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A Reply to Parenti

Our friend and MR author Christian Parenti misunderstood our brief comments (“Notes from the Editors,” MR, November 2013) on his article in the summer issue of Dissent. We did not challenge the science of climate change, which tells us that carbon emissions must cease before one trillion metric tons of carbon have been emitted—a tipping point that will be reached in about 2040 under business as usual. There is no question that the fossil-fuel industry must go. In fact the reality that the world is confronted by a planetary emergency with respect to climate change (and the global ecological problem as a whole) and that the critical threshold will likely be approached by around 2040 (or even sooner) under capitalist economics as usual, is one that has been insisted upon by Monthly Review for twenty years (see in this respect John Bellamy Foster, The Vulnerable Planet [1994], 11–12, 27–28, and more recently John Bellamy Foster and Brett Clark, “The Planetary Emergency,” MR, December 2012).

Where we strongly disagree with Parenti is in his notion that such an enormous transformation in the structure of the economic and social order as is now required can be accomplished through what he presents as a mild, and thus necessarily slow, “reformist” strategy, relying primarily on the two proposals he advances: (1) using the power of the executive branch of the federal government in the United States to order the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to impose additional costs on fossil-fuel use through the Clean Air Act, and (2) ordering government agencies, presumably at the initiative of the White House, to use their purchasing power to “buy clean energy, electric vehicles, and retrofit buildings for energy conservation.” Based on such measures, Parenti contends, it is possible that “capitalism can transition off fossil fuels over the next several decades.”

All we can say in reply is that the scale of the problem requires far larger transformations in the United States and in the world as a whole than he envisions. One only has to think of how much the EPA, a regulatory agency traditionally captured by those being “regulated,” would be likely to accomplish in this respect through the Clean Air Act, or how much difference government purchasing of “clean energy” is likely to accomplish by itself—even with the Democrats in office! (Parenti tells us that the government’s own expenditure is the key to change since “government is more than a third of the U.S. economy.” But this is correct only if one adds in transfer payments, which are spent not by the government but by private individuals. Total government spending on consumption and investment, including state and local spending, is less than 20 percent of GDP, and federal government purchases of goods and services—most of which are on the military—are considerably less than that.)

In MR we have consistently supported leading climate scientist James Hansen’s fee-and-dividend strategy (technically a carbon fee rather than a tax) to be imposed on fossil-fuel companies and ratcheted up steadily, with one hundred percent of the revenue going to the population immediately. The effect would be that the great majority of the population—who have less than average carbon footprints—would gain from the exchange. We see this as an approach consistent with class-based political mobilization. We have also explicitly supported most other parts of Hansen’s strategy (though not his promotion of nuclear energy), including stopping the recourse to unconventional fossil fuels in the face of the peaking of crude oil, and the closing of coal-fired plants. It is the Hansen approach that has become the core of the really existing mass-based, grassroots climate struggle against coal and unconventionals (in particular tar sands oil and the Keystone XL pipeline) in the United States. The same general strategy toward curtailing emissions could conceivably be adopted globally, but will depend on the generation of a powerful popular-front strategy from below—which, given the deep conflict with the vested interests, will have to be truly radical in character (see John Bellamy Foster, “The Fossil Fuels War,” MR, September 2013).

Going beyond Hansen’s climate-change exit strategy, we have argued that such measures would only be a start, and that it will be necessary to promote a full-scale ecological revolution to heal the rift in humanity’s metabolism with nature through system change rather than climate change (on all of this see John Bellamy Foster, “James Hansen and the Climate-Change Exit Strategy,” MR, February 2013). This has to be seen as a two-stage process, involving the most radical ecological measures conceivable at present—which necessarily have to be anti-capitalist since putting sustainability before accumulation—coupled with a longer-term strategy in which fundamental changes in production, distribution, community, and culture can be envisioned. All of this needs to be seen as a process of ecological and social revolution.

The truth is that if we are going to make the global transition to protect the world from catastrophic climate change on an equitable basis, then the rich countries will need to reduce their carbon emissions annually by 10 percent or so. Such measures are not going to come from the top in capitalist society, though there may be splits at the top that open the way to more radical and revolutionary change. The enormous changes that are needed can only be accomplished by the kind of “acceleration of history” (which is how the conservative nineteenth-century cultural historian Jacob Burckhardt described revolution in his Reflections on History) that comes into play when the masses of people enter directly into the process of social change as a world-historical force. Socialism is not something in the distant future, as Parenti seems to think, but rather, as Marx and Engels described it in The Communist Manifesto, it is above all a “movement of the present.” The logic of profit and property needs to be opposed and ultimately overcome by the logic of humanity and the earth. Today we are seeing the growth of what is being called an “ecosocialist movement” that represents exactly such a strategy, and has the potential to become the impetus of a more revolutionary ecological struggle.

Parenti uses the example of Bolivia to argue that a revolutionary approach to climate change will not work, explaining that the Bolivian Revolution is expected to require the better part of this century, and is not to be accomplished in a few years or decades. But this misses the point. The Bolivian people, through their massive struggles, have moved history in a direction that is aimed at ending the alienation of humanity and of nature. It is Bolivia’s revolutionary process, and not reformism, that led to the famous “Peoples’ Agreement” at the World Peoples’ Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba in 2010—proposing a radical global strategy on climate change (included as an appendix in Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism [2011]). If Bolivia cannot actually alter world carbon relations through its own attempts to build an ecological and indigenous-based socialism, this is because it is an extremely poor country in the periphery of the capitalist world economy.

Parenti’s main point is that “the struggle for climate mitigation and adaptation cannot wait for revolution.” We think this an odd construction. We would say rather: The struggle for climate mitigation and adaptation needs to be revolutionary in character; it cannot wait upon a process of slow, mild, ineffective reforms constrained by the logic of capital accumulation. It is certainly true, as Parenti observes, that socialism is no “cure-all.” But the existing capitalist order left to itself—not seriously threatened by a revolutionary revolt that pushes against its own intrinsic logic—is a runaway train taking us over the edge of the cliff.

Parenti concludes by saying he is trying to “start a conversation about the state. The capitalist state is not just a tool of capital’s rule. It is also an arena of class struggle. If the struggle for climate justice is to get anywhere it will have to think more deeply about the contradictions of the capitalist state.” We agree. But the principal contradiction of the state under monopoly-finance capital, as exemplified by the United States, is that it is not in any sense a state of, by, and for the people, but the state of an increasingly financialized capitalist class. It is a plutocratic structure with some formal democratic elements, which are themselves receding. This is reinforced by the whole global development of capitalism in our time. Under these circumstances a war of movement rather than simply a war of position is needed. Only a real revolutionary, democratic resurgence of the oppressed—which means tens of millions of people in the street in the United States, and hundreds of millions, even billions, globally, will change existing conditions. The epochal crisis will not be solved by executive orders issued from the White House by Obama or his successors. Although we would certainly support the kinds of measures Parenti advocates, we should not fool ourselves. The time for amelioration is over. What is needed is a movement directed against the system of capital accumulation, demanding new ways of living in the context of the upsurge of global humanity: a new environmental proletariat. And if we want concessions from capital, it is only in the face of such a threat that they will emerge.

Is it possible for collective humanity under current historical conditions to intervene to save the planet? The answer is Yes. Is it likely? At this point we would have to say No. Yet, simply because this is the case we cannot afford to give up one inch in the struggle but must endeavor to unleash it on a far more massive scale. We are in an unprecedented global situation with the future of humanity (and innumerable other species) ultimately in question. Whatever legitimacy capitalism previously obtained from its capacity to meet the growing needs of the population has long since departed, and the result is waste, wreckage, exploitation, inequality, poverty (accompanied by absurd levels of wealth in very few hands), and a looming planetary emergency. Under these circumstances for humanity to hesitate is to threaten the loss of all. We do not know if the planet as a place of human habitation will be saved. What we do know is that hundreds of millions, even billions, of people will join the struggle to save it. And we ourselves will be with them—along with Christian Parenti.

2014, Volume 65, Issue 11 (April)
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