We Can Have A Livable World Or Capitalism, But Not Both


Humanity is facing a choice it never had to face before: either radically change how people relate to nature and to one another or face ecological ruination and general social collapse.

For a long time there has been a stubborn problem of awareness about the ecological perils awaiting us and its systemic root. By now, most people have become aware of the former although they may not know the scientific details. More and more, people can rely on what they see around them. If data or reason alone could not persuade them of the reality of climate disruption, perhaps the increasingly more devastating floods, heatwaves, droughts, fires, and storms can. Still, in the US only 49% of the public think climate change should be addressed “right now,” down from 56% a year ago. Of seven issues asked about, climate change ranked 7th alongside Covid-19 at 39% as “high priority” issues. Economy ranked first (76%), followed by inflation (73%), crime (59%), Ukraine/Russia (58%), and immigration (48%). The growing public concern for pocketbook issues like jobs and inflation that impact the lives of millions of working people explains the dip in care about climate issues.

On the other hand, capitalism still remains the 800-pound gorilla. For a long time during the Cold War period the public was denied any rational discussion of capitalism or its nemesis, socialism. The collapse of the USSR did not alter the situation. The triumphalism that followed the end of the Cold War meant that capitalism was unchallenged and represented the “end of history.” The great silence about capital’s historical role in the making of our world continued.

Another reason why capitalism was notable only in its absence from public discussions is that when there is talk of a ‘system’ at all, it is shrouded in mystifications. The establishment institutions (corporate media, academia, business networks, politicians) use language to obscure capitalist reality and mystify its workings. They call a product a “good,” be it a chair, a pillow, or a bomb. An activity is a “service,” so long as somebody pays, be it care for the elderly, a musical lesson, or banks overcharging customers. An activity without a payment is not counted as service and its value won’t show up in the national economic accounts. The unpaid labor of care for the young, the sick and the elderly, mostly done by women, is a prime example. A larger GDP this year than last, is “growth,” no matter what is growing, affordable housing, the war machine, or sales of drugs and alcohol. Presumably, there is no bad growth or bad GDP in economics, unlike in a biological system where cancerous cell growth kills the organism. They use terms like “free market system” or “free enterprise system” to refer to capitalism and thereby positively associate it with freedom. Or they may just employ neutral terms like the “economy” or “economic development” to refer to capitalist economy or development. In all these cases, there are no questions asked, nothing to ponder or critique. Is there any wonder then that there is so little awareness of the nature of capitalist society when apologists for the system use language to naturalize the system?

One consequence of not examining the nature of a capitalist society is that other alternative explanations appear that are not helpful. For example, a popular explanation for environmental degradation is human overpopulation. Others may point to the nature of civilizational progress itself and the accompanying increasing complexity of social organization and of technological development. Still, others point out the greed of individuals in positions of power, the incompetence of party politicians, or the political gridlock in general. Or perhaps many claim the system is a fair reflection of the kind of creatures we are, and hence there is no alternative possible that does not violate human nature. Most agree that the system is exceptional, dynamic, capable of self-adjustment, creative, productive, the best of all possible worlds, and so on. Lastly, the absence of a systemic analysis and approach to problems at a time when many people are angry and confused only leads to the proliferation of cynicism, conspiratorial thinking, and even greater feelings of rage, powerlessness and alienation — all of which are easily manipulated by demagogic neofascist forces in the absence of strong countervailing left politics.

Add to these the problem of inertia or lack of commitment to act commensurate with the climate crisis. Most people who are aware of the looming perils, nevertheless remain inactive, choosing to remain as spectators on a deck of a sinking titanic. Some do act in ineffective conventional ways, perhaps expressing their thoughts to family and friends, posting on social media, signing petitions, writing a letter to the local paper, maybe even contacting their representatives or participating in a rally.

The Fire and Ash Future One recent positive development has occurred in the scientific community tasked with assessing climate change. Since the early 1990s, scientists have produced detailed reports about climate change for the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) aimed at informing the public and influencing policymakers. Until recently, they were careful not to directly identify the nature of capitalist society as the principle culprit for the climate crisis. No more. In August 2021, the scientist’s collective, Scientist Rebellion, linked to Extinction Rebellion, leaked a part of the sixth IPCC report to the press “to show that scientists are willing to disobey and take personal risk to inform the public.” They had feared correctly that the conclusions of the upcoming full report that had been scheduled for April 2022 would be whitewashed by corporate politicians. “The greatest crime ever has already been carried out,” the collective stated, and “the perpetrators are still at liberty, but the victims are starting to pile up.” By ‘the greatest crime ever’ they had in mind the “plunder [of] the Earth until it is but fire and ash.” They denounced “the death cult of conservative economics” and urged that “we must abandon economic growth, which is the basis of capitalism.” The leaked report stated: “Some scientists stress that climate change is caused by industrial development, and more specifically, by the nature of social and economic development produced by the nature of capitalist society, which they therefore consider ultimately unsustainable.” Furthermore, according to Scientist Rebellion, the leaked report “explicitly states that incremental change is not a viable option. It states that individual behavioral changes alone are insignificant. It states that justice, equity and redistribution are essential to climate policy. It says that we need massive investment – to transform energy systems, transport, industry, land use and agriculture, housing, and to prepare for the accelerating effects of climate breakdown.” It is hard to overestimate the importance of mostly older, conservative, and privileged scientists agreeing to the apparent radical conclusion that capitalism is incompatible with sustainability.

As they had feared, the April 2022 full report’s Summary for Policymakers, the most read part that is shaped by political pressure, deleted several parts of the original leaked report written by the scientists themselves. Here are some examples of the deleted items: the per capita carbon emissions of the wealthiest 10% of the global population was ten times that of the poorest 10%; more than 40% of the developing country emissions were due to export production for developed countries; call to close down coal or gas plants within a decade and ban building of new ones (this was “rewritten to state that coal-fired plants could be increased, given possibilities for carbon capture and sequestration”); techno-fixes to the problem (i.e., carbon capture and storage, nuclear energy, and carbon removal) are unlikely to play a major role in mitigating climate change; the top 1% accounted for 50% of plane-travel emissions; “pathways consistent with limiting global warming to below 2°C and 1.5°C entail rapid emissions reductions and a fundamental transformation of all sectors and regions in order to reach net zero CO2 emissions”; and several paragraphs emphasizing “altering urban space and built environments, shifting away from a meat-based diet, and providing better human services with less expenditure of energy,” “the building of new, more sustainable cities,” pursuing pathways based on “low-energy demand scenarios” and “nature-based solutions,” “prioritiz[ing] equity,” promoting “transformational changes” and “accelerated system transitions consistent with sustainable development,” and creating “new social norms.”

The full report nevertheless warned that the planet is “firmly on track toward an unlivable world” unless CO2 emissions peak by 2025 and rapidly fall thereafter. The UN chief António Guterres even sounded like a climate justice activist when he accused political leaders of “lying” and said the report “is a litany of broken climate promises” and “a file of shame.”

Earlier in May, scientists had warned that there is now a 50% chance that in one of the next five years the 1.5°C global heating limit above the pre-industrial average will be broken (up from 20% probability in 2020 and 0% in 2015). The 1.5°C warming limit is the point at which scientists warn it becomes no longer possible to avoid dangerous climate breakdown and increasingly deadly flooding, heatwaves and droughts.

In February, the IPCC had released a report showing that the atmospheric CO2 levels in 2019 were higher than at any time in at least 2 million years; the Earth’s average surface temperature rose faster during the period 1970-2020 than in any other 50-year period since the last 2,000 years; and the global average sea level rose faster during the 20th century than in any other century since at least the last 3,000 years.

In 2021, the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) had reported that the upper 2000m depth of oceans have shown strong warming rates in the past two decades; the ocean acidification is the highest it has been in 26,000 years, causing a decline in the ability of ocean to absorb CO2 emissions (the ocean absorbs about 23% of anthropogenic emissions to the atmosphere); there is now an “unusually deep and large” ozone hole over Antarctica that has reached its “maximum area,” the size of Africa; and devastating heatwaves, floods, and draught have hit multiple regions of the world. Indeed, in 2022, large areas of central Asia have been hit by record-breaking intensive heatwaves with temperatures reaching 50C in Pakistan. In parts of India people are rescuing “exhausted and dehydrated birds” falling from the sky and animal doctors are treating thousands of birds. If the nightmarish scenes of birds falling from the sky won’t focus the mind, nothing will.

Resist Capitalism Or Perish Another excised paragraph from the leaked report concerns the crucial matter of the need for social movement and resistance from below, especially by the most vulnerable and marginalized communities. “Increasing the participation of women, and racialized and marginalized groups, amplifies the impetus for climate action. Collective action through formal social movements and informal lifestyle movements expands the potential for climate policy and supports system change (high confidence). Climate strikes have given voice to youth in more than 180 countries.” Scientist Rebellion is pleading with people to do exactly that by joining them in the streets in “serious nonviolent resistance” and “to apply unbearable pressure on this genocidal system – to take it down before it takes us all down with it.” That they use the term ‘genocidal’ to describe the system is itself a strong indication that they have set aside timid positions and actions, including simply pointing out the vast gap between what the scientific community understands and recommends and what politicians have been doing in spite of their rhetoric.

The last thing the corporate and political powers want to see or encourage is a mass non-violent resistance to their rule. Clearly, that is precisely what the Scientist Rebellion hopes to ignite. In a clear departure from the past, members of the collective took part in a civil disobedience action in April and chained themselves to a JPMorgan Chase building in Los Angeles to protest the bank’s financing of fossil fuels. “We’re going to lose everything,” said a visibly emotional Dr. Peter Kalmus. “And we’re not joking,” he continued, “we’re not lying, we’re not exaggerating.” The action was part of a wave of other civil disobedience protests organized by the collective in more than 25 countries.

The leaked report’s call for ‘collective action through formal social movements’ is crucial. Unfortunately, labor and environmental movements, the two mainstream movements most needed to transition to a sustainable society, are themselves deeply anchored in this deathly system. They lack anti-capitalist vision, not to say the required organizational resources. Nevertheless, it is inconceivable to fight effectively against climate breakdown and for a just transition to a sustainable society without a radical green-labor unity. We badly need class struggle unionism and environmentalism. Bread-and-butter unionism and environmentalism-without-class won’t get us out of the present existential quandary; bread-and-roses unionism and environmentalism-with-class might.

Recent strikes, successful labor organizing efforts, and the increasing involvement of the youth in environmental activism are important but a lot remains to be done, including building an anti-capitalist green-labor unity. The failure to do so leaves us at best with reformist reforms, the tinkering with the rough edges of the system, when what is required is the intention of going beyond reformism: using reforms to slow down the climate breakdown so we can build an equitable, free, democratic, ecological society capable of regulating its relation to nature rationally and with care. The reformist reforms lets off the capitalist class and frees it to play the old game of divide and conquer by framing the climate issue as one of jobs vs the environment, instead of what it really is, the ecosystem vs profits. It allows capital to weaken environmentalism by drawing a segment of the working class to oppose it. The environmentalists who show little concern for workers whose livelihoods would be negatively affected in the transition to a sustainable society also bear much responsibility for the success of capital in dividing the working class and marginalizing the environmental movement. Many among their ranks come from professional middle class backgrounds. The relative lack of serious concern for working people on their part reflects this fact. As I mentioned above, what is needed is class struggle environmentalism.

The Nature of the Beast We are not faced with a crisis of energy and resources only but with a systemic crisis stemming from the nature of capitalist society. So, let’s take a moment to examine the logic of capital. What are the core characteristics of a capitalist society? I identified the following three in a 2015 essay:

First, the “egotistical calculation” of commerce wins the day every time. Capital seeks maximum  profitability as a matter of first priority. Evermore “accumulation of capital” is the system’s bill of health; it is slowdowns or reversals that usher in crises and set off panic. Cancer-like hunger for  endless growth is in the system’s DNA and is what has set it on a tragic collision course with finite  Nature.

Second, capitalism treats human labor as a cost. It therefore opposes labor capturing a fair share  of the total economic value that it creates. Since labor stands for the majority and capital for a tiny minority, it follows that classism and class warfare are built into its DNA, which explains why the “middle class” is shrinking and its gains are never secure.

Third, private interests, i.e. owners of capital, determine massive investments and make key decisions at the point of production guided by maximization of profits. That’s why in the US the truck freight replaced the railroad freight, chemicals were used extensively in agriculture, public  transport was gutted in favor of private cars, and big cars replaced small ones.

Leaving major investment decisions in the hands of a tiny class of investors also led to the hospital bed shortage in 2020 when Covid-19 pandemic hit the US and the baby formula shortage in 2022. One wonders why there is never a shortage of guns.

I would add two more core features to the list: a) Capitalism treats nature the same way it does human labor: it extracts value from both, with a difference that it gives labor a wage in exchange for labor power but it merely takes from nature and returns to it its waste products; and b) Short-termism is built into the capitalist DNA; fulfilling short-term financial returns is an imperative.

Saving the Earth from Capitalism President Roosevelt’s New Deal and the national war effort during WWII saved US capitalism from itself. Today, nearly a century later, humanity must rise to save the earth itself from capitalism — a giant, rapacious, profit-making machine that exploits the planet and working people at ever growing rates. It ought to be a truism that “sustainable” capitalist development is an oxymoron. Global capitalism cannot meet basic human needs without compromising the earth’s ability to support life, diminishing the future generations’ ability to meet their needs, and exploiting working classes the world over. As we have seen, it is the system’s normal operation, not its dysfunction, that puts it on a collision course with the earth. It is driven by a process of capital accumulation without end in a finite world. If unchallenged, a cold calculus of short-term profit seeking prevails over all other considerations every time and everywhere. A tiny group of transnational corporate and financial oligarchs make all critical investment decisions that affect the lives of millions of people without their input. The system’s DNA propels it in this destructive manner.

We cannot rely on politicians that serve the ruling class to save us and the planet from the system they serve. Let’s not forget that the primary commitment of the ruling class is to reproduce itself. Class rule is the name of the game. Either we choose reproduction of existing class relations of domination or the reproduction of life — human and non-human. We can’t have both. People cannot convince the ruling class to protect the common interest and the planet by reason alone when that clashes with the narrow interests of this class. In fact, the ruling class is demonstrably incapable of even addressing in a meaningful manner the consequences of its power for the people and the earth, let alone cease reproducing itself, and this while it is plundering the earth, soon to the point of no return.

The hypocrisy of politicians is now plain to see for anyone paying attention. Greta Thunberg famously ridiculed the “Blah, blah, blah” of politicians who say one thing and do another. A good recent example is president Biden whose administration won the 2020 elections partly by shouting ‘science matters’ in opposition to Trump’s disregard for rational discourse and dismissal of climate change as hoax. However, the White House announced in June that “Already, the United States produced more oil under the first year of this Administration than it did under the first two years of the prior Administration, and is on track to set new records next year.” Biden had ordered the release of “a record 1 million barrels per day from our Strategic Petroleum Reserve” and has since “rallied international partners to join us, releasing a combined 240 million barrels of oil on the market.” He has urged Saudi Arabia to increase its oil production. On June 22, Biden called on Congress and the states “to suspend the federal gas tax for three months” which amounts to a tiny relief for consumers but a hefty $10 billion tax break for giant energy corporations. All this when the scientific consensus urges rapid reduction of fossil fuel energies since they constitute a principle cause of climate breakdown.

The Biden administration is even reportedly opposing 21 young kids from trying for the past seven years to establish a generational right to a safe environment in the US federal courts: “But like its predecessors, Biden’s Justice Department appears to be doing everything in its power to prevent the lawsuit from going to court.” All the while, the United Nations Children’s Fund reported in 2021 that half the world’s 2.2 billion children live in countries at extremely high risk from global warming.” Add to this the 80 million US citizens under the age of 19 and a countless millions in the future who would also benefit from this generational right. But none of them matter. It is not incompetence or stupidity that explains the actions of politicians, though there  are many who exhibit these qualities. Rather, this organized hypocrisy is the result of the contradictory position they occupy: on the one hand, they must serve the class that rules and on the other they need the acquiescence of the public, and their votes too. They fear the day when people begin to assess with sober senses the real conditions of their lives.

In sum, the political system may at best respond in a fragmentary fashion to only symptoms of the ecological emergency leaving its systemic root in place. The often lamented dysfunctionality of politics is a way of preserving the existing exploitative class relations. The incompetence of the US system in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic with more than a million deaths is also a result of its systemic logic. It is clear that the ruling capitalist class has no serious ideas about how to manage the system’s trajectory, let alone be able to stabilize the climate. A significant segment of the political class (the Republican Party) does not even believe that climate change is real. Perhaps they think there is no certainty that what science warns will come to pass. We should remind them of the logic of insurance: one doesn’t require 100% certainty in order to take out insurance against the remote possibilities of personal catastrophes such as traffic accidents, home fires and so on. Or the precautionary principle: if a high risk is suspected, one should take protective measures even before complete scientific proof exists. The Democrats who do believe the science are constrained by the rule of capital. The system cannot escape its logic.

A system possessing even a modicum of rationality would have long ago realized that we can have a livable world or a regime of capital accumulation, but not both. It would have committed itself to planning its way out of the present existential quandary and moving toward building an equitable, free, and ecological society. Below is a partial list of a number of steps that could move us along towards that goal, but only if we fight for them like the fate of life on earth depends on it.

  • Democratize investment decisions by introducing participatory economic decision-making in place of letting a handful of private investors make all the key decisions globally;
  • Produce to meet the basic needs of all people instead of increase the profits of the few;
  • Reduce demand for resources by eliminating superfluous or wasteful production and industries, including the military, agricultural fertilizers, corporate marketing efforts, non-renewable energy production, insurance companies and so on (degrowth);
  • Increase production of socially useful services and products like sustainable food production, efficient public transport systems, affordable housing, renewable energy, universal health care, quality public schools, etc. (growth);
  • Stop putting pollutants and toxins into the environment instead of trying to devise technological ways of removing them.
  • Build a solidarity economy through promoting community networks of mutual aid and forms of cooperative labor like worker-owned and -operated workplaces.

Faramarz Farbod, a native of Iran, teaches politics at Moravian University. He is the founder of the Beyond Capitalism working group of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities-Lehigh Valley, PA (USA) and the editor of its publication Left Turn. He can be reached at [email protected].

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