COP26: What you’d expect when oil companies are in and environmentalists are out

The annual get-together of the world’s governments, where in most years they express concern about global warming and announce they will continue to talk about it, was not quite the usual washout this year, as small progress was made, at least theoretically. But even if this year’s promises come to fruition, the new round of pledges fall well short of what is needed.

The 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, otherwise known as COP26, concluded its two weeks in Glasgow with congratulations all around for themselves by government participants, as is traditionally the case. If you were to judge by the participants’ pronouncement, you’d think the environment is on the verge of being saved.

For example, the official communiqué issued by the conference loftily declared, “COP26 has today concluded in Glasgow with nearly 200 countries agreeing the Glasgow Climate Pact to keep 1.5C alive and finalise the outstanding elements of the Paris Agreement.” To be fair, there was more acknowledgment that more work needs to be done than is customary, as the communiqué also said, “The Glasgow Climate Pact, combined with increased ambition and action from countries, means that 1.5C remains in sight, but it will only be delivered with concerted and immediate global efforts.”

Glasgow at night (photo by Jcdro16)

But are those very much necessary “concerted and immediate global efforts” going to be undertaken? Ah, details. Another sentence in the communiqué declared, “All countries agreed to revisit and strengthen their current emissions targets to 2030, known as Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs), in 2022. This will be combined with a yearly political roundtable to consider a global progress report and a Leaders summit in 2023.” We haven’t, alas, dispensed with the “we were happy to talk and we will be happy to talk some more” folderol that has been traditionally offered in lieu of sufficient action.

Consider the most recent conference results. COP25, two years ago in Madrid, ended with a statement that the conference “Notes with concern the state of the global climate system” but limited its action to announcing two more years of roundtables; COP24, which featured the host Polish government promoting coal, ended in an agreement to create a rulebook with no real enforcement mechanism to meet greenhouse-gas emission goals that also have no enforcement mechanism; and COP23 in Bonn ended with a promise that people will get together and talk some more.

They’re “concerned” but not concerned enough to do much about it

It is only proper to acknowledge when progress, however meager, is made, although the bar set by recent conferences is woefully low. Congratulations don’t seem to be in order here. The one tangible accomplishment is that many of the governments representing the world’s biggest contributors to global warming did agree to strengthen their goals to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The bad news is that the new commitments remain well short of meeting stated goals. The worse news is that the commitments still have no enforcement mechanisms. Peer pressure appears to remain the preferred methodology, which thus far has not imbued the world’s environmentalists with confidence. For sound reasons.

For example, an effort to have the COP26 negotiators agree to a “phase out” of coal was watered down to a “phase down,” a vague formulation with no specific meaning, and financial transfers from industrialized countries to underdeveloped countries most at risk (which are often the least culpable) have been below what has been promised and well less than what would be sufficient to mitigate damages. Mary Robinson, the former United Nations commissioner for human rights, wrote, “This represents a failure of leadership and a failure of diplomacy. World leaders must be held accountable for the climate disaster playing out on their watch. It is time to call out those who have obstructed the negotiations in Glasgow, and those who continue to downplay the climate emergency.”

Marchers for climate justice in Tanzania.

That would be difficult to argue against, although moral arguments have had limited effect thus far. Unfortunately, the final text from COP26 is full of the “concerns” and “notes” that past conferences have featured. For example, the final text states that it “Expresses alarm and utmost concern that human activities have caused around 1.1 °C of warming to date, that impacts are already being felt in every region, and that carbon budgets consistent with achieving the Paris Agreement temperature goal are now small and being rapidly depleted.” Furthermore, the text “Urges Parties that have not yet communicated new or updated nationally determined contributions to do so as soon as possible” and “Acknowledges the importance of coherent action to respond to the scale of needs caused by the adverse impacts of climate change.”

That will show the atmosphere!

The context here is that the world’s governments agreed at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015 to hold the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-Industrial Age average, a change from the previous commitment of 2 degrees, although no corresponding pledges were made to reach either goal. Following COP25 two years ago (COP26 was postponed a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic), the pledges then in existence by the world’s governments, were they honored in full, would have allowed global warming to reach 3 degrees, a catastrophic result. This was the conference in which the world’s governments were to have committed themselves to reach the Paris Climate Summit goal.

Temperature goal remains on paper, not in real world

What was actually achieved with the latest round of promises? Climate Action Tracker reports that 123 countries and the European Union submitted new NDC (nationally determined contributions) targets, although a dozen did not strengthen their commitments, a list that includes Australia, Brazil and Russia, each among the world’s biggest contributors of greenhouse gases. An analysis by the Tracker, a collaboration between Climate Analytics and NewClimate Institute, has found that were there to be full implementation of submitted and binding long-term targets and 2030 targets, the world’s temperature would increase by 1.7 to 2.6 degrees Celsius from the pre-Industrial Age average. That is well above the 1.5-degree goal.

Full implementation of just the goals set for 2030 would be enough for the world’s temperature to rise by 1.9 to 3 degrees. Worse, what the Tracker calls “real world action based on current polices” would result in a temperature increase of 2 to 3.7 degrees. The report concludes, “It is clear there is a massive credibility, action and commitment gap that casts a long and dark shadow of doubt over the net zero goals put forward by more than 140 countries, covering 90% of global emissions.” Furthermore:

“Under current policies, we estimate end-of-century warming to be 2.7°C. While this temperature estimate has fallen since our September 2020 assessment, major new policy developments are not the driving factor. We need to see a profound effort in all sectors, in this decade, to decarbonise the world to be in line with 1.5°C. Targets for 2030 remain totally inadequate: the current 2030 targets (without long-term pledges) put us on track for a 2.4°C temperature increase by the end of the century.”

The climate science news site Carbon Brief is not more optimistic. Although dismissing critics who say nothing happened at COP26, Carbon Brief nonetheless said that “current policies will lead to a best-estimate of around 2.6C to 2.7C warming by 2100 (with an uncertainty range of 2C to 3.6C)” and if both conditional and NDCs are met for 2030, the projected warming by 2100 would be 2.4C (1.8C to 3.3C). In the best-case scenario if all long-term net-zero promises are kept, global warming would be held to around 1.8C (1.4C to 2.6C) by 2100, though temperatures would likely peak at close to 2 degrees in mid-21st century before declining.

The above estimates are not set in stone and could prove to be underestimates, Carbon Brief wrote:

“These warming numbers come with some important caveats. First, uncertainties — due to climate sensitivity and carbon cycle feedbacks — are quite large. For example, while current policies are expected to result in around 2.6C to 2.7C warming, the Earth could, in fact, end up with anywhere between 2C to 3.6C or so, depending on how the climate system responds to emissions. These uncertainties are cause for caution and increase the urgency of emissions reductions.”

Despite rhetoric, oil companies welcome but environmentalists aren’t

Corporate influence is never far away when governments attempt to reach policy decisions, and COP26 was no exception. A look at the list of corporate sponsors on the COP26 official website shows at least two natural gas companies and assorted other corporations that would not seem to be appropriate for an environmental summit. Oil companies were also well represented.

DeSmog reports that, although oil companies were not allowed formal roles at COP26, oil majors and state oil companies participated in large numbers as part of business and trade groups or national delegations. “The official participant list is full of executives and employees from the largest publicly traded oil companies in the world, including Royal Dutch Shell and BP,” DeSmog reports. The investigative and research news site adds:

“The presence of oil interests does not stop at the employees and executives from national oil companies and government ministries. Even though the COP26 organizers banned oil companies from sending their own delegations, prominent publicly traded oil majors have found other ways to attend the climate negotiations as well. According to DeSmog’s tally, at least three dozen oil executives gained access to the talks thanks to business and trade associations — and those are only the ones who publicly listed their oil company affiliations. For instance, Royal Dutch Shell sent at least six employees under multiple designations.”

What DeSmog reports is only the tip of the iceberg. Corporate Europe Observatory’s Corporate Accountability campaign reports that more than 100 fossil fuel companies and 30 trade associations were represented at COP26, with so many attending that if the fossil fuel lobby were a country delegation, it would have been the largest. “At least 503 fossil fuel lobbyists, affiliated with some of the world’s biggest polluting oil and gas giants, have been granted access to COP26, flooding the Glasgow conference with corporate influence,” Corporate Accountability reported. Corporate Europe Observatory researcher Pascoe Sabido said:

“COP26 is being sold as the place to raise ambition, but it’s crawling with fossil fuel lobbyists whose only ambition is to stay in business. The likes of Shell and BP are inside these talks despite openly admitting to upping their production of fossil gas. If we’re serious about raising ambition, then fossil fuel lobbyists should be shut out of the talks and out of our national capitals.”

That access is in contrast to environmentalists, who had no such ability to influence negotiations. Mitzi Jonelle Tan, spokesperson for Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines, told Democracy Now!:

“It’s funny and ironic, actually, that on the COP26 website, they said they were aiming this to be the most inclusive COP ever, and I think this might have been the most exclusive one. Aside from having all those difficulties and obstacles to actually get to Glasgow, when we get there, COVID was used as an excuse to not let observers come into the important negotiations, yet the fossil fuel industry, the fossil fuel lobbyists, with over 500 delegates, which is more than any other country, was always welcome, was always given the platform, was always given space. And so you can really see that, once again, the U.N. climate summit just prioritized the voices of the privileged and not those that are most affected by the climate crisis.”

Net zero is net unrealism

What efforts that have been made by Global North governments have generally been expressed as goals toward achieving “net zero.” Net zero represents a stabilization in the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere; that is, the amount of greenhouse gases thrown into the atmosphere is balanced by the amount of greenhouse gases that are removed from the atmosphere. The year 2050 is the most common date for countries to say they will achieve net zero, although some countries have pledged to reach that one or two decades later. Of the three largest contributors to greenhouse gases, the European Union and United States have 2050 pledges and China’s goal is “before 2060.”

Are these goals achievable, and, if so, will they be sufficient? This is an important question as the EU, the U.S. and China together account for 46 percent of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions — more than 16 times the contributions of the 100 least-contributing countries. Climate Action Tracker rates EU and U.S. efforts as “insufficient” and China’s efforts as “highly insufficient.” This rating system “evaluates a broad spectrum of government targets and actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in line with the Paris Agreement temperature limit.”

No country is rated as compatible with the Paris Agreement, and only eight countries are rated as “almost sufficient.” Britain is the lone industrial country to receive this designation; the others are Costa Rica, Ethiopia, Kenya, Morocco, Nepal, Nigeria and The Gambia. (The worst category, “critically insufficient,” includes Iran, Russia and Turkey.)

Most of the world is far from achieving net zero. But would doing so truly avoid global catastrophe? Perhaps not. Net zero aspirations are based on the hope that forests and farmlands will pull enough carbon dioxide out of the air to offset the remaining greenhouse-gas production that would still be occurring. Two environmental research scientists, Doreen Stabinsky at the College of the Atlantic and Kate Dooley of the University of Melbourne, throw cold water on this escape hatch. Simply put, too much is being asked of nature.

“Since the world does not yet have technologies capable of removing carbon dioxide from air at any climate-relevant scale, that means relying on nature for carbon dioxide removal,” the two write. The idea that machines will be able to pull huge amounts of carbon dioxide out of the air remains in the realm of fantasy. Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for hundreds to thousands of years; CO2 must be removed through some means, natural or technological, to have any hope of achieving net zero. As to the potential for the natural world to remove 5 gigatons per year of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as some optimistic forecasts hope for, Dr Stabinsky and Dr. Dooley write:

“Reaching the point at which nature can remove 5 gigatons of carbon dioxide each year would take time. And there’s another problem: High levels of removal might last for only a decade or so. When growing trees and restoring ecosystems, the storage potential develops to a peak over decades. While this continues, it reduces over time as ecosystems become saturated, meaning large-scale carbon dioxide removal by natural ecosystems is a one-off opportunity to restore lost carbon stocks. Carbon stored in the terrestrial biosphere — in forests and other ecosystems — doesn’t stay there forever, either. Trees and plants die, sometimes as a result of climate-related wildfires, droughts and warming, and fields are tilled and release carbon.”

If you can’t remove it, you shouldn’t produce it

The two scientists write that ecosystem restoration has the potential to reduce global average temperature by approximately 0.12 degrees C, but such a decline would not occur in time to offset the warming expected within the next two decades. Net zero strategies that rely on temporary removals to balance permanent emissions will fail. There is no alternative to drastically reducing greenhouse-gas emissions. The unreality of net zero pledges put forth by oil companies is laid bare by Dr. Stabinsky and Dr. Dooley:

“ActionAid reviewed the oil major Shell’s net-zero strategy and found that it includes offsetting 120 million tons of carbon dioxide per year through planting forests, estimated to require around 29.5 million acres (12 million hectares) of land. That’s roughly 45,000 square miles. Oxfam reviewed the net-zero pledges for Shell and three other oil and gas producers — BP, TotalEnergies and ENI — and concluded that ‘their plans alone could require an area of land twice the size of the U.K. If the oil and gas sector as a whole adopted similar net zero targets, it could end up requiring land that is nearly half the size of the United States, or one-third of the world’s farmland.’ These numbers provide insight into how these companies, and perhaps many others, view net-zero.”

Not realistic, to put it mildly, given that reforestation at such scales would require removal of a significant portion of the world’s farms. And on top of that, there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes net zero. Governments can set their own metrics — yet another area of no real accountability — and we also have to think about methane, which although found in far lesser amounts in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide is nonetheless a far more potent contributor to global warming on a molecule-to-molecule basis. Jeff Mackler, writing in CounterPunch, put this together:

“U.N. Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has called for a clearer definition of net zero. ‘There is a deficit of credibility and a surplus of confusion over emissions reductions and net zero targets,’ he said, ‘with different meanings and different metrics.’ Indeed, each polluting nation employs its own ‘metrics,’ including positive and hyped deductions for the ‘natural capacity’ of its land mass to absorb carbon dioxide while omitting from its calculations negative factors like deforestation, not to mention the myriad of escaping methane from appliances, fracking and always leaking supermarket refrigeration facilities around the world. Methane’s global warming intensity exceeds CO2 by a factor of 80! Biden’s methane reduction pledge flies in the face of the fact that the U.S. stands first in the world in natural gas fracking, the chief poisonous polluting [byproduct] of which is methane.”

The chimera of carbon trading to achieve an illusory net zero

Unfortunately, the above does not exhaust the list of issues with net zero. Some national net zero goals will be met, in part, through “carbon trading.” One of the agreements reached at COP26 was a deal that permits countries to buy offset credits representing emission cuts by others, which will then be used by the buyers to “achieve” climate targets.

A tax on such offsets, intended to fund climate adaptation in poorer nations and advocated by them, will not be included. According to a Reuters report, “The deal suggests developing nations capitulated to rich nations demands, including the United States, which had objected [to] the levy.” That the carbon trading scheme is being hailed by Brazil’s extreme Right, anti-environment government, is more than enough to question it. The Reuters report said, “The deal was ‘a Brazilian victory’ and the country is gearing up to become a ‘big exporter’ of carbon credits, its environment ministry said on social media. … ‘It should spur investment and the development of projects that could deliver significant emissions reductions,’ Brazil’s chief negotiator Leonardo Cleaver de Athayde told Reuters.”

Terminus of Kangerlugssuup Sermerssua glacier in west Greenland (photo by Denis Felikson, via NASA)

The carbon trading deal, codifying Article 6 of the Paris Agreement after six years of negotiation, does have mechanisms to largely eliminate the double counting that countries like Brazil had previously wanted but does not appear to completely eliminate such practices. But even without double counting, using markets will make it less likely that net zero will be reached in reality rather than only on paper. A report by the Center for International Environmental Law notes, “[C]ountries that aim to meet a significant portion of their [2030 emissions targets] through such offsets — and about half of all countries that submitted [2030 emissions targets] by 2018 indicated an intent to participate in the markets — are less likely to pursue deep decarbonization swiftly than those that focus on domestic cuts. And those countries with a financial interest in exceeding their self-determined contributions, to sell ‘excess’ reductions, are less likely to set ambitious targets.”

To put it in stronger terms, Sebastien Duyck, a senior attorney at the Center, said, “Net zero is a scam. It is used as a smokescreen to avoid actual transition away from fossil fuels and carry on business as usual by relying on unproven carbon capture technologies and offsets. … Article 6 creates a way for public and private investors to weaponize the Paris agreement for the sake of profits at the cost of local communities and indigenous people’s rights.”

So why are fossil fuels subsidized to astonishing amounts? These subsidies are not trivial: A 2015 paper by four economists published by, of all places, the International Monetary Fund estimated the amount of subsidies thrown at the fossil fuel industry as US$5.6 trillion per year. Trillions! That total includes environmental costs in addition to direct corporate subsidies and below-cost consumer pricing. Some — only some — of the damage from these massive subsidies are premature deaths through local air pollution; exacerbating congestion and other adverse side effects of vehicle use; crowding out potentially productive public spending on health, education and infrastructure; discouraging needed investments in energy efficiency, renewables and energy infrastructure; and increasing the vulnerability of countries to volatile international energy prices.

Capitalism is not only cooking the planet to the point where portions of our planet will become uninhabitable and massive disruption to agriculture is certain, but the leading causes of the problem are lavishly subsidized. Who could dream up such a death-wish scenario? Yet here we are. As long as we live under capitalism, incentives will be for more growth, more energy usage, more waste, more accumulation, more inequality, and that inequality will make the struggle for environmental justice and to reverse global warming ever more strenuous. It is simply impossible to decouple the world economic system from the looming environmental catastrophe. The two go together.

Are we up to creating the massive global movement that is the only mechanism that can save the world? If not, our descendants are not likely to believe short-term profits for a few now will be a fair exchange for an unlivable planet for the many then.

If you don’t give people a reason to vote, they won’t

The finger-pointing and excuse-mongering continues unabated in the ranks of the Democratic Party following the disappointing election results from earlier this month. The party’s dominant corporate centrist wing wasted no time blaming progressives for the loss of Virginia’s governorship, the surprisingly narrow re-election of New Jersey’s governor and various defeats in local races in places like the New York City suburbs.

Finding reasons for local or state elections in national politics won’t necessarily produce a full picture, particularly in New Jersey, where voters have the habit of electing Democratic congressional and state legislative delegations, consistently voting Democrat in presidential elections but often voting for Republican governors. This time around, particularly in the New York City mayoral race and local races in the city’s Long Island suburbs, unfounded fears of crime waves that largely existed only in the feverish imaginations of right-wing commentators seemed to have tipped more than a few votes.

Not only Democratic centrists but most of the corporate mass media insisted there was a wave of voting for Republicans, and the only proper response (surprise!) is to move to the center, or even to the center-right, to avoid “scaring” voters with “radical” ideas.

Branch Brook Park in Newark (photo by Cjbvii)

Before we can tackle that all too predictable jeremiad, it would be useful to find out if voters really did defect to the Republicans in droves. The evidence doesn’t seem to support that. If we compare this month’s gubernatorial elections in New Jersey and Virginia to recent elections, there is more support for the supposition that Democrats simply stayed home. Here are some comparisons:

2021 Gubernatorial vote New Jersey (count as of Nov. 9)
• Phil Murphy 1,295,626
• Jack Ciattarelli 1,224,993

2017 Gubernatorial vote New Jersey
• Phil Murphy 1,203,110
• Kim Guadagno 899,583

Governor Murphy actually won more votes than he did in 2017, when New Jersey set a record low for voter turnout for a gubernatorial election. It could be pointed out, accurately, that Governor Murphy had far fewer votes than did Hillary Clinton in 2016 or Joe Biden in 2020, but although Republican challenger Jack Ciattarelli had a relatively smaller deficit in terms of the votes won by Donald Trump, he nonetheless received more than 600,000 votes less than Trump did a year ago:

2020 Presidential vote New Jersey
• Joe Biden 2,608,400
• Donald Trump 1,883,313

2016 Presidential vote New Jersey
• Hillary Clinton 2,148,278
• Donald Trump 1,601,933

Repeating this exercise for Virginia, we find that Democrat Terry McAuliffe (very much a corporate centrist), the loser in an upset, won nearly 200,000 more votes than Democratic winner Ralph Northam in 2017. But the Republican vote totals were much higher in 2021 than four years earlier:

2021 Gubernatorial vote Virginia (count as of Nov. 9)
• Terry McAuliffe 1,600,049
• Glenn Youngkin 1,663,556

2017 Gubernatorial vote Virginia
• Ralph Northam 1,409,175
• Ed Gillespie 1,175,731

Governor-elect Youngkin recorded fewer votes than did Trump in either of his White House runs:

2020 Presidential vote Virginia
• Joe Biden 2,412,568
• Donald Trump 1,962,430

2016 Presidential vote Virginia
• Hillary Clinton 1,981,473
• Donald Trump 1,769,443

Clearly, Republican voters were fired up in Virginia, stirred up by a steady drumbeat of specious culture-war issues, and Democratic voters either took a McAuliffe win for granted or simply weren’t sufficiently motivated to vote. Although the specific dynamics varied between the two states — New Jersey and Virginia are not similar — a low turnout by Democratic voters is the leading reason for the surprising results. And that brings us to the central question: Why did Democrats stay home?

What you see is sometimes what you get

The gap between Democratic candidate promises and what voters want and need on the one hand, and what Democrats deliver once in office on the other, has once again proven to be a canyon-like width. How many times can a party thumb its nose at its base and continue to win? Democrats seem determined to find out. Consider the biggest single failure to date: The failure to pass President Biden’s US$3.5 trillion “Build Back Better” package, which would have included “socialist” items such as paid parental leave. Now down to less than $2 trillion with family leave reduced to four weeks with wide swathes of parents rendered ineligible, what was already a watered-down benefit might not survive its current precarious status.

By right-wing standards, just about every country on Earth is “socialist.” The United States is the only industrialized country without paid family leave; the only countries that don’t have it are Papua New Guinea and four tiny Pacific Island countries. The original bill had allowed for 12 weeks of paid leave — still far less time than most countries — and was reduced to four weeks in the negotiations before it was cut from the bill altogether and then restored as a four-week “means tested” offering. The global average for paid maternity leave is 29 weeks, and it is 16 weeks for paid paternity leave. Some countries allow for a year or more of paid family leave. For example, Sweden mandates 16 months.

The International Labour Organization’s standard is that at least 14 weeks of paid maternal leave should be offered; almost half of the world’s countries do so, including 25 of the 29 developed countries in which International Labour Organization researchers were able to make an assessment. The original offer in the Build Back Better bill was 12 weeks, and even that tepid offering has been taken away. About half of the world’s countries also offer paid paternal leave; such a non-macho idea was not even considered.

Downtown Richmond, Virginia, looking west from Libby Hill Park (photo by Ron Cogswell)

West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, who has done all he can to tank his own party’s legislation and block any attempt to address global warming, and other so-called “deficit hawks,” claim they oppose congressional bills that would add to the federal budget deficit, but have not been heard to complain about the Trump tax cuts that massively added to the deficit, nor the trillions of dollars spent by the Federal Reserve to buy bonds in recent years nor by last year’s Covid-19 relief measures that gave hundreds of billions of dollars to large businesses.

What is behind all this? It is commonplace for folks on the Left to complain that Senators Kyrsten Sinema, Manchin and others are simply “corrupt.” I won’t argue against that — Senator Manchin in particular is delighted to please his corporate paymasters and give the back of his hand to his constituents, who were in favor of the original $3.5 trillion plan by wide margins, and Senator Sinema turned her back on her Arizona backers from the start. (Several of the Build Back Better provisions are supported by two-thirds or more of West Virginians and a similar percentage of Arizonans backed the original plan.) But there must be deeper reasons here. One factor that would be difficult to overestimate is the inability of U.S. liberals, similar to European social democrats and Canadian liberals, to actually stand for anything.

Capitulation in the U.S. and around the world

North American liberals and European social democrats have a long history of capitulation — we see the same patterns, whether it is Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Jean Chrétien, Justin Trudeau, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, François Hollande, Gerhard Schröder, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero or Romano Prodi. There is something much larger at work than a lack of resolve when each falls to their knees in front of industrialists and financiers, when each speedily implements neoliberal austerity policies despite leading the supposed “center-left” opposition to the conservative parties that openly stand for corporate domination.

Capitalism is a system wholly captured by the most powerful possessors of economic power in a system of massive inequality. U.S. Democrats, similar to Canadian Liberals, British Labour, French and Spanish “Socialists,” Italian Democrats, German Social Democrats, Australia’s Labor and others, win legislative seats and government offices as members of a capitalist party. U.S.-style liberalism (using the North American definition of the word) has reached an intellectual dead end. Democrats mostly understand that the economy is a failure for most people but can only conceive of minor reforms and tinkering around the edges because they remain as firmly in thrall of capitalism as Republicans and conservatives everywhere.

Caught in a contradiction between knowing a system doesn’t work and being afraid of challenging that system, Democrats are unable to offer alternatives or articulate serious reforms. Instead, they simply say “Vote for us, the Republicans are worse.” Sometimes that works; sometimes it doesn’t.

The New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

The Right, on the other hand, loudly advocates policies that are anathema to the working people who form the overwhelming majority of any capitalist country but have the mass media, an array of institutions, corporate power and money to saturate society with their preferred policies. But, perhaps most importantly, they have something they believe in strongly — people who are animated by an ideal, however perverted, are motivated to push for it with all their energy.

In contrast, those who are conflicted between their belief in something and their acknowledgment that the something needs reform, and are unable to articulate a reform, won’t and can’t stand for anything concrete, and ultimately will capitulate. When that something can’t be fundamentally changed through reforms, what reforms are made are ultimately taken back, and society’s dominant ideas are of those who can promote the hardest line thanks to the power their wealth gives them, it is no surprise that the so-called reformers are unable to articulate any alternative. With no clear ideas to fall back on, they meekly bleat “me, too” when the world’s industrialists and financiers, acting through their corporations, think tanks and the “market,” pronounce their verdict on what is to be done.

The market, let us not forget, is not a dispassionate entity sitting loftily in the clouds as propagandists would have us believe; it is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers.

Backing one set of capitalists vs. another set of capitalists

What ultimately differentiates Democrats and Republicans is that they serve different parts of the corporate ruling class. The divergence in interests between industrialists and financiers can be easily overlooked, especially since the two broad groups of capitalists will unite when working people start making demands. Industrialists and financiers argue fiercely, and often litigate, over which gets the bigger piece of the pie but are in agreement that they should get the whole pie.

There has always been an inherent tension between the interests of the financial industry, or finance capital, and the interests of industrialists (owners and executives of companies that produce tangible goods and services, or, to put it another way, the direct owners and managers of the means of production), but the conflict between these two groups has become much more acute in recent decades as massive and ever increasing inequality has stuffed more money into the pockets of the wealthy than can possibly be put to use in productive investment.

The gigantic sums of money that pour into the accounts of those in the top ranks of industrial and financial enterprises are increasingly poured into financial speculation. Wall Street, gaining the upper hand because of the vast sums of money it manages and the financialization of the economy, demands ever bigger profits, no matter the cost to employees or communities. Top executives, who have much of their pay given in stock, are fine with this “enhancing shareholder value,” to use the Wall Street euphemism for elevating short-term shareholder and bondholder profits over all other considerations. There nonetheless is struggle between industrialists and financiers over control of companies and how to split the pie.

That the Democratic Party would come to be the party of Wall Street is not as strange as it might sound. Whenever a company announces bad news that results in a stock-price decline, a flurry of lawsuits will be filed, seeking financial recouping of the shareholders’ losses. The officers of the company being sued in this situation stomp their feet in rage — being a captain of industry is supposed to mean never having to admit a mistake — swearing they are as innocent as a new-born baby. These conflicts can easily land in court. It’s highly profitable for the law firms that represent the interests of Wall Street to pursue these lawsuits, and sometimes, of course, there is chicanery going on and not simply bad management or a downturn in the market.

The symbiotic relationship here is that Wall Street interests and the lawyers who serve them need laws favorable to lawsuits, to rules geared toward investors and to open flows of accurate business information, including requiring companies to report details of their operations. In turn, Democrats love the piles of money these interests give to them.

Industrialists believe it should be almost impossible to sue their companies, want the rules tilted in their favor and hate having to reveal any information. They are heavily represented in the upper ranks of the Republican Party and direct its ideology on economic issues.

Thus the two parties line up on opposite sides of the ruling-class split and the fights can be bitter because immense amounts of money are at stake. A secondary factor in this split between industrialists and Wall Street is social. Financiers, perhaps because they tend to be in cosmopolitan areas like New York, Boston and San Francisco or perhaps because of more complicated psychological reasons, tend not to need to control workers’ personal lives. They want to extract every dollar in your pocket and will do anything to get it, but once they have all the money, they have reached their goal.

Industrialists, on the other hand, frequently wish to control the personal lives of their workers and exert social control. Industrialists are “on the scene” of profit extraction and, enjoying the power their company gives them, often believe they have the right to control the lives of their workers, who are, in their eyes, mere peons. Financiers, meanwhile, take a cut of the profits in more impersonal ways, often by manipulating numbers on a computer screen. A company’s workforce is nothing but another set of numbers to a financier.

Left out of either side of this elite struggle are the employees, whose underpaid work is the source of the profits.

A capitalist party can’t be turned into an anti-capitalist or a people’s party. One so heavily dependent on corporate money, such as the Democratic Party, is all the more incapable of being taken over by insurgents. There do remain differences on social issues and policies toward women and People of Color between Democrats and Republicans, and it is understandable that in times so dreary that millions of people are willing to take the crumbs on offer because the alternative is nothing. But is slowing down the rate of brutality really the best we can aspire to? Reforms can be beneficial, that is true, but a different system based on political and economic democracy would be vastly better. A better world will be won by organizing, not by begging.

China’s winding road toward capitalism

There is perhaps no bigger controversy among partisans of the Left than the nature of China and its economy. Is it socialist? Capitalist? State capitalist? A hybrid? That so much debate swirls around this issue is its own proof that the question doesn’t have a definitive answer, at least not yet.

What can be agreed upon is that China has experienced decades of extraordinary economic growth. But the nature of that growth, and the base upon which it has been created, are also subject to intense debate, arguments that necessarily rest on how a debater classifies the Chinese economy. An additional debate is whether China’s growth is replicable or is the product of particular conditions that can’t be duplicated elsewhere. And what should be at the forefront of any debate is how China’s working people, in the cities and in the countryside, fare under a tightly controlled system that promises to bring about a “moderately prosperous society.”

Setting out to examine China from that last perspective is a new book, The Communist Road to Capitalism: How Unrest and Containment Have Pushed China’s (R)evolution since 1949. As you might guess from the pungent title, Communist Road, authored by activist Ralf Ruckus, is not only critical of the Chinese Communist Party, but comes squarely down on the proposition that China has become a capitalist society. Despite China’s increasing integration into the world capitalist system, the increasing emphasis placed on markets and widening inequalities, the proposition that China has moved to capitalism is quite controversial for many people on the Left.

Mr. Ruckus begins his argument by suggesting that a more gradated approach to Chinese history since the 1949 revolution better captures the stages of China’s development. He presents four different ideas commonly put forth that attempt to define the nature of China’s economy. These four concepts are capitalist from 1949 to now; socialist from 1949 to now; socialist and then capitalist; and a four-stage approach of transition to socialism, socialism, transition to capitalism and capitalism. There is a fifth conception not mentioned by Mr. Ruckus — that China is not classifiable as capitalist or socialist, a perspective put forth by the Marxist economist Samir Amin. Dr. Amin, in his The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism, argued that asking if China is socialist or capitalist “is badly posed” because it is “too general and abstract.” Dr. Amin wrote that although “the Chinese project is not capitalist does not mean that it is socialist, only that it makes it possible to advance on the long road to socialism” but added that China could also “end up with a return, pure and simple, to capitalism.”

Thus there is more than one nuanced perspective. The last of Mr. Ruckus’ four offered ideas (the four-stage approach) and Dr. Amin’s hybrid approach appear the most viable among the five theories in our struggle to understand the contours of Chinese development. It is the four-stage approach that provides the spine for Communist Road. Whether or not we are in agreement that China has become capitalist (on its own terms) or is moving toward capitalism, that China is in danger of a long-term, or even permanent, turn to full-on capitalism shouldn’t be a source of heated dispute. The collapse of the Soviet Union and its Central European satellites, and their return to capitalism on disadvantageous terms, provides proof, even for those who believe China remains a socialist country, that capitalism could be its future. Nor should it be expected that deepening entanglement with the world capitalist system doesn’t present its own dangers.

Social confrontation across four periods

Early on, in the opening pages, Mr. Ruckus states that his “main focus lies on social confrontation and the ruptures and continuities they produced in the PRC since 1949,” and he does not waver from that focus in discussing his four periods (transition to socialism, socialism, transition to capitalism and capitalism) of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule. The coming tale of urban and rural unrest is set early when the author writes, “[T]he actually existing socialism constructed [in the first two periods] was very different from both the preceding and the following economic, political, and social systems. Furthermore, actually existing socialism was largely distinct from the socialism desired by proletarians, peasants, and women* who had been involved in revolutionary organizing since the 1920s.” [page 7]

Continuing to set out his thesis in the opening pages, Mr. Ruckus argues that “the overall character of the system qualified as capitalist from the mid- to late-1990s onward, because the main driving force of the economy was capital accumulation and the generation of profit, and because the CCP leadership and other sections of the ‘elite’ formed a reconfigured capitalist ruling class that appropriated a large part of the wealth produced through the exploitation of workers and peasants.” These reforms were successful because “they could build on the foundations socialism had created and, second, because so-called globalization, with new industrial production clusters and supply chains … offered a historical opportunity for attracting foreign capital and for developing the PRC economy the CCP regime made use of.” [page 9]

The reference to CCP cadres as a “ruling class,” and a capitalist ruling class no less, is bound to set off significant controversy. That is perhaps a technical side issue we can sidestep here. A larger issue for the reader of Communist Road is whether the author makes his overall case effectively. The four core chapters of the book cover the four defined periods, starting with the transition to socialism. In these first years after the 1949 revolution, substantial improvements were achieved in social conditions, including life expectancy, child mortality, health care, income equality and literacy.

Shanghai (photo by dawvon)

At first, the CCP followed the model of the Soviet Union with an accumulation and industrialization strategy with similarities to “authoritarian capitalist late comers” using Taylorist and Fordist production techniques; the form of technology and work organization was seen as neutral. As with the Soviet Union of the 1920s and 1930s, the capital and labor power for industrialization could only come from internal sources. In the countryside, the peasant economy was left intact until the mid-1950s, with land reforms benefiting poor and middle peasants. There were benefits for women, too — a 1950 marriage law granted them equal rights with men, although full equality did not come as women workers tended to be relegated to “softer” work with lower pay and fewer work points.

With the onset of nationalizations in the mid-1950s, a brief political opening up, the “Hundred Flowers Campaign,” widened the spaces for criticism, but the window was soon shut when criticism was deeper than the CCP had anticipated. Nonetheless, the party retained significant sources of support as it launched the Great Leap Forward, a collectivization and industrial drive. The Leap failed, leading to acute shortages of food as a decline in the size of the rural workforce as urban industries rapidly expanded, mismanagement, poor weather and false reports filed by local authorities combined to create a disaster. Millions would die.

Conflicting currents in the Chinese Communist Party

Communist Road places the blame squarely on Mao Zedong. But perhaps the situation was not so clear-cut. Minqi Li, for example, in his book The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy, flatly states “it was Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi who were responsible for the Great Leap Forward,” and quotes Liu as praising officials who reported implausible, wildly inflated crop yields as “having overthrown science.” At the same time, Mao cautioned against the “exaggeration wind” but party leaders, following the leads of Deng and Liu, who were in charge of party propaganda, continued to agitate for ideas to be “liberated.” (As an aside, Dr. Li’s research found that the peak of the death rate during the Great Leap Forward was lower than the normal death rate during the 1930s; by the 1970s, the death rate was about one-fourth what it had been in the 1930s.)

Dr. Li concludes his analysis of the Great Leap Forward by stating “a privileged bureaucratic group” had taken control of the party; now no longer a party committed to revolutionary ideals and willing to self-sacrifice but rather “one that included many careerists who were primarily concerned with personal power and enrichment.”

That is not different from Mr. Ruckus’ overall conclusion, although he asserts that Mao “was held responsible” for the Great Leap Forward and “pragmatic leaders” like Deng and Liu “instituted reforms that were supposed to deal with the fallout of the GLF.” [page 56] During the next period of upheaval, the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s, is, consistent with the book’s perspective, examined from the standpoint of workers and peasants by Mr. Ruckus. Separate from the struggles within the party hierarchy, he writes that the Cultural Revolution was a series of mass outbreaks for better working conditions and permanent jobs as part of a struggle against the “red bourgeoisie” (a term used by some Cultural Revolution participants) and the CCP that was “exploiting workers.”

Forbidden City, Beijing (photo by Adamantios)

Unrest continued across the 1970s, with workers demanding more egalitarian wages and bonuses, a say in decision-making and work conditions, and fewer privileges for party cadres; the experiences gained during the Cultural Revolution were put to use by grassroots organizers. This was also a period where investments in education and health care paid off — literacy, life expectancy and child mortality all continued to improve. Unrest was met with a mix of responses, including repression, concessions, co-optation and reforms.

China, as can now be seen in hindsight, was on the brink of dramatic changes as Mao and much of the revolutionary generation were approaching their deaths. Separate from that, China had opened relations with the United States in an effort to ease its isolation and gain access to technology; the split with the Soviet Union also played a role in this development. The Deng faction would win the power struggle following Mao’s death, and then use the democracy movements to defeat their party opponents before suppressing the movements, Mr. Ruckus writes. The commune system was dismantled, farmland was leased, collective structures disappeared and local governments began to rely on taxes, fees and enclosures. Wages were increased, but the “iron rice bowl” of benefits was attacked and associated with the ousted Mao-aligned Gang of Four. The right to strike was abolished, more workers became temporary hires and rules restricting migration were eased to encourage an exodus into the new special economic zones where foreign capital could set up.

Here, Mr. Ruckus is on firm ground in characterizing the period from the mid-1970s to mid-1990s as a transition to capitalism. He writes that hopes that the Deng reforms would lead to improvements were disappointed. Changing labor relations and less job security led to continuing worker unrest and student mobilizations. The death of a prominent party reformer, Hu Yaobang, sparked mass demonstrations and the Tiananmen Square occupation of 1989, by any standard a crucial turning point.

Tiananmen Square as a turning point in Chinese history

Here, perhaps more than at any other point, is where Communist Road must make its case. The Tiananmen Square occupation “ended in failure,” Mr. Ruckus writes, because “CCP leaders were determined to keep their grip on power” and because of the movement’s weaknesses, “above all, the division between students and workers. Student leaders did not want to involve the working class.” That was, in part, because of a fear that “working class involvement would necessarily lead to a harsh response from CCP leaders.” [page 109]

One of the leaders of Tiananmen, Wang Chaohua, who wrote a series of essays on the event after escaping China, said the more important mistake was to not develop a political agenda and thus “failed to propose a political agenda that could have reflected the scale of popular engagement — and thus missed the opportunity to transform the protest into a constructive political movement,” in the words of J.X. Zhang, who reviewed in New Left Review Dr. Wang’s Chinese-language collection of Tiananmen essays. Dr. Wang laments a “lack of independent political consciousness among Chinese workers” who “as a whole still partly identified their collective interests with those of the ruling party, which claimed to be ‘the vanguard of the working class.’ ”

Activist workers who did participate nonetheless would bear a heavy share of the crackdown that followed the military attack that put an end to the occupation. It is possible that thousands were killed in the military crushing of the occupation and a certainty that thousands more landed in prison. What was to come next?

“At this point,” Mr. Ruckus writes, “the PRC was just a final step away from its transition from socialism to capitalism. This step might not have happened if not for the global transformation of the Cold War confrontation between the capitalist West and the socialist East and the dialectic of economic crisis, investment relocation, and industrial development that had shifted the global manufacturing center to East Asia over the course of the 1980s and 1990s.” [page 110]

Tiananmen Square (photo by そらみみ (Soramimi))

Similarly, Naomi Klein, in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, argued that as the Tiananmen Square protests were getting underway, the Chinese government “was pushing hard to deregulate wages and prices and expand the reach of the market.” She even reported that Milton Friedman, the notorious godfather of Chicago School economics, was invited to China in 1980 and again in 1988 to provide advice! Ms. Klein quotes another Tiananmen leader, Wang Hui, who said popular discontent against Deng’s economic changes that included lower wages, rising prices and “a crisis of layoffs and unemployment … were the catalyst for the 1989 social mobilization.” The violent end to the occupation, according to Professor Wang, “served to check the social upheaval brought about by this process, and the new pricing system finally took shape.”

What were the results once the Deng-led CCP was able to resume its restructuring? Mr. Ruckus doesn’t hold back from a catalog of negative changes: The use of special economic zones to draw in foreign direct investment (FDI), job security guarantees replaced with contracts, welfare provisions scrapped, privatizations, state-run companies converted to state-owned enterprises expected to maximize profits, 50 million laid off and an intensification of work. “Growing job insecurity, unemployment, low wages, the loss of welfare protection, and higher work pressure led to discontent,” he wrote. “[State-owned enterprise] workers started organizing a wave of protests against the restructuring of the state sector that would last into the 2000s. Moreover, the deterioration of living conditions in the countryside triggered peasant unrest in the mid- and late-1990s. These two cycles of struggle marked the beginning of the capitalist period in the PRC,” which the author dates from the mid-1990s. [page 114]

“Crossing the river by feeling the stones”

This transition need not be seen as either inevitable or the result of a plot by some party leaders, according to Communist Road. “This transition was not the result of a detailed master plan or blueprint but of a series of — often experimental — reform steps taken to improve the country’s economic performance, save the socialist system, and stabilize CCP rule. This is the meaning of the phrase ‘crossing the river by feeling the stones’ that Deng Xiaoping allegedly used to describe his understanding of the course of reform.” [page 115]

Restructuring of state-owned enterprises would further develop as the 1990s drew to a close and China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. Another crucial milestone in China’s path toward capitalism Mr. Ruckus could have explored further is Jiang Zemin’s “theory of the three represents.” Only a passing reference to then-President Jiang’s allowing private capitalists to become party members in 2001 hints at this development. But this development went beyond a mere widening of party intake. The “Three Represents” reference is an official line announced in 2001 the party should represent the most advanced productive forces, the most advanced culture and the broadest layers of the people. Promulgated by President Jiang, it is a declaration that the interests of different classes are not in conflict and that the party can harmoniously represent all classes simultaneously. One can of course enunciate such a program if one wishes, but such a theory has nothing in common with Marxism.

Another piece of evidence that the book could have cited but didn’t is the party’s increasing stress on the use of markets. The Communist Party leadership switched the role of the market from “basic” to “decisive” in 2013 at a key Central Committee plenum, and continuity with this course was laid down by the party at the October 2017 party congress that again stressed the “decisive role” of the market. Communist Road focuses on social movements and grassroots activities, and spends little time on party developments, and although not discussing these party declarations is perhaps consistent with the intent of the book, more reportage of party debates would have enriched the text and provided further underpinning for its central thesis.

The book does document continuing unrest across the 2000s; much of the strikes during this period were wildcat actions as organized actions were prohibited. Since Xi Jinping became party general secretary and president in 2012, the party has tightened control and increased surveillance, and although unrest and wildcat actions have not ceased, there is support for the government from the middle class, which has seen benefits from the reforms, and wages have increased.

Conceptualizing socialism beyond a narrow definition

In trying to unravel the complexities of how the Chinese economy might best be conceptualized, a basic question that should be asked is: What is socialism? Is socialism merely the absence of capitalism? Or is it something more? A definition frequently put forth by socialists (and not only them) is that state ownership of the means of production constitutes socialism, understood as a transitional stage toward communism, to use the classical formulation of Karl Marx. This was the foundation on which the Soviet Union, from the 1930s on, could proclaim itself a socialist society, updating that to referring to itself as a “developed socialist society” in the Brezhnev years as an additional developmental step.

But is that all there is? I would argue that the elimination of a bourgeois social class as the owners of the means of production and the replacement of that social relation with common or state ownership is a pre-condition of socialism, not the actual content. Nor does it have to mean state ownership of all enterprises, although it is inconceivable for a socialism to exist that doesn’t place in state hands banking and a few, large key industries. If socialism means political and economic democracy in a society where everybody has a voice in the decisions that affect them, their communities and/or the enterprises in which they work; wages and other compensation reflect contributions to the work performed; and there are no centers of power built on the accumulation of capital, then neither China nor any other country can be classified as achieving socialism.

In his writings on the Soviet Union, the Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher developed the term “post-capitalist” for the Soviet Union and its Central European satellites. This provides a neutral term that acknowledges that capitalist economic relations had been abolished without suggesting a transition to a higher state had been completed. That has long seemed to me to be a highly useful way to conceptualize the Soviet economy. It certainly wasn’t capitalist, or the United States and other Western capitalist powers wouldn’t have poured so much time, energy and money into attempting to defeat the Soviet bloc with such sustained intensity.

People’s Grand Hall in Chongqing (photo by Chen Hualin)

It is reasonable to draw some parallels with Dr. Amin’s conceptualization of China as neither capitalist nor socialist. He pointed to the communal nature of land in rural China, which is not a commodity that farmers can sell, as “absolutely prevent[ing] us from characterizing contemporary China (even today) as ‘capitalist,’ because the capitalist road is based on the transformation of land into a commodity.” Other commentators point to the fact that banking and finance remain firmly in state hands to buttress their arguments that China is not capitalist. Dr. Amin in his analysis noted that transnational capital can’t pillage China’s natural resources and China’s integration into the world system is “partial and controlled.” Land, however, is frequently taken by city or other local governments and sold to commercial interests; one estimate made in 2017 is that 4 million farmers were losing land annually. Moreover, that China is one of two countries large enough to enter the world capitalist system on its own terms (India being the other although neither the Hindu fundamentalist neoliberal BJP nor the ever rightward-moving Congress chooses to do so) doesn’t mean capitalist relations are absent from the workplace.

The analogy with the Soviet Union is not a snug fit, given that Soviet Union retained a post-capitalist, or at any rate, a non-capitalist, form of government through the early years of Mikhail Gorbachev, not beginning to introduce elements of capitalism until a series of reforms rammed through the parliament in 1990.

On balance, then, although Dr. Amin presented a learned and serious interpretation (and who was clear about the danger of a return to capitalism even while believing market openings were justified), Mr. Ruckus’ four-stage conception gives us the best understanding of the Chinese economy and where it, at least for now, is going. One more opinion popularly floated that we haven’t discussed is that China has indeed moved to capitalism, but only as a temporary expedient to develop faster, and will one day expropriate private capital and become a socialist power strong enough to fend off the capitalist powers. Given the opaqueness of the CCP, none of us outside the party are in any position to know with authority its leadership’s long-term intentions.

What we can do is analyze the actions and words of CCP leadership, which has carried out a slow progression toward capitalism. President Xi has recently begun taking steps to reign in certain Chinese capitalists and has more frequently talked about Marxism, but whether these are the opening moves of a reversal of policies or simply an assertion of party rule will not be known for some time. And even if it were true that the moves toward capitalism are intended to be a temporary expedient, becoming more deeply entangled in markets and the capitalist world system carries its own momentum, a drift not at all easy to check. There are industrial and party interests that favor the path China has been on since the 1990s, and those interests represent another social force that would resist structural moves toward socialism.

An ambivalent and contradictory path

In its summation, Communist Road acknowledges that the four-stage conception “has its limitations.” There are not clear borders between the stages nor is there a straight historical direction. “The long transition from socialism to capitalism in particular was not only gradual and intermittent but also ambivalent and contradictory,” Mr. Ruckus writes. “[M]any of those subperiods [within the stages] overlapped, as unrest from below was often vibrant and erratic and took years to develop and grow, while containment measures and reforms from above were also staggered and long-lasting.” [page 166]

A corollary is a rejection of the idea that “so-called capitalist roaders in the CCP leadership” executed a master plan. “There is no evidence for such a master plan, and blaming the transition mostly on deviant CCP leaders ignores structural factors, both domestic and global. … [I]t was the result of structural features of the form the CCP regime took in the 1950s and 1960s and of social, political, and economic dynamics that made the transition to capitalism in the following decades possible and likely (though not inevitable).” [page 173]

The book concludes with “lessons for the left” that offers “elements of a left-wing strategy.” Two necessities, the author writes, are analysis of the process of class recomposition from the perspectives of proletarians and other oppressed peoples, and forms of organizing that break down divisions among proletarians, activists and intellectuals. Open discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of movements, resistance and organization, and of socialist governments, are vital as well as that movements should be in the hands of those struggling and should represent themselves. Finally, movements must organize globally; the social struggles around the world of recent years occurred simultaneously but were “divided along North-South lines and by national markets, sexism, racism, and migration regimes. These divisions can be overcome, and it is one of the tasks of left-wing organizing to provide resources and create bridges that connect struggles.”

We must base analyses on material reality, not on what our hopes or dreams wish nor on the name of the organization presiding over a country. No single book can be the last word, and some of the conclusions of Communist Road are sure to draw some strong disagreements. Regardless of where you stand on the central questions under discussion, Ralf Ruckus has provided a strong argument, backed by ample evidence, for the thesis that China has become capitalist, as well as a useful, brisk history from below of China since 1949. Both are welcome contributions.

If you work in the U.S., you don’t know how bad you have it

It’s no secret that United Statesians are more ignorant of the world beyond their national borders than the peoples of other countries. That ignorance serves a purpose. How can you keep screaming “We’re Number One” and believing you have it better than the rest of the world if you are in possession of accurate information?

For example, most United Statesians remain blithely unaware that they have among the worst health care outcomes of any advanced capitalist country while paying by far the most money. A Commonwealth Fund report, for example, found that the U.S. “placed last among 16 high-income, industrialized nations when it comes to deaths that could potentially have been prevented by timely access to effective health care.” As one of the few countries on Earth without a national health care system, health care is a commodity for those who can afford it, not a right as it is almost anyplace else.

The U.S. also has one of the highest rates of inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient; among the countries of Europe only Bulgaria has worse inequality. The United States has the widest gap between pay and productivity gains among advanced capitalist countries and U.S. corporations haul in gigantic sums of money, sometimes millions of dollars per employee, but pay their employees minuscule percentages of their haul. Declining lifespans in the U.S. are considered a “silver lining” in corporate boardrooms because pension costs are lower. And thus it comes as no surprise that the Covid-19 pandemic has widened inequality still further, with the world’s industrialists and financiers adding literally trillions of dollars to their accumulated wealth during 2020.

That was a long introduction to yet more bad news. Not only are wages stagnant and living standards decaying, but working people in the U.S. are working longer hours. A study published in the peer-reviewed journal Socio-Economic Review found that, among 18 European and North American countries, the percentage of employees in the U.S. working at least 50 hours per week is the highest, at about 18 percent for the period 1990 to 2010. The paper, “Extreme work hours in Western Europe and North America: diverging trends since the 1970s” by Anna S. Burger, found that total rising — about 15 percent worked such hours for the period 1970-1989, a time frame in which the U.S. also had the highest rate.

(Author: CIPHR Connect)

Nonetheless, it is not only in the U.S. that more people are forced to work at least 50 hours per week. The study examined Canada, Switzerland and 15 members of the European Union (including Britain, then a member) and in only one country, France, did the percentage of people working excessive hours decline from 1970-1989 to 1990-2010. France, Sweden and Switzerland had the lowest rates, each less than 5 percent. Canada was second to the U.S. at 17 percent and also showed the largest jump, from about 6 percent in 1970-1989.

Work more or else

European Union law is supposed to prohibit working more than 48 hours per week, but the study by Dr. Burger noted that several countries have adopted opt-out clauses. Working beyond 48 hours, even with the exemptions, requires the employee consent. But given the one-sidedness of working relations, an employee could find it difficult to refuse consent. Dr. Burger wrote:

“[T]he choice whether to work long hours is not entirely, or even mainly, left to the preference of the individual but is guided by policy and collective socio-economic institutions. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the most relevant work time tendencies of the past decades are shaped by liberalizing trends in labour market policies, industrial relations arrangements and labour market structures not only in the Anglo-Saxon world but also on most parts of Continental Europe, rather than by regime-conform developments.” [page 3]

Some of the people working excessive hours are high-paid professionals such as lawyers or investment bankers. But low-wage workers are increasingly forced to work long hours because they can’t survive otherwise.

“At the bottom of the skills scale, an increasing number of workers are becoming labour market outsiders who are in atypical, or precarious, employment or unemployment. … The practice of very long hours is particularly wide-spread among outsiders for two reasons. First, due to a lack of regulatory protection and high replaceability, outsiders are in a vulnerable position vis-à-vis their employers. Not complying with an employer’s request for overtime might result in an outsider’s immediate dismissal and replacement. Secondly, in many cases, outsiders consent to, sometimes even initiate, working very long hours in order for their income to reach subsistence level. In today’s increasingly unequal economies, an ever-larger number of low-skilled workers must compensate for their relatively low hourly pay by allocating more time to work. While this decision is formally voluntary, in substance it is not because the choice is strongly shaped by the restrictive political economy environment.” [page 8]

Working conditions in the EU are deteriorating, but employees in the U.S. have less protection and more meager unemployment benefits. The pressure to work long hours is more intense there than in Europe, and employers often find it more profitable to squeeze extra hours out of employees rather than hire someone to lighten workloads. Another product of the extreme individualist ideology U.S. capitalism fosters.

And although overall working hours have actually declined over the past half-century, the rate of that decline has been far slower in the U.S. than in the European Union. A paper by Robert J. Gordon and Hassan Sayed, “The Industry Anatomy of the Transatlantic Productivity Growth Slowdown,” found that for the period 1950 to 2015, there was a decline of 37 percent in average employee working hours for the 10 largest EU countries (a drop from 2,250 hours to 1,560 hours) as compared to a decline of only 12 percent for U.S. employees (2,020 hours to 1,780 hours). So much for John Maynard Keynes’ famous prediction that we’d be working 15 hours a week in the future.

U.S. working people work 220 hours per year more than do EU workers — that’s five and a half weeks of extra work!

That sobering comparison is no surprise when we make a comparison of mandatory paid days off. Among the 42 countries that are members of the OECD and/or the European Union, there is only one country with zero paid days of vacation or holidays under the law — the United States. Seven countries require workers be guaranteed 25 or more vacation days per year. Another 25 mandate at least 20 days. Each of those countries also mandate anywhere from eight to 15 paid holidays. Among the 42 countries surveyed, 34 legally require 28 or more days, led by Austria and Malta (38 each) and another half-dozen requiring 36. Turkey, with 12 days of mandatory paid time off, is next worst to the zero of the U.S.

Working conditions are not getting better

The pandemic may be making the above conditions worse. Working at home has led to a working day of two and a half hours longer for employees in the United States, Canada and Britain, according to a report by a business technology company, NordVPN Teams. The company, CNN reported, examined data sent via servers to calculate employee working hours. There were “no significant drop of business [virtual private network] usage at lunch time indicating potential short lunch breaks while working remotely.”

Other surveys have reached similar conclusions. A report by the U.S. staffing firm Robert Half said nearly 70 percent of professionals who work remotely because of the pandemic work on the weekends and 45 percent say they regularly work more hours during the week than they did before the pandemic. For front-line workers not able to work at home, stress and mental health difficulties have increased sharply, with problems particularly acute in the U.S. due to its inability to provide coherent responses to Covid-19 and the chaos triggered by extreme right operatives who created the “Tea Party” organizing the anti-science and anti-intellectual spectacles opposing measures designed to combat the Covid-19 pandemic.

Where does all this lead? To health problems and shorter lifespans. A study conducted by researchers at the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization reported that excessive working hours led to 745,000 deaths from stroke and ischemic heart disease in 2016, a 29 per cent increase from 2000. The study found that, in 2016, “398,000 people died from stroke and 347,000 from heart disease as a result of having worked at least 55 hours a week. Between 2000 and 2016, the number of deaths from heart disease due to working long hours increased by 42%, and from stroke by 19%.”

Austerity and economic dislocation have taken their toll around the world, but the already existing harshness of life in the United States on top of austerity and dislocation takes a particular toll there. Nearly half a million excess deaths occurred in the U.S. from 1999 to 2015 from drug and alcohol poisonings, suicide, and chronic liver diseases and cirrhosis. A paper published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PNAS found this increase in the death rate was limited to the U.S. among advanced capitalist countries.

We’re perhaps taken in more bad news than we can reasonably digest. It’s understandable to not wish to take in too much bad news at once. For readers with knowledge of the world, none of the statistics presented above make for a surprise. It is thus tempting to ask: Would the particularly toxic brand of nationalism practiced by millions of United Statesians continue as virulently were the above statistics widely known? Sadly, perhaps it would. If we were to summarize the discourse of U.S. nationalists, it would be: “We’re number one! We can kill more foreigners in less time than any other country! USA! USA!” Is being able to cheerlead for the world’s biggest military really worth working so many hours for such dismal results?

Earth burns and the capitalist world talks

Yes, the time for talk is well past and one more report isn’t likely to change minds or induce new action. Nonetheless, it is always useful to have the latest information when dealing with an ongoing emergency. The world’s governments shouldn’t need the latest United Nations report on the state of Earth’s climate to act but if some do care to pay proper attention, the situation is ever more dire.

Officially, the paper under discussion is the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, summarizing the knowledge of the world’s climate scientists. The technical summary of the report spans 150 pages, and that is what we’ll be quoting from. The report is intended “to provide policymakers with regular scientific assessments on climate change, its implications and potential future risks, as well as to put forward adaptation and mitigation options.”

Having paid little more than lip service to past reports, and the ongoing avalanche of scientific papers and the accelerating pace of weather disasters, the world’s governments, beholden as they are to the planet’s industrialists and financiers, aren’t likely to suddenly spring into serious action should office holders bother to read the memos their assistants who might have actually read one of the summaries have sent along.

I wish I could be more optimistic, but consider the recent evidence. At the last gathering of the world’s governments to tackle the issue, the 25th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in December 2019 in Madrid, otherwise known as COP25, the conference ended with participants announcing the conference “Notes with concern the state of the global climate system” and agreed there would be more opportunities to talk at the next two annual conferences. (Last year’s conference was put off a year and will be held in November in Glasgow.)

Graphic credit: NASA, slight adjustments by Femke Nijsse for accessibility.

The previous year’s COP 24, in Katowice, Poland (the host country’s pavilion featured displays of everyday items such as walls and soap made from coal, for added irony), the conference ended with an agreement to create a rulebook with no real enforcement mechanism. The world’s governments had previously agreed to set goals for reducing their productions of greenhouse gases but to do so on a voluntary basis with no enforcement mechanism, and now those agreements will have guidelines as to how those goals will be reported that also have no enforcement mechanism. And governments will be allowed to use their own methodologies to calculate their progress, a gaping loophole sure to be used to cook the books.

And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut was fond of saying. Or perhaps he wasn’t so fond. No matter, the current state of the world’s climate really isn’t a fun topic nowadays. Let’s take a look anyway.

Well on our way to reaching temperature limit

Among the, if you’ll excuse the expression, highlights of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paper are that the increase in global surface temperature is more than two-thirds of the way toward the 1.5-degree C. limit set by the Paris Accord, the 2015 agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Specifically, the IPCC paper states, “For the decade 2011–2020, the increase in global surface temperature since 1850–1900 is assessed to be 1.09 [0.95 to 1.20] °C.” Further, “many of the changes observed since the 1950s are unprecedented over decades to millennia. Updated paleoclimate evidence strengthens this assessment; over the past several decades, key indicators of the climate system are increasingly at levels unseen in centuries to millennia and are changing at rates unprecedented in at least the last 2000 years.”

The report says, “human influence is the principal driver of many changes observed across the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere. … [I]t is now an established fact that human-induced greenhouse gas emissions have led to an increased frequency and/or intensity of some weather and climate extremes since 1850, in particular for temperature extremes.”

Terminus of Kangerlugssuup Sermerssua glacier in west Greenland (photo by Denis Felikson, via NASA)

If an increase since the early years of the Industrial Revolution of 1.5 degrees is a breaking point, how long do we have until that threshold is breached under business as usual? The report says, “combining the larger estimate of global warming to date and the assessed climate response to all considered scenarios, the central estimate of crossing 1.5°C of global warming (for a 20-year period) occurs in the early 2030s, ten years earlier than the midpoint of the likely range assessed in [a 2018 IPCC special report], assuming no major volcanic eruption.” A decade from now!

And that’s not all. The report noted that the global water cycle is being disrupted and “projects with high confidence an increase in the variability of the water cycle in most regions of the world and under all emissions scenarios.” That means, in plain language, more droughts and more flooding. The report additionally projects ocean oxygen loss “substantially greater in 2080–2099 than assessed in” another IPCC special report released in 2019.

More heat, more melting in future centuries

Wish for more bad news? How about this:

“Levels of global warming … that have not been seen in millions of years could be reached by 2300, depending on the emissions pathway that is followed. For example, there is medium confidence that, by 2300, an intermediate scenario used in the report leads to global surface temperatures of 2.3°C–4.6°C higher than 1850–1900, similar to the mid-Pliocene Warm Period (2.5°C–4°C), about 3.2 million years ago, whereas the high CO2 emissions scenario SSP5-8.5 leads to temperatures of 6.6°C–14.1°C by 2300, which overlaps with the Early Eocene Climate Optimum (10°C–18°C), about 50 million years ago.” [Page TS-11]

Even if humanity were to stop producing greenhouse gas emissions today, our descendants will be faced with rising sea levels. Seas will be at least a meter higher by the end of the century, a forecast that would have to be revised upward if the amount of additional sea level rise that would occur from disintegration of marine ice shelves or faster than expected loss of ice from Greenland is included. The report states, “Although past and future global warming differ in their forcings, evidence from paleoclimate records and modelling show that ice sheet mass and global mean sea level (GMSL) responded dynamically over multiple millennia (high confidence). … Beyond 2100, GMSL will continue to rise for centuries to millennia due to continuing deep ocean heat uptake and mass loss from ice sheets, and will remain elevated for thousands of years (high confidence).” [Pages TS-14, TS-45]

The long-term forecast is for a weakening of the Gulf Stream with centuries necessary for a return to present strength. A near complete loss of Greenland ice sheet and a complete loss of West Antarctic ice sheet are projected to occur irreversibly over multiple millennia. And thus the conclusion that:

“The increase in global ocean heat content will likely continue until at least 2300 even for low-emission scenarios, and global mean sea level rise will continue to rise for centuries to millennia following cessation of emissions due to continuing deep ocean heat uptake and mass loss of the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets (high confidence). … The response of biogeochemical cycles to anthropogenic perturbations can be abrupt at regional scales and irreversible on decadal to century time scales (high confidence). … Continued Amazon deforestation, combined with a warming climate, raises the probability that this ecosystem will cross a tipping point into a dry state during the 21st century (low confidence).” [Page TS-72]

Even with the uncertainty about the future of the Amazon, that clear cutting of the world’s lungs can only have a negative effect on global climate is not in dispute, however difficult it remains to determine the extent or speed of the damage.

There is plenty more material for readers with a strong stomach, but the above paints the picture clear enough.

Setting a goal but doing little to achieve the goal

Under current conditions and scenarios, it would be impossible to keep the global temperature increase below the 2-degree threshold commonly seen as the outer limit before the climate spirals beyond control and catastrophic change is likely, much less the 1.5-degree goal of the Paris Accord. According to Climate Action Tracker, an independent scientific analysis produced by the research organizations Climate Analytics and New Climate Institute, the pledges and targets set by the world’s governments, if achieved, would result in a temperature rise of 2.4 degrees by 2100. Current policies, if not altered, would result in an increase of 2.9 degrees.

Drastic reductions, well beyond what has been committed to, are necessary to attain even the 2-degree target. Two University of Washington statisticians, Peiran Liu and Adrian Raftery, in a paper published in February 2021 in the peer-reviewed journal Communications Earth & Environment, calculate that the world’s governments need to increase the rate of greenhouse gas emissions cuts by 80 percent from current levels. The authors write:

“On current trends, the probability of staying below 2 °C of warming is only 5%, but if all countries meet their nationally determined contributions and continue to reduce emissions at the same rate after 2030, it rises to 26%. If the USA alone does not meet its nationally determined contribution, it declines to 18%. To have an even chance of staying below 2 °C, the average rate of decline in emissions would need to increase from the 1% per year needed to meet the nationally determined contributions, to 1.8% per year.”

Considerably deeper reductions would be needed to attain the 1.5-degree goal, and would require “reaching close to global net zero emissions by 2045.” Even to achieve an increase of no more than 2 degrees would require a 66% reduction in emissions from 2010 to 2070. The world certainly is not on any such course.

We can’t shop our way out of global warming

It should be obvious, but unfortunately needs to be continually restated, that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. The dynamics of capitalism demand that growth be ceaseless; the system can’t function without it. And given that corporations, through their stranglehold on the world’s governments, can offload their responsibilities such as damage from pollution onto society, there is little incentive for them to cut their greenhouse gas emissions or reduce their pollution of the environment. Financial markets demand ever higher profits, and will punish the stock of corporations that fail to do so. Stock prices represent expectations of future profits; if profits don’t rise, the stock price doesn’t rise, making financiers angry and thereby put pressure on executives to do as they are expected.

Every incentive in a capitalist economy is for there to be more production, and a capitalist economy that doesn’t grow also means fewer jobs. Even a small increase in gross domestic product can result in overall job loss because jobs are cut faster by cost-cutting capitalists than tepid growth in demand can create them. Moreover, even if government regulation were to make it difficult or impossible for an industry to remain solvent, capitalism doesn’t guarantee anybody a job. People don’t travel across continents to take jobs at a North Dakota oil well or an Alberta tar sands dig if there are viable alternatives back home. Corporate executives accustomed to taking home gigantic salaries aren’t eager to see their businesses wind down.

Haze from forest fires in St. Mary Valley, Glacier National Park in August 2015, during the hottest and driest summer in Pacific Northwest history. (photo by Pete Dolack)

Green capitalism” isn’t going to save us. Green capitalism is an illusion. We can’t shop our way out of global warming nor are there technological magic wands that will save us. There is no alternative to a dramatic change in the organization of the global economy and consumption patterns. Effecting such a change is impossible under capitalism. Not even a total switch to renewable energy, as laudable and necessary as such a change would be, is sufficient by itself to reverse global warming. Solar panels, wind turbines, electric vehicles and other renewable-energy infrastructure require heavy manufacturing and the use of metals and sometimes toxic rare earths to make. And a whole lot of them will have to be made.

The task of any capitalist corporation is to accumulate capital, and it must grow while meeting the rigors of competition to do so. Although greedy or immoral people are certainly not unknown in corporate boardrooms, the personality of the capitalist doesn’t particularly matter. Competition mandates corporate behavior, and the whip of the financial industry is there to enforce that behavior.

As Joel Kovel, in his classic book The Enemy of Nature put it, industrialists and financiers (those who control the economic system and thus exert decisive influence over the political system through their economic power), are structurally incapable of dealing with the environmental crisis. He wrote:

“Each society selects for the psychological types that serve its needs. It is quite possible in this way to mold a great range of characters toward a unified, class purpose. To succeed in the capitalist marketplace and rise to the top, one needs a hard, cold, calculating mentality, the ability to sell oneself, and a hefty dose of the will to power. None of these traits is at all correlated with ecological sensibility or caring, and they are induced by the same force field that shapes investment decisions. … Of course greed plays a role. How could it not when stupendous fortunes can be had for compliance with the rules of the game? But the question is how greed, or the drive for power, or cold and calculating ways of thought, lead to blindness and rigidity. These are the salient traits, and they arise from the intersection of psychological tendencies with the concrete lifeworld of the capitalists. … If you sit at the heart of the world’s financial centers, fly in private jets, manipulate billions of dollars with the tap of a keypad and control a productive apparatus capable of diverting rivers and sending missions to Mars, you are not likely to experience the humility of a St. Francis or the patient tenacity of a Rachel Carson.”

Make the future worthless so tomorrow doesn’t matter

Even standard accounting works against dealing with global warming and pollution. Capitalist economics discounts the future so much that future life is seen as nearly worthless. Thus, in this type of accounting, there is no cost for future pollution.

Authors Richard York, Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster put this plainly in a thoughtful May 2009 article in Monthly Review. They wrote:

“Where [orthodox economists] primarily differ is not on their views of the science behind climate change but on their value assumptions about the propriety of shifting burdens to future generations. This lays bare the ideology embedded in orthodox neoclassical economics, a field which regularly presents itself as using objective, even naturalistic, methods for modeling the economy. However, past all of the equations and technical jargon, the dominant economic paradigm is built on a value system that prizes capital accumulation in the short-term, while de-valuing everything else in the present and everything altogether in the future.”

Even with a humanistic accounting regime and the needed changes to make the necessary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, the cost of achieving the goals of averting catastrophic climate change will be high. The idea that all the new jobs created by the transition to renewable energy will somehow mean there will be no cost to the economy as promoted by many liberal environmental organizations is not credible, and it would be better to face up to that. Denying that reversing global warming will be virtually cost-free is not much more realistic than the conservative fantasy that global warming isn’t reality.

Nor should we deny the likelihood that the peoples of the advanced capitalist countries will have to consume less energy in the future. Although renewable energy will become more efficient in the future and the problem of battery energy storage will probably be reasonably solved in the not too distant future, they simply won’t provide the bang for the buck that fossil fuels provide. There is a reason those are used — they provide more energy than alternative sources. This reduction in energy usage needn’t mean trying to read by candlelight. Ending planned obsolescence, making products last much longer and becoming serious about recycling can make up a significant part of the energy gap. Humanity is using natural resources far beyond their replacement rate. Basic mathematics tells us that can’t continue indefinitely.

But what would be the cost of not seriously addressing global warming? That price will surely be vastly higher than the costs of not doing so. What price should our descendants pay if we don’t move to an economic system that values life rather than only profits, a system that produces for human and community need instead of for the profit of the one percent? That price will likely be a very high one, and our descendants are not likely to look kindly upon us for despoiling their world and leaving them with enormous problems, not least drowning cities, a chaotic climate and diminished areas for reliable agriculture. Our choice remains socialism or barbarism.

We don’t need to wait for centuries to build a better world

A crucial argument for the incessantly promoted idea that capitalism will be with us for a long time to come is the idea of inertia in human understanding. Ideas are stubbornly persistent and can only be changed over long periods of time. Slow evolutionary change is the best we can hope for, and the prospects even for that are uncertain and fragile.

If the above were true, then there would have been no revolutions in history. That is quite obviously not the case. Consciousness can change rapidly. It does so exceptionally and under rare circumstances during periods of social upheaval. Yes, not everyday occurrences. But they do happen. “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen,” Lenin famously said.

We need not lean on Lenin. A survey of history need not be comprehensive to find examples of dramatic changes in consciousness, even if we exclude, for purposes of this discussion, national movements of liberation from colonialism, which generally didn’t meaningfully change social relations.

France alone offers us two examples: The French Revolution and the Paris Commune. That working people didn’t obtain what they wanted, the bourgeoisie were in a position to gain an upper hand due to material conditions and that a monarchal restoration would later occur doesn’t require us to deem the events of 1789 to 1793 a failure. The dramatic insertion into history of the popular masses is what we can center here, and it can’t be argued there wasn’t an overturning of a rotten ancien régime. Louis XIV’s boast that he was the state (“L’état, c’est moi”) was reality given his absolute powers. Peasants were subject to starvation during poor harvests, and were subject to being strapped to a plow like an ox to pull a cart or forced to spend nights swishing a stick in a pond to keep the frogs from croaking so the local lord wouldn’t have his sleep disturbed. Town laborers worked 16-hour days and wages were codified as “not exceed[ing] the very lowest level necessary for his maintenance and reproduction.” The church provided the ideology to cement feudal relations in place, telling them all this was God’s will.

These conditions were endured, until they weren’t. Rebellions were hardly unknown across feudal Europe, but had tended to be isolated affairs. French peasants and laborers had been acquiescent to their miserable conditions, or so it seemed. As discontent among social classes mounted, the first demonstrations broke out in 1787. Organization and the education movements provide put people in motion. In only two years, the movement went from issuing petitions asking for reforms to overthrowing the monarchy. 

The throne of king Louis Philippe is burned in the place de la Bastille, at the foot of the July Column, during the French revolution of 1848. (painting by Nathaniel Currier)

There are also the revolutions of 1848 across Europe. It is true these would falter one after another as traditional authorities, mostly monarchal and military, would reassert themselves. But these upheavals could never have occurred without peasants and proletarians ceasing to continue total deference to elites and institutions. Masses were in motion, but the ideas, although temporarily crushed, survived and began to be implemented within decades. 

Societies across Europe were rigid class dictatorships, with the elites of their countries horrified at the very idea that common people might be given some say in how they were ruled. Incontestable violence was the frequent response to any stepping out of line. And while demands like a constitution wouldn’t seem at all radical today, they were in 1848 — granting them would have meant at least some rights for common people codified in law. The revolutions were failures in terms of immediate results, but the ideas raised would become common sense not long into the future. 

When implemented, these changes were not revolutionary, it is true, as national elites found they could accommodate such demands and not have their rule challenged. But millions previously resigned to bowing their heads and accepting their bitter lot learned to speak up, to organize, to struggle and to imagine that a better world could be brought into being. As Priscilla Robertson wrote in her marvelous account, Revolutions of 1848: A Social History, “Most of what the men of 1848 fought for was brought about within a quarter of a century, and the men who accomplished it were most of them specific enemies of the 1848 movement.”

An early demonstration in the Paris Commune

No account of 19th century uprisings could possibly omit the Paris Commune, the first socialist revolution in history. Consciousness wasn’t simply profoundly changed in 1871; the ideas of that new consciousness were put in action. The Paris Commune enacted several progressive laws — banning exploitative night work for bakers, suspending the collection of debts incurred during the siege, separating church from state, providing free education for all children, handing over abandoned workshops to cooperatives of workers who would restart production, and abolishing conscription into the army. Commune officials were subject to instant recall by voters and were paid the average wage of a worker.

The Commune would be drowned in blood. But we can readily see the difference between the vision of a better world and the ruthless violence used to suppress any attempt at putting such a vision into practice. A National Guard commander freed captured French army officers in a spirit of “comradeship,” to the point where a top army commander was let go in exchange for a promise that the commander would henceforth be neutral — a promise that was swiftly broken. The Communards’ magnanimity was repaid with a horrific bloodbath. An estimated 30,000 Parisians were massacred by the marauding French army in one week. Another 40,000 were held in prisons, and many of these were exiled to a remote South Pacific island where they became forced laborers on starvation diets, eventually barred from fishing in the sea or to forage for food, and routinely subjected to torture. The restored government exerted itself to deny any political or moral content to the Communards’ actions, instead treating them as the worst common criminals as part of what developed into a de facto “social cleansing” of Paris; the French official overseeing the deportations, in his public statements, directly linked socialist politics with chronic petty crime.

The past is not forgotten. Chileans demonstrate in Plaza Baquedano, Santiago in 2019 (photo by Carlos Figueroa)

The very peacefulness of the Communards was a sharp divergence from ordinary governing practices. Only a people who had rapidly gained new and radical understandings of how society might be organized could have created such a government. Those ideas aren’t extinguished when bloodily suppressed, but remain alive for the next generations.

There are no shortages of examples to be drawn from the 20th century. Start with perhaps the most obvious example, Russia in 1917. Russia was a vast sea of illiterate peasants yoked to the land and held in bondage through superstition and backward social institutions; ruled by a tsar whose every word was incontestable law and backed by exiles, whippings and executions. Agitation by organizers in social democratic parties had made some headway, exemplified in the soviets of 1905, but even that was cut off when Russians accepted their country’s participation in World War I the same as the peoples of other countries. Yet three years later, all of Russia was in motion. Russians refused to accept any longer the brutality and backwardness forced upon them. More than 300,000 Petrograd workers took part in strikes during the seven weeks immediately preceding the February Revolution and mutinies spread throughout the army.

And it is not often remembered that women workers touched off the February Revolution — yet another overturning of social relations that required new consciousness. Women textile workers in Petrograd walked out on International Women’s Day, walked to nearby metal factories, told the men there to join them on strike, and both groups inspired workers in other factories to walk out. In two days, a general strike was underway in Petrograd, with demonstrators shouting anti-war and anti-monarchy slogans. And what could the October Revolution be other than a mass demonstration of changed thinking? Soldiers and sailors disarmed their officers and turned the military’s orientation 180 degrees, and that enabled civilians to disarm the police. The October Revolution took place in the capital city with the city’s residents filling the streets, occupying strategic buildings and electrifying the world with their cascade of motion and unity of purpose, backed across the country by workers, peasants, soldiers and sailors asserting their collective will. That was no “secret coup” as pro-capitalist historians consistently but falsely assert.

From object to subject in Nicaragua and Chile

And there is Nicaragua, the pre-revolutionary history of which was a history of exploitation. There would not have been a Sandinista Revolution coming to power in 1979 if it weren’t for the willingness of activists to adapt ideas developed elsewhere to Nicaraguan conditions and to draw upon local conditions and realities, blending them with the writings of 1930s liberator Augusto Sandino. In just a handful of years, a country at the mercy of the gigantic neighbor to the north accustomed to treating everything south of the Rio Grande as its “backyard” and under the whip of a brutal local family dictatorship maintained through copious amounts of torture and violence overturned both. A mass change in consciousness was created, without which Nicaraguans in huge numbers wouldn’t have had the fortitude to overthrow the Somoza family, defy the United States and create a dramatically different society and governing structure.

The Sandinistas also provided an important lesson, one equally applicable to advanced capitalist countries as underdeveloped ones. Although no theory can be transplanted whole to another place or time, there was an explicit acknowledgement, which was acted upon, that workers are not only blue-collar factory employees, but are also white-collar and other types of employees in a variety of settings, in offices and service positions, among others. Any revolution that seriously attempts to transcend capitalism, which means eliminating the immense power of the capitalist elite, has to include all these varieties of working people if it is to succeed in the 21st century. Mass consciousness would change so thoroughly that the Sandinistas had to go ahead with an insurrection sooner than they had planned because everyday people were moving forward so fast.

A different type of transformation was attempted in Chile, where the movement toward socialism was voted in but soon had profound effects. So profound was the beginnings of that transformation that frightened capitalists used fascistic levels of violence to turn back the clock. But, given the past couple of years of movement work in Chile, culminating in a Left-led writing of a new constitution to replace the Pinochet constitution, the ideas of the early 1970s have not been buried forever. Following the election of Salvador Allende, Chilean workers rapidly learned to manage their enterprises and take control of their lives. 

Marchers for Salvador Allende.

A representative example would be the Yarur textile factory, the enterprise focused on by Peter Winn in his indispensable study of the Allende years, Weavers of Revolution. Those workers had to overcome fear and memories of past repressions before they could band together to improve their conditions. Dr. Winn painted a vivid picture of the Yarur facility at the time of President Allende’s victory: “A passive and isolated work force, carefully selected and socialized, purged of suspected elements, disciplined by the Taylor System, and represented by a moribund company union; a paternalistic patrón who dispensed favors and largesse at his pleasure in return for unconditional loyalty, but who punished disloyalty with righteous anger; a network of informers that covered both the work sections and the company housing; and a structure of scaled punishments for transgressions against the patrón or his social politics that ranged from a verbal warning to summary dismissal and blacklisting.”

Yet in a matter of months, this once-cowed workforce went from clandestine work to create an independent union seeking merely better wages and working conditions to openly making demands such as firing hated foremen and moving to “free the factory.” Dr. Winn wrote, “The roots of revolution might be present, along with the justification for rebellion, but a precondition for this revolution from below was a dramatic change in the workers’ view of themselves, their capacity and power, as well as their perception that for once the state would support them in any showdown between capital and labor.” This leap in consciousness was replicated across the country. 

President Allende’s Popular Unity government achieved strong results in its first year. Unemployment was halved, inflation was reduced, the labor share of income increased from 55 percent to 66 percent and not only did the country see strong industrial growth, the growth came from production of basic goods such as food and clothing in contrast to prior years when growth was based on durable goods such as appliances and automobiles. Perhaps the most basic measure of the improvement was that the poor could now afford to eat meat and buy clothes. What might have been created if the U.S. government and Chile’s capitalists hadn’t crushed it?

What might have been created without interference?

Not all the revolutions discussed were successful, and you might disagree with the direction that some of those that were successful took. There can be no guarantees for the future. The point here isn’t that a change in thinking among enough people that a revolutionary situation arises, and is acted upon, guarantees success. Overwhelming power was brought to bear on the revolutions that failed, and overwhelming power was brought to bear on those that did succeed, distorting the results. We can not know what might have been accomplished had revolutionary governments had the space and time to develop peacefully, including in many other examples that could have been cited in this brief survey.

We might also consider non-revolutionary changes on a national level. To cite just one example, consider Germany. Having unified across the 19th century mostly due to the expansionary tendencies of Prussia, and finally achieving unification through Prussia’s lightning victories over Austria in 1866 and France in 1870, Prussian militarism was a dominant ideology in the young country with the military holding strong sway. Although the rise of Hitler had multiple causes, the militaristic ultra-nationalism that was in large part a holdover from Prussia accommodated itself well to Nazi government; indeed, supported it before the taking of power. 

Memorial of the 1848-49 revolution in Hungary. (photo by Globetrotter19)

But after World War II, those tendencies rapidly receded. Would anybody today see Germans as a nation of Prussian militarists bent on expansion? German national culture is very different today. Ideas changed sharply and rapidly. Yes, under the impact of a second devastating defeat in a continent-wide war. But the potentiality of such a change had to have been there, and we can point to the wide interwar support of the Social Democratic and Communist parties, and the rise of social democracy before the first world war. The treachery of the Social Democrats and sectarianism of the Communists, and their destruction during the Nazi régime, undermined the chances of more profound change (while acknowledging Allied and particularly U.S. impositions from 1945 that limited change in West Germany to capitalism under U.S. suzerainty and Soviet compulsion that molded East Germany). 

Changes in consciousness and belief systems don’t need decades, much less centuries, to change. Such changes don’t, and won’t, happen without enormous organizing, which includes gaining the ability to disseminate materials exposing and contradicting standard ideology and presenting alternatives that speak to people’s lives and goals, most importantly conceivable ideas and concepts that lead to a better world. A better world will come about through the everyday work of organizing and campaigning, not through blueprints. Some of the bricks of today will inevitably be used in building the institutions of tomorrow but those bricks can be arranged differently.

What is radical one day is everyday common sense another day, and the time span between those two days is not necessarily distant. The idea that one family was granted the right to rule in perpetuity, the idea that a human being could own another human being, the idea that everyone was born into a particular class and could never leave it, have passed into history. Why shouldn’t the idea that only a minuscule number of people have the ability to manage enterprises and should therefore be paid hundreds of times more than those whose work produces the profits also pass into history?

The idea that capitalism doesn’t work for most people, that a better world is possible, has animated millions and some of those millions have tried to put those ideas into practice. The ability to see through capitalist propaganda arose quickly — the peoples mentioned throughout this article didn’t need centuries. Popular opinion changed dramatically and rapidly.

That shifts in mass consciousness with revolutionary potential have rarely taken place in the world’s advanced capitalist countries does not mean they can’t happen in the future. What forms any such uprisings might take can’t be known, and could take different forms than previously seen. Repressive rule, whether through monarchs, armed force or economics, is not forever. Nothing of human creation is forever. Capitalism isn’t an exception and will be history when enough people decide to make it so. Organize!

Is 20th century social democracy really the best we can do?

Predictions are difficult to make, especially, as the old joke goes, when they are about the future. Particularly fraught have been predictions of the demise of capitalism. Conventional wisdom would have us believe that because capitalism remains the world’s dominant economic system, predictions of the system’s demise are not only wrong, but destined to be wrong in the future.

“Conventional wisdom” here, of course, is nothing more than a display of the axiom that the intellectual ideas of a society are those of the dominant class. Certainly, both industrialists and financiers would like us to believe that nothing fundamental can change. Bourgeois ideology proclaims that through every possible channel every day.

Yet what is of human creation is not permanent; everything of human creation has an expiration date. Capitalism will be no different.

When will capitalism be transcended and what will follow? That central question has been asked for two centuries and, given the increasing intensity of economic crises, mounting inequality and looming environmental catastrophe, is as important as ever. The unending series of protests, uprisings and movements dedicated to either forcing systemic reform or outright replacement are eloquent testament to how capitalism fails most of the world’s population.

Night view of the Gate of Enlightenment in Madrid (photo by Luis García (Zaqarbal))

Nonetheless, there is no arguing that capitalism remains firmly in the saddle, with no existing social movement anywhere near strong enough today to put the system at risk. Does that mean we should regard past predictions of capitalism’s demise as mistaken or wishful thinking? Perhaps only an ambiguous answer, at least preliminary, is appropriate. For those who wish to see capitalism continue indefinitely — those who benefit and those so frightened by propaganda that anything else is literally unimaginable — there is an easy answer: Yes. For those who wish for a better world, an economic system based on human need and in harmony with the environment, the answer is no. 

Whether yes, no, maybe or let’s wait and see, an examination of why predictions of capitalism’s demise are thus far off the mark is a healthy exercise. I thus was interested in a new book wrestling with these issues, Foretelling the End of Capitalism: Intellectual Misadventures since Karl Marx by Francesco Boldizzoni. Foretelling is a curious hybrid as the author is quite critical of capitalism but also has a pessimistic outlook regarding its replacement; it is rare for a book to receive praise from a Wall Street Journal reviewer and New Left Review contributor Wolfgang Streeck. Foretelling provides a strong challenge to the thinking of critics of capitalism and those who subscribe to leading theories, particularly Marxist, of the end of capitalism.

Such a challenge is healthy, and those who are interested in a basic history of economic thought for the past 200 years would do well with this book. Whether it succeeds in its core intention, however, is a separate matter, although any conclusions will partly depend on a reader’s perspective. 

Capitalism will end, as do all products of history

We get a good sense of Professor Boldizzoni’s perspective in his introduction, where he writes that capitalism will end, or slowly turn into something new, like all products of history, although there is no guarantee it will be something better. The brutality of prior systems lives on in capitalism. The slow growth rates of a more service-oriented economy has led to more “distributional conflicts,” and the Left must find effective tools to deal with it or the “populist right” will take its place. To all but capitalism’s more fervent apologists, this can hardly be considered controversial. But we also read here a foreshadowing of pessimism with a passage declaring “this battle to ‘overthrow the system’ is lost from the start” — believing it raises false hopes and thus “does not do progressivism any service.”

Capitalism isn’t going anywhere in the near future and past predictions have not been borne out, so a hard look, if we are intellectually honest, is warranted. It is healthy to have ideas challenged, so let us engage with these ideas.

Before getting to the heart of its argument, the first four of the six chapters of Foretelling the End of Capitalism are a wide-ranging survey of thinkers from the early 19th century to the early 21st, across the full political spectrum. These are not deep excavations but do provide basic understandings. These are mostly solid introductions to the evolution of thinking on the topic of political economy and important theories that have arisen, except for weaknesses with some Marxist writers. For example, a brief discussion of fin de siècle German social democracy — Eduard Bernstein vs. Karl Kautsky vs. Rosa Luxemburg — is shallow; the author only sees the surface of Kautsky’s writings and does not grasp what lies below the surface, nor how to interpret the evolution of Kautsky’s thinking, without which it is impossible to understand why Kautsky would come to draw close to Bernstein, an outcome the book entirely misses.

That is no more than a minor point. More serious is what this reviewer considers among the most bizarre interpretations of fascism he has ever come across. Professor Boldizzoni writes that fascism, or more specifically, Nazism, was “the middle ground between the liberal and Soviet worlds.” He presents the ideas of several writers on fascism, but all but one are hopelessly confused and serve only to obfuscate. Incredibly, there is not one word from Leon Trotsky, the preeminent analyzer of Nazism during the 1930s — an inexcusable omission. Nor is the orthodox communist conception as handed down by Josef Stalin presented. Although that conception was badly mistaken with tragic circumstances, it should have been discussed, given the consequences of that line being put into action.

It is true that fascism is notoriously difficult to diagnose, but if approached from a class standpoint, it becomes understandable. At its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It is a phenomenon squarely at the far right of the political spectrum; it is not an ersatz “third way” precursor. Fascist movements have a social base, which provides support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base, rooted in middle class white-collar professionals and small business owners. (That is still true today; look at the profile of the Trump followers who have been arrested for participating in the January 6 attack on the U.S. capitol building.)

“In National Socialism, everything is as contradictory and as chaotic as in a nightmare,” Trotsky wrote in a vivid 1932 essay, using the intentionally misleading formal name for the Nazis. “Hitler’s party calls itself socialist, yet it leads a terroristic struggle against all socialist organizations. It calls itself a worker’s party, yet its ranks include all classes except the proletariat. It hurls lightning bolts at the heads of capitalists, yet is supported by them. … The whole world has collapsed inside the heads of the petit bourgeoisie, which has completely lost its equilibrium. This class is screaming so clamorously out of despair, fear and bitterness that it is itself deafened and loses sense of its words and gestures.”

Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and, perhaps the most critical component, a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism, are among the necessary elements. Despite national differences that result in major differences in the appearances of fascism, the class nature is consistent. Big business is invariably the supporter of fascism, no matter what a fascist movement’s rhetoric contains, and is invariably the beneficiary even though its beneficiaries will not directly control the dictatorship; it is a dictatorship for them, not by them. The massive profits pocketed by industrialists in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, Pinochet’s Chile and elsewhere speak volumes, as do the draconian anti-labor laws implemented. Fascism is capitalism stripped of all democratic veneers.

Are the reasons behind capitalism’s staying power psychological?

Nonetheless, these early chapters are useful for other theorists who are discussed, including John Stuart Mill, Joseph Schumpeter, John Maynard Keynes, Jürgen Habermas and several writers of the late 20th century. The author skillfully dismantles the apologia for capitalism’s inequality offered by publicists masquerading as economists. In the final two chapters, Professor Boldizzoni explicates his core arguments. Here we find no illusions about the nature of capitalism nor misunderstandings of its social relations. Capitalism is a socio-economic system, not a type of economic activity, imposed by force; an “institutionalized social order” in which even human labor is reduced to a commodity. Capitalism is kept together through hierarchy and individualism, upholding new forms of previous master/slave and lord/serf relations.

So why have forecasts of capitalism’s demise been so far off the mark thus far? Or, perhaps, we might better phrase this question as: Why does capitalism persist despite the misery and opposition it continually spawns? Foretelling the End of Capitalism begins to answer this question by offering three factors — “cognitive distortions that affect the forecasting process,” faults in the construction of social theories and, decisively, “the faith in progress that underlies modern thought.” This is further teased out through two mistakes — overgeneralization through drawing overly broad conclusions or magnifying specific events and “black and white thinking,” an example of which is ignoring that there are “many varieties” of capitalism. Seeing the next system only in terms of the negatives of capitalism and, finally, a misunderstanding of culture underlie mistaken forecasts, the book asserts.

All this comes down to “cognitive distortions” and “theoretical flaws,” working together and in conjunction with “a more general mental disposition” common to those who attempt to predict what may happen in the future. “The entire history of social forecasting and its mistakes is intertwined with faith in progress,” Professor Boldizzoni writes. All of his reasons are psychological. There is nothing material!

A garment factory (photo by Fahad Faisal)

This is the reasoning of someone who believes the current world is the only possible world that can be, whether that belief is conscious or hidden in the unconscious. Capitalism has not fallen; therefore those who forecast its eventual end are dreamers outside reality. It is as if there are no material reasons for the continued life of capitalism, some of which have to do with the very pillars of capitalism that the author himself explicates well.

It is certainly possible to draw up a list of theoretical failings far more specific than flawed enlightenment thinking. No single or small group of developments can possibly encompass all the factors that have kept the world economic system in place. I have previously written that no serious discussion of this question, however, should exclude these factors:

  • The early pioneers of the socialist movement seriously underestimated the ability of capitalism as a system to adapt and therefore did not foresee the ability of working people to extract concessions for themselves. 
  • The early pioneers failed to understand the buoying effect that would be provided by imperialism (for the leading capitalist countries). 
  • Many of the early pioneers clung to an overly mechanical (mis)understanding of social development that led to a passive belief in an automatic unfolding of revolution that implied, incorrectly, that powerful capitalists would simply sit back and allow themselves to be overthrown. (Kautsky and Bernstein are emblematic here.)
  • Many leaders during the Soviet era continued to hold to a similar overly mechanical belief in future revolution while at the same time failing to grasp the nuances of capitalist development. 
  • An overly centralized world movement that retarded the theoretical developments needed for local conditions, blocking the creation of innovative leadership while at the same time discouraging existing local leaderships from attempting revolutions. 
  • A too narrow conception of “working class” or “working people” — a tendency to visualize only blue-collar manual workers as working people, a declining percentage of the population in increasingly technological capitalist societies. Such narrow horizons served to exclude a large proportion of wage workers, with the result that movements purporting to be organizations of working people instead divided them at the start. 

I am under no illusion that the above list exhausts the catalogue of factors. Obviously, the ability and willingness of the governments over which capitalists hold decisive sway to use violence to keep industrialists and financiers in power; the ability to disseminate propaganda in a variety of forms through an array of media, schools and institutions; and the willingness to invade, overthrow and impose military violence and sanctions against any country that challenges capitalism’s masters so as to make life there difficult are indispensable factors as to capitalism’s staying power. The last of this paragraph’s factors goes a long way in itself as to why alternatives to capitalism have faltered. 

Every attempt at constructing a post-capitalist economy has been met with overwhelming military, financial and other forms of force, putting them on a war footing. We can not know what might have been created if those countries had been allowed to peacefully develop, and this factor is indispensable if we are to seriously ponder the acceptance of “there is no alternative” propaganda. Despite the acknowledgements of bourgeois culture’s orientation toward wealth accumulation and cultural processes, Foretelling the End of Capitalism offers lectures on the weaknesses of enlightenment thinking rather than analyzing material conditions.

Culture as the glue holding together capitalism

Professor Boldizzoni puts forth the thesis that political, economic and social structures are all held together by “a powerful glue”: culture. Capitalism, he writes, is the product of a particular Western family of cultures, with hierarchy and individualism the most important factors. Behavior standards “change slowly”; it “may take several centuries” for culture to transform. He writes, “The emergence of a new system will be possible when the circumstances under which the old one was formed have eventually ceased to exist. It will reflect the changes in the material circumstances as well as in the culture sphere that are to occur over the next few centuries. The transition, however, will be so gradual that it will be barely noticeable.”

There is plenty to unpack in the preceding paragraph. That culture is a “powerful glue” keeping capitalism is indisputable, and that changes in “material circumstances” will facilitate a transition to a new system is also not in dispute. But these assertions, which certainly would not be controversial to a Marxist, are odd in light of the author’s criticisms of Karl Marx. It is unavoidable to note that those criticisms are rooted in a shallow understanding of Marx’s body of work. The author makes the common mistake of seeing Marxism as overly mechanical, teleological and offering a “perfect society,” nor does he grasp the subtlety of the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” admittedly a confusing phrase that might better be retired. (“Dictatorship of the proletariat” simply means the predominance of working people, the vast majority of people in capitalist society, without reference to any particular governmental form. All capitalist societies constitute a “dictatorship of the bourgeoisie,” the predominance of industrialists and financiers, which has taken many forms, including formal democracy and fascist.)

Meeting at the Putilov Factory (1917)

These misunderstandings are possible because Marxism’s 20th century practitioners in the Soviet bloc presented it in overly simplified terms, seeing it themselves in a mechanical manner. And that was not new. Friedrich Engels, in an 1890 letter to Joseph Bloch, lamented that he and Marx had put so much emphasis on economics. “Marx and I are ourselves partly to blame for the fact that younger writers sometimes lay more stress on the economic side than is due to it,” Engels wrote. “We had to emphasize this main principle in opposition to our adversaries, who denied it, and we have not always had the time, the place or the opportunity to allow the other elements involved in the interaction to come into their rights. … Unfortunately, however, it happens only too often that people think they have fully understood a theory and can apply it without more ado from the moment they have mastered its main principles, and those even not always correctly.”

We can conceptualize Marxist materialist philosophy like this: The flow and movement of any phenomenon or idea takes varying directions, and far from always in an expected direction. As the concept of “flow” implies, history and social development do not consist of discrete steps or stages. Philosophical, political and religious ideas (which are built on the materials of their predecessors); the prevailing culture (which include traditions shaped in the conditions of the past that have survived into the present); and local geographic factors influence not only each other but also influence economic conditions. What was a cause can become an effect, and an effect can become a cause. These forces are given concrete form within a state, the form of which (including its legal structure) is based on the material conditions of life — the economic structure is the foundation on which society is built and which therefore shapes social consciousness. 

Properly understood, Marxism is not, and has never been, a reach for utopia; its founders were scornful of the utopians of their time. Still more puzzling is Professor Boldizzoni’s bizarre aside that Swedish social democrats were “seeking the achievement of a perfect society.” That would certainly be news to them. The post-World War II Swedish model sought full employment, equality and the transfer of excess profits to the collective ownership of employees. Better than ordinary capitalism and envisioned as an evolutionary route to a future socialist society, but hardly nirvana.

How high should movements aim? 

Nordic social democracy is what the author seems to have in mind when he references “many varieties” of capitalism. Yes, there are national differences in capitalism, sometimes significant, but given the domination of the United States and its ability to dictate to the rest of the world, it is unrealistic to see that there is anything other than a single world system. And Swedish capitalism is far removed from any “perfect society” — dominated by corporate power and subject to the pressures of corporate globalization the same as other small or midsized capitalist country, Sweden today has inequality and poverty levels above the European Union average. 

Sweden’s failure to institute even the most rudimentary beginnings of an evolutionary path to a socialist economic democracy under the 1970s “Meidner plan” of forcing companies to issue stock to public agencies until the public had majority control succumbed not only to the might of local capitalists and the pressures of corporate globalization, but because of the failure of working people to organize. Without a massive movement, no project of socialism, or, if you prefer, economic democracy, can succeed.

Blockupy 2013: Securing the European Central Bank (photo by Blogotron)

If we are dwelling on disagreements here, it is because these areas of dispute are central to the author’s thesis. What should be done? Professor Boldizzoni forecasts that although capitalism will be replaced, it will last for centuries to come. No mention of the environmental crisis — humanity doesn’t have one full century, never mind several, to wait! There is also the matter of the inability to achieve endless growth on a finite planet, and capitalism’s need for continual growth in a world into which it has expanded to almost every corner. (But it should be acknowledged that he has the intellectual honesty to make his own forecast and thus risk being as wrong as those he’s discussed.) He concludes by lamenting “we must come to terms with the limits of the possible” and declaring “the social democratic experience” the height of achievement. This conclusion brings into sharper relief why he is so insistent on seeing any attempt to move past capitalism as utopian.

What is the possible? A standard list of social democratic reforms, such as the “power to tax,” the power to pursue industrial policy and “monetary sovereignty,” offered as counters to European Union policy and centralization. Public ownership of infrastructure and banking is also put forth. These would be welcome reforms, but more than a century of working for reforms within capitalism rather than overcoming it has put the world in precisely the place it is today. Reforms can be won through social struggle, but once movements stand down, the reforms are taken back. Movements must aim higher.

If we believe the world can’t be better, that it can’t be meaningfully changed, that we have no choice other than tinkering around the edges as capitalism destroys the environment, then nothing will get better. Our conditions will actually get worse because there is no stasis. A better world is possible and speculating on what some basic concepts of a better world might look like is necessary if we are to get there. Giving up is not an option. Study of material conditions and the multitude of factors as to why predictions of capitalism’s demise have yet to come to pass — or, to put it in a better way, why capitalism has proven so resilient — are indispensable to achieving an understanding of our present and providing ourselves with the tools necessary to build the movement of movements, working across borders, that is the path toward any possible better world. Lamenting the weight of enlightenment thinking isn’t that route.

Foretelling the End of Capitalism is correct that there won’t be a sudden collapse of capitalism. If no social movement intervenes, capitalism has several more decades of life and would likely be followed by something worse, in a world of environmental disaster, rising seas and dwindling resources. Decades, not centuries — the present path of humanity is unsustainable. There is no substitute for a post-capitalist future, and the past need not dictate the future.

As always, the value of a book isn’t measured by whether we agree with everything in it. If Foretelling didn’t have much of interest to offer, I wouldn’t have written this essay. The question the book attempts to answer is a challenge that must be confronted because it is a question that remains all too relevant. But although the author in good faith sought to interrogate the predictions of the past to provide an understanding of today, he instead produced a cry of defeat and despair.