The NY Times published an opinion piece yesterday titled “The Climate Crisis? It’s Capitalism, Stupid” which argues that capitalism is the real threat to the environment, a threat which must be eradicated if we are to survive. There’s nothing subtle about this piece. The author, who is a professor at Arizona State University, says capitalism is the problem and environmentalism is the movement that can supersede it:
The real culprit of the climate crisis is not any particular form of consumption, production or regulation but rather the very way in which we globally produce, which is for profit rather than for sustainability. So long as this order is in place, the crisis will continue and, given its progressive nature, worsen. This is a hard fact to confront. But averting our eyes from a seemingly intractable problem does not make it any less a problem. It should be stated plainly: It’s capitalism that is at fault.
As an increasing number of environmental groups are emphasizing, it’s systemic change or bust. From a political standpoint, something interesting has occurred here: Climate change has made anticapitalist struggle, for the first time in history, a non-class-based issue.
The author is describing what he sees here and I think he’s right in this sense: Climate change rhetoric is anti-capitalist, which is one reason so many people reject it. It’s not the science people don’t like, it’s the politics behind it. In Europe, critics of this connection sometimes refer to the various Green Partys as watermelons, i.e. green on the outside and red on the inside.
The author makes clear that there is no way a capitalist society can regulate (through government) or create (through private industry) a better world. The underlying system is hopeless and must be replaced with democratic socialism.
The hope that we can empower intelligent people to positions where they can design the perfect set of regulations, or that we can rely on scientists to take the carbon out of the atmosphere and engineer sources of renewable energy, serves to cover over the simple fact that the work of saving the planet is political, not technical. We have a much better chance of making it past the 22nd century if environmental regulations are designed by a team of people with no formal education in a democratic socialist society than we do if they are made by a team of the most esteemed scientific luminaries in a capitalist society. The intelligence of the brightest people around is no match for the rampant stupidity of capitalism.
Democratic socialism is not the kind of socialism they have in Scandinavia, where capitalism is harnessed (through high taxes) and used as an engine to provide a cushy social safety net. Democratic socialism is the eradication of private ownership. No one owns anything because we all own everything together. It’s the idea of Marxism divorced from the repeated historical failure of Marxist revolutions like the ones in Russia, Cambodia, and China. This time we’ll finally get real socialism without he unfortunate totalitarianism.
On the defensive for centuries, socialists have become quite adept at responding to objections from people for whom the basic functions of life seem difficult to reproduce without the motive power of capital.
There is no replacement for the motive power of capital, nor should we want one. Capital is simply a way to convert various kinds of work into a universal means of exchange based on the value of that work. There is no system in which the need for that exchange among workers will go away, nor will any system change the fact that some work is much more valuable than other work. Democratic socialism simply puts the government in control of every transaction, creating an inefficient mess where people have little to no incentive to study hard, work hard, take risks, etc. because there is no reward for doing any of it. It’s the perfect system for perfect, selfless people which, unfortunately, do not exist in the real world.
There’s a reason true socialist states become totalitarian states. With every other means of exchange and advancement gone or heavily regulated, the one place where someone can still excel is the government itself. The lure of this power will always appeal to tyrants and psychopaths and with the state in absolute control from the outset, there is no alternative power center to challenge this authority. You don’t get Utopia, you get the USSR or Mao’s China or worse yet, North Korea.
The burden of justification should not fall on the shoulders of those putting forward an alternative. For anyone who has really thought about the climate crisis, it is capitalism, and not its transcendence, that is in need of justification.
Here’s the justification: Democratic socialism is an authoritarian nightmare waiting to happen. We should avoid it at all costs.