What does it mean to change the world? The Left has long proclaimed the need to “change everything” — to foment revolution rather than advance reform, to replace the dismal existing state of affairs with a better, more rational order. And yet in the meantime capitalism itself is already changing everything faster than we can keep up: constantly rooting out new resources, implementing new modes of production, shuddering through crisis after crisis.
Such a mercurial, unstable order seemed to Marx doomed to ultimately destroy itself. And yet capitalism has managed to survive even as it constantly remakes the world around it.
Now, though, Naomi Klein argues that capitalism has finally gone too far. Globalization was bad enough — but global warming is even worse. Capitalism is now changing the world very literally, altering the planet’s climate and threatening to destroy the prospect of a livable future on Earth. As the climate changes, everything else is going to change whether we like it or not. Thus the duty to change the world deliberately is more urgent than ever before.
But what exactly needs to change? At first glance, it would appear that it’s either capitalism or the climate; after all, “capitalism vs. the climate” is literally blazoned across the back cover. Yet much of the debate about the book on the Left has revolved around the question of whether Klein is taking on capitalism itself or just its most conspicuously destructive tendencies, softening the blow with qualifications — “unfettered” capitalism, “unregulated” capitalism, and so on.
It’s true that the subtitle is the only place where capitalism appears without a modifier. But Klein’s hesitance to “name the system” outright isn’t simply political hedging. When she declares that “our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life,” she has two systems in mind. Capitalism is one; what she calls extractivism is the other.
Capitalism for Klein isn’t fundamentally about wage labor, or who owns the means of the production, or commodification, or markets — though each of these features sporadically appear in her account. Instead, she defines capitalism first and foremost by growth — endless, churning, productive, destructive growth in pursuit of profit. (Growth, as it turns out, is the feature most consistently emphasized by many scholars currently working in the history of capitalism — though this is more a sign of contemporary unease around growth than an indication that this definition is the most illuminating.) In any case, Klein’s argument essentially amounts to the now-familiar line that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet.
Extractivism, meanwhile, is a philosophy of rapacious industrialism resting on the Enlightenment belief that humans can and should triumph over and control nature, rationally organize society, and achieve progress through liberation from the constraints of the natural world.
In Klein’s account, this intellectual shift is loosely linked to the material rise of capitalism, which demands that coal be burned to fuel the satanic mills. But it’s not exclusively capitalist: Klein also has harsh words for what she calls the “extractivist left,” castigating countries like Venezuela and Brazil that have sought to reduce poverty by drilling for oil and leveling rainforests.
It’s true that left politics has historically had cornucopian elements. Marx held that capitalism’s productivity would be transformed into communist superabundance once the means of production were seized and put to work for the benefit of all; “to each according to their need” doesn’t, in the original, come with ecological caveats.
And while growth may not be embedded in the “logic” of socialism, socialism isn’t necessarily inimical to it either: the Cold War was fought not only via nuclear standoffs but economic statistics, as the Soviet Union aimed to demonstrate that the productivity of a rationally planned economy could outpace the wastefulness of the capitalist system.
Anxiety about the specter of material constraints of human welfare is only intensified by the blatantly class-biased overtones of many ecological limit narratives, hearkening back to Malthus’s own overt distaste for the teeming masses.
Thus the more extreme versions of what Anthony Galluzzo calls Jetsonian leftism aspire to an ultra-modern luxury communism in which everyone can have everything. Meanwhile its opposite, a deep-green outlook fundamentally skeptical of human efforts to control nature, suggests that no one can have very much of anything at all.
Klein aims to navigate a way between the extremes of cornucopia and scarcity. She puts forth a vision of society built by a re-enlightened — or perhaps de-Enlightened — left, one more circumspect about human ability to shape the non-human world to our liking and more accepting of limits to the planet’s capacity.
She isn’t blithe about the challenges of providing a decent life for everyone so much as consciously aiming to counterbalance the dour tone of much climate writing, which, rather than declaring nothing too good for the working class, calls for cutting back. George Monbiot, for example, describes climate activism as “a campaign not for abundance but for austerity . . . a campaign not for more freedom but for less . . . a campaign not just against other people, but also against ourselves.”
And so, against the suggestion that we must resign ourselves to a shabbier future than hoped for, Klein attempts to offer a vision of how our lives might actually improve when we face up to the existential threat posed by climate change.
She imagines a future characterized by improved quality of life rather than sheer material abundance: a world of public services, shared resources, and communal luxuries, in which we act “regeneratively rather than extractively.” Call it regenerative socialism, perhaps — though Klein herself is careful not to name the system that would replace capitalism.
But Klein frequently conflates this vision of the good life with an ethos centered around “life itself.” She proclaims, for example, that “rather than a society of grave robbers, we need to become a society of life amplifiers, deriving our energy directly from the elements that sustain life.”
But while caring for living and regenerative systems may be ecologically desirable, embracing “life itself” does not an anticapitalist politics make — particularly in the United States, where it has been possible to own life forms since the 1980 Supreme Court decision Diamond v. Chakrabarty.
Capitalists are just as eager as their critics to embrace the regenerative potential of “life itself” not only as a solution to climate change and other ecological problems, but as a yet-untapped fount of productivity — a way to “decouple” economic growth from increased consumption of material resources.
The aspirations of capitalists to reduce dependence on non-renewable resources and avoid material constraints by making use of regenerative systems are likely pipe dreams. Capital came into the world dripping from every pore not only with dirt and blood but also coal dust and oil; it very well may be inextricably bound to fossil fuels to power the contemporary pace and scale of global production. It’s certainly never existed without them. But this also presents a problem for any industrialized, modernist socialism aiming to jettison the extractivist mentality in favor of a regenerative one.
Throughout the book, capitalism and extractivism are sometimes treated as autonomous systems, operating in parallel but potentially detachable; other times, they appear so intertwined as to be inseparable. The relationship of nature to capitalism, modernity, and the Enlightenment is constantly in flux.
Klein is not alone in struggling with these colossal themes — they’re at the heart of any number of contemporary political debates, not least the ongoing argument over whether we’re living in the Anthropocene or Capitalocene.
Indeed, TCE is a reflection of the current relationship of the Left to climate politics, proceeding in an almost sociological mode at times: Klein channels, synthesizes, and amplifies existing movements, ideas, and critiques as much as she makes original arguments. The result is a book that’s sprawling, densely packed, and richly felt — as well as uneven, occasionally indecisive, and sometimes contradictory.
I want to note upfront that I agree with a great deal of what Klein has to say. TCE aims to pull off the difficult feat of resonating with and rallying a politically heterogeneous public, and succeeds in many respects. It is a vital book, and the best resource yet on climate change and left politics.
That’s why it’s necessary for leftists in particular to address the book’s limitations as we figure out where to go from here. To know how, exactly, everything changes, it’s critical to be clear about what we’ll change to and who will do the changing. Klein has things to say on all of these counts, of course, but they don’t always line up.
What Is To Be Done
TCE’s five hundred pages are broken up into three parts. Part one, “Bad Timing,” alternates visions of a not-quite-utopian future with concrete policy proposals. It’s a good primer on the array of climate policies suggested or attempted at points all along the left-liberal spectrum, from free public transit to a universal basic income. Klein makes a convincing case that unfettered capitalism (modifiers firmly in place) will not and cannot invest in the kinds of public goods we need to reduce carbon emissions.
Instead, Klein says we need regulations, taxes, public spending — the traditional activities of the social-democratic state — to rebuild the public sphere and curb industry offenses. Austerity, for all its resonance with talk of ecological limits, is at cross purposes with the task of building a green society. Public investments in green energy, public transit, affordable housing, bike lanes, storm walls — these are social necessities that, because they must be accessible to everyone, cannot be provided by private institutions.
Yet Klein’s “all of the above” approach to cataloguing potential policy solutions often results in tensions. She argues, for example, that growth is the root of our problems and that working less is desirable, then advocates for investing in public transportation on the grounds that it will create more jobs and more growth than investing in roads and car-oriented infrastructure; first that we have the technology to meet existing energy needs with renewables in short order, then that we need to cut back on consumption; one moment that the main obstacle to addressing climate change is the greed of a small group of fossil-fuel corporations, and the next that the real problem is Western philosophy itself.
It’s not exactly that these positions can’t coexist. We could create more green jobs and also reduce work in an absolute sense, implement existing clean energy technology while reducing absolute energy use, and demonize fossil fuel companies while also questioning human dominion over nature.
And it’s fine that it’s inconclusive: Klein isn’t aiming to give marching orders so much as to report on possibilities, and in including so many of them, she reveals the very real conflicts that exist within both climate and left circles.
Yet Klein tends to gloss over these frictions rather than digging into them. She’s brushed off criticism of her ambiguity as Marxist pedantry, but the myriad alternatives presented suggest different, potentially incompatible, visions of the economy and its aims.
Thus as the Out of the Woods collective perceptively observes in the New Inquiry, the book proceeds in two registers, “major Klein” and “minor Klein.” The former embraces a politics perfectly compatible with a kinder, greener capitalism — a kind of solar-powered social democracy — and the latter a more radically anticapitalist message, leading toward something hazier and less familiar.
Some of the ambiguity stems from the fact that Klein is clearly writing for multiple audiences simultaneously. She states quite plainly that she aims to push liberals and environmentalists who are concerned about climate change to adopt a more radical analysis, and to simultaneously goad the Left to take climate change more seriously. It’s an essential task, but a difficult one to navigate.
Audience matters: who does Klein see as the agent of political change? Where, that is, does she think the political force to “change everything” will come from?
What Won’t Work
The answers to these questions become clearer in parts two and three, which deal more with politics than policies.
Part two, “Magical Thinking,” aims to counter claims that green nonprofits, benevolent businessmen, or technological wonders can save the day. As most leftists presumably don’t need much convincing on these points, this section seems squarely aimed at liberals and the accommodating mode of environmentalism that’s been ascendant in America over the past few decades.
The start of the American environmental movement is usually traced to protests against pollution, industrial waste, and over-consumption in the sixties and seventies, linked loosely to the New Left and the counterculture. In the Reagan years, professional environmental organizations launched legal challenges to corporate malfeasance, deploying the suite of environmental protections signed into law by Nixon.
But by the Clinton era, Burger King wanted to save the rainforests too. “Corporate responsibility” became the new watchword as green NGOs began to partner with big business to achieve greater “impact.” The environmental movement went from scrappy to sleek as savvy “Big Green” organizations fed on corporate donations and consulting fees, promising all the while that we could buy our way to a healthier environment.
Klein, of course, has been onto this kind of thing from the start. Her first book, No Logo, marked a watershed in the backlash against corporate branding and consumer politics, while in The Shock Doctrine, she demonstrated her talent for sniffing out and exposing corporate malfeasance from post-Katrina New Orleans to war-torn Iraq.
Here, she goes after not only corporate transgressors but nonprofits that act like them, to similarly devastating effect. Klein is unsparing in her account of the cravenness with which nonprofits that proclaim their dedication to nature have colluded with the parties responsible for destroying it.
Plenty of organizations have gotten into the business of making markets in nature, helping to establish programs like carbon offsets wherein polluters can pay to neutralize their carbon-intensive activities, or certifying products as “green” for the benefit of anxious consumers — and the even greater benefit of the companies making said products.
But some organizations in particular seem to have given up all pretense. The Nature Conservancy, for example, the target of some of Klein’s most scathing invective, let oil and gas operators drill on a nature reserve supposedly dedicated to the preservation of an endangered prairie chicken.
Richard Branson, meanwhile, serves as a test case for the ability of so-called “Gaia capitalists” to actually go green. Klein thoroughly details his pledge to fund the development of a clean energy source to replace carbon-spewing jet fuel, and his repeated failure to follow through on his declared commitments. The need to make a profit, Klein reminds us, will always trump the (usually capricious) do-gooder urges of capitalists whose imperatives are ultimately to make more money.
Can Blockadia Do It?
Having discredited the political potential of nonprofit advocacy and environmental noblesse oblige, Klein shifts to the political movements that give her hope in part three, “Starting Anyway.” Climate news is often bleak, but victories are coming, Klein tells us, in Blockadia.
Blockadia encompasses the array of movements struggling to protect land and homes from the ravages of fossil-fuel extraction by blocking new infrastructure. These range from the Idle No More movement of First Nations people in Canada to anti-fracking protests throughout North America to campus campaigns to divest university endowments from fossil-fuel investments.
This is where the book really picks up steam: Klein shines as a movement writer and reporter, and the stories she tells of unlikely coalitions coming together to resist fossil-fuel companies are often powerful.
And Blockadia is exactly Klein’s kind of movement. Her politics are, at heart, a sort of ecumenical democratic populism, in the vein of what’s sometimes called post-Marxist, with a fundamentally moral thrust. Wherever the people are arrayed against powerful institutions, Klein applauds. And Blockadia is, Klein asserts, where the “moral voice” of climate politics is being most forcefully asserted and the ideals of democracy itself defended.
Indeed, Klein sees a “democracy crisis” lurking at the heart of fossil-fuel development: governments are unwilling to genuinely resist the demands of fossil-fuel companies, and in the event that they do, transnational corporations routinely use international trade law to override any local ordinances that get in their way.
Thus the struggles taking place in Blockadia are best understood as a “grassroots pro-democracy movement,” with local political projects creating spaces of participatory democracy: people are rising up to take matters into their own hands, blocking the fossil fuels that their governments can’t or won’t.
The long struggle to stop the building of the Keystone XL pipeline, intended to carry tar sands oil from Alberta through the American Midwest to the Gulf Coast, has been the most high-profile climate fight of recent years. Concern about fracking has mobilized crowds and made headlines — though the focus has often been less on climate change than contaminated drinking water.
Divestment organizing, meanwhile, has aimed to impede flows of finance rather than fuel, with activists drawing inspiration from apartheid divestment campaigns of the 1980s in urging institutions to withdraw investments from the fossil-fuel industry.
Obstruction is, of course, a time-honored political tactic, one that can give small groups outsized leverage in a world of international trade and commodity flows. The very idea of a strike aims to leverage workers’ ability to block commodities into political power.
Strikes by workers situated at critical infrastructural points have been particularly effective: think, for example, of the history of West Coast longshoremen, whose ability to bring the shipping industry to a halt has translated into outsized strength, or the power of coal miners to disrupt energy supplies as detailed by Timothy Mitchell in Carbon Democracy.
One question raised by Blockadia’s actions is whether a fossil-fuel blockade undertaken by citizens can function as a strike against a particular form of energy production; another is about the symbolic value of such actions in building opposition to fossil fuels. The question that’s rarely asked — but the one that pertains most to Klein’s overall argument — is whether these kinds of actions can also be seen as part of a movement against capitalism, or one capable of confronting it.
Blockadia’s campaigns have had some real consequences. New York banned fracking outright. Major institutions, including Stanford University and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, have divested from fossil fuels at least in part. And after seven years of protest, President Obama rejected the Keystone pipeline in early November.
That these effects are also limited should not be surprising. Climate change is, of course, too massive a problem for any one campaign alone to do much, let alone change everything. Activists know that blocking Keystone itself will not stop climate change and that withdrawing institutional investments will not bankrupt oil companies.
Their most significant effect has been to draw attention to climate change and create controversy about fossil-fuel development, which until now has been taken for granted. Such symbolic moments are essential to all politics, and particularly so where invisible and slow-moving issues like climate change are concerned.
And Klein knows very well that appeals to morality can motivate politics where dry policy programs do not. The successful social movements of the past, she argues, “were unafraid of the language of morality — to give the pragmatic, cost-benefit arguments a rest and speak of right and wrong, of love and indignation.” To mobilize people, the climate movement must raise its moral voice — as it is doing in Blockadia.
The moral voice of the Keystone fight marks a welcome shift in environmental activism. Keystone never would have happened under the watch of the cautious, business-friendly organizations Klein describes in Part Two; demonizing fossil fuels was not on the sensible bipartisan agenda.
But the failure of the Waxman-Markey climate bill in 2009 spurred the climate movement to soul-search and reorganize. It emerged scrappier — committed to building coalitions at the grassroots rather than supplicating Republican congressmen, making demands oriented around climate justice, and foregrounding frontline communities in a movement that declared opposition to corporate power rather than seeking to partner with it.
Yet even the eventual victory also illustrates the shortcomings of the climate movement-as-Blockadia. In his comments on the Keystone decision, President Obama adopted the language of climate activism, stating that “some fossil fuels need to stay in the ground.”
This was no doubt a victory for climate activists who have been pushing hard for this modest recognition after years of “all of the above” energy policy. But in the rest of his speech, Obama directly refuted Klein’s argument that capitalism and climate change are counterposed. “The old rules said we couldn’t promote economic growth and protect our environment at the same time,” he said. “But this is America. We have come up with new ways and new technologies to break down the old rules.”
The barely-even-subtext: there are no limits to the power of American capitalism. This, of course, is exactly what you would expect the president of the United States to say. The point, though, is that rejecting fossil fuel does not entail confronting capitalism, however bound up they appear.
Nor does Blockadia seem to be the force that will build the society Klein envisions in Part One. Klein insists that in addition to its titular blocking, it is “also a constructive movement, actively building an alternative economy based on very different principles and values.” But there’s little evidence for that. The alternatives she points to are almost uniformly small and local, and it’s not clear how they might translate into more systemic change.
Blockadia’s forces are by definition arrayed against a particular set of corporations and their objectives in specific places. Against a “liquid nature” deracinated and traded around the globe in the form of carbon offsets and credits, Klein proposes a politics rooted in place, citing Wendell Berry to argue that “if each of us loved our homeplace enough to defend it, there would be no ecological crisis, no place could ever be written off as a sacrifice zone. We would simply have no choice but to adopt nonpoisonous methods of meeting our needs.”
Undeniably compelling — and yet here, as elsewhere, Klein’s stirring words cover uncomfortable frictions. “Meeting the needs” of eight-billion-plus people may not require the scale of destruction that’s often justified on those grounds, but nor are they likely to be met without activities that some would consider poisonous in places that someone feels affection for.
Even solar panels and wind turbines require some extraction; even public transportation routes sometimes cross beloved landscapes. Moreover, not all relationships to place are equal: Klein discusses denizens and property owners as if their struggle is the same, which may be the case in some situations but surely not all. This doesn’t mean that these problems can’t be resolved — only that love of place isn’t a satisfactory substitute for a politics.
Nor is a moral voice, however strong. Blockadia moral voice has recently been joined by one stemming from the unlikely source of the Vatican, via Pope Francis’s July encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’ (recently published as an e-book by Verso). The encyclical — subtitled “on care for our common home” — speaks in a language that the Left has largely abdicated, one that evokes wonder and joy at the splendor of the world. It is undeniably compelling, not least as a reminder of the power of arguments unabashedly grounded in non-economic logic.
Klein is adamant that the Left must put forth not only policies but an “alternative worldview” characterized by a different set of values than those of liberal capitalism. Her preferred worldview tends to emphasize intrinsic value as opposed to economic: we must stop putting a price on things like rights, freedom, and nature, and instead insist on their inherent worth.
In fact, she notes, this is the morality we already hold: “Most people don’t actually like it when their children’s lives are ‘discounted’ in someone else’s Excel sheet,” she writes, “and they tend to have a moral aversion to the idea of allowing countries to disappear because saving them would be too expensive.”
Inarguably stirring — and yet countries are nevertheless disappearing for lack of money whether people like the idea of it or not. A moral stance, however compelling, does not substitute for political strategy, or political power. And so in the absence of a political force that can actually challenge the problem that Klein herself identifies — that being, presumably, capitalism — declarations of righteousness ring hollow.
Building Left Power
Writing on the crises of democratic capitalism, Wolfgang Streeck observes that the political configurations that produced the golden age of postwar social democracy are gone for good. Klein suggests that climate change presents an opportunity to build political power on a vast scale once again — the fate of the planet providing the most unifying force of all.
Reflecting on the squandered opportunity of the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent stimulus, for example, she says, “Imagine if there had been a powerful social movement — a robust coalition of trade unions, immigrants, students, environmentalists, and everyone else whose dreams were getting crushed by the crashing economic model — demanding that Obama do no less” than “build the new economy.”
Later she writes that “the climate moment offers an overarching narrative in which everything from the fight for good jobs to justice for migrants to reparations for historical wrongs like slavery and colonialism can all become part of the grand project of building a non-toxic, shock-proof economy before it’s too late.”
Here, climate change is posited as the biggest tent for the Left. Blockadia, meanwhile, represents a coalition that’s politically broad but issue-specific. Thus the mismatch: while the policies that Klein argues for in part one of the book are largely related to public goods and jobs — what we might traditionally call economic movements — the political movements she discusses in part three are almost entirely focused on fossil fuels — what we’d usually call environmental ones.
References to anti-austerity protests and occasional demonstrations against free trade crop up throughout the book, but the focus of political action is on those seeking to block fossil-fuel infrastructure.
So, for example, Klein writes that “a fight for a minimal carbon tax might do a lot less good, than, for instance, forming a grand coalition to demand a guaranteed minimum income,” and argues that “fighting inequality on every front and through multiple means must be understood as a central strategy in the battle against climate change.”
But she doesn’t go into who might join forces in such a fight, where such a coalition’s power might come from, or what strategies it might pursue. Instead, we get tales from Blockadia. And while the climate movement is moving left, it’s not fundamentally a left movement.
The disjuncture between Klein’s policy proposals and political subjects is in part due to the fact that she is laudably committed to writing about actually-existing movements, and the climate movement has in recent years moved closer to her vision than has the traditional left.
Klein argues that climate ought to be a frame rather than an issue: it “supercharges” political and economic causes with “existential urgency” rather than supplanting them. Climate change spurs us to imagine better, demand more, push harder, move faster in the face of dire prospects.
Yet the Left has, as Klein notes, been slow to embrace climate politics as a central struggle. In rhetoric, perhaps, at conferences and marches — but climate has, by and large, not been integrated into actual organizing, tactics, and policy. Climate change remains an issue rather than an overarching frame.
Klein’s proposed policies and politics feel particularly misaligned with regard to the role of the state. The first part of the book focuses on policies that require powerful state action, whether via regulation or public investment — indeed, the need for state action is key to Klein’s core argument about why capitalism, particularly in its neoliberal variety, can’t hope to address climate change.
Likewise, many of the political analogies Klein uses to suggest how rapid action on climate change might occur, from World War II to the abolition of slavery, depend on strong state action. (Indeed, climate activists tend to deploy such analogies somewhat blithely, without following through on their political implications.)
Yet none of the movements she discusses have much in the way of a strategy for seizing and using state power. The Out of the Woods collective suggests that Klein’s mistake here is to be insufficiently critical of, and ultimately hostile to, the state, which they argue currently acts less as an oppositional force to capital’s needs than a facilitator of them.
Their analysis is right. But the anti-state prescription goes in exactly the wrong direction. It is quite simply impossible to make the material changes necessary to mitigate and adapt to climate change — whether building rail lines or power plants — without the kind of organized power and capital that today only the state and corporations can command. The state is, moreover, the only game in town when it comes to providing the kinds of universal social services Klein advocates for, from universal income to health care.
This isn’t to romanticize the state as an unambiguously benevolent public body: states have, of course, very often failed to live up to their claims of universality, distributing benefits and punishments unevenly by race and class and actively using power to oppress and control. And there are certainly significant parts of the state that beg abolition, most obviously its carceral and military arms.
Yet to turn away altogether from a politics that aims to capture the state and actively shape it is to leave the future to private actors who will be more than happy to build a livable world for those who can pay. At some point climate change will become so extreme as to threaten even the wealthiest, those who can afford to move to relatively climate-stable places or build homes that can accommodate climate extremes. But it’s a long way down to get there. Within the time frame that climate change presents, to “smash the state” in its entirety seems more folly than ever, a strategy that would leave the field of capital-intensive projects open to, well, capital.
This isn’t a secret. In Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent profile of Christina Figueres, the secretariat of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — the treaty negotiated at annual COPs — Figueres says quite explicitly: “Where capital goes over the next fifteen years is going to decide whether we’re actually able to address climate change and what kind of a century we are going to have.” She’s right, of course — the problem is, she’s speaking to Citigroup.
The Left should be making this argument explicitly too — but to people who are most likely to be affected by the prospect of a bad century. We should be talking not just about fossil-fuel infrastructure, but about ownership of capital as the power to shape the future.
Klein is right that economic and environmental struggles are intimately intertwined. But the politics that can change the problems she identifies — the democracy deficit, the rule of corporations, the dictates of free trade agreements — is at its heart more red than green.
To put a finer point on it, if the Left cannot build an international political movement capable of not only resisting but defeating capital, the vision of a better society outlined in part one is dead on arrival. Little in the book suggests that such a movement exists. Does that mean there isn’t one?
Answering History’s Knock
On the last page of the book, Klein recounts asking Athenians what questions to pose to Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras. One person tells her to ask him: “History knocked on your door, did you answer?” Klein’s final words: “That’s a good question, for all of us.” I didn’t think much about this ending when I first read the book; it seemed mainly designed to fill the need for a sufficiently sweeping yet open-ended finale.
But in the summer of 2015, months after Tsipras and Syriza were elected on an anti-austerity platform, amidst the final stages of the ongoing showdown between Tspiras and European Union leaders over Greek’s debt default and potential exit from the eurozone, it felt unnervingly apt as an ending point.
On July 5, two events transpired that illustrate the paradox at the heart of the book. In Greece, millions of people voted in a referendum on the austerity-enhancing terms on which continued debt relief would be granted, resulting in a resounding rejection of the proposal in what many at the time saw as a victory for democracy.
Meanwhile in Toronto, some ten thousand people representing the climate coalition of Klein’s dreams, encompassing indigenous communities, labor unions, student organizations, and environmental activists, gathered in the streets to march for “jobs, justice, and the climate.” The march kicked off just as the Greek polls closed; unsurprisingly, it was thoroughly overshadowed by the drama in Europe. It seemed a sign that action on climate is doomed to sit on the back burner as long as people are worried about the economy.
But in fact, I would say — and indeed, I think Klein might even agree — that the struggle most significant for the future of climate politics in the past year has been waged not in Blockadia but in Greece, where a democratically elected underdog was pitted against the forces of capital, the people against austerity-imposing technocrats.
Europe is a stage for the kinds of struggles over debt, finance, and investment that will be intensified by climate change, and the austerity measures to which Greece will now be subjected tell us a great deal about what we can expect from future climate politics.
To be blunt, it doesn’t look very promising. It’s hard to hold out much hope for the kind of “people’s shock” Klein calls for to change everything when political challenges to the interests of global capital are so forcefully shut down; citizens turned against one another on the basis of national belonging rather than taking up common cause against international elites; rich countries willing and eager to further curb the consumption of poorer ones in the name of a sustainability defined as the ability to continue paying off debt into the indeterminate future. These are the abstract fears of climate campaigners come to life, and the ill omens of future developments.
Greece also demonstrates the limits of ideals without power. Syriza appealed to the highest ideals of Europe: “To authoritarianism and harsh austerity, we will respond with democracy, calmly and decisively,” Tsipras said in his speech announcing the referendum; “in Europe there are no owners and guests.”
Yet appeals to lofty values held little force when confronted with the balance of economic ones. Germany’s blatant disregard for arguments regarding its own receipt of debt relief after World War II, moreover, reveals how little force moral arguments about historical responsibility have in the face of present-day economic power: appeals to climate debt are morally compelling, but it’s old-fashioned debt that will shape the immediate future.
It’s frequently suggested that democratic societies are incapable of addressing climate change: people will never willingly impose consumption limits and the associated hardships on themselves. The specter of eco-fascism conjured in response tends to take the form of an oppressive state rationing goods and confiscating SUVs. But Greece reminds us that capitalist institutions are in fact perfectly willing and able to override democratic claims and clamp down on consumption.
The response of capital to crisis isn’t unitary — witness, for example, the difference in the IMF’s response to the Greek crisis and Germany’s. But those that control capital can nevertheless set the agenda. The end of history thesis notwithstanding, democracy and capitalism are fundamentally at odds — and for a certain kind of climate politics, that may now be a point in capitalism’s favor.
The situation in the European Union demonstrates how capitalism can keep going in the face of climate change: through imposition of consumption cuts on those who are already suffering, through the shoring up of defenses by wealthy industrialized (and greening) nations against the redistributive claims of poorer countries and people, through the rhetoric of national virtue and blame, through the closing of borders to those in desperate need. A solution to climate change doesn’t have to be just, kind, fair, or humane. Austerity may not be able to build light rail, but it can still cut emissions.
At the same time, in Greece we can also see the tension between existing left and environmental aims. A victory against austerity in Greece would, of course, not itself be a climate victory: it would not necessarily reduce the amount of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere or the concentration of carbon therein.
Countless commentators on Greece pointed out, rightly, that austerity is a failed policy on its own terms: austerity has not promoted economic growth, created more jobs, or increased GDP. This assessment is unambiguous and fairly damning.
Yet the terms by which that failure is measured are fairly conventional ones; whether these proposed goals (growth, jobs, GDP) are an unambiguous good has gone more or less unquestioned. Klein would surely push us to ask how Greece should rebuild its economy.
Yet the glaring absence of such discussion suggests that TCE has yet to catch on in the same way that her previous work has. Indeed, while the terms “disaster capitalism” and “shock doctrine” were hurled with some frequency throughout the crisis, there was essentially no talk of how Greece might use a “people’s shock” — precisely what Syriza aimed to deliver — to drive for public investments in the name not simply of renewed economic growth but social justice and ecological sustainability.
There was hardly any talk of green jobs this time around, let alone anything more transformative. Imagine if Greece proposed to build a “green economy” not just by substituting solar panels for oil exports and public transit for Ryanair-fuelled tourism, but by taking the (inaccurate) stereotype of Greeks as lazy bums and declaring it a vision of the good life as economic future: short hours and long meals for all.
Instead, the eurogroup’s proposal for Greece went in the exact opposite direction of Klein’s suggestions: privatizing the energy system rather than making it public; pushing for stores to open on Sundays rather than shortening the work week; cutting pensions rather than offering universal income. As it turns out, Greeks actually work more than Germans, despite rhetoric to the contrary — but that doesn’t mean we should embrace longer hours as something to aspire to.
In fact, the opposite was once at the heart of even the German left’s agenda. In June 1989, Andre Gorz wrote a response to the German Social Democratic Party’s recently released long-term program, which proposed the “ecological restructuring of industrial society,” entailing the reduction of work hours and an emphasis on so-called “feminine” values in addition to more traditionally masculinist, productivist ones.
The document called for an “alliance of the old and new social movements;” in response to which Gorz wondered: “Can an old workers’ party assimilate new themes and new cohesion, legitimacy and members? Can it reconcile its aspiration to wield power with the broadening of the field of political struggles, a more direct conception of democracy, and a corresponding transformation of its own structures?”
A few months after it was released, the party program was mothballed in favor of building German unity. But the questions it raised remain central to the future of an environmental left. What should we strive for, and who will lead the way?
The Syriza debacle might also seem to indicate that the Poulantzian strategy of a “democratic road to democratic socialism” via taking state power while also building oppositional outside movements has failed. To be fair, Greece alone is too small to serve as a real test case; we shouldn’t expect the future to hinge on its fate alone.
But the ongoing European calamity makes the stakes of Klein’s book clearer than ever: there is no middle road, no retreat to the cozy trentes glorieuses and the warm embrace of social democracy within the twentieth-century nation-state. This doesn’t mean revolution or bust, but it does suggest the need for a certain clarity about the end goal — a clarity that is largely lacking from Klein’s book.
Greece, of course, isn’t the only place we should look for the future of left politics. Klein rightly declares towards the end of the book that it is in the developing world that the struggle over climate change will largely take place, though the book is almost exclusively focused on Europe and North America, with occasional nods to other parts of the world.
And yet a critical question for any climate-conscious left is whether there exists any potential for a revived, and leftist, “Third Worldism” now that the term “Third World” itself is obsolete, replaced by the vague description “developing.”
Is it total fantasy to imagine a movement of Indian and Pakistani day laborers who have been dying by the thousands amidst intense heat waves, indigenous people in Bolivia and Ecuador, and the global working class (and not-working class) joining forces to demand global redistribution and ownership of common resources? Or does the American brand of postwar growth-oriented consumerism have too strong a hold on global aspirations? Is the world doomed to play a never-ending game of catching up to the capitalists, who in the meantime continue to pull away from the rest of us? These questions are, I suppose, for another book.
Naomi Klein isn’t, of course, responsible for writing about everything — the title of her book notwithstanding. I wrote once that we can’t depend on Klein to do all the work for the Left on climate, and it’s still true — yet for the most part, we still are. Indeed, her book’s aporia largely indicate not flaws in her reasoning or research so much as problems that are still being worked out in the world at large.
There is a lot of work to do. And so everyone on the Left should read This Changes Everything, argue about it, and take seriously its injunction to think through the implications of climate change for our programs and projects. As we plot a new way forward, our aims cannot be nostalgic or timid. Now more than ever the stakes of politics feel as high as they can be.