The capitalist mode of production, characterised by exchange for profit, private property, wage labour and capital accumulation, has only existed for around 300 years. Since the late 19th century it has found its way to even the most remote corners of the Earth by the way of exploitation, dispossession and imperialist competition. It has brought immense scientific and technological progress but at great cost. Wars, poverty, hunger, inequality, and oppression have plagued this system throughout its existence.
We have been on this planet for roughly 300,000 years, in one way or another shaping and re-shaping the ‘natural’ environment. It is no coincidence that the impact of human beings dramatically increased with the arrival of the capitalist mode of production, which, as Marx put it, “comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt”.
Now, at last the fact that capitalism is the major cause of global warming and threatens the existence of life on earth is accepted by growing numbers of people. Young people in particular are horrified to realise they will face ‘natural’ disasters threatening the conditions of existence of humanity in their own lifetime. For many, the logic is obvious: since capitalism is the cause of the problem, capitalism must be got rid of. Or must it? Many are deluded into thinking that a more realistic option is to nudge capitalism into reforming itself.
If only things were so simple. It’s easy to become exhilarated in the various movements to save the planet. Earth Strike is skilful at flagging-up demos but their radical-sounding demands are in fact utopian. “Until the world’s governments and businesses are held accountable to the people, we are refusing to participate in the system that fills their pockets. There will be no banking, no offices full of employees, no schools full of children, until our demands are met”. OK, capitalism – or “governments and businesses” can tolerate the occasional walk-out of kids from the classroom and the kids themselves will face no great loss. But an effective global strike would have to involve a prolonged refusal of masses of wage slaves to go to work, and for millions that means they wouldn’t have the means to live. Maybe they would even start running things for themselves. Indeed, revolution against capitalism is the only way to start to remedy the damage capitalism has done and is doing to the environment. But that must come from a conscious movement of the world’s exploited: the wage slaves, the working class, not the all-inclusive ‘people’ – bankers, bosses and all. The Earth Strikers are plainly not aiming to get rid of capitalism. Far from it, their vision of “governments and businesses” that are “accountable to the people” has no mention at all of any changes to the capitalist world order. This is obvious from their call for an “immediate start on global co-operation”; “International, unambiguous and binding commitments”; ditto for “agreements” … it's pie-in-the-sky reformism.
And whilst talking of pie-in-the-sky, we might mention Extinction Rebellion, another radical reformist grouping which claims inspiration from various celebrated ‘non-violent’ figures, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King. They want the government to “tell the truth”, “enact legally binding policies to reduce carbon emissions to zero” and “a national Citizen’s Assembly”, to oversee it all. Presumably they mean after the Brexit paralysis is resolved.
Factions of the Establishment propose a Green New Deal
In the light of this, it is no surprise that some reformist politicians have suggested a so-called Green New Deal that will solve the environmental question and remedy capitalism’s listless economic growth. It harks back to Roosevelt's New Deal of the 1930s, a state capitalist response to the Great Depression of 1929 that sought to provide relief for the unemployed and poor and reform the financial system to help the economy recover. In the aftermath of the 2007-8 financial crisis, sections of the US Democratic Party (Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement) and the UK Labour Party (Labour for a Green New Deal), as well as Green Parties across the world, now seek to kickstart the troubled economy with a set of new policies, a “green jobs revolution”, which will combine economic growth with an environmentally conscious approach.
The Green New Deal would aim to tackle climate change by a gradual transition to renewable energy and investment in social welfare, without upsetting the internal dynamics of capitalist accumulation. The state would funnel money into clean energy and social programmes, set up 100,000s of new green jobs, and attempt to reduce toxic air pollution. The expected result would be the decarbonisation of the economy, minimising the output of greenhouse gasses. This is in line with the provisions set out by the Paris Agreement (at least 40% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, an 80-95% cut by 2050). The actual implementation of the Green New Deal remains vague, and whether the material resources for such a move exist or not is being questioned. But even if some form of the deal was to actually pass into law, it would be too little, too late, and it would not address the cause of the problem.
Roosevelt's New Deal did not solve the economic problems of the US. In fact, the 1950s economic boom only happened thanks to the destruction wreaked on the planet by the Second World War, a massive devaluation of capital which restored profit rates and began a new cycle of accumulation. In 2019 we are in a similar position. Without a drastic devaluation of capital (the consequences of which would be tragic), the system is unable to produce an economic boom that would finance renewable energy and social welfare. The 2007-8 financial crash is still with us. It is a ticking time bomb. The ruling class has no real answer to this crisis, and any short-term solutions will come at the expense of the working class. State expenditure will be financed by appropriation of more and more surplus value from our labour. Rather than a Green New Deal, we are much more likely to see a state led Green Austerity. Solar and wind energy paid for by higher taxes and quantitative easing, fortified by nationalism, an enhanced border regime and population control (i.e. decarbonisation with Chinese characteristics).
The problem is capitalism
We have only two or three decades to overturn it
Production based on never-ending accumulation, no matter the consequences, is the prime motor of the capitalist system. For life on earth to remain sustainable the choice facing humanity is simpler than ever. Either we put an end to the current capitalist system which has already dragged us beyond the point of no return, or we face social and ecological collapse within the next few generations. The ruling class, with its private jets and helicopters, security guards, bunkers and luxury apartments, are already planning how to escape the effects of climate change, rising sea levels, and all kinds of disasters.
On the other hand, the global working class and the poor will have no such privilege. We are already paying for capitalism’s economic crisis. This is now merging with the environmental crisis. And again we are the first victims. The recent Cyclone Idai which hit southern Africa has left behind at least 750 dead, hundreds more missing and 100,000 now living in camps with the looming threat of cholera and malaria outbreaks. Disasters like this are only going to become more frequent and more intense. Along with the threat of imperialist war, the upcoming environmental crisis may not be as sudden but it will be no less serious.
It does not have to be this way. It is in our interest as workers to organise towards a new mode of production before it is too late. One where need and not profit guides our collective decision making. Where a global solution to environmental damage will be possible because classes, states, borders and money are a distant memory of a homicidal self-destructive past. Where humans can meet the challenges of the natural world through mutual aid and not cut-throat competition. That is our solution. Unlike the utopian schemes to push existing governments into saving the planet, worldwide communist revolution, where the producers decide collectively what they need to live in the light of what is sustainable, is the only practical alternative. The material conditions for this already exist (houses stand empty while people sleep on the streets, food rots on the shelves or is simply thrown away while millions die of hunger, technological advances are wasted on war machines rather than medicine, exponential amounts of personal consumer goods in ‘rich countries’ are thrown away just because of fashion). But as long as capitalism rules, environmental destruction will continue.
We have a world to save. In the process we need to abolish the system of profit for the few and take over the running of things from the ground up.
The above article is taken from the current edition (No. 47) of Aurora, bulletin of the Communist Workers’ Organisation.