The climate crisis & socialist strategy

Crisis, economic and otherwise

Typically, we think of capitalism’s crises as economic, but of course, they can also be environmental. As the ecologist Jason Moore’s work has shown, our epoch’s crisis is not the first time a regime of capital accumulation has run up against environmental limits and has been forced to adjust itself accordingly. The difference in our context is the extent of the crisis, touching the entire globe, already precipitating the beginnings of the sixth mass extinction event our earth’s history. This crisis is so total that although capital may find ways to co-opt the discontent it generates in the short to medium-term, in the long-term the writing on the wall indicates that this crisis may very well be capital’s final crisis. The question becomes whether or not we take the necessary actions to ensure the possibilities for decent human life do not go extinct alongside it.

The mainstream media tells us to cut our consumption, but regular people are not to blame for climate change

The environmental crisis is a profound example of the Marxist theory of alienation at work. The product of our hands is taken from us, used for ends we have no control over, and in the form of climate change and environmental destruction, is turned into a monster which lords over us. The goal, as ever, is to reappropriate the work of our hands in order to direct history toward ends that we collectively determine for ourselves.

What are the concrete manifestations of this alienation? In October of 2018 the UN IPCC published their most dire report yet which gave just twelve years to drastically change our way of life if we want to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change. According to the report, in order to keep warming under 1.5 degrees celsius relative to pre-industrial level, we need to cut carbon emissions by 45% relative to 2010. This will require a herculean effort, and there is simply no way to meet this goal within a system which requires infinite growth built upon a foundation of unlimited cheap energy. Even heads of state are effectively just high level bureaucrats in this context, only able to make changes within the horizon laid out by international capitalism. This is why governments have been more or less totally inactive despite the increasingly dire warnings doled out by scientists. As Trade Union’s for Energy Democracy’s work has illustrated, although there has been some growth in renewables (which has stalled since 2018), relative to the increase in energy production generally, it is a sad pittance of what needs to be accomplished. Capitalism, trapped by its own logic, is addicted to cheap energy, and is therefore incapable of making a transition to a post-carbon world even while the evidence mounts that a failure to do so will result in an unthinkable degree of human and non-human suffering.

Tackling climate change will mean making a huge shift in energy policy

This only scratches the surface of the material effects of our alienation. An extinction rate one thousand times greater than the background rate; topsoil loss threatening widespread famine; sea level rise causing massive human migration; and increasing conflict and violence caused by climate induced scarcity; if we want to see the future of humanity, we need only look toward Syria today, whose social upheavals were precipitated by the worst drought in generations, brought about by climate change.

A question emerges and becomes imperative: how should socialists organize to confront the environmental crisis? What are the implications for our strategy?

The Marxist geographer David Harvey has described crisis within capitalism as “an irrational rationalizer of an irrational system”; a given regime of capital accumulation is built uneasily upon shifting and unstable foundations, and as the regime matures the contradictions accrue and become unruly, eventually precipitating a crisis which in an awe-inspiring process of creative destruction gives birth to a new regime built upon different contradictions in their grotesque infancy.

The creative destruction involved in capitalism resolving its contradictions entails unthinkable human misery. These are periods of rapid explosions of class consciousness, as the choice between socialism and barbarism becomes the visceral lived experience of large sections of the population.

Kuhn’s Paradigm Shift

A Shift in Paradigm

As the reality of our predicament becomes increasingly clear, it is drawing large numbers of people into activism for the first time. Along with the financial crisis of 2008, and the increasing threat of fascism, our society’s relation to nature, as one of the most acute contradictions in contemporary capitalism, is responsible for the largest resurgence of socialist ideas since the late 1960s. This has become increasingly true in the past six months or so, with dire warnings coming out of the UN on the need for system-wide change in order to prevent runaway climate crisis and an apocalyptic loss in biodiversity. The New York Times, the Guardian, and the centrist Foreign Policy Journal have all published articles dissecting capitalism’s total inability to address this crisis, and recommending, overtly or implicitly, that we have to find something new. Nothing has shaken up the post-Cold War liberal democratic consensus like the environmental crisis; it is here that the system’s inability to find a solution to the problems it generates is most obvious.

Capitalism’s relation to nature is the catalyst which is causing this “paradigm shift”. This term was used first by the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn in his 1962 The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and was subsequently popularized. In his book, Kuhn describes the process by which the scientific community jettisons an old scientific theory for a new one, for example, in the transition from a geocentric to a heliocentric model of the universe, or from Newton’s to Einstein’s physics. The process unfolds as follows. The scientific community works within the constraints of a given paradigm in a period Kuhn calls “normal science”. As the theory is developed, anomalies begin to accumulate which do not fit within the horizon of the accepted theory. The dominant science attempts to explain these away by coming up with all kinds of outlandish adjustments in order to keep their worldview intact. Eventually, the revolutionary nature of the anomalies are admitted by a minority, who conduct “revolutionary science” which lays the groundwork upon which a new paradigm can be built. Eventually, after some time and resistance, the new paradigm is accepted and normal science resumes within the constraints of the new paradigm.

In a sense, scientific socialism has been pointing out the anomalies and inconsistencies in bourgeois political economy for a century and a half while capitalism’s apologists have been coming up with unsightly mechanisms to deny the reality of our stark choice between socialism and barbarism. While there have been attempts to deny the implications of the environmental crisis by providing solutions such as carbon taxes and techno-fixes in order to fit the anomalies back into the old way of thinking, it is in this area more than any other where those apologetics most obviously fail. To anyone who soberly looks at the environmental crisis, it is the anarchy of capitalist production which has gotten us here, and which is incapable of reconciling the contradiction between an economic system which requires endless compound growth and a  finite planet. While capitalism’s apologists are able to dismiss the other misery capitalism causes today with the promise of progress tomorrow, in the case of its relation to nature this becomes impossible. This is producing a slow but total change in paradigm, which will only deepen as our material conditions worsen.

The Implications for Socialist Strategy

This shift in paradigm must be accompanied by a shift in strategy. For decades liberal environmental groups have been trying to recommend individual consumer choices such as becoming vegetarian or riding our bikes as the best way to battle climate change. Exploiting worry about climate change has become an accumulation strategy. However, as the evidence mounts that tackling the environmental crisis will require more than cosmetic changes but a change at the level of the most basic foundations of our society, these superficial individual solutions are being discarded in favor of collective action directed at more substantial ends. Extinction Rebellion is clear evidence of this trend. The goal for socialists should be to bring the necessity of revolutionary, system-wide change to the consciousness of these groups who have already spontaneously discovered the necessity of collective action.   

Collective action is our strongest weapon

Clear-sighted socialist strategy has always seen the need to organize with capitalism’s inevitable crises in mind and to structure our organizations and strategy accordingly. This means that we need to insert ourselves into the struggles around the contradictions which are becoming most acute, and which have the possibility of raising the necessity of socialist goals to consciousness. When crisis hits, we need to have the kind of rock solid structures which are capable of rapidly incorporating large numbers of people into anti-capitalist work in a coherent and unified manner.

It’s always best to lead with the strongest argument, using weaker arguments second and the weakest last or not at all. Marx makes three arguments against the justifiability of wage-labor in Capital; the argument around labor as the sole source of surplus value; the exhaustion and total reproduction of the entirety of a given capital within a single cycle of accumulation; and finally, the historical argument, that the “free contract” between employer and employed is rigged by the policies of an activist state which forcibly dispossesses people of their means to reproduce themselves. I have always found it best to lead with and focus on the third argument, since it discloses most incontrovertibly the nature of the relationship between wage-labor and capital. In this sense, since addressing environmental destruction and climate change are not only the most pressing tasks of the century, but the areas where capitalist apologetics most obviously fail, it is also the weakest link in capital’s constricting chains, and should therefore become a primary focus for merciless attack by socialists.  

This means that individuals belonging to a socialist party should strategically engage with every possible leftist or progressive social movements around environment, for example getting involved with the Extinction Rebellion movement and working with the DSA Ecosocialist Caucus in the United States, prioritizing those most ready for socialist ideas. It also means bringing environmental issues into our other work, particularly when engaging with labor, in order to illustrate united labor’s power to influence policy for the better. This may also mean bringing socialist ideas to people who are attempting to prepare for  collapse in practical ways. For example, if the environmentalist Miguel Altieri is right, and urban farming can provide 20% of the food US cities, then having socialists in that movement can help us to coordinate food distribution when crisis hits. But this is just speculation. The point is less to map out an exact strategy than to imagine different ways a large number of party actors can work semi-autonomously on this issue within the widest possible variety of social movements. All of these actors need to be related to a central democratic party; flexible in relation to strategy and tactics, but rock solid in its core principles.

The key is to establish comradely relations with actors in social movements, to emphasize our similarities, to work together to achieve reforms, and to always and everywhere be engaging in comradely debates about our shared work’s relation to revolutionary socialism.  

We must reject an economism with no strategy, a sectarianism which does not engage in popular social movements and social democratic strategies based upon socialism-from-above. We cannot wait to build the kind of organization we need until the crisis hits. As Chris Harman, the Marxist historian and long-time leading member of the SWP UK has shown in The Lost Revolution: Germany 1918-1923, it was the failure of the communists to build a highly organized section independent of the social democrats which more than anything else led to the failure of their revolution and paved the way for German fascism. We need to be building this party now, before the crises looming on the horizon hit.  

Thomas Hummel