Climate, insurgency and Marxism at Endgames? Capitalism and the climate emergency

The last year or so have seen a dramatic shift in the way that both the left and the broader public understand climate change in Western countries. Climate crisis and biodiversity loss are now not just threats for the future – they are happening as we speak. Millions worldwide have been inspired by activists demanding urgent action, such as young people involved in school strikes and campaigners from Extinction Rebellion (XR) taking part in non-violent direct action. On 26 October, rs21 hosted a day of discussions in London about the politics that can take the movement forward, and how we can connect up climate politics with a Marxist understanding of the world and how to fight for change. Over 120 people attended, heard from a genuinely diverse range of speakers, and took part in lively debate. 

Photo: Steve Eason

The third session of the day discussed both the relevance of the writings of Marx himself in making sense of the climate breakdown, as well as contemporary theory on climate that is building on the Marxist tradition, as well as insurgent movements resisting the crisis.

Brendan Montague, the editor of The Ecologist, pointed out that while Marx died in 1883 before global warming was identified as a possibility, a wider understanding of Marx could have prevented global warming and biodiversity collapse. Marxism now is often associated with totalitarianism, indeed environmental destruction. But genuine Marxism is still vital. Marx advocated for societies where production took place for human need, not profit. Others have made such calls, but what distinguished Marx was that his proposals were global in scale – a call for revolution. He understood nature and human societies as systems and understood that some systems were linear and some not, incorporating feedback loops – in the way that a temperate climate is the result of a non-linear system because plants absorb oxygen. The London of Marx’s time, for example, was based on a linear system – food was brought into the city, and then excreted into sewers which took it to the sea, not back to the land. Then fertiliser had to be imported because the land lacked nutrients – today we use oil-based fertiliser. Capitalism is based on taking raw materials from nature, processing them and then dumping the resulting goods rather than returning them to nature because this is what makes a profit. We need to build economies which sit within natural cycles. Even if we could address climate change, capitalism will create more crises unless we get rid of it as a whole.

Reclaim the Power activist Alice Swift argued that we need to meet an ecological imperative – we need to create a sustainable state of affairs – and also a democratic imperative. We could meet the ecological end goal in a non-democratic way, through an eco-authoritarian approach – that we need a strong state or leader to make change happen. In 2010 James Lovelock argued that democracy is constrained during war, and the same should happen during a climate emergency. Others argue that we’re too stupid, or selfish and greedy, that most people in the first world are too rich – when in fact most of us are workers living in austerity. Liberal democracies have failed – but the problem is capitalism, a system based on limitless growth on a finite planet, which can never be sustainable. And capitalism fails to offer us genuine democracy – our range of choices is hugely restricted when choice is less important than the system preserving itself. We need genuine democracy such as citizens’ assemblies where people can gain information, educate themselves, and then make collective decisions. Extending democracy would mean people can’t make decisions which would harm the global south or future generations, or which harm non-human animals, plants etc. It also means direct action as part of the movement – taking power into own hands, shutting shit down and showing we have power to change things.

Nick Evans, the editor of the rs21 website, commented Marx did two things – he provided an analysis of how capitalism works, and how revolutionary struggle can change it. There are all kinds of issues with the history of Marxism. But it’s also a tradition involving millions of people around the world debating how to move forward in the struggle. At a time when it’s clear fossil fuels need to stay in the ground, consumption continues to rise because of the essential dynamic of capitalism. Non-capitalist societies have experienced economic growth. But under capitalism, it’s built into the system.

Photo: Steve Eason

Capitalists need to be produce profit and compete with each other to do so, which can only happen by increasing exploitation (which can only happen so far) or ratcheting up the quantity of production. Marxists have highlighted that imperialism is a key issue. Andreas Malm argues that the use of fossil capital/steam power was important to British capitalists because it gave them more control over production – and they then used their imperialist power to spread this through the world. The Russian Marxist Bukharin argued in 1915 that as capitalism becomes more internationalised, capitalists get tied up with ‘their’ local states – so economic competition becomes inseparable from political and military competition between states. We see this today – the US is the dominant, if declining, power. Its strategic interests are inseparable from fossil capital when the global economy depends on oil. But Marxism not just about analysis, it’s about activity. Its wager is that collective action by working-class people can change the world. The level of working-class struggle has been low – but now struggles are breaking out from Hong Kong to Iraq to Latin America. Different struggles can inspire one another – we need to make the links between them.

You can find reports on other sessions of the day here, here and here.


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