Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Marxism and Climate Change


Marxism and Climate Change

Climate change is real and it is a serious threat. More or less all rational people, including even the US government who are at the very edge of that category, now know this to be the case. If climate change is not tackled immediately global temperatures will, before very long, rise to the point where millions die through the failure of their food supplies, floods, storms and other catastrophes and many millions more are displaced. If it is allowed to run unchecked even beyond that point incalculable horrors could be inflicted on both the human race and innumerable other species.

Faced with such clear and present danger the most widespread response, both in the media and amongst environmental campaigners is to say that this issue is so big, so urgent, that it stands above politics or ideology. Since, in the long run, climate change threatens all humanity, all humanity should unite to prevent it. Conservatives, liberals. anarchists, Marxists, especially Marxists, should submerge their differences and put to one side their doctrinal squabbles, special interests and philosophical goals and concentrate on the business at hand – saving the planet. This all sounds like common sense. In fact it is completely false.

To see why this is so just think what would be done about climate change if we really did live in a half way rational world, or if even a significant portion of the key players i.e. the politically and economically powerful, really did sink their differences, put aside their special interests and tackle the problem.

First, all the major governments – the US, Russian, Chinese, British, Japanese, German, French etc - would immediately initiate a massive shift from carbon emitting sources of power such as oil and coal to non - carbon emitting sources such as wind, wave and solar power. Second, they would complement this with government led programmes to insulate all buildings effectively so as to reduce drastically the amount of power used to heat them. Then there would be strict regulations introduced to prevent offices and other public buildings wasting power by being lit up at night. Finally there would be huge public investment in environmentally friendly forms of public transport, crucially buses, coaches and trains, so as to greatly reduce dependence on carbon emitting cars,lorries and planes and once the efficient and comprehensive public transport was in place this could be backed up, if need be, by legal limitations on, for example, cars in city centres or on long distance runs between cities.

One could think of many other measures that could and should be taken but the important point is that all these developments would be government led and legally enforced. There would also be education and propaganda directed at the public but this would be to win support for government action, not instead of it. There is nothing unusual about this. It is what governments and ruling classes ALWAYS do whenever they are serious about tackling an issue or meeting a threat. Thus it is inconceivable that ANY government would say that the way to deal with bank robberies and burglaries is to appeal to people’s consciences and to rely on the interventions of publicspirited citizens. Inconceivable that George Bush would say that the combating terrorism should be left to market forces or that the way to invade Iraq was to encourage as many Americans as possible to make their way to Baghdad under their own steam. Indeed it is precisely to secure centralised and effective action that ruling classes everywhere have created state machines to do their bidding.

Yet when we turn away from this utopian fantasy of rational action in a rational world to what is actually happening, we find that almost NONE of the things that most obviously need doing are being done and that just the leave it all up to the individual approach, which would be dismissed out of hand on other issues, is the one being adopted.

The reason for this abject failure is clear: the priorities and logic of capitalism. The principal holders of economic power in the world capitalist system are the giant corporations. According to the Fortune 500 list the world’s ten largest companies are as follows: 1.Wal-Mart, 2. Exxon Mobile,3. Royal Dutch Shell, 4.BP, 5. General Motors,6. Toyota, 7.Chevron, 8.DaimlerChrysler, 9.ConocoPhillips, 10.Total. It should be immediately obvious that of these ten, nine have an absolute vested interest in the oil/car economy.

The other main centres of power in capitalism are the state machines of the major nations but these are tied directly and indirectly by a thousand strings to these same corporations. Moreover they are locked into competition with each other on behalf of their respective national capitalisms. Thus not only do these state apparatuses not want to make the changes necessary to halt climate change they feel they cannot afford to lest their rivals steal a march on them by opting out of the process of change. To put it very concretely the US ruling class says to itself we can’t really cut our carbon emissions (which would hit profits and damage our economy) for fear the Chinese don’t follow suit and thereby gain a competitive advantage.Likewise the Chinese ruling class will not want to cut back in case the Americans use the opportunity to race ahead.

So compelling is the logic of capitalist competition that both corporations and governments are willing to put at risk the whole future of humanity and the planet rather than lose their position in the world market.

And this is why it would be folly for socialists to drop their distinctive politics or put to one side their distinctive Marxist ideology in the cause of stopping climate change. The reality is that only the Marxist analysis of capitalism reveals the true cause of climate change and, even more importantly, identifies the vested interests standing in the way of preventing it reaching catastrophic proportions. And only socialist politics linked to the mass movement of the working class can mobilise the social and political power able to overcome the resistance of those vested interests and force through the changes necessary to save humanity from disaster.

John Molyneux

15 October 2007