Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet. Photo: Verso

Chris Nineham talked to Matt Huber about some of the ideas in his book on socialism and the planet

You have written a very polemical book. What do you see as its main arguments?

My starting point is that we are losing the battle over climate change. Put simply, emissions keep going up and climate change keeps getting worse. I say in the book that is mainly because we don’t have power. We have to see the issue as a power struggle. I base this on the fact that there is a class of people that control our energy system for profit and they are really hell bent on maintaining their investments in fossil fuels and the existing industrial complex for decades to come.

So I argue that we need to think really seriously and strategically about how to develop an effective counterpower to that capitalist class. Much analysis of climate change blames a fraction of capital, namely fossil capital, but I really think is a struggle against the whole capitalist class. They are all so steadfast in their adherence to austerity economics that they are not going to stand by while we try to redistribute wealth on the scale needed to rebuild an entire energy and infrastructure system.

That explains the book’s title. The book is separated into three parts. The first puts the case that although we are always led to believe that climate change is caused by the whole of society in its consumption and in individual carbon footprints, actually it is really rooted in production. The basic Marxist position that class is a relationship to production is surprisingly controversial. Even the left-wing class analysis approach to climate change says ‘look, these rich people have this really high carbon footprint, they go on private jets, they eat lots of meat’. But that is not understanding how rich people make their money in the first place, how they exploit nature and labour. I try to shift the analysis away from consumption and towards ownership. Who owns production. Who is investing in these systems and looking to profit off them rather than this moralistic analysis of consumption and lifestyle practices.

I use a case study of the nitrogen fertiliser industry that ploughs investment into making this nitrogen stuff which is very carbon intensive. These are the kind of people that we need to take on. It is not about their individual carbon footprint, it is about the way they make money. You could look at the carbon footprint of a CEO in the fossil fuel industry who is a vegetarian, takes public transport and has a very low carbon footprint. But that low carbon footprint would erase their role as an owner, as a capitalist.

So that is the first part of the book, the second part tries to diagnose why we don’t have power. My conclusion is that the climate movement is very much housed in the professional class, a minority who work in the knowledge economy, scientists, journalists, non-profit employees and so on. This class of people tends to make the struggle all about knowledge, about the belief or denial of science. They tend to be in a middle-class or materially privileged situation and so they also tend to be anxious about what they see as their own complicity, about their own consumption and carbon footprint. So they are often the ones moralising around lifestyle choices and lowering carbon footprints. Meanwhile they are completely separated materially from these systems of material production that are causing the crisis. They are disconnected from these material systems that underpin our lives. And that reinforces their moralistic approach. They tend to be almost anti-industrial.

This group includes more liberal technocratic people who think we can solve this problem through more technical fixes like carbon pricing -they think we can solve climate change in the realm of exchange in the realm of markets by getting the prices right. Teaching Marx’s Capital Volume One really helped me because Marx starts with commodities and argues that if you want to understand how profit and power works, you have to go to ‘the hidden abode of production.’ Market solutions lead to a kind of middle-class madness that says we need energy to cost more, that we need to ‘internalise the externalities’ as they put it. That makes sense to these people who feel good about consuming less. But for the mass of workers it is going to lead to the kind of thing you saw with the yellow vests on France, a revolt against the idea that to save the world you have to raise the price of energy.

So the third part of the book tries to draw out the implications of the Marxist line that the only force in society with the power to challenge capital at the scale that is necessary is the organised working class. We need to try and think through a working-class strategy for climate. This is what we are really missing.

On the one hand I think we need to take a broad approach to a working-class climate programme that would actually appeal to the wide swathe of workers from teachers and nurses to manual and informal workers. We called it a Green New Deal for a while, but what it means is investment in public goods, jobs, public housing, public transit. It would mean trying to decommodify the basic needs that workers struggle with, pushing for cheaper or even free electricity, organising around the kind of things would make working-class life more secure. The sectors that we need to decarbonise – transport, housing, food and so on – all provide basic working-class needs. So organising around some of those things while decarbonising the economy can build popular support.

The other plank of a worker’s solution involves being really serious about workers in the unions, in the industrial systems which these professional sectors have absolutely no contact with. It means developing a rank-and-file strategy in the sectors that we want to transform. In the book I focus on electricity because all the experts say if we want to decarbonise we need clean up electricity and introduce it into other sectors. The electricity sector is very well unionised in the US. I think we can convince people that if we don’t start thinking strategically about climate change they risk being destroyed by a Wall Street or finance-led green capitalism, which would actually lead to deindustrialisation.

I don’t know about here, but in the US the green sector is very anti-union. We need to get some of the unions that are quite conservative and bureaucratic to wake up and realise that they better start organising strategically around this transition otherwise they are going to be left in the dust. For this section, I draw a lot from the history of the trade union environmentalism, notably a guy called Tony Mozzacchi, who was in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers’ Union. He organised the workers from the rank and file up to push for more health and safety measures in their workplaces because they were being poisoned by the bosses. He campaigned for what became the Occupational Health and Safety Act in 1970, but he did it by bringing together environmental activists with workers to clean up the workplaces and the whole community. He was the guy who coined the term ‘just transition’, he modelled it on the GI Bill [after the Second World War] that had benefitted him. The idea is if we are going to shut down dirty industry we have to take care of the workers with genuine material support.  NGOs sloganeer around the just transition, and vaguely say that people will get retrained to work on a solar farm or whatever, and it’s bullshit and workers rightly don’t believe it. They just see unemployment. Mazzocchi had a really robust view of what a just transition should mean.

Can you explain your emphasis on the rank and file?

I am in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and there is a current in the DSA which is influenced by the rank-and-file strategy that comes out of Labour Notes and is very influenced by Kim Moody. He wrote a pamphlet called The Rank-and-File Strategy in the 1970s. The idea is if you get socialists into jobs in important sectors in industry you can start rebuilding a fighting working class movement that isn’t just more combative, but can rebuild the democracy in unions that have become very bureaucratic and conservative. The DSA has already taken this with organising young DSAers to get jobs as teachers and nurses and so on.

Jane McAlevey made the case that healthcare and teaching logistics were strategic for a variety of reasons. I drew the conclusion that if we want to deal with climate change then electricity is the key sector. But if I could write the book again I would say we need to be more expansive, we need to talk more broadly about building unions, about organising the people who are going to build new transit systems, new transmission lines, new power plants and so forth. I think the emphasis on the rank-and-file is very important because unions won’t become agents of progressive change unless they are pushed form the bottom.

Can you explain your opposition to the fashionable idea of degrowth?

My critique of the professional class falls into three main types. First, the ‘science communicators’ who are the people who try and make it all about following science and believing science. The second are what I call the policy technocrats, the people who believe we can solve all the problems through a technocratic market pricing fix. Finally I talk about the anti-system radicals, the more radicalised professional people in academia or NGOs who see that capitalism is destroying the planet but that insight leads them into this localist anti-industrial vision. A lot of the degrowth talk comes from this layer who are often influenced by anarchism. They talk about starting little communes or building what they call ‘nowtopias’, small co-ops which will prefigure an alternative society in the here and now.

Again a lot of their focus is on consumption. Certainly until a few years ago, their critique was all about consumer society, although that may be beginning to shift.  They didn’t really think about the fact if you want to change society you have to wrestle for control of production, then and only then can you ask what you are going to consume. The degrowth approach appeals to a small slice of highly educated people – most degrowth advocates are PhD students or have PhDs.

The strategy is usually aimed at the global north in its entirety as if the north is not made up of class divided societies. Talk of reduction and degrowth is simply not going to appeal to the vast majority or working people who have been struggling with austerity for years. Degrowthers talk about ‘voluntary simplicity’ about being frugal and so on but that simply will not appeal to people who can’t even pay the rent or meet their basic needs.

So the argument I am making is that we need to build a much more majoritarian, popular approach to climate politics where it’s not about mainly the science but about what the Yellow Vests call ‘the end of month struggles’. Degrowthers are fundamentally incapable of doing this.

Why do you put Marx and Marxism at the heart of the book?

There is so much there! Marx’s insight about the centrality of production really was like a lightning bolt. You actually have to understand production in order to understand the climate crisis. Then there is the whole question of class. Towards the end of the book I take up Marx’s still unfashionable idea of working-class agency, the idea that capitalism creates its own gravedigger that has the ability to change the world. This was very helpful for more in developing a sense of the broader capacity of workers. Many people in the environmental world think that if we are going to construct a sense of interest around climate, it will be around science or at best based on workers who are struggling with pollution in their workplace.

What I argue is that the Marxist theory of the proletariat is really much more radical than that, it is based on the separation and dispossession of the mass of the people from nature itself, from ecology. This is why what I call a proletarian ecology can emerge.  Workers are separated from nature and they are forced to survive the market. This is an insecure and precarious existence of trying to make ends meet through money and commodities. It leads to the violence of the market and the cost-of-living crisis. This is why, sadly, most workers under capitalism don’t see the environment or the climate as the biggest threat to their interests. The truth is, the market is the biggest threat to workers’ ecology. So, appealing for a struggle against working class insecurity can have a mass purchase.

In conclusion, I build on Marx’s idea that the working class has the capacity to abolish class itself. He talks about species being, he talks in Volume Three of Capital about how, though people might see this as being unfortunate, tearing people from a local community relationship with the land creates a class that can start to manage the socialised production systems that capitalism develops in a conscious way. And that’s why he thought capitalism was in a sense progressive, it prepares humanity.

I find this very inspiring because the climate crisis is precisely a global species-level crisis. If we are to deal with it we need a theory of how we can come together as a species and Marx provides that for us. It’s all well and good to have your own local food co-op or your ecological farm, but first this does nothing to challenge the power of capital that continues to destroy the planet, and second, it’s not going to address the need for a global restructuring of how we produce energy. The old guy gives us a lot to think through about this global crisis facing the humanity and what role the working class can play at a global level to stave it off. 

Matt Huber’s book Climate Change as Class War is available from Verso, £16.99

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Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.

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