Converging crises 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 in Western countries understand climate change. 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 first session of the day, ‘Converging crises’ explored the relationship between climate breakdown and other crises within capitalism, with a primary focus on imperialism, borders and environmental racism. The contributors highlighted that the crisis, which is already and most acutely felt by those living in the Global South, has systemic reasons inseparable from, and unsolvable within the current capitalist order. They also emphasised that proactive international solidarity is vital, as the already violent border regimes and state repression is growing more severe in the face of increasing scarcity and extreme conditions around the world.

Ida Picard from Lesbians and Gays Support the Migrants drew out key links between climate crisis and capitalism. Fossil fuels, for example, are central to the capitalist system. The climate crisis exacerbates the occurrence of natural disasters like flooding and causes a scarcity of resources, creating refugees – Western states respond to this by reinforcing their borders in order to appear as though the crisis is contained, safely outside of the confines of the nation-state. So solidarity against borders, a key element of capitalism, must be part of our response to the climate crisis. She highlighted the recent rise of eco-fascism, which seeks a resolution to the climate emergency by a return to an imagined ‘nature’ and order via racial segregation. It is important to note and criticise when environmental activist groups such as Extinction Rebellion fall into that trap of these arguments, for example by claiming that mass migration is a problem because it reduces social cohesion. The good news is that an increasing number of activist groups are bringing issues of climate and migration together.

Zita Holbourne of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC) highlighted the links between climate issues and racism, imperialism and colonialism. Western countries are the worst perpetrators of climate breakdown, while in the Global South black and brown people are the most impacted. Yet people fleeing from the South due to climate crisis and its resulting social crisis have no rights in law.  In the context of economic crisis, we see racism and fascism growing throughout the world. It’s crucial that the climate movement includes black people, who are often people with lived experience of the climate crisis – people living in Britain with family in the Caribbean, for example, will know that they have lived through hurricanes. Zita stressed the importance of practical and culturally appropriate solidarity for refugees and helping people to stop becoming refugees – for example, by demanding permaculture courses so people are not dependent on a single cash crop. She highlighted the needs of workers dealing with climate refugees – such as the mental health of workers rescuing people in the Mediterranean. 

Al Jackson from rs21 pointed out that the left had been slow to respond to the climate crisis. Drawing on the work of Immanuel Wallerstein, however, he stressed the need for a revolutionary response. The capitalist system, Wallerstein argued, is in structural crisis. Neoliberalism has tried to patch up the system but has failed and capitalism has shifted to authoritarian strategies. With the current collapse of the neoliberal centre, we see a polarisation to the left and right – with those in the neoliberal now moving towards totalitarianism. The question, then, is what replaces capitalism? A more egalitarian society is possible – but also something far worse and less equal than capitalism. It’s in this context that we see the use of banning orders and the creation of the ‘hostile environment’. The state, as well as capitalists, are already preparing for the crisis with prison expansion, tightening ‘counter-terrorism’ legislation, and increased surveillance.

Photo: Steve Eason

Asad Rehman, Executive Director of War on Want, gave a rousing conclusion to the session. He pointed out that military planning for climate emergency is well underway, with plans for militarised borders and resource wars, not just over fossil fuels, but over water and food. Responses even from supposedly ‘progressive’ countries like Denmark, where the government accepts the reality of the emergency, are of ever more repressive and violent border controls, besides moving towards reducing emissions and improving public transport. Part of making a class-based argument for international solidarity, we need to draw on the British history of working-class anti-racism – as in the American Civil War, when workers in NW England took action against the slaveholders of the US South. We need to be clear that we are facing a crisis of corporate power. It’s not just about cyclones but about the economic system. Only the left has this story – we need to push it, or the right will push their nationalist version, that northern countries can survive and leave the south to burn.

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

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