In part two of this two-part article, we look at the parallels between fossil-fuel abolitionism and the abolition of slavery in the 19th century United States.
Part 1 | Part 2
Abolitionism in the 19th century US
In 1850, the US population was about 23 million, of whom over 3 million – 13% – were slaves. According to Thomas Piketty, US national capital in 1850 was 440% of national income, with slaves valued at 108% of national income. In today’s terms, the value of slaves would therefore equate to assets of around $16 trillion. There were also investments in the labour processes that used slave labour which were devalued too, and slave-based labour was the centre of the South's economy and a huge part of the US economy. However, the value of the wider infrastructure is hard to estimate. Mitigating climate change would similarly destroy a lot of invested wealth and it will likely require a similar degree of intense social conflict. The headline figure of $4 trillion for the carbon bubble is less than the approximate $16 trillion present value of US slaves in 1850, however it is reasonable to assume the path-dependent sunk costs in fossil fuel infrastructure (refineries, transport/vehicles, industrial processes, agriculture etc) would be significantly higher than $4 trillion, perhaps even more than $16 trillion. Working this out would be a serious piece of scholarship, so we’re working with broad order-of-magnitude estimates here.
Abolitionists in the 19th century United States were a broad political spectrum analogous to people today who care about climate change. There were insurrectionary abolitionists like the slaves who rose up against plantation owners. The people who went on the raid on the Federal Arsenal in Harpers Ferry Virginia in 1859 were another kind of insurrectionary abolitionist. The raiders brought a long a copy of a constitution for the US government after they seized power, which included a statement of loyalty to the US government and its constitution, and noted that they did not intend to overthrow the government. There were also direct action abolitionists like the many individual African Americans who fled slavery, 'stealing' themselves from their owners, and others who 'stole' other enslaved people, helping them escape.
There were important organized forms of this movement, often called the Underground Railroad. There were policy oriented abolitionists as well, who pushed for the legislative end to slavery. These approaches could mix with direct action approaches in the form of militant action to demand new laws. Some legislative abolitionists sought an immediate end to slavery while others sought a gradual end. Some wanted slave owners to be paid for their human property while others wanted expropriation. And some wanted the freed African Americans to be deported to Africa. We can see an analogous range of political approaches to climate change today.
The history of slavery, abolition, and the US Civil War is complicated and contentious. One version of the story is that slaveholders and other ruling class political forces had a kind of uneasy co-existence that grew increasingly troubled over the course of the 19th century. Essentially, the US federal government played as kind of balancing role, keeping those forces in relative balance within the policy decisions and economy at the time. As the US expanded territorially, this led to a series of conflicts over political issues about where slavery would and would not be permitted. That expansion occurred in the context of a growth market in cotton and other slave-made goods and rising prices in slaves. Which is to say, there was a great deal of money to be made by investing in slaves and setting slaves to work, and that great deal of money was getting bigger over time, creating pressures for the further expansion of slavery.
These conflicts occurred with greater and greater frequency over time and became more intense; slave owners and other ruling class forces became increasingly polarized. That polarization and the nature of the conflicts that occurred were dramatically shaped by abolitionists. Abolitionists pressed upon the pre-existing and growing tensions between ruling class fractions, tensions that arose from the policy and economic changes. Abolitionists also created new tensions and politicized the nature of slavery itself, coding slavery as a moral wrong (though as we noted above, abolitionists differed among themselves and their differences included what kind of wrong they said slavery was).
Fossil fuel abolitionism?
The point of this parallel is to lay out a rough analogy with the present. There are policy and economic developments that create tensions among different capitalist class fractions. We are skeptical about the possibility to control climate change without ending capitalism. If climate change is to be controlled while capitalism continues, we are skeptical as well that it can come from the capitalists and their governments without militant social movements, analogous to the abolitionist movements. Furthermore, as residents of the planet Earth we would of course welcome the control of climate change over the runaway climate change that is becoming a terrifying new possibility. That said, we are not just residents and we want more from the future than simply 'continuing to live on this planet.' We are libertarian communists who want humanity to live on this planet in particular ways. It is not at all clear that all anti-climate change forces will be forces for genuine human emancipation, any more than all anti-slavery forces were forces for genuine emancipation.
None of this is to say civil war is on the cards, nor to accept that the US civil war was fought simply to abolish slavery (as opposed to emancipation being a useful ploy to destabilise the South, for example). But the example demonstrates how the emergence of a social movement can tip the balance of forces between rival developmental trajectories within the capitalist class. This is especially true when the material interests concerned are too divergent, due to path dependency, to be reconciled by normal capitalist processes of general will formation (e.g. party politics). That said, it’s worth noting that by 1880, US national capital had recovered to 422% of national income, with slaves accounting for 0% (Piketty’s data), which suggests other forms of capital quickly grew to make up the loss.
Mass struggle, not enlightened policy
Climate change seems likely only be averted/contained in two scenarios: if there's a libertarian communist revolution overthrowing states and capital and instituting a global commons; or, if there's a powerful, militant movement that emerges around climate change which is harnessed by inter-capitalist and inter-state conflict, analogous to the US civil war. These aren't entirely distinct, as green capitalists would surely attempt to harness any nascent communist movement to restructure capital in their interests, "reforming to preserve, not to overthrow."1
If a militant anti-climate change movement emerges a lot of people on the left will mistake it for being revolutionary, given that people have mistaken much less important and exciting movements for revolutionary, and given that people have mistaken the abolitionist movement for revolutionary. It's important therefore to understand the extent to which environmentalism can oppose particular fractions of capital, or even the current path of capitalist development, without necessarily opposing the capital relation itself.2
...many of the union activists in the 1930s wanted to abolish capitalism, but in practice contributed to a better-regulated and more successful version of it.3
On the other hand, it's also important to recognise that any movement powerful enough to force big reforms has the potential to overflow the constraints of the capital relation and its social forms (states, private property, commodities, wage labour, etc). People and movements are dynamic. A struggle that begins as reformist in its demands and social vision may come to demand more thoroughgoing change. In noting the possibility for anti-climate change movements to take on a reformist character we are not advocating abstention from them but rather advocating the need for communists to push for those movements to expand their political vision to a more expansive sense of human liberation. We should not assume that climate change movements will be inherently anti-capitalist, but they will necessarily challenge the current organisation of capitalism, and in so doing perhaps open up the space for a more fundamental social transformation.
In the absence of such a movement, the dynamic equilibrium between recuperation and rupture may seem moot - there's precious little to recuperate. But if the business-as-usual trajectory is to be reversed, the dynamics of social movements and inter-capitalist wrangling will be crucial. Fossil fuels are central at a world scale, whereas slavery was central at a national/sub-national level. The value of the assets and infrastructure that need to be written off to mitigate dangerous climate change is staggering, of a similar order of magnitude to slavery (though on a rough comparison of headline figures, $4trn to $16trn, perhaps the carbon bubble is smaller than the slavery one).4
A write-off of this magnitude won't happen without a push, but we shouldn't underestimate the capacity of the capitalist system to harness social movements in order to transform and preserve itself. What we can say is that attempts to create and burst a 'carbon bubble' through top-down policy channels are a dead-end. Such a massive economic write-off will not be voluntarily undertaken, given the likely impact on stock markets (down) and food prices (up) alone. In this sense, responses to climate change, whether reforms or revolution, are in the hands of social movements. There are many potential flashpoints for such a movement: food riots, movements for free transport, anti-extraction and anti-airport struggles. Such struggles seek to block the current fossil fuel-intensive development path, and are vital for that reason. Their emergence may also generate a crisis which opens up the possibility of more radical social transformation.
- 1. British Prime Minister Earl Grey in 1831, discussing suffrage, quoted in SolFed's Fighting For Ourselves.
- 2. Militant reformism is a term that's come up in (and really, developed through) conversation among people on libcom. The discussion has spread across multiple blog posts and is hard to summarise. For an overview, see Responding to the growing importance of the state in the workers' movement.
- 3. Peter Newell & Mike Paterson, Climate Capitalism, p.180.
- 4. It is worth noting that the write-off in the United States was a social and economic earthquake. And this earthquake involved massive military casualties. Petrochemical companies like Shell are already notorious for their support for brutal dictatorships, most infamously in their collusion in the execution of Nigerian activist Ken Saro-Wiwa (Shell paid $15.5 million in an out of court settlement to his family to avoid admitting liability). Recently this has been dramatized in the political video game Oiligarchy. These behaviours have happened in a period of relative profitability for the petrocapitalists. Once we start talking about actual destruction of their capital, they may well be willing to resort to much more widespread use of violence to maintain the existence of their industry.