THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING: Capitalism versus the climate!
By Naomi Klein.
This is quite a substantial book, well researched and comprehensive in scope. It provides an extensive review of the multifarious ecological and environmental problems created by the capitalist mode of production. It is well worth the read for this detailed review alone. So don’t get me wrong – as far as it goes – it is a fairly good read. However, it’s sub-title is somewhat misleading and it stops well short of going the whole distance required for this important subject. In fact the author lays the blame for what she correctly describes as an existential climate crisis for humanity, not upon the capitalist mode of production per se, but only upon the neo-liberal stage capitalism reached during the late 20th century. A more accurate sub-title should perhaps read; ‘Neo-liberal capitalism versus the climate‘. Ms Klein in this book therefore seeks to promote a radical reformist perspective rather than a revolutionary one. So in fact the main title is also misleading for even her radical proposals would not ‘change everything’ – only some things.
It cannot be surprising that since 2008 many intellectuals and writers, who have achieved success and status, not to mention enjoyed considerable perks, under the capitalist mode of production, would want this system to continue, albeit in a modified or more regulated form. The reformist modifications suggested by each of the many authors belatedly finding fault with 21st century capitalism, depends primarily upon their particular concerns or the threats they perceive are directed at their interests. As intellectual agents of reformist change, some wish to regulate the banking system, some to rein in the military-industrial complex and yet others to curtail the polluters of the atmosphere and destroyers of the environment. Ms Klein, the author of this book, belongs to the latter group of would be reformers. During the research for the book she writes;
“I began to see all kinds of ways that climatic change could become a catalyzing force for positive change – how it could be the best argument progressives have ever had to demand the rebuilding and revival of local economies; to reclaim our democracies from corrosive corporate influence..” (Chapter 1.)
The key words to consider here are ‘positive change’, ‘progressives’ and ‘reclaim’, for the choice of these three expressions reveal the reformist political position she has adopted. Thus ‘positive change’ is progressive and doesn’t sound too threatening to the ‘establishment‘, ‘progressives’ simply want positive change (and who wouldn’t?) and ‘reclaiming’ sounds sensible like re-cycling and of course safe. She makes this reformist position quite clear throughout the book. Her avowed purpose as a would be socio-political ‘change-agent’ is to make a solid case for the establishment of a mass-movement capable of pressurising politicians to implement seriously radical reforms to the existing neo- liberal capitalist system.
Since the air we breath and the weather we experience effects everyone, rich and poor, old and young, male and female, she reasons that this presents a potential opportunity for an exceptional degree of oppositional unity for those opposed to climate change. The many interconnected climatic emergencies which people now face across the globe she hopes, could therefore be ‘a galvanizing force for humanity’. Thus she also writes;
“If enough of us stop looking away and decide that climate change is a crisis, worthy of Marshall Plan levels of response, then it will become one, and the political class will have to respond, both by making resources available and by bending the free market rules that have proven so pliable when elite interests are in peril.” (Chapter 1.)
Starting a sentence with an idealistic ‘if’ allows any number of imaginative speculations to follow including the one chosen by Ms Klein, but its use in this particular context has little or no practical value. The logic she uses to entice the reader into agreement with her reformist aspiration is also fatally flawed. Even if enough people do as she suggests, the political class do not need to ‘respond’ to a crisis or mass protests in the positive way she imagines. With the backing of the state’s armed forces and the support of the powerful and wealthy, the political class, can resist all but a successful revolutionary overthrow of their regime. They have done so in the distant past, the recent past (global Iraq war protests suppressed and campaigns ignored etc) and have given every indication they will do so in the future.
The severity of the developing climatic crisis – as she so eloquently describes it – is indeed existential, but it is only consistently existential for the poor and powerless. The rich and powerful can (and do) use their wealth and power to escape from or protect themselves from almost any level of threat including all the environmental and climatic effects so far encountered. The linking of environmental activism, with socio-economic justice activism, as she advocates to get others on board, if successful, is almost certain to galvanise the elite into an armed and ruthless protection of the existing (and their preferred) mode of production – capitalism! Failing to mention this probability in my opinion is a dereliction of an intellectual change-agent’s duty to other activists. More of that later.
The author devotes considerable space (particularly in chapter 6) to describing how the major non-governmental environmental protection agencies over decades have developed cosy relations with major polluters in the mistaken belief that working with them would engender quicker solutions. She efficiently and coherently points out how inadequate and ineffective this has been from what is actually required to prevent catastrophic climate change. She is similarly scathing in chapter 7 about the mega rich individuals such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson, who claim to be socially and environmentally aware and positively active. In chapter 8 ‘geo-engineering’ correctly gets short shrift. In contrast she calls for ‘comprehensive policies and programmes’ to ‘make low-carbon choices easy’. She links this to the need for such policies to be ‘fair’ and adds;
“That means cheap public transport and clean light rail accessible to all; affordable, energy-efficient housing along those transit lines; cities planned for high-density living; bike lanes in which riders aren’t asked to risk their lives to get to work; land management that discourages sprawl and encourages local low-energy forms of agriculture; urban design that clusters essential services such as schools and health care along transit routes and in pedestrian-friendly areas;…” (Chapter 2)
It is here (as elsewhere) that typical middle class patronising of working people comes to the fore. How and where working people (urban and rural) are to live in the future has already been worked out for them in considerable detail. Any future decision-making entitlement working people may feel appropriate after the difficult struggle (admitted by the author) waged by them against polluting capital – has already been usurped – at least in theory! According to Ms Klein, such top down planning policies would;
“…also do a huge amount to reduce inequality, since it is low-income people, often people of colour, who benefit most from improvements in public housing and public transit. And if strong living-wage and local-hire provisions were included in transition plans, they could also benefit most from the jobs building and running these expanded services, whilst becoming g less dependent on jobs in dirty industries that have been disproportionately concentrated in low-income communities of colour.” (ibid)
But also clear from this proposal for what she considers a better, more just society, is that inequalities are to remain but ‘hopefully’ reduced. A separate (and lower) category of working citizen is to continue to exist as ‘people of colour’, but patronisingly helped in the future by state-organised improvements in energy, housing and transit. Wage-labour is to continue, presumably providing services for the better off and dirty jobs are to remain but rewarded by strong living-wage levels – whatever they are. In other words this proposal amounts to no more than a pious wish to return to a previous stage passed through by the capitalist mode of production. It was a stage complete with nationalisation of basic infrastructures such as transit, energy and some climate issues. Indeed, in this chapter, and like many other similar voices since 2008, (ie Spirit of 45) she even has a specific period in mind. She writes;
“The truth is that if we want to live within ecological limits, we would need to return to a lifestyle similar to the one we had in the 1970’s, before consumption levels went crazy in the 1980’s…..In the 1960’s and 1970’s, we enjoyed a healthy and moderate lifestyle, and we need to return to this to keep emissions under control.” (ibid)
I must at this point also flag up the frequent use of the royal ‘we’ addressed to the general reader. The use of this all-inclusive term by writers, social commentators and politicians is more often than not an attempt to gloss over the fact that we are not all in this together, nor are we all equally responsible for pollution and climate crisis. In something of a confessional tone, the author admits she was a prolific user of air miles, one of the most polluting forms of transport. Yet from the number of times in the book that she places herself in some far off research location, it would seem she has not broken this particularly eco-damaging habit.
However, in contrast to successful authors, academics, media stars, politicians, business executives and other privileged people, millions of poor people across the globe contribute very little to pollution or climate change. In addition millions of low-paid working people already, walk, cycle or take the bus, have precious few possessions and rarely, if ever get on a plane. As for the 1960’s and 1970’s chosen by the author, millions in the advanced capitalist countries, let alone those of the ravaged third world, did not have a healthy and moderate lifestyle during that period. Indeed, millions if not billions of men, women and children around the planet, in those decades, were struggling (and frequently failing) to get by on a daily basis.
This rose-tinted myth of an environmentally healthy, peaceful, egalitarian phase of post-2nd world war capitalism to my mind is a product of a narrow, white, middle-class consciousness which, to a greater or lesser extent, reflects and embodies their collective aspirations along with their current socio-economic interests. The ‘good old days’ were only really good for the capitalists, the middle-classes and a few fortunate workers and their offspring who managed to get lucky or get a degree. The strike record of that period, the frequent housing crises and the death rates for the poor paint a very different picture.
Returning to the constant use of ‘we’. Nor, under the capitalist mode of production, are we all equally powerfully placed to analyse what is going on in the world and initiate change. In telling us what we must do and how we must do it, she (and others like her) seek to recruit millions of white and blue-collar workers – needed as massive social-movement foot-soldiers – to her reformist project. Yet it is a project which is firmly wedded to the capitalist mode of production and retains and would maintain an elite class of educated individuals who like to do our thinking for us, staff the state etc., (as a new ‘establishment’) and lead us up the garden path – once again.
This glaring contradiction between who does what in this over-producing, over-consuming world is partially recognised by the author but she fails to follow the logic of her own discoveries and therefore avoids seriously confronting them. As she mentions in chapter 3 the problem of climate change is largely one created by the capitalist and pro-capitalist elite. These parts of society not only control and administer the capitalist mode of production – and own the main means of production – but force the type, tempo and duration of production upon the workers. In doing so they also consume the major portion of its one-sided production benefits. To further emphasise her point she quotes the following opinion;
“…the roughly 500 million of us on the planet are responsible for about half of all global emissions. That would include the rich in every country of the world, notably in countries like China and India, as well as significant sections of the middle-classes in North America and Europe.” (in Chapter 3)
So if this estimate is only reasonably reliable, the cause of climate alteration, degradation and ecological devastation lies not with the working classes and the poor, but with the rich and relatively affluent such as those who jet around the world satisfying their personal and vocational desires and consuming far more than they need. It is these and the 85 people who she claims control as much wealth as half the population of the world who are causing the social, environmental and climate problems faced by humanity. Without these ever-grasping winners in the capitalist socio-production lottery of birth there would not be a climate problem of such growing magnitude – or maybe not one at all!
So it turns out it is not us that’s the fundamental problem – it’s them! It’s not we that need to change – but them and their mode of production. And the more enlightened of them (including those who will read this book) know they could enjoy their current privileges better with clean air and less severe weather episodes. But they have a problem – and it is a serious one! They need our help to achieve their desired outcome. Hence the inclusive ‘we’ in all their multifarious outpourings! In chapter 11 she even hopes the global indigenous peoples rights campaigns will be a useful vanguard in the struggle against the ‘extraction’ industries pollution. How is that for chutzpah! Those peoples whose ancestors and environments have suffered most by colonialism and imperialism, need to be recruited to help rescue the environments of those who have gained most!
Such help is only needed because most of their elite advantaged associates, if not in a state of absolute denial, will carry on producing and consuming regardless knowing they can continue to enjoy their privileged status and avoid the worst effects of the existential crisis they are creating.
This much is true; a mass movement of immense proportions indeed would be needed to realise the radical reformist programme she and others are variously advocating. Anything less would fail. Making the ‘polluters pay’, as she suggests, means seriously taking on the ‘establishment’! However, the existing ‘establishments’ in all countries of the world are well entrenched, wealthy and powerful. They will not give up their privileged positions easily. Having obtained their wealth and power from the system as it has currently evolved globally they will defend it with all the ideological and material assets at their disposal. So if, as Naomi Klein claims, an enormous and powerful mass movement is necessary to prevent climate Armageddon and in some way can be created, a searching question needs to be asked. Why should it limit itself to fulfilling a middle-class reformist fantasy of going back to the future and stabilising an economic mode of production which is intrinsically and demonstrably unstable?
Why would such a movement – if it came into being – not make absolutely sure that the climate and socio-economic problems would be solved once and for all by changing the mode of production? True also, that solving the climate and global pollution problem, requires a global solution. Climate change, pollution and ecological destruction does not stop at national borders. But solving this and the glaring and obscene wealth distribution characteristics of the capitalist mode of production around the globe, requires more than further structural adjustments reversing the past and present ones. Humanity and the other natural inhabitants of the planet need more than a new version of the Marshall Plan she mentions, which actually jumped-started the shattered capitalist economies of the 2nd capitalist inspired war in the 1950’s – and led to the present western-inspired global economic and military mess. It is the mode of producing which needs changing.
But of course changes in the mode of production require much more than reforms, they require revolutions. The capitalist mode of production itself only came to dominate societies and ultimately the world, by its advocates overthrowing the representatives of the feudal mode of production. Revolutions are necessary because no amount of persuasion and advocacy is sufficient to convince an entrenched ruling elite that their system is now moribund and it is necessary to move aside and allow an alternative to evolve. In spite of overwhelming climate evidence – as eloquently marshalled by Ms Klein for example – enough of them will cling onto power and privileges to make forcing them aside a necessary stage in a process of economic and social reconstruction. Her one brief mention of Karl Marx, however, shows no understanding of his revolutionary-humanist analysis of the capitalist mode of production, its fundamental contradictions or the historic need for it’s revolutionary transformation.
Of course revolutions do not occur simply as a result of mass reform movements – as the historical evidence indicates. Reforms have to be granted or refused by those in power. The supporters of reforms that are refused have to decide what to do next – give up or take on the powers that have refused them. If the campaigners have not prepared mentally and practically for this possibility then the cause – no matter how important – is most likely lost. If the cause (climate change) is truly an existential crisis for humanity, as the author says – and I agree – then there are revolutionary implications, whether we like it or not!
Yet there can be no revolutionary changes in a mode of production until significant sections of the population become engaged in the process. And before the popular masses, move into direct action, there has to be a sufficiently wide-spread and immediate existential crisis for them. That is definitely not the case yet. But that is not all. There has also to be serious splits in the ruling elites and their supporters, in which the enlightened sections of these elites come to the realisation that reforms are inadequate to solve the many systemic problems stemming from the mode of production.
In other words, significant numbers of those within the elite and beneficiaries who have previously supported the system, need to have reached the recognition that it is not the individuals running the system which need to be changed, but the entire mode of production. When this fracture in the ruling strata occurs these individuals can begin to counter the dominant ideology of capitalism and urge the masses to support this revolutionary post-capitalist project and become a facilitative part of its process. Importantly, after the disastrous post-capitalist/state-capitalist attempts in Soviet Russia, China and elsewhere, this role for intellectuals does and would include the task of warning against the establishment of, (and refusing to become part of) a new elite.
Clearly in 2015, this stage has not yet been reached, as the book being reviewed here (and a number of others) amply demonstrates. Instead Ms Klein along with many others, wishes to harness a mass movement to save capitalism from itself and rejuvenate it in a pre- neo-/liberal form. They wish to go back in order to go forward. This is essentially the same position as Syriza in Greece but with the central motivational emphasis being on climate instead of Austerity. But societies only revert to earlier forms after massive catastrophes, not before them. To make her position absolutely clear, in the concluding chapter she asserts the following;
“Meeting science-based targets will mean forcing some of the most profitable companies on the planet to forfeit trillions of dollars of future earnings by leaving the vast majority of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground. It will also require coming up with trillions more to pay for zero-carbon, disaster-ready societal transformations. And let us take for granted that we want to do these radical things democratically and without a bloodbath, so violent, vanguardist revolutions don’t have much to offer in the way of road maps.” (Conclusion)
From these seven extracts the core of my criticism can be condensed in the following way. First: An inability or refusal to learn from the revolutionary-humanist ideas of Karl Marx concerning the insurmountable contradictions of the capitalist mode of production. Second: This inability or refusal is accompanied by a failure to learn from the past mistakes of the masses who trustingly followed previous middle-class anti-capitalist intellectuals in the mistaken belief that these knew better than themselves what should come next after an existential crisis caused by capitalism. Third: Despite providing examples, there is an insufficient analysis of the utter failures of centuries of reformist struggles which have tried in vain to make capitalism responsive to the needs of the majority of the populations suffering from its exploitative and oppressive form of production.
The capitalist mode of production is intrinsically incapable of being adapted for the benefit of all!
Roy Ratcliffe (June 2015.)