November 14, 2021
From North East Anarchist Group (UK)

We are in a unique and challenging period within the history of humanity, as well as within the epoch of capitalism. With the increased production capacity brought on by human ingenuity, innovation and science, fueled by capitalism’s constant drive towards reconfiguring the production process, we have been able to produce enough to globally meet everyone’s needs for the last 150 years but our production capacities, not freeing us from toil, work and suffering, have only served to make the ruling class richer and more powerful. Not only have we been able to ensure that everyone is housed, fed and clothed but we have had the capacity to dramatically alter the way we labour and fulfil that fundamental human need for leisure, play and free time. Time that we could spend more with our loved ones, to develop ourselves as creative and passionate human beings and to innovate freely. The progression of our industrial capacities since the industrial revolution however has not only subjugated people to misery and exploitation it has also been an immense burden on our environment and the animals and ecosystems that we share this world with. We are now faced with irreversible climate change caused predominantly by the wasteful and unrelenting aggression of the capitalist socio-economic system. 

One thing is certain, our current system is unsustainable.

Anton Pannekoek, a Dutch Marxist, in 1909 described capitalism as a ‘headless economy which cannot regulate its acts by an understanding of their consequences’ and that ‘society under capitalism can be compared to a gigantic unintelligent body; while capitalism develops its power without limit, it is at the same time senselessly devastating more and more the environment from which it lives’. [1] This was 112 years ago. That unintelligent body is essentially the market, with its metabolic price signals, its considerations for production and exchange being purely based on valorisation – the turning of money into more money. It only cares for capital accumulation, growth, and the increases in labour productivity that enable that goal, all else is ultimately expendable. It’s this internal movement, capitalism’s central tenet, which means it cannot adequately address the climate crisis but will only serve to further exacerbate it. By its very essence capitalism’s social and economic considerations are too limited. Commodities do not appear out of thin air. They are built from the products of nature and by the labour of the masses who interact with it. The pursuit of endless growth and profit within the capitalist system relies on the ever expanding exploitation of the natural world and those who inhabit it. In the extraction of raw materials, in the waste (agricultural runoff, transportation and production fumes, disposable and short-lived commodities) produced and in the production of our energy, where the continuing reliance on fossil fuels, backed and violently protected by the State, contributes not only to the destruction of the planet via its extraction and processing but also to imperialist wars that are fought and communities that are dispossessed for control of these evermore valuable resources. 

Green capitalism is considered a realistic possibility by many, even those on the Left. And while us anarchists and libertarians are regularly denounced as the utopians by most, green capitalism appears to be the most utopian demand of them all. Green capitalism, like industrial capitalism, must not only abide by capitalism’s central tenet but at its core, relies on the technological reconfiguration of the production process. It believes if it is able to produce clean energy, refine the production process to reduce waste and create commodities with a lessened footprint that it will brute force a solution into place without addressing the underlying social and economic conditions.  It expects nation-states and companies to willingly move from fossil fuel consumption to more expensive forms of energy despite the structural incentives of the system to create ever cheaper commodities, in ever greater quantities, that allows them to undercut their competitors and turn money into more money. When fossil fuels are so cheap there is virtually no chance in a commodity producing society to see companies or nation-states accept a mandate that will essentially decrease their power and we can see this in the reluctance to transition away from fossil fuels. Money after all, is power. COP26 has shown the inadequacy of the current strata of political, economic and social leaders to formulate long lasting and sustainable solutions. The competitiveness of the market and the drive for valorisation and accumulation limits the available (and correct) responses from even being considered. The bankruptcy of a potential green capitalism is now on show as many face the realities of the prevailing system. Australia has vowed to continue exporting coal as long as demand exists, Volkswagen (of emissions scandal fame) and Toyota, the world’s largest car manufacturers haven’t pledged to anything regarding zero carbon transportation and nation states are to continue their fossil fuel subsidies along with a host of other pointless greenwashing pledges that are nothing but smoke. All solutions are not only stuck within the paradigm of commodity production but uncreatively so.

There has been a dramatic and welcome shift in the use of renewable energy sources globally and renewed efforts to increase energy efficiency and conservation but new technology and methods is not enough. Any potential gains made by science, as always, will be lost when put to the dictates of capital (a similar story to our potential shorter working week that was predicted by the arrival of automation). Cheaper (in a monetary sense) energy inputs will always be welcome to the capitalist, as noted above, but even when efficiency gains are made and we have begun to see parity in the costs between green and fossil energy this will only allow companies and States to continue to make more commodities and for cheaper, ultimately expanding the absolute mass of products (and waste, and energy) available counteracting any gains made (see Jevons Paradox). The essential process of capitalist innovation for capital accumulation continues unabated.

It is clear that capitalism cannot coexist peacefully with the natural world. Without the subordination of nature, as without the subordination of workers, to constantly revolutionise the production process, to constantly produce ever more commodities for sale, to turn money into more money, capitalism will falter and crash. The same drive that forces it to constantly impoverish workers, to suck dry our natural resources and pollute the earth is the same processes at the heart of its fundamental movements. Without growth you will be eaten up, swallowed by those that do. The body cannot be wrestled into submission. 

Politicians, industrialists and the new leftist politico-pundit vanguard appear incapable of looking at the problem objectively and addressing the root cause of the problem. To do so would upturn their lives and uproot their power. Many continue to believe in the Keynesian myth (even if they won’t admit it) that the State can mitigate the destructive and alienating effects of capitalism and control class antagonisms. During the 20th century British economist John Maynard Keynes, and the subsequent governments all over the world who followed his advice (one-nation conservatism, old Labour here in the UK), believed that fiscal and monetary policy changes, nationalisation of failing or ‘rogue’ industry and the rule of law would hold back these effects. The goal was to save capitalism from it’s own inevitable internal crises, crises that continue to have devastating effects on individuals, both capitalist and worker alike, that ricochet through society in uncontrollable and unforeseeable directions. This did not work for long and its partial successes, which were based on undesirable conditions such as the domination of the ‘developing’ world and of course, our natural environment, began to crack. The death knell of the mixed economy sounded with the oil crisis of 1973 and the house of cards tumbled. We are now expected to believe that State intervention and safeguards on capital will be able to handle the external crisis of runaway climate change? Even if there was a political will, which there isn’t, capital is power. It seems to me that there is an ulterior motive here beyond ensuring the wellbeing of all and the safeguarding of the planet. That of securing privileged positions. 

The death of Keynesianism brought us an entirely different but familiar beast in the attempted renewal of liberalism and a pseudo-laissez-faire capitalism (pseudo because state intervention never left. We will never return to the pre-war period of unchecked capitalism. Capital crises must be tamed else class struggle be renewed to greater intensity. The ruling class has learnt its lessons from history. See 2008 bank bailouts, Covid-19 response, the nationalisation on the East Coast mainline etc.). The neoliberal era, initiated in the West by Thatcher and Reagan, which saw increasing privatisation, social atomisation and degradation/abolition of regulations on capitals’ worst excesses, suffice to say, has been an unmitigated disaster in terms of natural destruction, inequality and workers rights.  

Graph showing that the neoliberal period has added over half the extra human carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
The neoliberal period has added over half the extra human carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

Extending the consumerism and social atomisation caused by what Cornelius Castoriadis calls ‘the crisis of socialisation’ that began during the 1950s and 1960s as part of capitalism’s golden age, the neoliberal period has had profound effects on the natural world, on our social relations and in the way, we as humans perceive and interact with the world. We’ve become defined as humans, not by our actions but increasingly by the things we own and that now mediate our relations. As Castoriadis explained in the 1960s, “At the personal level the crisis manifests itself as a sort of radical crisis in the meaning of life and of human motives … There is practically no community life, ties become extremely disrupted and so on. .. But socialization in the more general sense, that is the feeling that what is going on at large is, after all, our own affair, that we do have to do something about it, that we ought to be responsible, all this, is deeply disrupted. This disruption contributes to a vicious circle. It increases apathy and multiplies its effects.” [2]

Community has been effectively destroyed and an abstract individual reigns supreme (naturally within the confines of modern industrial capitalism and the modern State and its ‘rights’, that inherently absolve us of any responsibility), which leads us to the other side of the dichotomy. One which proposes atomistic, individuated solutions to the holistic problems that we encounter in the modern world in particular that of climate change. We see it in the useless journalism and point-scoring campaigns that want to show the foibles of individuals who take are less than eco-perfect and in State and corporations telling us that we must sacrifice this and that, that we must use less water, recycle more etc. It creates a holier than thou scenario which significantly favours the middle class and the rich and induces guilt on the behalf of the working class who are increasingly burdened. This focus on abstract individuals, as consumers and it being our ‘choice’, seeks to hide the structural issues and incentives inherent within capitalism that is the driving motor of climate change and shift the blame from those who are primarily responsible. It seeks to hide that our built world (towns, cities, homes, road networks and other public infrastructure – that were built to sell us cars, individual properties), our social relations to one another and our relationship with the natural world are fundamentally antagonistic to climate renewal, sustainable stewardship and interaction and foster an illusion that our consumer actions are in any way meaningful. It’s an ideology that has undermined community, collective solidarity and has put in its place privatisation (in both a social and economic sense). The solutions it puts forward now are unsurprising. Things such as electric cars (which when considered over the full life cycle, from production to end of life, have only been shown to be marginally better than combustion engine cars) instead of free and revitalised public transport, the replacement of individual gas boilers with individual electric boilers rather than combined district heating, demands we take the bike to work without grasping at the geography of work and that many are unable to get there without a car due to suburbanisation and poor local job opportunities, that asks us… to use paper straws. It’s too perfect for them.

Tesla electrical cahrging stations on flooded ground.
Tesla electrical charging stations flooded.

It is not that our choices in consumption don’t matter. They do and they will matter much more in the future. It’s that they aren’t the choices of our own making. They’ve been manipulated and continue to be manipulated by historical forces. As Karl Marx said ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ [3] Our choices are shaped by our social, geographical and economic positions and by individualising and ‘flattening’ the problem we can’t expect to tackle a problem as totalising as ecological destruction.

We should be increasingly concerned as internationalists of this ‘flattening’. We must understand that the West is disproportionately responsible for this climate catastrophe so far. The excessive consumption of the vast majority of people in the global North, as part of the historically Western consumerist drive to secure accumulation, has been at the cost of the people, animals and ecosystems of the global South. While we appear to have ‘deindustrialised’, a process our communities certainly felt the brunt of as capital was exported overseas, when we look globally, holistically and not on a nation by nation basis, that is far from the truth. We have just exported the worst excesses of industrial capitalism to the global South and it’s our excessive consumption that drives global warming and in the process deprives those in the global south of their own resources and of developing their own independence, putting them at the whims of western capitalist interests, and increasingly their own regional bourgeoisie. Through the wholesale destruction, theft and exploitation of their land, resources and communities, they are subject to the devastating consequences of climate change first hand, whose results are often disastrous and fatal.  As this area of the world becomes increasingly uninhabitable, we will begin to see an increase in capitalist crises as industrial production begins to stagnate. Climate refugees will be forced to flee their homes and move to safer, less devastated areas of the world and we must be ready to act in the interest of all individuals across the world.

So what is to be done? It’s a big question and none of us has all the answers. The future movements of society will dictate how and when we should react but we need to understand that we must react, that it is our responsibility. We cannot vote and delegate this responsibility away for the fate of the world to be debated in back rooms by oligarchs, industrialists and conservatives. As we’ve seen time and again those who hold power are beholden to their own interests and to the interests of capital. We must lift the veil that has been pulled over our eyes that has concealed our power as a class. That is the first step. Nature will fight back. As the other component in the capitalist death machine, we must too. As anarchists and communists, we believe the answer lies in direct democracy in the community, decentralisation and self-management in the workplace. In a word, communism. It is only outside of the confines of the bureaucratic State that seeks to decree from above and within our communities and workplaces where each individual can regain and enact their power.

German anarchist Gustav Landauer called communism ‘the immediate communication of true interests’ and I believe this is the first and foremost condition if we are to tackle the crisis ahead of us.[4] Class society, due to its hierarchical nature, isn’t very good at communication, at least not true and transparent communication.  We need that transparent communication. A concerted and demystified social effort. It will only be when we, as individuals, have all the facts, are in control and have power over our own lives, that we can make the best and, most importantly, informed decisions.

There is no one road to obtaining that power. It will be difficult. Capitalism constantly creates and recreates the sites of class struggle and we believe that it is through this struggle that the power can be wrested away from those who continue to dominate individuals and the environment and who are unwilling to take action against climate change, inequality and oppression. It is through this struggle that we can enact the positive socialisation[5] required not only to combat climate change but to create a truly human community.

“Since human nature is the true community of men, by manifesting their nature men create, produce the human community, the social entity, which is no abstract universal power opposed to the particular individual, but is the essential nature of each individual, his own activity, his own life, his own spirit, his own wealth.” Marx [6]

It is through this creation of the human community, communism, in the class struggle, where we can begin to undermine existing and create new social realities and lay the seeds for a more sustainable world. Through co-ops, grassroots unions, wildcat strikes, factory occupations, radical education, protest and socialist cultural events, mutual aid organisations, and the multitude of other forms that the struggle takes outside and against the State.

Fiat factory occupation in the 1920s by workers as part of the ‘Biennio Rosso’ at the height of global working-class power.

We need to fundamentally change our social, economic and political system by increasing localism and autonomy within production, working towards economic independence and political freedom for the workers in the global south and addressing our current crises of social alienation and our culture of mass consumption and waste. We can implement sustainable automation to massively reduce the working week, use the technological gains to improve our lives without the feedback loop of capital accumulation. We can decide as communities not to pollute our rivers and our seas, to not manufacture cancer causing materials, or poison our air and create full accountability for those who seek to harm others and the environment. We can ensure that the human cost of the coming crisis is mitigated by extending our space and resources in solidarity with the refugees whose lives will be turned upside down by rising sea levels and extreme weather.

The responsibilities that we were absolved of under modern industrial capitalism becomes each and everyone’s responsibility, and it’ll essentially boil down to what you, me and everyone else decide to make of it. The State and the capitalists they serve have continuously shown themselves to be incapable of acting in a responsible and unbiased manner and why would they? 

Another world is possible. A world of expanded considerations. No longer will it be about growth and profit. We will redefine what it means to live, to love, what it means to be wealthy as well as our relationship to each other, to the animals we share this world with and the ecosystems that support us.

“We are going to inherit the earth. There is not the slightest doubt about that. The bourgeoisie may blast and burn its own world before it finally leaves the stage of history. We are not afraid of ruins. We carry a new world, here in our hearts. That world is growing this minute.”– Buenaventura Durruti

  5. More on the crisis of socialisation and positive socialisation can be found in this great essay by Cornelius Castoriadis. Paticularly the section ‘The Crisis of Socialisation’