives. The top priority should be the rapid replacement of fossil and nuclear fuels with clean, renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and biomass. Stop the privatization of Ontario Hydro. Phase out the Alberta Tar Sands. Defeat the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement and abrogate the previous ‘free trade’ deals.

Dismantle the polluting, wasteful, and dangerous war machine used to support imperialism. Close all foreign military bases, send home all soldiers and military contractors. Get Canada out of NATO.

Halt and reverse land-devouring urban sprawl by renovating urban cores. Restore wetlands, forests and farmland wrecked by irrational capitalist “development.” End dependency on the car by greatly expanding clean, safe, free and convenient mass transit. Support working farmers and farm workers with livable wages and benefits, and shift away from chemical to organic agriculture.

Please understand that the demand for nationalization of Big Oil and Gas is not designed to continue drilling for fossil fuels, or to make pipelines “safe.” It is rather aimed at conscripting the wealth accumulated by the energy pirates, and devoting it to rapid green energy conversion. The use of oil profits to end reliance on oil may seem a bit ironical. But it happens to be one of the only ways to fund the energy shift that is so urgently needed on a global scale.

Now here’s the kicker. Such a programme must be advanced and won inside the mass working-class organizations. That is where, if we are serious about this, we must create the political basis for a Workers’ Agenda, a workers’ government, and a socialist revolution. Those who lack the taste or stamina for a fight to win these policies in the unions and the NDP will certainly have trouble sustaining the battle for change in less receptive areas of society.

This battle must be waged. Everything depends on it. But take heart. You are not alone—if you join the socialists who are already active. That is why you should join Socialist Action today. Socialism or barbarism. The choice couldn’t be more clear.

Photo: November 2013 protest by climate justice activists at the UN climate talks in Warsaw. Alik Kepliez / AP

For video coverage of June 6 march in St. Paul, Minn., against tar sands oil, see


TAR SANDS RESISTANCE MARCH from jbayliss on Vimeo.

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