Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Reforming capitalism (2024)

Book Review from the May 2024 issue of the Socialist Standard

Climate Change as Class War. Building Socialism on a Warming Planet. By Matthew T. Huber. Verso, 2023. 312pp.

American geographer Matthew Huber has produced a thought-provoking book on society and climate change. It examines in wide-ranging and immensely knowledgeable fashion how history (and in particular the history of capitalism) has got us where we are as a species and offers considered proposals for addressing the current planetary environmental crisis in a way the author sees as benefitting the majority of the population, ie, those who have to sell their energies to an employer for a wage or salary in order to live.

He makes it clear from the start that his concern is for this latter group, ie, the world’s workers. And his aim – his ultimate aim anyway – is a non-class-divided society. Then of course there is the perennial question of how to achieve that, and this – in part at least – is what this book is about. However, since in the author’s view post-capitalism in terms of a classless society is not on the immediate horizon, he sees immediate action of some kind as essential, otherwise the climate crisis will engulf humanity and nothing will be left to save.

The action he advocates (focusing almost exclusively on the US situation – something he recognises) is the strongest possible pressure on government to adopt and implement ’Green New Deal’ policies (described as ‘a working-class environmental program’). Such policies would involve the government taking over the energy sector completely and instituting drastic policies of decarbonisation to achieve a ‘just transition to a clean energy economy’. One of the keys to this he sees as the overwhelming adoption and use of electricity to replace fossil fuels for the purpose of producing and supplying energy and so, in his view, avert the dire climate consequences and environmental degradation we see at present. This is because, in the author’s words, ‘electricity is at the core of almost everything we do in an increasingly digital world (…) economic activity is impossible without electricity’. He sums up his vision by saying that ‘the politics of the Green New Deal seeks to conjoin working-class and ecological interests into one, under the umbrella of a politics of life’. How will this pressure be placed on government? The author sees it as happening via sustained trade union action by workers from ‘a broad and diverse working class’, but especially those in key industries with ‘strikes and disruption at the point of production’.

Is this possible or likely? Of course, the author is perfectly right in arguing that, when trade union action is sufficiently solid and well-focused, employers and governments have no choice but to listen and may make concessions. He gives certain examples from the experience of industrial action in the US to show that ‘strikes can build power and win’. But the question then arises, what would be the consequences if such a strategy were successful in the key sector of energy and the government moved to take over the sector?

To answer this, it is worth mentioning a book possibly dating from after when Climate Change as Class War was written. This is   by Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith and Max Wilbert (reviewed in the January 2023 issue of this journal), which explains how any Green New Deal agenda, even if implemented, would be no less harmful than the fossil fuel use it might seek to replace. This is because, with the money and market system still operating (even if under government supervision), the Earth would still be a target for commodification, and the process of production and setting up and maintenance of infrastructure even for ‘green’, ‘renewable’ sources of energy would continue to extract from the environment resources it could not afford to lose and in this process carry on causing climate change and destroying the Earth’s geological fabric.

So though, as already stated, Huber’s book is extraordinarily wide-ranging in the many areas and sources it draws on, would it be possible for governments, whose very function is to be, in the author’s own words, ‘committed to private capital and anarchic market competition’, to somehow change their nature and the role of managing and supporting the market system, to truly recognise ‘the inherent antagonisms between capital and the climate’ and to no longer act as an executive committee for their national owners of capital?

Then there is the author’s focus on trade unions. While unions are necessary institutions for workers to try and resist the encroachments of capital and get what they can in terms of pay and working conditions, they are by their nature defensive bodies, whose purpose is not, nor can be, ‘political’ as such. Trade unions may of course be places where political ideas circulate and where socialist consciousness may spread, but they cannot in themselves offer solutions to the fundamental inequalities inherent in the class-divided society, which the author rightly sees as fundamental to capitalism and its market system. Still less can unions be a tool for some kind of quick solution to the problems of ecological breakdown that threatens the whole planet.

So rather than look to the short-term ‘fix’ (which isn’t actually a fix at all) of action to try and force governments to take control over energy, a far more practical purpose would be served if all those who, like Matthew Huber, have striking and often subtle insights into how the world is organised, recognise the class-based nature of society and understand its highly detrimental effects both for human life and the biosphere as a whole, campaigned as part of a democratic political movement putting forward the case for majority action of the world’s people to collectively organise for a leaderless, stateless, marketless society – one that will emancipate the human species, protect the environment and look after the Earth’s ecology as a whole. That will be the real ‘just transition’.
Howard Moss

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