The moral force of today’s environmental movements seems undeniable. But the very qualities that give them their particular strength and appeal seem to make them resistant to becoming agents of fundamental change, namely the transition from capitalism to eco-socialism, argues anthropologist, activist, and author Florin Poenaru in his contribution to the BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series, urging us to reassess the potential of the global proletariat.
This year marks the centenarian anniversary of the publication of two seminal books. One is György Lukacs’ “History and Class Consciousness” which, despite its convoluted history, marked the birth of what is generally referred to as Western Marxism. The second one is the complete and updated edition of “The Decline of the West,” by conservative philosopher Oswald Spengler. The two works are radically different in scope, structure, and style. Nonetheless, what they share is an attempt to think in and through history.
In his text, Lukacs offered a philosophical grounding of the Leninist revolutionary moment and postulated the international proletariat as the true subject of history (and revolution), and the only possible savior of humanity. Spengler, by contrast, broke with the linear, optimistic, and Eurocentric vision of history in favor of a pessimistic and organic understanding of cultures-as-organisms that come to life, mature, and eventually die out. His bestseller helped decline gain its ‘good name’ in publishing and helped the discourse on declinism reach a temporary climax.
Lukacs’ influence on both Western and Eastern Marxism (see the Budapest School and the Praxis School) is indisputable. Spengler’s work, on the other hand, has had an impact primarily in the conservative camp. In these circles, declinism expresses the nostalgia for the West’s (white) supremacy and hegemony that is being lost today. But there was nothing inherently western in Spengler’s analysis, despite its title. The western trajectory of growth and eventual decline that he wrote about was indicative of all civilizations. Inevitably, they all move from expansion to terminal decline. The question for him was what happens when civilizations start to break down.
Apocalypse and agency
It seems we live in such an epochal moment today when the overlap of several crises (or, to use a recently fashionable term, poly-crisis) threatens to bring down not just the western civilization but human existence on earth as such. Chief among the drivers of decline is climate change accelerated by the deadly effects of a global economy built on the incessant burning of ever larger quantities of fossil fuel and other energy-intensive processes that heat the atmosphere. Perhaps at no time during the Holocene did humanity as a whole face the very tangible possibility of its extinction as it does now due to the cascading effects of climate catastrophe.
What sort of political mobilization is then possible in the face of the apocalypse? Is revolution still possible, either to avoid it or to better manage its consequences? Is there today a Lukacs-type universal political subject – e.g. a ‘global proletariat’ or a new ‘eco-socialist class’ – capable to offer hope and salvation? These are just some of the broader and crucial questions that emerge in face of climate crisis. The issue of political mobilization and the ability to think and act strategically in a time of civilizational collapse is of paramount importance, because decline can be quite demoralizing and politically constraining, and has historically fostered cynicism and nihilism. Times of decline also offer fertile ground for the emergence of prophets of the apocalypse, doomsayers, and self-proclaimed saviors. Hence the question becomes: Can declinism be politicized so that it does not lead to defeatism, resignation, and fatalism? And if so, by whom?
Business as usual is over?
The proposals already on the table do not offer much succor. Green capitalism, by which I mean all sorts of proposals to greening the economy under various forms of New Deals, is both utopian and ruthlessly pragmatic. Utopian in the sense that it holds out the prospect that all will be well by simply replacing fossil fuels with “green” alternatives, without profoundly altering the basic foundations of our relations of production and accumulation. Pragmatic, in the sense that it seeks new vistas for generating profit in a context characterized by falling rates of profit everywhere on Earth. Green capitalism recognizes that there is indeed an asteroid-like problem coming straight at “us”: Global capitalism fueled by burning fossils disrupted the environment and the climate to the point at which not just profits, but the very survival of the capitalist class itself is in peril.
Indicative of this mood is the booming doom-prepping industry. The richest of the rich try to safeguard their wealth and lives in highly exclusive and well-defended bunkers. But they don’t even have to go that far to give (architectural) shape to the scale of the problem. Suffice it to own an expensive house in Malibu (for which Mike Davis made a compelling case to let it burn). Isn’t this enough to understand that the risk society created by climate breakdown offers no immediate guarantee for the rich either? Therefore, one could say that green capitalism has the merit of at least acknowledging the seriousness of the problem, since the end of “business as usual” is inherently inscribed in its premise.
When the Rhine and the Danube were reduced to a trickle in the summer of 2022 because of severe draught and heat, it became clear that the old model will inevitably collapse soon under the weight of increasingly long-lasting disruptions. But green capitalism wants to have the cake and eat it too. It perceives the crisis of the dying old world as a chance to restore profitability. Green capitalism is basically a way of saying: we will save the world by restoring profitability (and vice-versa). Finally, aside from the profit motive easily discernable at the heart of any program of greening the economy, as Boris Kagarlitsky also noted, there is not enough questioning of how “green” this transition actually is. Copious amounts of evidence (both ethnographic and journalistic) show that what are proposed as “green” solutions heavily rely on destructive, polluting, and ultimately global warming-inducing forms of extractivism, production, and circulation that entail environmental devastation, labor exploitation, and indigenous expropriation.
Degrowth inside the capitalist system?
Degrowth is increasingly touted as a more radical solution to our current predicament. It, too, has a valid point. The essence of the capitalist system is its need for constant growth. The infinite accumulation of profit is its goal. This leads to an assortment of problems, most importantly overproduction and the exhaustion of resources of every kind. This part is clear. But how one can achieve degrowth inside the capitalist system, that is, without overthrowing it first? If degrowth means overcoming capitalism and its inherent logic, then it is nothing less than a revolutionary proposition. But this raises the question about the social forces able to do just that – again, a ‘global proletariat’ or a new ‘eco-socialist class’?
Instead of thinking through the issue of the revolutionary class, many degrowth proposals aim at some sort of managed, rationally and democratically controlled capitalism – a system in which excesses are cut out and thrown away. Isn’t this the ideological equivalent of the decluttering fad today? Frugality, modesty, living within one’s means are more or less explicitly part and parcel of degrowth proposals. Critics of degrowth rightfully point out to two immediate problems. One is that economies around the world are growing at miniscule rates, if not simply shrinking. For example, as a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Germany’s economy is expected to contract by 4% in 2023. Is this not degrowth? Secondly, the problem of degrowth seems to be a “first world” problem. The model can hardly get traction in contexts in which billions of people live in poverty and underdevelopment.
Militant bourgeois environmentalism
Another movement that seeks to deal with the impending collapse is what I call militant bourgeois environmentalism, best represented, perhaps, by Greta Thunberg. It plays an important role in drumming up the seriousness of the situation and the need to act while there is still a chance. At the same time, it is a type of mobilization that emerges from and speaks to the elites, the ultra-rich, and the corporations: precisely the social actors responsible for the mess we are in. Challenging them, loudly and compellingly (“how dare you?”), even shaming them in COP meetings, is hardly a way to change the system.
Thunberg-style activism is heavily reliant on carefully choreographed media appearances instead of painful and painstaking community organizing and popular mobilization that would, last but not least, enable internationalist connections to grassroots and indigenous environmental mobilization across the Global South. The goal of bourgeois environmentalism is to get the competing ruling class fractions to act together in order to preserve their interests (and thus, it is hoped, the rest of the planet), instead of offering tools that catalyze popular uprisings against the ruling class – and thus initiate processes and struggles in the course of which a new revolutionary class could emerge, the very social force needed to challenge capitalism. Ultimately, militant bourgeois environmentalism is a trickle-down environmentalism, an echo of the economic ideology of neoliberalism from which it also emerges.
More radical and anarchic versions of bourgeois environmentalism are prone to be caught in their own contradictions as well. For example, suffice it to note that Andreas Malm’s proposal to blow up a pipe was in fact carried out by a military strike destroying the North Stream pipeline. Needless to say that for our discussion it is neglibe whether this was done by the Ukraine military or by the US military or by a cooperation of both. Because the primary issue is: abstracting the fossil fuel industry from the complex web of the capitalist world-system, as Malm does, will not lead to a systemic change. The very logic that made fossil fuel use and abuse possible will continue to prevail if one pipeline or the other gets blown up.
Searching for the new universal subject
What seems to lurk in the background of all these proposals is an inbuilt strain of austerity thinking. Austerity in various forms, and proposed by various actors, seems to become the de facto political response to our declining circumstances. The list is growing by the day: from shorter showers and lower indoor temperatures, to mandatory veganism and other measures aimed at limiting consumption. Increasingly, it seems, the very possibility of the “green” transition is premised upon various forms of austerity measures, usually for the less well off. In short, while the rich can maintain their fleet of private jets and yachts and the most powerful armies in the world generate more emissions than several countries combined, the poor are asked to eat less meat and reduce energy consumption (which they do anyway because of skyrocketing prices). This systemic inequality and the related social discontent, appears today less as a breeding ground for class struggles that could generate the social force that is so urgently needed for systemic change, and more like a void that is instrumentalized by the extreme right and climate deniers.
Is there a viable alternative in this situation? C.L.R. James wrote that one influence for him becoming a Marxist was Spengler’s “The Decline of the West,” an experience that he shares with José Carlos Mariátegui. What both non-European Marxists and revolutionaries saw in the vision of the declining West was precisely the possibility of world socialist revolution. Ruins as the womb of utopia. For James, western civilization and culture was not in decline, they were already dead. But precisely this death opened the possibility of seeing once again beyond their confines and thus to properly grasp world-universal history. As Matthieu Renault noted, in James’ work this allows for a genuine reinvention. Could a similar strategy be viable today, not only in relation to the West, but to capitalism as a world-system, built and expanded by the burning of fossils for fuel and driven by the logic of infinite accumulation and profiteering?
If the still dominant system is not declining or collapsing, but has already died out (still being a walking dead admittedly), this means we can reimagine ourselves as survivors, as displaced people seeking to take shelter and trying to find refuge after catastrophe. In such a context, the refugee (due to war, climate, economic, or political causes) might become the Lukacsian universal subject and as such a source of inspiration for developing new internationalist solidarities as well as new class politics and class alliances. Above all, as the arguably most visible – also read: most discussed – representatives of the global proletariat, the worldwide movements of refugees and migrants could become agents of a fundamental change: the transition from capitalism to (eco) socialism.
Admittedly, the idea of reinventing politics based on the image of a crisis-ridden planet which functions as a fragile refugee shelter might appear grim. But the already tangible alternative is much worse: the civilization on earth as a network of prisons, camps, and detention centers erected by rival ruling classes to keep global population under control during generalized wars and climate collapse.
Note by the editors: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “Allied Grounds” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “Allied Grounds” website. Have a look here: https://allied-grounds.berlinergazette.de