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Changing climates

Karl Marx and climate change

Clive A Brown

Given the efforts around the world to discredit climate change science as a “socialist plot”, it is worth looking not at the relationship of socialist states to climate change, but to foundational socialist thinker Karl Marx.

Whether Marx would have been happy with the term “socialist” is debatable, but certainly by the 1960s more than 60% of the world’s governments described themselves as socialist, and almost all claimed a lineage back to Marx. So, given the influence of his thought, what would Marx say about climate change and its implications for historical development?

To begin with, Marx was very interested in the natural sciences and believed that Charles Darwin was doing for natural history what he was doing for human history.

Coincidentally, in 1859, Marx was writing Das Kapital – his analysis of capitalism – in London, when and where physicist John Tyndall was also conducting his experiment into the radiative properties of C02 (an experiment which was never linked to human-made gases until the 1960s). There were no measurements of global greenhouse gas until the year 1960 (315 ppm). Marx himself was born at around 265ppm in 1818.

But even if the significance of greenhouse gases had been brought to Marx’s attention, he would not have thought them significant in terms of the impact that humans can have on nature. This is because as a child of the enlightenment, Marx did not think of capitalism in terms of the anthropocene. Nature was postulated as an inert constant, based on the Holocene.

In Marx’s materialism, history was looked at as a succession of “modes of production” in which the interplay of human-made historical circumstance and human action determined the development of human society. As Marx once said:

(Humans) make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.

Marx did not believe in human nature as essence (that humans are greedy or self-destructive), but rather that the appearance of a universal nature is itself historically produced. Therefore, if humans are to change their nature today, it is in recognition of the fact that human history and geological history are on a collision course at 10,000 times the natural rate.

But for Marx, who lived without the insights of the earth sciences, the natural world was simply an eternal and immutable container in which a human-made dialectic would unravel. In fact, nature – “mother nature” – would even wait for social organisation to harvest its abundance, a “realm of freedom” against the oppression of being dependant on both a “primitive” relationship with nature and the brutality of class systems, where only necessity seemed to reign.

Of course, the most significant “mode of production” that would bring about this “freedom from necessity” is capitalism, the economic and social form of organisation that Marx spent 30 years analysing (Das Kapital) in the reading room at the British Museum.

Contrary to the orthodoxy that Marx was simply “anti-capitalist”, Marx profoundly believed that capitalism to be at once the best and the worst thing ever to happen to the human race.

It is the best, in that no “mode of production” can compete with capitalism for its efficiency and sheer recklessness. No other mode of production (for example feudalism and slavery) ever has and no other mode of production ever will.

If you try and compete with the capitalist system of production – at least before capitalism has completely encircled the globe – good luck. You won’t get very far before capital brings you back into its orbit. The Chinese understand this and have adopted capitalist techniques of production, while even advancing new technologies under-developed in the west such as solar power.

For Marx, the great thing about capitalism is the way it forms competition between capital and labour and raises the productive capacity of society. Because it must constantly expand, it is forced to adopt techniques of mass production and apply technology in ways that produces abundance – or so Marx thought.

The worst thing about capitalism is that on its way to producing abundance, it produces greater alienation and exploitation than any social system. Today, it is a class system that is polarised in global terms such that the classes are largely separated in time and space. Third world workers produce the wealth that rules over them.

AAP/Paul Miller

Of course, Marx wrote a polemic with Engels, The Communist Manifesto (one of the very few places he actually used the word “communism”). This is very different from his “scientific” writings. It appealed to the working class to become aware of their collective situation in order to facilitate a situation Marx saw as inevitable: that capitalism would bring about an overthrow of the capitalist class, ending in a system where the species would inherit the productive capacity but without the suffering and exploitation.

But this is where, today, Marx’s analysis runs into trouble. It is not looking at all like this is the way the movie is going to end as we stand on the edge of the climate change abyss. Rather, one of the essential drivers of capitalism – the use of energy to drive machines, the transition from manu to machino-facture – is responsible for the vast majority of emissions we now know are providing an alternative movie ending.

Without being able to foresee the climate forcings that humans are capable of, Marx’s productivism – an ethos he shares with capitalists themselves – saw nothing intrinsically wrong with continued growth.

Capitalism has also proven to be far more resilient than Marx ever imagined. The growth of a welfare state in first world countries, the spectacular rise of mass media as an agent of the transmission of capitalist ideology and the success of capitalism at delivering goods to consumers,have underwritten the heralding of capitalism itself as the “last viable social form” or ‘the end of history’.

Marx’s work clearly predated any empirical understanding of the relationship of capitalism to climate, and his analysis clearly could not anticipate its impact on the environment. He would not have been able to appreciate that if capitalism fails, it won’t be through internal contradictions, but by encountering the limits to growth that it has imposed on the natural world through climate change.

But this is where at least one aspect of Marx’s analysis can be salvaged: the relationship between what he calls the “forces” and “relations” of production. The forces of production include technology, techniques and how labour is used in the production process. The relations of production are the social, legal, political and ideological structures that regulate the forces of production.

For Marx, the forces of production will inevitably “outrun” the relations of production. The relations of production become a “fetter” on the forces, or they hold back the development of the forces of production. It is like saying that even though 21st century technology exists to produce abundance with minimal impact on the environment, we continue to live with 18th century relations of production where an antiquated class system founded on old money has a stranglehold over its own “rate of profit”.

For example, as long as a coal company can keep digging up coal to produce “black power” and see a guaranteed rate of return, it will do whatever it takes to lobby government, to influence power elites, to donate to political parties, and try and stop alternatives developing. For many years, oil companies owned patents to solar technology – not to develop alternatives to oil, but to stymie development of alternatives to fossil fuel.

In a really odd way, the policies of the Abbott government represent something straight out of a Marxist case study. Overseas, the contradiction between the forces and relations of production are resolving themselves with by embracing the idea that technology needs to be “sustainable”, which Abbott labels the “green ideology”.

But here in Australia, we are seeing a mentality that powerfully brings Marx’s otherwise outdated analysis back to centre stage. The Abbott government, a strong supporter of fossil-fuel subsidies, last week made a second attempt to abolish the Clean Energy Finance Corporation, which was rejected in the Senate. The CEFC has just made a A$20 million loan to a Wave Energy company, but also finances solar, wind, and waste-to-energy projects.

You couldn’t script a better example of establishment power moving against the rise of sustainable technology. It is so radically out of step with the rest of the world. Overseas, these kinds of technologies are heralded with the capacity to produce base-load power or at least support a mixed-energy economy which will severely draw down dependence on fossil fuels. Holding them back is so clearly an act of protecting antiquated vested interests who are trading in the lives of future generations.

The situation becomes even clearer when we look at who Abbott has appointed to head the Renewable Energy Target review: climate sceptic Dick Warburton.

Interestingly, it is new money start-up companies who have had great success in an area of cutting edge innovation. Google is one such big investor in renewable energy, and recenty paid an astonishingly large sum for a home energy management company.

But much more than this is needed. The bright side of capitalism is that it is so good at satisfying consumer demand, and it is also quick and flexible at retooling to satisfy new demands. In his “Do the Maths” tour last year, Bill McKibben argued that during World War Two, industrial capitalism was agile in being able to convert car factories into factories to produce planes and weapons to counter the threat of Nazism.

Capitalism can also do this for climate change. This time, thankfully, it doesn’t have to be armaments. But the problem we face is that the warming we have committed ourselves to cannot be responded to later. It must be dealt with now if humans are to take control of their own destiny, as well as that of our fellow species.

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