Is socialism the answer to the climate catastrophe?

Written by Jeff Sparrow via the Guardian on 10/23/2018

spectre (or, if you prefer the earlier translation, a “frightful hobgoblin”) is haunting Europe – and, indeed, much of the world. This new, socialistic bogey has been shaking its chains at pollsters for some years now.

In 2016 a survey revealed that, on balance, British people rather disliked capitalism – and more of them regarded socialism favourably than negatively.

That year, a Harvard study found that a majority of Americans aged between 18 and 29 did not support capitalism. A survey early in 2018 suggested that about a third of US millennials actually self-identified as some form of socialist.

In Australia, the Centre for Independent Studies commissioned YouGov to put the same questions here – and received an even more forthright response. A remarkable 58% of those born between 1980 and 1996 said that, yes, they thought socialism sounded rather good.

Such results become less startling when alongside the latest report by the IPCC, a document that paints a frankly apocalyptic picture of what the economic status quo has wrought. The scientific consensus compiled by 133 experts from 6,000 scholarly publications holds that the planet will soon crash through the barrier of a 1.5 degree temperature rise, with horrendous consequences for the natural environment and, of course, millions of people.

We’re locked into a frankly carcinogenic model, predicated on unplanned but relentless growth

That’s if we’re lucky.

“[T]he new report’s worst-case scenario is, actually, a best case,” argues David Wallace-Wells. “In fact, it is a beyond-best-case scenario. What has been called a genocidal level of warming is already our inevitable future. The question is how much worse than that it will get … We are on track for four degrees of warming, more than twice as much as most scientists believe is possible to endure without inflicting climate suffering on hundreds of millions or threatening at least parts of the social and political infrastructure we call, grandly, ‘civilization’.”

In a rational society, an imminent threat to planetary civilisation would constitute rather a big deal.

In our society, not so much.

According to the Media Matters monitoring service, in America, where president Trump describes climate change as a Chinese hoax (he has, he says, “a natural instinct for science”), most newspapers didn’t even mention the IPCC report on their homepages.

In Australia, Scott Morrison reacted by pledging not to spend money on global climate conferences and “all that sort of nonsense”, while the deputy prime minister Michael McCormack boasted that the government would not change policy on the basis of “some sort of report”.

As for opposition leader Bill Shorten, he declared his support for renewables … but then insisted that “coal will be part of our energy and export mix going forward”.

There’s one key takeaway from last week’s IPCC report

Most of us know, deep in our guts, that the inability of the political class to acknowledge (let alone act on) the threat of global warming doesn’t stem exclusively from the machinations of media barons or the personal pusillanimity of individual politicians. It’s increasingly difficult to ignore the profound incompatibility between serious climate action and an economic system predicated upon the pursuit of profit in a ceaseless war of all against all.

When our leaders privilege GDP over the environment, they do so because the economy must expand year after year, decade after decade – or else the world tips into crisis.

We’re locked into a frankly carcinogenic model, predicated on unplanned but relentless growth, conducted with complete indifference to long-term consequences.

Marx defined capitalism as a regime of universal commodity production, in which goods were created not because they were useful but because they could be exchanged. It was, he said, a society in which things ruled people, rather than the other way around. What does that mean? Think of Morrison and his friends in the House of Representatives genuflecting before a lump of coal and you’ve got a pretty good picture.

From a human perspective, the argument “if we don’t mine the stuff someone else will” is obscene. Within the logic of capitalism it makes perfect sense, since amoral self-interest underpins the entire system.

Humans can and should collectively decide how they interact with the world

As a result, the measures for which the IPCC pleads – massive changes in transportation, industry, cities and land use as part of a thoroughgoing transition away from fossil energy – become almost impossible to implement.

Many mainstream pundits can avoid acknowledging the profound failure of capitalism. Their generation lived through the long post-war boom; they’ll be safely dead before the worst hits.

The Wentworth byelection spurred considerable liberal excitement about the return of that legendary creature, the “sensible centrist”.

But for millennials, who can expect to see the IPCC’s predictions unfold, what does liberal centrism – or indeed capitalism as a whole – offer? It’s not just that the scientific consensus warns of the ruination of the planet. It’s also that capitalist business-as-usual means the steady destruction of social welfare, a preposterously unaffordable housing sector, an increasingly sinister security state and a political culture dominated by race-baiting charlatans.

In the US, Bernie Sanders’ tilt at the presidency helped overcome the cold war taboo on the ‘s’-word, something underscored by the emphatic victory of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The Democratic Socialists of America have seen their membership increase from about 5,000 to more than 35,000 in the course of the last two years. The socialist podcast Chapo Trap House has built a cult following; Jacobin magazine has become so popular that it has relaunched the iconic British socialist publication, Tribune.

That, of course, comes in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s success in steering the Labour party away from Blairism and back to old-style social democracy, a venture that rests, in part, on the new willingness of young people to embrace the socialist label.

In Australia, the veteran activist Steve Jolly has managed to unite Melbourne’s usually fractious left as the Victorian Socialists (full disclosure: I’m a member), in a grassroots campaign for the forthcoming state election financially supported by the Electrical Trade Union and the National Union of Workers.

Yes, it’s all small beer so far, particularly when compared to the scale of the unfolding crisis.

But there’s every reason to expect various versions of socialism to play an increasingly important role in discussions about the climate catastrophe.

After all, they all begin from the conviction that humans can and should collectively decide how they interact with the world.

Let’s remember that, for the overwhelming majority of recorded history, people created most objects to use, rather than exchange.

In the age of nanotechnology and AIs and the Mars rover, do we truly think ourselves incapable of similar agency today? If we accept democratic control over politics, why shouldn’t we exercise the same scrutiny over economics, so that production becomes subordinate to human need rather than global markets?

‘Socialist’ is no longer quite such a dirty word in the US

Isn’t that the obvious (perhaps only) solution to the environmental crisis – the conscious direction of resources away from fossil energy and towards planetary repair?

Marx and Engels began their famous manifesto by invoking that spectre terrifying the established order of Europe. But they never presented its victory as somehow pre-ordained.

On the contrary, they suggested that fundamental social divisions would culminate either in “a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large” or in what they called “the common ruin of the contending classes”.

The IPCC’s given us a terrifying image of what ruination could involve. It’s well past time we started talking about the alternative.