System change, not climate change! But how?

By Jojo Klick.

This article was published in our magazine issue on Just Transition. You can subscribe here.

A sentiment that is shared by many within the growing climate movement is that there is a connection between the capitalist mode of production and the climate crisis. In this piece, I will analyse this connection and explore what that means for transformational strategies towards eco-communism as well as immediate demands for fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

For more than a year now, students have been striking for the climate each Friday all over the world, following in the footsteps of other movements for climate justice, often carried out by communities on the frontlines who are affected by carbon mining, oil drilling and other fossil projects. Yet, so far it does not look like the measures taken by politicians after this pressure from the streets will be likely to prevent crucial tipping points that will lead to an irreversible climate catastrophe that will make huge parts of this planet uninhabitable. Many within the climate movement are beginning to understand that this might have something to do with capitalism and that “if solutions within this system are so impossible to find, then maybe we should change the system itself”, as Greta Thunberg says.

But why does capitalism ruin the climate? Within capitalism, the means of production are owned privately and most goods and services we need (or sometimes don’t really need such as SUVs) are produced as commodities by private companies, which means they are not produced directly to fulfil a certain need, but to be sold on the market. On the market, companies compete against each other: Each of them wants us to buy THEIR product. They need to make a profit from selling their commodities, not only so the company owners (aka capitalists) can have a fancy life (which they most often do), but also to re-invest the profit as capital, e.g. to buy more effective machines or hire more workers or pay for more advertising so that they can produce better or cheaper and thus have an advantage within the competition against other companies. If one company would not do this, it had to fear that others are faster and that it would vanish from the market.

Competition also means that companies need to externalize costs wherever possible. If they can pollute the air without paying for it, they are likely to do it. On top of that, the need to reinvest money as capital in order to get more money (which Marx expressed with the famous formula M-C-M’, meaning money-commodity-more money) leads to what economists as well as environmentalist critics call “economic growth”. This abstract growth also leads to a growth of material production which means the use of more resources. Additionally, as digitalization and automation makes it continuously cheaper to produce goods, the use of resources might even grow more than the economic value produced. Unlimited economic growth is not possible on a planet with limited resources but within capitalism, this growth-imperative cannot be escaped.

States have some capacities to limit these destructive tendencies of capitalism and have indeed done so for more than a hundred years (capitalists are also dependent on this to some extent, since otherwise capitalism would destroy its foundations even faster). One recent example for this is the carbon price, e.g. in the form of a tax that companies have to pay for their emissions. However, these capacities are limited, since states also compete against each other. If one state would set accurately high environmental and social standards, companies would be likely to move to other countries where they can produce cheaper. Of course, states could also invest in “green” sectors such as renewable energies (which is discussed as a “Green New Deal”) and make economic growth less carbon-intensive. Even if such a “Green New Deal” might help fight climate change, it would not question economic growth and thus only lead to the extraction of other resources (such as lithium for batteries), which often happens under brutal conditions in countries of the Global South and would set the basis for the next environmental crisis in a couple of years or decades.

A truly eco-friendly alternative would mean the abolition of capitalism and thus of private property and the commodity-form. Initial stages of such a form of re/production1 can be seen in the commons, resources that people use collectively in a self-organized way and need-oriented.2 Commons are things like commonly owned land (historically in medieval Europe, today still in many indigenous communities), community gardens or social centres, but also Wikipedia or open source software. The way these things are used, managed and maintained, through commoning, gives examples of how society as a whole could be organized: Production and consumption would not be as separated as today, people would do freely what they find important and produce for their and other people’s needs and not to make money. Things would be re/produced as commons, not as commodities. Karl Marx describes the commodity as the elementary form of capitalism. In the same way, the elementary form of communism might be the commons.3(3) In such a commons-based libertarian communist society, there would be no need to produce more and more stuff and people could manage the eco-systems in a sustainable manner.

When it comes to strategies of communist transformation, this perspective means that anti-capitalist movements need to build and reclaim the commons from below. This also involves expropriating the means of production and other resources such as land or houses that need to be freed from private property and made into commons which is unlikely to happen on a big enough scale without some kind of revolutionary rupture. So far, the majority of the climate movement seems far away from such an approach. At this stage, it might thus be important to tackle the ideologies that present capitalism and market society as the only options (known as TINA, “There is no alternative”) and to discuss alternatives to capitalism and how to get there within social movements and beyond.

Yet, since climate crisis is an urgent issue, every fight for immediate reductions of carbon emissions is also worth fighting, even if they do not get rid of the root causes of environmental destruction. Besides fighting for immediate reforms, these struggles are also an opportunity for people to come together, to develop solidarity and to discuss about further horizons. In fact, within these kinds of struggles people often already practice commoning and reclaim or defend the commons.

This can be seen in a lot of indigenous struggles (e.g. at Standing Rock or currently in the struggle of the Wet’suwet’en people against the Coastal GasLink Pipeline in Canada), but also elsewhere, e.g. in the struggle to defend Hambach forest in the Rhineland coal mining area in Germany.4 This forest that had been managed as a commons for hundreds of years by the local communities has been cut down further and further every year for coal mining since the 1970s – a process that has now been stopped after years of protests, direct actions and legal actions against the coal mining project (while the forest will not be cut down now, it is still under threat by water shortages due to the mining project). Most prominent in this struggle is the occupation of the forest (with tree houses and huts) by radical climate activists that was started in 2012 and is still going on today. While the activists fought immediately against the deforestation and coal mining through their occupation but also through other means of direct action such as blockades or sabotages, they also reclaimed the forest as a commons and organized their lives in a way that can be described as commoning: You don’t have to pay to live there or eat the communally cooked food (often made from leftover vegetables from local farmers or saved from the supermarkets’ dumpster), everyone does voluntarily what they are motivated to do, there are no formal hierarchies and informal hierarchies are tried to be kept as flat as possible. Even though such a life is not without conflicts and contradictions, many people describe their experiences there as life-changing, seeing that a world without capitalism, competition and domination might be possible.

Another lesson that can be learned from the struggle about Hambach forest is the importance of direct action: By breaking the rules, occupying the forest and blockading coal infrastructure, activists did not only draw attention to the issue, but also damaged the electricity company RWE economically. Without these tactics, the struggle would probably not have been so successful.

These two lessons from Hambach forest, that if we build social formations of commoning within our movements, we can make libertarian communism an imaginable possibility and lived experience and that if we use direct action we can put a lot more pressure on politicians and companies might be helpful for the climate strike movement that until this point is rather tame. In addition, the rhetoric of the strike which is quite central in the movement could be a starting point for a more radical approach. If not only students would go on strike, but also the huge majority of workers, a climate strike could implement a lot of economic pressure. This pressure could force politicians to implement further reforms to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even if these are bad for the economy. A strike that includes industrial workers would also be a direct action in the narrower sense of the word, since striking would mean less production (for at least a short time) and thus less CO2-emissions. The demand for a radically shorter working week could be one focus of such a strike movement that would link the immediate wellbeing of the workers with climate protection.5 A shorter working week would also allow people to spend more time building and experimenting with non-capitalist ways of re/production in commons projects.

These are just examples of (possible) reform-oriented struggles that can be linked to the broader goal of libertarian communism. Green capitalism is an oxymoron and the fight for climate justice has to be anti-capitalist which means that in the end we need to seize the means of production (probably also destroy a lot of them if they are inherently non-ecologic), do away with private property and the commodity form and organize the re/production in the principles of commoning. If we have this goal clear, we can think about how the current struggles for reforms and immediate reductions of greenhouse gas emissions need to be fought in order to get closer to this goal. We can explore where we already do commoning within our movements today and evaluate how we can expand that. We could link struggles of students who fear for their future with the struggles of workers for a shorter working week and the struggles of indigenous communities who have long been on the frontlines in the fight against fossil capitalism to a common struggle for climate justice and a sustainable libertarian communist world.

1 “Re/production” implies that production and reproduction are no longer separated.

2 See my article on counter-strategies against the far right and conservative leftism from last year‘ “International Perspectives“ issue: https://fightback.org.nz/2019/02/11/germany-far-right-conservative-leftism/

3 See Stefan Meretz on peer-commonist produced livelihoods: https://keimform.de/2017/peer-commonist-produced-livelihoods/

4 See my article “Fighting Europe’s biggest hole” in Fightback’s 2015 issue on climate crisis: https://fightback.org.nz/2015/10/17/germany-fighting-europes-biggest-hole/

5 See Phillip Frey, “The ecological limits of work”: http://autonomy.work/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/The-Ecological-Limits-of-Work-final.pdf

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: