As long as capitalism exists, the threat of fascism exists

Six years is an eternity in politics. Consider what was common opinion at the start of 2016: That changing demographics in the United States favored the Democratic Party; it would soon be impossible for Republicans to win a national election unless they sharply changed from their primary strategy of sending dog whistles to their base of conservative white people, a dwindling percentage of the U.S. population.

Six short years later, there is not only much hand-wringing that Republicans are using bare-knuckle tactics that are poised to give themselves a permanent grip on power despite their minority status but there is open worry of a possible coup by fascistic elements in the Republican Party that would put an end to formal democracy. No longer, it seems, is demographics destiny; the Democratic Party, ever haughtily giving the back of the hand to its base, had believed it merely need show up to win elections.

One year on from Donald Trump’s attempt at a fascist coup — that the attack on the Capitol by his deluded but fanatical followers had no chance to succeed does not mitigate the severity of that day — the Orange Menace’s grip on the worst of the two parties of capital has further tightened. And perhaps Republicans won’t have to resort to widespread cheating and voter suppression to win back the White House — not that the possibility will in any way give them second thoughts about blocking access to the ballot box — given the pathetic performance of Democrats since winning the 2020 elections, a lack of results dismal even by Democrats’ standards of ineptitude.

Fascism is a global phenomenon, not limited to any one country. (Photo by The All-Nite Images from New York)

Many reading these lines will wonder why we should care which party wins since neither of the two parties of capital will work for working people, who constitute the vast majority of United Statesians as they do in any advanced capitalist country. Even the minuscule number of genuine progressives among Democratic members of Congress are constrained by their party’s dominant corporate wing and, due to the material realities of elite politics, inevitably find themselves politically supporting that wing. Nor is the corporate wing reluctant to undercut its electoral base and its progressive colleagues. Witness House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doing an end-run around the Squad’s refusal to back the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the larger Build Back Better bill passed the Senate by gathering sufficient Republican votes to win passage of the infrastructure bill and thus torpedo the only leverage the party had over its two Senate holdouts, fossil-fuel mouthpiece Joe Manchin and perfidious Kyrsten Sinema. It is impossible to avoid thinking there are other Democrats secretly glad the focus is on those two holdouts, allowing them to avoid the pressure to vote for Build Back Better.

There are others who argue that people should hold their noses and vote for Democrats anyway, given that when Democrats are in office there is more room to maneuver and some possibility of some small reforms. The all-out assault by Republicans, when Trump occupied the White House, on seemingly every front does provide support to lesser-evilism voting. So those who do hold their noses and vote for Democrats won’t get any criticism from me although I can’t bring myself to do it. Whether voting for lesser evils or for socialist or Green candidates, the important thing is to be involved in organizing; taking a half-hour to vote once a year need not detract from activist work.

Nonetheless, there are anti-capitalists, including Marxists, who argue forcefully that Trump and his minions are a unique threat, a threat that rises to the threat of fascism. Fascism is far worse than capitalist formal democracy, sham as the latter is. There is no question, or shouldn’t be, that Trump has aspirations of being a fascist dictator. That alone should be enough to see him and his followers as a mortal threat. Trump does not have sufficient support of industrialists and financiers (however much they applaud what he did for them while in office) to actually become a fascist dictator, and his base, although depressingly large and immune to reason and reality, is not big enough for a successful putsch.

Trump does have the blind support of the Republican Party, after Republican leaders momentarily wavered during the immediate aftermath of the 2021 insurrection, so he does have an institutional base he originally lacked — an institution that has become singularly focused on voter suppression and using all means available to put themselves in a position to overturn election results that don’t go their way. There is indeed here an existential threat to the formal democracy of the United States. History provides no shortage of warnings of what could happen, from Weimar Germany and post-World War 1 Italy to Chile and Argentina in the 1970s.

Fascism is a specific form of dictatorship

First, let’s clarify what the political term fascism means. It does not mean any right-wing movement or politician we don’t like, and shouldn’t be thrown around as such. What it does reference is a specific political phenomenon.

At its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It has a social base, which provides the support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base. 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 the content of a fascist movement’s rhetoric, and is invariably the beneficiary. Instituting a fascist dictatorship is no easy decision even for the biggest industrialists, bankers and landowners who might salivate over the potential profits. For even if it is intended to benefit them, these big businessmen are giving up some of their own freedom since they will not directly control the dictatorship; it is a dictatorship for them, not by them. It is only under certain conditions that business elites resort to fascism — some form of democratic government, under which citizens “consent” to the ruling structure, is the preferred form and much easier to maintain.

Boston Free Speech rally counter-protesters on August 19, 2017 (photo by GorillaWarfare)

Fascism is instituted when it is no longer possible for capitalists to enjoy the profits they believe they are entitled to, or to put a forceful end to large and rising left-wing movements threatening the power of industrialists and financiers. Neither of these conditions are in place in the United States, and with one party dedicated to using existing legal power to repress working people and giving capitalists all they want, and the other party giving them much of what they want while absorbing and smothering nascent movements, formal democracy works just fine for them. What immediate need do they have of going to the trouble of instituting a dictatorship? (Although some of course would love to have one no matter the circumstances.)

The foregoing does not give us license to be complacent. The economy is fragile, environmental destruction steadily mounts, and the numbers of people willing to oppose capitalism has grown tremendously over the past couple of decades, particularly since the 2008 economic crash. And industrialists and financiers — the bourgeoisie to use the classical term — believe themselves entitled to rule. The most important lesson from studying the fascism of the past is the overwhelming violence they will use to keep themselves in power. (No surprise there, given that violence, slavery, colonialism and plunder established capitalism and has kept it in place ever since.) U.S. capitalists are quite content to have police and the world’s biggest and most well-equipped military at their service, and there has never been much hesitation to use it.

If conditions continue to deteriorate, then Trump (or, more likely, someone with more intelligence and self-control) could be tapped on the shoulder. Trump is hardly the only demagogue out there. It could have happened in the 1930s. In Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first year as president, a group of bankers and industrialists, backed by financing from DuPont, General Motors and Morgan Bank, hatched a scheme to institute fascism. Wall Street bond salesman Gerald McGuire approached retired Marine Corps General Smedley Butler with an offer for him to be the fascist leader and deliver an ultimatum to Roosevelt to either take orders from businessmen or be forced from office by an army of 500,000 veterans. Their arms were to be supplied by Remington, a DuPont subsidiary.

Butler declined, informed Roosevelt and the plan was defused by leaking it to the press. No one was punished and the coup threat was treated as a joke. Perhaps the coup plotters didn’t do their homework — Butler, in 1929, became the first general officer since the Civil War to be placed under arrest. His crime? Criticizing Benito Mussolini! Butler, summing up his highly decorated career in 1935, said in an interview, “I spent thirty three years and four months [in] the Marine Corps. … [D]uring that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and for bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capitalism.”

Don’t confuse form with content

What we shouldn’t get hung up on is appearances. Chilean fascism under Pinochet and the Argentine “Process” took different forms than did the classical German and Italian varieties, and any fascism in the U.S. would have further divergences and would be wrapped in Christian fundamentalism and phony right-wing “populism.” Political culture in North America is such that brownshirts goose-stepping down the street wouldn’t have much appeal, and we need not have that. There were fascist street gangs in Chile and Argentina who did much marauding and received funding, but in those cases the military was the decisive organization. The military and police would almost certainly be decisive in any fascist takeover in the U.S., with crucial support from the right-wing militias that already exist and Trump’s middle-class base that we saw in action at the Capitol during the January 6, 2021, insurrection.

Comparisons of present-day United States to Weimar Germany are easily overstated, but the years leading up to Hitler being handed power (it is a myth that he was elected) are instructive. Consider the full name of the Nazi party — the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Yet workers were whom the Nazis intended to suppress on behalf of their corporate benefactors. At the same time that Nazi rhetoric claimed to uphold the right to strike and other worker interests, Hitler was assuring Germany’s industrialists that such policies were merely an attempt to gain popular support and would not be implemented.

Mural paintings in honor of Jecar Neghme of Chile’s MIR in the place where he was killed by the Pinochet government. (Credit: Ciberprofe)

What Hitler’s corporate bankrollers wanted was clear enough: the destruction of their workers’ ability to defend themselves and higher profits in a stable atmosphere. This Hitler promised in meetings of Nazi leaders and industrialists. But no matter how powerful they are, numerically these big businessmen are a minuscule portion of the population. How to create popular support for a movement that would destroy unions, strip working people of all protections, regiment all spheres of life, mercilessly destroy several groups of society, reduce the standard of living of those who still had jobs and inevitably lead to war? This is not an appealing program.

Germany’s blue-collar workforce mostly didn’t buy into fascist siren songs, and continued to support the Communists and the Social Democrats, although it was sharply divided between the two. Most of the middle class, however, was a different story. The desperate economic crisis of the Weimar Republic devastated the shopkeeper, the professional, the white-collar worker on the lower rungs of management. The middle class was losing or threatened with losing what it had, and its sons and daughters were unemployed with little or no prospects. From here the Nazis were able to draw their votes, and these sons, along with unpoliticized people at the bottom of society, swelled the ranks of the storm troops.

The Nazis skillfully appealed to German middle class fears of economic dislocation, the increasing numbers of unemployed blue-collar workers, the threat of being swallowed by big business, and political instability (although the Nazis were the most responsible for the last of those four), creating the social base needed by the economic elite to bring its movement to power. A movement that was as anathema to the middle class as it was to the lower economic ranks, although its middle-class supporters were blind to that reality as the Nazis simultaneously appealed to its grudges against societal elites.

In the last election before President Paul von Hindenburg appointed Hitler chancellor, the Nazi vote was 2 million less than the combined vote for Communists and Social Democrats. Although there were many Communists who bravely battled Nazis in the streets, there was no attempt at a united defense of the two parties or their armed followers. The Communists, the Social Democrats and the unions all failed to mount any effective challenge, and the leaders of what remained of Germany’s centrist and nationalist right-wing parties thought they could control Hitler. Had the Communists, Social Democrats and the unions made a common fight against the Nazis, that would have been enough to stop Hitler’s accession to power.

Once in power, Hitler quickly arrested the political opposition, putting Communists, Social Democrats, union leaders and others into concentration camps. Within weeks, the right to strike was abolished, union contracts were canceled and an employer-aligned fascist “union” began to replace the existing unions. With opposition silenced by terror, severe oppression of Jews, Slavs, homosexuals, artists and others began. Once Hitler had destroyed all political opposition, there was no need to maintain his corps of street thugs, some of whom began demanding that the populist promises begin to be fulfilled. The storm troops, too, found out those promises were fantasy and this potential internal Nazi opposition was crushed in the murderous 1934 “Night of the Long Knives.”

From German shopkeepers to U.S. small business owners

Yes, history never repeats exactly. But what is noteworthy here is the class composition of Nazi support beyond big capitalists, who provided huge sums of money. It was shopkeepers, professionals and the white-collar workers on the lower rungs of management. This is consistently the case with fascist movements. It was the middle classes who supported a military overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende, as did the parties they voted for. (Both parties of the opposition to President Allende’s Popular Unity government were banned after the takeover; Pinochet’s blood-soaked dictatorship was a régime for Chilean big business and U.S.-based multinational capital, not a régime for shopkeepers or white-collar professionals, nor even big business’ political representatives, as they would soon find out.)

Although the middle classes in a capitalist country, particularly in advanced capitalist countries, are highly heterogeneous, including a wide mix of people with varying interests and thus unable to constitute an organized bloc, the weight of their demographic size can make them decisive if large numbers go one way or another. Large numbers in the U.S. are anti-fascist and/or Democratic Party partisans, and many of their sons and daughters are describing themselves as socialists, even if an ill-defined socialism that is more oriented toward strong reforms of capitalism unable to be accommodated by Democrats. Nonetheless, it is from middle class ranks that support for Trump comes. That has been seen clearly as hundreds of Trump’s insurgents are prosecuted (albeit treated with kid gloves in contrast to the harsh treatment of Black Lives Matter and other left-wing protest movements).

Raleigh-Durham IWW stands with clergy at the stairs to Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia (photo by Anthony Crider)

The “Tea Party” that arose during the Obama administration was a classic “astroturf” operation, a “movement” that was begun, organized and funded by corporate interests such as the organizations of the Koch Brothers and Republican Party leaders like Dick Armey. It is a straight line from the Tea Party to Trump; they have similar social bases and many of the same financial benefactors.

A study by two University of Chicago researchers, for example, found that more than half of the January 6 insurrectionists held white-collar positions such as small business owners, architects, doctors and lawyers. The two researchers, political-science professor Robert A. Pape and senior research associate Keven Ruby, also found that a large number of the insurrectionists live in counties that have seen declines in their White, non-Hispanic population, also not a surprise given the “great replacement” canard Trump-style fascists are fond of peddling. That of course was a prominent theme in the 2017 fascist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Whatever capitalist country you live in, it can happen there. Fascism is capitalism stripped of all democratic veneers. In every fascist state, wages drastically decline accompanied by draconian laws stripping working people of all protections at the same time that corporate profits rise dramatically, all in an atmosphere of state-organized terror. The only safeguard against this happening in any capitalist country, including the United States, is for working people to organize in their own defense. Given the sorry record of social democracy, no help from there will come to the rescue in Europe. In the U.S., it would be laughable to believe the Democrats would save us from potential Republican dictatorship, whether a conventional authoritarianism or an outright fascist régime.

The long history of Democrats falling to their knees

Democratic Party ineptitude and weak-kneed acquiescence has been on display long before the Biden administration and current congressional majority’s yearlong lack of resolve. From Jimmy Carter’s austerity setting up the start of the neoliberal era for Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton ramming through regressive legislation that Republicans could only dreamed of having done to Democrats’ meek “me too” in response to Newt Gingrich’s Contract On America and the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress to Barack Obama’s serial capitulations to Democrats’ present inability (unwillingness?) to implement the programs they were elected to fulfill, and instead give the Pentagon another raise, liberals are persistently run over by conservatives. But however weak-willed Democrats are, that is only one side of the picture.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Democrats believe in so-called “American exceptionalism,” imperialism and corporate control of society just as fervently as do Republicans.

Liberalism has reached an intellectual dead end, however much individual liberals may yearn for alternatives. There are various reasons that can be assigned as to the cause of the Democratic Party’s — and, thus, North American liberalism’s — steady march rightward: Dependence on corporate money, corruption, domination of the mass media by the Right, philosophical and economic myopia, cowardliness. Although these factors form a significant portion of the answer to the puzzle, an underlying cause has to be found in the exhaustion of North American liberalism. Similar to European social democracy, it is trapped by its core desire to stabilize an unstable capitalist system.

In contrast to the Right, which loudly advocates what it stands for and uses all means possible to get it, liberals are caught in the contradiction of knowing changes are needed but unable to put forth anything beyond the most tepid reforms, a bit of tinkering around the edges. The Democratic Party is not only reliant on corporate money, but in thrall to ideologies that promote corporate domination, propaganda blasted across the corporate media and propagated through a thick web of “think tanks” and other well-funded institutions. With no clear ideas to fall back on, they meekly fall to their knees 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.

There is no secret formula waiting to be discovered. The only way to prevent a fascist takeover is through the same methodology that is the route to a better world: A mass movement of movements linking together struggles, organizing with people who don’t look like us and uniting across borders. As long as capitalism exists, the threat of fascism exists.

Envisioning a world with no bosses

Many people, especially those with eyes open to the ravages of capitalism, know what they don’t want. Fewer know what they do want. That is understandable, given that the task of building mass movements on so many fronts is daunting. But while what is meant by the creation of a better world can’t be precisely the same for everybody, movements nonetheless have to have some basic concepts of what a better world might look like.

Providing a blueprint is impossible. Having visions is a necessity. Concrete concepts, even if only outlines, need to be part of our toolboxes if we are to overcome “There is no alternative.” There are many outlines that have been sketched, naturally of varying viability. One that has been around for three decades has been the concept of “participatory economics,” often associated with one of its leading proponents, Michael Albert.

In his latest book, No Bosses: A New Economy for a Better World, Mr. Albert has organized his decades of work on this project and presented what he terms a “scaffold” as opposed to a blueprint. At 200 pages, this scaffold is perhaps sufficiently detailed to be something beyond that, but however one wishes to classify his vision of participatory economics, No Bosses provides a stimulating contribution to the literature of a better world.

As always, judgment on a book’s merit should be on how well it encourages serious thinking and provides useful material and commentary, not on whether we fully agree with the content. On the former, it is hard to imagine anyone serious about wanting a better world not giving it high marks. The latter, of course, is a much more complicated proposition. So let’s see how viable this vision might be.

Crucially, the author does not declare his presentation a finished project. His intent is to show what is necessary, not provide a blueprint, and repeatedly says the project will need improvement. “We have no other choice,” he writes. “Alone on foot in the desert, we must walk until we reach water. To curse the sun’s heat and bemoan the sand’s seeming endlessness while standing still guarantees death.” [page 16]

Seven guiding principles in a world without capitalists

The guiding values put forth are viable self-management, equity, solidarity, diversity, sustainability, internationalism and participation for all who can participate. There would be no private ownership of productive assets, and thus no capitalists or capitalism. The author emphatically rejects both capitalist markets and central planning. Both, in his view, inevitably lead to small majorities bossing around and dictating to a working majority. Capitalism creates a “coordinator class” that monopolizes empowering tasks. Even if a workplace is democratic, if a corporate division of labor is retained, coordinators dominate, subverting self-management goals. That happened in Argentina’s recovered enterprises, Mr. Albert argues, with the “old crap,” in the words of a disappointed worker, returning in many recovered, self-managed enterprises after the old capitalist bosses were kicked out.

“They were all working class before, but some began to become coordinator class by doing empowering jobs. Those doing empowering jobs began to dominate council meetings. They had the needed information. They had the confidence to develop agendas. Attendance of others began to fall because others didn’t want to attend meetings which ran according to agendas set by the coordinators and dominated by coordinator speeches and proposals. … The coordinators had come to feel they were smarter, more responsible, and more essential. They deserved more. They paid themselves more. And the wages paid the others, the workers, as decided by the coordinator class, started to deteriorate. The upshot was that the old crap didn’t return due to an inexorable outcome of human nature or of the intrinsic requirements of complicated work. The old crap returned due to a social choice that wasn’t even consciously made. The workers had routinely, reflexively, maintained the corporate division of labor. And the corporate division of labor had in turn routinely, reflexively, subverted sought results.” [pages 49-50]

If there was a management that was making basic decisions, including those of wages, rather than all members, then such an enterprise can’t really be said to be self-managed. But even when there is a real self-management in place, the dangers of a division of labor can easily assert themselves. In communist-era Yugoslavia, enterprises were not in private hands and instead run by self-management — an assembly of all workers had to approve all decisions, including setting wages. (I wrote a chapter-length discussion of Yugoslav self-management for my forthcoming book What Do We Need Bosses For? [Autonomedia].) In this system, the workers elected a workers’ council — in effect a management board that made strategic decisions — and an enterprise was headed by a director (chief executive officer) not necessarily picked by the workers. Councilors were limited to two one-year terms and were recallable, enabling large numbers of people to sit on these councils and theoretically making them accountable. But there was a central plan that constrained what enterprises could do, and a pattern began where technicians and managers would present plans to the councils, which would simply rubber-stamp them. Holding the right to veto a plan they didn’t like, as opposed to drawing up plans themselves, was enough for many councils. That the councils were instituted in a top-down fashion, rather than being the organic product of grassroots activity, did not help.

There were many headwinds faced by Yugoslav self-management, including some unique to the country and its decentralized political structures owing to ethnic rivalries, and, ultimately, the forces of capitalism and capitalist competition, which buffeted Yugoslavia ever stronger, would eventually break down the system and tear apart the country itself, although it produced perhaps the world’s fastest growing economy for its first 20 years. The consequences of market forces — of being integrated into the world capitalist system — steadily mounted, and ultimately became unsustainable. Those consequences included debt to foreign banks and institutions, punishing austerity imposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, strong sensitivity to the vicissitudes of capitalist cycles, and the discovery that competing in the world market is difficult, all the more so for a medium-sized developing country.

One lesson from here is that no better world can be reliant on market mechanisms — capitalist markets will assert themselves, and as I have often noted, capitalist markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the world’s most powerful industrialists and financiers. That a traditional division of labor was retained in the self-management system is another factor that can’t be overlooked.

Workers’ and consumers’ councils as the core

Back to No Bosses. The core institutions of participatory economics are workers’ councils and consumers’ councils. Workers’ councils in this conception are meetings of all enterprise workers that make all decisions, whether by simple majority or a specified super-majority. (Perhaps it would be better to call these “workers’ assemblies” to match generally used terminology.) These bodies of the whole make all decisions and there are no higher bodies. There are no managers or bosses, not even elected ones. Everybody participates in all decisions. Consumers’ councils are collective decision-making bodies that would democratically make decisions on public goods and services, such as “neighborhood pools, county parks, state utilities or national security,” as well as collate individual needs. Although expertise would be listened to, decisions wouldn’t be devolved to experts; rather these councils would seek to raise levels so that all could participate.

Another key conception is a system of “balanced job complexes” to break down the division of labor. Here No Bosses offers one of the most serious proposals I’ve ever encountered to break down the division of labor, an often underappreciated contributor to inequality. Simply put, if there is not a serious effort to break down the division, inequality will remain. The book conceptualizes balanced job complexes not as short-term stints in alternative circumstances but rather having a set of tasks for all jobs that would enable comparable empowerment in all jobs. Balancing would occur not only within a given workplace, but across all workplaces, to give everybody an equal chance of participating in decision-making and provide a “steady social exchange.”

The book cautions that “balancing empowerment across jobs is not the same as balancing the amount of type of intellect required for that job.” There are numerous empowering jobs in any workplace, including how to best satisfy customers, how to plan for the future or determining how best to do other jobs. Along with equalizing job circumstances would be equalizing pay. Income would be based on duration, intensity and onerousness of socially useful work — a point repeatedly stressed. Differentials from an average, however, should be small and limited given that jobs would be balanced. The only way for pay to rise would be for the average to rise — thus, the book argues, mutual aid is built into the proposed system.

How would the average be calculated? The book doesn’t offer an answer to that important question. At one point, a complicated 20-point system is put forth, whereby every task would be assigned a number from 1 to 20 based on difficulty, with jobs being cobbled together based on averaging out the numbers and special bodies assigned with calculating these numbers. But it is then admitted that something so precise is unlikely to be put into actual practice and this detail seems to be offered more as a thought experiment. Indeed, such complications are unnecessary. There could simply be a standard wage and everybody paid it, and if an enterprise elects to allow differentiations, these should be minor (no more than, say, 20 percent) and within parameters established by law or consensus. However an average wage would be determined, having everybody make it or very close to it would uphold the ideals of solidarity and equality, as expressed thusly:

“[I]n a good economy, there should be no way to improve one’s consumption or one’s work life at the expense of others. There should be no opposed classes, nor even opposed individuals, at least in any damaging, persistent, structural sense. This can’t be achieved by market allocation where everybody buys cheap and sells dear and nice guys finish last. This also cannot be achieved by central planning where we do what others decide we must do. Equitable remuneration and solidarity instead point toward needing a new approach to allocation. It will turn out to be that we cooperatively negotiate outcomes to enjoy gains and endure losses together, even as we also seek work and consumption that is best suited to our personal fulfillment.” [pages 94-95]

If something can’t allocate products and services, it doesn’t work

And how would products and services be allocated? The seventh chapter of No Bosses, by far the longest chapter in the book, step by step builds a picture of how participatory economics would work. This is where the vision has to cohere into a workable model. Again, not a model in the sense of “this is how it will be or should be” but rather in the sense of useful ideas that can be seriously debated as we sketch out the basics of a better world. A series of “takes” provide successively more detail. “A new means of allocation that will sustain classlessness” and “foster solidarity/empathy” is the goal.

A new means of allocation would be necessary as the model rejects capitalist markets and central planning. Workers’ and consumers’ councils and federations (councils at the enterprise or neighborhood level would feed up into bodies successively representing larger territories up to the national level) would meet and preliminarily determine productive capacity and consumer needs; a national facilitation board tallies information and supplies information to the negotiators representing the councils and federations. Talks would continue until equilibrium is reached. Presumably that would necessitate multiple rounds. Plans would be done yearly.

The facilitation board would tally mismatches between worker and consumer proposals. Neighborhood consumer councils would make requests for collective goods (such as public pools, an image that repeatedly crops up; Mr. Albert perhaps likes to swim). As part of the negotiation, the facilitation board would adjust prices to reflect supply/demand mismatches to help negotiators reach agreement; the two sides would presumably adjust their proposals based in part on such price changes. There would be strict budgets — to consume more than your budget allows, the consumer council would have to approve, and if a workplace underutilizes its assets, a higher-level workers’ council would intervene and lower the workplace’s payroll. The idea is for enterprises to use their productive capacities fully and efficiently while meeting demand.

Numeric prices are presumed to “generate sufficiently accurate estimates” of costs and benefits of inputs and outputs, as well as account for environmental or other social costs. No Bosses argues that this kind of pricing would be superior to prices obtained in markets or central planning because they would be derived from cooperative social proposals that can be checked, and because aggregate social needs would be built into the system.

How would individuals meet their individual and family needs? Everybody would make a request for the coming plan year to their neighborhood council, with aggregate requests going up to higher consumer councils. Once all consumer requests and productive plans are aggregated, negotiations begin, with the previous plan’s totals as a reference point and using the information supplied by the facilitation board, including preliminary estimates of the coming plan year’s pricing changes. Rounds of talks would continue until a plan is reached; the plan would presumably be “loose” rather than “taut” so that adjustments can be made within the plan year.

A different sort of calculation problem

But here we come to a significant weakness of participatory economics. The plan would require everybody to know exactly what they will need for the coming year — shirts, automobiles, appliances, books, meals at restaurants, even theater tickets. This is impossible! Nobody knows, or can know, all they will consume for the next year, including how many movies they see in theaters. Most of the books I buy are on impulse when I see something interesting in a bookstore; how can I know what I will find ahead of time? Participatory economics presumes that if there are changes, these would cancel each other out and all would be fine in the end. But, note that we saw earlier that people had to stay within a strict budget. Despite the author’s insistence that this system would be freer than capitalist markets or central planning, neither capitalist nor Soviet-style governments constrained consumption into such a straitjacket. Sorry, you said you’d go to three theatrical performances; the neighborhood council doesn’t have excess theater tickets. Better luck next year.

These levels of negotiations would be enormously, and needlessly, complicated. Negotiations would have to begin months before the current plan year ended, so full information would not be available. Talks would have to conclude at the end of the year so it could go into effect at the start of the new plan year; this would be no simple task. There is no reason that a yearly plan couldn’t be worked out and be in place for a new plan year, but with such a complicated negotiation requiring vast sums of information, this simply isn’t realistic. The weakness of Soviet-style central planning shouldn’t be glossed over; one problem was that no group of officials, no matter how dedicated or sincere, could possibly possess all the knowledge necessary to make proper plans.

Planning is necessary to replace markets, but it should be acknowledged that Gosplan (the Soviet planning agency) proved to not be a substitute for markets, although of course central control and the decades-long emphasis (unchecked because of a lack of democratic control) on producer goods with consumer goods getting perpetually short-changed can’t be avoided as significant factors. Democratic, bottom-up planning would inevitably be a central component of any egalitarian future economy designed to meet social and individual needs and enable everybody to reach their potential. (Activists organizing workers’ councils in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring envisioned a democratic planning without Soviet-style hard numeric totals and held a national conference to begin codifying a new system based on workers’ control before the effort was shut down.)

I would argue that planning based on negotiations, and that it be bottom-up and not top-down, is a necessity. On that basic concept, I am in agreement with No Bosses. But it would make more sense, and be more efficient, for producers to get together and make plans, plans that would have input from consumer representatives. Put it this way: If 1.2 million shoes were produced and there was a small shortage, representatives from shoe factories (with possible participation and if not that then meaningful input from consumer representatives) could make an informed judgment and declare they need to produce 1.3 million shoes to meet projected demand. It is not as if sales figures are unavailable, and reports of shortages certainly could be collected easily. Replicating this across all industries would enable the assembly of a plan for the coming year. It would be important to know how many shoes would be needed overall; it is not necessary and not possible for hundreds of millions of people to each know precisely how many shoes or theater tickets they will need.

Moreover, one important factor is missing. How do we ensure that there is no discrimination, and that environmental, health and safety standards are upheld? Presumably, advocates of participatory economics would argue that the system would generate such high levels of egalitarianism and solidarity, and provide full employment so that nobody is stuck in a bad job, that such standards would automatically be upheld universally. Perhaps. But might it make sense to have boards that enforce standards, with real penalties for non-compliance. Participatory economics would reward cooperation rather than greed and anti-social behavior as capitalism does, but it might not hurt to have a bit of insurance.

Public goods and public detriments

Finally, the long seventh chapter circles back to collective goods. How would parks, infrastructure, recreation facilities, etc. be funded? A few ideas are kicked around. One example is if a public pool were requested by a neighborhood consumer council. A higher body would have to okay it, with the cost spread among all the areas that might benefit. If a project had a negative impact, such as causing pollution, then the affected areas would have a say in the project and if approved those affected would be compensated. This is an area of participatory economics that hasn’t been worked out, and in fairness it must be admitted that devising formulae to determine the cost of pollution or other harms would be extraordinarily difficult.

In reading this part of No Bosses, my own admittedly loose thoughts were that the average or aggregate health care costs of everyone who lives or works a specified distance, say 30 miles, downwind from a coal plant, plus the cost of sick days, be calculated against a regional or national average, and charge the plant that differential. But there is an immediate objection: How could multiple pollution sources be disentangled and quantified? So perhaps my loose idea would not be workable. No Bosses offers no plan due to the complexity and difficulty of such calculations. But it does firmly insist, properly, that environmental and health costs must be accounted for, including in pricing. That is something that would have to be worked out much closer to the arrival of a new economic system.

We can’t ask for perfection, and participatory economics is supposed to be a scaffold, not a blueprint. It would be useless to reproach it for not having all possibilities thought out, a task plainly impossible nor even desirable. Maintaining his optimism and enthusiasm, Mr. Albert concludes No Bosses with a series of answers to commonly asked questions. He rejects anarchism, social democracy and Marxism (although a cartoon version of Marxism) while offering participatory economics as “an approach … consistent with the human potential I can imagine.” I think we should employ some caution before simply dismissing all that has come before, however flawed — a tabula rasa is impossible. Nonetheless, what is proposed here certainly is imaginative. “Having vision matters for where we wind up,” he concludes. “Having vision matters for winning a new economy for a better world.”

However much we might quibble with this or that detail, having vision does matter. How could we believe a better world is possible, much less struggle for one, without vision? To restate what was written at the beginning of this review, the judgment to be made isn’t whether we agree with all details, it is whether it has made a needed contribution. No Bosses is a marvelous contribution to the growing and needed literature on the contours of a better world, of what we believe it should do. That participatory economics, or any other currently proposed system, is unlikely to actually come into being isn’t the point; what is is that we think concretely about the future and are prepared to discuss, dream and formulate serious ideas. And put them into action.

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.