The New York Times podcaster Ezra Klein recently interviewed Noam Chomsky discussing a range of topics including the climate crisis. It has been capitalism with its industrial revolutions and lust for economic growth that are at the root of the problem and Chomsky addressed the question of whether the climate crisis could be handled successfully if the capitalist system stayed in place. Chomsky insisted that there wasn’t time to make fundamental political and social changes in the US or elsewhere. By default then capitalism will have to be part of the solution to muster the power and resources needed in the time available. For the full text, click HERE .
This wasn’t the first time that someone on the Left turned to capitalism to move society in the right direction. Marx himself wrote that capitalism and its power to innovate were still going to be necessary for a period of time to push technological, industrial and organizational progress to provide the tools necessary for the transition to communism and the new centralized economy. Even Lenin employed this logic as the basis of his New Economic Policy (NEP); indeed, in his 1918 text Left Wing Childishness, he declared “Socialism is inconceivable without large-scale capitalist engineering based on the latest discoveries of modern science.” Lenin wrote this upon getting back to Russia from his exile in Switzerland: after the fine cigars from Davidoff ‘s and other perquisites that he enjoyed in bourgeois Zurich; Russia was just proving too primitive for him, it would it seem.
A more recent example of this phenomenon where people on the left call upon capitalism to work on the world’s problems is Accelerationism, a movement that emerged from the work of late 20th century disillusioned Marxist-oriented French philosophers – disillusioned by the realization (post May ’68) that capitalism cannot be controlled by current political institutions nor supplanted by the long awaited revolution. The paradoxical response in the 1970s by Deleuze, Guattari, Lyotard and others, then, was to call for the development of technologies and other forces of capitalist progress to bring society as rapidly as possible to a new place – they quote Nietzsche: “accelerate the process.”
Caveat Lector: The term “accelerationist” was co-opted recently by some white supremacist groups in the US in an attempt to give an intellectual veneer to their plot to hasten the collapse of society.
The bad news is that it is exactly capitalist growth that has brought us to the current climate crisis. But then there is that old proverb “It takes a thief to catch a thief”: the good news is that capitalism historically has excelled at using technology to change the world, albeit no matter the environmental or human cost.
In fact, linking science and engineering to industry and the economy has been the driving force of capitalism for 300 years. The Industrial Revolution began in England in the early 18th century launched by steel, coal and steam power. Historians of capitalism like Fernand Braudel point out that steam power and other sophisticated technologies were already in place earlier in history, in ancient Alexandria for example; but that the link was never made between these technologies and commerce and industry. In fact, up until the Industrial Revolution, technologies were typically applied to things military: even Archimedes and Leonardo worked on weapons systems and the term “engineering” meant “military engineering” until the 19th century when “civil engineering” was introduced. It was only in the second half of the 19th Century in Bismark’s Germany, however, that research science itself became a driver of capitalist progress; in particular, the transfer of knowledge from universities to commerce began there with the chemical industry and other fields followed. To boot, companies actually began hiring scientists minted by the modernized German university system and began establishing their own labs. The result was that by 1914, Germany had become both the world’s leading industrial country and leading scientific country – the internal combustion engine and the diesel engine, quantum mechanics and relativity, etc. (For scholarship, see H. Braverman: Labor and Monopoly Capitalism.)
Aside: Interestingly, in the interview, Chomsky remarks that the power of this model of transfer of open university research to industry is threatened by recent changes. Traditionally, to cite Chomsky, “[in university labs] people are working 80 hours a week. But it’s not to make money. They can make a lot more money elsewhere. It’s because of the excitement of the work. The challenge of solving problems. That’s what drives people. … [But] in the early ’80s, government laws were changed so that universities could get patents and researchers could get patents on the work that they were doing. OK. That had a cheapening effect. It meant that you really were imposing a structure in which people were working in order to make money, not to solve problems. And I think I don’t know how to measure exactly, but my impression is it had a cheapening effect on the nature of the university system.” This rings true especially given that the hallmark of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century was open publication and distribution of new found knowledge – in constrast to the esoteric, guarded knowledge of the alchemists.
So given the special power of capitalism to drive progress, as Marx, Lenin and the Accelerationists had to concede, it is natural for governments to turn to capitalism itself to save us from planetary catastrophe. After all, we are in a period where science, technology and capitalism are in almost perfect synch.
However, we are also in a period in the US where the federal government is weak and ineffective. Which poses a real dilemma since government leadership will almost certainly be required going forward and we are so far from the times of FDR, alas.
The military aside, since the Reagan presidency, “starve the beast” has been the conservative battle cry to shrink government. In the process, the government has become a wimp and has sold the American people short. Deregulation has led to the Savings and Load crisis of the 1980s and the Wall Street crash of 2008 – along with government bailouts, of course. Lax even non-existent anti-trust enforcement has led to concentration in industry; reduced taxation has led to infra-structure collapse to the point that the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the country’s infrastructure a grade of C minus in 2021 – admittedly up from a D, the rating four years before. The biased Supreme Court is an “accessory to the crime” constantly sapping the government’s ability to run the country: in the last 15 years alone, it has stymied attempts at gun control with its lethal decision on “gun rights” (District of Columbia v. Heller, 2008); it has made big money the only player in town when it comes to political funding (Citizens United); it has ended the federal oversight of state election procedures required by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (Shelby County v. Holder, 2013); and the list goes on.
That one sector of government favored by conservatives is the military; and it is the only area of government with much credibility left which means that more and more problems get turned into military problems as the military budget itself grows. Rather than serving the nation’s interests first, in foreign policy the military has continued to be used in the service of Big Industry – the invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush and Dick Cheney comes to mind and how the war was going to pay for itself with Iraqi oil. Industry also exercises undue influence through the Military Industrial Complex which has become so powerful that members of Congress won’t criticize the military budget because their states are home to defense contractors. But to their credit commanders are aware of climate change and are taking steps to deal with its potential impact on military operations; this could prove important.
If G.W. Bush’s presidency was tragedy, the Trump presidency was farce. Starting with massive tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, this regime did everything it could to weaken the government further, one of the more bizarre and calamitous being the cancelation in 2018 of the National Security Council Directorate that was charged with preparing for the next pandemic.
All of this represents a tremendous shift of power and authority from the government to the private sector and the military. Today the Supreme Court is the only branch of government that can wield its power effectively; congress can do nothing except threaten not to vote for the budget; the last two presidents have been reduced to endless executive orders to get anything done.
It is possible, though, that Big Capital and Big Industry will come to see that in the long run they can make even more money and have even more control if they help solve the climate crisis. But given Big Energy’s long campaign of climate change denial and the example of the tobacco companies denying the risks of smoking, it is hard to be optimistic. On the other hand, there is the success of Tesla which is now worth more than the next six car companies together and the commitment of automobile companies to go electric in the coming decade. Then too there has been the surprising growth of solar and wind in the last couple of years – trends in clean energy that have surprised people lately! Still the question is whether it will be possible for the federal government in its current weakened state ever to launch an effective “Green New Deal” with programs, incentives and legislation. That being said, adding some less scholastic justices to the Supreme Court, and ending the filibuster would be steps in the right direction.
In China, the government is firmly in charge and could redirect its capitalist economy should it choose to and already a program to be the world’s largest producer of electric vehicles is in place – but at the same time, China is on a “coal spree” according to the Yale School of the Environment. So they are not likely to set a good example in the short run. It looks like the plan is to run environmentally friendly vehicles on electricity from coal fired plants!
Another source of pessimism is Paddy Power, the legendary Irish betting parlor where they will make book on almost anything including climate change. Simply put, you have to give heavy odds to bet that things will continue to worsen and any bet on improvement is a real long shot.
But the US government has surprised before and capitalists themselves might just wake up and realize that the only way to save capitalism is first to save the planet. Chomsky himself holds out hope: “We know how to do it. The methods are there. They’re feasible.”