No more magical thinking

This Changes Everything:

Capitalism vs. the Climate

Every impatient radical familiar enough with the workings of capitalism and its primal role in human suffering longs at some point for others to take the red pill Morpheus offers Neo in The Matrix, which would allow people to see the world as it truly is. We hope for some type of wakeup call that strips away the web of illusions sewn by the moneyed class, corporate media, right-wing think tanks, and liberal defenders of the system. The quickening pace of global warming today strengthens this urge. 

But as a dear comrade recently reminded this author, there are no shortcuts. No provocative stunts, silver bullets, or Hollywood plot devices can mature a movement overnight. But what can accelerate the political development of a movement is the combination of a crisis, political paralysis, and growing struggle that forces movement leaders and thinkers to question theoretical assumptions and failed strategies. Naomi Klein’s new book is that process writ large, as well as a dynamic new tool for socialists inside the environmental movement arguing for a strategic reorientation.

Five years in the making, Klein’s This Changes Everything is a thoroughly researched account of our political moment. She confesses in the opening pages that she denied the severity of the climate crisis for longer than she cares to admit. Readers familiar with her previous books, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, know that Klein, though a fierce critic of neoliberalism, is not a revolutionary, or at least not yet. Klein admits that writing This Changes Everything did not begin as a condemnation of capitalism, but the historical record forced that conclusion. This transformation is one of the book’s greatest strengths, one that revolutionaries should use to develop more anticapitalists.

Klein published the book with Simon & Schuster rather than a smaller progressive publisher in order to target a mainstream audience through wider distribution, landing on the New York Times’ non-fiction bestseller list for the last quarter of 2014. Activists have reported unusual interest in book discussions. Thomas Piketty’s Capitalism in the 21st Century provoked similar interest. In growing numbers, people are clearly beginning to question the system.

The loud blue cover and inclusion of “Capitalism vs. the Planet” in the title are an interesting bellwether. The opening lines on the book jacket reveal a confidence to promote a more radical analysis that a growing movement and terrifying reality have inspired: “Forget everything you think you know about global warming. The really inconvenient truth is that it’s not about carbon—it’s about capitalism. The convenient truth is that we can seize this existential crisis to transform our failed economic system and build something radically better.”

Revolutionaries eager to see the movement break with its illusions in the system will, on the strength of Klein’s economic analysis, likely be underwhelmed but supportive. Klein raises all the right questions, but her work lacks cohesiveness in its solutions, often simply reflecting the current political sensibilities of the movement. Nevertheless, the quality of Klein’s work as an investigative journalist is unquestionable. 

In compelling detail, she explores a broad range of questions around the climate crisis and weaves them into a highly readable narrative aimed at a liberal audience, urging them to abandon the magical thinking that we can solve the crisis with market-based solutions and more progressive politicians. John Riddell’s excellent review on his “Marxist Essays and Commentary” site, “Naomi Klein: ‘Only mass social movements can save us,’” draws out the book’s most important themes, which is where revolutionaries should begin. 

On closer examination, the Keynesian solutions Klein poses, like “Scandinavian-style Social Democracy,” sometimes contradict her “change the system” message in other parts of the book. Reforms are sometimes suggested as ends in themselves that will collectively turn the tide. At the same time, Klein is sober enough about ideological warfare and a threatened ruling class to know that the Right will not sit idly by. The question then becomes how to defend any victory for our side against the fossil fuel industry and the revolutionary dynamic this produces. 

Klein’s Keynesian critique of capitalism cuts her economic analysis short, leaving readers to fill in the gaps as to why market economies can’t be reigned in. Capitalism’s internal dynamics and growth fetish are never explored in depth. Neoliberalism is explained more as an optional ideology hatched by reactionaries rather than as a systematic response born of crises, stagnation, and the internal logic of capitalism. 

Marx and Engels’s critique of capitalism would be worth a few pages of reflection, but Marx gets only half a sentence mention. Klein points out how capitalism is incapable of changing course quickly enough as it currently operates, but offers only a general call for transcendence that the reader can interpret in multiple ways. Regardless, there is still much to absorb from Klein taking direct aim at the bankrupt corporate strategies of professional environmentalists while highlighting economic dynamics that make the necessary change impossible under the current system. 

Klein begins with the provocative premise that the Right understands the threat of climate change better than centrists, “who are still insisting that the response can be gradual and painless and that we don’t need to go to war with anybody, including the fossil fuel companies.” The Right, Klein claims, realizes that the logical conclusion to an honest assessment of the crisis would lead us to call for:

  • Massive state intervention in the economy
  • The reversal of a successful forty-years’ neoliberal ideological campaign for deregulation, tax cuts, privatization, and free trade
  • The potential confiscation of $27 trillion in carbon assets
  • The nationalization and democratization of the energy sector, and 
  • The revival of the Left

This is why the Right has worked so hard to deny the existence of climate change. Klein quotes Heartland president Joseph Bast who bluntly states that “Climate change is the perfect thing [for the Left]. . .. It’s the reason why we should do everything [the Left] wanted to do anyway.” Another Heartland speaker, James Delingpole, articulated what that might mean: “Modern environmentalism successfully advances many of the causes dear to the left: redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, greater government intervention, regulation.” 

While such progressive reforms are essential to stop climate change, Klein notes that the Left, progressive organizations, and the labor movement are weak and disorganized, largely as a result of the ruling class’s neoliberal assault on workers and the social movements. Instead of resisting this neoliberal offensive, the liberal establishment has largely joined it. As a result, Klein argues, all warnings about global warming, which became mainstream news after James Hansen’s testimony before Congress in 1988, have gone unheeded. 

Because of this bad timing, the climate crisis is now much worse. Klein is not hopeless, nor should we be. There is still time enough for our side to win substantial reforms, which would then pose the question of revolution, but the time limit for when we must act is partially dictated by physics and biology. Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research note that to keep warming within 2ºC, we must reduce emissions by 8–10 percent year after year. “There is still time,” Klein concludes from interviewing these scientists, “but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed.” 

Many shy away from any mention of a timeline or even urgency out of fear of demoralizing the movement or encouraging survivalist politics. But Klein skillfully uses the reality of this timeline to do neither while showing that the urgency to act is blocked on every front by the laws of profitability. Meaningful solutions must look beyond capitalism. This is a profound breakthrough and one of the book’s greatest strengths. Klein, a 350.org board member and close collaborator with Bill McKibben, has now confirmed what the Left has been saying for decades—capitalism has to go. Socialists should use this admission to the fullest extent possible.

As the book progresses several chapters stand out. “Planning and Banning” calls for a “just transition” that must include climate jobs (favoring the hiring of traditionally marginalized peoples) to dismantle polluting infrastructure and adapt to a renewable, low-energy way of life, as well as nationalizing transportation and energy without following models like Brazil’s Petrobras, Norway’s Statoil, or Petro China. New utilities must be decentralized and “run democratically by the communities that use them.” For the movement to win these reforms, it must bring down free-trade regulations that penalize or prohibit local initiatives like fracking bans or job incentives. 

With this just transition also comes the question of state control and the centralization needed to undertake such a colossal shift. As Klein notes, the neoliberal assault on social movements means that, despite tweeting and occupying, “We collectively lack many of the tools that built and sustained the transformative movements of the past.” In an important revision of her previous endorsement of horizontalism, Klein argues for leadership, organization, and a program to stop climate change:

I have, in the past, strongly defended the right of young movements to their amorphous structures—whether that means rejecting identifiable leadership or eschewing programmatic demands. And there is no question that old political habits and structures must be reinvented to reflect new realities, as well as past failures. But I confess the last five years immersed in climate science has left me impatient. As many are coming to realize, the fetish for structurelessness, the rebellion against any kind of institutionalization, is not a luxury today’s transformative movements can afford.

Undertaking a just transition must include not only our collective demands but also a plan for dealing with the state and who will control it. Left unaddressed, we can be sure that both Republicans and Democrats will authorize the use of every state apparatus to repress and silence the movement, just as they did with Occupy.

New organizations must be built to rise to this challenge, because the existing environmental NGOs have sold out the struggle. Klein exposes the fetid practices of Big Green and the failures of green capitalism in sickening detail. The need for cash and legitimacy led nonprofits like the Environmental Defense Fund to essentially abandon its mission in favor of partnerships with Walmart, among others. Groups like the Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, and the Conservation Fund accept money from dozens of fossil fuel companies. 

The worst hypocrisy described in the book recounts how a Texas chapter of the Nature Conservancy accepted land from Mobil where a substantial population of the endangered Attwater’s prairie chicken lived. The Nature Conservancy eventually began sinking natural gas wells on the preserve in order to generate cash. When exposed, the Nature Conservancy promised not to build new wells, but extraction continues to this day. Meanwhile, the Attwater’s prairie chickens disappeared from the preserve in 2012.

Klein’s chapters on Blockadia, divestment, and Indigenous rights are both inspiring and alarming. The incidents recounted are familiar to many, but they serve to remind readers of the horrors of extreme extraction and the increase in disasters like BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill or the forty-seven left dead in the 2013 Lac-Mégantic oil train explosion. But the frenzy to get North American carbon to market has engendered movements like Idle No More, countless actions against tar sands pipeline construction, and a campus divestment movement that has spread to 300 campuses and 100 municipal and religious institutions. 

Klein also uncovers the heartbreaking reality that many low-income communities or impoverished nations face. Though despised for the pollution and contamination they bring to nearby land, extractive industries are often the only well-paying jobs around and a rare source of cash for desperate communities.  What is needed in the Global North and the Global South is, “the emergence of positive, practical, and concrete alternatives to dirty development that do not ask people to choose between higher living standards and toxic extraction.”

But how do these new development patterns emerge? Klein’s references to “deregulated capitalism” and the shift in values toward “an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis” show her argument to be essentially that movements must win an ideological battle, driving what in her analysis seems to be a neutral state to reverse the neoliberal excesses of capitalism as it is currently practiced, and enforce stricter regulation, higher taxes, and a more equitable global order. 

Precluding even a brief analysis of how capitalism works and why low or no growth sends the system into disastrous tailspins like the Great Depression or the financial crisis of 2008, keeps the reader from encountering the essential evidence that regulation or visions of a more humane and ecologically sound culture could never right the ship by themselves. The climate crisis has structural roots, based in capitalism’s competitive exploitation of workers’ labor and the natural world for profit. Transforming that will require structural change fought for by workers and the oppressed, like the end of production for profit and the overthrow of existing states with all their laws and social norms that backup the system. In other words, revolution is necessary.

In the final chapter, Klein asks if such a radical transition has ever happened before but then skips over all the revolutionary moments of the twentieth century and highlights instead the Civil Rights Movement, the New Deal, and the abolition of slavery, which forced the Southern aristocracy to forfeit an immense sum derived from human bondage. The comparison to stranded fossil fuels assets is compelling, but Klein readily admits the economic liberation of African Americans remains incomplete. 

Radicals may share this reviewer’s frustration that Klein would be bold enough to call capitalism into question and yet avoid too strong an association with radical theory and history that has much to say about our current dilemma, its root causes, and possible solutions. Her oversight reinforces the fashionable notion that there is little to learn from certain (i.e., Marxist) movements of the past.

In a section titled “The Extractivist Left,” Klein rightly condemns Stalinism and the Soviet Union’s appalling environmental record, along with Mao’s declaration that “man must conquer nature.” She also highlights the mixed environmental record of state socialism in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, countries that despite their progressive record in bettering the lives of the poor and working class have not been able to break free from their dependence on fossil fuel extraction to fund their economies and buffer them against US aggression. Klein notes, regarding the Left and the Soviet Union, “there was always a rich tradition, particularly among anarchists, that considered Stalin’s project an abomination of core social justice principles.” 

This acknowledgement is not strong enough to counter the perception Klein creates, which is that Marxism and the socialist tradition are essentially extractivist. She ignores ecosocialist thought and Marx’s environmental insights in Capital and other works, best summarized in the works of John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett. This mischaracterization suggests that readers need not bother exploring a trove of socialist thought and neglected revolutionary history that would inform a new generation of activists coming of age after four decades of movement decline and theoretical stagnation. 

These unsatisfying details, however, should not keep anyone from reading This Changes Everything. It is a landmark book by an investigative journalist that history might revere equally with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. You cannot help but admire Klein’s courage to publish a book that would ruffle so many feathers. It will also change minds, turning many against the system and encouraging them to act outside the narrowly defined boundaries of Big Green.

Klein’s closing thoughts do not place the environmental movement above all others, but seek common ground with all struggles for justice to unite and “right those festering wrongs at last—the unfinished business of liberation.” The rebellions will come again, but because they are “excruciatingly rare and precious,” we must do more than “denounce the world as it is, and build fleeting pockets of liberated space.” Revolutionaries should use Klein’s invaluable book to ask what we will do in our next “rare and precious” moment.

Issue #99

Winter 2015-16

The Left after Syriza

Issue contents

Top story

Editorials

Features

Reviews

  • Slavery, capitalism,
 and imperialism

    Sandy Boyer reviews The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist; Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert; River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson; and The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860 by Calvin Schermerhorn
  • The roots of the deep state

    Joe Cleffie reviews Phantom Terror: Political Paranoia and the Formation of the Modern State, 1789–1848 by Adam Zamoyski
  • Revolutionary parliamentarism?

    Todd Chretien reviews Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from Marx and Engels through the Revolution of 1905: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both by August H. Nimtz and Lenin’s Electoral Strategy from 1907 to the October Revolution of 1917: The Ballot, the Streets—or Both by August H. Nimtz
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