Monday, December 20, 2010

Reflections on Adorno on Beckett

One of the benefits of moving to Dublin from Portsmouth, where I lived and worked for nearly forty years, is the accessibility of top class theatre. Since my arrival in August I have seen productions of O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars (at the Abbey), Miller’s Death of a Salesman (at The Gate), Euripides’ Medea (at The Samuel Beckett), Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (at Bewley’s), Ibsen’s John Gabriel Borkmann ( at The Abbey) and two Samuel Beckett’s, Endgame (at The Gate) and Happy Days (at The Project Arts Centre). Seeing the Becketts led me, on the recommendation of a friend, to read T.W. Adorno’s essay ‘Trying to Understand Endgame’ New German Critique, No. 26, Critical Theory and Modernity (Spring - Summer,1982), pp. 119-150.

Adorno’s merit in my eyes is that he defended Beckett (and Joyce and modernism) against Lukacs’ fundamentally conservative condemnation. Nevertheless I found myself in serious disagreement with his interpretation of, and response to, Endgame.

Adorno was plunged into deep melancholy despair by what Victor Serge called the ‘midnight in the century’ i.e. the twin triumphs of Hitler and Stalin, combined, in Adorno’s case, with his view of the twentieth century culture industry as a system of totalitarian control and domination which more or less excluded the possibility of significant resistance. It is tempting to describe Adorno’s attitude as an extreme pessimism, but its main characteristic is not so much gloominess about the future prospects of humanity as a determined negativity about the present, a refusal to countenance the existence of positive developments either in the present system or in rebellion against it. In 1947 he wrote:

'In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.'
Dialectic of Enlightenment, Verso ed. London 1979 p.3.

Adorno focused much of his miserabilism on the holocaust; witness his famous declaration that ‘there can be no lyric poetry after Auschwitz’. This particular claim has of course been refuted in practice many times over but I also think his general gloom was, though understandable, unjustified, not because the most terrible disasters had not occurred or because the most terrible crimes had not been committed (Auschwitz, the Gulag, the Russian Front, Hiroshima and Nagasaki etc. etc,) but because the situation was still contradictory. The Nazis had been defeated; there had been the resistance movements in Italy, France, Greece, the Balkans, and elsewhere in Europe; India was gaining its independence; China was on the road to revolution, and so on.

In my opinion the roots of Adorno’s negativism lay not so much in the horrors of the holocaust as in his isolated elitism which cut him off, and made him unable to see or respond to any positive developments or initiatives, cultural or political, coming up from below. Adorno was a ‘Marxist’ of sorts, but at no point in his life did he have any engagement with the workers’ movement, or flesh and blood workers in struggle [unlike Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg, Gramsci, etc]. When he encountered revolting students in his Institute in the sixties he called the police. On the cultural front his elitist tunnel vision was epitomised by his notorious denunciation of jazz. In Adorno’s defence it is sometimes claimed that he was using ‘jazz’ as a general term for what today would be called ‘pop music’ but what is to be said of someone who pronounces general anathemas on contemporary music as though Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Bessie Smith, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk etc did not exist. He claimed that

...culture now impresses the same stamp on everything. Films, radio and magazines make up a system which is uniform as a whole and in every part. Even the aesthetic activities of political opposites are one in their enthusiastic obedience to the rhythm of the iron system.

But were Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly really the same as Al Jolson,Stepin Fetchit and Fred Astaire?

In any event, Adorno evidently believed that in Samuel Beckett he had found a kindred spirit. And here is the root of my disagreement. This was not at all my concrete response to the two productions I have just seen, which I found positively inspiring and in a strange but real way uplifting1. Nor is it my considered reading of Beckett as a whole. Beckett is not about surrendering to pessimism and negativity but looking into the abyss and defying it. In this respect Beckett stands in the tradition of the Shakespeare of King Lear, of Rembrandt’s last self portraits and Goya’s Black paintings. Consider three of Beckett’s endings. The Unnamable ends as follows

Perhaps it's done already, perhaps they have said me already, perhaps they have carried me to the threshold of my story, before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don't know, I'll never know, in the silence you don't know, you must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on.

Waiting for Godot ends:

ESTRAGON: Well? Shall we go?
VLADIMIR: Pull on your trousers
VLADIMIR: Pull on your trousers
ESTRAGON: You want me to pull off my trousers?
VLADIMIR: Pull ON your trousers
ESTRAGON: (realising his trousers are down). True
He pulls up his trousers
VLADIMIR: Well? Shall we go?
ESTRAGON: Yes, let's go.
They do not move.

And then the behaviour of Clov at the end of Endgame which has to be described rather than quoted. After their long tense (and oppressive) relationship Hamm tells Clov he doesn’t need him any more and Clov replies ‘I’ll leave you’. Clov exits and returns ‘Enter Clov, dressed for the road. Panama hat, tweed coat, raincoat over his arm, umbrella, bag. He halts by the door and stands there, impassive and motionless, his eyes fixed on Hamm, till the end.’ Will Clov leave or remain? It is left an open question.

Three endings, three Beckettian variations on Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be?’ question. One ultimately affirmative answer ‘I’ll go on’, and two where the question is batted to the audience to answer for itself. This is challenging, but it is not despair or nihilism.

In contrasting Beckett’s attitude and stance to Adorno’s (and to others who attribute nihilism to him) it is worth noting that during the war Beckett joined the French Resistance and did important and dangerous work as a courier and translator until his unit was betrayed to the Gestapo by a double agent, whereupon he and his partner had to flee (on foot, hiding in barns etc) to a village in unoccupied France where he continued to aid the Maquis in the mountains. For this he was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille de la Resistance by the French Government. He thus engaged in more important, more serious and certainly more dangerous practical anti-fascist work than Adorno or the rest of the Frankfurt School put together.

Adorno’s projection of his own attitude onto Beckett results in a number of evidently false claims and misreading. For example he writes:

The condition presented in the play [Endgame] is nothing other than that in which "there's no more nature." Indistinguishable is the phase of completed reification of the world, which leaves no remainder of what was not made by humans; it is permanent catastrophe, along with a catastrophic event caused by humans themselves, in which nature has been extinguished and nothing grows any longer.

This sounds impressive - ‘completed reification of the world’ – but the moment it is actually thought about is clearly an exaggeration to the point of being definitely untrue. A world in which there is no remainder of what was not made by humans, in which there is no more nature, is manifestly impossible, and impossible to present in a play. Even if there were the most destructive imaginable nuclear war (and it is possible to think of Endgame as being set in such a world, with Hamm and Clov as the last survivors), the one thing that would not be abolished is ‘nature’, just as the one thing climate change does NOT threaten is the survival of the planet. Having written these lines I then realised that in the play Hamm calls it an exaggeration too.

HAMM: Nature has forgotten us
CLOV: There's no more nature
HAMM: No more nature! You exaggerate.
CLOV: in the vicinity
HAMM: But we breathe, we change! We lose our hair, our teeth! Our bloom! Our ideals!
CLOV: Then she hasn't forgotten us
HAMM: But you say there is none
CLOV : (sadly) No one that ever lived ever thought so crooked as we.

Adorno says:

Hope creeps out of a world in which it is no more conserved than pap and pralines, and back where it came from, back into death. From it, the play derives its only consolation, a stoic one:

CLOV: There are so many terrible things now.
HAMM: No, no, there are not so many now.

But think for a moment about the state of the world when Endgame was written (it was first performed 3 April 1957): the statements by both Clov and Hamm were quite literally true. On the one hand there were ‘so many terrible things’ – the possibility of nuclear war, starvation in the Third World , the crushing in blood of the Hungarian Revolution, Suez, the war in Algeria and so on. On the other hand ‘there were not so many now’ compared to the recent past – the Second World War was over, the Nazis had been defeated, France was no longer occupied, the standard of living of working class people in Europe was rising etc. Why does Clov and Hamm’s realistic assessment of the situation signify hope creeping out of the world and back into death?

Particularly striking is the difficulty Adorno gets into over humour. Beckett is funny, very funny. Adorno who is never funny, appears not to approve of humour. He writes:

Humour itself has become foolish, ridiculous - who could still laugh at basic comic texts like Don Quixote or Gargantua - and Beckett carries out the verdict on humour. The jokes of the damaged people are themselves damaged. They no longer reach anybody


Psychoanalysis explains clownish humour as a regression back to a primordial ontogenetic level, and Beckett's regressive play descends to that level. But the laughter it inspires ought to suffocate the laughter. That is what happened to humour, after it became - as an aesthetic medium - obsolete, repulsive, devoid of any canon of what can be laughed at; without any place for reconciliation, where one could laugh; without anything between heaven and earth harmless enough to be laughed at.

Again one has to say this simply isn’t true. Humour has not become aesthetically obsolete and repulsive. I don’t know about Gargantua but it is clearly possible to laugh at/with Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Joyce, Chaplin, Keating, Lenny Bruce, Bob Dylan, Bill Hicks and The Producers, to offer a fairly random list. And things don’t have to be harmless to be laughed as most of those examples from the Fool in Lear down to Mel Brooks demonstrate. And the laughter inspired by Beckett doesn’t suffocate the laughter.

When, at the start of Happy Days, Winnie waking, buried up to her waste in a pit of sand, proclaims ‘Another heavenly day!’ it is wonderfully funny. It is obviously ironically funny because she is half buried in sand, but, at the same time, it is happily funny because there are still ‘heavenly days’ (with bright sunshine, blue skies etc) and this may well be going to be one. This capacity to write lines that are true in two opposite senses simultaneously, is as Stephen Spender has observed2, a key feature of Beckett’s art, and to grasp only the negative, bitter side and never the affirmative side, which is what Adorno does, is to misread him.

When Hamm at the start of Endgame asks ‘Can there be misery - loftier than mine?’ it is very funny. He could be parodying Adorno, who specialised in lofty misery. And, after all, what about the trousers?
Adorno is also wide of the mark when he attributes ‘meaninglessness’ and ‘incomprehensibility’ to Endgame.
The interpretation of Endgame therefore cannot chase the chimera of expressing its meaning with the help of philosophical mediation. Understanding it can mean nothing other than understanding its incomprehensibility, or concretely reconstructing its meaning structure - that it has none.
Adorno claims textual support:
Not meaning anything becomes the only meaning. The mortal fear of the
dramatic figures, if not of the parodied drama itself, is the distortedly comical fear that they could mean something or other:

HAMM: We're not beginning to... to... mean something?
CLOV: Mean something! You and I, mean something! (Brief laugh.) Ah that's a good one!

But again Adorno is misreading. There is no ‘mortal’ fear here, nor is it ‘distortedly comical’. It’s a joke and the joke is funny for the same reason ‘Another heavenly day!’ is funny: it contains the possibility of opposite meanings, resigned irony (not fear) and positive affirmation or the glimmer of hope of positive affirmation.

The meaning of meaninglessness is a philosophical conundrum and the notion of the interpretation of the meaning of any work art, especially a great one, is highly problematic. I will not explore either question here except to say that any ‘interpretation’, however accurate, is almost certain to be ‘less’ than the art work itself i.e. to express only some of the work’s ‘meaning’ , which really is the work as a whole, and to express it less well (less precisely, less powerfully etc.) Nevertheless I want to say that Endgame, and this goes for Beckett as a whole, is neither incomprehensible nor meaningless. On the contrary it is not difficult to follow, the language is simple and packed with meaning, or rather multiple meanings, and as for the play as a whole some, not all, of its meaning can be grasped and expressed fairly straightforwardly.

Endgame (and Beckett’s work as a whole) is a study in and of alienation. The most profound diagnosis of alienation was made by Marx 166 years ago in his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. Marx’s analysis, expressed as briefly as possible, was that capitalism was based on the alienated labour of working people. The alienation of labour was so significant because it is through labour that the human race created itself and continues to create itself. As a result of the alienation of labour people come to be dominated by the products of their own work which form a hostile world standing over and against them. They also become estranged from themselves, their own essential human nature (as creative makers), from other people (because labour is social labour and mediates the relationship between people), and from nature (because labour is the mediation between human’s and nature.)

Endgame is an exploration of the human condition in this alien world. I do not mean by this that Beckett had read or was influenced by Marx (I don’t know if he was or not) but he experienced alienation and its effects – we all do. The threat of nuclear war, which haunted the imagination of both the general public and many artists in this period, was (and is) an extreme manifestation of alienation, of the human race being threatened with annihilation by the products of its own hands and brains. Endgame at least alludes to such a catastrophe, at least hints that it may have happened: the empty corpsed world seen through the telescope, the seeds that will never sprout.

Alienated labour cripples us physically and spiritually, reduces us as human beings, as Hamm and Clov, Nagg and Nell are crippled and reduced. Alienation distorts all human relations including the most intimate; it separates us from our fellows and sets us against each other. The relationships presented in Endgame between Hamm and Clov, as master and servant, and Nagg and Nell, are clinical dissections of alienated relations. Think of Nell and Nagg in their bins trying to kiss each other but unable to reach.

But plumbing the depths of alienation and laying them bare, as Beckett does and Marx did, does not at all signify surrender or hopelessness. Indeed presenting them to the world in a work of art is in a sense already an act of resistance. And it matters that buried within Endgame are two tragic love stories. When Nell first emerges from her bin her first words to Nagg are ‘What is it, my pet? (Pause) Time for love?’ and a subterranean elegiac note of memory of their past love, in the Ardennes, at Lake Como, permeates their exchanges. Early in the play there is this dialogue between Hamm and Clov:

HAMM:... Why do you stay with me?
CLOV: Why do you keep me?
HAMM: There's no one else
CLOV: There's nowhere else
HAMM: You're leaving me all the same
CLOV: I'm trying
HAMM: You don't love me
HAMM: You loved me once
CLOV: Once!
HAMM: I've made you suffer too much?
CLOV: It's not that?
HAMM (shocked) I haven't made you suffer too much?
CLOV: Yes!
HAMM (relieved) Ah you gave me a fright! (Pause.Coldly) Forgive me. (Pause. Louder.) I said,
Forgive me.

Then at the end, when Clov is on the point of leaving, Hamm asks him to say something before he goes, ‘ A few words ... from your heart’ and, amazingly, Clov responds:

They said to me, That's love, yes, yes, not a doubt ...

It is because I believe that this affirmation of resistance (‘I’ll go on’) and affirmation of humanity, in spite of everything, is as much integral to Beckett as all the well justified bleakness, that I disagree so strongly with Adorno.

1'After seeing Happy Days I watched the audience leaving the auditorium and was struck by how many were smiling.
2‘Samuel Beckett's theme is the very Irish one in this century: the identity of opposites [my emphasis –JM], a theme with which Yeats made so much play in his idea of the "Antinomes," and which is implicit in Joyce, where the subjective view of the world merges into its opposites, the objective and universal.’ Stephen Spender, ‘Lifelong Suffocation’, New York Times , 1958,
Spender calls this an Irish theme but of course ‘the identity of opposites’ is a key idea in the Hegelian, and Marxist, dialectic, discussed, incidentally, by Lenin who preferred the term ‘unity of opposites’.

John Molyneux
10 December 2010

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The crisis: Is Keynes the answer?

Whenever there is a serious economic crisis, as there obviously is at the moment, and the ruling class responds, as it always does, with vicious cuts and mass unemployment the working class movement faces a choice: should we fight back with anti- capitalist demands and policies or should we go for policies designed to make capitalism work better?

For those who chose the second option, and that includes most Irish trade union leaders, the economist John Maynard Keynes is almost always a key point of reference, and some variety of Keynesianism is usually the economic strategy they support.

This is because Keynes’s ideas seem to offer a relatively painless option, on the one hand avoiding the need for the massive cuts and job losses being imposed by the likes of Fianna Fail or the British Tories, and on the other avoiding the need for major working class struggle or – God forbid! – revolution. Keynes also appeals to some quite radical people who either think his ideas were more radical than they really were or simply doubt the possibility of a real anti- capitalist struggle.

So who was Keynes; what did he stand for; and what attitude should the workers movement take to Keynesian ideas?

John Maynard Keynes (1883-1946), later Lord Keynes, was probably the most famous and influential economist of the twentieth century. He was educated at Eton and Cambridge, a friend and advisor to Lloyd George, and a member of the Liberal Party. He was a fully paid up member of the British establishment, a conscious and consistent supporter of capitalism, and strongly opposed to widespread nationalization or socialism. He despised Marx, calling Capital an "obsolete economic textbook that contains nothing but out-of-date controversialising" and said he had no desire to live in a society dominated by "the boorish proletariat."

He did, however, react to the Great Depression of the 1930s with powerful criticism of the economic orthodoxy of the day. That orthodoxy was basically what today we would call neo-liberalism. It stated that governments should not interfere with the working of the capitalist market – the role of government was only to maintain the general conditions, law and order etc., in which the market could operate. This was because, it was claimed, the laws of the market, left to themselves, would produce the best possible allocation of resources and indeed make any prolonged period of mass unemployment or recession impossible. Government intervention in the economy was not only unnecessary, but positively harmful as it would upset the spontaneous and inevitable restoration of balance and equilibrium.

Keynes flatly rejected this. He denied there was any law guaranteeing that the free market would work well or produce full employment. On the contrary it was perfectly possible for capitalism to settle at a ‘low equilibrium’ of poverty, stagnation and high unemployment. But it was possible, he argued, for governments to intervene in the economy in such a ways to restore growth and prosperity.

What was required was to increase , not cut, public spending so as to raise the purchasing power of the population (what economists call ‘effective demand’) and thus stimulate demand for goods which would in turn generate more production and more employment in an ongoing upward spiral (a ‘virtuous’, as opposed to a ‘vicious’ circle). To the objection, heard then as now, that such an increase could not be afforded, Keynes argued that governments should run a deficit i.e. borrow so as to spend above their income for a period, on the assumption that as the economy expanded so the government’s income from taxation would increase and the deficit would be eliminated.

Keynes’s ideas were generally not accepted in the thirties ( though Roosevelt’s New Deal in America could be seen as a kind of partial, and not very successful, Keynesianism) and the Depression was only brought to an end by the Second World War which ‘stimulated’ economy activity and ‘restored full employment’ by slaughtering 50 million people.

When western capitalism entered its long post-war boom , on the basis of a mixed state-private economy and massive ongoing arms spending , Keynes was given the intellectual credit for this (though they weren’t really Keynesian policies, and a more profound explanation of the boom in terms of the effect of arms spending on the rate of profit, was provided by the Marxist ,Michael Kidron). Keynesianism became the dominant economic theory in governments and universities for twenty five years.

But when crisis returned in the seventies in a form that combined unemployment and inflation Keynesianism was proclaimed dead and the political/academic consensus shifted back to the worship of the market, variously referred to as monetarism, Thatcherism and neo-liberalism. This served as the ideological basis for the sustained assault on trade unions and the working class in the Thatcher /Reagan years. Blind faith in market forces continued to prevail through to the ‘globalisation’ era of the nineties and early noughties. Then came the crash of 2008 which drove a coach and horses through the ideas of neo-liberalism and Keynes came back into fashion.

And no wonder! When a Keynesian economist like Michael Taft, Political & Economic Researcher with UNITE says “Expand demand - more spending, not less, is what the economy needs to maintain and expand business activity... You can’t cut-and-tax your way out of a recession - you spend” .it is a breath of fresh air compared to Cowan and Lenihan’s cuts.

And when Taft demands, “A flat-rate base pay increase between €25 and €30 per week,”and says ‘Re-introduce pay-related unemployment benefit”. [quotations from his article of November 2008 Towards a New Economic Narrative] the workers’ movement should certainly agree.

Unfortunately neither Keynes analysis nor Taft’s proposals go nearly far enough to solve the crisis or point a way forward for the working class. First it must be understood that when Taft says WE should expand , there is no WE, there is the capitalist class and its government which has all the power and there is US, the workers, and if we want them to do something that benefits us , like a flat rate pay increase, we have to force them, by mass action and struggle.

Second, Keynes (and Taft) only grasps one aspect of the crisis of capitalism, namely the problem of over production, or lack of effective demand ( which Marx, incidently, had analysed as early as The Communist Manifesto of 1848) and not the problem of the falling rate of profit. In Capital Vol. 3 Marx shows that capitalism, a system based on production for profit, nonetheless generates a tendency for the rate of profit to fall.

This is because all profits derive from the surplus value extracted from labour (‘surplus value’ is the technical term used by Marx to refer to the gap between the wages paid to workers and the value of what they produce), but each individual capitalist tries to increase their share of the total profits in society by investing more and more in labour saving machinery. This has the effect of reducing labour as a proportion of total outlay and thus reducing the overall rate of profit (the proportion of profit to total investment). When the rate of profit falls capitalists become reluctant to invest. It is precisely such a decline in the rate of profit that has underlain the global crash since 2008.

If public spending, wages and employment are increased, as the Keynesians and socialists both want, the capitalists will likely respond with an investment strike which, if they are left in control, will again plunge the system into crisis and throw workers on the dole.

This is why, going beyond anything Keynes would have countenanced, we need demands that challenge capitalist control of the economy – like the demands for one publically owned bank which serves the people, and for seizing the assets of the rich – and ultimately we need a workers movement to take control of the government and the state, i.e. we need socialism.

John Molyneux
4 October 2010

Monday, August 30, 2010

Marxism and the Environmental Crisis

Over the next ten, twenty or fifty years humanity faces an immense environmental crisis as a result of rapid and chaotic climate change. Indeed the crisis is already underway and its effects are already being felt in many parts of the world such as nearly submerged low lying Pacific islands and drought stricken Sudan

People often talk of the need to ‘save the planet’ but planet earth will survive any amount of climate change. In reality it is living creatures – human beings and animals - who will suffer, who will be wiped out in their millions and hundreds of millions or even face extinction.

In the face of this crisis there is one overriding question. What has to be done to bring climate change under control and prevent the catastrophe? In this article I shall argue that to answer this we need a Marxist understanding of society and to actually take the necessary action we need socialist politics.

The problem is not primarily scientific or technical. The basic science of climate climate change is simple, well established and widely agreed by all scientists not funded by the likes of Exxon Mobile with a vested interest in denying it. It is that global warming is caused by the increasing emission of ‘greenhouse’ gasses, such as carbon dioxide, which form a kind of blanket in the earth’s atmosphere and prevent heat from the sun escaping into space. In scientific terms the solution is equally simple: drastically reduce carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions.

The real problem, therefore, is political: why does our society continue, as it does, producing greenhouse gases at a disastrously high level? Why does it not take the obvious measures required to avoid the impending catastrophe: switch from oil, gas and coal as the main sources of power to non-carbon emitting sources such as wind, solar, and tidal power; slash dependency on the carbon emitting private car by enormously improving public transport; institute a general programme of house insulation.

Understanding why these things are not being done is where Marxist analysis is essential. Marx showed that the driving force of capitalism is not human need or social welfare or even consumer choice, but the need for profit and the accumulation of capital. Capitalism is based on competition at every level – between corner shops and supermarkets, between international corporations and between national economies. I t is not just the greed of the bosses; this competition compels every capitalist firm and economy to attempt to maximise its profits and its accumulation of capital, on pain of bankruptcy or being taken over or marginalised. ‘Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets...Accumulation for accumulation’s sake, production for production’s sake’, is how Marx described the basic law of capitalism.

Moreover Marx explained that in capitalist societies governments do not serve the people as they claim, but the interests of the capitalist class. If it is in the interests of the capitalist class to allow global warming to continue that is what capitalist governments will do, despite all their talk of going green.

But, surely, some people argue, it is just as much in the interests of the capitalists to stop catastrophic climate change as it is the rest of us. There are two key features of the system which make this not the case and Marxist analysis points to both of them. The first is domination of the world by a few giant corporations. Marx showed that this concentration of capital was the inevitable result of competition. As he put it ‘One capitalist always kills many,’ so the ownership of capital becomes concentrated in ever fewer hands.

These are the ten biggest companies in the world (according to Fortune 500):

Revenues ($mill)Profits ($mill)
Royal Dutch Shell285,12912,518
Exxon Mobile284,65019,280
Japan Post Holdings202,1964,849
State Grid184,456343
China National Petroleum165,49610,272

Thus we can see that four of the top five and seven of the top ten of these hugely powerful companies are in oil, gas and cars and so have a direct interest in carbon emitting fossil fuels. The second factor is the international competition between states (on behalf their respective capitalists). This means that the world’s biggest carbon polluters – USA, China, Europe, India etc – face each other as competitors and each fears that if it makes the needed cuts in emissions it will lose out to its rivals who will not reciprocate.

This analysis has been borne out in practice by the behaviour of Obama and the US at the Copenhagen Climate Change talks in 2009. Despite the fact that Obama, unlike Bush, certainly does understand the science of climate change, he intervened personally in Copenhagen to scupper any binding targets for carbon emission reduction.

This Marxist analysis of capitalism as the main cause of climate change and the main obstacle to its prevention differs radically from the views put across in the media or by the Greens or many people in the environmental movement. It rejects the view that the cause of climate change is individual greed and the solution is for all of us to ‘do our bit’. This cannot work because power in capitalist society is so unequal. However much ordinary people cut back and sacrifice it will not stop the big corporations using fossil fuels.

Similarly, it rejects the idea that the problem is overpopulation. Carbon emissions are proportional to the level of capitalist economic development not population. The US produces 19.5 metric tons per person, Ireland 10.6 million tons, China 2.6 million and Ethiopia only 0.04 million. Trying to restrict the world’s population, which always has racist and reactionary implications, will not tackle the central problem at all.

Identifying capitalism as the problem also points to the solution. If capitalist corporations and states are the main polluters what is needed is a social force that is more powerful than these corporations and states. The point of Marxism – the central idea running through all of Marx – is that such a force does exist in the shape of the international working class.

The capitalists everywhere depend on the workers everywhere for all their production and all their profits. Without workers labour the whole system seizes up – its factories, call-centres, i planes, trains, lorries and shops, all grind to a halt. At the same time the development of capitalism increases the size of the working class – there are now major working classes in China, India, Africa, Latin America where once were mainly peasants – and concentrates them in great cities such as Shanghai, Cairo and Sao Paolo.

Clearly what we are talking about here is potential power. To realise that power, working class people have to become active in their millions and united in struggle. This is not easily achieved but there is no other social force that has anything like this potential.

Several conclusions follow from this analysis.

1. Socialists who base their politics on Marxism need to be in the forefront of building the anti climate change movement, arguing their case.

2. Socialists have to work to raise awareness of the real causes of climate change in the labour movement and among working people everywhere.

3. The struggle against climate change needs to be linked to all the other struggles of working people against the cuts, the bankers, the bosses, war, racism and so on. And in all theses struggles, socialists have to work to increase the understanding among working people that they need to take over the running of society themselves.

It is just about possible that capitalism could, theoretically, resolve the climate crisis before it is too late. It is also more than likely that it won’t. We can’t afford to take the chance. The whole future of humanity depends on it.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

More Photos of Left in Vision 4

More photos from Left in Vision 4 courtesy of Dale Pattenden

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Photos from Left in Vision 4

A selection of photos from the Left in Vision 4 art show at Marxism 2010, courtesy of Nicola Field.

Corner Piece by Keith Robertson

The Tragedy of the Roma by Robb Waterfield