The ruling class is using the notion of “our common enemy”, the climate crisis, to legitimate a new cycle of “creative destruction.” The resulting dispossession of the middle class, the increasing (over-)exploitation of workers in the name of “saving the planet,” and the growing burden on the Global South could and should trigger new internationalist movements to arise, argues scholar-activist Boris Kagarlitsky in his contribution to BG’s “Allied Grounds” text series.
Already in the early 2000s, the climate crisis began to be perceived as the main challenge that humanity has to face in the 21st century. And the vast majority of scientists and politicians supported the conclusion of the researchers, who insisted that humanity’s massive use of hydrocarbon fuels was the main cause of global warming. True, there is a minority in the scientific community that disputes this conclusion. However, “climate change” is happening one way or another. And there is every reason to take the problem seriously. And even if we accept the viewpoint of skeptics who point to causes of global warming that have nothing to do with human activity, this does not eliminate the issue of pollution any more than it eliminates the issue of unsustainable use of nonrenewable resources.
Nevertheless, discussions about the socially urgent changes brought about by the environmental crisis and the changing climate situation have quickly reached an impasse: the discussion has not been about socio-economic transformation, but about technology and scientific theories, and they have been discussed by amateurs who know little to nothing about science or technology. In any case, regardless of which climate theories are objectively correct, it is a question of transforming the structures of capitalist society.
As Eve Croeser points out, left-wing activists are divided between those who believe that “capitalism cannot be reformed in a way that overcomes the climate crisis” and those who are more moderate, who believe that partial reforms are still possible and seek to “use such reforms as a platform from which more radical and profound changes can be launched.” But that’s the thing: the main problem is not climate, but economic interests, in one way or another, affected by the environmental agenda. Whatever technological decisions are made, the obvious question arises: “Who will pay for the banquet?”
In fact, by the mid-2010s, the rapid change in the dominant discourse, from climate denial to its transformation into a theme of international summits of heads of state and government, indicated that the ruling class had more or less reset its agenda. The essence of this approach is to mobilize public opinion in favor of measures aimed at solving environmental problems by drastically reducing the use of fossil fuels, in fact, to solve problems related to the structural reconstruction of the economy in the interests of corporate capital.
Throughout the 2000s there was a gradual weakening of economic growth, slower productivity growth, and increased market volatility. Taken together, all this indicated the exhaustion of the existing model of development. This refers both to the socio-economic policy of neoliberalism, leading to a gradual narrowing of demand and an increase in the credit debt of populations due to low wages, and to the exhaustion of the possibilities of the dominant production technology model.
The challenge faced by political and corporate representatives of the ruling class is to restart economic growth without sacrificing the fundamental principles of neoliberalism, in particular without changing the balance of power between labor and capital. It is necessary to invest heavily in technological projects, but it is important that this be done at the expense of society, not corporations, wherever possible. And it is also important that the growth of the economy should not lead to a sharp increase in wages, a strengthening of trade unions, and that government regulation and stimulation of the economy not be accompanied by a system of public control over the decisions made.
The preparation and adoption of decisions must remain a completely closed procedure, the meaning of which is understood only by specialists (actually, by representatives of the ruling class who give tasks to specialists), but at the same time public support for these decisions must be preserved and the process itself perceived as legitimate. The formulation of a goal supported by public opinion and even by radical critics of the system is very important for this purpose.
Socializing the costs
Looking at the environmental agenda as presented by Greta Thunberg and other popular activists, economic journalist Nikolai Protsenko concludes that this movement is “quite organically incorporated into the new goals of corporations.” The introduction of new technologies, necessary not only to solve environmental problems but also to stimulate economic growth as part of such an agenda, is supposed to take place at the expense of public funds and in the interests of big capital. As Protsenko notes, oil and gas corporations are willingly and quite voluntarily reducing investment in profitable fossil fuel production and refining projects while demanding huge government subsidies for unprofitable clean energy programs.
Where governments cannot cope with the burden, global financial markets come to the rescue. For example, the European Union Recovery Instrument, created in 2020, undertook to finance investments of 750 billion euros needed to ensure the so-called energy transition, with the condition that the funds would be obtained by borrowing on the international financial markets. As Protsenko notes, it is precisely Greta Thunberg’s generation, which has enthusiastically supported this agenda but has not been involved in the discussion of its financial component, that will have to pay the bill.
It is no coincidence that the capitalist ruling class’s sharp turn toward climate issues is occurring in parallel with worsening systemic problems. But any reconfiguration of the system, even one oriented toward preserving its basic parameters, is inevitably accompanied by struggles between interest groups. Some companies and industries are losing ground, while others are growing stronger. Conservative opposition to the climate agenda is not due to the limitations of people who do not want to believe in the relevant theories, but to the concerns of business owners who fear serious problems or want to avoid unnecessary costs.
However, the greater such opposition within business communities, the more logical it becomes to want to shift the maximum of problems onto the shoulders of the population and thus mitigate the conflict within the ruling class. The corporate environmental agenda presupposes sacrifice on the part of the working classes for the sake of preserving the efficiency of capital. In short: expropriation of the middle class and increased exploitation of workers in the name of “saving the planet.”
Passing on the costs to the periphery
The countries of the capitalist periphery, especially those that have advanced along the path of industrialization over the past few decades, are also receiving their share of the additional social burden. The growth of production in these countries occurred primarily at the expense of “cheap labor” and weak environmental regulation, which sharply reduced the costs of investors. At the same time, the dependence on markets in the capitalist center countries remained largely intact. The rise in wages, coupled with the successes of industrialization, has somewhat strengthened the domestic markets of the peripheral countries as well as China (which can no longer be classified as a classical periphery), but it has also made goods more expensive and reduced export opportunities, to the point where some countries of the Global South are now indirectly subsidizing consumption in the West.
An important aspect of the decarbonization policy is the introduction of a carbon tax, or rather punitive duties, to be imposed on goods and services imported into the European Union depending on the size of their carbon footprint. Over the past few decades, as Western countries have increased their environmental concerns, EU and US corporations have systematically shifted dirty production to poorer countries, which will now have to pay the costs of the new climate agenda as well. Indirectly, these policies can help some industrial production – on a new technological and ecological level – to return to historically more developed countries. In any case they reproduce and even exacerbate global inequalities.
“Obviously,” Protsenko concludes, “this approach simply reproduces the usual relationship between the center and the periphery of the world capitalist system, reflecting the inequality of opportunity in the process of capitalist accumulation.”
A new cycle of “creative destruction”
In the new circumstances, as Western governments embark on the path of ecological (climate) protectionism, peripheral economies face an extremely difficult dilemma. Preserving external markets can only be achieved by accepting the new rules. This means that resources that could have been used to raise the standard of living of their own population and create at least elements of a welfare state will be used to cover the costs of adapting to the changed conditions. At the same time, there will also be a partial reverse transfer of production to the old industrialized countries, which have the necessary technology and personnel. This will make the labor market in the peripheral countries even tenser.
Of course, the progressive Western public and left-wing movements will demand that the richer countries share with the less fortunate some of the financial resources and technology necessary for such a transition. And after some wrangling, these demands will likely be partially met. But, firstly, such subsidies will cover only part of the costs imposed on the periphery, and unevenly, so that there will be losers and winners inside the Global South, the balance of power will change, and new contradictions and conflicts are likely to arise. And secondly, this global charity will again be paid for from the state budgets. In other words, again at the expense of the workers, at the expense of society.
Of course, all of this does not mean that the Left needs to abandon concern for ecology. “Yet the problem of this is,” notes Protsenko, “that this kind of goal-setting completely contradicts the nature of capitalism, a dynamic non-equilibrium system engaged in constant ‘creative destruction’ and based on the principle of endless accumulation, unevenly distributed between its core and periphery. The notorious energy transition is precisely such a new cycle of creative destruction. In order to give capitalism a new stimulus, its former technological platform based on fossil fuels must be eliminated and replaced by “green” technologies, with all losses being routinely borne by the state (and ultimately by taxpayers) and profits privatized by corporations.”
Reconnecting social movements with labor movements
Thus, it is the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the world population who not only become victims of structural reconstruction, but also appear “guilty” of environmentally irresponsible behavior, while their resistance is seen as immoral. The “yellow vest movement” in France, for instance, is just one symptom of many: It has demonstrated the flip side of this agenda when another “ecological” tax on carbon fuels severely hit the budgets of the poorest provincial families, which unsurprisingly provoked mass protests.
The environmental discourse as promoted by the ruling class and the NGOs funded by it, who have amicably supported Greta Thunberg’s passionate speeches, supports a strategy of capitalist renewal that, far from offering any serious concessions to social strata, leads instead to even more radical segregation and division of society, both nationally and globally. How feasible in principle this strategy is, both socially and organizationally and technologically, remains a big question. But it is clear that in reality the environmental agenda is not a response to the crisis of capitalism, but merely a pretext for unleashing a new and violent advancement of the system in which all of its contradictions will be revealed in full scale.
Environmental reform in the interests of the majority of humanity, as long as the capitalist order remains as it is, is impossible in principle. Thus, environmentally woke social movements of the Greta Thunberg generation are challenged to undertake a profound reorientation and connect with labor movements in the Global North and the Global South. Ultimately, this means building new internationalist movements inspired and driven by the potential power of those who could seize the means of production and challenge the capitalist order as such.
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