Death or Renewal: Is the Climate Crisis the Final Crisis? Is This the "Inevitable" Collapse of Capitalism?

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Death or Renewal: Is the Climate Crisis the Final Crisis? Is This the "Inevitable" Collapse of Capitalism?

Wayne Price

Recently a friend sent me an article by Simon Lewis, a professor of global change science at the University College of London. Its title (Lewis 2021) was, “Canada is a warning: more and more of the world will soon be too hot for humans” and its subtitle was, “Without an immediate global effort to combat the climate emergency, the Earth’s uninhabitable areas will keep growing.”

This led me to think of the apocalyptic warnings of the socialist tradition, the most well-known, perhaps, being Rosa Luxemberg’s “socialism or barbarism.” In 1878, Friedrich Engels wrote that the bourgeoisie was “a class under whose leadership society is racing to ruin…If the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place, a revolution which will put an end to all class distinctions.” (Engels 1954; 217-8) Capitalism’s “own productive forces…are driving the whole of bourgeois society towards ruin or revolution.” (228)

Marx began his 1848 Communist Manifesto by claiming, “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles…that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” (2013; 60-61) So, there is an historic choice between “revolutionary re-constitution” or “common ruin.” (This raising of two possible outcomes seems to be contradicted by the Manifesto’s later statement—about the capitalist class, “Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” [73] I will not discuss whether Marx was a determinist, and, if so, of what kind.)

This was also an anarchist concept, integrating the problems of capitalism and its state. In 1898, Peter Kropotkin concluded The State--Its Historic Role, "Death--or renewal! Either the State for ever, crushing individual and local life, taking over in all fields of human activity, bringing with it all its wars and domestic struggles for power...which only replace one tyrant by another, and inevitably at the end of the development there is--death! Or the destruction of States, and new life starting again in thousands of centers on the principle of the lively initiative of the individual and groups and that of free agreement. The choice lies with you!” (1987; 60)

Climate Cataclysm

It may be argued that these predictions of “death” and “ruin” (if there is no popular revolution) are limited to capital and the state, to the economy and politics, and not to the ecological environment. But these are not distinct systems, any more than economics and war are distinct. (Price 2010) Capitalism is driven to expand its production, to accumulate, to grow quantitatively, to amass profits—under the pressure of local and international competition. The states which maintain capitalism must serve this drive for growth. States themselves have drives toward greater power over their own people and against other national states. This drive of industrial capitalism and its state to ever greater expansion must come in conflict with the needs of ecological balance and a stable (if qualitatively evolving) web of life. Marx was well aware of the destructive effects of capital accumulation on the natural environment (Foster 2000). Both Marx and Kropotkin advocated a new society which ecologically integrated industry and agriculture, town and country. (Although an anarchist, I am not addressing the important differences between Marxist and anarchist programs.) As an anarchist, Murray Bookchin developed a concept of “social ecology,” which he summarized as “anarchism or annihilation.”

According to Professor Lewis, “…Extreme heatwaves are more likely and scientists can now calculate the increase in their probability. For example, the 2019 European heatwave that killed 2,500 people was five times more likely than it would have been without global warming. In most places, extreme heatwaves outside the usual range for a region will cause problems, from disrupting the economy to widespread mortality….Yet in places in the Middle East and Asia something truly terrifying is emerging: the creation of unliveable heat.”

There will a growth of regions where the heat will regularly go beyond the range in which humans (and other organisms) can live. There will be droughts, fires, storms, flooding of coasts, loss of agriculture, shortages of water for drinking and farming, all resulting in massive migrations across national boundaries, and various societal conflicts and wars. (The US military has been studying these trends, even as politicians look the other way.)

Humanity has the science and technology to limit the damage caused by generations of basing industry on carbon fuels. Lewis writes,
“What can governments, companies and citizens do? First, cut off the supply of ever more extreme heatwaves by halving carbon dioxide emission this decade, then reaching net zero emissions by 2050. Second, prepare for the inevitable heatwaves of the future. Emergency public health planning is the initial priority….Heatwaves intensify structural inequalities. Poorer neighborhoods typically have fewer green spaces and so heat up more, while outdoor workers, often poorly paid, are especially vulnerable…underscoring the importance of public health planning. …

“…New regulations are needed to allow buildings to keep cool and for transport systems, from roads to trains, to be able to operate under much higher temperature extremes….The final task is future-proofing agriculture and the wider ecosystems we all ultimately rely on.

“…Stabilising the climate by 2050 is well within the timeframe of one working lifetime, as is adapting to allow us all to prosper in this new world. There is no time to lose.”

Increasingly, heads of governments and of multinational corporations have recognized—in words—the dangers of climate change. (The biggest exception has been in the USA, where one of two parties has persistently denied its existence.) It is conceivable that the world bourgeoisie will wise up enough to do something effective about global warming—if not to stop it altogether, then at least to mitigate it, to slow it down. Has it?

Professor Lewis concludes, “Given these immense challenges how are governments doing on climate adaptation? Very poorly.” This should not be surprising. There are too many vested interests in maintaining the current dependence on fossil fuels. Our whole technological society is primarily fueled by them. The less-industrialized, poorer, nations are even more reliant on coal and oil for energy. Not to mention all the commodities which use plastics (made from petroleum). Meanwhile, mechanized factories-in-the-field agriculture uses petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizer plus fuel for its machines. Our whole technological society would have to be transformed from top to bottom in order to be free of fossil-fuels and end global warming.

Economically, the petroleum industry is one of the biggest, most powerful, sections of world capitalism. It will not be abolished without an enormous fight. And, to repeat, even if capitalist society could completely abandon fossil fuels, it would still have a need to constantly expand, which must clash with the needs of a balanced world ecology. As Engels had written, “If the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place.”

Predictions

Predictions have their limits. It may be argued that, after all, time has passed since the classical socialists predicted that capitalism would end in “barbarism,” “death,” or “ruin,” if not overthrown. Yet capitalism and its state have not been overthrown nor yet ended in destruction. There have been great disasters, including two world wars, the Great Depression, the rise of Naziism and of Stalinism (with their slave labor and mass killings), enormous famines, continuing if smaller wars, and pandemics, among other forms of mass suffering. Yet there have also been benefits, such as the end of European fascist governments, mostly replaced by bourgeois democracies. Most imperial colonies have won political independence. South African apartheid and US Jim Crow segregation have been defeated. The Great Depression and World War II were followed by thirty years of unparalleled prosperity (in the imperialist countries, anyway)—which only ended around 1970. The world got through the Cold War without a nuclear war. And there have been enormous, qualitative, advances in science and technology. Overall, capitalism has proven to be flexible and regenerative, getting through crises and surviving,

All this is true, although how we judge the time scale is relative. Modern humans have existed for half a million years, agriculture for about 10 thousand years. The preconditions for socialism (or destruction) have only existed for less than two centuries: mass production technology, the modern working class, and a world market. That capitalism has survived for this relatively brief period of time, without either “ruin or revolution,””death or renewal,” is no final proof that it will continue to do so.

After all, it only requires some world-destroying set of events to happen once to risk ending human civilization. One nuclear war would do it. Even a large war using non-nuclear weapons of mass destruction. The accelerating heating of the globe to beyond levels of human survivability. The outburst of a pandemic too toxic to get under control in time. The collapse of world capitalism to a degree worse than the Great Depression. Any combination of the above.

In a recent book on an “anarchist theory of the modern state,” Eric Laursen concludes that an anarchist transformation “is not just a socially desirable outcome to work toward, but an existential necessity” (Laursen 2021;17). “Today with catastrophic climate change looming, we are fighting for more than a just society; we are fighting for survival.” (47)

So long as capitalism and the state exist, no matter how peaceful and prosperous in any one period, there remains a threat that “death” or “ruin” will occur. To speak of this “threat” is not the same as predicting “inevitable” outcomes. Humanity lives under the Sword of Damocles unless it does something about it.

The Marxist political economist Guglielmo Carchedi examines the long downturn of world capitalism and its trend toward stagnation, through temporary ups and down. He ascribes this long trend to the tendency of the rate of (real) profit to fall, although others would emphasize the growth of semi-monopolies. He believes that for capitalism to rejuvenate itself would require something like what was done to get out of the Great Depression. This included the destructiveness of a world war, massive armaments production, and the looting of the environment.

Carchedi asks, “Are we approaching an inevitable breakdown, the end of capitalism? This is not in the nature of the beast. Lacking a truly revolutionary change, capitalism will exit this long downward secular period. But first capital will have to be massively destroyed, in both the financial and productive spheres….There is Gramsci’s 1930 reflection…'The old is dying [but] the new cannot be born.'…The present phase of capitalism in the West is increasingly exhausting its capacity to reproduce itself. It is dying. It might be replaced by a new phase of capitalism or by a superior society. But the latter will not be possible without the active and purposeful intervention of working-class subjectivity…. Without this, capitalism will rejuvenate and will enter a new phase in which its domination over labor will be ever greater and more terrible.” (Carchedi 2018; 70)

He does not consider whether humanity could survive the kind of destruction of World War II, which revived world capitalism, but this time with more advanced technology (not only nuclear bombs either). Nor does he discuss the ecological and climate disasters which industrial society is now facing. However, he may be right, that a “new phase of capitalism” of a totalitarian sort (or perhaps a neo-feudalism?) might survive the presently threatened level of “ruin.”

He is also right that everything depends on the level of popular consciousness. The working class and all the oppressed must come to understand the danger which humanity faces if capitalism continues. And they would have to want a new and “superior” society, of freedom, ecological balance, mutual aid, equality, creative work, participatory democracy, and an end to capitalism, states, classes, and all forms of gender, racial, and other oppression. With their hands on the means of production, distribution, communication, and services, as the majority of the people, the workers have the potential power to end the old society and create a new one. They need to realize that they have a momentous choice.

It is a choice and not a matter of prophecy. In 1961, Paul Goodman (then the most well-known of US anarchists) received a questionnaire from a college journal. Its first question was “Do you believe there will be a nuclear war?” Goodman responded, “You ask for probabilities and predictions. I am neither able nor willing to give them….In such vital issues as you raise, we do not want a test, we want a state of affairs to become and be; it is incumbent on us to make it be….When one is faced with [such] problems, predictions—or sentiments of optimism or pessimism—are irrelevant luxuries. For one has to cope anyway with the question: … Now what?” (Goodman 1962; 154-5)

Will the workers and the oppressed face the question and make the choice of a new society? That is not inevitable. Certainly it is not inevitable before a terrible crash occurs. But it is possible, which is the basis for hope. For the minority of anti-capitalist, anti-state, ecosocialist, radicals, this is not a matter of prediction but of commitment. For everyone, as Kropotkin wrote, “The choice lies with you!”

References

Carchedi, Guglielmo (2018). “The Old is Dying but the New Cannot Be Born: On the Exhaustion of Western Capitalism.” In World in Crisis (G. Carchedi & M Roberts eds.). Chicago IL: Haymarket Books. Pp. 36—77.

Engels, Frederick (1954). Anti-Duhring; Herr Eugen Duhring’s Revolution in Science. Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Foster, John Bellamy (2000). Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Nature. NY: Monthly Review Press.

Goodman, Paul (1962). The Society I Live in is Mine. NY: Horizon Press.

Kropotkin, Peter (1987). The State: It’s Historic Role. London: Freedom Press.

Laursen, Eric (2021). The Operating System: An Anarchist Theory of the Modern State. Oakland: AK Press.

Lewis, Simon (June 2021). “Canada is a warning: more and more of the world will soon be too hot for humans.” The Guardian.
https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jun/30/canada-temperature...

Marx, Karl (2013). The Communist Manifesto; 2nd Ed. (Frederick L. Bender ed.). NY: W.W.Norton.

Price, Wayne (2010). “The Ecological Crisis is an Economic Crisis; the Economic Crisis is an Ecological Crisis.” Anarkismo.
http://www.anarkismo.net/article/17024

Anarkismo.net http://www.anarkismo.net

lumpy (not verified)
Hiya Wayne!

Hiya Wayne!

as always, much respect that you're still digging away at this trench of yours! I admire tenacity on principle.

Don't fuck with hope hardly ever anymore but I do still hope your insights are useful to someone?

It's certainly true that basic self interest is a coherent argument for the working class, what with their normal human needs for water and food and all that. But they just don't seem to be mad or ruthless enough? I mean I don't particularly want to see a bunch of eco-robespierres but you would certainly need an army of them to get anywhere on this path of yours.

FACE THE QUESTION! MAKE THE CHOICE! *typical howling in to the abyss noises*

SirEinzige
There are no class interests

Only individual.

lumpy (not verified)
^ hey look! a stupid, lazy

^ hey look! a stupid, lazy assertion with no merit or insight!

if you can't even be bothered ziggles, then don't bother.

SirEinzige
Sometimes one liners will do lumps

Classes are structural functional expressions. They have no agency.

anon (not verified)
Classes are social formations

Classes are social formations driven by capital (and privilege) accumulation, and yeah, they fucking have agency. That's what political parties and factions basically are, but they're just a tiny aspect of the class-based agencies.

anon (not verified)
of course classes can have

of course classes can have agency. uh, civil rights movement? uh, workers movements? uh, women's movements? uh, bowel movements? oops, got carried away there.

i despise that "classes" exist, mainly because they DO have agency, and i want a world with individuals forming voluntary, dynamic, fluid relations as desired (unforming as desired as well).

anon (not verified)
Saying there are class

Saying there are class interests is like saying there are demographic interests, or that people with 6 zeroes stuck to their back are all the same.
C'mon, admit it, you're being overly Marxist with the term 'class' lumpy.

lumpy (not verified)
i'll admit how typically

i'll admit how typically obnoxious and hilarious it is for a totally uncontroversial statement like

"class A should probably do B but they won't because they're too dumb and have little-to-no class consciousness"

^this statement gets a bunch of pushback by anons and trolls who hilariously, are highly likely to be some of the people I'm talking about. are we all temporarily embarrassed millionaires here? wouldn't want to fuck with that marxism too hard because this is AMURHICAH

Perp000000 (not verified)
Don't try to brush off my

Don't try to brush off my critique with a Barnum Circus guffaw and expletive rich retort, you know that using the term 'class' immediately puts you left in the field of ressentiment fueled politics?!

lumpy (not verified)
"try"?! it's done. like so

"try"?! it's done. like so much dandruff from my shoulder. i am jack's circus guffaw and expletive rich retort.

SirEinzige
Just because something has been presumed and uncontroversial

Does not make it valid. Classes are simply not conscious simply due to the dunbarian factor of human scale. Classes are essentially a consequent function following a form or reality. What exists within is a whole lot of variation not unification in regards to interests which are inherently subjective.

anon (not verified)
LMAO! Bro, pass that shit

LMAO! Bro, pass that shit over here

anon (not verified)
Are Indians the only ones

Are Indians the only ones honest enough to acknowledge that social castes (official institutionalization of classes) exists? For how long you Muh-muh-muhricans will be kicking the can to avoid seeing how social privilege works all around you? I mean... a whole fucking economic system feeding billionaires, but also all the lower in-fighting wannabes down the ladder.

So you're totally free to avoid talking/thinking about the social dynamics around you and only look at presumably un-territorialized, socio-economically neutral individuals, as if they are a thing. But when you talk society, then talk society.

anon (not verified)
"Saying there are class

"Saying there are class interests is like saying there are demographic interests, or that people with 6 zeroes stuck to their back are all the same."

black americans face systemic racism. it would be in their interest - as a group (to the extent they so identify) as well as individuals, to have racism GONE. it is in the interests of rich scumfucks to accumulate/hoard resources and control politics, economics, etc.

if you are saying that various (albeit socially constructed) groups of individuals do not at some level share interests, you probably need to pull your head back out of the ass of dogma. there is no dichotomy between the individual and whatever groups (class, race, gender, sports team, etc) they choose to identify with. both exist, both have real impact on life. and every situation is uniquely contextualized.

SirEinzige
There is no evidence of systemic racism

By all means try to point to it and try to deal with the debunking done by people like Wilfred Reilly who's looked into these descriptive asymmetries and found that there are other explanations besides RAY CYSM. Here's clue you haven't considered, 'black' USians are on average 20 years younger(give or take) then their 'white' demographic cousins. That alone can a explain a lot without getting into other factors like the underclass factor among others.

Of course a given group will have an interest in getting rid of actual existing repressive things like the official racism that used to exist that ultimately gets back to individuals. But you cannot escape the individual subjective factor in regards repressive power dynamics. Your example makes more sense for something like sex work. There is a group interest in regards to sex work but again this comes down to a concrete definable repression or societal inhibition. This does not apply to contemporary 'race' discourse or class.

anon (not verified)
no systemic racism?

no systemic racism?

just recently, two women were accused of stealing, tried and convicted. the white woman stole $240K, got probation. the black woman stole $40K, got 18 months in prison.

no doubt you will try to explain that away with your typical academic jargon and self-righteous piousness. but that right there is a perfect example of systemic racism.

the floor is yours, zigless

anon (not verified)
"Questioning the existence of

"Questioning the existence of a huge sociological phenomenon with an example from an academic citation referring to further reading, huh?

Well...have you considered this decontextualized anecdote?

Checkmate, chud."

Perp000000 (not verified)
My head is not up my ass and

My head is not up my ass and there do exist numerous dichotomies between the individual and the horde in whatever class/configuration their libidinous drives slot them into. Just because a majority of working class people will consume beer whereas a majority of upper class folk will consume caviar and champagne doesn't mean that morons can apply this simplistic survey of beverage interests and conclude that therefore a certain "class" can be controlled and managed as one entity.

anon (not verified)
Sounds exactly like something

Sounds exactly like something a person with their head up their ass would say

Perp000000 (not verified)
I just can't let you bully

I just can't let you bully and mock other's opinions without elaborating or else you may win the argument by merely abuse! I'm working-class, down to earth, pragmatic, and therefore its not in my interest to have my head up my ass. See how ridiculous it is to give a "class" characteristics and interests, yet by doing so, a plethora of false assumptions are launched concerning an entire demographic without any consideration for individual diversity?

anon (not verified)
what about cry bullying or

what about cry bullying or troll diversity? do you let arguments win that way?

Perp0000000 (not verified)
Sounds exactly like something

Sounds exactly like something someone with their head up their ass would say. Arguments are won by wit, irony and timing :-/

anon (not verified)
Ok Tatcher.

Ok Tatcher.

anon (not verified)
My woke boss and landlord

My woke boss and landlord agree with this. God bless 'Murica.

Wayne (not verified)
Classes?

Apparently uninspired by the topic of whether the current society will lead to the destruction of humanity, readers have decided to argue about "class." Suppose I put this as, Is class a useful category for understanding how this capitalist society works? I would say yes, without denying that other ways of theoretically dividing up the population can also be useful. And looking at people in terms of individuality is undoubtedly also useful, although when considering a whole social system it becomes necessary to make generalizations. (Sorry if this offends Ziggy, but such is reality.)

In our capitalist society, most people work for a living (receiving wages or salaries) and produce the goods and services of the total system. A few people get the lion's share of this wealth, because they own capital. These two groups are the basic classes of capitalism, with various middle layers in-between the two class poles. I think this way of looking at things is a useful and even necessary approach to understanding and changing the world. My article above is one way of demonstrating this.

lumpy (not verified)
hey now, I also brought up

hey now, I also brought up your army of eco-robespierres you'll need

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