Five Principles of a Socialist Climate Politics
A Marxist geographer shares his ideas of how climate change should shape socialist thinking.
Democratic socialism is in the air. Since Bernie Sanders’s miraculous 2016 primary run – garnering 13.2 million votes and 23 state victories – the politics of democratic socialism has grown in popularity. I believe this popularity is based on its capacity to articulate clear and simple principles. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (now famously) said on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, “I believe that in a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live.” Who disagrees with that? It’s becoming clear that climate politics needs to catch up with these developments.
Many have recognized the need to articulate a “Medicare-for-all”-like strategy on climate change, where people could see how solving climate change could deliver direct improvements to their lives. But, at a more basic level, what does a socialist politics of climate change look like? This is obviously a debate (and I won’t claim to have definitive answers), but the following essay is an attempt to lay out five basic principles of a socialist climate politics. A core theme across all five is that a socialist climate politics is dramatically different than the ‘third way’ technocratic policy approaches that have dominated climate politics over the last three decades. I should first say, however, that obviously 20th Century socialism leaves much to be desired for ecological politics (although many see positive developments in Cuba once they were delinked from the oil of the Soviet bloc). This movement must put both democracy and ecology at the center of a 21st Century democratic ecosocialism.
#1 - Climate change is a class problem. This seems obvious enough. Rich people are responsible for causing climate change and the poorest bear the costs of droughts, rising seas, and floods. Yet, we are somewhat confused on this issue. The rallying cry of radical climate politics – “system change not climate change” – rightly blames the “system” of capitalism as the core cause of climate change. But how do systems change? While more liberal-minded “system change” theorists like Gal Alperovitz suggest we could incrementally move beyond capitalism via a “middle path of evolutionary reconstruction,” Marx and Engels are quite clear on how systems change: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Too often the notion of “system change” doesn’t emphasize that we are fighting a class of people rather than a vague, impersonal “system.” Class struggle entails a politics that directly confronts the interests of the class in power - whether it be strikes, regulatory policies, or movements to expropriate property (just recently the idea of nationalizing the fossil fuel industry has finally circulated into climate policy discussions).
Yet there are some who envision a politics of system change that has nothing to do with class. Take this statement from Benjamin Fong’s otherwise excellent and surprising Op-Ed in the New York Times, “The Climate Crisis? It’s Capitalism, stupid”:
As an increasing number of environmental groups are emphasizing, it’s systemic change or bust. From a political standpoint, something interesting has occurred here: Climate change has made anticapitalist struggle, for the first time in history, a non-class-based issue.
Now, how in the world is anti-capitalism (let alone climate) a “non-class based issue”? We need to go beyond vague notions of class as what Erik Olin Wright calls “gradational” upper/middle/lower) based on income (rich vs. poor). A socialist climate politics should revive a Marxian definition of class as those who own and control the “means of production.” Here the responsibility for climate change comes into clearer view: those who control profit-oriented production of all the goods and services used in modern life. First and foremost, this implicates the class of capitalists who dig up fossil fuel and sell it for profit. The climate movement, as its recent focus on fossil fuel divestment shows, clearly understands this enemy as such. But the capitalists responsible for climate change are much broader than this. There are vast amounts of industrial capital dependent upon fossil fuel consumption – the most climate-relevant include cement (responsible for 7% of global carbon emissions), steel, chemicals and other carbon-intensive forms of production. According to the Energy Information Agency, the industrial sector consumes more of the world’s energy than the residential, commercial and transportation sectors combined. If we include emissions from electricity consumption, the industrial sector exceeds all others (including agriculture and land use change) with 31% of global emissions (See IPCC report p. 44). While class analysts today usually seek to theorize class beyond the factory, a focus on the “dark satanic mills” of industrial production couldn’t be more important for the climate crisis.
Yet, many would counter: don’t “we” consumers end up consuming all this cement, steel, and other products of industrial capital? Well, other industries actually do a lot of the consuming, but carbon footprint ideology has led us to believe that all our consumption is entirely our own responsibility. Yet, as I have argued (along with others), your carbon footprint is not really the problem. Even when you drive a car the emissions coming out of the tailpipe are not yours alone. Auto, oil, steel and other companies profit from the production of the commodities you consume. For the vast majority of us who who lack ownership of the means of production, our choices are severely constrained: we commute to work by necessity, we buy processed food due to exhaustion; we try to navigate our life with a strapped budget and a limited set of for-profit firms who offer us the things we need for sale. In fact, every commodity has users and profiteers along the chain: a socialist climate politics would place the bulk of responsibility on those profiting from production – not simply people fulfilling their needs in an alienating world of consumerism.
A class approach simplifies climate politics in way that makes our political tasks clearer. It is not “all of us” who are to blame (or, as the recent New York Times megastory, “Losing Earth” put it, “ourselves” or “human nature”), but rather the small minority of capitalists who control and profit from the production. If socialism could be summed up in one slogan it might be this: democratize production. Production could be geared not toward profit, but the social needs of human life - and a recognition of the ecological systems that make all human and nonhuman life possible in the first place. Yet, getting there will require a monumental struggle against those who currently control production for profit. How can we win this struggle?
#2 – Climate solutions need to appeal to the material interests of the working class. History shows that overcoming entrenched power requires vast numbers of ordinary people: a mass movement where the state or other forces cannot ignore popular demands for structural change. So how can we mobilize the mass of people to the climate fight? We need to start by recognizing that the working class is the majority of the population. When I say “working class” I do not only mean white male coal miners or factory workers. At the broadest level, we could define the working class as those who must work to survive. As Sarah Jaffe and others have pointed out, the American working class of today is to a large extent female and disproportionately people of color. It includes not only industrial workers but nurses, teachers, warehouse workers, and retail workers. In the United States, there are more people that work at Arby’s than in coal mines. Kim Moody roughly estimates that after subtracting the 1% of capitalists who actually direct and control major corporations and various professional, managerial, and small business occupations, the working class constitutes 63% of the employed population. If you add all the millions who are currently “out” of the workforce due to disability, unemployment, and care responsibilities, it is closer to 75%. Moody’s first number overlaps with another jarring statistic: 63% of households could not afford a simple $500 emergency payment for something like a ER visit or car breaking down. If climate politics wants to win, it must learn how to better speak to the interests of this 63%. In fact, it is impossible to imagine we are building a democratic movement without doing so.
Of course, saying “system change” requires a mass working class movement is not new, it’s Socialism 101. In his classic essay “Why the Working Class,” Hal Draper lays it out: “The Marxist socialist believes that when the working class, and its associated allies from other sections of the people, are in their massed majority ready for the abolition of capitalism, it is their social power which will determine the result in the last analysis.” At the very least, this majority matters if a goal is to simply build an electoral strategy on climate change (any left politics will be won on mobilizing the largely poor and working class communities who don’t bother participate in an electoral process built with all kinds of exclusions). But, socialists see a deeper source of power in the working class. It’s not merely a simple numbers game (the “massed majority”), but also the crucial dependence of capitalists on workers to produce goods and services, transport commodities, and maintain critical infrastructure. Without compliance of the working class to perform this necessary work, the entire system grinds to a halt. As Vivek Chibber more recently argues, “Workers are therefore not only a social group that is systematically oppressed and exploited in modern society, they are also the group best positioned to enact real change and extract concessions from the major center of power — the bankers and industrialists who run the system.” We need to start thinking how working class power – including the strike – could be deployed in climate struggles. The climate movement already uses the power of disruptive action to block the expansion of fossil fuel industries, but has rarely harnessed the power of the workers inside those industries themselves (although see Paul Hampton’s book for examples of trade union climate struggles).
Why does this matter for climate politics? Because, for the most part, our entire political strategy on climate change as it exists now does not appeal to working class concerns. On the one hand, many climate policies are largely “technocratic” fixes that aim to tweak market incentives in ways opaque to working class sensibilities. Try explaining a “cap and trade” system to your average person (I have a hard enough time teaching this material). More problematically, one could argue climate policies often appear antagonistic to struggling workers. Taxes, fees, and “internalizing costs” are the language of the policies. If anyone in the climate debate appears to be advocating for working people it is the right who often claim climate policies will “cost” everyday people dearly. Take arch climate villain, Charles Koch, who framed his critique like this: “I’m very concerned because the poorest Americans use three times the energy as the percentage of their income as the average American does. This is going to disproportionately hurt the poor.” A reason for this is that many of the advocates of carbon taxes and fees are themselves middle to upper class professionals. It is this rather narrow slice of the population who have an oversized voice in climate debates (for example, the entire New York Times megastory on climate focuses on professional class men - scientists, politicians, and environmental non-profit ‘activists’) . For this class, the “excesses” of modern consumption are seen as the problem – but the 63% struggling to make ends meet do not feel excessive. We will not win on a program of less, limits, and reductions.
Climate activists are waking up to this and attempting to frame policies that speak to issues of economic justice and inequality. Housing programs that aim to deliver both efficient weatherized homes and viable affordable public housing for all. A green jobs program wrapped into a job guarantee. Public buildup of green energy infrastructure to deliver cheaper or even free renewable energy to masses of people. These programs can help build a wider base of support for climate action. They are the kinds of programs that have allowed democratic socialism to rise to political importance in the first place. As it invokes one of the most popular ones, Medicare-for-All is a great organizing slogan because it clearly conveys how it would improve people’s lives immediately.
The climate movement as currently constituted has done some incredible organizing and grassroots mobilization. Yet, one could argue that in class terms the movement is quite narrow – a mixture of highly educated professionals (scientists, academics, journalists, government workers, etc.) and those most impacted on the “frontlines” of climate disaster (indigenous, peasant, and other marginalized populations whose livelihoods are directly imperiled). This coalition will be the core of any effective climate movement – and racial and environmental justice must be front and center – but professionals and the marginalized on their own are not enough. A mass movement will need to speak to working class interests in ways that cut across the many geographical, racial, and other divisions that often hinder mass politics. For example, a national green jobs infrastructure program could combat poverty in inner city San Francisco and rural Appalachia.
#3 - Climate politics cannot only be about “knowledge” – and the belief or denial of “the science” – and must be about material control and power
To deny the science of climate change in 2018 is preposterous. But, too often, our politics makes the struggle about knowledge of the science itself. Those who oppose climate action are “denialists.” A naïve version of this story says that we need to simply better “communicate” the science to the masses, and this will automatically lead to political action on climate change; as if the lack of climate action is due to the lack of knowledge of the masses. Yet, as Jonathan Smucker argues, “right does not equal might.” It is not at all clear that if we convinced the 47% of the country that questions the truth of climate change we will also overcome the entrenched power of the fossil fuel industry.
Yes, it is awful that the fossil fuel industry funds “denialist” pseudoscience. But it is more awful that they are still given total freedom to dig up fossil fuels and sell them for profit day after day. It is ridiculous that an appointed EPA administrator (Scott Pruitt) went on television and denied the science of climate change, but it is worse that he took hundreds of thousands of dollars from fossil fuel interests during his campaign for Attorney General. One must often wedge their subjective beliefs into ideological frameworks that justify their own power. I would hazard a guess that when Scott Pruitt lays his head on the pillow at night, he knows anthropogenic climate change exists. He also knows his power depends upon serving the material interests of the fossil fuel industry. The climate struggle is less about knowledge and more about a material struggle for power.
As Principle #2 suggests, socialist politics will not only mean “awakening” the working class to the truth of climate change, but also convincing them that climate solutions will directly improve their lives today. Climate change is often presented as an “abstract problem” – emissions today mean stronger storms in the future somewhere else on the planet. So the challenge of climate politics must make climate politics concrete: not only the concrete and disastrous effects of climate change, but the concrete benefits of climate solutions – good unionized green jobs, cleaner and cheaper energy, and more democratic control over life itself. These kinds of solutions link the abstract planetary level to peoples’ direct livelihood interests. Moreover, these solutions counter the right wing arguments that climate policy will “hurt” economically.
If we make the climate story all about knowledge and denial, we risk alienating the masses we need to win. As Joan Williams put it in her viral piece post-2016 election, the working class “resents professionals but admires the rich.” This is because professional class people – the very scientists, academics, and journalists at the core of the climate coalition – are often the ones telling working class people what to do and why they’re wrong (think: doctors, lawyers, professors, social workers). Telling the 47% of people who do not believe in anthropogenic climate change they are ill-behaved and ignorant falls directly into the right wing populist trap that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by a liberal elite. Winning the climate struggle will no doubt entail mobilizing masses of people who don’t know what 350 refers to or even (gasp) how the greenhouse effect works.
#4 - Don’t Tax Molecules, Tax the Rich…A lot!
The local International Socialist Organization branch in my home city, Syracuse, recently made posters with this slogan: “Tax the Rich a Lot.” This sums up the socialist approach to fiscal policy quite nicely. While many climate policy wonks think we need to use the tax system to correct a “market failure” and internalize the costs of “externalities,” socialists believe we need to tax the rich to fund vital public services for the masses of people. A carbon tax is often framed as a measure applied on an entire economy – a working class commuter needs to ‘internalize’ the costs of emissions as much as a steel plant. It is a tax on a molecule (CO2), not specific people. A socialist approach needs to intensify the antagonisms – we need to tax them (the real polluters) to fund us (the working class). One example is Bernie Sanders’s policy of a tax on Wall Street speculation to fund free college for all. Similarly, the striking West Virginia teachers made a direct connection between taxing the fossil fuel industry and funding better teacher salaries and benefits. Not only do most carbon tax policies fail to highlight these class dimensions – and thus it is not surprising when they fail, as a proposal did in liberal Washington – but they play into the right’s anti-tax populism by proposing policies that appear to tax “all of us.” Funding “us” also means socializing the revenue to build the massive public energy infrastructure needed to transition away from fossil fuels. Long term infrastructure is almost always funded by the public, not the private sector. Yet, proposals such as the Citizens Climate Lobby’s “fee and dividend” policy attempt instead to appeal to the right by advocating “revenue neutrality” (despite our need for a fuckton of revenue to solve the problem). The policy wrongly individualizes the returns through “dividend” checks to households. This might cynically address the “appeal to the working class” issue (who doesn’t like a check?), but it will not provide the public resources needed to solve what is a very public crisis.
#5 - Climate Change Requires Planetary Solidarity
Socialism is internationalist. Two slogans are at the core of socialist politics: “Workers of the world, unite!” and, from the socialist anthem The Internationalé: “The international ideal, Unites the human race!” These slogans understood workers had a shared global interest against a global capitalist class, but the idea of uniting the human race resonates differently today as humanity faces the prospect of “hothouse earth.” Although this ideal was distorted by the Stalinist maxim of “socialism in one country,” Marx and the socialist movement always imagined a global “revolution in humankind” (as Hal Draper described it). Similarly, we cannot solve climate change working remotely in our individual countries. Climate politics will require a kind of planetary solidarity across borders as workers, peasants, and indigenous peoples come together to see their shared interest in maintaining a livable planet. This planetary solidarity must understand global climate change is a criminal atrocity perpetrated by a small minority of capitalists mainly located in the Global North. This international solidarity movement must also reject the elitist top-down United Nations Conference of Parties (UNFCCC), where political and corporate leaders have failed for nearly three decades to forge the international solidarity required to address the crisis.
The climate justice movement is already an important example of this kind of international solidarity. Climate justice internationalism pushes us to overcome the boundaries that divide us as a species – borders and the arbitrary divisions of racialized categories – but also respecting vastly different cultures and livelihood models on the planet. Planetary climate solidarity can stitch together food sovereignty movements in the Global South with public power struggles in the Global North. Further, climate solidarity cannot only be forged in reaction to the devastating effects of climate change (“front lines” communities from Bangladesh to New Orleans are already forging powerful linkages on their own). Planetary solidarity must also be about a more positive story: “a world to win.” This means connecting struggles across the globe that seek to decommodify the critical necessities of life: food, housing, healthcare, and, for climate, most of all, energy. As socialist feminists argue, this also means radically valuing the low-carbon care work that capitalism devalues and degrades.
The goal is to democratize control over providing for our basic needs. As Shawn Gude recently put it, “democratic socialism, at its core, is about deepening democracy where it exists and introducing democracy where it is absent.” Today much of what we need to survive is produced by firms, “private governments” only seeking profit. But, as explained above, democracy also means appealing to the needs of the vast majority of people who crave a decent, secure and comfortable life. Socialism would gear the entire economy towards “care,” and the needs of the many against the profits of a few. The struggle for decarbonization cannot be cast as purely technical or economistic “energy transition;” it must be about exerting popular control over life itself to veer us away from irreversible disaster.
--Overall it is quite surprising how well the challenge of climate change overlaps with some classical principles of socialism. The heart of the issue is that we can no longer trust private capitalists to solve the problem on their own. Hal Draper put it perfectly, “the operative contradiction is between the rights of private property...and the organized proletariat’s inevitable insistence on social responsibility for all vital aspects of life, including economic.” If the demise of a habitable earth weren’t an obvious sign that the we need to take more democratic social responsibility over the “vital aspects of life” I’m not sure what is. Yet, in terms of building a socialist climate politics, we have barely begun. We not only have a world to win, we have a home to rescue.
Matthew Huber is Associate Professor of Geography at Syracuse University.
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