System Change without Class Struggle?

By Suren Moodliar

Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014)

Barnstorming through the US and Canada, speaking to audiences of thousands at a time, with almost unparalleled media access for a self-declared anti-capitalist thinker, Naomi Klein amplifies the central message of her brilliant and rousing cri de guerre, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (hereafter TCE): “…our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature” (21).

For the first time too, one suspects, many of her audiences will hear that their movement ought also to be a movement against social and global inequality, for Third World-debt relief, for reparations, and for honoring treaties with the indigenous. With great clarity, Klein helps audiences and readers debunk technological quick fixes for climate change and the oxymoronic green capitalism. Large mainstream environmental NGOs also come under her critical gaze. Importantly, too, her stirring accounts of indigenous resistance and of global environmental justice organizing especially in communities of color are useful antidotes to the savior complex afflicting many lead environmentalists.

Indeed, over TCE’s 500 pages, Klein’s fast-paced writing tells many poignant stories, carefully narrated to illustrate the problem, capture the ironies of climate change, inspire the reader with epic battles between communities and corporations, and construct a realistic model of capitalism that is at once repulsive and formidable but still susceptible to human agency. Her rhetorical approach draws on the organizing-rap formula of unions and campaigns.1 Employing personal stories to great effect, she establishes an identity with her readers and a connection to the subject of her rap. Next she provides a careful account of the problems, evoking anger and revulsion. She follows this with stories of resistance that anticipate solutions. The solutions are put forward with a measure of urgency, letting us know how much time is left. Fittingly, TCE concludes with a sharp challenge: history is knocking at your door, will you answer?

At its core, TCE attempts 3 tasks: 1) showing how capitalism drives environmental destruction and thwarts rational responses; 2) constructing a frame that encompasses community-level resistance, solidarity economics, and indigenous organizing; 3) elaborating a strategy for a “people’s shock” leading the state to intervene against environmental destruction. TCE succeeds at these tasks in varying degrees. Nonetheless, Klein’s possibly strategic decisions not to take up the class dynamics of capital accumulation, to shrink from the notion of socialism, and to ignore parties and politics handicap her effort and possibly the movement that she is building. Her decidedly non-Marxist conceptual apparatus, including her (perhaps unconscious) use of elite theory, has profound implications for the democratic character of the movement.

Capitalism and the environment

TCE drills down to uncover the dynamics that make capitalism inherently destructive to the environment. Although this is a fairly straightforward argument about capitalist growth, there are several dimensions to it and a certain amount of conceptual fuzziness. Given that Klein has written a campaign tool, this is certainly understandable. However, it also limits the value of the work.

At times, it appears as if Klein is rebelling against capitalism as a system; at other times, it appears to be a narrower critique of capitalism’s neoliberal variant. But TCE can also lurch in the opposite direction becoming a challenge to “extractivism” in general and perhaps even to civilization as a whole. This is particularly true in some asides on industrialization where she rails against “digging, damming, drilling, [and] dyking” (266) – all widespread human activities predating capitalism. Sometimes TCE goes even further, moving in the direction of Derrick Jensen: “the climate crisis challenges not only capitalism but the underlying civilizational narratives about endless growth and progress…” (170).2

Notwithstanding such conceptual slippage, her arguments about capitalist growth dynamics are well understood and she cites an eclectic range of thinkers and ideas to make the point: from Marx on the “metabolic rift” to Evo Morales’ official discourse on buen vivir to feminists of the mind-body dialectic. She arms this analysis with a closer look at the capitalist firm and, in particular, the “fiduciary responsibility to shareholders” of fossil fuel industry captains who are obligated to seek more and more carbon reserves to replace existing assets (148).

The emergence of neoliberalism in the 1970s as a revolt against “aggressive Keynesianism” disarmed the state and, worse, globalized investment, production, and trade with a huge carbon footprint at the very moment when scientific recognition of carbon-fueled climate change broke into the public domain (39). As a result, governments that presumably would have responded to climate change as say Denmark did, by investing in green technologies, were cowed into the passive administration of capitalist mandates. Neoliberal trade regimes and specifically the World Trade Organization tamed those governments such as Ontario’s that responded rationally by fostering local solar and wind energy industries – thus denying the governments the opportunity to address both environmental and employment challenges (69). The same process, TCE suggests, also strengthened patent regimes, hindering the transfer of technologies that newly industrializing countries might have used to mitigate the carbon intensity of their growth models.

The crisis & window of opportunity

Given capitalism’s carbon footprint, “unless something radical changes within our economic structure, 2 degrees [Celsius temperature increase] now looks like a utopian dream.” In fact, TCE cites the World Bank’s conclusion that we are on track for 4 degrees Celsius warming – a point which is “incompatible with any reasonable characterization of an organized, equitable and civilized global community…” (13).

There is hope, but time is running out: “The door to reach two degrees is about to close. In 2017 it will be closed forever.… We have reached what some activists have started calling ‘Decade Zero’ of the climate crisis: we either change now or we lose our chance.” And if we miss our chance, we could be facing “genocidal choices” especially if capitalists have their way (284). But Klein also believes

that climate change represents a historic opportunity on an even greater scale… As part of the project of getting our emissions down… we once again have the chance to advance policies that dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge numbers of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up… climate change can be a People’s Shock… It can disperse power into the hands of the many… and radically expand the commons… the kinds of transformations discussed in these pages… would get to the root of why we are facing serial crises in the first place, and would leave us with both a more habitable climate… and a far more just economy than the one we have right now.3 (10)

Social movements make this possible according to Klein. Her readers are treated to a wondrous globe-spinning account of resistance;  Nigeria’s Delta Region, South Africa’s Karoo, Ecuador’s Yasuni Reserve, North America’s indigenous reserves, Australia’s West and China’s Inner Mongolia are among the many places described. They exemplify “Blockadia”—“a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill”—which has emerged as a contested space (294). These diverse movements are based on community struggles to preserve livelihoods, the environment and health. But Klein recognizes that more is needed. The movements must produce the political will for the state to make New Deal-scale investments (461). How do we get there?

Strategies without strategy

Naomi Klein has always been a keenly strategic thinker. Her first book, No Logo responded to the oft-lamented narrowness of campaigns targeting particular corporations by placing these in a larger context: “they can be a piece of the puzzle that acts as a lever to achieve broader and more lasting political change.”4

TCE is similarly motivated, rich in strategies and strategic insights about making social change to challenge capitalist-driven climate change. One of the most thoroughly described involves “coalitions of rights-rich-but-cash-poor people teaming up with (relatively) cash-rich-but-rights-poor people” (382). The rights-rich are indigenous people, especially in Canada, the United States and Australia, whose treaties with their settler colonial governments may be interpreted to prevent encroachment by fossil-fuel seeking corporations and governments.

But Klein is by no means naïve that courts will follow the rule of law where it may be read in favor of the indigenous. She understands that in addition to the letter of the law or contract, respect for and enforcement of laws and treaties are also matters of power and perception. For example, she notes that even “in countries with enlightened laws as in Bolivia and Ecuador, the state still pushes ahead with extractive projects without the consent of the Indigenous people…” (377). Moreover, corporations and governments claiming reserves and resources under indigenous lands may have their claims validated by the market if not by the courts. Credit ratings may be based on precisely such resources as long as ratings agencies believe that the indigenous people may not be able to exercise their rights.

Klein adduces many examples of direct action by indigenous people and their allies to assert their claims. In New Brunswick, a Mi’kmaq community, the Elsipogtog, in alliance with other non-indigenous inhabitants, blockaded a Texas-based fracking corporation’s seismic testing activities. Their peaceful direct action resulted in police violence against the protesters and successfully disrupted some testing. Matters are currently unresolved. Unfortunately, New Brunswick courts, disregarding the 1999 Marshall decision of Canadian Supreme Court that upheld indigenous rights, have refused to sustain the Elsipogtogs’ objections.5

Nonetheless, the rights that she refers to have valuable non-legal impacts. They often empower people who believe that they have such rights to act militantly. TCE provides an account of the dramatic and sustained resistance by the Ogoni People in Nigeria’s Delta Region to Shell’s oil operations. Their challenge to Shell is framed within a demand for rights not yet enshrined by laws – claims to self-determination. Although the state refuses to recognize these, militant direct action, sometimes with an armed component, has resulted in negotiations and agreements with the corporation and widespread international solidarity.

Klein is keenly aware that reliance on indigenous people and their righteous claims is fraught with the danger of cooptation. Extractivist corporations come, job promises in hand, to communities facing high unemployment and a wide range of social ills corresponding to subjugation within settler colonial states. Klein evokes the dangers in her description of Northern Cheyenne resistance to coal mining in their territories while themselves dealing with a devastated community. Against this situation, she demands that allies support serious investment in job-providing activities that benefit the environment; these include winterizing homes and generating clean energy.

For many writers, especially non-indigenous ones, Klein’s prescriptions in this regard would be morally dangerous, risking what Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz calls “the race to innocence” wherein advocates of a particular position assume that they are “innocent of complicity in the structures of domination and oppression.”6 Klein, however, articulates her call within a broader framework demanding reparations and “honoring our debts.”

More than benefiting particular communities, “honoring our debts” produces spending that empowers the state to implement policies that are commensurate with the demands of climate change and carbon mitigation. If The Shock Doctrine signaled Naomi Klein’s evolution away from her youthful anarchism and a tentative but negative embrace of the state—to roll back neoliberal reforms—TCE is a positive engagement of the state with the outlines of a program. Here Klein calls for a “Marshall Plan” for the planet; on a national scale, she calls for another New Deal. Although she is undoubtedly sincere in her claim that “only mass social movements can save us now…” (450), her “Peoples’ Shock” is to be implemented by a state albeit one that aims at decentralization and community empowerment. The precedents she lists as worthy of emulation in the current context include Allende’s and Mosaddegh’s attempts at socialism and nationalization (454). From the social movement end, she approvingly cites the movements to abolish slavery, to end colonialism, to win Social Security and unemployment insurance, and the civil rights movement.

The actual experience of the attempted transition to socialism in the former Soviet Union and Mao’s China (labelled “authoritarian socialism”) receives summary treatment and is largely dismissed as centralizing, extractivist projects with large carbon footprints akin to industrial capitalism and bereft of any meaningful lessons for our present challenges. Unfortunately, there is no exploration of the role that international rivalries between the systems may have played in constructing any symmetry between them.7

In short, TCE provides examples of things social movements are doing, it elaborates a vision for a future society, and it recognizes a role for the state in making this happen. What could go wrong?

Anti-Capitalism without class struggle: the political terrain

Grassroots campaigners and even socialist activists will find a great deal to like in TCE. Klein reports and celebrates many of their efforts and vindicates their anti-capitalist sentiments. Diverse projects from spontaneous grassroots movements like #OccupySandy to better funded efforts like Movement Generation are rightly valorized by Klein for their role in building alternatives while serving real people. For activists longing to break out of the parochialism of many campaigns that challenge this or that problem, TCE offers a unifying critique and vision. Activists who for generations have lamented the absence of a common framework to connect economic and racial justice, antiwar, environmental justice, civil rights, indigenous solidarity, and even civil liberties organizing will find just such a framework in TCE.

Between social movement demands and the state implementing a desired program, however, lies the political terrain. TCE offers hints and clues about this dimension, but it is often in the form of an eclectic political science that borrows from elite theory — as in TCE’s frequent references to “the political class” — and from various personality and political-psychology theories to explain political preferences and receptiveness to this or that type of technology. Despite references to political parties in the Global South and Europe, political parties as actors (as opposed to political identities) play little role in TCE. And this is a problem that is internal to the model of social change that Klein has built. What she offers instead is a model of social change which requires that 1) a large number of very diverse movements work together, 2) they reintroduce indigenous, collective and socialist values into the popular discourse, then 3) advocate for a novel policy package, 4) remake the state and implement the policy package, 5) and do so on a scale that has been done only a few times before in the life of capitalism, and 6) in a time frame of a few years (within a decade at the extreme outside limit).

Given the emphasis on scale and timing, the reader should expect that those directly influencing the operations of government and its bureaucracies—parties and politicians—will come under rigorous scrutiny and theorization in TCE. Movements are not political parties, vision is not ideology, and policies are not self-implementing. Although it is not the task of a review to fill perceived lacunae, these can be traced back to Klein’s hasty rejection of the analytic, practical and ideological tasks of political parties. If parties are not the best or are even the wrong instruments for accomplishing these tasks, TCE’s arguments demand that she identify some other social force to do so.

This can be illustrated by reviewing briefly one of TCE’s centerpiece arguments. Klein makes a powerful case for the strategic and moral importance of engaging with and supporting indigenous struggles. Not only are there useful legal reasons for doing so (as described above), but indigenous values can be a source of renewal in a capitalist world destructive of any respect for nature. As a campaigner advocating a particular course, Klein does not explore the limitations of her turn to indigenous struggles and values. But she does hint at it. She does recognize that the super-exploited indigenous communities may be bought off or be abandoned to sip “Cheyenne champagne” (the toxic cleaning liquid Lysol) in misery (391). One cannot therefore essentialize indigenous communities especially as sources for a renewal of values. In fact, although TCE fails to make this point explicit, Klein’s most important cautionary tale concerns an indigenous people. Residents of Nauru (an island in the South Pacific) were complicit in the building of an extractivist economy and depleted mineral reserves, built up over millennia, in the space of decades for the benefit of colonial, corporate and domestic elites. Now destitute, the island faces the ultimate rebuke and irony – rising sea levels threaten to drown it.

Klein convinces us that indigenous communities have resources in their histories and values, but they have to struggle to retain these. This need for struggle is magnified when one seeks to universalize these values as we remake humanity as a whole. In this context, Klein requires some sort of imagined future community of interests or situationally transcendent idea (to borrow from Mannheim). For Marxists, this has traditionally been the “class-for-itself” which struggles to achieve self-consciousness. Depending on one’s tradition, political parties may play a role in transforming an analytically identified “class-in-itself” into a “class-for-itself.” Vivid, eloquent and inspiring accounts of communities in struggle cannot substitute for this dialectical notion of class.8

The absence of class makes itself felt in other ways too. For example, how are we to understand the great fuzziness on the question of whether TCE is a critique of capitalism as a system or a more limited rejection of its neoliberal moment?9 More than simply “capitalism on steroids” deregulating markets, privatizing state enterprises, and enforcing austerity, neoliberalism is a class project. Philip Mirowski has demonstrated that neoliberalism is about re-constructing the market and radically reforming rights in the polity in an ideological way that is relatively immune to falsification by real-world events.10 In other words, it is a material and ideological force requiring more than left think tanks and non-profit organizations for an effective challenge. In fact, in calling attention to the diversity of organizational forms engaged in the battle against climate change and its effects, Klein raises an interesting question of democracy – who gets to make the key decisions in the resistance movement? Foundation-funded organizations in communities of color? Self-appointed white saviors? Collections of notables? Media darlings? A political party does not automatically answer this question of democracy but it does pose it explicitly.

To the shores of politics

Moreover, how are people inspired by TCE to arbitrate different claims within their ranks? After all, we are dealing with intra-class questions on a global scale that demand redistribution and reparations for conquest, slavery, colonialism, class exploitation, and, yes, the Carbon debt. These also relate to theories of imperialism and super-exploitation. Unfortunately, these are practical questions that cannot be easily dismissed as the province of “ideological Marxists.” Again, this points in the direction of a political actor that can frame and answer these questions in a democratic way and that takes into account particular experiences. Klein senses the need for such a political actor and writes self-critically that,

I have, in the past, strongly defended the right of young movements to their amorphous structures—whether that means rejecting identifiable leadership or eschewing programmatic demands. And there is no question that old political habits and structures must be reinvented to reflect new realities, as well as past failures. But I confess that the last five years immersed in climate science has left me impatient. As many are coming to realize, the fetish for structurelessness, the rebellion against any kind of institutionalization, is not a luxury today’s transformative movements can afford. (158)

At the end of her Shock Doctrine, Klein recognizes politics as a decisive arena, especially in Latin America. Her emphasis there however is rightly on the social movements that powered the election of left-wing governments. She observes that social movements are decentralizing power and make for much more resilient political parties – evidenced by Chávez’s surviving the 2002 coup when autonomous social movements mobilized against the right.11 However, both in Venezuela and in other Latin American countries attempting a transition away from the Washington Consensus, if not from capitalism and extractivism, much of the practical challenge and real drama has been precisely about building the right type of political party while understanding the need for powerful autonomous social movements. TCE does not evidence much growth in Klein’s thinking since the Shock Doctrine was written eight years ago.

All the more lamentable then is the failure to engage the Soviet and other socialist experiences in any serious way. The aspects of that history which Klein and other leftists rightly reject emerged in spite of those socialist revolutionaries’ intentions, regardless of the degree of their culpability in the commission of heinous acts. Is it the case that taking a political road leads ineluctably to the gulag? Although this reviewer thinks not, Klein, who once rejected that path but who now sets us off in that direction, is obliged to more fully explore the political terrain and political parties. Unfortunately she demurs.

If the foregoing has suggested that TCE lacks a concept (e.g. class) capable of unifying disparate actors, and a political ideology (socialism) to counter neoliberalism, it is also the case that TCE fails to provide a surrogate for a political actor (in the Machiavellian sense). The major reform experiences that Klein cites as precedents might not have come to fruition had not meaningful political actors armed with a vision taken advantage of highly contested situations to press their cases, causing history to break their way (at least some of the time). Without, say, the Radical Republicans both in Congress and in Lincoln’s cabinet, it is unlikely that the emancipation of the slaves, despite their valiant self-activity, could have issued from the US Civil War. To follow up on TCE’s closing question—did you answer when history knocked on your door?—when history comes knocking on Congress’s door, who will answer it?

Identifying TCE’s failure to meaningfully address questions about class, ideology, and politics, could be seen by some as an irrelevant critique urging a writer to address the reviewer’s pet topics. Would that this were the case! Instead, as suggested above, it is Klein’s own analysis and prescriptions that require her to address these questions. If she rejects class, ideology and politics as important concepts, she needs to address the substance and functions that those concepts signify. Having navigated her readers through stormy capitalist oceans on the waves of successive social movements, Klein has docked her readers on the shores of politics, offering glimpses and clues as to its hinterland, but, lacking a destination therein, leaving it to others to map the necessary path forward.

Notes

1. For examples, see “Getting People Involved.” Organizing for Power, Organizing for Change. Website (http://organizingforpower.org/getting-people-involved/)
(note especially the model used by the United Farmworkers), and Progressive Action Network “The Structure of the Field Rap” ProgressiveAction.org.

2. Jensen, Derrick (2006) Endgame: The Problem of Civilization. Vol. I. New York: Seven Stories Press.

3. This formulation exercised The New Yorker’s environment columnist, Elizabeth Kolbert to the point that she entitled her surprisingly hostile TCE review, “Can Climate Change Cure Capitalism?” New York Review of Books, December 4, 2014.

4. Chapter 18: “Beyond the Brand,” Naomi Klein (2009, 1999), No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. 10th Anniversary Edition. New York: Vintage Books

5. The corporation completed its testing in Elsipogtog territory in 2013 and declared that it may return in 2015. See Heather Smith, “Elsipogtog epic: How a tribe’s fight against an energy company caught fire,” The Grist, 1/10/14
(http://grist.org/climate-energy/elsipogtog-epic-how-a-tribes-fight-against-an-energy-company-caught-fire/).

6. Quoted in Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz (2014), An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press: “Conclusion: The Future of the United States.”

7. Rob Urie has recently challenged the notion that there is any symmetry between the capitalism and “formerly existing” socialism with regard to their per capita contributions to carbon emissions, although his effort faces some methodological objections (e.g. aggregating the USSR and China). See “The Climate Crisis is Capitalism,” CounterPunch.org, 11/21/2014. (http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/11/21/the­climate­crisis­is­capitalism/).

8. This is not to suggest that Klein ignores social class. She does not; instead she sees it as one more identity. Marx of course did not ignore the experiential and identity dimensions of class. Consider for example, his stirring accounts of particular class struggles (e.g. Capital, vol. I, Chapter 10, “The Working Day”), but these did not substitute for an analysis of class and the dialectic between the two moments of class.

9. Recently, Sam Gindin, whom Klein describes as, “one of the most important intellectuals of the North American labor movement,” has criticized her for failing to get beyond a Keynesian vision of capitalism. He says she should recognize that all forms of capitalism are “inimical to collective values” and “insensitive to the environment.” Sam Gindin (2014), “When History Knocks,” Jacobin, 12/20/14
(https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/12/naomi-klein-capitalism/). Michael Hardt and others have criticized her previous book, The Shock Doctrine for its tendency to treat disaster capitalism as an aberrant form of capitalism instead of something intrinsic to the system. Michael Hardt (2007) “The Violence of Capital,” New Left Review 48, November-December (http://newleftreview.org/II/48/michael-hardt-the-violence-of-capital).

10. Mirowski, Philip (2013), Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown. London: Verso.

11. Klein, Naomi (2007), The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. New York: Metropolitan Books, 454: “When their revolution was threatened, his supporters poured down from the shantytowns surrounding Caracas, demanding his reinstatement, a kind of popular mobilization that did not happen during the coups of the seventies.” (emphasis added)

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