By Roger Annis, A Socialist In Canada, Aug 4, 2018
Naomi Klein has published a lengthy critique of an important feature essay appearing in the New York Times Magazine on August 1, 2018: Losing Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate change, by Nathaniel Rich, with photos and video by George Steinmetz. Klein’s commentary on the Times magazine article is published on August 3 in The Intercept, where she is a regular columnist.
The Times essay argues that the world lost the battle against global warming during the years of the 1980s, a time when scientists began loudly warning of a global warming emergency requiring immediate and radical action to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Klein correctly argues against the central tenet of the essay—that “human nature” was to blame for the failure to respond to the now-evident emergency. Intercept editors placed the word ‘capitalism’ in the title of Klein’s critique: Capitalism killed our climate momentum, not ‘human nature’. But Klein dismisses the compelling argument against capitalism in her very critique.
Klein writes, “But simply blaming capitalism isn’t enough. It is absolutely true that the drive for endless growth and profits stands squarely opposed to the imperative for a rapid transition off fossil fuels…” This is followed by “But we have to be honest that autocratic industrial socialism has also been a disaster for the environment, as evidenced most dramatically by the fact that carbon emissions briefly plummeted when the economies of the former Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s.”
But who in the world argues today that the authoritarian socialist countries of the Soviet Union, eastern Europe of China provide an example for countering the global warming emergency (though importantly, scientists in the Soviet Union were always in advance of their Western counterparts in understanding the danger)? It’s a bogus argument that, as her very article shows, actually dismisses socialism as a path forward.
By ‘socialism’, we are speaking of a planned, social economy operating under democratic, citizen control in which the expansion imperative of outmoded capitalism is constrained and eventually eliminated.
Klein goes on to attack one of the few socialist experiments taking place in the world: “And as I wrote in [her 2014 book] This Changes Everything, Venezuela’s petro-populism has continued this toxic tradition into the present day, with disastrous results.” Here, Venezuela, a country ravaged and underdeveloped by imperialism for several centuries, is supposed to be the standard bearer of the fight against global warming. Yes, the Bolivarian Revolution underway in Venezuela since the late 1990s should be faulted for not reducing the country’s dependence on fossil fuel exports. But Klein’s article lets the imperialist countries of North America, western Europe and the Asia-Pacific (Japan and Australia) off the hook. Those countries are the prime guilty parties, not the countries of the global south and not the long-passed authoritarian socialist countries.
So what is Naomi Klein’s alternative to the ‘capitalism’ identified in her article title? She offers the ‘novel’ but lame phrase ‘democratic eco-socialism’ and goes on to write, “Countries with a strong democratic socialist tradition — like Denmark, Sweden, and Uruguay — have some of the most visionary environmental policies in the world. From this we can conclude that socialism isn’t necessarily ecological, but that a new form of democratic eco-socialism, with the humility to learn from Indigenous teachings about the duties to future generations and the interconnection of all of life, appears to be humanity’s best shot at collective survival.”
Denmark and Sweden? These are militarized countries that happen to be in the forefront of imperialism’s new cold war against Russia and China. Denmark is a direct partner in the ongoing U.S. wars being waged in the Middle East. On August 1, its new law banning the wearing of Muslim face covering by the handful of women doing so in the country came into force. Sweden is a major armaments producer. Both countries are experiencing the rise of extreme-right movements (though not to the degree as that in Ukraine). The rise of the far-right in Europe is a direct consequence of the aggressive, imperialist foreign policies of NATO, a fact that escapes nearly every left-wing writer on the subject.
Denmark is a significant fossil fuel producer and exporter, by virtue of its oil and gas fields under the North Sea. It rannks around 40th in the world in oil and natural gas production. It remains heavily dependent on fossil fuels for the operations of its capitalist and imperialist economy, notwithstanding significant increases in wind energy production in the past several decades. Sweden, another middle imperialist power, derives more than 35 per cent of its energy from nuclear power.
Both countries are examples of the madcap, expansion dynamic of capitalism which is taking the world to ruin. Denmark is welcoming the openings of computer data centers by Apple, Google and Facebook, each of which consume huge quantities of electricity. Sweden’s IKEA corporation could serve as trophy symbol of endles, productivist and consumerist expansion.
In her article, Klein targets “neoliberalism” and “unregulated capitalism” as the source of the global warming emergency”. According to her, the problem can be traced to the onset of “neoliberalism” beginning around 1980. This fits with her argument that the militarized, imperialist countries of Denmark and Sweden offer a path forward for humanity. But it is capitalism per se, not its episodic variants, that is to blame.
None of what Klein writes in this latest article is new. She has long held up the Scandinavian countries as leaders in combatting climate change. Similarly, she has favorably cited the militarized and fossil fuel-soaked Germany  as an environmental leader. What may be new are the discussions and published responses to Klein’s article by her fellow liberal environmentalists and by the eco-utopians of the ecosocialist school of thought. We shall see.
Ever since the publication of This Change Everything, ecosocialists have offered much praise for Klein’s misleading ideas in which she posits a social democratic, green capitalism (otherwise known as ‘democratic socialism’ become ‘democratic eco-socialism’) as a path of salvation from the global warming emergency. One reason for this commonality of ideas is that Klein and the ecosocialists take little or no account of the extreme danger to a warming world of imperialist war and militarism. (They also share a dismissal of the urgency of radically reducing all the productivist waste and excess common to present-day capitalism.)
Imperialist war and militarism as well as the rise of social and national inequalities are insurmountable barriers to mitigating the worst of the global warming emergency now fully washing over the world. There will be no mitigation of global warming and its harsh consequences if the expansion dynamic of capitalism is not curtailed and eventually eliminated. That can only be done by an informed and mobilized global population, using the levers of political power to refashion human civilization. Our common goal must be the creation of a planned, social economy providing meaningful human development while respecting humanity’s utter dependence on a healthy natural environment.
 ‘Neoliberalism’ is the nonsensical term used by most Western leftists and by liberal academia in the West to describe the rise of globalized capitalism beginning the mid-1970s.
 See: Global coal pledge puts Merkel on the spot – again, by Darrell Delamaide and Silke Kersting, Handelsblatt, Nov 16, 2017 A new alliance of Western countries dedicated to phasing out coal power by 2030 [though themselves besotted with fossil fuels] leaves Germany on the sidelines as it wrestles with its own emissions dilemma.
Background articles by Roger Annis: (find these and other on the ‘Feature articles‘ page of A Socialist In Canada:
* Andreas Malm’s ‘Fossil Capital’ unearths the origin of capitalism’s attachment to fossil fuels but finishes with the shallow outlook of ecosocialism, May 12, 2018
* Has the world entered a sixth, great extinction era? If not, could capitalism soon take us there?, Jan 24, 2018 (Here as pdf: Has the world entered a sixth, great extinction era?)
* Welcome to The Anthropocene, are environmentalists equipped to respond?, Sept 14, 2016
Postscript, August 6, 2016
The following is a contribution by Roger Annis to a written discussion of the above article appearing on the website of System Change Not Climate Change:
Thank you for the commentaries on my recent article. They are informative and thought provoking. Here is a reply to some of them.
Most leftists and academics refer to the present stage of globalized capitalism as ‘neoliberalism’. Wikipedia defines neoliberalism as follows:
Neoliberalism or neo-liberalism refers primarily to the 20th-century resurgence of 19th-century ideas associated with laissez-faire economic liberalism. Those ideas include economic liberalization policies such as privatization, austerity, deregulation, free trade and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. These market-based ideas and the policies they inspired constitute a paradigm shift away from the post-war Keynesian consensus which lasted from 1945 to 1980. (End citation.)
This is also how I have heard those who use the term describe it. As a term, it is coded language, indecipherable to the ordinary mortal. Meanwhile, the modern world which the term ‘neoliberalism’ purports to describe has, to say the least, evolved greatly since the 19th century. The world suffered two world wars and the advent of the nuclear age during the 20th century. A new imperialist world order issued from WW2, with a strong element of consensus between the large imperialist countries. This replaced the dog-eat-dog competition whose two world wars nearly cost capitalism its system. This new consensus created a state of semi-permanent war by an imperialist cabal of some 15 to 20 countries (North America, western Europe, Japan and Australia/New Zealand) against all those who would challenge imperialism’s supremacy.
In the 21st century, we are living a stage of hyper capitalism (globalized capitalism) in which barriers to the expansion of capitalist trade and investment have been systematically broken down. The social wage has been eroded as have economic policies designed, at least in word, to protect national sovereignty and the social wage from the worst ravages of capitalism and imperialism. I disagree with David’s argument that ‘capitalism is capitalism’ regardless of stage and time. Why not use the term ‘globalized capitalism’ which describes the specific conditions of today instead of a term ‘neoliberalism’ referencing a long-gone 19th century whose specific history is lost on most people?
Ted writes that “globalized capitalism has been around for a very long time”. We are speaking of two different things. Yes, capitalism has always aspired to be a global system. But capitalism only came to span the ‘globe’ and all of its nooks and crannies through the course of the ascent of globalized capitalism, beginning in the late 1970s. Recall that at the outset of the 1980s, some one third of the world’s population and land mass lay outside the immediate grip of capitalism’s tentacles, in the form of the authoritarian socialist systems in Russia, China, eastern Europe and southeast Asia. (Cuba sat as a uniquely distinct and positive model of socialist development and still does.) What’s more, many if not most countries had trade and investment policies in place that blunted the worst ravages of capitalism. All this has been swept away in the ensuing several decades. This is new and unique, including the uniquely consensual forms of imperialist rule. ( I leave aside the specific case of China, where state intervention in economic policy remains substantive and leads many people to conclude that China still retains important characteristics of socialist economic planning.)
Ted argues that ecosocialism does indeed take account of the central role of imperialist war and militarism in contributing to the global warming emergency and it does, indeed, warn of the need for a drastic reduction in all the productivist excess and waste of capitalism. I won’t repeat here why I believe this is not the case. I wish it were.
I have listened to or read closely the speeches, interviews and writings of Naomi Klein since the publication of This Changes Everything. Yes, like many other environmental writers, she has opened the eyes of many people to the urgency of the global warming crisis. But advocating an anti-capitalist alternative to it all? I’m sorry, that is wishful thinking. The higher up the media chain that Naomi Klein speaks, the less that any reference to ‘capitalism’ appears. That’s fine, she is who she is. Radical environmentalists should seek as many points of agreement with her and her colleagues as possible and work from there. But what about the specific responsibilities of radical environmentalists and Marxists to describe the world as it is and make proposals to change it? It behooves us to take up the slack left by Naomi Klein and her colleagues. There are some very good writers who have written about the limitations of her book and her ‘down with unregulated capitalism’ outlook. Unfortunately, I don’t see them among the ecosocialists.
Radical environmentalists are obliged to present a vision for a drawdown of all the pillaging by expansionist capitalism of natural resources and human labour. Advocacy of transitional measures to improve the material and spiritual condition of humans while being consistent with the need of a drawdown is needed. Yes, such measures include measures not specifically socialist—vastly improving social services, reducing the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, ending megaprojects, and on and on. Many such measures are outlined in the Leap Manifesto and in other texts. But the larger tasks of societal change are more difficult because they require sharper inroads against the prerogatives of capital. Food production must be valorized socially and localized, for example. The production and consumption of energy must likewise be localized, and be scaled down. Cities have to be redesigned and rebuilt, including the creation of public transit that serves defined social needs instead of the present prerogatives of urban sprawl and the daily, hyper-movement of wage labour. The list is long. This is one of the areas where ecosocialism falls short; the other is the failure to recognize and campaign against the war and regime-change agenda of imperialism.