Against “Green Capitalism”: The Environmental Struggle Must Be Anti-Capitalist and Revolutionary

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“Green capitalism” is a reactionary illusion, and a radical and revolutionary response is urgently needed, both politically and ideologically. Disaster can be avoided, but only if there is a profound and complete change from production based on profits to production according to needs.

The environmental issue is becoming so central that it is now one of the primary concerns of all the world’s people. An article in Le Point published in September 2019, based on a Harris Interactive survey, revealed that “72% of those surveyed say they are ‘more interested in environmental issues and have changed their behavior in this regard’,” a figure that reaches 89% in the 18–24 age group that is at the forefront of mobilizations on global warming issues.” While the survey focused on France, it is clear that this issue is at the top of the list of concerns on a global scale, as evidenced by the international climate strikes organized by Fridays for Future and others.

Of course, this mass awareness, which includes the entire working class, as well as the vast majority of youth, stems from visible, concrete consequences of unfolding environmental change resulting directly from human activity. Indeed, just with respect to greenhouse gas emissions, the IPCC’s 2014 report on climate change offers some stirring statistics. On a global scale, 80% of these gases come from a few sectors of activity: 35% from the energy sector; 24% from agriculture, forestry, and other land use (AFOLU); and 21% from industry (which includes manufacturing).

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In reality, environmental issues are not specific only to the 21st century. As John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff explain, “During the period 1830–1870, the depletion of the natural fertility of the soil through the loss of soil nutrients was the central ecological concern of capitalist society in both Europe and North America (only comparable to concerns over the loss of forests, the growing pollution of the cities, and the Malthusian specter of overpopulation.)1 It was this objective reality of the time that prompted Marx, contrary to the popular belief that he did not consider environmental problems at all, to look into the matter.

Large landed property reduces the agricultural population to a constantly falling minimum, and confronts it with a constantly growing industrial population crowded together in large cities. It thereby creates conditions which cause an irreparable break in the coherence of social interchange prescribed by the natural laws of life. As a result, the vitality of the soil is squandered, and this prodigality is carried by commerce far beyond the borders of a particular state … Large-scale industry and large-scale mechanized agriculture work together. If originally distinguished by the fact that the former lays waste and destroys principally labor-power, hence the natural force of human beings, whereas the latter more directly exhausts the natural vitality of the soil, they join hands in the further course of development in that the industrial system in the countryside also enervates the laborers, and industry and commerce on their part supply agriculture with the means for exhausting the soil.2

The fact remains that the environmental question has taken on an integral dimension in the 21st century, posing universal, sweeping, cross-cutting challenges. From the melting of the polar ice caps to the formation of continents of plastic waste in the oceans, from major fires ravaging the largest forests to the increasing number of extreme weather events, from the degradation of air and water quality with direct impacts on the health of entire sections of the population to the daily disappearance of animal and plant species, the path humanity has been on of destroying our own natural habitat creates an imperative for everyone.

Humanity can only ask itself questions that it is capable of answering. If the environmental question is today a massive concern on a planetary scale, it is only because there exists the material basis for a society that lives in harmony with its natural environment. The legitimate, palpable anxiety in the face of environmental disasters stems more from a lack of clarity about the path we must follow to bring about such a society than it is a form of pessimism about an inescapable end of life on earth. Ultimately, it is these elements that make the environmental question so dominant today: Living things are dying. Is it possible to avoid catastrophe? And if so, how?

“Green Capitalism”: An Insufficient Response from the Ruling Classes

However, a question with the potential for creating hegemony simultaneously implies an ideological battle. Even if political ecology has, for decades, been the prerogative of the Left, or even the radical Left, it would be wrong to claim that the ruling classes are not trying to develop a response to the crisis. As early as 1972, André Gorz wrote,

Taking ecological costs into account will have the same social and economic effects as the oil crisis. And capitalism, far from succumbing to the crisis, will manage it as it has always done: well-placed financial groups will benefit from the difficulties of rival groups to absorb them at low prices and extend their hold on the economy. The central government will strengthen its control over society: technocrats will calculate “optimal” standards of de-pollution and production, issue regulations, extend the areas of “programmed life” and the field of activity of repressive devices.3

While a series of climate deniers have recently come to power, first and foremost Donald Trump in the United States, it is clear that Gorz’s hypothesis has been largely confirmed. The most striking proof of this can be seen in the fact that all the bourgeois parties, from the most reactionary to the most “progressive,” have put the environmental question at the top of their electoral platforms. This has led to the emergence, on the ideological level, of a mainstream theory of the bourgeoisie: “green capitalism.”

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In a recent column published in the French daily financial newspaper Les Échos, three authors — Pierre Bentata, essayist and economist; Nicolas Bouzou, economist and founder of the Asterès medical technology company; and philosopher Pierre-Henri Tavoillot — offer us, not without irony, a perfect synthesis of the fundamental elements of this “green capitalism,” without naming it directly. It is ironic because the essence of their text is concentrated in a violent diatribe, not without succumbing to a certain vulgarity laced with lies and shortcuts, against supposedly pure ideologues, climate skeptics in disguise, aimed at deflecting the legitimate concern of the masses — which the authors include in the category of “anti-capitalists.” The piece concludes with a paragraph of pure ideology:

In order to respond to the twofold requirement of combating global warming and poverty, it is not a question of abandoning our economic system, but rather of making innovations and investments on an unprecedented scale in decarbonized electricity, electric or hydrogen transport, and the recycling economy. This new economy, liberal and democratic, is rich in added value, wages, and jobs. It requires above all a high carbon price and international cooperation. The European Union seems to have taken the measure of these challenges. We now need to accelerate. Ecology needs intelligence, means, and clarity. It does not need to worry about a green revolution and dictatorship.4

This passage says a lot about the fundamental logic behind “green capitalism.” The question is not so much to respond to the objective challenges posed by environmental issues, but above all to preserve at any cost the current economic system — that is, a handful of exploiters appropriating the means of production and the profits that go with it. The problem is, therefore, posed in reverse: it is a question of inserting the environmental problem into the narrow framework of the capitalist mode of production. In this sense, the Swiss sociologist Razmig Keucheyan is perfectly correct when he explains,

If capitalism has been able to exist for three centuries, it is because it has benefited from free nature, a nature it was not necessary to “reproduce.” Capitalism has used this free nature as both an input and an output. Nature has been a source of free inputs for capitalism, because this system has been capturing “raw” natural resources and turning them into commodities ever since. But nature has also been an output for capitalism, a “global garbage can” in which to dump the wastes of capital accumulation, what neoliberal economists shamefacedly call “negative externalities.” But with the environmental crisis, nature no longer performs this dual function of free input and output for capitalism. The dialectic between capitalism and nature is entering a crisis.5

In other words, a further contradiction is added to the historical contradiction between capital and labor, from which the capitalists extract surplus value: that of an extra cost that can erode the capitalist accumulation of profits that reside in the direct exploitation of raw materials and their transformation into commodities. “Green capitalism,” therefore, seeks to transform this objective constraint into a potential source of additional profits through the commodification of environmental issues. This can be achieved as much through the promotion of so-called “organic” products as through the opening of potential new “green” markets. It is a logic that stands in opposition to the necessary consideration of environmental issues as elements that must condition the production process.

As explained in the declaration published in September 2019 by the Trotskyist Fraction–Fourth International, 

The capitalist mode of production in this process is in total contradiction with nature and its processes of development. For capital, the determining factor in this process is merely quantitative. Fierce competition forces each capitalist to constantly seek ways to replace workers with machines that increase the productivity of labor and the mass of goods thrown onto the market. This increases the amount of natural resources needed to produce them. The constant repetition production and reproduction of capital ruthlessly eats up all resources, without taking into account the time required for their natural production and regeneration.6

For Green Marxism and Green Leninism

To the reactionary manifesto published in Les Échos, ardently defending a model of society in which a handful of capitalists control all the means of production in the name of a system responsible for the unfolding environmental disasters, we respond by quoting the most famous manifesto of the 19th century:

But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society. In one word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.”7

Historically, capitalism played a revolutionary role. The development of the productive forces aimed at developing an unprecedented accumulation of profit also provided the material basis to meet humanity’s vital needs — that is, the theoretical possibility of access to food, water, health care, and cultural and intellectual development for all people. Capitalism’s manifest obsolescence deprives the majority of humanity access to this abundance, while at the same time destroying its natural environment. In this sense, today’s environmental problems pose “civilizational” challenges.

As Ernest Mandel explains in his Introduction to Marxism,

A socialist society, therefore, requires an economy developed to the point where production according to needs replaces production for profit. Socialist humanity will no longer produce goods to be exchanged for money in a market. Socialist humankind will produce use values distributed to all members of society to satisfy all their needs. … Social wealth to achieve a system of abundance can be achieved only through economic planning, avoiding wasteful non-use of the means of production and unemployment and their use for purposes contrary to the interests of humankind.8

Thus, the solution to environmental problems inevitably involves all workers reappropriating society’s riches, regulating production according to the actual needs of the population. These needs integrate the need for rational production that respects the environment. The entire question, therefore, as we declared in the Trotskyist Fraction–Fourth International statement cited above, is

whether the adaptation to climate change will be in the hands of capital or in the hands of the dispossessed majority of society. For this reason, the ecological crisis makes it necessary to fight for communism as the only perspective for the salvation of humanity and the planet. Communism means a society of free and associated producers in harmony with nature. In this struggle, the working class must position itself as the hegemonic subject, taking environmental demands not only as part of the struggle to improve their living conditions, but also to offer a progressive solution to the ecocide that capitalism is preparing.

This is the indispensable precondition for establishing a system based on solidarity, which rationally reestablishes the natural metabolism between humanity and nature, and which reorganizes production in a way that respects natural cycles without exhausting our resources. This would simultaneously end poverty and social inequality.9

For Marxists, therefore, it is fundamental to develop a revolutionary environmental policy that allows the working class — which is at the heart of this destructive production system — to address all the working and middle classes, who, like them, are suffering the full brunt of the environmental disasters in progress. A program that bridges the gap between the urgent measures that must be undertaken here and now and the creation of a society that bases its production on the vital needs of the population and the preservation of our natural environment is essential. Moreover, given the global scale of the problem, such a program program can only be an internationalist one.

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The first and most urgent measure is to take the productive apparatus of the energy sector, heavy industry, manufacturing, and transport out of the hands of the polluting capitalists by means of expropriation, and to put them under the control of the workers themselves. This measure goes hand in hand with the lifting of trade secrets — a veil that conceals the worst “ecocidal” policies decided at the highest levels of these sectors, which are responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions in the world. The capitalists must pay for their crisis, both economically and ecologically: these expropriations and the implementation of economic planning according to the needs of humanity can be achieved only by distributing the available working hours among all people. Such a measure goes hand in hand with the fight for safe working conditions in all factories and businesses, from which toxic and polluting substances must be eliminated.

As for agriculture, apart from the fact that this sector is responsible for 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, the capitalist farming system is also responsible for the depletion of the soil through the massive use of toxic chemicals and deforestation, the dramatic consequences of which are visible in the huge fires we have seen recently in Africa and the Amazon. But it also bears the stamp of enormous waste. According to data from a 2011 report of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 25% of the world’s food production was being thrown away without being consumed. In 2013, the FAO revealed that 54% of food waste occurs at the top of the chain (production, harvesting, handling) and 46% occurs at the bottom of the chain (processing, distribution, and, finally, consumption). In this sense, the implementation of agrarian reform for small farmers and indigenous peoples is indispensable, as is the expulsion of imperialist companies, confiscation of their assets, and worker-controlled expropriation of the entire industrial complex for food processing and export. Equally indispensable, to counter the accumulation of waste and encourage effective recycling, is a fundamental industrial reconversion that avoids pollution upstream and downstream, also meaning the end of planned obsolescence.

Finally, measures aimed at increasing government budgets for implementing these fundamental changes, the opening of borders to admit all refugees, and the cancellation of the debt of colonial or semi-colonial countries are just as central to moving towards a society free from the capitalist exploitation and oppression on a global scale that is responsible for the current situation.

Yes, the catastrophe is avoidable. And to avoid catastrophe, it is clear that the environmental struggle can only be anti-capitalist and revolutionary, no matter what the bourgeois proponents of “green capitalism” may say. In order to do this, it is necessary, as Andreas Malm explained in an interview with RP Dimanche, “to experiment with ecological Leninism.”10

First published on February 23 in French on RP Dimanche.

Translation: Scott Cooper

Notes   [ + ]

1. John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff. “Liebig, Marx and the Depletion of Soil Fertility: Relevance for Today’s Agriculture.” Monthly Review 50, no. 3 (1998): 32
2. Karl Marx, Capital, Book III, Chapter 48. (Braunschweig, 1862).
3. André Gorz, “Their Ecology and Ours,” The Wild, 1974. Translator’s note: Gorz was an Austrian-French social philosopher and journalist who in the 1960s and 1970s was a main theorist of the New Left movement particularly concerned with political ecology.
4. Pierre Bentata, Nicolas Bouzou, and Pierre-Henri Tavoillot, “L’écologie prise en otage par les anticapitalistes,” Les Echos, February 18, 2020, our translation.
5. Razmig Keucheyan, “‘Leur écologie et la nôtre,’ quarante ans après,Contretemps, November 21, 2016, our translation. Originally delivered as a speech on October 8, 2016 at the 20th anniversary of Friends of Le Monde Diplomatique.
6. Trotskyist Fraction–Fourth International, “Capitalism Is Destroying the Planet—Let’s Destroy Capitalism,” September 2019.
7. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Manifesto of the Communist Party, Chapter II: “Proletarians and Communists,” 1848.
8. Ernest Mandel, Introduction to Marxism, 1975
9. Trotskyist Fraction–Fourth International, “Capitalism Is Destroying the Planet — Let’s Destroy Capitalism,” September 2019.
10. Translator’s note: RP Dimanche is Révolution Permanente’s Sunday edition. Andreas Malm, as the interview introduces him, “is a professor at Lund University. For several years, he has been offering a stimulating reflection on the relationship between capitalism and the ecological crisis.”

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Julian Valdis

Julian is an editor of our French sister site Révolution Permanente.