Two books on environmental crisis say that anti-capitalist politics are needed, but mistakenly reject the existing revolutionary tradition, argues Elaine Graham-Leigh
Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright, Climate Leviathan. A Political Theory of our Planetary Future, (Verso 2018), xiii, 207pp
Eric Holt-Giménez, A Foodie's Guide to Capitalism. Understanding the Political Economy of What We Eat, (Monthly Review Press and Food First Books 2017), 280pp.
The two works considered here take on very different aspects of the general environmental crisis we face. In Climate Leviathan, Mann and Wainwright consider the political consequences of a continued failure to prevent catastrophic climate change, whereas Holt-Giménez’s Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism considers the food system’s role in and distortion by capitalism. This difference in approach makes it all the more notable that both start from the assumption that on their particular issue, the Left has failed.
‘Lamentably’, Mann and Wainwright comment, ‘the Left has rarely done much better [than mainstream progressive thinkers], too often treating the climate as peripheral to struggles for democracy, liberty, equality, and justice, when it is precisely these ideals that make the climate struggle so fundamental’ (Climate Leviathan, p.xi). For Holt-Giménez, ‘older forms of political organizing’, like ‘unions, vanguard political parties, and politico-military organizations, [are] often viewed as undemocratic and unresponsive to the politics of identity and to environmental issues’ (Foodies’, p.15).
These are not uncommon sentiments to find in the prefaces of green books, whether arising from an analysis of Marxism as inherently Promethean, and therefore anti-environmental, or from a general association of the Left with smokestacks and Stalinist five-year plans. The effect is to present a position that the problems of capitalism require a new politics. Since the socialist tradition has failed to demonstrate sufficient interest in, and understanding of, environmental issues, the task of achieving a sustainable alternative to capitalist has to be approached largely without reference to that socialist tradition. This is noticeable even in some works, such as Mann and Wainwright’s here, which position themselves as drawing on Marx’s revolutionary works. Mann and Wainwright call for ‘an open embrace of the anti-capitalist Left’ (Climate Leviathan, p.189), here defined as that ‘sprung from Marxist roots’, but this explicitly does not include any of the socialist tradition post Marx.
Greens and revolution
The general consequence is that green thought has frequently to discuss the problems of capitalism and the need to overthrow it without the theorists of organised revolution. The strain of coming to essentially revolutionary conclusions without being able to use much of the language of organised revolutionary theory is often apparent in the genre (in Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, for example). Rejecting existing revolutionary tradition as old-fashioned, hidebound and un-green also means, of course, that calling for capitalism’s overthrow requires a new at least quasi-revolutionary language in which to express that call. This may be the reason why green writing tends towards neologisms. These come, as Jason Moore admits in his Capitalism in the Web of Life (while coining one himself), ‘a dime a dozen’ in green thought (p.35), ranging from the widely-adopted like Naomi Klein’s ‘Blockadia’ to the less useful, including Moore’s own ‘oikos.’
Mann and Wainwright embrace the neologism tendency enthusiastically, coining four terms for four different possible political outcomes of unchecked climate change: Climate Leviathan, where the issue is used to usher in a world government, Climate Behemoth, for the business-as-usual capitalist state option, Climate Mao, where an authoritarian, non-capitalist Chinese regime takes control, and Climate X as the non-capitalist, non-state ideal future. Centring their arguments around this invented terminology certainly shows that Mann and Wainwright are not working in any existing revolutionary tradition, despite their conclusion that the only acceptable future is a new world order without capitalism or existing state power. The new terminology does also serve to package their work as ground-breaking.
Holt-Giménez meanwhile takes a different route to the same effect, avoiding neologisms but stressing the newness of his arguments with the not-at-all patronising exhortation at the end of his introduction for readers for whom ‘the concepts introduced in this book may be new and may seem counterintuitive at first, making it a challenging read’ to ‘stick with it’. ‘If we can share an analysis, we can formulate a shared strategy’ (Foodie’s, p.21) This is indeed so, but the need to say it emphasises the difficulties there may be in discarding an existing tradition from which such a shared analysis and strategy could have arisen.
It may be apparent by now that I tend to find green neologisms annoying. At their worst, they obfuscate rather than clarify the concepts they are supposed to express and give what (to be fair) may well be an unwarranted impression of authorial self-importance. They are a forgivable tick in the genre where otherwise it is possible to follow up the analysis of how capitalism destroys the environment with a serious discussion about how we might overthrow it. Unfortunately, this can be a difficulty in green thought, as these two works in their different ways demonstrate.
Environment crisis and capitalism
Both Mann and Wainwright, and Holt-Giménez set out convincing cases for the environmental problems inherent to capitalism. Holt-Giménez details how the transformation, under capitalism, of food into commodities has created a system in which the aim of food production is surplus value, not health and nutrition. This is a system in which people go hungry not because there is no food for them to eat, but because they cannot afford to buy it, and in which this is an inescapable part of the marketisation of food. Mann and Wainwright, for their part, make clear that out of the different political consequences they foresee from unchecked climate change, the only one which offers a liveable future for most people would be the non-capitalist option. It is not necessary to agree with all their predictions (such as on the likelihood of world government) to agree with the conclusion that capitalism is the problem.
The issue is therefore not with the analysis of the nature of the problem, but with what action we should take as a result of that analysis. There is now a large body of green writing examining how capitalism is inherently environmentally destructive. This has been and remains important work, taking on the arguments that capitalist mechanisms could be a force for long-term environmental good if used in the right way, but the conclusion that capitalism is the source of our environmental problems cannot satisfactorily be left there. It has to be followed with some indication of what we would do with this information; how we could get rid of capitalism.
For those of us working in an organised revolutionary tradition, this poses no particular conceptual problem, but for those working outside that tradition, it can be a little trickier.
Neither Mann and Wainwright nor Holt-Giménez set out a very clear map for the overthrow of capitalism, which their analysis shows is necessary. As Mann and Wainwright say:
‘This glimpse may seem too imprecise a way to close this account. However, because the account is in fact not closing, but only just opening, we prefer to see it as a politically and analytically responsible gesture in radically uncertain times’ (Climate Leviathan, p.197).
What does come through this radical uncertainty is the possibility of withdrawing from, rather than seizing control of, capitalism.
Mann and Wainwright, for example, cite the Zapatistas with approval:
‘Though undeniably anti-capitalist, the movement has eschewed a frontal attack on capital in favour of the patient labor of working their way out of capitalist social relations: “somos anti-capitalistas modestas”. Rather than attempt to seize control of or unravel the nation-state, they have worked to subtract their communities from it, while producing a novel form of state rooted in rotating, locally appointed “good government”’ (Climate Leviathan, p.181).
This strategy finds its echo in Holt-Giménez’s discussion of the necessity of building a critical public sphere as an opposite pole from the capitalist food system:
‘While the task of transforming capitalism may seem too daunting to consider, if we first train our sights on building the critical public sphere through the institutions and projects that already exist within civil society, we will have taken back essential political territory from which to build political power’ (Foodies’, p.231).
Environmental reform or revolution
To be fair to both works, neither sees withdrawing from capitalism as a complete strategy on its own. For Holt-Giménez, it would seem to be a way of creating a place to stand from which to build a movement, while Mann and Wainwright also recognise the difficulties that building a Zapatista-style exception to capitalism inevitably faces in a capitalist world. The next steps to be taken from this non-capitalist start are however left rather unclear. Mann and Wainwright talk about the different traditions of climate justice intersecting ‘in the moment of transience … experienced as both crisis and opportunity’ (Climate Leviathan, p.197), leaving open what that might mean in practice. Holt-Giménez similarly avoids prescribing what the movement should do, implying at one point that building the movement in the right way is sufficient activity in and of itself:
‘Understanding why, where, and how oppression manifests itself in the food system, recognizing it within our food movement and our organizations (and within ourselves), is not extra work for transforming our food system. It is the work’ (Foodies’, p.232).
Neither of these works views compromising with capitalism as an option. Mann and Wainwright in particular are dismissive of the possibilities that green Keynesian policies would be worth fighting for as interim, reformist goals (Climate Leviathan, pp.121-4), claiming that they would only encourage a tendency towards world government and would in any case take too long to be implemented to be of any use. This seems to underestimate the potential for reformist governments within capitalism to do something to ameliorate the environmental crisis, but it also encapsulates the problem these works have with revolutionary strategy.
It is a common pattern that those who are, for whatever reason, getting revolutionary theory wrong, tend to oscillate between a capitulation to reformism on the one hand and an ultra-leftist absolutism on the other, sometimes in the same paragraph. This tendency is demonstrated here, as the possibility that reformist goals might provide something to unite around and fight for with others is rejected, along with the idea that the overthrow of capitalism is something for which we can organise. Defeating capitalism is simultaneously something towards which there cannot be any intermediate steps (such as defeating austerity through a mass movement), and a task which is so far beyond our capabilities that we cannot even plan how to organise for it, but have to wait for a rather mystic ‘moment of transience.’
More than one hundred years of revolutionary history has taught us that we need revolutionary organisation, and that that organisation cannot simply wait for the revolutionary moment to arrive. Neither can it morally or tactically justify standing aside from struggles to improve conditions now, even if they are for reforms to the existing system, rather than directly for a revolution. This applies to a movement working to overthrow capitalism for environmental reasons just as much as it does to any others. As Rosa Luxemburg said, revolutionaries are the best reformists, because fighting for reforms is not a distraction from the revolutionary goal but is the means of fighting for the social revolution. Luxemburg, like other revolutionary theorists, came to this conclusion through a lifetime of revolutionary activity. If green thinkers allow their dismissal of ‘the Left’ to cause them to overlook the lessons of such experience, then their conclusions will be the poorer for it. The best green thinking is revolutionary. It would be even better if it were able explicitly to admit it.
Elaine has been an environmental campaigner for more than a decade. She speaks and writes widely on issues of climate change and social justice, and is a member of Counterfire. She is the author of A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and her latest book, Marx and the Climate Crisis is out now.
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