The ideology of right-wing populist resistance against the energy transition – as manifested in climate change denial – should be examined closely if one wants to penetrate the causes of a general social inability, far beyond the ranks of the right, to tackle the necessary transformation of the capitalist system, Tatjana Söding argues in her contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism.”
Lusatia is one of the areas of Germany most marked by extractivism. And not only in terms of the four active coal mines there: already with the establishment of lignite mining towards the end of the 18th century, Lusatia was transformed into an industrial powerhouse from a region characterized by forests, meadows and agricultural work. And now the region’s ecological and social landscape is set to change once again: from Germany’s second-largest lignite production site to a model region for the energy transition.
The public debate about how this structural change can succeed revolves almost exclusively around the issue of how jobs and economic value creation can be maintained even without the fossils. All the “development trends” that the so-called “Growth, Structural Change and Employment” Coal Commission proposed in 2019 for the future of Lusatia deal with ideas for new economic sectors – such as developing a tourism region, or a research and production site for artificial intelligence and new mobility technologies. Given the narrow focus of the debate, it is hardly surprising that other indicators of the “good life” were not examined by the Coal Commission.
Politics of recognition
Nevertheless, it is a fatal error to simplify such a profound structural change to restoring the number of jobs and the total value added after phasing coal out. After all, work is not only a source of economic security, but also of social recognition. The specific function that work had in a coal region for the feeling of recognition for people in Lusatia thus means that it is not the case any other work whatsoever can simply be substituted. The fact that recognition is not taken into account in structural change may be one of the reasons why parts of the German population are increasingly opposed to the energy transition envisaged by 2030.
Many who cannot relate to the “development trends” for a post-fossil era in Lusatia are currently being recruited as voters by the AfD. Besides the party’s two established major topics, anti-Euro and anti-migration policies, it has had a third major concern, at the latest since the 2021 federal elections: denying (man-made) climate change. The rejection of internationally coordinated climate protection policies is accompanied by local environmental patriotism.
The AfD presents itself as the patron saint of the red kite, which is threatened by the expansion of wind turbines. It positions itself as the only remaining party close to citizens that “understands” the people’s concerns – i.e., systematically manipulates these concerns – be it about the price decline in private property due to wind farms, financial burdens due to climate taxes, or the “restriction of freedom” through regulations.
However, according to them, “German nature” does not need to be protected due to climate change or the sixth mass extinction. The real threat, according to the AfD, is not only the expansion of renewable energies, but also the people of the Global South, who lack an appreciation of nature and who, they say, disturb the “ecological balance” due to their high reproduction rates.
Subjectivization of ideology
Last fall, I went to Lusatia to interview AfD politicians about their position on the climate crisis, environmental protection, and the energy transition. Before and after my interviews, I was drawn again and again to the vast coal mines, barren pine forests, and artificially created lakes shimmering in the light. I wanted to understand how AfD politicians, and sometimes their voters, can maintain an image of the world in which it is not coal mines that are literally undermining the local environment and biodiversity, heating the climate around the globe, and causing consolidated village landscapes to disappear under excavators – but “ideologized politicians” and “overpopulated countries.” What ideological constructs must people have internalized to go against the consensus of science and deny the real experiences of the climate crisis?
The question of subjectification is an essential one if the socio-ecological transformation is to succeed. For it is not only technologies that need to change in the course of these transformations, but also political identities that have been produced and taken on by people through the imperial fossil way of life. It’s a matter of making alternative propositions to people so they can continue to attain social recognition.
In this context, Louis Althusser speaks of a process of “interpellation,” which can be colloquially understood as a “calling.” Building on Karl Marx, Althusser adds a deeper understanding of the role of ideology to the analysis of capitalism’s mode of reproduction. According to this, capitalism reproduces itself through the bourgeoisie’s control over both the repressive state apparatus, i.e., the police and the military, and the ideological state apparatus. The latter reproduces the class relations underlying capitalism in a more subversive way than by threatening or deploying violence: its methods are rites, traditions, and material arrangements practiced, for example, by schools, cultural institutions, religious organizations, the family, institutional politics, and the media landscape.
In this way, capitalist society socializes people to identify with and adhere to its aims, objects, and the achievements it has produced. This identification may stem from the fact that an individual benefits from affluence, feels validated in his or her social position, or considers the power relations underlying capitalism to be legitimate.
Fossil vs. green capitalism
Fossil capitalism has thus shaped people who identify with and reproduce its underlying values. One could also speak of an ideological workers’ class that serves to maintain fossil capitalism – whether consciously or unconsciously. These internalized values would be, for example, the dogma of growth, a linear understanding of progress, the constant maximization of profit, and the devaluation of life-worlds exploited for these so-called advances: natural habitats, people who do socially reproductive work, countries of the global economic periphery, and “unproductive” subjects such as queers, people with disabilities, or unemployed people. What is distinctive about the ideology of fossil capitalism, however, is that these advances are tied to fossil fuels and the industries they fuel. Accordingly, progress can only be lasting if fossil extractivism and productivism are maintained.
But capitalism is not a static phenomenon. The strength of the capitalist classes is found above all in their ability to repeatedly circumvent the crises caused by capitalism – be they financial crises, social resistance, or the climate crisis – through a new political orientation. In response to the climate crisis, capitalism is now appearing in its newest guise: as green capitalism. The idea here is to factor the damage caused by the climate crisis into the overall economic account. Since these damages could signify a reduction in profit, green capitalism steps in whenever profits are threatened – not people, habitats, or ecosystems. Thus, green capitalism makes it its business to find new ways to continue to adhere to the growth paradigm and current property and production relations – but with slightly reduced CO2 emissions.
The “green” techno-optimistic solutions on which these are based are also based on extractivism. For example, Friederike Pank writes in the “After Extractivism” series about how the so-called “renaturation” of Lusatia is a late consequence of extractivist activity. A look outside Germany shows that green capitalism is based, for instance, on despoliation of indigenous groups, on whose land offsetting tree plantations or solar panels are built, through which European companies can give themselves the stamp of a CO2-neutral mode of production.
Set on the road to political representation
Just as fossil capitalism gave rise to political identities, green capitalism invokes political subjects, such as consumers, whose need for justice is to be satisfied by consuming “sustainable” products. Or so-called social entrepreneurs, who are supposed to find their calling in developing “sustainable” business models. By ideologically invoking the ideological state apparatus, green capitalism now manages to socio-economically “reward” other parts of the working class, thus creating an alliance that goes far beyond the production owners. The ideological workers of fossil capitalism, previously remunerated by driving a fancy diesel car, doing “value-added” work, and contributing to national affluence, are thus figuratively placed on the road of political representation.
Their identity, which became the standard in the age of fossil capitalism, now seems to be devalued, even defamed. Only the AfD still offers a political home to all those ideological workers who green capitalism has “terminated for operational reasons” – through climate change denial and defense of fossil extractivism. The right-wing populist uprising against the climate protection policies of the green-liberal mainstream can thus be understood as one waged by ideological workers of fossil capitalism against ideological workers of green capitalism. It would thus be short-sighted to see only climate change deniers and opponents of a coal phase-out by 2030 or 2038 as those who continue to adhere to a nature-destroying doctrine.
The real causes for the appearance of the right-wing populist anti-climate protection revolt stem instead from the liberal-conservative mainstream. At present, it is not only the AfD that is once again putting the date of the coal phase-out up for debate in the Bundestag. The German government, led by a coalition of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) and Liberals (FDP), is also toying with the idea of postponing the coal phase-out in light of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Eerily quickly, a target that was still considered a “lance of progress” during the coalition negotiations is back up for negotiation in light of the goal of energy independence from Russia.
Transformation on several levels
After vehement public criticism, the Ministry of Economics and Climate Protection is backpedalling for the time being. Now, the energy from Russia that is lacking is to be compensated not only with coal from Germany, but also with oil supplies from Qatar and liquefied gas imports from the United States. This is not only morally doubtful – Qatar too is significantly involved in the brutal proxy war in Yemen – but also simply not an acceptable solution in view of the climate crisis. Just as fossil capitalism relied on economic performance, the German government’s current energy policy perpetuates the growth dogma and the invisibility of social crises.
Because the current federal government’s climate protection policy is not anti-capitalist, it is not social-ecological. But this would be necessary to overcome the inseparable climate and social injustice crises. From an ecological point of view, Germany does not have to free itself from the clutches of energy dependence on Russia, but dare to reduce its energy budget. From the postcolonial justice perspective, an age of postextractivism can dawn only when the outsourcing of extractivist activities ceases and an understanding of nature that does not value it in light of its productivity for economic processes is established.
From a political perspective, both of these transformations require a deeper understanding of the ideological work that people have done in times of fossil capitalism. And they require the possibility to be able to gain an equal or greater degree of recognition in a post-extractivist world. Green capitalism cannot and will not provide all of this. For this reason: Those who want to turn away from extractivism must overcome capitalism.
Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here: https://after-extractivism.berlinergazette.de