Capitalism and the Climate Apocalypse
The future of humanity is under threat. It is incredible that as the evidence mounts that gases generated by human industry are sending the planet’s climate system off the cliff into a climate apocalypse, politics and business continue as usual. One only needs to read the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to get a real and terrifying picture of the unprecedented changes in climate that have already been observed, creating conditions on the planet which have not existed in some cases for a hundred thousand years, while “some of the changes already set in motion—such as continued sea level rise—are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years” to come.1
Climate change is a threat multiplier. We are already seeing precipitation patterns changing throughout the world, with severe effects on food production in places like southeastern Australia, the Sahel in West Africa, the Indo-Gangetic Plain, northeastern China, and the eastern Mediterranean. This is already manifested with one degree of warming over the pre-industrial level and is causing massive movements of people out of rural areas into cities and migration to other countries. These changes in the planet system are non-linear, so as we approach the 2-degree mark much greater, and essentially unpredictable, alteration of the weather patterns will occur. What we do know is that they will cause disruption of food production in some very populous parts of the world. We can expect famines and massive migration, with all the attendant political and social strife.2
With a shrinking window of opportunity for rescue, the world’s near-eight billion people face a horrendous future on an inhospitable planet, while the political leaders and the economic elite of the world’s nations talk the talk but will not, or cannot, walk the walk. They do next to nothing to halt the disastrous trajectory we are on. They appear to be as powerless as the rest of us. Why is it that, faced with the worst disaster the human race has ever confronted, we seem totally unable collectively to take the steps necessary to avert it? Instead, the world seems locked into a suicidal compulsion to continue spewing CO2 into the air. To understand the compulsive nature of this dilemma, it’s necessary first to recognize the compulsive nature of capitalism itself, the social system in which the entire human race is now enmeshed.
When Elizabeth Warren, running for president as a progressive candidate, said that she was a capitalist to her bones, she was not only saying what every candidate must say to get elected. She was saying what so many feel in their bones: that capitalism is the inevitable outcome of history, the end result of technological progress, and the expression of our natural human tendencies to truck and barter, to compete for advantage and to grow ever more productive. It can feel as if capitalism is our inescapable destiny, but understanding it as the distinct and peculiar historical development it is can free us from this kind of fatalism. Exploring the origin of capitalism allows us to place it in its proper perspective as a form of social organization with a beginning and, quite possibly, an end.
While people have always traded, competed, and become more productive, capitalism, with its particular set of social relationships based on market dependency, is a unique and relatively recent historical development. It has imposed imperatives on the workings of social life that had never occurred before and yet, once formed and established in one time and place, had the ability and the need to spread incessantly. This is the process of the self-expansion of capital first analyzed by Marx, a process in which the surplus value of the product of primary producers, wage laborers, is appropriated by their capitalist employers, who own the means of producing that product. All the economic actors, the owners and the workers, are dependent on the market for their survival. It is in the market that they exchange their commodities, whether the product appropriated by the capitalist or the labor power of the worker, itself a commodity that the worker sells in order to live. It is the market that regulates the production process by bringing producers into competition with one other, inducing them to lower costs, primarily by increasing their productivity, and compelling them to reinvest their profits into new, ever more productive technology. It is the market that provides the motive force behind the self-expansion of the capitalist economy. It is these laws of motion of the capitalist system that compel all the economic players in the society to act within the limits set by the impersonal dictates of the market. This is what it is to live in a “market society.”
Although markets have existed throughout human history, it is only with capitalism that the market has taken on this function of regulating social production. In pre-capitalist societies, markets existed as local trading centers, most often controlled by local political powers who granted privileges and monopolies to favored merchants. Local conditions varied, and profits were made from the carrying trade between distant places.
Historians have long accepted the theory that capitalism developed from the expansion of trade in Western Europe in the late Middle Ages, which released previously suppressed capitalist tendencies from the fetters of feudalism. But more recent research by historians Robert Brenner, Ellen Meiksins Wood, and others points out that this “commercial” theory of the origin of capitalism begs the question of just how and why this transformation took place when it did. After all, great trading civilizations had occurred in many places and at many times in history without issuing into capitalism. These historians argue that the imperatives of capitalism began in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries among a unique set of social circumstances in England.3 Conditions in England in the sixteenth century set the stage for an unusually unified national market where agricultural products, produced by peasants on land they rented from lords of the estates, came into competition, enabling the more productive estates to charge greater rents. Once the process of competition, accumulation, and increases in productivity established itself, both landlords and peasants became dependent on the market for survival. In the competition that the market generated, those who failed to accumulate fell to the wayside, while the successful landlords and tenants improved their productivity and expanded. In seventeenth-century agrarian England this led to a competition in rents by which both landlords and peasants were motivated to improve their farming techniques, with the most successful expanding their operations and the less productive peasants, unable to afford the higher rents, becoming wage laborers on the larger estates or driven off the land into the city. There they provided the source of labor for the spread of the market-regulated system to the production of non-agricultural commodities and the beginnings of industrial capitalism.
There were other powerful nations in Europe and elsewhere at that time with extensive empires and commercial networks. Holland, France, Portugal, and Spain all had become imperial powers with large military and naval forces to protect and expand their empires. But these were not capitalist economies. Their wealth was derived from commercial trade, mostly in luxury goods they could buy cheap and sell dear in markets which they controlled militarily or else expropriate directly from colonized peoples or from slave labor and the slave trade. However, once the capitalist mode of production took root in England, its need to expand and the competitive edge that its constantly increasing productivity gave to the English led to its spread first to Europe and then to the rest of the world.
As agrarian capitalism developed into industrial capitalism, by the early nineteenth century England was able to use its superior industrial power to military advantage, which, along with the penetration of world markets by cheaper English goods, helped to spread the capitalist system with its economic imperatives to the rest of the world. England’s western European rivals, and its former American colonies, as well as Germany and Japan, were eventually compelled to adopt the market-regulated economy and develop their own industrial capitalism in order to remain competitive with the British on the world stage. At first these early practitioners of capitalism were able to impose their will on the rest of the world, leading to the age of imperialism beginning in the second half of the nineteenth century. But as the capitalist system took hold in more and more of the world, the imposition of direct military control or surrogate puppet regimes became less necessary.4
In the present world, capitalist economic imperatives have imposed themselves everywhere, and every nation-state is compelled by the forces of the IMF and the World Bank, backed by the massive military might of the USA, to adapt themselves to the demands of the world market. To compete on the world market, they must develop capitalist techniques in agriculture and industry, accept loans for development, and carry out the austerity measures that the most powerful capitalist countries impose on them. There is no longer the need to rule directly over colonial possessions, as the British once did in India and everywhere else the sun never set. Now the military presence of the dominant powers can be relaxed, though always held at the ready, while the laws of capitalist motion dictate the exploitative policies that the former colonies must impose on themselves.
This separation of direct military power from economic power is analogous to what has happened on the national scale under capitalism. The self-expansion of capital in societies regulated by the demands of the market has brought about another situation new in human history: the separation of the political, judicial, and military power from economic power. Prior to the rise of capitalism, politics and the economy were fused. There was no separate economy independent of the ruling powers in these pre-capitalist societies. Even in those cases where a large merchant class existed, commerce and foreign trade were often dependent on monopoly privileges granted by the state.5 With the advent of capitalism—once the “free market” is operating and all those without sufficient property are forced to work for wages to survive—the appropriators do not require direct military or political coercion to maintain their wealth and compel producers to surrender their surplus.
Only with the birth of capitalism did it become possible for politics to be separated from the workings of the economy because only with capitalism does the market take on the role of regulating social production and distribution. Only in capitalism, then, is there an economy independent enough from the direct coercive power of the ruling class to allow for a separate sphere of politics in which citizens are granted some political power and where representative democracy and even universal suffrage can be tolerated. The state is nominally independent from the economic powers in the society; but the capitalist class, while operating more or less in the shadows, always has its thumb on the scale. In a social system where the one percent live large and the majority struggle to keep themselves above water, the ruling class can always point to the laws of the economy as to some natural force responsible for the unequal distribution of wealth and to the constitutional workings of the political system of representative democracy for the failures of the state to correct any inequality or injustice. They can deny the very existence of a ruling class in a democratic capitalist nation, while making sure that the law protects their property and allows for the unimpaired operation of the capitalist imperatives that ensure their class dominance.
The ruling elite in a capitalist society need only exert enough political power to protect the sanctity of their property through the legal authorization of the capitalist laws of motion. The wageworker now is "free" to choose to work, while it is the impersonal force of the economy that compels them to do so, rather than any direct use of force or legal authority. These same capitalist laws of motion—the necessity to compete, to maximize profit by lowering costs and increasing productivity, to accumulate and expand—have been the driving forces behind the great technological advances that have come about under capitalism. At the same time, the science and technology this system has developed have always been employed first and foremost for the increase of profit, with any benefit to social well-being, a secondary by-product.
Now, we are faced with the existential problem of climate change, in which the need for capital accumulation and expansion confronts the physical limits of the planetary system. The capitalist class is bound to seek further accumulation and expansion of their capital in the pursuit of profit. Those who fail to do so cease to be capitalists. If the costs of mitigating the climate emergency are greater than the surplus value needed for the further expansion of capital, the capitalist system will be unable to pay them. The Ponzi scheme that is capitalism, dependent on reproducing itself on a constantly greater scale, will collapse. The hope of a sustainable capitalism, the profitable green economy, is proving to be a mirage, but it is the only direction the system can take. Whatever alternative energy sources capitalism is able to create, it will always be driven to expand beyond the limits of sustainability, driven by its own internal logic. While the capitalist owners advance a supposedly possible sustainable future they continue to pursue short-term profits, as they must, and to delay the implementation of the radical transformative policies necessary to lessen the disastrous effects of global heating.
Can the state, in its role as the regulator of the excesses of capitalism, step in and change the course we are on? Not if recent history is any indication. The state in capitalist society is like Major League Baseball’s Commissioner of Baseball, hired by the individual team owners to mediate any disagreements that arise between them and provide a facade of authority over them but fired and replaced as soon as he oversteps his limited role. In the division of labor in capitalism between the political/judicial sphere and the economic sphere, politicians cannot overstep their limited role and seriously encroach on the overall operation of the economy. If they were to attempt to institute any policies that threaten the continued accumulation of capital, even if those policies were necessary to avert the worst climate disasters, they would face the opposition of the combined power of the entire capitalist class.
The greenhouse effect has been known since the early twentieth century. Scientists have been warning about the dangers of continued fossil fuel combustion for nearly as long, and government officials have been receiving continuing reports on the necessity of curbing fossil fuels since at least the 1970ss. And yet the marginal steps that have been taken fall far short of what would be needed to avert even the most severe effects.6 It is time to realize that the limited democracy available in the representational systems of the United States and the other liberal democracies are inadequate to the task at hand. To continue to pin hopes on progressive candidates winning elections and on the Democratic Party ushering in an era of liberal reform is futile. The so-called Liberal-Labor alliance has operated as a losing contestant in American politics, in terms of policy achievements, since World War II. Before that, the only way the reforms of the New Deal were passed was by including the racist and anti-union policies of the southern Democrats in the mix.7 In the current era of right-wing ascendancy, corporate money, supplied by fossil fuel magnates like the Koch brothers, has flooded the coffers of Republican ultra-conservatives, erecting roadblocks to even the most mild efforts to curb carbon emissions or institute progressive reforms.8
The American constitution is ideally set up to contain any democratic threats to the domination of wealthy property holders. The designers of the constitution worried that the American revolution might have unleashed a democratic mob that imperiled their property and their hold on political power. They rallied in the period between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitutional Convention of 1787 to oppose the forces of a more direct democracy, such as the radical Whigs in Pennsylvania, who were pressing for a unicameral legislature. The more conservative Republicans insisted on a bicameral legislature with an upper house, the Senate, as a protection against men with little or no property. They based their authority on the ability of men of learning and property to represent “the people,” who included everyone in the society whether they had the power to vote, and whether they were free or under forced servitude, because the elected representatives chosen by a majority of certain educated white men familiar with the law, with commerce, and with the intellectual and scientific communities in Britain, Europe, and elsewhere, were assumed to have the well-being of all the people in mind. The fact that they could not see the obvious hypocrisy of their public expression of the Enlightenment ideals of freedom, independence, liberty, and justice to justify a society of rank injustice, a slave society, tells us that they were not very astute. They were blind as to what these ideals would mean if extended to their logical conclusion.9
Now, the descendants of these lawyers, businessmen, and slaveholders have inherited their words, the ramifications of which the founders in their blindness did not recognize. They could in good faith profess that all men are created equal, etc., while living at ease off enslaved people. The inheritors of this system of representative democracy can likewise in earnest ignore the tremendous inequality in the conditions of human existence around them because they too are blind—blind, that is, to the imperatives forced on society by the capitalist market and the social relations that it engenders.
Enter the Climate Apocalypse, which has the power to knock the blinders off, because the truth is there for anyone to see. And what can be seen is that the power of these capitalists is wielded in the service of an alien power, stronger than they are, that compels them to act, politically and economically, in a way that not only reproduces their social position and their institutions but leads to a deadly end for themselves and the other 99 percent of the human race.
As the impossibility of a sustainable capitalism becomes more and more obvious, those most affected are, of course, the poorest and most oppressed in the society. It is likewise by the most exploited members of the working class that the inadequacies of capitalism are felt most keenly. This has been so ever since the capitalist laws of motion first took root in agrarian England. Today, billions of people all over the world are feeling the pain of the universal adoption of capitalist social relations, manifesting itself in removal of peasants from their small holdings and their forced immigration into cities while agribusiness takes over. Billions have also become victims of environmental degradation and climate-caused disasters, from rising seas to fires, floods, droughts, and famines, creating massive numbers of refugees. These and the billions of exploited workers throughout the world are feeling the pressure to resist and revolt as their allegiance to capitalism and its system of nation states dissolves. In this unique historic moment, when all of humanity is threatened by the climate apocalypse brought on by industrial capitalism and its system of class exploitation, the working class has potential allies at every level of society. Socialism, the abolition of class society, which only recently was thought to be an unrealistic, utopian pipe dream, can now begin to be recognized not only as a distinct possibility, but as the only real alternative to the collapse of human civilization.
Talk by Prof. Will Steffen, “Climate Change 2017, The Nature of the Challenge,” Wellington NZ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yiHc8vbTOTI)
See Ellen Meiksin Wood, The Origin of Capitalism, 1999; Robert Brenner in T.H. Ashton and C.H.E. Philpin (eds.), The Brenner Debate.
Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Capital, 2003.
Robert Brenner, Merchants and Revolution, 2003. See also George C. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution, 1987, for an account of the non-capitalist nature of the French bourgeoisie in the French Revolution.
Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth 2019.
G. William Domhoff, The Myth of Liberal Ascendancy; Corporate Domicance from the Great Depression to the Great Recession, 2013. Domhoff presents the scorecard of the passage of liberal vs. conservative bills over the last eighty years, showing that the conservatives strongly outperformed the liberal-labor alliance in every era.
Jane Mayer, Dark Money, 2016.
See Gordon S. Wood, The Creation of the American Republic,1776 - 1787, 1968 for an in-depth account of the formation of the American Constitution.