Overestimating ruling class responsiveness to energy crisis

Saman Sepehri’s letter makes some interesting points in his reply to Phil Gasper (“Capitalists and the energy crisis,” ISR 61, September-October, 2008); but if he can accuse Gasper of “underestimating” the factor of debates within the ruling class on the energy crisis, one could with rather more justice accuse Sepehri of seriously overestimating them. The method by which capitalism resolves contradictions between its short- and long-term interests is not anodyne “debate” but economic and political crisis, up to and including war.

The antagonism between short- and long-term interests, which is inherent to the capitalist system, is not “usually” but always resolved one-sidedly in favor of the former. The capitalists address their long-term problems only when they manifest themselves as short-term issues. Marx, in his brilliant discussion of the length of the working-day (Capital I, Ch. 10), showed that the unlimited extension of the working-day literally killed the worker and retarded technological progress, against the long-term interests of capital. However, Marx also showed that legislation to limit the working-day only came about after gigantic agitation by the working class forced a response; furthermore, the capitalist class was viciously hostile to the reforms, and the capitalist state was mainly an ally of the employers, granting “liberty in the general phrase, abrogation of liberty in the marginal note.”

Another valuable example is the “curse of nitrates” discussed by John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark in their excellent article “Ecological Imperialism: The Curse of Capitalism” (Socialist Register 2004,186-201). Space precludes a full recapitulation, but in essence international capitalism engaged from 1840 to 1910 in a bloody, piratical struggle for guano and saltpeter deposits on the western coast of South America. These deposits were extremely valuable in agriculture and arms production. The chaotic scramble was only ended by the discovery of synthetic nitrates by German capital just before the First World War—a research program directly inspired by Germany’s weak imperial position, which kept it almost totally locked out of the British-dominated nitrate market. In other words, seventy years of chaotic scramble over a scarce natural resource was “solved” only in the preparation of the worst imperialist slaughter the world had yet seen.

Rising energy costs are causing municipalities to cut back on public transportation, not expand it. Energy companies are researching any number of things, but they are putting immediate emphasis on coal, nuclear, ethanol, offshore drilling, and shale oil—mostly forms for which the production infrastructure already exists to some degree, making them profitable in the short term. Indeed, the current emphasis on offshore drilling, with its associated costs and significant environmental impacts, indicates the desire of the ruling class to squeeze every last drop before directing economic resources elsewhere. Every government in the world now admits that global warming exists, but none of them can manage to do much about it. Certainly the 52 new coal plants in various stages of planning and construction are not going to alleviate the environmental problems caused by reliance on fossil fuels. Capital will, of its own accord, only face these problems when its profits start melting away as fast as the polar ice-caps—and its “cure” may make us nostalgic for the disease.

A further point which bears making is that we can expect a significant gap between the development of alternative energy sources and their implementation and availability to the working class. The basic technology to create electric and hybrid cars has existed since the late 1800s. Such vehicles were even somewhat available until the mid 1930s, when it was clear that mass production of gasoline-powered cars was far more profitable. So while some amount of resources may trickle into research into alternative energy sources, nothing short of a mass movement or a massive political and economic crisis will be required to begin the infrastructure changes necessary to implement such solutions on a large scale.

Sepehri is correct to argue that the Left should take advantage of the debate about energy and the environment to present its own ideas. But one of those ideas should be the centrality of class struggle in producing any kind of environmental reform worthy of the name. For indeed, capitalism has no solution to the world’s energy crisis.

Shaun Joseph and Mary Rapien
Providence, R.I.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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