It did not take the fatal consequences of recent record temperatures in Western Europe, or the recent wildfires in California, monsoon floods in Nepal, India and Bangladesh or the Mozambique cyclones, to tell us that something has radically shifted in the world’s climate. The existential threat of human-created climate change to life on the planet has been understood for decades. NASA, among others, first sounded the alarm about global carbon emissions in 1988 and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was formed the same year.
Since then we have had a series of warnings from the most distinguished climate scientists in the world that unless emissions are reduced global warming will radically transform the Earth’s environment for ever, possibly leading ultimately to yet another “great extinction” of life. The latest warning from the UN’s IPCC states that there are only a dozen years before it will be too late for global warming to be kept to a maximum of 1.5°C. After that, even half a degree increase will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. More than that (and we are heading in that direction) life on the planet as a whole will be endangered. It will be the sixth mass life extinction in the history of the planet. Four of the previous five were due to climate change produced by greenhouse gases. The difference in the next “great extinction” is that one animal species, humanity, the “Lords of Creation” for the biblically-minded, will actually be responsible for this destruction.
Despite overwhelming scientific evidence, over thirty years of international discussion has achieved almost nothing in the way of carbon and other greenhouse gas emission reduction1 and the planet continues to warm up, leading to knock on factors such as the release of more greenhouse gas (methane) from the Arctic tundra2 and the desertification of the Sahel and elsewhere. The melting of the Arctic, and of glaciers everywhere, is already leading to rising sea levels and the warming of the seas is leading to the growth of green sulphur bacteria in the sea, out of which another greenhouse gas, stinky hydrogen sulphide, bubbles. 2018 turned out to be the worst year for emissions in history.
With the crisis now so acute there should be no surprise at the emergence of more and more radical green protests such as that of Greta Thunberg or Extinction Rebellion. Like all such environmental groupings they are very good at identifying the problem. However like Green groups in the past they are less good at identifying the only way to a real solution. In fact they are a positive menace in this respect. For Greta Thunberg and her many followers the problem has been the older generation who don’t care about the future which young people will be left with. This is even worse than the usual Green individualistic moralist argument that “we are all responsible” for pollution as if “we” or indeed the “old” have had any say in the rules of the game our capitalist overlords are playing. The idea that by only consuming certain things or avoiding plastic straws or bags will save the planet is not only an illusion but flies in the face of the facts. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch of floating plastic the size of France is not just from the plastic bottles we use but 46% is discarded fishing nets (the Green response to this is once again for individual “consumers” to stop eating fish).3 Whilst it is great to see young people motivated about the really big issues (and they don’t come any bigger than the future of humanity), the false “solutions” that are being fed to them are such massive diversions that they will actually play into the hands of the real polluters. Thunberg playing the generation game is actually divisive. Older generations have been generally kept in the dark and systematically lied to by governments and multinationals alike. The oil industry today is playing the same role of disinformation as the tobacco industry did in the 1970s. Those who have raised the spectre of environmental disaster in all its forms have lacked the power to defeat the entrenched interests of those who run the global capitalist system.
And followers of Greta Thunberg and Extinction Rebellion4 have no greater idea than to confine their direct action to putting pressure on the existing political and social system to take climate change seriously, and bring about zero emissions, without taking account of the underlying drive of capitalism to increase profits. It's a bit like asking a pack of wolves to look after a flock of sheep. It is no accident that the new “radical” green movements have their origins in the most affluent of the democratic states. They are essentially democratic protests appealing to the “comfortably off”. Asking people to court arrest in carefully organised publicity stunts might seem “fun” in good old democratic Britain when the police know they are in the public eye, but try doing that in Moscow, or Beijing, or anywhere where the forces of the state operate with greater impunity. Little wonder that the leaders of Extinction Rebellion proclaim their faith in the democratic system they hope to pressurise by acts of civil disobedience.
George Monbiot and Opposing the System
Some of the Greens protestors will agree that to save the planet we have to “change the system” and they will carry banners to this effect in their demonstrations. However they don’t actually define what “system” they are talking about. Is it just the political system? This would be a logical conclusion from their frequently announced actions as a pressure group. In doing so they largely ignore the question of what is the real threat to humanity and this is the system of production that we live under. Thus the declaration by the long-time environmental campaigner and journalist, George Monbiot on Frankie Boyle’s show New World Order in April that “We can’t do it by just pissing around at the margins of the problem. We’ve gotta go straight to the heart of capitalism; and overthrow it” came as a welcome step forward.5
Monbiot followed up his TV declaration in his column in the Guardian with a piece with the promising title of Dare to Declare Capitalism Dead – Before it Takes us all Down with it.6 It begins with a confession:
"For most of my adult life I’ve railed against “corporate capitalism”, “consumer capitalism” and “crony capitalism”. It took me a long time to see that the problem is not the adjective but the noun."
Bravo. His take on capitalism as a system is not bad either. He now understands that the system is driven by the drive for “perpetual growth” because "Economic growth is the aggregate effect of the quest to accumulate capital and extract profit. Capitalism collapses without growth, yet perpetual growth on a finite planet leads inexorably to environmental calamity."
Consciously or unconsciously he was echoing Karl Marx (or if we were going in for self-flattery we would claim he must have read our articles too!). Marx’s writings not only agree with Monbiot that capitalism has to chase growth or die, he also explained the laws behind this process. In Capital Volume 1 he wrote
“…competition subordinates every individual capitalist to the immanent laws of capitalist production, as external and coercive laws. It compels him to keep extending his capital, so as to preserve it, and he can only extend it by means of progressive accumulation.”7
By Capital Volume 3 Marx understood that what constantly drove capitalist growth was the law of value as expressed in "the rate of profit, [which is the] goad of capitalist production (just as self-expansion of capital is its only purpose)."8
The secret of capitalist competition for more and more growth lies in the fall in the rate of profit connected with accumulation, this
"necessarily calls forth a competitive struggle. Compensation of a fall in the rate of profit by a rise in the mass of profit applies only to the total social capital and to the big, firmly placed capitalists. The new additional capital operating independently does not enjoy any such compensating conditions. It must still win them, and so it is that a fall in the rate of profit calls forth a competitive struggle among capitalists, not vice versa.”9
Monbiot’s second charge against capitalism is that it rests on
"the bizarre assumption that a person is entitled to as great a share of the world’s natural wealth as their money can buy. This seizure of common goods causes three further dislocations. First, the scramble for exclusive control of non-reproducible assets, which implies either violence or legislative truncations of other people’s rights. Second, the immiseration of other people by an economy based on looting across both space and time. Third, the translation of economic power into political power, as control over essential resources leads to control over the social relations that surround them."
Marx could not have agreed more. He not only spent his entire life pointing to how capital accumulation at one pole was dependent on the “immiseration” of those who created the wealth through their labour at the other, but also concluded towards the end of Capital Volume 3 that,
"From the standpoint of a higher socio-economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men."10
And then he adds
"Even an entire society, a nation or all simultaneously existing societies taken together are not owners of the earth, they are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations, as boni patres familias [good heads of households]."
'Communism' and the Environment
And real revolutionary Marxists and communists would even agree with the substance of Monbiot’s remark that
“Soviet communism had more in common with capitalism than the advocates of either system would care to admit. Both systems are (or were) obsessed with generating economic growth."
Except that what he is describing is neither “soviet” nor “communist”. By the time that Stalin came to power the soviets or workers’ councils had long lost their power and become arms of the “Communist” Party dictatorship. What the Stalinist model had “in common” with the West was that it was a form of state capitalism which had long broken with a society run by workers in their soviets (or councils), and was certainly not en route to “communism”. The key aspect the USSR had in common with the West was that labour was exploited for the benefit of an alien class which disposed of the new value the workers created over and above the value of their wages. In the case of Stalin the purpose of accumulation was unashamedly militaristic. In 1931 he told a conference of industrial managers that the pace of industrialisation could not be slackened but on the contrary had to be speeded up because
"We are fifty or a hundred years behind the advanced countries. We must make good this distance in ten years. Either we do it, or we shall be crushed."
This is, of course, a well-known quotation but it does explain why the concentration was on building up heavy industry at the expense of providing for the basic needs of its citizens. Less often quoted is the sentence before, which contains a blatant lie.
"That is why Lenin said on the eve of the October Revolution: Either perish, or overtake and outstrip the advanced capitalist countries."11
Lenin said, and thought, nothing of the sort. He said that the Russian Revolution could only be victorious as part of a world-wide working class revolution! “Socialism in one country” arose out of the failure of that world revolution to arrive, and put the USSR on the road to a regimented and highly centralised form of state capitalism built on ruthless exploitation of the working class. This was about as far from communism as it was possible to get. Communism is a society based on satisfying the human needs of all. It is not about massive industrialisation without care of the social and environmental costs. The Stalinist drive to accumulate was not “really existing socialism” but a total rupture with both Marx and the October Revolution.
The record of the early days of soviet power on the environment are actually very different. Despite an acute economic crisis (which ended in famine in 1921) the first state-funded nature reserve (zapovednik) in the world dedicated only to scientific research, the Il’menskii, was established in 1920. Three more were in place by 1924. Many new research institutes were set up and Moscow University offered courses in ecology. Vladimir Vernadsky became world famous for the concept of ‘noosphere’: “a new state of biosphere in which humans play an active role in change that is based on man and woman’s recognition of the interconnectedness of nature”. An All-Russian Society for the Protection of Nature was founded with thousands of members and many leading Bolsheviks including Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, discussed how to improve the environment in cities and towns, leading to more parks and green areas in cities.12 This is a totally different picture from the industrialisation and total devastation of some parts of the USSR in pursuit of “growth” at any price. Many such policies carried on after Stalin. You need only think of the disastrous diversion of water from the Aral Sea to irrigate the Uzbekistan cotton crop from the 1960s on. This led to one of the world’s greatest man-made ecological disasters in which the sea has lost 80% of its volume and continues to dry up (now partially due to global warming). This was not the result of Marxist thinking but of Stalinist “production at all costs” policies.
Those who still want to insist that Marx was a precursor of Stalin (including Stalinists) direct their attention to Marx’ apparent praise of capitalism’s capacity to revolutionise the forces of production. To support this they quote passages like the following from the Communist Manifesto.
"The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?"
But this is simply a description of the historical fact of existence under capitalism in the mid-nineteenth century. It is a fact of history not a paean to a new mode of production. Far from it. On the same page Marx wrote
"Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells."
He has not yet worked out why this was so (that would come in the 1850s and 1860s) but he could already see that this system's inner drive is to expand whatever the consequences. Indeed, Marx notes that capitalism's economic crises are not like those of the past since in place of the shortages (famines) of the past crises now involve the contradiction that the system tends to produce “too much” even amidst a general impoverishment of the working population.
In fact Marx makes clear that
"The first premise of all human history is, of course, the existence of living human individuals. Thus the first fact to be established is the physical organisation of these individuals and their consequent relation to the rest of nature."13
"The history of nature and the history of men are dependent on each other so long as men exist."14
The character of this relationship cannot be understated:
"Man lives on nature — means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature."15
Some of course have dismissed this concern as just being “the early Marx” whose view would be changed by his later economic analyses. Or else it is often asserted that Engels never shared this vision and his more mechanical interpretation of Marx’s ideas led straight to Stalinism. Both are untrue. In the Critique of the Gotha Programme (written in 1875, but not published until the 1890s) Marx took the German social democrats to task over their formulation that “labour was the source of all wealth”.
"Labour is not the source of all wealth. Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!) as labour, which itself is only the manifestation of a force of nature, human labour power."
In his earlier notes in preparation for the writing of Capital Marx underlines just how the fundamental relationship in the capitalist mode of production (capital-wage labour) is a process of breaking with nature and with the human relationship to it.
"It is not the unity of living and active humanity with the natural, inorganic conditions of their metabolic exchange with nature, and hence their appropriation of nature, which requires explanation or is the result of a historic process, but rather the separation between these inorganic conditions of human existence and this active existence, a separation which is completely posited only in the relation of wage labour and capital."16
Even in Capital Volume 1 he was well aware of the destructive nature of capitalist agriculture:
"…all progress in capitalistic agriculture is a progress in the art, not only of robbing the labourer, but of robbing the soil; all progress in increasing the fertility of the soil for a given time, is a progress towards ruining the lasting sources of that fertility."
As for Engels, his analysis of how capitalism was destroying the planet puts him way ahead of his time. In his unfinished essay on The Role of Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876) he chides the arrogance of a humanity that thinks its actions have no consequences for the future of the earth.
"Let us not, however, flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory nature takes its revenge on us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel the first. The people who, in Mesopotamia, Greece, Asia Minor and elsewhere, destroyed the forests to obtain cultivable land, never dreamed that by removing along with the forests the collecting centres and reservoirs of moisture they were laying the basis for the present forlorn state of those countries."17
And he makes it quite clear that it is the capitalist pursuit of profit which is the menace. This is not only destroying the environment but is doing so to concentrate more and more power in the hands of those who control capital.
"Classical political economy, the social science of the bourgeoisie, in the main examines only social effects of human actions in the fields of production and exchange that are actually intended. This fully corresponds to the social organisation of which it is the theoretical expression. As individual capitalists are engaged in production and exchange for the sake of the immediate profit, only the nearest, most immediate results must first be taken into account. As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers. The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertiliser for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees — what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock! In relation to nature, as to society, the present mode of production is predominantly concerned only about the immediate, the most tangible result; and then surprise is expressed that the more remote effects of actions directed to this end turn out to be quite different, are mostly quite the opposite in character; that the harmony of supply and demand is transformed into the very reverse opposite, as shown by the course of each ten years’ industrial cycle — even Germany has had a little preliminary experience of it in the “crash”; that private ownership based on one’s own labour must of necessity develop into the expropriation of the workers, while all wealth becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of non-workers; that [... the manuscript breaks off here.]"
Indeed the only thing that has changed is that the tendencies for the enrichment and empowering of a capitalist minority over those who create the world’s wealth, but who have it alienated from them, has increased enormously. It would come as no surprise to Marx or Engels to learn that today 26 individuals control as much wealth as half of the rest of humanity.18 It is an inevitable consequence of the concentration and centralisation of capital which they pointed out was essential to the functioning of the system. Marx explains this cogently in Chapter 25 of Capital Volume 1:
"But all methods for the production of surplus-value are at the same time methods of accumulation; and every extension of accumulation becomes again a means for the development of those methods. It follows therefore that in proportion as capital accumulates, the lot of the labourer, be his payment high or low, must grow worse. The law, finally, that always equilibrates the relative surplus population, or industrial reserve army, to the extent and energy of accumulation, this law rivets the labourer to capital more firmly than the wedges of Vulcan did Prometheus to the rock. It establishes an accumulation of misery, corresponding with accumulation of capital. Accumulation of wealth at one pole is, therefore, at the same time accumulation of misery, agony of toil slavery, ignorance, brutality, mental degradation, at the opposite pole, i.e., on the side of the class that produces its own product in the form of capital."19
This is, of course, reflected in political terms in the domination of those who control this enormous wealth over both the means of production of ideas (media) and the political process. Research by the Carbon Disclosure Project shows that 71% of all greenhouse gas emissions can be put down to 100 firms or state bodies since 1988.20 By far the biggest polluter is the Chinese state through its coal companies (accounting for 14% of emissions) and we should not forget that it has been China’s economy which has been the backbone of world growth over the last three decades.
The Real Solution
There are numerous capitalist projects which claim to have a capitalist solution to the pollution it creates. None of them have been effective. Kyoto came up with the idea of climate credits in which firms which wanted to emit 1 tonne of carbon dioxide bought the carbon credit of another entity (say a reforestation project). These carbon credits, the most frequently traded item on the London Stock Exchange, seem to have enriched the financial sector in the City of London without making the slightest impact on emissions. They have been actually a rich source of carbon cheating in which firms exaggerate what they have done to improve their “carbon footprint” whilst some sellers of carbon credits have been utterly fraudulent but as few understand how this dubious category is calculated the few cases that do reach court are thrown out on technicalities.21
With many leading polluters, like the US and Canada, pulling out of Kyoto to avoid the impact of carbon credits on their fossil fuel extractions their impact has been at best minimal and certainly not enough to keep up with the increased emissions since the policy was dreamed up. It is utterly utopian to believe that a system that is based on increasing output and profits can also produce something that will benefit humanity as a whole.
We can see this in the current Ebola outbreak in the Congo. After the first wave of Ebola in West Africa the World Bank issued “pandemic bonds”. Investors would buy these insurance-type bonds which were intended to pay out whenever a virulent disease occurred. Over 1600 people have already died in Congo and the World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared it an “international emergency” so how have these bonds performed?
"One relatively small slice — the so-called “cash” element — has delivered $31.4m to help with the crisis. But the larger “insurance” element of the Ebola bonds is yet to pay out a penny, instead continuing to deliver a coupon of 11.1 per cent over the Libor rate to investors."22
So whilst private investors hold onto their dividends the WHO has been wringing its hands in “disappointment that some sources of funding has not been forthcoming”, and the World Bank has been forced to give/loan $200 million to the Congolese Government to face the emergency.
The fact is that, in capitalist terms, to actually implement Green policies would, as the old cliché has it, “cost the Earth”. In the past, Green Parties around the world have been fairly insouciant about the impact of their policies on the majority of the world’s population. Middle class Green Parties have even joined with parties on the capitalist right (e.g. in Germany) to impose austerity to which carbon taxes have been added thus only further impoverishing the working class who pay disproportionally for them. The yellow vests (gilets jaunes) movement in France was a revolt of people of various classes in rural areas against just such taxes which, as we have shown above, would not significantly solve the emissions problem.
Elements of the capitalist left have realised this and come up with a policy which links a guaranteed job or income to the creation of new jobs in green technology. This is the so-called Green New Deal, espoused by the likes of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez etc. Some have criticised the Green New Deal as simply “greenwashing capital” but, given its costs, it will not even do this because it will never be implemented by a system that is already in crisis.
To actually carry out a real environmental policy which does not make the working class worse off we must first undermine the very law that is the basis of capitalism — the law of value. Capitalism does not produce things to satisfy human needs. It produces “commodities”, things that can be sold. Indeed capitalism’s whole history has been about inventing needs which it turns into commodities. Some of this has sick consequences. Today more people have access to mobile phones around the world than they have to flush toilets.23 If it can be monetised then it becomes a priority for the system, but if it meets a basic need that is not monetised it can be neglected. This, and the linked drive to increase profit, is the source of all waste production and planned obsolescence of machinery and tools. The only solution is to rip the heart out of the problem by abandoning the law of value. And this means ushering in a moneyless system. This is at the heart of the capitalist system which George Monbiot now recognises is the root of the climate problem.
The spontaneous applause for his anti-capitalist message from the studio audience on the Frankie Boyle Show confirms what we have found when distributing our broadsheet Aurora with the headline “Capitalism is the Problem” in the climate change demos around the UK. It seems that “anti-capitalism” is now in vogue. But what “anti-capitalism” are we talking about, and how will it become a programme of action?
The climate crisis is not the only threat capitalism poses for humanity. The consequences of the economic collapse of 2007-8 are still with us yet all the indications are that the next collapse is not far away. In this context trade wars and currency wars are just the forerunners of full-blown imperialist war which could arise from any number of flash points from the Middle East to the South China Sea. And the crises are becoming increasingly interlinked. Climate change drove people into the cities to demonstrate for the fall of the Assad regime in 2011 and climate change is driving the wars across the Southern Sahara from Sudan to Burkina Faso today. Climate change is also driving migrants to risk their lives in escaping failed and collapsing states in Central America, Africa and the Middle East.
However, a new world will not come about simply through demonstrations, civil disobedience or other actions trying to pressurise the rulers of the planet to act against their own interests. It will only come about through the destruction of the economic and social structures which support capitalist society.
And this includes the capitalist state. For many, “anti-capitalism” means simply placing the entire or even just parts of the existing economy in the hands of the state. But this is the solution that failed under Stalinism and Keynesianism. They do not do away with the fact that the surplus value created by the working class is put at the disposal of an alien body. Socialism will not simply be a different way of running an economy. It will also be a society in which the participation of all will be essential to ensure that basic needs are met first, that decisions which are taken do not harm any one group, or that such decisions are not made by faceless politicians thousands of miles away. Of course there will have to be some global coordination agreed by delegates (not representatives!) from around the world because, as the more visionary of the greens understand, saving the planet demands some kind of world cooperation. Nevertheless, securing the well-being of all starts in the actual communities we live in.
The only people to carry this out are the world working class. They are the vast majority in the world and they produce the world’s wealth. Today they are very far from uniting to oppose a system which has the potential to liberate them but everywhere subjects them to exploitation in various kinds of stressful conditions.
The world still has huge resources. It still can give a decent life to all but it can only do this once its contradictory social relations have been overturned.
We have a long way to go and time is running out, but the task of revolutionaries today is to unite their scattered forces around a clear programme, to increase their size and effectiveness and to reach the wider working class. It will not be easy against a powerful enemy which enjoys a monopoly of power and privilege and it seems we have less time than we once thought but there is no other viable alternative. We call on all those revolutionaries to join us, at least initially in debate, to build a new International around a programme which stands for
"A society where the free development of each will be the condition for the free development of all. Such a society will differentiate itself from capitalist in a myriad of ways, but the principal differences will be that it is a society without state, without money, where the mass of humanity participate in the planning and running of society. It will be a society without wage labour and commodity production and without classes.
For the first time in human history it will be possible to collectively plan the future of the human species. Humanity will have a common interest and will be able to work towards achieving it. Working time will be reduced and the mass of the population will be drawn into the running of that new society. All will have a common interest in solving the ecological problems inherited from capitalism. With the abolition of capitalist society, all its waste, its cruelty, its wars, together with the “misery, agony of toil, ignorance, brutality and mental degradation” it inflicts on the working class, will be ended. Communist society will draw on the abilities of all and produce for the needs of all. It will be able to balance these needs with sustainability. It will then be possible to roll back and repair the dreadful damage capitalism has inflicted on the planet in the few centuries during which it has been the dominant system of production.
The choice facing the world on the environmental front, as on the social front, is one of the ruin of civilisation or the construction of a communist world."24
As George Monbiot concluded
"Our choice comes down to this. Do we stop life to allow capitalism to continue, or stop capitalism to allow life to continue?"
Only the world working class can answer the question.
30 July 2019
- 1For our previous articles see leftcom.org, plus the pamphlet Capitalism and the Environment by Mauro Stefanini (£1 plus postage from our address).
- 4And XR itself apparently has links to multinational capital. See winteroak.org.uk
- 5The video is on several platforms including facebook.com
- 7Capital Volume One Chapter 24 (Penguin Classics, p.739)
- 9loc cit.
- 12The Environmental History of Russia, Paul Josephson et al (Cambridge 2013)
- 13The German Ideology
- 14Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts 1844
- 15op. cit.
- 16Grundrisse 1861